Published November 11, 2005
By Lee Juillerat - H&N Regional Editor
ill Harris is a cowboy who liked flying. Not flying off of horses, but flying fighter airplanes. Cowboying and flying are jobs that Harris, 89, did well. He was among the nation's most celebrated fighter pilots during World War II, but the years he celebrates most are those on horseback.
“I love flying,” Harris says. “It's like the way I love horses. I've cowboyed for years. That's my life.”
His life began June 15, 1916, in Strathmore, Calif., the third child of Albert and Harriet Barclay Harris. When Harris was 7, his family moved to Springville, where they ranched and farmed in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas. He graduated from Porterville High School in 1933, during the Depression. After a year in the Civilian Conservation Corps, he took a ranching job. In 1936, he joined the Navy.
“I wanted to see the world,” he says of enlisting.
His Navy years included working on airplanes, and flying - “I got some time in that way and I just loved to fly.”
After his 1940 release, he and his Navy buddy, Bron Barrett, teamed up with Harris' brother Malcolm, who had started a logging business near Visalia, Calif. In December 1941, they were logging in the mountains away from radios and newspapers. It wasn't until a few weeks later that they learned the United States had entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
“As quick as we could go,” he and Barrett signed up.
There was some fast scrambling. The Navy wanted to recall Harris and Barrett to active duty, but they had enough of ships. The Army had them on their draft list, but neither wanted to be a foot soldier. Instead, Harris and Barrett finagled their way into the fledgling Army Air Corps.
“I wanted to fly, but I didn't want to fly over water, so I joined the Army Air Corps,” he recalls with a laugh. He laughs because after months of intensive training, Harris was assigned to the South Pacific. He flew a P-38, a single-seat fighter plane that could fly up to 2,000 miles over an eight- to 12-hour period.
Harris quickly became a legendary fighter pilot. He and other pilots escorted bombers and attacked Japanese bases on New Georgia, Bougainville, the Russell Islands and Guadacanal on the Phillipines.
He scored his first victory on June 7, 1943, by shooting down two Japanese Zeros. He shot down two more Zeros two weeks later, became an “ace” in October and a double-ace later that month. An ace is a pilot with five confirmed downed enemy planes. When he left the military in 1948, Lt. Col. Harris was the Thirteenth Air Force's top living P-38 ace with 16 confirmed victories.
“You've just got to be better than the other guy,” Harris says of being a fighter pilot. “Strategy? Everything you can think of.”
Harris prefers to downplay his actions.
“I'm not the hero. The group I had with me are the heroes.”
He put himself at risk - “You only had to have 100 missions to come home, but I didn't want to, not while the war was going.”
Harris flew more than 350 missions. His planes, which had his ranch's cattle brand on the nose, were often hit by enemy fire, but never shot down.
“I've gotten shot up, but not shot down,” he quips.
After the war, Harris rejoined his brother in their logging business. For a time they had a small airplane.
“No, not much,” he says of post-war flying. “Heck, we couldn't afford it. Airplanes are expensive. I still like to fly. Course, I can't afford it.”
Harris never thought of being a commercial airlines pilot because, “I wanted to be by myself. I was a single-seater guy.”
He and Malcolm worked together several years as their business, Harris Brothers Lumber Company, expanded.
“My brother loved logging. I love cattle.”
In 1952 he decided to leave logging and move his growing family - Harris and his wife Rosalyn, now 84, were married in May 1946 - to ranches in eastern Nevada and, eight years later, near Bishop, Calif., where they stayed 25 years. Their cow-calf operations varied from 1,000 to 3,000 head of cattle.
“We've been married for 59 years so I guess it worked,” Harris quips.
“We loved it,” he says of ranch life. “Just everything out there. I just love the outdoors. The cow business is a tough business. Hard work. Cold. Hot. Most of the time very poor paying, but it's a wonderful way to raise kids.”
The couple has five children. A son, Alan, died in a 1987 plane crash. A daughter, Diane Fields, lives with her husband near Macdoel while another, Patricia Tompkins, makes the commute from Red Bluff, Calif., to help her parents four days a week. A third daughter, Marylou Hansen, lives in Porterville, Calif., while a son, Garn, lives in Houston, Texas.
The Harris family moved to the Klamath Basin in 1976, operating ranches near Sprague River, Chiloquin and Macdoel before moving outside Klamath Falls about four years ago.
The Harris' house includes his large office, its walls mostly filled with photographs, paintings and drawings of P-38s. A varied collection of WWII books are stacked on a shelf.
Prominent in the room is a wooden stand that displays his well-used, hand-tooled saddle, complete with a saddle blanket, spurs and bridle. It's a reminder of his days spent buckarooing.
“I kind of like to see it around,” Harris explains of his horseback cockpit, adding with a low chuckle, “I sat on that thing for 25 years.”
o o o
To learn more about Harris and his life, especially his World War II flying years, check out “Bill: A Pilot's Story,” $20, by Brooklyn Harris. Copies are available through Bill Harris by calling 273-1095. Harris and his Army Air Corps years are also featured in a chapter of “Forgotten War, Forgiven Guilt,” by David A. Witts.