WWII Vet in Laurel looks back on 100 years

As he nears his 100th birthday, John Harrison looks back and sees nothing but good fortune. From growing up in Brooklyn to his marriage in 1943, while he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, it’s all been a great journey.

“I attribute it all to my Irish luck,” he said.

Perhaps the most dramatic chapter in his long life were the months he spent on a Navy vessel during the battle over the island of Iwo Jima in February and March 1945 and the subsequent air attacks on the Japanese mainland by American planes.

The ship on which he served had a main focus: To rescue downed American pilots who left the island each day to bomb targets in Japan. 

As he sat in the kitchen of his creekside home in Laurel, Mr. Harrison estimated his ship rescued a downed pilot every few days for weeks on end. He was on the ship one morning when a shipmate said, “Did you hear? The war’s over. We dropped a big bomb on Japan.”

By early December 1945, he was safely back in Brooklyn with his wife, Marion, to begin the next chapter in his life.

On April 29, Mr. Harrison will celebrate his 100th birthday. He and his wife, who died in 2013, had two sons. He has two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, many of whom will celebrate this milestone with him.

John Harrison and Marion Beuerle on their wedding day in 1943.

In many ways, Mr. Harrison’s life story is the story of America in the early and mid-20th century, and is a story of the “greatest generation,” who earned that name through their four-year effort to defeat the Axis during World War II.

His father was Irish born — as were many of the family’s Brooklyn neighbors — and worked as a trolley conductor and bus driver in Brooklyn. Mr. Harrison, part of the first generation of his family born here, went to Bushwick High School and later Pace University. Because he was adept at foreign languages, he dreamed of working as a linguist.

Instead he spent his postwar career as an accountant in a New York City advertising agency. “It was a very good business to be in for a bookkeeper,” he said. “The working environment was great. People were smart and creative.” 

All told, he spent 35 years in advertising before retiring in the mid-1980s, when he and Marion moved to the home in Laurel they had purchased in the late 1950s. Family photos decorate a bookshelf off the kitchen; one shows Mr. Harrison and Marion on their wedding day in 1943, he in his Navy uniform and soon to ship out.

He spoke in detail about his Navy service, citing several times his “dumb Irish luck” for things that broke his way. Knowing he would be drafted into the Army, he enlisted in the Navy. He served in New York City, Connecticut and other places before being shipped to San Diego and from there across the Pacific in a large convoy to engage the enemy.

Fighting was still underway on Iwo Jima when his ship arrived. He estimates he was off the island for seven or eight months.

Looking back at the near-century mark, he said, “I couldn’t be better off. I am pleased I got this far — and I still have my marbles. I will stick around as long as I can. But I can say I saw history being made. I am pleased and honored to have served.”