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Wilkes County Veterans History Project: Ben Harrison

Ben Harrison's Photos

Ben and company recreate the famous Civil War photo

Ben is sitting in the chair in the center. This reminds Ben's family of the Matthew Brady photo of the meeting of President Lincoln and General Grant.

Company Clerk Ben

Photo from maneuvers in Tullahoma, Tennessee in 1941

Wilkes County Soldiers at Fort Jackson

This photo was taken at Fort Jackson, SC, in 1941. On the back of the photo, Ben wrote "All above were from the North Wilkesboro National Guard Company A 105th Engineers (Combat) inducted into Federal Service 9/16/1940."

Here's his description of the six soldiers from Wilkes:

  • John Craven (with ax)
  • Clyde Warren (standing w/cig)
  • Oliver Gant (left w/cap)
  • Oliver Anderson (center no shirt)
  • Ben Harrison (right w/tattoo)

Troop Ship

Ben wrote on the back: "Think I'll go abroad."

An Axis Pill Box

Ben was outside a pill box on the coast of Sicily near Palmero.

Outside of Walter Reed Hospital

Ben recorded these names on the back, all of them most likely amputees:

  • McHugh
  • Bogdon
  • Dimaggio
  • Mayerson
  • Brittani
  • Harrison

Ben with a uniform worn by Iris

Iris Hamby Harrison's U.S. Navy WAVES uniform was donated to the Museum of Ashe County History. This photo was taken on January 5, 2012 with husband and WWII Veteran Ben Harrison standing proudly beside it.

Ben Harrison artifacts

News of Ben's injuries makes it back home

(actually it was his right foot and lower leg)

Just one of many letters Ben wrote to Iris

He reminds her that he's "scratched up." His sense of humor rarely failed him, in any circumstances.

Ben Harrison military artifact

Ben Harrison's Story

Benjamin Alexander Harrison was born January 13, 1921 and died July 19, 2017.  He was the son of William Gordon Harrison and Rose Ann Goodman Harrison of Lansing, NC, and formerly of Wilkes County.

Iris Hamby Harrison, Ben's wife, was also a veteran in WWII. Her story is included in this archive.

The following article was written by Ben and published in the Ashe County Heritage Book published in 1994.

Iris Hamby Harrison, Spec (Q), 2nd CL. U.S. Navy WWII

Benjamin A. Harrison, Sgt U.S. Army WWII

Iris Hamby Harrison and Ben Harrison served in the U.S. armed services during WWII. She, a native of Forsyth County and schooled in Wilkes County, in the Navy WAVES, and he s resident of Lansing, Ashe County, in the U.S. Army Engineers. Iris volunteered May 26, 1943 and received her preliminary training at Hunter College in New York, was qualified as a communication specialist and was stationed in Washington, D.C. until honorably discharged September 12, 1945. Her duties were very hush-hush and Iris was tight lipped about any details regarding her work.

Iris was a member of Jefferson United Methodist Church, Lansing American Legion Post 275, the Ladies Auxiliaries of Disabled American Veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars. She died May 29, 1993 and was buried at Ashelawn Cemetery with full military honors.

Ben was inducted into Federal Service September 16, 1940 with Company “A” 105th Engineers (Combat), North Wilkesboro National Guard, he was Company Clerk at the time. Ben took part in the North African invasion in November 1942 as sergeant in Company “D,” 175th Engineers, attached to the 3rd Division. He spent 26 months overseas building temporary bridges, repairing roads, detecting and de-activating mines and booby traps, sleeping in holes and on the ground. During this tenure his outfit was attached to British 8th Army Royal Engineers in Tunisia, U.S. 1st Division in Sicily, Free French Forces near Siena, Italy, and Brazilian Expeditionary Forces in the North Apennines. He received the European-African-Middle Eastern Medal with Four Bronze campaign stars, the American Defense Medal, and the Purple Heart for wounds incurred in the North Apennines area January 5, 1945, which resulted in the loss of his right leg below the knee. Ben was returned to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he renewed his friendship with Iris. They were married June 9, 1945, purchased land, and built their home in East Jefferson.

