It's been an extraordinary journey for an Alabama boy to become the oldest active member of Mansfield United Methodist Church. Covington resident Frank Harris was born into the tiny farming community of Jamison, Ala. in 1923. His railroading father eventually moved the family to Birmingham where Harris attended school until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor during his senior year. A Golden Gloves boxing champion, tough and ready to fight, he wanted to join the Marines, but a buddy talked Harris into signing up with the Army Air Corps.
Harris said with a grin, "I passed the written and physical tests and was accepted for pilot training, but my buddy failed." His mother didn't want her son to go, but Harris was determined to serve his country. He was 18 years old.
The cadet from Alabama would fly solo after 10 hours of training in the Ryan PT-22 Recruit before learning spins, snap rolls, and ACMs (air combat maneuvers), like the celebrated Immelmann Turn. During his training, Harris would log time in the Vultee BT-13, the fabric-covered Cessna AT-17 Bamboo Bomber, and the famous B-25 Mitchell. Over Europe, he'd log 27 combat missions in the A-20 Havoc and 31 missions in his favorite aircraft, the Douglas A-26 Invader. Harris would continue his military career piloting the Boeing B-47 Stratojet for the newly formed United States Air Force - "a very dangerous aircraft," according to Harris - for more than five years until completing his last eight years in the military by logging more than 5,000 hours during the Cold War as senior pilot on the nuclear-armed B-52 Stratofortress.
"Yeah, I've been around the block a few times," he said. "Quite frankly, I've been around the world several times, too."
During World War II, the A-20 Havoc carried a crew of three: the pilot and two gunners. Of the initial training at Florence, S.C., Harris said, "My buddy Chuck Helms and I had lined up a double-date one evening after practice. He was killed that afternoon. I had to tell his date she didn't have a date. That was tough." Sixteen A-20 crews were lost in training.
"I got lost flying solo on a training mission," Harris said. "I spotted a railroad track and decided to follow it until I saw a train depot, that way I could read the name of the town on the depot and figure out where I was."
Flying low and low on fuel, Harris needed to switch over to his outboard fuel tanks, but spotted a depot and caught the name Bolton. "I was happy to know where I was," he said. "But when I pulled up the engines quit." He'd forgotten to switch tanks.
Too low to bailout, Harris belly-landed in an open field and destroyed the newest A-20 in the squadron. "I sat there alone for the longest just looking at the smoke coming up from an airplane I'd just turned into scrap metal," he said. Folks from Bolton finally showed up. "It was a caravan," Harris said. "I think the entire town showed up. Then I found out Bolton was in North Carolina. I wasn't even in the right state."
Harris eventually called his squadron commander to report the incident. "He was not too happy," Harris said. "He didn't even ask if I was OK; he wanted info on that new A-20. I figured my flying career was over." Instead of a court-martial, Harris accepted a 104 Article of War which cost him half-pay for a year. "That was OK with me," he said. "That way, I got to go overseas with my buddies."
Sent to Boston, Harris said, "We were assigned to a ship but got there a bit early so we had time to party, have a few drinks, chase girls and conduct ourselves in activities unbecoming of an officer."
March, 1944: Harris is a small member of a large convoy heading for England. "I would watch the destroyers drop depth charges on suspected U-boats. It was fun to me, a young kid going to war, watching all that activity." In England, Harris was assigned to the 416th Bomb Group, 668 Bomb Squadron, at Wethersfield Airbase near the town of Braintree where he waited and waited for combat. Other than local training missions, by June 6, 1944 Harris had not flown combat, but D-Day had arrived.
Harris said, "I looked up at a sky filled with C-47s flying the airborne boys into the hell called Normandy. It was mind-blowing to witness just a small part of D-Day."
On D-Day +4: the parties and good-times came to a screeching halt. Harris suited up for his first combat mission into German-occupied France to cover the British advance into Caen and Ruan.
"Those were dangerous missions," Harris said. "We flew in close formations. To avoid flak we could make a 20 degree turn then get back on course. The big boys, B-24 and B-17 bombers, couldn't do that and suffered as a result." Escorts of P-47s, P-38s, and P-51 Mustangs helped the A-20 flyboys. Harris and the A-20s continued to hit marshaling yards, bridges, and supply depots.
D-Day +15: Harris takes off with an incendiary bomb load. He said, "Over the English Channel the plane filled with smoke, and there I am sitting on a planeload of incendiaries. The port of Cherbourg had been taken by the Allies, so I made an emergency landing there. A master sergeant came out, checked my plane, and told me,‘A wire shorted out. I'll have you going right away.' Shoot, I told the guy not to ‘find' what was wrong until the next day. That way I could souvenir-hunt a bit and go back to England in the morning."
Planes were lost, men died, the war went on. Following the Allied advance across France, Harris was eventually stationed at Melun Field near Paris. In the fall of 1944, he returned from a mission to find a new aircraft on the field: the A-26 Invader.
"We had four days to check out the plane," Harris said. "I loved it. The A-26 had the bigger R2800 engines and was faster than most fighters. It only carried a pilot and one gunner. And talk about firepower; the A-26 had six .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, 4 in both wings, and we could position the top turret to fire forward for a total of sixteen .50 cals coming right at you. You wouldn't want to be on the receiving end."
Harris and his buddies would need the firepower. General George Patton was on the advance like a bat out of hell and constantly calling in for air support. The V-1 Buzz Bombs were hitting London and Brussels, plus the Battle of the Bulge would soon enter the history books. On a day he didn't fly, Harris' group lost half their planes on a low level bombing run, most of the young flyboys blown from the sky by their own bombs. The worst was yet to come.
See next week's paper to read the conclusion of Harris' story.
Pete Mecca - Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.