The late Capt. Cecil E. Harris, Navy Hellcat pilot and hero of World War II, is honored in a sculpture in front of Spafford Hall on the campus of his alma mater, Northern State University.
Harris is memorialized in a 9-foot bronze statue sculpted by former NSU artist in residence Benjamin Victor who, during the statue dedication, helped unveil it with Harris’s wife, Eva, 93; son, Tom; and daughter, Rebecca.
Harris was the second highest Navy scoring ace in WWII, credited with 24 victories against enemy planes in the Pacific. He received numerous honors in his long military career, including the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
Harris served on the Intrepid until October 1945 when he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was recalled to active duty in 1951 during the Korean War and assigned to serve in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Harris also was a flight training officer and operations officer at the Los Alamitos Air Station in California from 1957 to 1962 and returned to the Pentagon until 1967, when he retired from the Navy at the rank of Captain. Harris died Dec. 2, 1981, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
U.S. Senator John Thune spoke of Cecil Harris’ bravery and courage and the South Dakota spirit that he epitomized. Harris wanted no recognition and, like so many South Dakota veterans, rose to the occasion and performed with exceptional results and changed the course of the war, Thune said.
Harold Thune, Sen. Thune’s father and squadron mate who served with Harris on the U.S.S. Intrepid, credited Harris with developing a combat flying tactic that days later in 1944 allowed Thune to evade and destroy an enemy attacker. The tactic, referred to as a separation maneuver, resembles one highlighted by the Hollywood movie “Top Gun” with actor Tom Cruise. “What Cecil Harris taught us may have saved our lives,” Thune said.
Ken Schroeder, retired Navy Captain and pilot, said that during a four-month stretch in 1944, while Harris was inflicting heavy losses on enemy aircraft, his own aircraft went unscathed by enemy fire. “Not a bullet hole, not a piece of shrapnel, not even a scratch,” said Schroeder. “That’s taking good care of government property.”
Schroeder also told how in 1944 Harris helped save a squadron of 20 fighter pilots by leading them through the impending dark and fog to a safe landing aboard their carrier, the Intrepid. “He located the Intrepid, almost hitting its superstructure, landed safely, and then asked the captain to call the squad in,” said Schroeder. “He saved 17 aircraft, and 20 pilots that day.”