By Kevin Shannahan
With the benefit of hind sight, we know that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan’s doom was sealed by September of 1942. The United States had entered the war with its enormous industrial might. The Battle of Midway, just 6 months after Pearl Harbor, was to stem the expansion of Japan in the Pacific. The worst of the Battle of Britain had passed and the Wehrmacht’s fate would soon be sealed at Stalingrad. On Sept. 23, 1942, a freshly promoted army general named Leslie Groves was placed in charge of something called the Manhattan Project. From our vantage point in the present, victory was just a matter of time.
At the time however, the outcome seemed far less certain. Nazi Germany had overrun Europe and was nearing Moscow as victory followed victory. Rommel’s Afrika Korps still had the run of North Africa. The British victory at El Alamein stopped his advance on the Suez Canal, but the Afrika Korps was far from a spent force as the new American army was to find out at Kasserine Pass. Imperial Japan still ruled most of Asia.The Allies had hung on, but were hardly winning.
It was into these grim times that RAF Leading Aircraftman Geoffrey Mark Harris of Lytham Lancashire England crossed the U-Boat infested Atlantic to Canada and then to Terrell, Texas. He was one of over 2,200 aircrew attending the No. 1 British Flying Training School established by the RAF to train flyers away from the embattled skies over Britain. Approximately one-third of its graduates were killed in the war and 20 of them were killed in training accidents. Leading Aircaftman Harris was one of them, killed at the age of 21 in a training accident on Sept. 17, 1942. Harris and his fellow 19 airmen were buried in Terrell’s Oakland Cemetery.
When I was photographing the graves for the War Graves Photography Project, I noticed that Harris’ grave was inscribed with the Star of David. He was the only Jew among the airmen in the cemetery. As I stood there looking at the graves, I wondered what it must have been like to leave your family facing Nazi bombs, travel thousands of miles to a foreign land in the middle of a war that your country was losing, to undergo training that killed almost 1 percent of its students and then go on to the certainty of combat. Geoffrey Mark Harris lived through the darkest days of WWII. He did not live to see D-Day, the liberation of Europe or the crushing of the Nazi regime. He was killed 6 years before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
There is an ancient tradition in Judaism of placing stones upon the headstone when visiting a person’s grave. I got in touch with Al Mendelsohn, my first roomate in college, and asked for his help. A short while later two stones, one from Jerusalem and one from Masada came in the mail. They were placed on Leading Aircraftman Harris’ headstone last week. Those stones are more than a memorial to a man who died 40 years before I was born. Coming from two cities in a free and independent Israel, they are a symbol of victory.