Veteran looks back on World War II
The year was 1943, and he had just graduated from Durham High. At that age, most young men were thinking of going to college or getting a job. Downtown Durham was flourishing, and tobacco warehouses bursting with thousands of big piles of cured tobacco were a common sight. You couldn’t go anywhere in Durham without the sweet smell of cured tobacco wafting out of the many warehouses and right into your nostrils. Many young men in years past had gotten on with the tobacco companies and made a good living from the profession. Durham in the 1940s was a good place to be.
But James (Jim) Harward didn’t have all these options. He was smart and ambitious, and loved Duke football and basketball. His dad, James Edgar Harward Sr., was one of the founders of Durham Life Insurance and his mother, Minnie Carden Harward, worked as a bookkeeper at Durham Life. But going to see games at Duke, or working in a tobacco factory, or helping to look after his mom and dad were not options in 1943.
World War II beckoned. During his junior and senior years at Durham High, war raged across much of the world, and it was the main topic of conversation all around town.
Two problems stood in the way of Harward entering military service. He was only 17 and the draft age was 18, so he got a temporary job with the Durham post office. This turned out to be a wise move, as you will see after World War II ended. After turning 18, Harward went to Fort Bragg for a physical, when another problem kept him from joining the military. He was underweight. So he went to the post office and worked there until he was accepted into the Army on Oct. 26, 1944.
Harward was sent to Camp Wheeler, Georgia, training, where he learned to fire infantry weapons. Next he participated in live fire exercises in Fort Meade, Maryland before heading to Camp Shanks, New York, where he and his fellow soldiers practiced climbing down the side of ships using nets, in case they had to abandon ship. Finally, they were then put on a ship in Jersey City.
Harward didn’t know it, but he was headed to France. When the Americans rode through Paris aboard a train, their spirits were lifted as Parisians cheered them from the side of the railroad tracks. After getting off the train, Harward and the other soldiers were packed standing up on trucks, fed cold C rations, and rode for two and a half days. After getting off the trucks, they started hiking until arriving at the 209th Replacement Depot, where Harward was assigned to Company B, 7th Infantry, Third Division.
The next day they were ordered to advance closer to the front lines, where Harward saw his first dead German. The man was propped against a tree with his helmet still on, his eyes wide open, with a gaping hole in his chest. Just a year or so before, Harward had been in class at Durham High School, thinking about girls and Duke sports; now he was walking through wheat fields in a faraway land not knowing if he would step on a land mine that could blow his legs off or if a German sharpshooter had his gun pointed at his head.
Harward walked by the dead German; he witnessed a man step on a mine and heard the awful screams; he could hear firefights up front where he was headed. That night, his company spent the night in a dairy barn. Around 3 a.m., a loud explosion shook the barn Harward was in. A German plane had spotted a cigarette light in a barn next to Harward’s and dropped a bomb, setting it on fire. One American was killed and several wounded.
As Company B advanced, they captured several small towns and took many prisoners. In one village, a German sniper shot and wounded a soldier of Company B from the second floor of a house. A lieutenant ordered Harward to fire his rifle grenade into the window. Harward’s grenade hit the mark and set the house on fire. Harward recalls the incident very clearly and with remorse today, “After I shot my rifle grenade and set the house on fire, we moved on. To this day, I have worried that I may have killed the man. I hope he got out the back way and like me, is still alive today, but I will never know.”
Another moment that has stayed with Harward took place in a field on the outskirts of Erlangen, Germany. “We saw some movement in the wheat field and Robert Hite, who I was with, was ordered to fire. Just before dawn, two Germans in the wheat field waved a white flag, and we motioned them to come forward. One was about 16, and the shot by Hite had hit him in the head. The other one had bandaged him up, and he had been bleeding all night before surrendering. His face was streaked with blood, sweat, and tears. When Hite saw what he had done, even though he was just following orders, he couldn’t speak for several days. That was an awful sight to see, that little German boy of 16 years of age so badly hurt and crying. It made us realize once again what a terrible thing war was.”
On April 18, Harward’s unit crossed into Nuremburg, and came under heavy fire. Finding refuge in an old cemetery, the Germans shelled Company B for most of the day. After the shelling, Harward and his fellow soldiers could see caskets that had blown open with skeletons sticking out, along with Germans that had been killed earlier. “That was a sight I will never forget,” Harward said. Harward and his platoon all received the Bronze Star Medal for taking about 200 prisoners in Nuremburg, Germany. In late April, Company B reached Dachau, the concentration camp where tens of thousands of prisoners were put to death. Here again was a sight that stays with Harward today, 69 years later. “I saw dead bodies stacked like cord wood. All the German SS Guards had fled. The living concentration camp survivors were a collection of bones with their eyes sticking out. Our hearts just broke for them. We gave them our rations.”
The war ended while Harward and his company were in Berchtesgaden. Harward and a pal were put on guard duty in Hermann Goering’s house. Goering was once a top aide to Hitler. Jim found some records in the house of Bing Crosby, to his surprise.
In July, Harward’s company was sent to Bad Hersfeld, Germany, where he stayed almost a year as part of the occupation forces.
During the occupation in Hersfeld, Harward made friends with a 14-year-old German boy, Walter Rossbach. Jim remembers, “Walter’s mother washed my clothes and sewed on my stripes after I made corporal. The family invited me to their house for Christmas Eve dinner. It turned out to be a great evening. They had a Christmas tree with lighted candles. We sang carols. You would never have known I was the enemy. Walter and I corresponded for many years after the war.”
On May 15, 1946, Harward learned he was going home.
Just after being discharged, Harward, was hired by the Durham post office. He would go on to retire from there in 1979. He also retired as a sergeant major after serving more than 20 years in the Army Reserves. He married Dorothy Spicer Harward in 1950, and they had three children, Beth, Scott and David.
Harward is now 88; his mind is still very sharp, even if he has slowed down physically a bit. His favorite topics to talk about are World War II, Duke football and basketball, his family, and his beloved hometown of Durham. He has spent all of his 88 years in Durham, except for those 16 months in Europe fighting the Germans.