Source: Official records and personal knowledge

  • Ben Harrison

Ben’s Stories

March 23, 1988

            When we went overseas on the USS Montecello in early November 1942, the ship had been a luxury liner and taken from the Italians and made over into a troop transport. For a latrine they had a galvanized trough about thirty or so feet long, with boards 3 inches wide, bolted across it at intervals conducive to sitting on them for obvious purposes. A fast stream or water ran into one end of the trough and out the other into a large pipe. A very efficient arrangement. Usually in the mornings after breakfast this facility was filled to capacity with sitters…  The think I’m leading up to is that one busy morning, someone at the upper end crumpled a couple sheets of newspaper and lit it with a lighter and dropped it in the rushing water.  Funniest damn thing I ever saw was the fellas coming up off that latrine about the time the flaming paper reached their seat.  — Ben

I was wounded in North Apennine Mountains of Italy 1/5/45, was hauled in back of truck to 16th evacuation hospital. There I was cleaned up and my mangled foot was amputated. The I was on a hospital ship to a general hospital in Naples. There the traction cast was taken off and I was able to use crutches. Then I was put on a four engine hospital plane (against my strong objection – I wanted to go to states on a ship) to be returned to the states by way of Casablanca, and the Azores. About 40 hours later I was in a hospital in Presque Isle, Maine. (I drank seven half pints of sweet milk at one sitting. I was starved for milk. I was the first milk I had seen for the 26 months I had been overseas.)

            We stayed in Maine for several days while the powers decided which hospital to send us to that was nearest our home. I went to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. We were flown from Maine to Washington, and by ambulance to hospital. I was put in ward 34 with about 30 other amputees. I had been there about 10 minutes when a guy rolled up to my bed in a wheelchair. He had a blanket over his lap. He asked my what outfit I was in and how bad I was wounded. I told him I had lost my foot. He took his blanket off, both legs were off above his knees. He said, “Hell, you ain’t wounded, you just powder burnt.”

November 28, 1989

            There was a soldier in my outfit during WWII whose name was Calabreese. I’ve forgotten his first name, his home was somewhere in northeastern U.S.; Mass., Conn, or maybe New Jersey. He was a devout Christian, went to mass every chance, did not drink nor smoke. Just a real nice man. He was short, olive skinned, and average build. I became acquainted with him a little better than usual because I was disposed to smoking, drinking, and carousing. At the time in the war the Italians had surrendered, and the Germans were hauling ass up the Italian boot, and we were enjoying a fairly quiet period. The Army were issuing us cigarettes, 3 bottles of beer, some candy bars and Coca-Colas about every 2 or 3 weeks. Three beers didn’t do much good to those of us that partook, so we had to find somebody that didn’t drink to swap cakes and candy for their beer. That’s where Calabreese and I found our common ground. He traded his beer for my cakes and candy.

            Calabreese was killed on the beach near via Reggio, Italy taking out land mines. I’ve thought about him often over the years and wondered, why him?

November 29, 1989

            While I’m on the subject of brief acquaintances in the Army I’ll mention Raymond Waite. He was a regular type guy, very likable. Our outfit was among the first American troopes into Rome. It was declared an “open city” and both sides agreed not to fight in town lest they tear up some of the historical treasures, etc. So we rode thru town, and past the colosseum to a hill next to Tiber River, and were advised that the Germans were in headlong retreat and that we would be in that spot for a few days to regroup. Our platoon officer asked if anybody wanted to go back to town, not many did, but me and Waite had remembered all those pretty girls trying to climb on trucks with us, throwing flowers, etc. So we got a handwritten pass from the Lt. and took off for town. We lasted about 2 hrs, had a good time, and were walking up a street when here came and 10 soldiers with their guns pointed at us and told us to stick up our hands. They took us to a wire stockade and locked us up for the night. It seems that the Germans that didn’t get out of town fast enough had took to wearing American uniforms and doing a little sniping. The next AM an MP Colonel told us that he was sorry but that it was for our own good. He was probably right. Raymond was killed a short time later while building a bridge across a canal near Pisa.

April 1, 1993

            I was in North Wilkesboro, Co. A. 105th Engineers (Combat) of N.C. National Guard and was inducted into federal service 9/16/40. On Sept. 12th we moved into 6 man tents at the fairgrounds. After we had gotten organized by discharging those that wanted out and recruiting people to get the Co. up to strength (110 enlisted men) we moved to Fort Jackson, S.C. and lived in tents till spring of 1942. Then Co. A 105 Engrs. Became Co. B 175 Eng. and we moved to Myrtle Beach area and lived in tents till about late August. We moved to Ft. Moultrie on Sullivans Island and lived in barracks and squad huts for a month or so. Then moved to Camp Picket, Va., back in tents again till late October. (26 men went AWOL while we were at Picket. Never did get all of them back. It was a rough go.)

