HILLSBOROUGH: Local World War II veteran visits D.C. war memorials, remembers past


John Harrison

By Andrew Martins, Managing Editor
John Harrison, a 90-year-old Army veteran and Hillsborough resident who trained with the 46th Rainbow Division and fought in World War II, has not forgotten what it was like to go to war.
He remembers the men with whom he served. He remembers the battles in which he fought. He remembers the importance of stopping Adolf Hitler and the Nazis’ push for domination.
More than 70 years after he was drafted into service as a 17-year-old from New York, Mr. Harrison not only revisited those memories, but also shared the experience with his wife of 63 years, Gloria, on a recent trip to Washington, D.C.
“The first thing you see is light and then, as you get closer, you hear the ’lightning.’ Once you get past that, you smell the gunfire and then you see the casualties,” he said. “The approach to war for a soldier is that you go through the different senses that you have until you end up being a part of it.”
From Oct. 10 through 13, Mr. Harrison was one of seven veterans to travel to Washington to visit the various war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery as part of an effort by the Wish of a Lifetime organization.
Though he’d been to the nation’s capital in the past, Mr. Harrison said this was the first time he’d been able to take in the sights and visit some of the nation’s most revered locations.
“I was anxious to see the memorials, because I thought by seeing them all, we would get to see all the different approaches to remembering the past,” he said. “You live the past once, then you live it in memories, but you don’t live it forever.”
Of particular importance to Mr. Harrison during the trip was getting to see the World War II memorial, which features remembrances for all 50 states that contributed to the war effort, the sheer number of lives lost and the battles that American soldiers waged.
“They had the battles that we were involved in, but then I came upon (the French town of) Alsace, which gave me some wet eyes when I saw that name and remembered what happened there so long ago,” he said.
For Mr. Harrison, who now lives with his wife at the Brookdale Hillsborough Assisted Living Center, that name has special significance. He was there when the Germans made their final offensive push, known as Operation Nordwind.
At that time, Germany was looking to take the French town of Strasbourg back after it had been reclaimed by Allied forces.
“We had not enough guys to hold the Germans back and we lost a lot of guys and we retreated,” Mr. Harrison said. “When the rest of the guys joined us, we lived in the woods in foxholes.”
It was at that time that Mr. Harrison was called back to headquarters to do administrative work because of the typing skills that he learned prior to the war.
Soon after, German forces wiped out the rest of the men that he trained and fought with.
“I only saw one of those guys after the war,” Mr. Harrison said. “I was lucky that I knew how to type. Typing saved my life.”
He went on to fight in France, Germany and Austria for two and a half years, ultimately earning the rank of regimental sergeant major and earning a number of medals, including the Combat Infantry Badge and Bronze Star.
After the war, Mr. Harrison met Gloria in 1948 while they were both studying at Wagner College on Staten Island. They would end up marrying and having a large family of seven children, 20 grand children and 10 great-grandchildren — with two more on the way.
Mr. Harrison said it was absolutely important to him that Gloria join him for the trip when arrangements were made by Wish of a Lifetime.
“(Gloria) had been part of the war generation and we do most things together, so I wanted to do that together, too,” he said. “There’s limited opportunity to live life over again, but this was an opportunity that Wish of a Lifetime made possible.”
For Mrs. Harrison, the trip was particularly illuminating as someone who did not have a personal connection to World War II.
“The trip down there was very emotional for me. I was not expecting that,” she said. “I was young enough to not be involved in the war itself, I was still in school, and I had nobody in my family who fought in the war.”
Over the years, Mrs. Harrison said she has been able to learn about her husband’s time at war after years of silence on his part.
“When I first married him, I’d ask him about the war but he wouldn’t say anything. Even the kids would ask him, but he would turn us off,” she said. “Then, on an anniversary of D-Day, he went on the computer and connected with other members of the Rainbow Division.”
Since then, Mrs. Harrison said seeing her husband interact with other members of Rainbow Division, as well as other combat veterans, showed her the type of connection that can only come from experience in war.
“There’s something about war that makes you closer than family to the people you fought with,” she said. “They experienced it together.”
Over the years, New Jersey members of the 46th Rainbow Division would meet in Atlantic City, but Mr. Harrison said the frequency of those meetings has dwindled as its members pass away.
“It’s down to the few now,” he said. “It was nice to see them again, but they’re all dropping off. The past moves on when people die.”
Though getting to see the capital’s war memorials and receiving thanks for his service was a major part of the trip for Mr. Harrision, there were some instances that gave him hope for the future while remembering the past.
“One of the things we did on this tour was to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and there must have been four or five hundred kids there on a trip,” Mr. Harrison said. “At one point, there was a request for silence and they got it.”
Mr. Harrison said that show of respect made him realize that the country’s future generations will be alright.
“Don’t worry about the generation to come,” he said. “Because if you remember the past, you’re ready for the future.” 