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Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Dr. James Harris holds his Distinguished Member of the 506th Infantry Regiment award in his office at Avera Medical Group Worthington.

Vietnam veteran honored for service

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WORTHINGTON -- He earned two Silver Stars, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart in service to his country during the war in Vietnam, and now Dr. James Harris of Worthington can add another honor to his military career.

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During a special ceremony on Veterans Day at Fort Campbell, Ky., Harris was inducted to the roll of distinguished members of the 506th Infantry Regiment.

The honor roll includes the likes of LTG Robert Sink, Commander of the 506th during World War II, and Major Richard Winters, who some may recognize as one of the soldiers written about in Band of Brothers.

Also on the list is Lt. Col. Andre Lucas, a Medal of Honor recipient who was in Harris' unit.

Fewer than 100 soldiers had been presented the elite honor up until Friday, when Harris and 20 other heroes joined the list. Each was given a framed certificate honoring their selection.

Harris, a surgeon at Avera Medical Group Worthington's clinic for the past 32 years, was nominated for the honor by a fellow soldier who served alongside him at Fire Support Base Ripcord, deemed the last large-unit battle in Vietnam.

Reporting for duty

Harris was drafted into the U.S. Army a year after he graduated from medical school.

"Every doctor got drafted," he said from his office in the Avera clinic earlier this week.

After six weeks of training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Harris and nearly everyone in his class was sent straight to Vietnam. With his medical degree already in hand, Harris knew he wanted to be a surgeon, and the U.S. Army obliged by assigning him to a surgical hospital just north of Longbinh, Vietnam. Three months later the hospital closed, and he was moved to a dispensary near Phu Loi.

"I spent three months there, then I was reassigned to the 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Brigade, and I ended up in the 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry," he said.

Captain Harris was a battalion surgeon, but he didn't operate on soldiers -- they didn't have the tools in the field to perform such tasks. His papers designated him as a general medical officer.

"I spent most of my time on fire bases," he said, performing first aid and handling minor injuries. "Anyone seriously injured got medevaced."

Tough day

While stationed on Fire Support Base Ripcord -- a hilltop bunker for soldiers in the 2nd Battalion -- Harris said they were in good position to see and attack the enemy. They were also a quick target.

The minute the U.S. troops put guns at the top of the hill, they were surrounded by enemies -- an estimated 6,000 to 9,000 soldiers in the North Vietnamese Army.

"We had only about 500 men on the ground," Harris said. "We were outnumbered -- we just hung on."

The battle at Ripcord spanned from July 1-23, 1970, but Harris said "the toughest day at the office" was when the North Vietnamese shot down a helicopter over the ammunition dump.

"When all that blew up, my aid station went along with it," he said.

Fortunately Harris was away from the station during the explosion and was able to spring to action. With their hilltop vantage point, the U.S. soldiers battled as though their lives depended on it, because that was the truth.

"Those guys aren't afraid to take risks," Harris said. "Sometimes, the best way to get over being afraid ... is to do your job."

Still, with their aid station destroyed, the U.S. needed to get its men off of Ripcord -- and quickly.

Efforts began at dawn on July 23, with the Howitzers and heavy equipment first loaded on helicopters and taken to a nearby base. Then, the copters returned for the soldiers, rescuing five at a time and transporting them at speeds of 110 miles per hour to a base 20 miles away.

Harris was in the last half of the soldiers to be rescued from Ripcord, but sliding into place on the helicopter certainly didn't mean he was out of danger. As the helicopter lifted off base, it was struck by enemy fire. Hydraulic fluid leaked from aircraft all the way back to base, but at least everyone on board was safe. The helicopter was taken out of commission, and the rest of the soldiers were rescued by 2 p.m.

Forty men were killed in the battle at Fire Support Base Ripcord, including four of the medics who worked under Harris' direction. Another 200 soldiers were wounded.

Still, the North Vietnamese suffered far greater losses. Of the 10 to 13, 500-soldier battalions that had attacked Ripcord, when the battle was finally over, there were only enough men left to fill one battalion.

As for Harris, he prefers not to talk about what he went through during those harrowing days on the hill. He earned the Purple Heart, which means he was wounded in action, and as for his Bronze and Silver Stars, well, "You don't get those without taking risks," he said.

"Most of the people don't understand that war," he added.

Only when he's with his fellow soldiers at the reunions does he feel comfortable talking about the battle.

To protect and defend

Harris is rather modest about his role at Fire Support Base Ripcord. When he put on his uniform to serve his country, he said he took an oath to protect and defend the USA.

"Those guys were all willing to spill the last drop of their blood for freedom and democracy," he said. "That's just a good group to be in."

Following the battle at Fire Support Base Ripcord, Harris returned to the U.S. and spent the last 10 months of his two-year tour of duty at Fort Lee and Camp Pickett, both in Virginia. He was honorably discharged from active duty in October 1971, and began his five-year general surgery training program at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis on Jan. 1, 1972. He began his career with the Avera clinic in Worthington in August 1980.

Harris was content to go about his work without much thought given to those days on Fire Support Base Ripcord until he received a call in the late 1990s from a man writing a book about the battle on the hilltop.

Keith Nolan was writing "Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege," when he reached the Worthington doctor. Nolan admitted he'd called about a hundred men by the name of Dr. Jim Harris before he found the man he was looking for.

Nolan's book, published in 2000, rekindled the friendships of those who fought in the horrific battle at Ripcord. Harris said they now have annual reunions to share their stories.

Friday's ceremony at Fort Campbell doubled as the 2011 reunion, as well as the rededication of the Currahee Memorial on base. The memorial contains the names of 1,429 soldiers killed in action, including those who lost their lives in the Ripcord battle.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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