Finis Ewing Harris, Jr. was the oldest son and named after his father, an attorney and judge in Cookeville, Tennessee. “Finis,” Latin for “the end,” was a fitting name for the father, who was the last of 12 children. However, the name was a misnomer for the first of three sons born to Finis and Margaret Harris. Finis was my wife’s uncle. One she never knew because of his service to our country. One whose grave she never nor her family ever visited. One who laid down his life in the defense of his “friends.”
When WWII came, all three sons wanted to do their patriotic duty and the older two were fully trained and deployed to the battle. It was reported that Finis completed his advanced air training at Pampa, Texas, where he received his wings in the U.S. Army Air Force in May 1943. He went to England in August 1943, piloted a B26. He was later transferred to a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 305th Bomb Group (Heavy), nicknamed “Can Do.” The Group base was at Cheverston, England, from which they flew 337 missions in 9,321 sorties and dropped 22,363 tons of bombs. During their tour of duty the Group lost 154 aircraft.
Stories of Finis’ final flight were somewhat muddled when I came into the family. Myra, my wife, thought the plane that Finis piloted crashed as he was on a training flight with his replacement pilot. A bit of internet digging three years ago led me to a much different story. Thanks to the websites Find a Grave, American Air Museum in Britain, Sywell Aviation Museum and other searches, I was able to piece together the real story of his crash, as well as update some sites with the information they lacked.
Although a page is missing from the crash report from the lone survivor, this is what I have been able to pull together from various reports on Finis’ death. He was a part of a bombing run over Kassel, Germany on December 15, 1944, where 344 planes had successfully targeted the town’s railway marshalling yards and tank factory. However, his plane sustained major flak damage and Finis piloted the B-17 back to the base with the number one engine out. Flying in “zero-zero” weather conditions, Finis and another B-17 flew in tandem back over the coast of England. Concerned about his ability to land the plane, Finis told the crew to bail out if inclined. Only one, the tail gunner, did. While trying to land using radio beacons, both planes hit the wires of the Air Ministry Gee Mast at Borough Hill, Daventry. The Gee Network was a system of radio beacons that were used by pilots to navigate over Germany. The other plane was able to fly through the wires and land with bits of wire still attached to the plane. The farmer, into whose field Finis’ plane crashed, saw it hit the stay of the radar mast in the fog. A wing was ripped from their plane, and the plane hit the ground a few seconds later. He and the eight remaining crew members (John Griffin, R.L. Mason, Laverne Ridge, Herschel McCoy, Cliff Melton, Robert L. Burry, Willie Barnes, and Charles Nordland) were killed in the crash.
On August 23, 2015, a memorial plaque was unveiled, located in the garden at Daventry War Memorial. In attendance were Sgt. Burry’s son, Peter Searle, and granddaughter, Rebecca Saywell. Burry was the ball turret gunner and Peter’s English mother was pregnant with him at the time of the crash, delivering him six weeks later. Additionally, an excavation of the crash site was conducted in recent year and items from the site were displayed at the Sywell Aviation Museum in Daventry. Items included the navigator’s hat that was taken from the original crash site by some school boys.
Tragically, Finis’ younger brother, Cpl Perry Rowe Harris of the 498th Bomber Squadron, 345th Bomber Group, (B-25), was killed in action on November 12, 1944 in the Philippines just weeks before Finis. His death notice was received at Christmastime, preceding his brother’s by a week. This news report comes from their hometown newspaper.
Judge and Mrs. Finis E. Harris received a telegram this week from the War Department stating that another son, Lieut, Finis E. Harris, Jr., was killed in England on December 15, 1944. Only last week, a message was received by Judge and Mrs. Harris from the War Department, stating that Cpl. Perry Rowe Harris was killed in action on Leyte, in the Philippines. Another son, Mark E. Harris, who is in training in the Army Air Corps, in Nashville, is seriously ill with pneumonia. Judge and Mrs.Harris have the sympathy of the people of Cookeville and the entire Upper Cumberland in this sad hour. The three brothers volunteered for service in the Army Air Corps.Putnam County Herald, Cookeville, Tennessee, 1/4/1945
Finis was buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery. Apparently at the time of their deaths, only Finis could have been returned for burial in the U.S. Their mother, Margaret, said of the decision to have Finis remain in England: “It would not be fair to bring one son home and not the other.” However, every time she heard the whistle of a train that was known to be bringing home the remains of a Cookeville native son, she wept over the loss of her boys.
Thus, the brothers lay in graves half a world apart and to our knowledge no relative has ever visited their graves. However, I am indebted to fellow blogger Amy Maranto. After seeing her photos of the American Cemetery in Cambridge from an early 2019 post, I emailed her about Finis. She said that a trip would be planned again in the next few months and that she would take some pictures. Additionally, I asked her to be the family proxy and leave a penny on his marker…the symbol of a loved one’s visit to the grave. Not only did she take pictures, but so did her daughter, who was working there as a school experience. Amy wrote: “When next of kin visit, they clean the grave marker and rub it with the sand from one of the Normandy beaches. Since she was going to be hosting a visiting next of kin family the next day, they told her to pick a marker to practice putting the sand in. She knew I was working on these photos, so she chose Finis to clean.” The sand she chose was from Omaha Beach!
Finis and Perry are among the approximately 130,000 soldiers who are interred in 27 American military cemeteries in ten foreign countries, managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Over 90,000 U.S. service members, who were missing in action, or lost or buried at sea, are memorialized at these cemeteries. Still thousands of other military dead are in unmarked or mass graves and private cemeteries. I wonder how many of those soldiers, like the Harris brothers, have never had a family member visit their resting places.
Thanks to our Veterans, who have sacrificed so much as they put their lives on the line in the defense for ours and our allies countries. Thanks to the families, who endured periods of absence of their soldiers. A special word goes to those families who mourn their sons and daughters, who gave the ultimate sacrifice. ” Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13 (NIV).
Check out Amy Maranto’s post Veterans Day