Remembering our nation’s heroes

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 13, 2000

The capture of the island created by a volcano helped turn the tide for the Allied Forces in the last stages of World War II.

Monday, November 13, 2000

The capture of the island created by a volcano helped turn the tide for the Allied Forces in the last stages of World War II.

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Until the bloody weeks of February and March 1945, the Japanese fighter planes were launched from the island to attack American bombers and ships.

With Iwo Jima in its grasp, the Allied Forces claimed an island where they could launch fighter attacks on the enemy and where American B-29 bombers could refuel after raids on Japan.

Although shrouded in minor controversy – Were there one or two pictures taken and was one posed or was it a spontaneous act of the fighting men lifting the flag? – the image of six Marines raising a flag atop Mount Suribachi grabs a hold of the collective consciousness like nothing else.

Orville Wangen was there. The Austin man’s story of courage and valor is well-known. For a long time, Wangen was believed to be the only living survivor in Minnesota of the U.S. Marines taking of Iwo Jima, but no longer.

Richard "Dick" Harrison was there and now he is willing to tell his story on this Veterans Day weekend.

Harrison’s openness helps answer a question that nags at the consciousness of many: "What is a veteran?"

Their numbers grow fewer from the wars that were fought until the identities of the men who sacrificed so much become a blur.

‘Just doing a job’

"I still don’t watch movies or television about the war and I was not going to talk about it at all, but now is as good a time as any," he said.

"I don’t think I should be considered a hero. Like the rest of the soldiers, I was just doing a job," he said.

Harrison, the oldest of six children, is a native of Winona. His wife, Ethel, also a native of Winona, is one of seven children in her family.

Harrison enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1944.

"I had a brother, who is now deceased, who was in the U.S. Merchant Marines and later the Marine Corps," Harrison said. "There were two reasons for enlisting. First, of course, was patriotism. Like other boys, I honestly believed it was my duty, and secondly, we were poor. Because I was the oldest son in my family and my father was deceased, I could help support my mother and the rest of the family."

He took basic training at San Diego, Calif. and later advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton also in southern California. He was assigned to the 28th Regiment – Fifth Division and sent to Hawaii for more training as World War II continued in Europe and the Pacific theaters.

His job: machine gunner.

"The Fifth Division was made up of First and Third Division veterans, who had seen combat and were sent back to the United States before going back overseas again," Harrison said.

"I was just a kid, a teenager, and there were lots of 17- and 18-year-old Marines put into this new division with seasoned combat veterans," he said.

After 45 days at sea and with little information beyond that they were going to "some island in the Pacific Ocean," Harrison became one of thousands thrust into battle.

On Feb. 19, 1945, Harrison landed on the volcanic island in the first wave of Allies Forces on Iwo Jima.

The Japanese were deeply entrenched in the island and a withering fire greeted the Marines as they charged through the ocean surf onto the island.

Harrison was one of two machine gunners who survived among nine who went ashore that day 55 years ago.

"After spending the first six days on Mount Suribachi," Harrison said, "we thought we led charmed lives, because so many of the comrades we came ashore with had been killed.

"We didn’t realize how dangerous it could be, when we started our mop up work to get rid of the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima," he said. "Corporal Joe Deutsch of Fargo, North Dakota, was in charge of our machine gun squad. We carried the 30 caliber light machine gun. He was a mighty fine leader."

Harrison’s charmed life ended, when a mortar round fell from the sky when he was on patrol.

He suffered shrapnel wounds in his right leg, hip and neck, earned a Purple Heart award and embarked on a life-long odyssey in and out of military hospitals that continues today.

"A medical corpsman came fast and they dragged me back to the beach," he said. "I was wounded pretty bad and they didn’t have so much as an aspirin because there were so many casualties all lying side-by-side on that beach. They put my leg in a splint and told me to hold on.

Back home, his mother, Ethelemae McDonald, received a letter from the International Red Cross, stating he had sustained serious injuries in a mortar attack on Iwo Jima.

Eventually Harrison was evacuated from the Iwo Jima beach to the USS Solace hospital ship, which transported him to Guam and a military hospital.

"There were so many casualties at that Navy hospital that is was declared full and they took me to a U.S. Army tent hospital. I was the only Marine there and the surgeons saved my leg. I felt pretty lucky for an 18-year-old, at the time," he said.

Next, Harrison was transported to Hawaii and another hospital where he was given a choice. Stay there until he recovered or be transferred again to the closest military hospital stateside.

