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Veteran Harman recalls service as combat medic

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Bill Harman, 85, found himself learning to talk all over again after bone cancer led to surgery on his jaw a few years ago.

When he actually gets to talking, though, he tells a story that provides proof that his mind is as sharp now as it ever was.

In August 1943, just four months after turning 18, Harman joined the military. He was initially stationed in Florida and later in Texas. In 1944, he went overseas.

"The government put their hands on me," he recalled.

He was sent out as part of the Army's 101st Airborne Division just days before the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

"We were in a group slated to replace those in the invasion," Harman said.

While serving in Europe, Harman found himself in Holland, Germany and Belgium. He was in four major battles, including the Siege of Bastogne -- part of the Battle of the Bulge -- in December 1944.

As a member of the Medical Corps, his job was to provide first aid and front-line trauma care on the battlefield, as well as give continued medical care in the absence of a readily available physician, including care for disease and battle injury. In order to do so, he relied on the supplies in his bag as well as the packet each soldier had on his person. Instead of a gun, he had a Red Cross band around his arm.

Coming into Holland, Harman rode in on a glider. Along with him came a tout plane carrying a trailer loaded with medical supplies.

The glider was armed with a .50 caliber machine gun.

"One man could carry the gun with a belt on," Harman said. "That's what they used in the airborne mount."

The unit ended up landing in a wheat field 300 yards into no-mans-land. The sandy soil made for a rough landing, with some of the gliders turning upside-down.

"The pilot of the plane I was in hit a wheat stock and slid in on the wheat grain," he recalled.

After reaching the ground, the soldiers ended up having to dig the trailer out. "By the time we got it out, someone had come (to assist) in a Jeep. We hooked it to the Jeep and took it out," Harman said.

At one point during his time in Europe, a soldier sought Harman out attempting to get help for a woman in labor -- which put him in a bit of a spot.

"I had never delivered a baby, but I had witnessed it," he said.

During that ordeal, Harman recalls vividly coming out of the back door of the house and going to the front door. Moments later, he heard what he described as a swishing noise -- which turned out to be a German plane flying through the area.

The plane was low enough for Harman to make out an outline of the pilot, so he got down on the ground and the plane flew right past him.

"Evidently he didn't see anything," Harman said.

The woman eventually did have a healthy delivery.

Harman was discharged in January 1946 and returned to his hometown, Bluefield, W.Va. He met the woman who would become his wife and got married the following April. He and his wife were together 61 years before her death three years ago.

"I know where she is now, and I'm comfortable with it," he said. "I'm just waiting to join her."

Harman and his wife initially came to Albany to visit family, during which time he worked for his uncle. The Harmans returned to West Virginia and later came back to Albany in the late 1950s.

When Harman left the United States for his service, he traveled on a ship known as the Queen Elizabeth. The trip wasn't exactly pleasant for him.

"I was seasick from the second day out until we docked," he recalled.

On his trip back in December 1945, he was on a ship manned by civilian sailors. Despite hitting rough weather, they were determined to get the servicemen back before the holiday.

"They said: 'We will put you in the states by Christmas Day,'" Harman recalled.

While crossing the Atlantic, the main staples available were hard-boiled eggs and crackers. Harman, who slept on a top bunk, hooked his helmet to a pipe and saved some of that food for a good day.

"One day I was feeling good and ate every one of them," he said.

After the war, Harman worked in sales. His experience ranged from selling appliances to furnishings. He had been somewhat involved in the industry long before the war even got started.

"When I was just a boy, my mother would pick baskets of vegetables and I knocked on doors and sold them," he said.

When asked how he managed to make it back home from his stint overseas, Harman said he took things one day at a time.

"That's how we got through it," he said. "We wondered if we were going to make it."

Even after World War II, his military service was still not over. Harman was called back into the reserves in September 1950 to a hospital in Fort Campbell, Ky. There, he was in charge of the physical exam area.

"They got us stationed there permanently," he recalled. "We got to take care of the hospital. I ran that until I was slated to go home."

His service in Kentucky lasted for one year.

Harman and his wife had one daughter. The family has since grown to include three grandsons and four great-grandchildren.

The main thing that changed in America as a result of the war was the health of the nation's economy, the veteran said.

"It put people to work," he said. "During the (Great) Depression, there were people in my hometown that didn't have anything to do. When the war came about, factories were put into high-gear.

"After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese commander said they thought they had awoken a sleeping giant. That's what happened."

Harman's hometown was a railroad town. There was a rail that went all the way to Norfolk, Va., which people would take to find employment.

"People would go there to find work, and that's where they found it," he said.

Harman said the concept of understanding history and its impact has been lost somewhere along the way.

"I put my generation at fault," he said. "We didn't want our children to go through what we did, and the next generation did the same thing.

"The people coming along need to know what it is about and why. The military today is fighting for the same thing we fought for; people don't understand that. It's getting kinda scary; some of the decisions that have been made make you stop and think."

In addition to the combat ribbons and stars he earned during the war, Harman also received the Greatest Generation Award from First Free Will Baptist Church in January 2007.