Western Union Telegrams, December 1942

The day was drawing to a close on December 4. Chores were nearly done when a lone vehicle approached the farm home of Lester’s family. The driver bore a telegram for CF Harris from Arlington, Va.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA420  pm 4

The Navy department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Lester Frank Harris fireman first class US Naval reserve is missing following the capsizing of a motor whale boat in Narragansett Bay on December second. If remains are recovered you will be notified and every effort will be made to conform to your wishes regarding disposition. Further details probably will be communicated to you by his commanding officer. Sincere sympathy extended to you in your great sorrow.             

     Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of naval personnel

Even without today’s social media, news of the family’s unfolding sorrow spread like wildfire in the close-knit farming community. Hardly a soul remained who hadn’t heard the news when a second telegram arrived on December 10, the birthday of Lester’s sister Frances.

330 pm 10

Supplementing our dispatch of Dec 4 1942 The bureau of Naval personnel  has been informed that your son Lester Frank Harris fireman first class USNR previously reported as missing lost his life in line of duty as result of submersion when a motor whale boat capsized December second. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecovery of remains is not probable. Further details will be sent you by his commanding officer. Sincere sympathy extended to you in your great loss

                 Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of naval personnel

Refusing to believe the news could possibly be true, the folks carried on, rising each day with the hope that Lester would contact them and all would be well. Lester’s brother Wallace, then seventeen years old, recalled decades later, “When we were notified of the accident and his probable death I could not believe that it had really happened. I kept thinking, ‘This is not real. I must be dreaming. When I awaken I’ll find it’s a dream and that Lester is really alive.’ Eventually, I came to accept the fact that it was no dream; that we had been separated, completely and irrevocably by death.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn an effort to learn what had actually happened, Lester’s mother carried on a furious correspondence with his buddies Harry Haring and Joseph Feingold. Haring dissuaded her from trekking to Newport, assuring her there was little she could do that wasn’t already being done. He wrote, “No, Mrs. Harris, I’m sure that there is nothing to be gained in coming to Newport. It’s cruel I know but it’s hopeless. A body will rise after the third day and then if not recovered it again sinks. I’m afraid the sea will not give up her bodies until the final day. For a man of the sea, Mrs. Harris, there is no finer resting place than the sea when the man sails.”

By the end of December, Lester’s personal effects had been shipped home. Included in the shipment were several sets of his navy uniforms both white and blue; bedding; towels; a sewing kit; a shaving kit; a shoe kit; two bundles of books; a slide rule; a gauge; miscellaneous letters and stationery; and “one unopened package addressed to Mr. Harris.” He had never opened the Christmas package sent by his sister.

That Christmas surely was a difficult time for the family. On January 3, 1943, one month after the ill-fated accident, Lester’s family and friends gathered for a memorial service. It was to be the first of two funerals for him. Over the weeks and months after the accident, several of the sailors’ bodies were discovered and identified. In July 1943, seven months later, a body was found and determined to be that of Lester. The presence of Lester’s personal billfold with a water-stained photo of Josephine aided the final identification of his remains.

Another set of telegrams brought the final news, this time to Mr. and Mrs. C F Harris.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA959 am July 17 1943

Supplementing our dispatch of December tenth 1942 the bureau of personnel has been informed that the remains of your son Lester Franklin Harris fireman first class US Naval reserve have been recovered. Please telegram collect to the Bureau of Medicine and surgery Navy Department Washington DC whether or not you desire to have remains sent home or interred in any National or Naval Cemetery you may select without cost to you. If sent home all expenses of preparation encasement and transportation will be prepaid to destination and reasonable necessary expenses not to exceed fifty dollars will be allowed towards funeral expenses subject to reimbursement by the bureau of medicine and surgery navy department. If the body is sent home please advise whether or not you desire an escort to accompany the body. The department extends its sincerest sympathy to you in your great sorrow.

                     Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs Chief of Naval Personnel

His parents must have responded immediately, as requested. Of course they wanted him to come home. Another telegram arrived the following day.

1943 Jul 18 P M 4 39OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

=URTEL SEVENTEENTH NAVAL HOSPITAL NEWPORT RHODE ISLAND DIRECTED FORWARD REMAINS YOUR SON LESTER FRANKLIN HARRIS CONSIGNED TO YOU AT DUNLAP ACCOMPANIED BY NAVAL ESCORT WITH TELEGRAPHIC NOTIFICATION GIVING DATE ROUTE AND SCHEDULED TIME ARRIVAL HOSPITAL ALSO REQUESTED HAVE JOSEPH FEINGOLD ACT AS ESCORT IF PRACTICABLE LETTER FOLLOWS.

=BUREAU OF MEDICINE AND SURGERY NAVY DEPARTMENT.

                                                                 

Though no confirmation of Joseph Feingold’s attendance is among the existing memorabilia, it’s nice to think that Lester’s last journey was accompanied by his good friend. He had come home at last.

This photo is labeled "Lester's Navy Friend." He is not identified by name, but this is likely to be either Haring or Feingold.
This photo is labeled “Lester’s Navy Friend.” He is not identified by name, but perhaps this is Joseph Feingold who may have escorted Lester home in 1943.

The family and friends gathered again for a second funeral on July 24. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis one completed the solemnity, for there was no hope remaining that Lester might one day return to favor all with his friendly smile and warm hugs. He was gone.

I wonder if anyone read from his high school salutatorian address during the service. He spoke these words before his classmates at their graduation ceremony:

“When a ship starts on a voyage, it is loaded with fuel. If the ship is large or the voyage long, stops may be made at several fueling stations. . . .Ships are always in danger of being veered from their course by storms, of running onto hidden reefs or rocks. . . .However a ship does not by any means sail blindly. It has a pilot, lighthouses, and buoys to guide it and mark the dangerous spots.”

Nobody knew better than Lester how dangerous the sea could be.

Gherardi at sea

As time passed, Lester’s story was told to a new generation. Thus, his nephew and niece (Frances and Gloyd’s children) and three nieces (daughters of Wallace and his wife Helen) learned the story of their uncle’s World War II service. The pain still showed in the somber faces and the irony persisted. The most poignant detail ended the tale. “And he wasn’t even supposed to be on that boat.”

But he was.

Lester Franklin Harris, 1918 - 1942
Lester Franklin Harris, 1918 – 1942

 

Though evidently Lester was one of the last of those fifteen sailors to be found, there was one more body discovered in August 1943. It was damaged beyond recognition and unidentifiable. According to a Wikipedia article (referenced under USS Gherardi), the final body was identified conclusively through DNA analysis in 2006, more than sixty years after the accident. Those remains were determined to belong to Raymond Johnson, the coxswain of that whaleboat. Two other sailors have never been found.

The Wikipedia article described a 2006 plaque commemorating the ultimate sacrifice of the fifteen sailors, commissioned for the US Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. Names of all fifteen sailors are listed on the plaque. The USS Gherardi received five battle stars for World War II service. In 2004 the USS Gherardi Association dedicated a plaque to her service from 1942 through 1955, claiming “She safely returned all those who served in combat.”

Sadly, she didn’t have the same good fortune in protecting her sons from a storm off the coast of the homeland.

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