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Posted: October 23, 2012 7:07 p.m.

Part 2: Harris pilots bombers to keep world peace

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Harris briefing his B-52 crew. (Below, left) Harris as a pilot during World War II.

Read the first part of this story online here.

The first thing I glimpsed on the parking apron upon arriving at Nakhom Phanon during the Vietnam War was an A-26 Invader. For a greenhorn civilian pilot and World War II aviation buff, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. The A-26 was one of my favorites, a lean and mean fighting machine. The revered Invaders had flown in four major wars: World War II, Korea, French-Indo China and now Vietnam. Within the first week I begged, borrowed and tried to steal my way aboard an A-26 for a mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail to no avail. Regrettably, the Lady Warbird gave it her best shot until old age and metal fatigue caused the wings to start falling off.

Frank Harris flew the A-26 during World War II and Korea. "She was always my favorite," he said. "I loved the Invader." Harris initially flew A-20 Havacs into combat until the A-26s arrived in England. After four days of familiarization flights, Harris took an A-26 into the fray.

Bridges, railroad yards, storage facilities, V-1 ‘buzz-bomb' launching positions, and targets around the Pas de Calais vicinity were hit daily. Harris said, "The man that kept us busy was General George Patton. He'd race into trouble, back off and call us in to level the place."

Rivalry between the services reached a crisis on July 25, 1944 near the River Vire. Harris said, "The heavies (B-24s and B-17s) missed their marked and caused 600 Allied casualties, including the death of a two-star general. That caused a bar fight or two." To avoid another air to ground disaster, Army Air Force pilots were assigned front line duty to coordinate air strikes. Ironically, Harris joined Patton's ground-pounders and crossed the Rhine River with one of his armored divisions.
"It's a whole different ball game on the ground," Harris said. "I had my own jeep and two gunners. I remember the first time I positioned myself behind a machine gun... I didn't know how to fire the darn thing." On one occasion, Harris and his gunners stopped to inspect a German ME-262 jet fighter. Harris said, "I was hoping it was flyable but some wise guy had destroyed the instrument panel. About that time, German 88mm artillery opened up on us. We were at least a 100 yards from the jeep, so I yelled at one of the gunners, "Run and get the jeep!" He hollered back, "Go to hell...you go get it!" We were sort of stuck there for a bit."

Harris weathered the air and ground war in Europe. Returning stateside to Turner AFB in Albany, he busted his knee jumping off the wing of an airplane. After successful surgery, Harris left the military two months after the war ended. He was 21 years old.
Howard College in Texas was his next port-of-call. "I can't lie to you," Harris said. "I partied a lot, dated a lot, drank one or two or 50 beers, I had a good time and didn't know what I wanted to study; then the Air National Guard in Birmingham received A-26s Invaders. Well, I joined up." The Army Air Force became the United States Air Force in 1947. Harris said, "I didn't care for the blue uniforms. We looked like postal workers."

A bachelor, Harris had access to an A-26 and flew cross-country to Daytona and Miami and just about any location he wanted to visit. These were the good old days. But the good old days came to a screeching halt after Harris and two of his wing mates buzzed the Gulf Shores at low altitude. When asked how low, Harris said, "Well, we had to pull up to miss the piers. The father of my wingman lived in Gulf Shores and he was watching our derring-dos. Problem was, so was a two-star general who lived two doors down. He saw our tail numbers and that was that." Harris and company received no flight pay for 90 days and avoided being busted by another ‘understanding' general.

During his remarkable Air Force career, Harris flew A-26s painted charcoal black with French markings to Saigon, Vietnam for delivery to the hard-pressed French Air Force during the French Indo-China War. Harris served in Europe during the Korean War as a squadron operations officer and used A-26s to map Copenhagen and the surrounding terrain. Due to wintry conditions, he was given two years for completion. His squadron finished the job in two months.

By 1954, Harris had trained and was flying the B-47 Stratojet Strategic Bomber, the first jet bomber of the Strategic Air Command. Harris said, "During a bombing competition exercise at Pine Castle AFB in Florida, a great pilot Colonel McCoy, took up a couple of British dignitaries. The B-47 was a dangerous aircraft at first, with defective wing bolts. Colonel McCoy's B-47 lost both wings. There were no survivors. Pine Castle was renamed McCoy AFB." (On a personal note, I served a year at McCoy AFB with the Strategic Air Command. Until this interview, I never knew how the base received its namesake).

As the baby-boomer generation sucked down Kraft macaroni and cheese on their way to adulthood, Frank Harris kept long vigils "on alert" in the pilot's seat of a B-47 with a nuclear payload in the bomb bay. From secretive bases in England and French Morocco, Harris sat for extended hours during the Cold War and waited for World War II. On the seemingly endless vigils, Harris said, "I hated it." Of his 13 years with the Strategic Air Command, Harris spent the equivalent of six years "on alert."
In 1960, BUF entered his life. BUF, for Big Ugly, uh, Fellow, was and still remains, the affectionate nickname for the B-52 Stratofortress Strategic Bomber. Trained in Roswell, N.M., Harris emphatically said, "No, I didn't see any aliens or weird-looking space ships. BUF was weird enough, until you got used to her. Absolutely the best bomber ever built."

His B-52 navigator was Lee Willard. Harris said, "Lee was the navigator on a B-47 flying out of Miami and carrying a 4.2 megaton nuke. An F-86 fighter jet hit the bomber's right wing during a training exercise which caused the B-47 control problems. The bomber could only circle. It was decided by higher-ups to jettison the nuke off the coast of Savannah. Lee was the guy who dropped the bomb. The B-47 eventually made a safe landing but the nuke is still buried in about 25 feet of thick mud off the coast of Savannah. Lee always said, ‘I'm the only navigator to ever nuke the United States.' A bit scary when you think about it."

Harris experienced enough combat, close calls, changes in aviation, dressing like a postman to fly nuclear-laden bombers in an effort to keep world peace and watching wingmen die to fill the pages of a best-selling novel. Space prevents his extended story in a newspaper.
In 1967, Harris retired from the Air Force and joined the Federal Aviation Agency as a ‘check-out' instructor for the Boeing 727 Jetliner. Part of his job was ‘walk-arounds' of the 727 with novice flight engineers and pilots near or by the ground auxiliary power unit. Harris said, "I had to remove my earmuffs to ask the pilots questions. Within two weeks, the high pitch noise of 130 decibels from the power unit killed the nerves in one ear." Harris left the FAA in 1975 with the disability ‘stone deaf' as a matter of record.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. Contact Pete at aveteransstory@gmail.com. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.

 

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