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May 26, 2014

Local war hero remembered this Memorial Day

Mack Harper was killed in action fighting the Nazis in Germany

Live Oak —

This coming Monday, the United States honors those who have fallen in the service of the country. Although Memorial Day was only declared a national holiday by an act of the United States Congress in 1971, its roots go far deeper. Today, we honor a veteran of Suwannee County who gave his life for the United States.

William Maxie “Mack” Harper was born on Aug. 21, 1921, in Tarpon Springs. He was the son of Jesse Roscoe Harper and Mae Hardee Harper of the Falmouth area in Suwannee County. Mack, as he was called by his friends, had a family history of military service. His great grandfather Joseph William Sabastian Harper had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and had almost died in a Northern prisoner-of-war camp after his capture in 1864. In poor health due to typhoid fever and other ailments, J. W. S. Harper made the long trek home to South Georgia.  In 1868, his family moved to Suwannee County to begin life anew.

Mack Harper was a high school graduate living in the Live Oak area when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939. As with other young men, Mack saw the Nazis as a threat to the United States. As a result, on Oct. 18, 1940, he enlisted as a private in Company E of the 124th Infantry Regiment (Live Oak’s local National Guard unit); Mahone Rees was captain of the company. The next month, on Nov. 25, 1940, the United States Government called upon the Live Oak National Guard to serve its country in federal service; Mack Harper was among those men who were inducted into the United States Army and shipped off for training. The men trained first at Camp Blanding, then moved to Fort Benning, Georgia. From that point, the men of Suwannee County’s unit were divided between various Army divisions.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” thrust the United States of America into World War II. Now facing threats in the East (Japan) and the West (Germany and Italy), Allied leadership agreed that although Japan had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Germany was more of a menace to the Allies. The Allies therefore decided upon a “Europe first” plan of action. Italy and then Germany would be assaulted while smaller forces would tie down the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. Meanwhile, Mack Harper served in various training camps in the United States.

Harper was eventually promoted to staff sergeant and assigned to the 309
th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division (the “Lightening” Division). The 78th Division entered combat days before Hitler’s last major offensive of the war, what the Germans called Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”). Most Americans now know the offensive simply as the Battle of the Bulge. Mack and the 78th Division were in the thick of action, helping stop and then turn back German troops in late December of 1944 and early January of 1945. The German Army was now only capable of defensive warfare guarding their homeland, but they would make the Allies pay dearly for every square mile.

In the March 2, 1945 issue of the Suwannee Democrat, Mack’s sister, Mrs. J. B. (Annie) Mills, wrote that Mack was getting along fine in Europe. Mack had even sent home a clipping from the “Stars and Stripes” military newspaper stating, “S/Sgt. Harper, a member of the 78
th Division, is now carrying his 5th ‘300’ radio, three of them having been destroyed by direct enemy fire, while the fourth was shot off by shrapnel. Harper’s buddies claim that his language is ‘elegant’ when the enemy hits one of his radios.” Mack told his family, and Democrat readers, not to worry about him because the “Gerry’s can’t hit the side of a barn.” His letter ended with the comment that he was on a 24-hour rest period, sleeping on his first bed and drinking his first Coca-Cola since leaving the United States.

The March 16, 1945 issue of the Democrat shared part of a letter that Mack Harper wrote to his family in which he claimed that his battalion had received the Presidential Citation for their action while on the German and Belgium borders. Mack believed that he himself would soon receive the Bronze Star and be promoted to the rank of technical sergeant for his gallantry.  Harper’s letter stated that his division had been in the thick of action for some time and had really gotten their hands dirty, making the Presidential Citation worthwhile.

While Democrat readers were soaking up this letter, the 78
th Division was the first entire division to push into Germany itself by crossing the Rhine River at Remagen. On March 16, Harper’s Division seized the first mile of Germany’s Autobahn Highway to fall into the hands of American troops as they expanded the bridgehead around the Remagen Bridge. Entering Germany and the industry-rich Ruhr Valley, Allied forces (including the 78th Division) encircled hundreds of thousands of German forces in what came to be called the Ruhr Pocket. Hitler’s Germany was crumbling. The 78th Division was part of a massive army pushing deeper into Germany, taking prisoners and occupying territory as they slowly made their way toward the capital of Berlin.

On April 15, 1945, the newly promoted Technical Sergeant Mack Harper participated in heavy close quarters combat in and around the German town of Wuppertal (the birthplace of Aspirin and also famous for its suspension railroad), located east of Dusseldorf. The original American estimates of German strength were low because the Germans, on their last leg, were throwing old men and young boys into action to stem the Allied onslaught. Twelve-year-old boys were fighting alongside 60-year-old veterans of World War I to stop the Americans from pushing deeper into the German Fatherland, but it was all for naught; the Americans took the towns after heavy fighting. It was during this last offensive, just as German resistance disintegrated in and around Wuppertal, that Mack Harper was killed in combat at the age of 23. The next day, Wuppertal fell to the Americans. Less than three weeks later, with its military crushed and its capital of Berlin captured, Nazi Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe.

Back in Suwannee County, on Tuesday, May 1, Mack’s parents received word that their son was missing in action in Germany. The following day they received the news that every parent fears:  their son had been killed in action. The May 4, 1945 Democrat announced the death of Mack Harper on its front page, adjoining the photograph of the recently launched aircraft carrier Franklin D. Roosevelt that was named in honor of the recently deceased president. Along with Harper’s death, another Suwannee County citizen was listed as missing in action and two others were wounded in the same article. They were not first, nor were they the last, citizens of Suwannee County to lose their lives in the service of their country.

William Maxie “Mack” Harper’s remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, D. C., where thousands have been buried since the Civil War. His parents, one sister, and two brothers, survived Mack. They had joined untold others who had lost loved ones in wars stretching from the swamps of Florida to the fields of Virginia to the coast of Normandy to the jungles of Guadalcanal, and a thousand places in between.

During this upcoming Memorial Day, let us remember all of those who, whether on local or foreign fields, have given their lives for the cause of their country.

Eric Musgrove can be reached at ericm@suwclerk.org or 386.362.0564.

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