published Friday, August 29th, 2014

'I once was lost': WWII vet missing in action for 68 years comes home to the son and wife he left behind

Helen Harris Cooke and her son, William Edwin Harris,  place their hands on the casket of Pfc. Cecil Harris on Friday during a funeral service at Red Bank Baptist Church.
Helen Harris Cooke and her son, William Edwin Harris, place their hands on the casket of Pfc. Cecil Harris on Friday during a funeral service at Red Bank Baptist Church.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

Pfc Cecil E. Harris' remains will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22 at 1 p.m. Attendees take Interstate 75 North to Interstate 40 East, then Interstate 81 North to Interstate 66 East to exit 72 onto U.S. Highway 29 North and turn left onto Spout Run Parkway. Take the ramp onto George Washington Memorial Parkway and then take the exit toward Arlington Cemetery.

From a leaf-strewn grave on a French hillside to a flag-draped casket in a Tennessee church, U.S. Army Pfc. Cecil E. Harris' seven-decade journey made one final stop in Chattanooga on Friday en route to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.

Harris gave his life for his country on Jan. 2, 1945, near Dambach, France, at the age of 19.

Among those in attendance for a service Friday inside Red Bank Baptist Church were his former wife, Helen Harris Cooke, of Chattanooga; son, William Edwin Harris, of Mountain City; and sister, Janice Carlton, of Shelbyville.

The son and widow whose relationship fell apart after the soldier's sudden death were momentarily reunited in his return to Tennessee. They stood together to mourn the loss of the young husband and father, each slowly reaching out to lay a hand on the casket.

Family members said they were impressed with the reception when Cecil Harris' remains arrived in Knoxville on Wednesday, and called the services Friday in Chattanooga "moving."

"'I once was lost but now I'm found,'" Chaplain Reggie Asplund quoted from "Amazing Grace," the song that ushered the soldier from the church Friday.

And lost he was. Harris was listed as missing in action for more than 68 years before a chance visit from a hiker led to his discovery.

•••

Until September 2013, the family knew only that Harris was reported missing in action in France, and later declared dead.

A year ago, French hiker Vito DeLuca was taking a break at the foot of some towering rock formations on a ridge in eastern France when he spotted something white in the sandy earth at his feet.

DeLuca uncovered what appeared to be human bones. He summoned a friend, Eric Schell, a World War II history buff, and two other outdoorsy types to return for a better look. They notified local military authorities, whose investigation culminated in the identification of the remains as Harris'.

Harris had been overseas with the "Thunderbirds" 45th Infantry Division since summer of 1944. With the end of the year, American forces pushed into a small valley near the French town of Dambach near the German border.

The Germans had been forced out of France and were mounting a counterattack later called "The Battle of the Bulge."

Harris' Company D was dug into hills in Dambach when the counterattack came and he succumbed to enemy fire. The American forces were driven from the hills, leaving behind the country boy who longed for his home, son and family in Tennessee.

The son Cecil Harris got to hold only once as an infant, Edwin Harris, said this week that his father's return and services provided some closure for the family.

"It was just a joy when that plane touched down and they brought his body off," he said.

157th Infantry Record
157th Infantry Record

"I wish we could have grown up together and done the stuff we like to do," Edwin Harris said of his father. The younger Harris is himself a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.

This week's services "mean he's getting the recognition he deserves and all my friends will be there to honor him with us," he said. "The last step now will be Arlington."

•••

For Helen Harris Cooke, the service closed a painful chapter in her life and solved a mystery that had haunted her most of her life.

"Every night I would ask the Lord to give me some knowledge of what might have happened to him," Cooke said Tuesday at her apartment in Chattanooga. "And the Lord answered my prayers after all these years."

Growing up in Palmer, Tenn., Cooke was in high school in 1942 when she met Cecil Harris. He was in town with some cousins who were going to a wedding party.

After a year or so of courtship, the teens were married Oct. 21, 1943, by a justice of the peace in Rossville, Ga., Cooke said.

Search/Recovery Report
Search/Recovery Report

Harris at the time managed a farm for his grandmother, though work in Palmer in the 1940s centered on the coal-mining industry. The young Bedford County native preferred farming and fun to the mines, Cooke said.

"He was just a real nice fella. Full of fun. He liked good times," she said.

Cooke has fond memories of the brief time before the war entered the newlyweds' lives.

"His grandmother and I would get lunch ready every day and we would sit out on the porch to wait for them to come in from the field," she said with a chuckle. "She had a dinner bell -- she called me 'sister' -- and she'd say, 'Sister, ring the dinner bell.'"

Harris would sometimes arrive on the back of one of the more tolerant cows, her tail pulled up over his shoulder like a rudder as he steered her home.

But those happy days were cut short by a letter from the Army that brought tears and dread for the young wife.

"I handed it to him and he said, 'Well, I've been expecting it,'" Cooke said.

Forensic Report
Forensic Report

She was pregnant when Harris was sent to Camp Blanding in Florida for basic training in late 1943 and early 1944.

"Cecil left in January and Edwin, my son, was born the 22nd of February," she said.

Harris got 12 days' leave in June 1944 to see his wife and 4-month-old baby boy, "and that was it," she said with a sad smile.

When Harris prepared to board the train in Palmer to head overseas -- Cooke couldn't bear to watch him board -- he left behind haunting words.

"He said, 'I don't feel like I'll be back.' and I said, 'Don't say that.' And he said, 'It's just a feeling I've got,'" she recalled.

She never saw him again.

Month after month of separation "was terrible," she said, but the real horror of war would come calling when she went to Palmer one Monday morning in January 1945 with three letters to mail to her husband.

"That morning, I was standing at the post office and it was full of people and this guy came across from the company office and asked me if I was Helen Harris," Cooke recalled, brimming with emotion.

"I said, 'Yes, I am.' He said, 'Well, wait a minute.'

"He went back in the office and brought me a telegram that he (Cecil) was missing in action. And I went berserk," she recalled. "I started running down the road and lost my billfold and my purse and all my stuff. A friend of mine got in her car and she came down the road after me."

In the wake of her Cecil's death, "I like to have lost my mind" with grief, she said. "I didn't even want to tend my baby, I didn't want to see people, I didn't want to talk to people. I guess it was the shock of it."

Edwin Harris ended up being raised by his grandparents, a result "that was hard, too," she said sadly. The mother and son remain estranged today.

"I kind of lost my dad and my mom at the same time," Edwin Harris said.

•••

As the notes of "Amazing Grace" poured mournfully from the bagpipes on Friday, mother and son stood side by side before the casket, and for that moment shed tears together.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder say Harris was a credit to his home state and country.

Harris was posthumously awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal. He also received to European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

"Cecil Harris is a Tennessee and American hero and it is fitting that he finally be laid to rest with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery," Haslam said. "We join the Harris family in recognizing the loss of a young Tennessean who gave the ultimate sacrifice during World War II and hope they feel pride and a measure of peace."

"Although it is difficult to reach such a somber conclusion," Grinder said, "we are grateful the Harris family will have some closure regarding our fallen hero."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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