By Lasca Randels
WARSAW — Joe Harris of Warsaw was honored as Veteran of the Month at the Kosciusko County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, July 6.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Pearl Harbor attack led to the start of World War II.
Joe Lyle Harris, then 16 and a junior at Rushsylvania High School in Ohio, thought for sure the war would end before he got out of high school.
In May 1943, Harris graduated. Many of his friends were signing up for the Navy to join the war effort. Harris told his father he wanted to join the Navy before he got drafted.
He attended boot camp at the Great Lakes Navel Training Center in Great Lakes, Ill. After eight weeks of basic training, he was accepted to quartermaster school, which was also at Great Lakes.
Harris graduated March 20, 1944, in the top 10 percent of his class.
He was assigned to Solomons, Md., to join the crew of the Landing Craft Infantry 600.
With an initial crew of 24 enlisted and four officers, the LCI 600 was commissioned at the New Jersey Shipbuilding Corp. in Barber, N.J., on April 29, 1944. From there, they went to Pier 42, North River, N.Y., and on to Norfolk, Va., where the LCI 600 was painted camouflage green. Harris said they knew then that they were headed to the Pacific.
On July 21, they left San Diego with 21 other LCI ships and headed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, arranged in three columns. They arrived at Pear Harbor on Aug. 4.
On Aug. 13, they brought 150 Marines aboard and headed for Maui, where they practiced zig-zagging, towing and beaching with the Marines on the beaches of Maui.
Those Marines would later be part of the Invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.
Jan. 12, 1945, began as an ordinary day for the crew — it ended up being anything but that. They were patrolling Ulithi, where a two-man enemy submarine had been identified earlier, when they received orders to pick up a sailor on a destroyer who needed to be taken to the hospital ship for appendicitis.
Harris said he was steering in the pilot house and requested that he be allowed to come up to the coning tower to steer because there was a better view and Harris wanted to see if the Japanese subs would do any damage to the fleet. He was given the okay by the commander to go up to the coning tower, a move he believes saved his life.
After traveling for about 20 minutes, crew members at the back of the ship relayed information to the tower that they were very close to coral.
Harris recalls being ordered to make a hard right.
“The second I did, the ship exploded.”
That was the last thing he remembered until he felt himself swaying in the air as he was hoisted up to the hospital ship, the USS Solace.
Harris was later informed that their ship had struck a mine.
Crew members and officers were able to get off the ship before it sank. The radioman who hit his head on the steel overhead in the pilot house died that day. Another crew member who had been standing near where the explosion occurred was never found. Only his shoes remained on deck.
In all, three crew members lost their lives and nearly all were injured.
Harris lost a front tooth, had a broken nose and a gash above his eye. He spent 13 days on the Solace recovering.
The survivors were taken to Pearl Harbor. Harris received a Purple Heart, a medal presented to service members who have been wounded or killed as a result of enemy action while serving in the U.S. military.
He was sent to California for a month before receiving orders to ship out, although the destination was unclear. Harris and his comrades eventually discovered they were being sent to Leyte, in the recently liberated Philippines.
He arrived at Leyte, Philippines, on June 30, 1945, and from there went to Samar Island.
“On the 4th of July, we went ashore to celebrate. As soon as we made the beach, some of the natives said ‘Hi, Joe.’ I told the group with me how friendly they were and asked how they already knew my name,” Harris said. “And that’s when I discovered they called all the GI’s ‘Joe.’”
On July 31, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis, which had just delivered components of the atomic bomb that was later dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was scheduled to arrive at Tacloban, Philippines, but it never came.
Harris found out later that a Japanese submarine had torpedoed the Indianapolis, which sank in 12 minutes. Of the 1,195 crew members on board the cruiser, approximately 300 were reported to have gone down with the ship.
The remaining 890 crew members, who were stranded in open water, battled dehydration, exposure to the elements, delirium from drinking saltwater and shark attacks.
The Navy didn’t learn about the sinking of the cruiser until four days later when survivors were discovered by crew members of another ship. In the end, there were only 316 survivors. The loss has been reported as the greatest single loss of life at sea, from a single ship, in the history of the U.S. Navy.
The war ended Aug. 15, 1945.
Those with the most points were allowed to go home first. Because Harris had been in the Navy longer than any of the others at the chart depot, except for the officer in charge, he was allowed to leave.
He didn’t tell his family he was coming home because he wanted it to be a surprise. He took a train to Kenton, Ohio. A family took him from the train station to Route 68 where he hitched a ride with a man who was headed to Belle Fountain, Ohio.
The man asked if Harris’ parents knew he was coming home. When Harris told him they did not, the man offered to take him all the way home if he could see Harris’ mother greet him.
Harris agreed, so the man drove him home and waited in his vehicle while Harris knocked on the door.
“I stayed outside so he could see Mother’s face,” Harris said. “She came out, all smiles, we hugged each other and I turned to see the man in the car. He was all smiles, he waved and drove off. I was finally home.”
After Harris had returned home in March 1946, his sister told him she knew a girl who wanted to go out with him.
That girl – Joan – later became his wife.
They relocated to Warsaw from Ohio in 1963. Harris taught mathematics for 24 years at Warsaw Community High School and also coached sports. He was offered the position of boys’ golf coach and remained there for 24 seasons.
During the 24-year period under Harris’ leadership, Warsaw Tiger golf achieved a 349-95 record, with the program winning 13 NLC championships, including 11 titles in a row. They secured 11 sectionals, made 19 regional appearances, captured one regional title and had nine state finals appearances.
Harris was inducted into the Indiana High School Golf Coaches Hall of Fame in 1986 by the Indiana High School Golf Coaches Association.
The Joe Harris Invitational, an annual golf event held in May each year, was created in his honor.
Joe and Joan have five children: Vicky, Bonnie, Mike, John and Jim; 13 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.
The Harris’ celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary in January.