In his position as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. is often seen traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as her military liaison, including spending several days last week at the United Nations General Assembly Meeting in New York City.
As someone who has served in every geographic combat command and in such critical operations as Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and Odyssey Dawn in Libya, he is ably suited to take on the enormous responsibility that his current job entails.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Harris’ steady climb up the military chain of command. His journey to the Pentagon had the humblest of beginnings.
The only son of a Navy chief petty officer and a Japanese postwar bride, he grew up on a small farm in rural Tennessee. Born in Japan a little more than a decade after World War II and moving to Tennessee at age 2 in 1958, Harris recalls feeling different from his Southern classmates — especially when it came time to eat the bento lunch prepared by his Japanese mother.
When he whined to her about the fact that he looked more Japanese than American, she responded in a way that he will never forget. “She went to a PTA meeting dressed in the only thing she brought from Japan — a full kimono, geta, obi, the whole thing.” Harris adds respectfully, “She taught me to be proud of my ethnic heritage.”
Not only was she a role model for her hapa son, but she also set the example for her three younger sisters, all of whom followed in his mother’s footsteps by coming to America after marrying U.S. Navy men.
Harris says he learned “giri” (duty or obligation) from his Issei mom, who grew up in the privileged Kobe neighborhood of Ashiya, only to have her family’s property destroyed during the war. After surviving the devastation of wartime Japan, she married an American and experienced more hardship.
“She came to America after growing up in relative privilege to survive on a small Southern farm that had no running water or electricity,” recalls her son. “It was a dramatic change for her, but for me it was the only upbringing I knew.”
Once resettled in America, she adapted with grace and became a U.S. citizen in 1974. Before she passed away in 2008, she told him that the proudest thing she ever did as a citizen was to vote.
That sense of giri has been passed on to her son, whose personal decorations include two Distinguished Service Medals, three Defense Superior Service Medals, three Legions of Merit, and two Bronze Stars.
“I’m an American, first, foremost and always,” says Harris, “but there will always be things my mother represented for which I am proud.”
Harris remembers first hearing about the heroism of Japanese American soldiers when he saw the 1951 film “Go For Broke.” “It gave me something to be proud of,” Harris recalls. “They were in the military and they became heroes.” It’s a story that stayed with him as he went from the U.S. Naval Academy to postgraduate studies at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and Oxford University.
Still, when he first learned about the men who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, 100th Infantry Battalion, and Military Intelligence Service, he didn’t realize that their families were being held in camps. When he learned those once little-known facts, it made their heroic contributions all the more significant.
It’s a story he will be honored to share with others at the annual Evening of Aloha dinner on Oct. 13. “I’ve drawn a lot of strength from their story and I think all Americans can draw strength from them,” he says. “It’s a great story that unfortunately is not known broadly, and it should be taught in schools.”
Harris cites organizations like the Go for Broke National Education Center, the Nisei Veterans Committee in Seattle, Japanese American Veterans Association, Japanese American Citizens League, Federal Asian Pacific American Council, Asian American Government Executives Network and Pan Pacific American Leaders and Mentors for furthering important work towards this end.
He notes that he was privileged last year to attend the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Washington, D.C. to honor the World War II veterans and looks forward to a rare trip to Los Angeles to pay tribute to them once again.
“Take all the things I’ve done in the military,” he goes to say with humility. “It would never begin to compare with what those men went through. Just the fact that they and their families were booted out of their homes and then what they accomplished — that’s huge.”
Harris is a keynote speaker at the Go For Broke National Education Center’s Evening of Aloha, to be held on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.goforbroke.org/eveningofaloha or call Ellen Robinson at (818) 242-9108, ext. 204.