Asian-American Pacific Islander Transportation History: Harry B. Harris, Jr.

May 25, 2015

Time magazine published an interview with U.S. Navy Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., just a couple of days before he began officially serving as head of the U.S. Pacific Command (the oldest and largest of the unified combatant commands of the U.S. Armed Forces). Harris is the first Asian-American to achieve the rank of U.S. Navy admiral and, with his appointment as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, he also became the highest-ranking Japanese-American in the nation’s military.

Harris was born in the city of Yokosuka in Japan in 1956. His father was in the U.S. Navy, and his mother was Japanese. Harris and his family moved to the United States when he was very young, and he consequently spent much of his childhood living first in Tennessee and then Florida.

In the Time magazine interview, Harris talked about the discrimination and other challenges that individuals of Japanese descent routinely encountered in the United States throughout the years. “We’ve come a long way in the past six or seven decades because of them and folks like them who fought for what’s right,” he said. “Their courage made a great difference in the lives of a whole bunch of people at that time, and even today. I’ve always said that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I mean it.”

Harris attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where he majored in general engineering. He graduated from the institution in 1978. Harris subsequently underwent flight training. He was designated as a naval flight officer and went on to pilot the Lockheed PC-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft in the skies above the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. Altogether, Harris has logged 4,400 flight hours in both American and foreign maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft.

The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, speaks at a tribute for Japanese-American veterans who served in World War II, Honolulu, Hawaii, Dec. 5, 2015. The “Fighting Two Wars” event honored the bravery and loyalty of the Japanese Americans who served after Pearl Harbor, even in the face of discrimination and distrust. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando.

Harris’s extensive military experience has also included serving as a tactical action officer on board USS Saratoga during the time in 1985 when that aircraft carrier played a key role in intercepting the hijackers of the Italian cruise ship MS Achille Lauro. Harris also participated in Operation Earnest Will, a large-scale U.S. Navy convoy effort to protect Kuwaiti-owned tankers from Iranian attacks during the 1980s; and Operation Willing Spirit, the 2008 rescue of Americans being held hostage by armed guerrilla forces in Colombia.

Harris was promoted to admiral in 2013. During the course of his career, he has also received a number of awards. These include the Navy League’s Stephen Decatur Award for Operational Excellence; the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations’ Ellis Island Medal of Honor; the Asian American Pacific Institute of Congressional Studies’ Lifetime Achievement Award; the Who’s Who in Asian American Communities’ Community Spirit Award; and the Asian American Government Executives Network’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award.

In addition, Harris became the U.S. Navy’s “Old Goat”; the designation is reserved for the longest-serving Naval Academy graduate still on active duty. He is also the Navy’s 15th “Gray Owl,” the longest-serving serving naval flight officer still on active duty.

As he prepared to take charge of the U.S. Pacific Command, Harris spoke to Time magazine about his mother’s powerful influence on him. He noted how she stressed the importance of the Japanese concept of “giri,” which means duty. Harris added, “I carry this with me to this very day.”

For more information on U.S. Navy Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., please check out http://www.navy.mil/navydata/bios/bio.asp?bioID=136.

The 25 May 2015 Time article containing his interview with the magazine is available at http://time.com/3895434/admiral-harry-harris-us-pacific-command-china-japan-asia/.

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