For the next seven years, the mother of Gregory John Harris (REFNO: 0358), Mrs. Catherine Harris, worked tirelessly for the release of her son and the hundreds of others who were in the hands of the enemy. She wrote to her son monthly, attended rallies and events with other families of the missing and did more letter writing that one could ever imagine to anyone and everyone from the Commandant of the Marine Corps on down. When her son’s name was not on the list of those captured Americans that were being repatriated in 1973, Catherine spent the next year of her life participating in every form of protest she could until cancer took her life in May of 1974.
Through the decades everyone from Greg’s grandfather, aunts and uncles, and cousins have taken up his cause. In every instance when an error or discrepancy was found it was reasoned away by government officials. Yet, over the past decade as technology has advanced and access to case file documents have become available, the Harris family has shown time and time again that the Department of Defense had clearly and consistently mishandled the case of their loved one.
Greg’s case has been riddled with errors from the most benign to the most egregious. When his name appeared on an internal 1976 investigative report called Project X listing him as one of some 57 men who were suspected of still being alive out of the nearly 500 that the our government felt the Vietnamese could still account for, the Department of Defense told the Harris family in 1997 that there was no such list. (Project X and Denial Letter)
There were two initial investigations done in 1990 and 1993 in Greg’s loss area in Mo Duc. This incredible story described how Greg must have escaped his captors, made his way back behind friendly lines in the heat of battle, hid in a water wheel down by the river only to be discovered by a lone VC soldier. This soldier was somehow told by one of the villagers that an American was hiding in the water wheel and went to the river. When the VC soldier went behind enemy lines in search of this one American, he claims to have engaged with the American, eventually killing him leaving his dead body in the middle of the kilometerwide river. The next morning four local teens decided to build a raft to put the body on and send it down river to an ARVN outpost so the body could be returned to the Americans. Sadly, this magical raft, after traveling only two kilometers and under three if not four diversion dams (see DoD photo here) the raft washed up on a sandbar and was subsequently buried in a shallow grave some 200 yards from where it was found, supposedly by a dam worker.
For the past 20 years the Harris family has done their own research and found a mountain of evidence that disproved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this convoluted story woven by the enemy. In 2006, thanks to the relentless research of Ms. Lynn O’Shea, the Harris family was made aware of a report developed by the 1992 Senate Select Committee’s (SSC) investigators which listed Greg and 18 other missing servicemen as being in the hands of the enemy. In fact, the investigative report read, “Vietnam has acknowledged that Cpl. Harris was captured alive. His eventual fate has not yet been determined.” (More on these memos here).
When this information was shared with the Department of Defense, they were disavowed. At a Family Update meeting a member of the Harris family spoke with Ron Cima, the Asst. Director of Research and Analysis and was told that they had reviewed the message traffic that this SSC investigator used to generate the memos and that they had come to a different conclusion. When the family member asked to see the message traffic Cima stated that it was classified. When Cima was told that the Harris family had been told as far back as the year 1995 that there were no longer any classified documents in Greg’s case file, Cima simply turned and walked away.
In March of 2007 the Harris family, while reviewing files in the Library of Congress’ POW/MIA Database, discovered a report from October of 2006 out of Vietnam where Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) personnel came across the memoirs of a VC officer. In these memoirs the officer shared the story of an American his men captured and this report was directly correlated to Greg. DIA considered this a first hand report of Greg’s capture. (See report here)
A few months later, when this report was mentioned to the DoD case analyst, with a wave of the hand she told the family that, “It was nothing.” “It’s hearsay.” When asked why the report was never shared with the family as is DoD policy there was significant misdirection. We were told that it should be coming along shortly, it took time to process these things, etc. When a copy of the report was put on the table and the case analyst was asked why she referred to the document as hearsay when the document itself states that it was firsthand information, the case analyst said, “Well, it says firsthand but doesn’t mean, firsthand.” When asked if this VC officer was going to be interviewed the Harris family was told no because he probably didn’t know anything.
