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Bill Harris, 95, was born on June 15, 1916 in Porterville, California to Albert Asbury Harris and Harriet Barclay Harris. He died on May 23, 2012, at his home in Klamath Falls, Ore. These are the statistics.
Here is the man: Bill Harris was many things – a Christian, family man, logger, rancher, entrepreneur, sailor and an Army aviator. Any one of those attributes and accomplishments would fill a large book, and some of them have. Born before the great depression, he was a child of the American West and his parents taught him the things that were important in life: love of God, virtue, honesty, truthfulness, work ethic, kindness and humility. That is quite a lot to stuff into one small sized man but the times were such that he absorbed all of it. Only 13 at the onset of the depression, he and his brother became a part of the family economic effort to survive. And survive they did. He became a hired hand, a timber cutter and hauler, a handyman and literally everything required to be self-sufficient as a family man and an individual.
In 1936 he enlisted in the United States Navy. After boot camp, he shipped aboard the USS Houston, a Northampton class Heavy Cruiser. He sailed for his entire enlistment on this ship, from the Gulf of Mexico through the Panama Canal into the South Pacific. Because of his size (he was not much over 5’7”) he was chosen to fly the rear seat of one of the ship’s catapult-launched Curtiss SOC Seagull reconnaissance planes as a rear gunner and radio operator. In 1940 Bill was honorably discharged from the Navy.
Bill returned home to Springville, California with shipmate Bron Barrett and went into the logging business with his brother Mal and Bron. When World War II broke out, he and Bron joined the Army Air Corps to be pilots. Those early flights in the Seagull had stayed in his head. Bill was sent to basic and primary pilot training in California and was almost washed out of training by an instructor who was rather staid. The officer in charge of training flew with Bill and allowed him to graduate in October 1942 with a commission as a Lieutenant and a pair of wings on his chest. This was an ironic happenstance, as his later flying would prove.
By April of 1943 he found himself on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, an island that sported at least two airfields built by the Japanese and wrested from their control over several months of intense efforts by United States Naval and Marine aviation squadrons. He was the pilot of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a single seat, twin engine fighter of immense speed, range, and firepower. Having just arrived he watched 16 of his squadron mates and friends take off for an attempted intercept of the Japanese Combined Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. That mission was successful, and the Admiral was out of the war, a disastrous occurrence for the military capabilities and morale of the Japanese. Bill later became close and lifelong friends of the pilot that shot down the Admiral, an Oregonian named Rex Barber.
As the tides of war in the Pacific swung to America at great cost of lives and materiel, Bill became a fighter pilot’s fighter pilot. The number of victories climbed steadily and he was soon an ace, then a double ace and finally a triple ace, with 16 officially recorded tallies against Japanese planes. Bill was given the opportunity to be a “hunter,” like some other airmen, with a brand new airplane, no other tasks and his choice of wingmen and ground crew, but he refused the offer stating that is not how he could best serve the war effort. Indeed his victories are only a small part of his actual shoot-downs. He had a habit of awarding some of his victories to his young wingmen to give them confidence and a sense of achievement. There were other tasks required like strafing ground targets and shipping and escorting American and Australian bombers throughout the Pacific Islands. Bill knew that this was the way to win the war. Slowly and inexorably they moved ever northward toward the home islands of Japan.
By August of 1945 when the war ended, Bill was a Lieutenant Colonel, a group commander and had a chance at great advancement in the United States Army Air Corps. Although offered a full Colonelcy, he declined and returned joyfully to California and resumed his old beloved enterprises. He spent 20 years ranching north of Bishop in Hammil Valley where he and Rosalyn raised their family. They went on to ranches in Nevada and Oregon.
His heroic accomplishments were not most important to him. Being a devout Christian, teaching in his own quiet way about honesty, integrity, hard work, a can-do spirit, patience and happiness, raising two sons and three daughters, and always having room at the table for more, was the pattern of his life. His wife Rosalyn (a Navy Wave) was his lifetime joy and companion.
His wife of 60 years, Rosalyn Grant Harris and his son Alan Joseph Harris preceded Bill in death.
He is survived by his son, Garn (Jim) of Independence, Calif.; his daughters, Patty (Tom) Tompkins of Red Bluff, Calif., Marylou (Keith) Hansen of Porterville, Calif. and Dianne (Perry) Fields of Macdoel, Calif.; 13 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.
There are many great men produced in this nation. In the pantheon of heroes and the champions of decency and freedom that we treasure, none would rank above Bill Harris.
The family requests in lieu of flowers donations be sent to a charity Bill supported, either The Klamath Falls Gospel Mission, 823 Walnut Avenue, Klamath Falls, OR 97601 or Klamath-Lake Counties Food Bank, 3231 Maywood Drive, Klamath Falls, OR, 97603.