Charles L. Harrison was born outside Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Barely out of High School, Harrison enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1939.By August 1941 he was on his way to Wake Island, a vital staging area for the coming war in the Pacific.
Of the 449 Marines who manned Wake’s defenses when Wake Island was bombarded by Japanese forces a few hours after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, 49 were killed, 32 were wounded, and the remainder, including 20 year old Charlie Harrison, became prisoners of war.
For 45 long months, during which he contracted malaria and other assorted maladies, Harrison suffered under the hands of the Japanese until he was rescued at the end of WWII with less than 110 pounds on his 5-foot 9½-inch frame.
With his courage and love of country intact, Harrison returned home to marry his childhood sweetheart and start a family. He and his growing family enjoyed a peaceful existence until the morning of June 25, 1950, when ninety thousand North Korean troops pushed across the 38th parallel, thus commencing the Korean War.
On Sept. 15, 1950, U.S. Marines under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur made a surprise amphibious landing at Inchon, on the west coast of Korea. Harrison was one of those Marines. On Nov. 29, at the Chosin Reservoir Campaign, after a battle in which Harrison was wounded and for which he later received a Purple Heart, he was captured by the Chinese communist forces and again found himself held as a prisoner of war – one of only two Marines in U.S. history to hold the dubious distinction of being held as a POW in two different wars.
Harrison remained in captivity until he, along with seventeen fellow POWs, managed to escape six months later.
Undaunted and undefeated, despite years of imprisonment and brutality, Harrison continued to serve our country in Vietnam until he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel on June 30, 1969.
This highly decorated Veteran of three wars and his family chose to move to the foothills of Nevada County, California, after retirement, purchasing a two and a half acre parcel high on a hill in the small town of Peardale.
Harrison became great friends with the Grass Valley police chief, and became an auxiliary police volunteer. He and his wife were active in the Grass Valley Historical Society; he drove the Nevada County Bookmobile and provided all of the photographs for “First Wagons Over The Sierra,” a book about the Immigrant Trail written by another Nevada County legend, Chuck Gradon.
This great American hero passed away with little fanfare on Jan. 17, 2015. Throughout his life he exhibited unfailing courage against insurmountable odds and never allowed bitterness or anger to determine the path of his future. How did he retain the hope and optimism that carried him through the remainder of his life?
Harrison described his own feelings on the train ride home after escaping his second imprisonment saying, “Why I had the Great Skipper up there guid[ing] my course into those long years…and both times brought me safely back into home port? Diagnosing my own feelings, I knew that I was a better Marine, a better man, and by far a much better American than I would ever have been otherwise.”
“No person who had ever known me well would expect to find me bitter and disillusioned from my double dose of hard luck. I thought of many others, however, who as casual observers would probably expect to see a very dejected and spiritually broken Marine arrive home this second time. If only they could know how to appreciate America as I do,” Harrison recalled.
About the authors: Leo Aime LaBrie is an Air Force Veteran, honorably discharged in 1955. As a trained draftsman, he worked for Autonetics Aircraft and Douglas Aircraft until his retirement. Theresa McLaughlin obtained a BA in English in 1977 and retired from the travel industry in 2008. She is a regular columnist for her local newspaper, The Union. LaBrie and McLaughlin have collaborated on a detailed biography of Lt. Col. Charles Harrison, which depicts his life and spirit with honor and respect. “A Double Dose of Hard Luck”, with a foreword written by Harrison’s friend and fellow Nevada County resident, retired Marine Corps Gen. Orlo K. Steele.