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WWII veteran receives recognition he deserves 6 decades later

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 1:01 p.m. MST

Tom Harrison, a WWII veteran, received a package in the mail last week that contained quite a surprise: the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit Medal. He also received a Victory Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation.  (Jeremy Castellano, Deseret News) Tom Harrison, a WWII veteran, received a package in the mail last week that contained quite a surprise: the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit Medal. He also received a Victory Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. (Jeremy Castellano, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — For this year's Veterans Day, one World War II vet in Salt Lake City has something extra this year to commemorate his service in the Philippines.

Tom Harrison, who is 93, received a package in the mail last week that contained quite a surprise.

Harrison was commissioned through the ROTC at the University of Utah in 1941 and sent off to war in the Pacific. He endured the brutality of the Bataan Death March and three-and-a-half years in a labor camp, but never got all the recognition he deserved — until now.

"You can get used to most anything, if you make up your mind to do so," he said of his ordeals.

Harrison was among 20,000 American troops on the Bataan Peninsula who ran out of food and ammo and had to surrender in April 1942.

Tom Harrison, a WWII veteran, received a package in the mail last week that contained quite a surprise: the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit Medal. He also received a Victory Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation.  (Jeremy Castellano, Deseret News) Tom Harrison, a WWII veteran, received a package in the mail last week that contained quite a surprise: the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit Medal. He also received a Victory Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. (Jeremy Castellano, Deseret News)

"It was a terrible experience," he said.

Japanese troops forced the starving and exhausted POWs to walk more than 70 miles to the ships that took them to prison labor camps.

"If you got out of line, if you fell, you were likely to either be bayoneted or clubbed to death," he said. All the way, they were brutalized by their captors. "You tried not to attract attention of a guard with a bayonet."

He survived the march and more than three years in a prison camp, until they were freed in the summer of 1945. Harrison wrote a book about his experience in 1989.

Fast forward more than six decades to last week, when a package of prestigious service medals showed up in the mail on his 65th wedding anniversary. Harrison's wife thought it was his medication.

"It was in a package," he said. "No letter, no explanation."

Inside were the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit Medal. He also received a Victory Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation.

"I never tried to follow it up," Harrison said. "I had a family to raise, a career to follow and a war to forget."

The only information inside the package was a packing slip from the integrated logistics service center in Philadelphia. It simply listed the medals that were included in the package.

Harrison doesn't know why they were delayed. His separation papers mentioned the medals, but there was never a citation.

"You can't help but feel some pride," he said. "I'm even prouder of the fact that I'm sitting here, still living."

Harrison savors every day and credits his wife, his family, his friends and the care of the VA for his great longevity.

After Harrison was freed, he headed home on a ship across the Pacific with other survivors. They had a longwave radio that they tuned in one Sunday.

As it warmed up and the sound became clear, Harrison recalled, they heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing on KSL radio.

E-mail: jboal@desnews.com

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