At age 94, Robert Phillip “Bob” Harmon of Morristown retains clear memories of his younger days, as well as a keen ability to share them.
He did that earlier this month while seated in the lobby of the Morristown Regional Airport. He was there, like several visitors and media personnel surrounding him, waiting to take a flight aboard a vintage B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber parked out on the tarmac.
For most scheduled for the flight, it would have been a unique, first-time experience. Not so for Bob Harmon. During the latter portion of World War II, Harmon spent plenty of time aboard a similar plane, with the heavens above him, potentially deadly flack all around him, and wartime Germany below.
Harmon was a U.S. Army navigator aboard a B-17 in those days and flew 36 combat missions, his plane and fellow crewmen surviving them all.
Harmon, along with a former B-17 mechanic named Jules Bernard, was the special guest on Nov. 15 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which had brought the “Aluminum Overcast” to East Tennessee as a visiting relic of a time when such planes were part of the Allied land, sea and air warfare that brought Hitler’s rampaging armies into submission.
Flights planned for media members at Morristown did not occur, due to dangerously poor weather conditions that rainy day, though other members of the public took to the skies later that weekend. Even so, Harmon’s recollections to several present helped bring to life what it was to be part of a Flying Fortress crew in those wartime years.
Harmon, though a Morristown resident most of his life, has ties to Greene County. His father, Estle T. Harmon, was from Mohawk, and an uncle, Shafter Kidwell, was postmaster there many years.
That Bob Harmon was involved in military service for the United States fits his family heritage. East Tennessee’s Harmon family possesses a generations-long history of service in defense of the United States.
Bob Harmon comes from the same Harmon lineage that included Jacob Harmon and his son, Henry, both ill-fated participants in the famed East Tennessee bridge burner Unionist effort to hamper the Confederate rebellion against the United States.
Jacob and Henry Harmon both were hanged by the Confederacy in Knoxville after being convicted of bridge burning.
As he launched into his own military career years, B-17 navigator Bob Harmon was in a position to wonder if he might join the earlier Harmons in a wartime forfeiture of life. On his first bombing mission over Germany, loss of two of the four engines of the bomber Hellcat Agnes left the plane unable to make it back to England.
As a result, the plane had to make an emergency landing in Holland, which, as Harmon put it, “had been relieved from Germany by then.”
That sort of situation was one of the very reasons the navigator’s role was important, according to Harmon. “That is what navigators did, one of the things: They made sure there would be a place to crash land,” he said.
These days most navigator functions are computerized, but in World War II, navigation tools were far more basic and manual: a compass, maps and various on-board instruments that required specialized training to use.
Harmon summarized his role: “Basically I was taking care of knowing where we were, where we were going, what heading we were on, and where a good place to land was if we had an emergency.”
The Holland landing was made successfully, Agnes surviving to fly many times again with repaired engines.
Harmon’s 36 missions with Agnes and crew happened between September 1944 to February 1945.
How scared does one feel flying through skies filled with antiaircraft fire (flak)? Or being forced either to land early or crash? Harmon recalls a sense not so much of fear as of comprehension of what must be done, and a strong focus on doing it.
“You’re busy, doing what you need to do,” he said. “I don’t think we were ever basically afraid, we were just doing our job, doing the best we could to get back off our mission.”
The awareness of danger always was there, though, and anti-aircraft fire from the ground emphasized it dramatically. “When we were over enemy territory, we saw a lot of flak and got quite a few hits. You knew what you were doing,” and what the cost of it could be if things went badly, according to Harmon.
Though his plane never went down, he saw others that did, a sight that generated a “sickening” feeling.
Harmon received at least one minor injury on a mission, when flak, breaking acrylic safety glass on the plane, sent a shard of the latter into his face, causing a cut not serious enough to earn him a Purple Heart, nor leave a permanent scar.
Acrylic safety glass had been developed in the 1930s and came into its own during World War II because it is less prone to shatter, and less prone to inflict serious cuts when it did, as Harmon’s experience indicates.
It is said that friendships often arise from shared experience, and those forged between the crew members of the Hellcat Agnes bear that out, Harmon’s story shows.
Some crewmen were gunners, manning weapons in upper and lower turrets, along the middle of the plane, at the tail … even the radio operator manned a gun.
As navigator, Harmon was not directly involved in the actual fighting or bombing beyond the extent of ensuring the plane was where it should be when it should be, and that all options for survival were known should things go awry.
Friendships came naturally. “The crew that I flew with became real close, and after the war we had reunions practically every summer for several years,” Harmon said.
Those reunions now are forever past, Harmon having outlived all the other crew members.
Not every association made on Hellcat Agnes was a positive one, Harmon noted after some diplomatic hesitation.
“I hate to say this, but I guess it’s true: Our bombardier was from New York, and I have to say he was an SOB,” Harmon said, giving no details of what specific behaviors prompted that assessment. “Our pilot finally got him transferred. We had a ball turret gunner who had washed out of bombardier school, and we brought him up in the bombardier’s position. All he had to do when the bombs dropped was flick a switch, and our bombs would go out.”
Harmon went on: “The nine of us were very, very close, and he (the replacement bombadier) was the last one living, besides me, for quite a while after the others passed away.”
Besides Tennessean Harmon, other crew members came from across the country: Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona and beyond. The pilot was from Michigan.
At 94, Harmon says he thinks of his war experiences “occasionally.” His attention these days is more focused on home and family.
His wife, Mabel, is two years his junior and still his beloved companion. They live today in a basement apartment in the Morristown home of a daughter and son-in-law.
His airborne war experiences have been only one facet of Harmon’s long life. He attended the University of Tennessee, and after graduation went to work for the American Enka company in the Lowland area adjacent to Morristown.
In 1970, American Enka opened a new site outside Clemson, South Carolina, and Harmon became part of the team sent there. He would remain there until his retirement in 1986, and beyond.
“In 2013, our children insisted we come back to Morristown so they could look after us,” he recalled.
Harmon’s military life began voluntarily. He signed up at age 19 with what was then the Army Air Corps one year to the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“That was back when a lot of people were being drafted,” he said, “and some of us felt like it might be better to join and do what we wanted to do, rather than being put where they wanted to put us.”
He had a vision of what he wanted, one that had to be revised along the way. “I volunteered to join the Army Air Corps, and I guess I was hoping to be a pilot. I went through various training phases,” he said.
Basic training was in Miami Beach. Pilot training took him to Missouri, while navigator training was in Louisiana. He joined his future crew in South Dakota before they flew off to England and his 36 missions high above hostile German soil.
Later he also served in the Korean conflict — a whole different story in a long life full of tales worth hearing.