“The Greatest Generation” is a term used to define those who not only persevered during arduous times, but given their extraordinary character — flourished. More specifically, Americans who grew up during the depression, suffered through the atrocities of World War II, yet rose up to make our country an exceptional place to live.
I recently had the honor to chat with a member of this Greatest Generation. Perry Ray Harness was born in 1925 in Searcy County, the fourth of eight children. His family went to Oklahoma for a couple years during the depression where they eked out a living as sharecroppers. He talked proudly about when, at the age of 11, he worked from dawn to dusk chopping cotton and was so good at it he got paid the same as the adults: $1.25 per day.
At one point there were 12 family members living in a small cabin with no indoor plumbing or electricity. Most nights he and his brothers would sleep outside under the stars. To help out, during high school Perry worked as a janitor getting up at 4:30 every morning to clean a hotel, then came home to do chores before walking miles to school. He didn’t recall anyone in his family ever complaining much.
By the time Perry graduated high school, World War II was well underway. He already had three older brothers who had joined the fight. Oldest brother, William Earl Harness, was wounded on D-Day while landing on Normandy Beach and was awarded the Bronze Star. Brothers Charles C. Harness had also joined the Army and Daniel Troy Harness the Air Force. When Perry enlisted, it was tradition for mothers to put a star in each window reflecting how many of their sons were in the war. Perry’s mother didn’t have enough windows.
On Dec. 16, 1944, Perry found himself on the front lines in France when, without warning, 30 German divisions attacked along an 85 mile line in the densely wooded Ardennes Forest. For six brutal weeks, what would become known as the “Battle of the Bulge,” raged on. Protecting the southern flank of this line, Perry recalled the bitter cold, always being wet and the trees constantly exploding overhead from the barrage of artillery shells. On Jan. 25, 1945, the day the Battle of the Bulge ended, Perry was sneaking towards a church steeple hoping to use his bazooka to take out a spotter directing German artillery fire. He remembers suddenly falling down onto the snow and an intense burning feeling where a sniper bullet had shattered his knee.
Perry returned to Harrison with a limp, a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, no money and no prospects. He tried several jobs including selling shoes; which it turns out he was rather good at. Soon he opened his own shoe store, then another and then several more, turning his hard work ethic and talent into a highly successful enterprise still flourishing 70 years later.
Perry also became a beloved community leader and was always there for those less fortunate earning him the esteemed “Man of Distinction” award. One of the things he is most proud of is being a founding member of the Boone County Disabled American Veterans in 1946. For the past 74 years he has worked tirelessly to help countless local veterans receive the help they have earned.
After chatting with Perry, I better understand why he and those like him rightfully earned the title as The Greatest Generation.Growing up with little but faith and the love of family, then risking his life to preserve our freedoms, he overcame adversity to help make our community an exceptional place to live.Perry Ray Harness is truly a man of extraordinary character who has left subsequent generations some very large shoes to fill.
Matt Russell is a USMC Vietnam combat veteran and Commander of the Boone County DAV. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone and do not represent the position of this newspaper, the Disabled American Veterans or any other organization.