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This Scappoose native was a decorated Vietnam rescue pilot

John Harris credits parents, schooling for success in life


Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - John Harris (left), a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who flew helicopters in the Vietnam War, with his mother Marian Harris (right), a 100-year-old resident of Scappoose.John Harris speaks about the 10 months he spent in Vietnam matter-of-factly, much the same way he talks about the rest of his life: growing up in Scappoose, playing sports at Scappoose High School, serving in the military after his wartime deployment and beyond.

Before recounting his combat experience, though, he prefers to talk about the influence his mother Marian, who just turned 100 years old, and his father James, who was captured by the Wehrmacht during the Battle of the Bulge, had on him — as well as the impression fellow service members made on him, both in flight training and in the jungles of southeast Asia. He has to be prompted to even mention his awards for service, which include three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Navy Commendation Medal and more.

Harris was sent into the Vietnam War as a 25-year-old Marine in early 1969. He flew a large Boeing CH-46 helicopter, a twin-rotor behemoth used to move infantry around the battlefield, resupply military positions and evacuate wounded troops.

But it was in his hometown of Scappoose that Harris developed a love of flight. He and a friend would watch airplanes take off and land, and eventually, a teacher at the high school offered to take him up for a flight — if his parents gave him permission.

“I knew that my mom and dad would never sign a letter for me to go flying,” Harris says. “So I forged a letter in my best handwriting, with my mom’s signature on it. ... And it said, ‘It’s OK for my son to go flying with you. Signed, Marian Harris.’ And so he took me up flying, and I just fell in love with it — absolutely loved to fly.”

After attending school at Willamette University in Salem, Harris decided to enlist in the military, hoping both to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam as an infantryman and to learn how to pilot jets. He made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to join the Air Force and Navy before making it into the Marine Corps, despite a damaged eye that the Navy warned would disqualify him from ever flying.

“Looking back on it, the Marines just needed bodies — a lot of them, real fast,” says Harris, admitting that he “fudged a little bit” in order to pass his physical.

Harris graduated from flight training in Pensacola, Fla., at the top of his class, he recounts, which should have given him priority to begin training as a jet pilot. But the coveted “jet track” was so in demand that there was no room for him to enter.

“I desperately wanted to fly jets,” Harris says. He wanted to become a jet pilot so badly, he asked to be held back for a few weeks until the next class graduated. But the sole spot for the jet track ended up going to another graduate — a friend of Harris’ who would ultimately lose his life in the skies over Vietnam.

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF THE U.S. MARINE CORPS - A Marine and two Boeing CH-46 helicopters, the type flown by John Harris in Vietnam, during a U.S. Marine Corps training exercise in 2002.Although Harris went begrudgingly into the “helicopter track,” learning how to fly the big CH-46 helicopters he piloted on hundreds of missions in Vietnam, he now calls it the “best thing that ever happened to me.”

In Vietnam, Harris says, he exceeded the legal limit for hours flown. He says he racked up almost 900 hours during the course of his deployment in January 1969 to the end of his tour in February 1970, not counting the time he spent recuperating and testing helicopter modifications in Japan after being shot through the shoulder and wounded in July 1969.

It is the story of earning his Purple Heart, not the Distinguished Flying Crosses or any of the other medals, that Harris tells on a visit home to Scappoose for his mother’s 100th birthday last month.

“I was the mission pilot for taking the recon team out,” says Harris, describing his part in a desperate effort to recover a pilot believed to be injured and trapped behind enemy lines. “We discovered later that they were just setting a trap. The enemy wasn’t stupid, and they knew sooner or later, they would send out a big helicopter with troops on board, so they were just waiting.”