            Then to Camp Kilmer, N.J., stayed in barracks a couple of weeks, shipped out, landed in Casablanca, N. Africa (Nov ’42). Pup tents, holes, or just on the ground from then on except for maybe 6 weeks in a couple of hospitals. Back to states for Feb 5th 1945, Walter Reed Hosp. in D.C. till discharged Aug. 1945.

            Of four years eleven months I spent in the Army I figure I had slept in tents or outdoors at least four full years — and people wonder why I am not eager to go camping!!

An Old Man’s Ramblings

December 28, 1998

            In North Africa circa 1943, all of us were infested with lice, crabs, filth, etc. A couple of times we were treated to a delousing treatment. These treatments consisted of a couple of long tents with a shower between them — You entered the first tent about twenty or so men at a time, removed all your clothes, tied your shoes to a little canvas bag that held your dogtags, watch, knife, wallet and anything else that you wanted to take with you when you left. Then stark naked you waded thru a ankle deep flat pan that contained something that was supposed to treat trench foot and other foot problems common to filth and neglect. Then you entered the shower that smelled awful. There you soaped up with some evil smelling soap. Then rinsed off in a clear water shower. From there after toweling, you entered the second tent where you were given a complete change of clothes, underwear and all, freshly laundered, and your ditty bag and shoes which had been put thru a process to kill nits and pests. When you got dressed and came out it was a blissful feeling. This feeling lasted about 24 hours and you were back where you started from — lousy and crabby.

            At Kairovan we were issued a little tin can of DDT. This thankfully was the end of crabs and lice. (Nobody told us at time of issue that DDT would cause us to lay thin shelled eggs.)

February 1, 1999

            Another old friend, Clyde Beshears of Wilkes County, died a couple of months ago. He worked for Noah Harris at Noah’s Store in Cricket (1938-39). Pumped gas, delivered groceries, etc. and drove a school bus to Millers Creek School.  Clyde was a couple of years older than me. The neighborhood fellows, me included, loafed at the store, drank Nehis, ate moon pies, cheese & crackers, sardines, etc.

Clyde served in an armored outfit during the war. After the African campaign was over his outfit and mine were near Biscarte preparing for the Sicily invasion. I don’t recall how I found out that he was nearby, but anyhow I and one of my buddies went over and looked him up. Of course we had a few slugs of red wine. Clyde wanted us to see the inside of his tank. It was immaculate, white porcelain also very hot. All of a sudden my wine came up and spattered on his clean floor. Of course I was sorry and helped clean up.

Clyde made it thru Sicily and wound up in France where his tank was hit by enemy shell, killing all his crew except him. He told me that he regained consciousness the fuel was on fire, and when he stood up and grabbed the hatch to pull himself out the metal was so hot that his fingers were burned off and the last thing he remembered was falling back into the tank. His next memory was being on a litter being carried by our medics. The medics told him later that the Germans found him near the tank and took him to their aid station. But he was so badly burned, minus a leg and his fingers that they carried him at night back to where the Americans could find him. He had extensive internal injuries also.

Clyde told me that he was convinced that God had lifted him out of that burning tank. Of course I agreed with him. However, war being as it is, it was probably exploding ammo in the tank that threw him out.

After the war, he and I were given a new car by the government for loss of a leg. We pitched a drunk together in my car. He got sick and puked on the passenger side door. It went down in the door around the glass and stunk for a couple of months. So he got even with me for messing up his tank. The whole thing made Iris mad as a wet hen — but we survived!!

I saw Clyde’s picture in Wilkes paper a month or so before he died. He was in Britthaven Nursing Home. I went to visit and we hashed over old times. He was very alert and his death a few months later was a surprise.

February 5, 2000

            Another thing I recall from my WWII days…  A month or so after we landed at Casablanca in November ’42, several of us were sent to “mine school” to learn the ins and outs of land mine detection and disarming them. I figured I was in trouble from the start. We were taught how to operate detectors and told not to be nosy and not to be picking up things. The enemy had phony fountain pens that would explode when the top was removed, and that they plant two mines one on top of the other so when you lifted the top one a trip wire would set off the other. And other good advice…

            In Tunisia my outfit was attached to the Royal Engineers of the British 8th Army for duty and rations. One day I was with a detail helping the limeys get equipment over a bad stretch of road. There were two small Italian tanks abandoned beside the road. Each of these tanks had a pretty little periscope in it so the driver could see out without sticking his head up. I wanted one of those scopes real bad, but my “mine school” training told me that the tanks were probably “booby trapped,” so we laid off…  The along came a couple of limeys, stopped their lorry, jumped out an onto the tanks and with a wrench they had those scopes off and gone in about 10 minutes. I don’t think I would have cried much if there had been a “booby trap!!”

