Tales from the front: Honored veterans share their stories
|Father and son Jackson L. Harris Sr., center, and Jackson L. Harris II, right, hold the state Assembly resolution honoring them and other distinguished veterans with organizer Dave Karau at the Mohawk Valley Independence Day Parade on July 4. The former Navy lieutenant and commander have 45 years of combined service. Photo submitted|
Robert Schoensee still remembers the moment his ship split in half off the coast of Normandy in 1944, plunging 270 men into the icy Atlantic surf.
The 96-year-old retired Army major was one of 11 distinguished veterans recognized during the Mohawk Valley Independence Day Parade, where thousands of spectators lined Graeagle’s streets to honor Plumas County residents who served from Omaha Beach to Vietnam, Pearl Harbor to the Battle of the Bulge.
Yet beyond speeches and tributes, each veteran carries a human story of sacrifice and service.
From teacher to officer
In 1942, Schoensee was teaching middle school in Graeagle when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. to the brink of war. After volunteering for the Army, his teaching experience made him a perfect candidate for Officer Candidate School, and he worked with 250 African-American trainees to run the Port of New York.
Foreign shores proved less friendly. After managing ports in Glasgow and Belfast, Schoensee was given two days to prepare his company for the D-Day invasion.
With Omaha Beach in sight, Schoensee’s landing craft struck a submerged ship. “All of us — my officers and 1,270 men — went into the water,” he says. “Full packs, ammunition, full rifles. We all had to swim 150 yards to shore. I went back five times and rescued guys that couldn’t make it. But 30 drowned.”
Two days later, Schoensee took command of the Cherbourg Port and organized supplies for the allied campaign. General Patton commended him for “the way we treated his entire army,” and Schoensee’s fluency in German proved useful when guarding 500 German prisoners.
After touring Germany on behalf of the Army and building peace between Germans and the American occupation, Schoensee returned to teaching. In addition to serving as superintendent of Plumas Unified School District, he was a founder of Feather River College and founding director of Plumas Bank, and operated the Mohawk Boys Camp for 25 years.
All in the family
John Hamby, a 91-year-old Portola resident, and Jackson L. Harris Sr., of Graeagle, share more than the status of Navy veterans and Pearl Harbor survivors. For both men, military service has always been a family commitment.
“My dad was in the Army in World War I but joined the Navy so he could be with me,” Hamby says. “I was in the South Pacific, but they sent him to the North Atlantic. My son and son-in-law were also in the Navy, and my grandson was in the Army and made a couple of tours in Iraq.”
The Independence Day parade featured the special sight of 94-year-old Harris Sr. side by side with his son, retired Navy commander and chaplain Jackson L. Harris II. The father and son have 45 years of combined service between them.
“When I heard about the parade, it was about supporting my dad,” Harris II says. “My last tour of duty was with the 3rd Marine Regiment out of Hawaii where my dad was stationed at Kaneohe Bay, and it was hit about five minutes earlier than Pearl Harbor. So to retire from where my dad was a Pearl Harbor survivor was pretty special. There were still pockmarks on the building.”
Following service in Hawaii, Mariana Island and the Philippines, Harris Sr. was stationed in Guam and later Iwakuni, Japan, where he manned nuclear weapons on the USS San Joaquin County during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now 94, the recipient of two Air Medals and three combat stars still does 150 push-ups and 200 sit-ups every day and volunteers at the Graeagle Community Church.
When asked about the influence of his father’s career, Harris II replies, “Service always meant leading from the front in the sense that you lead by example, and that’s really a Marine concept of leadership. It’s an emptying out of yourself for others.” With a distinguished record of his own as a commander and reserve police officer, Harris II continues to serve as a chaplain and volunteer firefighter.
From huddle to cockpit
As a football player at the University of Minnesota, retired Air Force Col. Vern Frye joined ROTC, a decision that would transplant him from the farms of the Midwest to the airfields of Europe, where he trained with longtime friend Chuck Yeager as a fighter pilot. In the crucible of Vietnam, he flew more than 100 F-105 fighter missions over Hanoi, North Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
The end of the Vietnam War brought Frye back to the U.S., and he served as chief of the Air Force Liaison Office for the House of Representatives, flying with the Nixons in Air Force One and landing congressional teams in a turbulent Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Returning to Germany in 1973, Frye became base commander of the Sembach Air Base and later the Templehof Air Base in Berlin when the wall still divided the city.
“I got to know some of the Russians that commanded bases over there, and there was no animosity between us,” Frye says. “The Air Force teaches you to work as a team to get the job done.And we saw that in Vietnam from the cooks in the dining hall to the security police to the crew chiefs. To get to participate at the level I did with some of the best pilots in the entire world, the best fighter aircraft in the world, and fly over 100 times in extreme combat conditions left me with a good feeling for the Air Force.”
Leaving a legacy
Decades of service overseas have left these veterans only more determined to contribute at home. John Hamby remains an active Rotarian and once served as club president during his 45-year membership. While we thank veterans for their military service, the diversity of their work in communities next door and continents around the world adds new relevance to what service means.
“A lot of people think of the military as war-mongers,” Harris II says. “But when I was in Japan, the Marines were constantly going out, helping at orphanages, painting schools, and the idea of service was overflowing. Whether it’s military service or the Peace Corps or just volunteering somewhere, the strength of our country and fiber of our society is pouring ourselves out to each other.”
Indeed, in a time when video games and Hollywood films turn war into a digital abstraction — a blurry idea rather than a cruel reality — the Mohawk Valley Independence Day Parade becomes even more significant. Veterans and attendees alike expressed their pride in the strong support of the community.
“I don’t remember ever being in a better parade, and I’ve been in Fourth of Julys all over the world, including Washington, D.C.,” said Frye.
The project to honor Plumas County’s distinguished veterans became an act of service in itself. Army veteran and parade organizer Dave Karau located local veterans, arranged a moving taps service with a riderless horse, and contacted both Assemblyman Brian Dahle and Congressman Doug LaMalfa to provide an Assembly resolution and certificates thanking those who served.
“These guys are my heroes,” Karau said. “I just felt it would be great if we as a community could honor them for all they’ve done.”