Lt. Cecil E. Harris
Awarded Navy Cross, 24 kill ace of USS Intrepid VF-18
By Stephen Sherman, June, 1999. Updated July 2, 2011.
Like Joe Foss, here was another Pacific ace from the inland state of South Dakota. Born in 1916, he was attending Northern State Teachers' College when WWII started. He joined the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor, and was appointed an aviation cadet.
He trained at Minneapolis and Corpus Christi, and in April 1942 became part of VGF-27, followed by more training. VGF-27, on board the escort carrier Suwanee CVE-27, took part in the Operation Torch landings in North Africa. In early 1943, Suwanee sailed to the southwest Pacific to support operations in the Solomons. Because the escort carrier was so small, her Wildcat-equipped fighter squadron was detached to operate from land, and was re-designated VF-27. Harris served here, shooting down two Japanese planes.
Later, he flew F6F Hellcats for VF-18, based on the carrier USS Intrepid, CV-11. He downed 3 Hamps and a Zero on Sept. 13, 1944.
Mission of October 12, 1944
On October 12, 1944, he embarked on a memorable mission, the war's first air strike at Jap airfields on Formosa, in preparation for the liberation of the Philippines. Following the invasion of the Marianas in June-August, under Admiral Nimitz, and General MacArthur's drive from New Guinea to the south, the Americans were ready to make good on the General's famous pledge "I shall return."
On the 12th, the Fast Carrier Task Force began three days of strikes against the large Japanese air forces on Formosa. VF-18 flew cover for the torpedo squadron, VT-18, and the dive-bombing squadron, VB-18. Harris was one of 16 pilots from VF-18 participating in the day's fighter sweep, launched before dawn in order to catch the enemy aircraft on the ground at first light.
VF-18 flew northwest from the Intrepid, to hit an airfield on the northeastern corner of Formosa, as squadron CO Lt. Cdr. Ed Murphy had briefed them the previous night. On schedule, all the Hellcats catapulted off the carrier, and began the slow climb to altitude. Murphy's own division of four planes was in the lead, the second division behind and to his right. Behind the second division, and well to the left was Harris' third division. The fourth division flew behind and to the left of Harris; all climbing at 150 knots. Many other planes from Task Force 38 carriers accompanied VF-18. All maintained radio silence, as they leveled off at 15,000 feet.
As they approached Formosa, they pointed their noses downward and began to gain speed. When Harris, his wingman Burley, and Lt. Bill Zeimer's section approached the field, five enemy bombers had just taken off from the field. In a few seconds Zeimer's gunfire tore into and exploded the first bomber. Harris soon added one of his own. They turned and both quickly splashed another bomber each. Easy so far, but Zeroes appeared up above, dove down and shot up Zeimer's plane. His chute opened and Zeimer floated down. His wingman, DiBatista, locked onto the Zero and avenged Zeimer's loss. Another Zero dived onto DiBatista, and hit him with 20mm cannon fire. But in the deadly round-robin of aerial combat, Harris got behind this Zero and his concentrated 50 caliber fire took a heavy toll. The Zero crashed into the trees and blew up, for Harris' third victory of the day.
While escorting the DiBatista's damaged plane back to Intrepid, he downed another Zero, his fourth of the day.
He followed this up by shooting down three Judys on the 14th. His mission on the 29th earned him a Navy Cross. Over Luzon, he intercepted two flights of Japanese fighters that were preparing to hit American bombers and torpedo planes. He led his division to the attack, downing four and disrupting the remainder. Harris accumulated a total of 24 victories against the Japanese (the second highest scoring US Navy ace). He was out of action from November, 1944, when the Intrepid was badly damaged in a kamikaze attack. He earned the Navy Cross, the DFC, a Silver Star, and two Gold Stars.
After the war, he resumed his teaching career in South Dakota.
In 2005, I received the following email from G. L., a postwar shipmate of Harris.
I assume Lt. Cdr. Harris was recalled to active duty during the Korean war as I served under him at NAS Minneapolis from July 1955 through July 1959. He was assigned to the aircraft maintenance division as assistant aircraft maintenance officer under CDR. A.M., USN, aircraft maintenance officer. I was an enlisted man assigned to the aircraft maintenance office for about two and a half years. During this time I observed that CDR. M. often derided his junior officers - especially if they were not regular navy. Two of three junior officers assigned to the division were reserve. It was my impression that CDR M., as a regular Navy officer, did not regard "Cece" Harris, as a reserve officer, or any other reserve officer, with much esteem. CDR. M. was a pompous, gruff, officer, full of himself, who was very difficult to please. CDR. M. was the first line "performance rater" for "Cece" Harris.
During the period 1955-1960 the Navy and Reserve was going through a period of austerity resulting in curtailed flight time and several personnel cutbacks of officers.
I recall several officers receiving release "at the convenience of the government" as they were nearing retirement. This was devastating to many fine reserve officers. In addition there were very few promotions. It was always a mystery to me why an officer such as "Cece", who had served his country with such distinction during WW2, and who was doing a good job currently, was not promoted at least to full commander (05) rank by 1959. But alas, promotions did not come automatically based on time in service and past distinguished achievements.
I'm not sure if Lt. Cdr. Harris was passed over for promotion and thereby released from the Navy as I left the service in July 1959-- but I suspect that is what happened. It would be devastating to a man to have served his country so well in wartime, to be treated so unfairly as he was recalled to active duty and later assigned to the place he started his flying career, only to be passed over for promotion as he neared retirement.
I remember Cecil Harris as a leader who was a kind, personable, caring officer, that treated everyone with respect and who had served his country with much distinction. I was saddened to learn the details of his passing, but I'm not surprised knowing how his country and the Navy treated him.
(Mr. L. was kind enough to supply me with the photo used on this page.)
Harris died while in police custody on his birthday in Washington, DC; depression and alcohol having played their parts in his postwar decline. While officially ruled a suicide, Harris's family and friends were never satisfied with that conclusion. In any case, it's far more important to remember what he did for his country rather that how he died.
- Edward Sims, Greatest Fighter Missions, Harper and Brothers, 1962
- Barrett Tillman, Hellcat Aces of World War 2, Osprey Publishing, 1996
- HELLCAT: The F6F in World War Two, by Barrett Tillman, Naval Inst. Press, 1979
HELLCAT: The F6F in World War Two is a detailed operational history of the Hellcat, from its development, early missions in 1943 with the first Essex-class carriers. Tillman surveys every major carrier of the Pacific, and describes the actions of the individual Fighting Squadrons and pilots. Frequent mentions of Fred Bardshar, William Dean, Pat Fleming, Herb Houck, David McCampbell, Ed O'Hare, and Alex Vraciu.
To get more than Tillman offers in this book, one would have to go to the particular after-action reports. It is indispensable.(Note: This book is NOT the similar, but less detailed, Osprey publication, also by Mr. Tillman.)