Don Harris

Legionnaire of the Month

Some time back I was visiting with Chad Harris (our next Commander of Post 23) about the stories I had written on Post 23 members. He mentioned that his Grandfather, Donald, had seen a lot of fighting in WW II. When I learned that Don is now also fighting Cancer and is in hospice at the VA I thought this sounded like another story that should be recorded and told. So with that background let’s proceed with Don’s story.

Although Don was never a member of Post 23, he has been a long time member of the American Legion. Some of you local old timers may remember Don or his wife LaVera Kelm as they are originally from this area. Don was born on 1-4-24 at their family home in Beaver Creek. Don’s attended high school in Beaver Creek (before it became Hills Beaver Creek). When Don was a sophomore his dad took a job in California so Don moved there along with the rest of the family. Don and his high school sweetheart LaVera Kelm (who lived east of Garretson) kept in touch and in Sept. of 1942 LaVera came to California and married Don. That marriage lasted 74 years and produced 3 sons and 1 daughter.

Soon after their marriage, Uncle Sam also said “We Want You”. In January of 43 Don was drafted into the Army. He took his basic training at Camp Haun near Riverside CA. “My MOS was Aircraft Artillery and they sent me back and forth to different places including Kentucky and New York. New York is where I boarded a ship and we were sent to England. This was the roughest 13 day ride I had ever been on. The walk way on deck to the PX was lined with vomit barrels and everyone was throwing up. After we landed we boarded a troop train and went to Kennington England. My first campaign was here and for two months we were ‘buzz bombed’ by the Germans. They dropped everything they could on us and if they had more fuel, we would have never survived.

My 2nd experience was with the new Landing Craft Tankers. They had problems and I don’t know for sure how many boys we lost just in training maneuvers. On our first assault landing we had 8 LST Boats loaded with infantry and 40 MM artillery. Only 3 boats came back. We lost perhaps 2,500 boys. I’ll never forget seeing those torpedos’s coming through the water but none of them hit our LST.

The 3rd campaign was at Normandy. Hitler’s men had this beach well fortified. We were the 3rd wave to LSTs to land. When the ocean tide went out LST’s could not back up without tearing the bottom out of the landing craft. We were attached to the 315th Infantry and when we landed Gen. Patten had everyone take off like a rocket. The Germans were protected in their “Pill Boxes” and when our 40 MM shells hit them it only took a chip out of the 6 to 8 feet of steel reinforced concrete bunkers. All we could do was scramble to shore as fast as we could. Otherwise we were all like sitting ducks. We did our best trying to guard other waves of troops as they landed on the beach. After two weeks we finally were successful in taking that beach. But we lost a lot of boys.

From there we worked our way to Paris. We were camped about a half mile outside of St. Lo. France. I will never forget as we watched that city destroyed. It must have been about the size of Sioux Falls and after it was over, there were only a few walls standing. I don’t know how anyone survived but we could see people running out of the black smoke like rats escaping the fire and bombs. The bombing went on from morning to evening and the ground just shook. After that we worked our way through Parris it was quiet for a bit (compared to what we had been through). We went through Versailles where the WW I treaty was signed (if you don’t know about the “golden train” there is some interesting history easily found on the internet).

After Paris we were sent to Omaha beach. We had to scale high cliff’s carrying 105’s. I was a forward observer and it was our job to locate targets 15 miles ahead of our line. We were a team of 3 and carried about 100 lbs of equipment. We used the same radio that was in our jeeps and would call in the location of targets. We had 240 artillery guns lined up and they would shoot in rapid fire making them sound like an automatic weapon. It took 4 men to carry one shell and depending on how far the targets were they added more bags of powder. If we did not destroy them they would try to destroy us. When one of their bombs would hit, it would take out as many as 25 boys at a time.

We didn’t get mail often and were usually camped in the countryside. It often rained and our foxholes would fill with water. It didn’t matter what your MOS was, you did what was needed. I became one of the enlisted men who went out to find land mines. We didn’t get much training and you learned the different types and how to disarm them. There were hundreds of them and some were buried level with the sand. We would lay on our stomach and reached ahead feeling for them with our fingers. Some were detonated by releasing an acid drip upon contact, so you had to deal with those differently. I was luckier than many. My brother was also serving in WWII at the same time and I did not learn till later that he was killed on his 14th invasion of Iwojima.

