For 73 years, the wartime memories of Jack Harrison, EG49, were his alone.
He always held them in his mind, treasuring their still-crisp presence, but not yet seeing how he could share them with the world. And at the back of his closet in the dark quiet of long-closed boxes, sat hundreds of photos he took as a Navy aerial observer over the Atlantic—unseen, unappreciated and potentially lost to posterity.
Yet as the years passed, and the men he fought with began to slip away, he began to believe it was time to celebrate the story they shared, and bring those photos to light and to life again. Surely, in a world saturated with World War II histories, there had to be room for one more tale of a few brave men, doing their humble best to help peace prevail.
It took him 10 years of work, but at age 91, the Hockessin, Delaware, resident finally finished his memoir of those wartime dramas, the recently published “FairWing Brazil: Tales of the South Atlantic in World War II.” In it, Harrison recounts his and his fellow sailors’ exploits guarding convoys and chasing subs off the coast of Brazil, bringing readers into the action with the grainy-but-compelling photos taken as an 18-year-old sailor, high over the waves but never far from danger.
Raised in Yorklyn, Delaware, Harrison had always been fascinated by photography, aviation and the ocean, and found himself drawn to aerial reconnaissance when a sense of duty compelled him to enlist soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 “I had read about trench warfare, and I didn’t want any of that. So I chose the perils of the sea.”
He was just 18—two months out of high school.
After a stint flying as a lookout in amphibious patrol planes, escorting convoys in the North Atlantic between Britain and Russia, he was reassigned to Brazil to serve with Fleet Air Wing 16, the aviation component of the U.S. Fourth Fleet. His supervisor’s assessment of the new mission was succinct: “You lads are going to a very hot place.”
Once its forces were situated on the coast of Brazil, the Navy was given a straightforward, but perilous mission: Find and destroy Axis vessels that were attacking Allied convoys and funneling war materiel through the ocean passage between Brazil and Africa.
Through a photographic and literary narrative, Harrison’s book embroiders that stark military framework with a tapestry of wartime life on a tropical, windswept coast—the wave-battered ships broken by torpedoes; the bored sailors trying to snatch some fun with impromptu baseball games and USO shows; the dignified faces of the Brazilian civilians whom they came to regard as family.
In the ocean’s expanses, perils were also part of the mission. The lumbering observation planes would be occasionally shot out of the sky as they tried to lob bombs at U-boats, and the crews of bombed German subs frequently found themselves in Harrison’s viewfinder as they waved from life rafts far from salvation.
Once war’s turmoil had subsided and he was home, his thoughts turned to his future, and to UD—though his academic goals were uncertain at first. “I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to take. So I asked the folks at the admissions desk, ‘What’s the hardest course you got?’ They said Chemical Engineering. My line of thought was, you take the hardest course, you’ll end up getting the best pay.”
He would go on to a successful career as a chemical industry executive and environmental engineering expert, but the war years would linger in his thoughts. Even today, he looks back on it all with still-evident pride, and with lingering sadness for the lives he saw lost aboard the transport vessels that sailed into harm’s way.
“Our discomfort paled into insignificance contrasted to the potential perils faced by the merchant marine seamen who would be sailing into the ‘Black Hole,’ that area in mid-ocean where no air cover could be provided to the convoys at that time,” he says in the book. “They, for a long time, were the unsung heroes of World War II.”
Harrison’s book is a way to bring some measure of recognition to a theatre of war that in his mind has been largely neglected, and to the people who endured its hardships.
“Most people don’t appreciate the fact that it was a major battle,” he says of efforts to keep shipping lanes clear off the coast of South America. “All you ever hear about is the North Atlantic. The American public doesn’t realize the scope and depth of the efforts made by the Brazilians as our allies.”
Article by Eric Ruth, AS93