February 26, 2002

            In summer of 1939 the National Guard Company of North Wilkesboro was going to Camp Clifford R. Foster for annual camp. Of course we traveled by train. Camp Foster was near Jacksonville and the St. Johns River and was a long trip for us country boys. I decided to take a couple of pints of good ole Wilkes sugarhead whiskey to break the monotony of the trip. I rolled the booze in my pack and was sure I had it made, ’til Captain Edmund P. Robinson decided he would hold a shakedown inspection in the armory hall just before we boarded the train. We lined up, unrolled our packs and he confiscated my licker. So it was boiled eggs, cheese sandwiches and lemonade from then on.

            We had a very successful encampment. Anyhoo, when we were ready to come home, I went to Jacksonville and bought twelve or fourteen 2 oz. bottles of booze at a liquor store, took a strong cord, and tied the bottles onto the string far enough apart so they wouldn’t clank when I walked, and hung them down inside each pants leg in anticipation of another shakedown of our packs. Wasted time, because Cappo didn’t hold an inspection. The thread had scared the others so they didn’t have any booze. So when we boarded the train old Ben was the only one with a little libation. This put me in a pretty good spot. I had paid 20¢ per bottle and sold all but one to the fellows for 50¢ per. Not a bad day’s work for the times.

The worst thing about the whole thing was, when we got back to the armory, Capt. Robinson called me into the latrine and made me watch him pour out my two pints that he had taken.

One of the guys Herman (Cat) Sprinkle was there begging the captain to pour some on his hands to stop his chigger bites from itching. Captain wouldn’t even do that. I never wanted to choke an officer so bad.

Another thing I remember from pre-WWII — We, the 105th Engineers, were sent to Fort Jackson for training. In January 1940 Company “A,” which included me, were scheduled for the rifle range. As luck would have it the coldest, windiest weather anyone could remember was our day on the range. I was a corporal and the company clerk and was supposed to be armed with a .45 caliber automatic pistol, but instead I was handed a Model 1905 bold action Springfield rifle, which was fine with me. Anyway we had several fellows that were crack shots, had been to Camp Perry [OH] for national shoots and were experts. I, on the other hand, had never fired a high powered rifle.

Our Company Commander Capt. Edmund P. Robinson offered $10.00 for best rifle score and $5.00 for best pistol score. Our two days were windy and cold. Old Ben shot the best rifle score and won the ten bucks, which he lost the next weekend in a card game. (I would give a hundred bucks for that canceled check.)

When the new Garands came out, each company got twelve to be issued to best shooters. Of course, I got one. The old Springfield rifles used a 5-cartridge clip which was thrown away after loading the rifle. The M1s used an eight round clip which was a loaded clip and all in the rifle. When the last round was fired the empty clip came out…  Scared me the first time I fired!

On Tobacco

March 15, 2004

            They were talking on TV news that our troops fighting in Iraq were complaining about not being able to get cigarettes from U.S.A. and were using Arab cigs.  — Damn shame!! Arab smokes taste awful.

            Here’s my story on smoking:  It started when I was 17 years old. (Yes, I lied abut my age to get in National Guard, 105th Engineers.) On Army maneuvers in Desoto National Forest in Mississippi in 1938, the gnats were so thick they would almost cover the food in our mess kits. I noticed that the guys that smoked would light up and blow smoke over their food, and were not eating as many gnats as I was.

            So I went to the PX and bought a pack. Sure enough my gnat problem was greatly reduced. I graduated to a full-time smoker, cigarettes, cigars, ropes. I smoked for 22 years and enjoyed every minute of it.

            After the war, I would wake up at night and sit on the edge of the bed and have a smoke. I worked as a bookkeeper for Colvard Frame in East Jefferson. The office was a 14’ x 14’ room in the packing house. Most of us smoked or chewed tobacco. Usually on cold mornings smoke would be so thick, one could hardly see where the windows were. I started working there in May 1949, stayed 36 years. I quit when Fred Colvard died in 1984. Over the years we worked hundreds of men and women. I have never heard of a single one that had lung cancer. Some of us are still alive in our eighties. Our time keeper died recently at 91 (no cancer!).

