World War II veteran pens bookJun 29, 2016 01:49PM ● By J. Chambless
John Harrison, a resident of Hockessin, has penned a book called “Fairwing Brazil: Tales of the South Atlantic in WWII.” He is also currently working on a book about the history of Yorklyn.
John Harrison graduated from high school in June of 1942, and the next month he enlisted to serve in the U.S. Navy.
The 91-year-old Hockessin resident has penned a book looking back on World War II called “Fairwing Brazil: Tales of the South Atlantic in WWII.” He spent ten years working on the project, which is an illustrated account of U.S. Navy operations in World War II. The 392-page book includes approximately 300 photographs, many of which were taken by Harrison when he was assigned to serve as a photographer during his service in Brazil with Fleet Air Wing 16, the aviation component of the U.S. Fourth Fleet.
“The reason that I started this book is that I had this wooden box filled with photo negatives,” he explained during an interview in June. “I put a photo lab in my basement, and I started to make some prints. I would send the prints out to some of my friends. They are the ones who told me that I should write this story.”
Harrison possesses a razor-sharp memory of not just his time in the military, but of growing up in Yorklyn.
He was born in 1924 to Thomas and Ella Harrison. The Great Depression took hold of the country during his childhood, but Harrison has fond memories of growing up in a small Delaware town. Yorklyn only had about 300 or so citizens, and probably twice as many workers at the local mills back then. By the time Harrison was ten or eleven, he was working on a nearby farm, especially at harvest time, which was hard work. He remembers when a new school was built in Yorklyn and it immediately became the center of the community. His mother was active with the PTA, and his father served on the school board.
“All the teachers would be at our house for dinner at least once a school year,” Harrison said.
By the time his senior year in high school rolled around, the United States was mobilizing for its entry into World War II. His older brother, Bill, had joined the Navy in late 1940, and was scheduled to leave the Naval Base in San Diego to go to base in Hawaii on Dec. 10, 1941.
Harrison remembers the events of Dec. 7, 1941 very well. He had turned 17 just three weeks earlier. He was shooting baskets in the backyard when his mother called him to listen to the important announcement about the Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The family knew that Bill was still safe in San Diego, but it was still a very scary time—and the United States was at war.
Harrison enlisted in July of 1942. After boot camp, he was sent to a naval air station at Quonset Point, Rhode Island to serve as an apprentice in the photo laboratory there. He remembers the assignments during the first winter when he would be flying over the Atlantic Ocean. It was so cold that, no matter how many layers of clothing he wore, it was still freezing cold. During the fall of 1942, he started flying as a lookout in PBY patrol planes escorting convoys in the North Atlantic on their way to Britain or Russia.
In June of 1943, he was transferred to Brazil for his service with the Fleet Air 16, the aviation component of the U.S. Fourth Fleet, which was headquartered in Recife, Brazil under the command of Admiral Jonas H. Ingram.
Harrison said that the commentary in the book focuses primarily on the events that took place in and of the coast of the northeastern Brazilian cities of Natal, Fortaleza, Recife, and the southeastern city of Rio de Janeiro.
The objective of the Fourth Fleet, according to Harrison, was to secure the strategically important Atlantic Narrows between Natal, Brazil and the Freetown-Accra portion of Africa. The Fourth Fleet’s duty was to destroy Axis Power submarines and blockade runners who were moving essential war materials. The Fourth Fleet also wanted to stop the sinking of Brazilian and other Allied merchant ships. The Mediterranean Sea was hazardous for allied shipping, so the South Atlantic narrows was strategically critical.
Harrison was able to use his photography skills to document and preserve the wartime activities in the area. One of his favorite photos in the book is of seven VP-83 pilots and a crewman in a tent city in Natal.
“I have a lot of pictures of the airplane crews,” he explained.
He also has photos of what Brazil looked like in the 1940s, as well as images of the residents of the area. The book includes some modern photographs of cities in Brazil placed adjacent to photographs from the 1940s to illustrate how they have changed. Natal, for instance, had about 50,000 residents in the 1940s. Today, the population is more than one million people. Harrison said that he has friends and acquaintances who helped him by taking the modern photographs of some of the areas in Brazil.
The book also includes reflections on the war and subsequent events. There have been many books and movies about World War II, but, according to Harrison, there has not been an abundance of sources taking a look at the conflict in the South Atlantic. He said that the contributions of Brazilians have been overlooked.
“A lot of people don't realize how close we came to losing that war,” Harrison explained. He said that there were several developments—Italy delayed its invasion of Russia, Hitler interfered with his generals, and Germany pulled its troops away from Moscow at a time when they were about to take control of the city—that proved to be pivotal.
After serving in the military, Harrison went on to enjoy a 35-year career with Hercules. He worked for the company in the U.S. as well as in Europe. He worked on a chemical engineering pilot program. He was hired by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to write a process design manual. He and his wife, Doris, shared 67 years of marriage and raised four children.
Writing the book and compiling the photographs was a labor of love for Harrison. He started to write the book in 2001 and worked on it until about 2011. He first published soft cover copies of the book, and when the supply ran out he worked with Schiffer Publishing in Atglen, Pa. to publish hard cover copies of the book. Harrison was very pleased when Schiffer Publishing officials told him that his book was so good that they didn’t have to change anything about it for the hard cover edition.
Harrison is already hard at work on another book. He is writing a history of Yorklyn, his hometown. He has a presentation about the history of Yorklyn planned at Auburn Heights in November. He said that the history of Yorklyn, and how it was shaped by the industries that were there, is similar to what other towns have experienced.
“What has happened in Yorklyn is similar to what has happened in other towns,” he said. “I'm looking forward to completing the book on Yorklyn.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected]
For more information about “Fairwing-Brazil: Tales of the South Atlantic” or to order copies of the book, visit www.wwiibrazil.com or email [email protected] Copies can also be ordered through Schiffer Publishing at www.schifferbooks.com.