CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
John L. Harris
World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 11th Airborne Division
Date: February 11, 2008
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Christian Vieira
Editor: Professor Melissa Ziobro, Monmouth University
Veterans History Project
John L. Harris was born in October, 1924 in Brielle, New Jersey. His father was a veteran of World War I, who had fought in France and sustained lasting injuries after being gassed in combat. Although Harris’ father lived to be 71, he always struggled with breathing problems.
Harris was a student at Manasquan High School at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. His teacher at the time, Mr. Anderson, told the class that all young men would soon become involved in the growing global conflict. Against the wishes of his mother and father, Harris dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to enlist into the U.S. Army in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. He had only been in high school for two years, but his childhood buddies were all enlisting; and, he did not like the prospect of staying home and becoming a feed mill or farm worker, which his family expected him to do.
After enlisting, Harris was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey for basic training, where he recalled that he had to make a dramatic adjustment to military life from the civilian existence he had previously enjoyed. He said the adjustment was tough at times, between being told what to do at every moment, and the berating he received from a certain sergeant. Harris persevered, however, and, since he had volunteered to be a paratrooper, upon completion of his training he was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia for airborne training. He remembered that the course of instruction at Benning’s jump school was rigorous. One of the “perks” of being a paratrooper, however, was that he received an additional $50 a month in pay. Harris recalled that he had great officers to help guide him and train him, and he was glad he chose airborne training.
In February, 1943, Harris was assigned as a forward observer to Battery A of the 675th Parachute Glider Field Artillery Battalion at Camp MacKall in North Carolina, where the 11th Airborne Division, of which the 675th was a component, was formed in early 1943. The artillery battalion went on to participate in a large field training exercise known as the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1943. Field problems during the maneuvers were initially focused on European conditions, and then shifted to South Pacific conditions, so that trainees would be able to cope with both theaters of war. Harris recalled that Louisiana offered the climate and terrain for field training, and that he believed it really helped him and his fellow soldiers when they finally reached the war zone. He noted that it took some adjusting to get used to life in the South as compared to New Jersey, but that he, unlike some others, accommodated to the situation.
The 11th Airborne Division was assigned to the Pacific theater of war and left the United States in May, 1944. The thirty-day trip included crossing the country by rail, and then boarding an uncomfortable troopship, on which the top bunk was so close to the ceiling that the occupant could not even roll over in his sleep. The 11th’s first landfall was in New Guinea, where the division engaged in more training and “acclimatization” to the region. Harris took the opportunity to get his high school GED; he took classes in Sydney, Australia and spoke extremely highly of the Australian people and their hospitality.
Harris’s unit first saw combat with the invasion of the Philippines, where the 675th landed in Luzon on January 31, 1945. The battalion was commended and received a distinguished unit citation for close support of the 11th Airborne Division’s infantry units, from the initial landing’s beachhead through the advance on and capture of Manila.
Harris remembered that moving through the jungle was a problem, as, in addition to the heat, birds made noise whenever the Americans moved, alerting the enemy to their location. There were other difficulties as well, including numerous rats scurrying around, and the omnipresent mosquitos, which the soldiers tried to avoid by wearing nets. Harris’ unit was involved in a diversionary maneuver supporting the airborne raid on Los Banos prison camp that led to the liberation of American POWs who had been held since 1942. He was shocked to see the poor condition of the rescued prisoners there, and he reflected that the Japanese hadn’t taken any prisoners during most of the encounters his unit had with them.
Harris recalled that while he was in combat in the Philippines, he didn’t receive much news of what was going on in Europe or at home. He also noted that he contracted malaria and spent a month in the hospital. Harris said that, in his opinion, the healthcare was great in the Army- when it was readily available – but that wounded men often had to be physically carried from the battlefield by their comrades.
There were other problems in the field as well. Potable water was a prime concern, as the local water had to be purified before soldiers could drink it, and Harris recalled that it tasted like chlorine. Hot food was also unavailable at the front, and soldiers had to manage with cold rations, although units were rotated to resupply, which provided a brief break.
Harris admitted that his happiest time during the war was when he was ordered to return home in 1945. He also admitted that he was frightened many times, but that the support that he and his fellow soldiers had for each other helped them get through the trying times. Harris spoke highly of his officers and said they deserved much praise for their leadership.
After returning home as a sergeant, Harris married a nurse, and they had three daughters. He also subsequently served in the New Jersey National Guard’s 141st Transportation Truck Company as first sergeant, and the 250th Quartermaster Battalion as a second lieutenant, through 1952. At the time of his interview, he and his wife had 7 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. Harris said he usually does not like to think about the time he served overseas, because it was a tough experience. His daughter encouraged him to do this interview, however; and, despite the bad memories, he stated that serving in the army in World War II was the best thing he ever did.
For his service, John Harris was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon with three bronze battle stars and one bronze arrowhead, the Philippines Liberation Ribbon with one bronze battle star, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Good Conduct Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the American Theater Ribbon and the Victory Medal.