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William F. Harris

William F. Harris

William F. Harris was born March 6, 1918 at Lexington, Kentucky, to a family whose military heritage dates back to the Revolutionary War. His father, LtGen Field Harris, USMC, served as commanding general of the Marine Air Wing during the World War II invasion of Guadalcanal (1942) and later during the Korean War (1950). Following his graduation from the United States Naval Academy (1939), he was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps. While serving as an infantry officer in World War II, he was captured by the Japanese at Corregidor (May 1942), but subsequently escaped and after an 8 ½ hour swim across Manila Bay, he came ashore on the Japanese occupied Bataan Peninsula, where he joined up with Filipino guerrillas. When learning of the United States invasion of Guadalcanal, he set out to rejoin his Marine Corps unit; however, only reached as far as the Indonesian island of Morotai, where he was turned in to Japanese military officials and incarcerated. Upon learning that his father was a Marine Corps general, the Japanese moved him to the Prisoner of War Interrogation Center at Ofuna, Japan, where excessive torture of selected prisoners was a routine practice. Throughout his imprisonment, he plotted with others to escape; however, was unable to do so and when liberated at the end of World War II, was selected to stand on the deck of the USS Missouri, as Japan accepted terms of its surrender. Following the war, he returned home, fell in love with the daughter of a Navy captain, married and became the doting father of two little girls.

Harris remained in the Marine Corps following World War II, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel, when he was called to command an infantry battalion at the outset of the Korean War. On December 7, 1950, with his decimated battalion serving as the rear guard for a Marine Corps convoy, a well entrenched numerically superior Chinese force launched a surprise ambush. Harris gathered his men under murderous fire and organized an attack straight at the Chinese position. Although taking heavy casualties, his battalion was able to hold the Chinese off long enough for the Marine Corps convoy to escape. Come dawn, Harris could not be found. After searching for him for hours, his men concluded that he must have been taken captive; however, at the conclusion of the Korean War, liberated American prisoners of war did not report seeing Harris in captivity. Harris was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions; however, General Clifton Cates, USMC, maintained the medal in his desk for the 32 year old Marine officer, hoping that he would someday return to personally receive it. Many years later, the family of William F. Harris received a box of bones apparently from North Korea, said to be his mortal remains. Due to incomplete reports, the family was never sure that the remains were those of William F. Harris; however, did arrange for them to be interred in a small country cemetery at the Pisgah Presbyterian Church at Versailles, Kentucky.

The saga of LtCol William F. Harris, USMC, is chronicled in the 2010 best selling book “Unbroken,” a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption, written by award winning author Laura Hillenbrand.


(Awarded Posthumously)

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Colonel William Frederick Harris (MCSN: 0-5917), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy of the United Nations while serving as Commanding Officer of the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in the Republic of Korea the early morning of 7 December 1950. Directing his Battalion in affording flank protection for the regimental vehicle train and the first echelon of the division trains proceeding from Hagaru-ri to Koto-ri, Lieutenant Colonel Harris, despite numerous casualties suffered in the bitterly fought advance, promptly went into action when a vastly outnumbering, deeply entrenched hostile force suddenly attacked at point-blank range from commanding ground during the hours of darkness. With his column disposed on open, frozen terrain and in danger of being cut off from the convoy as the enemy laid down enfilade fire from a strong roadblock, he organized a group of men and personally led them in a bold attack to neutralize the position with heavy losses to the enemy, thereby enabling the convoy to move through the blockade. Consistently exposing himself to devastating hostile grenade, rifle and automatic weapons fire throughout repeated determined attempts by the enemy to break through, Lieutenant Colonel Harris fought gallantly with his men, offering words of encouragement and directing their heroic efforts in driving off the fanatic attackers. Stout-hearted and indomitable despite tremendous losses in dead and wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Harris, by his inspiring leadership, daring combat tactics and valiant devotion to duty, contributed to the successful accomplishment of a vital mission and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

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