Harris helps us remember disappearing generation

It’s late in the evening when the calm and dark Pacific sky is brought to life with bright light from flares, and silhouettes of Japanese soldiers approaching with the roar of “Banzai!”

It was July of 1944 and it’s on Tinian Island where 19-year-old Marshall Harris of New Ulm, Minn. and the Marine Corps 2nd Armored Tank Battalion are attacked while their LVT(A)4 tanks are parked on coral just off the beach. Harris, already a veteran of the Battle of Saipan where he was wounded by shrapnel and lost his best friend, Bob Lewis, found himself in the Battle of Tinian. This island in the Marianas was of the utmost importance strategically for the Allies in the Pacific. It was here where the U.S. Navy Seabees would build one of the busiest airfields in the war from which B-29 bombers would operate, including the Enola Gay and Bockscar which would ultimately hasten the end of the Second World War.

Leaving Tinian unscathed was not to be for Marshall Harris. A mortar round would knock him off his amphibious tank that, when the Japanese attacked, sent him into the sharp coral, badly tearing his leg open.

After spending a month in the hospital on Saipan recovering from his wound, Marshall would return to his unit which was fully resupplied and combat-ready for its next mission: the invasion of a small island called Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima, or Sulfur Island as the Japanese called it, was made up of loose volcanic sand that was difficult for Marshall’s tank to land on. After days of fighting, his tank had taken so much damage they needed to switch to a reserve. When they were resupplying with fuel and ammunition, Harris opened the hatch on his tank, looked up at Mount Suribachi, and “They were putting up that flag. Later I looked, and the little flag had been replaced by a larger flag. Nobody thought much about that. Nobody knew that probably the most famous picture of the war had been taken when they switched flags.”

After 27 days of fighting on Iwo Jima, Harris and his crew needed yet another tank. They tried to get another replacement, only to find that there were none — they came ashore with 76 tanks and there were only 11 left. “We were through as a fighting unit.”

Harris would board a Higgins boat and return to Hawaii to begin training for their next mission: the invasion of Japan.

General MacArthur estimated the casualty count for the Japanese invasion to be over 1 million. It was in August of 1945 that the Enola Gay and Bockscar would launch from Tinian Island, one of the islands Marshall Harris fought for, dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. Shortly after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan signed the unconditional surrender. The invasion of Japan was not to be. The Second World War was over.

The battle on Iwo Jima wasn’t even over by the time the first emergency landing of an American plane occurred. By the time the war concluded, over 2,200 aircraft would safely land there saving more than an estimated 24,000 lives of airmen. One B-29 pilot said, “Whenever I land on this island, I thank God for the men who fought for it.”

After returning home, Marshal Harris went to college, married, raised three children, bought a failing company and turned it around, settled in Otsego, and he also joined the American Legion.

This past week on the 13th of November I sat down with him at Post 112 in Elk River to interview him where he shared with me his American Legion membership card that read 67-year member.

That night Marshall, like many from the community, was at Post 112 that night for the American Legion’s Veterans Day program. Marshall was there not only to remember and honor veterans but to tell his story to those in attendance.

After hearing Marshall’s story, the Legion’s honor guard and Commander Mike Beyer conducted a ceremony honoring those American Legion members that had passed in the last year.

I spoke with many Legion members that night, many opinions and thoughts were expressed but one theme was recurring and unanimous: Veteran membership in the American Legion is declining. The older generations are becoming fewer and fewer with each passing year.

If today’s veterans don’t start joining these organizations, stories like Marshall Harris’ and the tradition of honoring our nation’s veterans is in danger of disappearing forever. — Wayne Matteson, Elk River