Tahlequah Daily Press

April 17, 2014

Flight of honor

Charles Harra to be honored

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — World War II veteran Charles Harra flew missions for the Army Air Corps, and if you ask him which flight was his most memorable, he’ll say it was his 35th mission.

“I flew 35 missions, and the best one was the last one,” said Harra.

Harra was a member of the 8th Air Force; the Army Air Corps changed to the U.S. Air Force before the war ended. At 19, he was also the youngest man to ever command a flight crew.

Harra, who will celebrate his 90th birthday June 20, is slated to participate April 30 in an Oklahoma Honor Flight with guardian John Glascock, a Vietnam veteran and fellow pilot. He will be honored, along with other flight veterans, during an April 29 ceremony in Bixby, and take the trip the following day.

Oklahoma Honor Flights provide free transport for World War II, and more recently, Korean War veterans, with a day-long excursion to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials. Harra has never visited the nation’s capitol, and is excited about the prospect.

“It will be interesting to see the memorials,” said Harra.

“I lost my co-pilot, Gil, during World War II. When I left the service, they still hadn’t found his body. I understand that some time later, his body was recovered. I want to find his name on the memorial and touch it.”

According to Carol Parrish-Harra, Charles’ wife, names are listed on the World War II memorial by state, and Gil was from Kansas. Harra regrets never having called Gil’s wife after the loss.

“I was too immature to call his wife and express our mutual loss,” said Harra. “Had I done that, I would’ve choked up and couldn’t talk.”

According to Carol, being a young commander wasn’t easy for Harra, who only recently began speaking about his time in the war.

“When Charles got his flight crew at 19, he was the youngest man ever to be assigned a full crew,” said Carol. “All the rest of the men in his crew were older. They resented him at first, but after the first couple of flights, they grew to trust him.”

Harra said he was stationed in England and flew missions over Germany.

“I [didn’t regularly] fly France,” said Harra. “I bombed France one time where the Germans were entrenched. The 8th Air Force encompassed all of England. There was another group in Italy.”

Early on, Harra developed a system of checking on his crew during flights. He had them “sound off” every 15 minutes.

“There were several of the fellows I couldn’t see,” said Harra. “I couldn’t ever see the tail gunner, or the turret-ball gunner. I could see the co-pilot and the flight engineer. I could talk via the intercom on the headset and listen for mission changes. I figured I had to do something to get them to report and let me know they were still with us.”

During one flight, the flight engineer failed to sound off.

“When he didn’t respond, I went looking for him, and found him curled up, passed out, with his eyes rolled back in his head,” said Parra, fighting back tears. “It scared the hell out of me. I put my hands over his eyes. ...”

Parra told of another mission, a day when the fog was so thick they couldn’t see.

“You couldn’t see to taxi the planes,” said Parra.

“The flight engineer had to walk along the No. 2 propeller [to guide us]. If I went too fast, I’d cut his head off; if I went too slow, I’d lose sight of him.”

Parra said that during normal missions, the objective was to have 36 planes in the air. Being first in line had its advantages, as the closer to the front of the line you were, the less turbulence on takeoff.

“I used to race to get to the runway,” said Parra. “On this day, they knew we would never get 36 planes in the air, so they told us, ‘Just keep taking off until someone cracks up.’”

Parra was 13th in line that day. The 14th plane crashed.

After World War II, Parra was recalled to service for the Korean Conflict.

“I transported planes then from Savannah, Ga., to England,” said Parra.

“It was interesting, because two women from the factory flew the planes to Georgia, and I got to fly the brand-new planes from Georgia to England. We were always told to never fly over New York City, but I flew right down main street. What were they going to do?”

Though there are fewer and fewer of his crew mates left, for a time after the war, they enjoyed getting together to reminisce.

“I have never seen men really love each other like that, like blood brothers, until I attended the first gathering of his flight team,” said Carol. “Usually, get-togethers are man/wife, man/wife, but before I knew it, the men were all gathered together, telling stories, and the wives were on the outside. We’re fast losing our World War II veterans.”