A hero of the '44 fight for the Marshalls receives his medals, after 50 years

January 22, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

It took a half-century, but George D. Harmening of Annapolis yesterday got the medals he earned in the sky over the Marshall Islands in the summer of 1944. The years have grayed his hair and hobbled his gait, but they have not dimmed the glory.

"Gentlemen, I'm proud," Mr. Harmening, 73, told a gathering of U.S. Marines, family and friends in a ceremony at the Naval Academy's Mahan Hall. "This is the greatest day of my life, other than when I came back."

The former Marine's voice broke and behind his eyeglasses his blue eyes misted over. He held his military posture with a black wooden cane in his right hand. On the left lapel of his brown suit hung the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. At last.

His old drill instructor on Parris Island, he said, "told us that when you're a Marine you'll be a Marine all your life. And by God he was right. I love you all. And thank you."

The 11-piece brass band played the Marine Corps Hymn and the young Marines in their green uniforms stepped forward to shake hands with this slim, dapper man in his new medals. The medals actually represented a total of 20 citations Mr. Harmening earned during his World War II service: five Distinguished Flying Crosses and 15 Air Medals.

The Flying Cross is awarded for valor in battle, said Marine Col. Orval McCormack, who presided at the ceremony. The Air Medal is a more general recognition of service, he said.

Colonel McCormack, the senior Marine Corps representative at the Naval Academy, said after the ceremony that Mr. Harmening -- who served from May 1942 until 1945 -- didn't receive his medals earlier because his bomber squadron's commanding officer apparently became separated from the company after the war.

"The paperwork just never got put together," Colonel McCormack said. He said Mr. Harmening is "the type of guy who never pushed for it."

Mr. Harmening said in an interview that a buddy from the Marshall Islands bomber squadron, a fellow gunner, urged him in a letter last year to write to the Marines to see if he qualified for medals. He said he wrote in July and was notified by letter in October that he qualified.

The Flying Cross he wore yesterday acknowledged Mr. Harmening's courage during bombing missions between July 27 and Aug. 17, 1944. In those three weeks, Technical Sergeant Harmening manned a .30-caliber machine gun in a two-man dive bomber during raids on the islands of Maleolap and Mille. The Marshall Islands, a group of narrow atolls in the Pacific, were used by the Japanese primarily as staging areas for air attacks against Allied ships.

Mr. Harmening said his squadron would take off from an island runway and "we'd sneak in there. They didn't know where we were coming from." They'd dive from 5,000 to 2,000 feet, drop two 500-pound bombs, then pull out with such G-force that "every bone in your body cracked. I heard them crack," Mr. Harmening said.

Mr. Harmening, a native of Baltimore who retired 12 years ago from the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., said he walks with the cane because of a back injury, probably connected to his service.

The bombs made craters in the islands visible from 3,000 feet up. The reconnaissance photographs Mr. Harmening took were on display in albums at the ceremony, alongside the log book he kept. The log entries record the dates and durations of scores of missions between April 29, 1943, and Oct. 10, 1944: bombing raids, reconnaissance flights, patrols.

On a blank page at the front of the log book, Mr. Harmening had written the "Gunner's Creed," which Colonel McCormack read during the ceremony, a four-verse homage to the unsung hero who serves in the pilot's shadow:

L "The pilot's just a chauffeur, it's his job to fly the plane

"But the gunner does the fighting, though he doesn't get the fame."

Asked what he was thinking during the emotional ceremony, Mr. Harmening said, "I really was thinking about I wish I was young again and back in."

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