May 17, 2007

Ex Naval Pilot Honoring Shipmates for 61st Consecutive Memorial Day Service

On Monday, when Charles Harris steps to the podium, salutes the flag and leads the gathering in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, it will mark the 61st consecutive time the former Navy pilot has performed the service at the Memphis Memorial Day Service.

Many folks do not realize how close that impressive streak of services came to never even getting started.

“I easily could have been one of those folks we remember every Memorial Day instead of the one up there leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance,” Harris said.

He is referring to the fateful date of March 19, 1945 when more than 700 of his fellow seaman lost their lives when the aircraft carrier was struck by bombs from a Japanese strike. The ship was less than 50 miles from the Japanese mainland at the time of the attack.

Ensign VF-5 Charles E. Harris was below deck, asleep at the time of the attack.

He had flown the final flight the previous evening and was recovering from the late evening of work when the bombs struck the aircraft carrier.

“I actually slept through the initial part of the fight until “MAN ALL BATTLE STATIONS’ screamed across the loud speaker,” Harris said.

Even then he was uncertain of what was going on.

“Hey this was the U.S. Navy, they are always up to the task, so even after the alarm sounded I was not worried,” he stated.

That all changed when he and a companion hit the main deck and saw the bomb damage and numerous sailors injured and dying.

“It was an unbelievable sight, the smoke and the fire and all of the damage,” Harris said. “There were bodies floating in the water as far as you could see.”

The two pilots quickly returned below deck to don their life vests before returning to the war zone to lend a hand.

They manned a fire hose, sticking it through a large hole in the flight deck, attempting to douse the flames below. Those efforts were cut short when a magazine exploded below deck sending the sailors scurrying for cover.

Later Harris went to work emptying shells from one of the five-inch gun turrets on the deck as it returned fire.

He was among numerous men rounded up by Medal of Honor winner, Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan, S. J., USNR, the ship’s chaplain. He organized Harris and other sailors and pilots into rescue crews and firefighting groups.

Ultimately Harris and his fellow pilots were ordered off the USS Franklin onto the USS Santa Fe, which had pulled aside of the heavily damaged carrier.

“The Captain of the Santa Fe yelled at us to drop our hoses and get off the ship,” Harris recalled. “”He said ‘you guys aren’t firemen, you’re pilots and right now you are not expendable.’”

The airmen used a downed radio mast to crawl across the gap between the two ships.

They were among the roughly 700 survivors, who by all accounts helped save the USS Franklin not to mention the more than 200 injured sailors who survived the attack.

The heroes received a warm welcome on the Santa Fe. Harris recalls that the men had worked for 24-hours straight on the burning boat with nothing to eat but sardines.

“They opened up kitchens and gave us a Thanksgiving dinner in March,” Harris recalled.

The USS Franklin was placed in tow by the USS Pittsburgh before ultimately regaining enough power to travel to Pearl Harbor.

Not long after the ship’s return to Hawaii, Harris’ tour of duty came to a close in 1946.

He had entered the Navy just four years earlier, when he was only 19-years of age.

“I was young enough that I had to have my parent’s signature to allow me to enlist,” he said.

Charles noted that his mother refused to sign the papers but his father finally conceded.

He first went to Fremont, NE, for his Civilian Pilot Training. It was then off to Springfield for his secondary pilot instruction. Harris moved on the St. Mary’s College in California for his pre-flight work before ultimately ending up in Pensacola, FL, for his flight instruction.

He initially was assigned to the VF-5 fighter air group at Almeda, CA, before shipping out aboard the USS Franklin on February 3, 1945.

That deadly day in March wasn’t the only brush with death that Harris faced.

While on a reconnaissance mission, flying a search for a downed Army general, Harris and his wingman, were summoned to the aid of a fellow pilot. They both were able to shoot down any enemy fighter pilot. The feat earned Harris the US Navy Air Medal.

The duty struck Harris as ironic, considering that he was able to accomplish the task while piloting an F6F Hellcat plane, which is made for air reconnaissance.

“I flew 10 different types of planes in the Navy,” Harris said. “I flew a Corsair on fighter missions, yet I was in a Hellcat when I actually shot down the enemy plane.”

Soon after his enlistment ended in 1946, Harris returned home from World War II. He took up a position in the family business, working in the parts department at the Harris Motor Company garage.

Charles and his wife Nancy have five children. The couple still calls Memphis home, allowing Charles to continue to don his naval uniform and lead the crowd each year at the Memorial Day service.

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