Woody Harris and his younger brother, Luel, grew up in the Gantts Quarry community. Their parents Eppie Saxon Harris and Houston Monroe Harris had eight children. Their sister, Mary Nell Harris Dale (Aubrey) is the mother of Sylacauga’s own Sandra Dale Sims (Rev. Charles) . The November 2017 Veterans Day edition of the Birmingham News featured on its front page pictures and remembrances of their devotion to each other and their country during World War II. It is fitting that we honor them in their hometown paper during this Fourth of July week at this time in our country when freedom seems at risk and courage and love of family at a premium.
Woody and Luel might have appeared to be ordinary men because they continued to love golf well into their eighties and enjoyed playing regularly with each other, but their experiences testify of their bravery. They shared war stories with each other and liked Auburn football. They both would smile as Luel shared that Woody has hit him a couple of times with a golf ball. “It was just one of those slices,” Woody explains.
The brothers were there in the Pacific during the War’s final months. Woody was a radio man on an aircraft carrier, one of 3,000 men on the USS Shangri-La. He remembers the kamikazes at Okinawa, hurtling down. “All you could do was look up and hope they didn’t hit you,” he said. There were close calls, too close for comfort, for he says, “Our sister ship was bombed real bad, but they didn’t sink her. We never got hit. We got splashed a little, but they didn’t hit us.”
Two years before Okinawa when the troop ship was at Guadalcanal the Japanese sank an Australian heavy cruiser, the Canberra and the USS Juneau, a light cruiser. He recalls how most of the 700 man crew died, among them five brothers from Iowa, memorialized later by the movie, “The Fighting Sullivans.” Woody also remembered Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan dying in an attack on the USS San Francisco.
Like all truly great men, Woody realized that he was fortunate to be in the radio room. “I was a privileged character,” he said. One of my jobs was to copy news from a San Francisco radio station, KFS, and produce a newspaper from these reports on a mimeograph machine. The crew looked forward to these papers, especially the sports news. He delivered them all over the ship (officers’ quarters first, where the reward was a fresh egg sandwich). His sleeping accommodations kept him humble, sleeping on the deck with his head on a life jacket. When he made the rank of chief, he actually got a bunk.
Luel’s story was different, but equally or even more daunting. He was stationed at Tinian Island, a major air base that the U.S. wrested from the Japanese. He flew with a 10 man crew in a B-29 Superfortress. He was the right gunner and relieved the flight engineer periodically. To do that he had to crawl from the back of the plane through a tunnel that connected the front and rear pressurized cabins. This harrowing crawl on a 100 ft. long plane was over the bomb bay. He said, “The B-29 was a brand new aircraft, and it had its mechanical hiccups. We had to work the bugs out of it. We lost, I don’t know how many, but I remember seeing two go down. They had to work it out. It turned out to be a good airplane.”
During their time in the Pacific a great typhoon hammered Okinawa. Luel on the island remembers the power of the wind. “Those B-29’s would hold 10,000 gallons of fuel and they were tied down, but it took two of them and set them out there in the bay. Several ships blew onto the beach.” Woody confirms that this terrible typhoon broke the bow of a heavy cruiser in the navy fleet where he was.
We have all heard something of the end of the story, but being a participant in all of that is unimaginable. Three months it took for the Allies to wipe out the Japanese resistance in Okinawa. The island became a staging area for a massive Ally invasion of Japan, troops everywhere on land, and ships as far as one could see. Then from Luel’s Tinian Island base a B-29, the Enola Gay piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, was loaded with a bomb named “Little Boy.” The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki three days later delivered by the B-29 Bockscar later led to the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945. Undoubtedly these successful missions saved many ally lives. Luel was on one of the 800 planes that flew over the USS Missouri on Tokyo Bay where that treaty was signed on September 2. He said, “I could see the ceremonies going down there (Gen. Douglas McArthur was in charge.)”
These brothers stayed in the service of our country after the war was over. Woody transferred to the Air Force and completed his military career serving as a radio operator in various locations. Luel was assigned to a special squadron that flew the President and other VIP’s before there was an Air Force One, flying Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, John Foster Dulles, and troop entertainer, Bob Hope. Each brother was married, and each had four children.
These Gantts Quarry heroes were asked about how their experiences shaped their lives. Woody said, “Well you learn a lot. And you sort of have a positive rather than a negative outlook. I think it makes you grow up.” His brother replied, “I grew up. I tell you that.” God works like that. What is meant to harm us actually often makes us stronger as it did Woody and Luel Harris, and it was not so long ago at that.