On Normandy beach, James Harris ignored orders, saved lives

Nineteen-year-old James Harris went over the side of the landing ship approaching Omaha Beach the morning of June 6, 1944, and in defiance of orders, no less.

For his effort, he was awarded a Silver Star, the U.S. military’s second-highest award for bravery.

When he went over the side, it was because he saw four men still alive among the hundreds dead after two previous waves of soldiers had hit Omaha Beach.

The D-Day invasion gave the Allies just enough of a toehold to begin to push the Germans out of France and end the Third Reich.

It also marked the beginning of a saga for Harris, a skinny kid from Tennessee, that included the awards of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, the latter for surviving the Battle of the Bulge.

Harris, still skinny at 88, now lives in Grand Junction. He was part of the Honor Flight to Washington D.C., this summer to see the World War II Memorial.

Today, Americans remember the likes of Harris as they observe Veterans Day, a commemoration that began as Armistice Day, which marked the hour of German surrender in World War I.

That morning on Omaha Beach “was slaughter,”  Harris said.

In that slaughter, though, he saw from his landing ship that four were alive, including one in particular.

“Hell, he was a medic,” Harris said. “I figured we might need him on that hill” far up the beach.

Despite being told to stay where he was, Harris jumped, all 117 pounds of him, 65-pound pack and rifle.

“I thought I’d never hit bottom, but I did,” he said. He, the medic and the other soldiers linked together and made for shore — hardly a great improvement in their predicament, but they at least eliminated the risk of drowning.

Two soldiers died. He doesn’t know about the third. But Harris and the medic survived to slowly make their way up the sand and eventually to that hill, doing what they could to dodge deadly machine-gun fire. Both survived the war, as well.

Somehow. Harris avoided being wounded at Normandy and, in fact, managed to stay in one piece until July 13 near St. Lo.

That was when a “treeburst” flattened him, peppering him up and down his back with shrapnel.

A “treeburst” was the explosion of the notorious German .88 artillery shells in the trees, inflicting maximum damage on Allied troops.

Eighty pieces of shrapnel went into Harris, 79 came out.

One chunk remains lodged deep in his posterior.

When he asked the doctors why they left it in, he was told, “You might need it someday.”

His wounds were bad enough that he was treated for 30 days in England, and he was glad for that.

“Thirty days is a long time to live,” he remembered thinking.

When he returned to the battlefield, he wore a new uniform, his second. He hadn’t changed clothes since that bloody day at Normandy.

The shrapnel that struck him was “hot as fire,” he remembered.

The second time he was wounded was near Brest, on a date he doesn’t remember.

He does know that the German bullet which struck and passed through his left leg was a wooden one. That clearly indicated that enemy supplies had been drawn so low that they were forced to use target ammunition.

That time, his wound was bound up and he marched on — toward Brussels, Belgium, and the Battle of the Bulge, from December 1944 to January 1945.

Harris, like his compatriots, was ill-prepared for winter. He filled the soles of his boots with cardboard when he could find it.

The frostbite he suffered ran up his leg, but three times he refused when doctors told him that he could only avoid gangrene by having his legs amputated.

He was, somehow, right, and he still walks on those legs.

“When it’s cold they ache like a toothache,” he said.

Harris never met Gen. Anthony McAuliffe — who famously used a single word, “Nuts,” to reject the German entreaty to surrender his surrounded troops — but was nearby him on several occasions, Harris said.

Although Gen. George S. Patton had his detractors, Harris said, “He looked like an angel to us,” when Patton’s tanks rolled in and shattered the German offensive at the Battle of the Bulge, its last of the war.

Cold as the Battle of Bulge was, Harris still shivers at the thought of the concentration camp his unit liberated near Cologne.

“I thought I could stand anything,” he said, but not the camp and the piles of burned bodies.

Harris was among those who were to have been on the invasion force of Japan, an attack that was averted by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He returned to Tennessee, where he raced greyhounds and, after the death of his wife, to whom he was married 54 years, moved to Grand Junction for the dry climate in which he could breathe.

He never felt the urge to return to Europe until his niece offered to pay his way to Normandy.

Even then, Harris said he really didn’t want to go. “But when I saw how well they had taken care of that cemetery, I was glad I did.”


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