He continues, “To get into the [landing] zone, I had to lean out of my ... bulletproof seat. And I was leaning forward, trying to see, you know, pick a good landing spot. And all of the sudden, when we just got right down close to the ground, just everything erupted. And it takes you a few seconds to realize what happened. I was shot through the shoulder, and I thought that the crew chief had hit me, and I, with all of the noise in the back, the screaming and yelling and stuff that was going on — and I thought, ‘Well, why did he hit me so hard?’ Tremendous, like a baseball bat. And then I realized within a few seconds that I had been hit, because of the blood started flowing down. And my co-pilot was shot in the leg. ... I pulled in as much power as I could, and we got out of there, luckily.”

With both Harris and his copilot struggling to remain conscious as blood streamed from their bullet wounds, they limped their helicopter to the nearest American outpost. They found out later that the damage the helicopter took from enemy fire was severe enough that if it had been in the air for just “seconds” longer, according to Harris, it would have disintegrated.

Harris spent time out of the combat theater as he recovered, but within weeks, he asked to rejoin the fight in Vietnam. He finished his tour in early 1970.

“You know, you go fight for your country, but you end up when you’re there fighting for the guys next to you,” he says. “There were a bunch of great guys. We worked with the Marines in the field — we never really lived with them or worked with them, but because of the Marine training, that’s who you were there to serve, and so we did.”

Despite the personal losses he experienced and his frank recollections of a “chaotic” combat zone, Harris remarks of his time in Vietnam, “It was the best year of my life, looking back on it.”

After Vietnam, Harris took a ceremonial posting in Washington, D.C. As part of his duties, he found himself working as a social aide in the White House, under President Richard Nixon — he remembers being in the building on the day Nixon resigned in 1974 — and then President Gerald Ford.

While in Washington, D.C., Harris met the woman who would become his wife. She accompanied him on further deployments to Japan, where he served as a military trainer, and Hawaii, from which he patrolled the Pacific Ocean aboard a helicopter carrier. They had a daughter, who is now 33. She has never served in the military, Harris said — but she ended up marrying a Marine.

Harris retired from the military after 20 years at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He worked as a liaison to the Marine Corps at defense contractors McDonnell Douglas and later Boeing Corp., which manufactured the CH-46 helicopter that always brought him, his crew and the troops he carried home in Vietnam.

John Harris.Today, Harris is completely retired. He lives on the East Coast and is planning to move to Orlando, Fla. He has three grandsons — Marian’s great-grandsons.

If Harris seems especially modest about his military service, he might get it from his father James. A soldier in World War II who was taken as a prisoner of war by Nazi Germany, James Harris reportedly suffered from a broken jaw and other serious injuries with minimal treatment, somehow survived interrogation by a German officer who pointed a gun at his head and threatened to kill him, and made it back to his young family in Scappoose at the end of the war.

Marian says her husband didn’t ever say much about the dark days of his captivity, when she had no official word for months of whether he was alive or dead.

“He was badly wounded, but never talked about it,” says Marian.

Harris credits both James and Marian for the way he was raised, saying, “My parents were my heroes.” He connects his coolness under fire as a rescue helicopter pilot in Vietnam to his years playing baseball and basketball for the Scappoose Indians. He is a product of his upbringing.

“You know, I hate to use the word ‘I,’” he says. “Everything that I accomplished that was worth something was because of other people. ... Great parents, good teachers, wonderful wife.”

In an email a couple days later, Harris tells another story about Vietnam — one he connects to not only himself but also his father, who he says “appreciated life to the fullest” and “led a good, honest life” in the years he enjoyed after returning home from Europe.

“On a mission where I was removing dead and wounded Marines from a jungle outpost where they had been involved in a particularly vicious overnight firefight, I noticed a handwritten note on the helmet of one of the Marines being loaded by stretcher into the helicopter. It said ‘for those who fight for it life has a flavor the protected will never know,’” Harris writes in the email. “That has stuck with me over all these years.”

He adds, “So all I have to do is reflect back on these times to remind myself what a wonderful day and life I am having. I’m sure my Dad and the majority of our fellow Veterans feel the same way. Life is a treasure, all too soon gone.”

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