Several months after this meeting, a formal letter of complaint was sent to the DoD regarding this mishandling of the report mentioned above and other details. (See complaint letter here) When an oddly worded reply was received in response to their letter of complaint, the Harris Family made a call to the DoD. Playing devil’s advocate, a conversation with the signer of the reply letter revealed that he knew nothing about a response being written and he even stated that he didn’t sign letters to family members, that was the responsibility of the head of the agency. He directed us to the public affairs office to find out the status of our reply. There we were told that no reply had been sent out as of yet but one should be coming shortly. When the odd reply letter was shared with the public affairs officer via email, his reply was, “I have never seen this letter.”
While the inner working of the Department of Defense are not something we are privy to, it is worth noting that a few hours after being told that their office had never seen this letter, we forwarded our letter of complaint and the odd reply letter to the head of the agency along with a narrative of the day’s conversations with his personnel. No response has ever been received from the complaint letter or the email to the head of the agency, yet, three months almost to the day, our case analyst quietly and with no announcement or prior notice to the families, retired.
Over the past 10 years, the Harris family has worked doggedly to disprove the invented story about the water wheel, diversion dams and sandbar. At every turn, the DoD stood by their insane story. In 2012 we were told by a DoD investigator that our new case analyst was trying his best to move the case toward some facts that had, until then, been ignored or given little attention. This investigator stated that the case analyst had been “shot down” and told that he would not be allowed to go in another direction on our case. He was told to, “go back to the case files and find something else.”
The Harris family continued to be resilient and continued to make phone calls, research and follow even the most remote leads. In 2013, thanks to the amazing folks at the National Archives, the Harris family was able to find the the naval gunfire records for the US Navy gunship that provided support for the mission in question. Based on this information, it was clear that Greg’s loss area had been pounded with artillery from 6 am until almost 1 pm which disproved in its entirety the raft and sandbar portion of the story.
For the first time in almost 20 years, in June of 2014, the Harris family sat down with their newest case analyst for the first time. At this meeting it was discovered that important documents and reports that the Harris family discovered in their own research and were given to Greg’s then case analyst in 2006 were never put in his case file. Ironically, the family was not surprised. Yet, the family was finally allowed to share their evidence, information and research and most importantly, the naval gunfire records with their new case analyst, all backed up by documentation. In the presence of a senior DoD official and with his approval, based on the presentation that the Harris family was able to give, they agreed that the story told to DoD teams on the ground in Vietnam in 1990 and backed up in 1993 as implausible and it was agreed that it was now time to, “Look for Corporal Harris, elsewhere.” Yet, we still wait for the DoD to respond to this new information and these new documents. There have been two years of excuses from the reorganization keeping them from their case work to our case analyst being detailed to another DoD office for almost five months, doing no case work and no one covering case either.
For fifty years three generations of Greg’s family has carried the battle flag in his name and in honor of his mother. In the past year, the DoD, after multiple stinging internal governmental reports highlighting the unmitigated disaster of the POW/MIA accounting agencies, a reorganization was put into action in March of 2014. Families like the Harris’ were promised that they were going to be heard, that this new agency was going to be “familycentric”, “communication would be twoway and robust”, “Families are our focus and better service to those families is our goal”, the voice of families was needed “to shape and inform our process for the future” and “to feel empowered to provide feedback.”
In late January of 2015, while a member of the Harris Family questioned part of the reorganization process, DASD for Public Affairs and Community and Public Outreach, René Bardorf stated that the reorganization process was moving forward, not looking back and that they had no desire to hear the stories from families’. She also said that, “Any and all promises made prior to October 31st (2014) were no longer on the table.” She also, referred to a member of the Harris Family as “toxic” for questioning the process and expecting the DoD to keep the promises they publicly made when the reorganization began.
Today, we honor Greg, we fight for him, we sacrifice for him and we dedicate our very best to him for one simple reason He sacrificed it all for us.
The Harris Family June 12, 2016