I spent 4 years and 11 months in the Army – 26 months overseas (Africa, Sicily, Italy). Without smokes. I don’t think I would have made it. So I recommend that we furnish our service people all the tobacco products they want.

My reason for quitting smoking was that my children saved their money and bought a shirt for me as a Fathers Day present. One day we were going to Wilkes. I was driving and suddenly smelled cloth burning. I looked down and a circle of fire about the size of a quarter was burning my new shirt. It had started from a spark from my pipe. I was so ashamed and disgusted that I quit smoking. I quit cold turkey. The only “quitting aids” was chewing gum and hard candy for about two weeks. Never smoked again, and at 84, others smoking doesn’t bother me in the least.

Also the fact that “Lucky Strikes” cigarettes went from 15 cents per pack to 25 cents helped me quit!

April 19, 2004

            Another war tale that I don’t think I have written about:  We were attached to the “Free French” in North Italy, also the 51st or 52nd signal outfit were with the French. Several of the signal fellows were killed by German land mines so the powers that be decided that a few engineers would solve the problem… They did!! I was one of the three main crews sent to do the job. Cpl. Maurice Younger from East Auroria, New York, was in charge. We cleaned out the mines.

            My story is about my crew made up of me, Henry (Arizona) Valdez and Private (Texas) Muesche were dropped off where a line of utility poles started. Valdez was carrying the detector. I followed with a drift pin to dig out the mines. Private carried a roll of tracing tape to mark off the clear area. We always took turn about doing the sweep. The first thing we saw was a small sign with “Minen” written on it. No problem. We had seen lots of these signs. However Hank hadn’t moved 5 feet when the detector gave off “here’s one” signal. My turn to dig it out. I absolutely froze. I couldn’t do it. I just stood there looking stupid. Hank handed me the detector, took the drift pin, dug out the “mine,” it was a stove lid!!

I was always leery when involved in this work, but that was the only time I froze. Later Cpl. Youngers got a citation from Corp for our work and this detail. I don’t think he had ever dug out a mine.

The Germans had evidently buried the lid and put up the sign to send us down – we found no mines this day.

July 12, 2004

            Just thinking of another episode form my Army days. We were on a narrow gauge train going from Casablanca to or through Algeria. The train was made up of boxcars that had 40 Hommes or 8 Chavaux written on the sides. Instead of 40 men our car had 62 of us with full packs and weapons. The floor was covered with straw. It was very crowded. It took us 7 days to make the trip. Lots of unexplained stops. The last car was occupied by 12 Polish soldiers at one time I knew why they were there, but have forgotten. (Something to do with the Russian army.) Anyway my platoon had two Poles, Czblak and Konsiroski “Kows” was born in Poland and came to the states at age of 16. He and Czblak spoke fluent Polish. Kows and I were involved in a sticky situation in or near Casablanca. (We were on guard together. He shot and killed an Arab.) He and Czblak found out about the Polish boys, and invited me to go back to their car with them. I was glad to go, especially since we found that they were armed with some kind of white or clean whiskey, and had a concertina to play. (I guess the whiskey was vodka, but I’m not sure.) Of course we all got drunk, and I was singing just as loud as they were, and I didn’t even know how good I could sing in Polish!!

July 17, 2004

            Another war story: Sometime in 1944 were repairing a bridge in Italy. There was to be an election in the U.S. We were sent absentee ballots and I had mine in my shirt pocket. The weather was cool and raining, and I had dug my hole in a patch of small trees, and tied my shelter half to the trees so as to keep the rain out. I had piled the dirt in a sorta ridge to keep water from running into the hole. I was fairly cozy under the circumstances until I woke up a little later and saw that rain had gathered on my shelter half. (Guess I didn’t slope it enough.) It was sagging down quite a bit, so I very gently began pushing up to let the water run to outside of my little dykes. Suddenly one of my tie off cords broke or came loose, and all of the water came into the hold and into me. I was soaked with muddy water. My ballot was wet and muddy. My reaction was to say to hell with the election and Roosevelt. I crawled over to one of my buddies and spent the rest of the night under his shelter. Took me several days to dry out.

Ben’s stories were contributed by his daughter, Barbara Harrison Pendry. They were in his own handwriting and dated.  He took many, many photos of his friends and locations. He and his wife Iris preserved their military service in a wonderful way.  Mara Lynn Tugman had the pleasure of transcribing the stories and also scanning photos, articles, and artifacts.