He thought his friends and family were coming together in grand fashion Monday to watch the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, which this year fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Of special interest to him is that the president was taking the oath using Bibles that belonged to King and President Abraham Lincoln.
The extra icing on the cake for Alphonso “Al” Harris — a resident at Copley Health Center, the site of the gathering — was that it also was taking place on his 90th birthday.
However, Harris’ niece and caregiver Jo Ann Harris — lawyer, minister and professor at the University of Akron — had yet another historical surprise up her sleeve for him.
After finally taking a hard look at his military discharge papers, she determined he too was worthy of a special salute. She got the ball moving and secured not only a birthday letter from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, but also her uncle’s medals to present to him.
In part, here is what Jo Ann learned about her uncle’s World War II involvement.
“Alphonso Harris, Sergeant Headquarters and Service Company 1871st Engineer Aviation, entered into the United States Army on Jan. 8, 1943, and was honorably discharged on Jan. 7, 1946, as a sergeant. He served in the Philippines Campaign (1944-45) and in New Guinea in the Black Company (as opposed to the White Company — #1874) as a construction foreman and truck driver.
“As a truck driver, his separation qualification record reads that he ‘drove all types of trucks, including semi-trailers, transported rations, clothing, equipment of all types, gas, water, ammunition and personnel. Performed maintenance and minor repairs on trucks. Drove under blackout conditions cross country over rough terrain. Possessed army driver’s license.’ … It also indicates that he was the sergeant construction foreman for 15 months, and sergeant truck driver for 18 months during his tenure. … From what he has told me he was almost killed in the Philippines when it was bombed.”
The Philippines Campaign “was the major campaign to defeat and expel the Imperial Japanese forces occupying the Philippines during World War II, and Luzon [where Al was] was the largest campaign of the Pacific War which involved more troops than the U.S. had used in North Africa, Italy or southern France,” Jo Ann Harris said.
For his service, Al Harris was awarded the American Theater Ribbon, the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre Ribbon with three bronze stars, the Philippines Theater Ribbon with one bronze star, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Victory Medal.
Prior to entering the Army, Al Harris worked at Firestone and returned there after his military service ended. He retired with more than 40 years of service as a tire builder. He also owned a record store on Akron’s Wooster Avenue and later on Thornton Street in the 1950s and ’60s.
He lives with his wife, Catherine, at Copley Health Center. He has two sons — David, an Army Sgt. 1st Class stationed at Fort Knox, Ky.; and Scott of Akron — and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In September, he had to have his legs amputated due to diabetes.
“What has surprised me most about my uncle’s military service has been his humility,” Jo Ann said. “He talked about serving in the Philippines but he never said anything about the medals.”
Jo Ann Harris said she will be eternally grateful for the “incredible help” she received in tracking down information from Sen. Brown’s office and State Sen. Tom Sawyer’s office (notably his administrator Cindy Peters) and others, including the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
“What better gift could I have given my uncle than this?”
And to her family, for uncovering such a rich piece of history they may never have known about.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org