He chose to be sent to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in a Chicago suburb.

By the time he was given a medical discharge in March 1946, Harrison had spent one year and 14 days in hospitals.

His medical treatment for war wounds did not end.

From 1946 through 1950, he spent over half of the time in hospitals, but there would be more medical treatment to come and enough of it to become part of Harrison’s lifestyle.

Life goes on

He married Ethel in 1947. She worked as a waitress and he drove a cab, all the while fighting the pain of shrapnel wounds in his leg, hip and neck.

He also went to work for the 7-Up Bottling Company, first as a route driver, then as a supervisor and finally as a sales manager, where he was assigned to Austin.

When Ethel went to work for Dick Lewis, owner of the popular North Star Restaurant along U.S. Highway 218 North in 1961, opportunity knocked and the Harrisons answered and bought the restaurant in 1962.

For one fast-paced decade, the couple owned a little "gold mine," fueled in part by their own truck driving connections. Both husband and wife drove 18-wheelers after coming out of retirement in 1973.

For 16 years, they shared the wheel driving the big rigs everywhere until they were forced to retire and catch up on their offspring: Steve, now owner of The Studio, and Gary, a Mower County Sheriff’s Department jailer and grandchildren.

What is a veteran?

Veterans are everywhere. They march in parades, hold flag raisings and attend to military rites all the year long.

They hang out at their favorite clubrooms, try to inspire patriotism and reward community and scholastic efforts.

What is a veteran, indeed?

Perhaps, listening to one veteran’s story helps to understand other veterans.

Harrison entered the military service for two reasons: patriotism and to support his mother and siblings.

"I didn’t learn any kind of skill. I was a machine-gunner and there wasn’t any demand for that when I got out of the Corps," he said.

When he was still in the Marine Corps and disabled, he and other wounded veterans were put on display at the first meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco, Calif.

When he was recovering from his wounds at the Great Lakes hospital, each weekend a Chicago hotel – he can’t remember the name – would take two veterans and put them up in suites and "treat them royally."

But, there were no reporters or photographers when he went to a Veteran’s Administration hospital for bypass surgery, an operation to repair an aorta in his leg, carotid artery surgery, to have both hips replaced and more.

"I’ve had so many operations through the years that I have lost track of just how many there were," he said.

Today, he and his wife, Ethel, live comfortably in a condominium at The Oaks. He is a volunteer driver for the Heartland Express public transit service.

This weekend brought back many memories to Harrison. The U.S. Marine Corps was created on Nov. 10, 1775, to fight in the Revolutionary War.

And, there is the observance of Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, another occasion for reflection.

A cousin wants to write a family biography of Harrison’s life to preserve for the veteran’s four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and others to recall.

Now 74-years-old and like other World War II veterans, Harrison is, literally, a dying breed.

"I saw both flags go up on Mount Suribachi," he said reaching back 55 years. "There were five Marines and a soldier in the pictures. I remember in the second one they used a larger American flag."

Perhaps, the most appropriate answer to that timeless question, "What is a veteran?" is this: an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary moments in time.

Richard "Dick" Harrison is such a man. Patriotism and the need to support his mother and family propelled him to become a footnote to World War II history.

Like his comrades, he carries scars, both inside and out.

"Why did you join the Marines and go to war?" his wife Ethel repeated the question. "You did it because you had to and because you wanted to support your family. That’s why you’re a veteran."

"I guess that about sums it up," replied the veteran.


There are 4,407 veterans living in Mower County today.

There are 1,087 peacetime veterans residing here.

Of the war-time veterans, the numbers show: 1,270 from World War II; 780 from the Korean Conflict; 1,050 Vietnam Era; and 220 veterans of the Persian Gulf War.

To the best of available record-keeping, there are no World War I veterans still living in Mower County.

Wayne Madson, a career U.S. Air Force veteran, who retired and served as a Mower County Jailer, is the Mower County Veterans Service Officer.

"With the attention veterans’ issues have been receiving from Congress, I think Washington is paying more attention to veterans today," Madson said.

Madson pointed to the growth in community-based out-patient veterans clinics in Minnesota as one example of how government recognizes the demands of veterans must be met.

In addition to veterans hospitals at St. Cloud and Minneapolis, the clinics are offering health care to more veterans closer to their homes.

In addition, the state now provides extended benefits for veterans needing eyeglasses.

"I think, both from the United States government and individual states, it’s getting better and better for our veterans all the time," Madson said.