Olympic legend Jessie Owens once said the battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. Len Harris is living proof.
I met him at Tony Mandola’s on Waugh Drive. It was 11:30 a.m. The 88-year-old two-time war veteran was wearing a F6F Hellcat cap and drinking a scotch.
His hometown was Brooklyn, N.Y. “I went to a tough Jesuit school called Xavier High on West 16th,” he said. “The education stuck. The religion didn’t.”
About his first war: “In 1942 I was a top Japanese ace. Five US planes to my credit,” he deadpanned. I bit. He winked. “Flew three Steadman biplanes and two Hellcats into the ground during naval training.”
By May 1945 he was flying recon missions off carriers in the Pacific.
After the war he graduated from The Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn with a physics degree, then earned a Masters in mathematics and physics from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He accepted an Army commission that sent him around the country and overseas.
As an afterthought he threw in casually, “Oh yeah, there was Inchon.”
Typical of the Greatest Generation, he downplayed his role. An officer in the Corps of Engineers, Harris landed at Inchon harbor in the third wave of Gen. Douglass MacArthur’s invasion that turned the tide of the Korean War. His unit’s first assignment required machine guns, not bulldozers. It was sent to defend the Kimbo airport outside of Seoul.
He served for 17 years, along the way raising seven children and teaching advanced mathematics in nine universities. “The Army didn’t pay much,” he smiled. “We needed the cash.”
Maj. Len Harris, Ret., landed in Houston in 1967 where, as a civilian, he worked in the oil industry as a mathematician and as one of the first IT managers.
He lost his wife in 2005 and buried his fourth child last week. “I would do some things differently with them if I had a second chance,” he said in an even tone, but the sadness in his eyes betrayed him.
Maj. Harris lived for thirty years across the street from Spring Branch High School. Now he’s alone in a small house in the Heights. Most of his friends are gone. But, unlike his old commander, Harris refuses to fade away.
Grabbing his cane, he announced, “I forgot to tell you in the evenings I’m an Irish comedian. Tonight it’s a 50th wedding anniversary party. I need my rest.”
The Army never gave Len Harris a medal. Nor did anyone else. Now, like Jessie Owens, all his races are run.
But if you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop by Mandola’s for lunch. Odds are Harris will be there, alone. A thumbs up for the battles in life that really count would make his day — and yours.
Malcolm D. Gibson
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