James Odell Harris
A Buck Shoals School Boy Makes Good—Real Good
By Don Bailey
James Odell Harris exemplifies all those qualities that have caused his generation to be called The Greatest Generation. Some of his earliest memories are of working, as a young boy, for 15 cents a month. Many years later he retired as manager of a Duke Power generating plant. And he was in the second wave of American soldiers who swept ashore in Normandy, as a tank gunner in the famous Third Army of General George Patton.
James was born October 14, 1923 a son of Timmons Blaine Harris and Maude Irene Cobb. Originally his family lived near Prospect Church, but in 1931 they moved to a house near Buck Shoals School – a rental house on land his family would share crop. At the end of the growing season the family was to pay the owner 2 bales of cotton. Disaster struck when the family’s best mule died during the move, but they borrowed $50 from a relative, Willard Harris, and managed.
James had gone one year to school at Prospect (a school behind Prospect Church). And, after the family’s move, because a neighbor was teaching at Prospect he continued for one more year there. He then began school at Buck Shoals in the third grade, under Miss Ruth Hatchet. Here Miss Hatchet, teacher and principal, hired James to come in and start a fire each morning in the pot bellied stove in the little school house. This was James’ first job and the one for which he was paid 15¢ per month. He evidently took to heart his father’s advice which was “If you can’t make a dollar, make a half a dollar”.
James continued through third, fourth and fifth grades at Buck Shoals. Then in 1936 when Buck Shoals was consolidated with Cliffside, he of course attended the Cliffside School. At Cliffside he entered the class of a Miss Bame, unfortunately and unkindly nicknamed “Pig Bame”.
After graduation in 1941 James went to work in the Cliffside Mill, in the warper room under Austin Robinson. But in 1943 he, like most all his peers, entered the military. First he was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina and then to Europe where his unit went ashore at Utah Beach on the second day of the Normandy Invasion. After some time bogged down on the beach, Patton’s tanks broke free of the beach and pushed forward for two days before finally being stopped again halfway across France. He was then in fighting almost continuously for the next 11 months during which time his unit went all the way through the middle of Germany and into Czechoslovakia.
James was a tank gunner, manning a 30 caliber machine gun that fired in line with the tank’s 75 millimeter cannon. In connection with his service James had (at least) three remarkable experiences. First, at one point in the war, his tank squadron of 1600 men was trapped for two days, 15 miles behind enemy lines. When a German ultimatum to surrender was issued, one morning about 10:00 AM – with a deadline of 1:00 PM, a break out was initiated. Fortunately the American tanks were capable of speeds up to 50 mph whereas the German Panzers were limited to about 15 mph, and at great loss of men and equipment the squadron’s return to the Allied line was successful.
Harris’s second remarkable experience was a direct result of the first. Surprisingly he returned in 1985 to the site of his squadron’s entrapment, as a guest of the German Panzer soldiers who had faced him in 1945. The German Panzer veterans held a reunion, and 20 members of the American 1st Cavalry were chosen to join them, at the Germans’ expense. James was fortunate to be one of those chosen, and he describes his former enemies as “just old men like me.”
And third, in the closing days of the war he witnessed the first use of jet planes. As his tank squadron was about to cross a river deep in Germany, first one and then another black plane flew in and attempted to bomb the bridge. Both plane’s bombs missed the bridge but the Americans were amazed to see the planes come in low and then fly almost straight up, something they had never seen a plane do before. One of their officers told them that they had just seen (then unknown) jet planes.
After he returned from the war in September of 1945, James worked again at the mill in Cliffside. And on June 7, 1947 he married Catherine L. Bostic. From that union came four children, Rebecca Karen, Janna Dea, Kathy Lynn and James Dwayne.
In 1948 Harris went to work at the Cliffside Duke Power plant as a carpenter helper. At that time the number two unit of the plant was under construction. When the new unit was completed James began work in the operational department of the plant. He remained at the Duke Cliffside plant for 36 years, working his way up until he eventually became an associate engineer. In 1984 he moved to Greenwood, SC where he held the position of plant manager. He remained there for six years and retired in 1990.
James Odell Harris now lives in well earned contentment, in either northern Harris or southern Shiloh, depending on one’s point of view.
A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Cliffside Chimes.