WWII vet tells story of Six Days on a Raft

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, May 30, 2018

By Anne Payne

The Orange Leader


Orange native, Bill Harrison, now of California, belongs to the group many call, “The Greatest Generation.”

Harrison, 96, wrote a book entitled, Six Days on a Raft, the true story of faith and survival with Forrest Haggerty, published February 13, 2007.

A teacher for 15 years, Haggerty is author of a book called, 43 Seconds to Hiroshima.

Harrison wrote his book, and now a movie is in the process of being made about it. The movie is scheduled for completion by the end of the year, according to Harrison.

He especially noted by phone to this reporter that he wanted The Orange Leader to know his story due to the importance of the paper while he lived in Orange.

Sixteen years ago, according to Harrison, God told him to be one of his miracles when melanoma, a deadly cancer, was found in his neck.

Three weeks later, the cancer had completely disappeared, noted in a letter from Harrison’s doctor.  Harrison says he is a survivor, and still stays active in Kiwanis, Lion’s Club, and Rotary Club, while speaking to over 70 years to numerous schools in five different states.  Harrison firmly believes that only God saved him and his three buddies on the raft.

Harrison graduated from the former Stark High School, serving as Drum Major, but left Orange when he joined the Navy with his three brothers.

When contacted by telephone in Hemet, California, Harrison said that he was good friends with Homer and Bill Stark, playing with them as a child.  He discussed how their dad, Lutcher Stark, did so much for both bands, the boys’ 125-piece band and the girls’ bugle corps.

Harrison recalled train trips to football games where he and his classmates received all their uniforms and expenses paid by Stark.

Harrison added that he recalled working for the Piggly Wiggly on Green Avenue in high school and seeing western movies at the Strand Theater in the evening.

Harrison lived near a good friend named Sam Cooper at 10th and Rein.  Unfortunately, Cooper was killed in France during the war.  Cooper was one of two young men from Orange killed in the war, Cooper and Donald Manley. Cooper is buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint-Avold and Donald in the Luxembourg American Cemetery, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg.

Only returning once to Orange since leaving for WWII, Harrison says he thinks of Orange every day.

While as a child, Harrison’s mother, Zella Harrison, served as a mid-wife by choice, to help many women who might not have the money to pay a doctor or hospital to deliver a baby.  He still refers to his mother as a humanitarian and as an angel with a direct line to God.  Even during the Depression, Zella Harrison did not seek Red Cross help because she thought there were many others needing it more than she, her husband, and eight children.

Harrison also said his father never wanted a car, but the Orange Sheriff would bring his father strange animals to nurse back to health, sometimes using food from his own garden as nourishment or from his mother’s food canning.

According to Harrison, his parents were very important to him and his seven siblings.

Harrison noted that he and his siblings never understood prejudice, mostly due to his mother’s excellent training.

His best playmate was named Snowball, and Harrison never discovered what happened to Snowball.

Harrison eventually married a woman named Ida, and she only passed away 14 years ago.

Ironically, the typhoon that nearly killed Harrison and his buddies on the raft was also named Ida.  From their marriage came four children, three boys and one girl.

One son and the daughter are now deceased, but two sons are still living at ages 74 and 76.

WWII came to an end on August 14, 1945, eight days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.  The USS YMS-472 was one vessel whose job was not complete at war’s end.  Harrison and his Navy buddies were then assigned to Okinawa Island, with orders to sweep the area and destroy active mines.  These men were already having thoughts of home, family, and togetherness.

Supposedly, the weight of the war had, at last, been removed from their shoulders.  Never did any one of these fellows suspect that they would soon be introduced to a new type of enemy, a typhoon.

Then, on September 16, 1945, 33 days after the war had ended, a Category 3 Typhoon, Ida, would catch the 31-crew members of YMS-472 off-guard, sending the ship to the bottom of the ocean.

Six Days on a Raft is a true story one man’s experiences on the Pacific Ocean while lost to the sea in a tiny life raft.  As Harrison’s comrades began to slip into the ocean around him, Harrison knew it would only be a matter of time before he met his fate in the ocean waters.

However, Harrison’s epiphany about true faith would be the catalyst to a rescue of a miracle situation.  Harrison went six days without food or water while on the raft in September 14.  He was a 23-year-old machinist when the ship sank.

Currently, Harrison is in a wheelchair, but once fought Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Hirohito’s Japan, and Mussolini’s Italy.

Harrison said he promised God that he would promote faith in God if he and his friends were rescued.

Harrison said he even told his buddies that his faith had told him that God would soon rescue all of them, and 45 minutes later, they were.

Upon being rescued, a Navy chaplain asked each of the survivors to write a letter to their spouse, girlfriend, or mother.

Harrison did so, and his letter reached his wife before the U.S. Navy letter did, informing her that her husband was no longer Missing in Action.

The book, Six Days on a Raft, is available through Amazon.com, or at Barnes and Noble.