Courier Staff Writer
Strange things happen during war. Sometimes, you’ll meet someone who’ll head out on a combat mission yet never return. And rarely — very rarely — a pilot shot down over an occupied country will come walking into your office.
Neil Harriss, 92, of Ottumwa, was the clerk typist for the newly christened 487th Heavy Bomber Group in the 1940s. The group was part of the 8th Air Force, based overseas in England. In a letter to his sons written long after the war ended, he thanked God he came home alive and uninjured. But he saw a lot from his office — good and bad.
“Our commanding officer, Lt. Col. Beirn Lay Jr., was lost in action flying his sixth mission,” Harriss recalled.
Several months later, Harriss was finishing up some paperwork when a bald, skinny man wearing French-style clothing walked into the office.
“No one recognized him. He wanted to know who the commanding officer was.”
They cheered when they realized it was Lay.
“I never expected to see him again. The French resistance got him out,” Harriss remembered.
But many, many others never came back from bombing missions.
Harriss found some of the memories fading when he was 80 years old, which is why he wrote the multi-page letter for his sons. Not every story is in the letter, but there are quite a few.
A pattern of lousy Christmas seasons is obvious. While in basic training, he spent Christmas in the hospital after complications from having his tonsils removed. The next year in England, his bomber group realized no German bombs had fallen anywhere near them. Apparently, he said, there was a high-value target further inland. During the week of Christmas, one of the missiles that passed overhead just ran out of gas and landed on their base. No one was killed in the explosion.
Harriss, originally from Du Quoin, Ill., said he was half-ready to just stay in England — if it was a choice between that or sailing across the choppy Atlantic again on one of the jam-packed troop carriers.
“We were so sick. Everyone was. We spent 14 days on a British ship, the HMS Duchess of Bedford.”
Did he get used to the rolling waves?
“I still have my meal ticket,” he said, displaying the 70-year-old card in his book of memories. “There was plenty of food. I was so sick, I only have four punches in my meal ticket.”
Four breakfasts or dinners over 14 days and some crackers from the ship’s store.
Luckily, by the end of the European action, he’d made friends with some of the pilots.
“I flew back with the [cargo] in a B-17 bomber filled with surplus equipment [and] supplies,” said Harriss.
He was married within about a week of getting back to the United States. He and Mary are still married. Despite living four hours away, both of his two sons are willing to drive to Ottumwa, even to take Neil and Mary to a doctor’s appointment in Iowa City or Des Moines.
So they’re good boys?
“The best,” he said. “That’s why I wrote this for them.”
Neil and Mary have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too.
Mary said that Neil came from a coal mining family. Though his older brother was the only one able to attend college, Neil’s father insisted the boy could be more than a coal miner.
In fact, his father said if he ever caught Neil applying out at the mine, Dad’s reaction was going to be a physical one. Still, while Neil had jobs that required a sharp mind, he was never afraid of hard work, something superiors seemed to appreciate.
After the Army Air Force, the sergeant worked enforcing laws for the railroad as a special agent in Chicago, eventually moving up to become a claims representative. He transferred to Ottumwa in the 1960s and still says he likes it better than Chicago.
His wife liked Chicago — yet now she’s happy in Ottumwa, too.
“He’s done pretty well,” said Mary. “He’s made a good life for us. We have a small, wonderful family. We love them, and they love us.”