In Nov. of 1945 Don’s 3 years were up and it was time to return to NY. Don’s entire tour of duty was in Europe during WW II. There was no time off for R&R, sightseeing traveling or trips to towns on weekend a weekend pass, much less a trip back home. So Don was more than ready to go back home. “There were 85 of us on a small C4 Victory. The seas were again so rough you had to hold on when you walked. Even when you ate or did dishes you had to hang onto something. For 13 days we couldn’t even lay down on a cot because of the rough seas and vibration. We were sure happy to see the Statue of Liberty again. From NY we boarded a C47 Paratrooper plane and returned to California.”

After 6 months is California, he and LaVera did not think they wanted to raise a family in California and moved back to their Midwest roots. They lived in a number of places including LuVerne, Jasper and eventually Mt. Vernon. They raised three sons and a daughter. Their son Ron is Chad’s dad and married my 1st Cousin (small world).

During Don’s tour of duty he had participated in and survived at least 5 assault campaigns. He saw a lot of death and destruction. Some of what he saw and experience cannot be told, much less printed in the newspaper. Anyone who knows Chad or his dad Ron, knows that they are very modest, quiet, non boastful type men. I think they got that from Donald who has not talked about this much over the past 70 years. Only now, during his last battle with cancer has he shared more of these memories. Although not pleasant, they are an important piece of our history and should not be forgotten.

There is no doubt in my mind that his Guardian Angels were protecting Don as he saw much death and destruction but was never even wounded. Although they did not talk about PTSD back then they surely experienced it. Don said, “I still think about it a lot—especially at night when you try to go to sleep. It’s hard not to relive it. You don’t forget it. Normandy was the worst.” When I ask Don what the best part he said “when it was over”.

When I ask Don if he had any final comments to add he said. “I sure don’t like what is happening to our country. God is being taken out of everything—our schools and even the military. I think that is one of the reasons we are seeing so many young military people commit suicide.

WWII was a devastating time with over 180,000 allied troops landing in Normandy alone. Don has received citations, special diplomas from France and the Axis Powers. He has a letter from The White House signed by Harry Truman which states in part “I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful nation. You undertook the most severe task one can be called upon to perform.” Don, thank you for your willingness to share your memories and help us better realize how devastating this war was. Thank you for your sacrifices in service to our country. It is because of your actions and many others like you that we now enjoy the freedoms that we do. On behalf of our Country, Don, we thank you for your service and the freedoms we enjoy today.

Marty Luebke

Post 23 American Legion

PS As stated some of what Don saw and experienced cannot be told and certainly too graphic for a newspaper. However, Don has original documentation from the War including a complete map showing where he was and a daily log that one of the men in his unit kept. It is most interesting reading and can give a better feel of the day by day events they encountered. Here are a couple excerpts from that diary:

June 26, 1944 Heavy artillery barrage could be heard all day. Many anti personnel mines were found in our new position. About 150 were removed by Sgt. Guthrie, Cpl Harris and Hichter who did most of the work. Very heavy rain and enlisted men made themselves as comfortable as possible in their Fox-holes.

June 30, 1944: We moved to our new position in Grande Hamoudes Dunes. Btry CP was established in an old French Home. Cpl. Harris brought in some new “S” mines to show others what they looked like. Many mines in area and all soldiers had to watch very carefully where they stepped. Red poppies were blooming in the fields and among them were plenty of mines. The Germans planted them by the hundreds.

Dec. 17th, 1944: Includes a List of 16 Casualties (wounded or killed). Some men are not mentioned here for minor wounds but were on guard duty when bombs and close shells were dropped. Many examples could be given of “close calls” which did more to make the men sweat than hurt them. Roads are muddy and trucks and guns stuck.

Dec 25th 1944 Christmas Day, no church service for outpost men as Chaplin could not get out of Headquarters due to all the Buzz Bombing that continues. Had “C” rations as we have no stove.

May 8, 1945 THE WAR IN EUROPE WAS OFFICIALLY ANNOUNCED AS OVER (Boy are we glad!). Weather is clear and warming.