On 6 June 1944, James Thomas Harper, an American son, gave his life for his country and global freedom. His sacrificial service is a lasting testament of his stalwart courage.
Born in rural Salt Lick, Bath County, Kentucky, on 9 February 1922, James was the fourth of seven children of John and Nancy Harper. Salt Lick, a rural town, was an hour or so west of its larger Kentucky neighbor, Lexington. When James arrived, the couple were parents of three children. In subsequent years, John and Nancy had a daughter and three sons. Lifelong Kentucky residents, John farmed while Nancy, known as Nannie, cared for their children and home.
James was in elementary school, approaching his 10th birthday when America collapsed into the Great Depression. Kentucky communities were hit hard, perhaps more severely than other states. Its economic and societal woes began in the 1920s.
The state’s timber industry had already faltered and fallen by 1929. Mining and textiles were fraught with overproduction, low wages and high unemployment while other industries thrived. Miners’ fierce resistance to unionization led to armed conflicts. Farm families eked out sustenance from overworked land that provided little income. As the Depression swallowed Appalachian states, a pervasive 1930 drought relentlessly kicked farmers into the dusty earth.
Newly elected President Roosevelt’s social programs found the region overcome by unemployment that far outstripped the country’s averages. In some counties, nearly 80% of the workforce was out of work. Federal support efforts created an entrenched dependency born from generational poverty.
With America’s 1941 plunge into war, the economy began to recover. In Salt Lick, an upturn was not readily forthcoming. Agriculture lingered, a desperate scratch-out existence for Kentuckians who were ill-equipped to find work in a growing industrialization. In 1940, James, then 18, lived with his family, working on farms as he'd done from his boyhood. Perhaps in search of a different life, he found his way to Franklin County, Indiana, some two hours away. There, he worked in a metal production company.
At an unknown date before he enlisted, James married Helen Barbee. The couple likely lived in near his place of employment, though, their exact address is not known.
On 10 November 1942, James, 20, entered the United States Army at Cincinnati, Ohio. By March the following year, he was assigned to Company L, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry while posted at Camp Gordon, Georgia. At Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Private Harper was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, 31 December 1943 at 22nd Infantry Headquarters. During his service, James was promoted to Private First Class.
PFC Harper deployed overseas 18 January with the 22nd Infantry Regiment aboard the Capetown Castle, a liner converted to a troop transport vessel. The ship arrived at Liverpool, England on 29 January 1944. From its base, the Regiment trained until the invasion.
Nineteen months after his enlistment, PFC Harper and thousands of other Allied soldiers climbed into landing crafts in darkness for the 100-mile Channel crossing. A massive 5,000 ship flotilla and 11,000 aircraft were poised to land in Normandy and free German-occupied France.
A ferocious storm on 4 June kept already loaded crafts stalemated along the coast. Low ceilings grounded planes. Hours inched by as the heavy vessels bumped and jostled against each other. Troops, miserable with seasickness, waited for their commanders to assess conditions. As the storm abated, General Eisenhower said, “Okay. Let’s go.” Finally, the Allies were underway for the D-Day assault, 6 June 1944.
Assaulting Normandy: Operation Neptune
Operation Neptune, D-Day, began Allied naval assaults along the 50-mile Normandy coast. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. Although Hitler expected a strike, he could not pinpoint its exact date or location. Erroneously, he believed the Allies would strike in several places. As an invasion deterrent, Hitler ordered construction of the Atlantic Wall. For two years, the Nazis constructed 2,000 miles of coastal fortifications. Field Marshall General Erwin Rommel was in charge of finishing the massive project.
As June’s target date approached, the unseasonably poor conditions distracted the Germans. The weather seemed too foul for any amphibious landing. Rommel took the opportunity to celebrate his wife’s birthday at their Berlin home. The S-boats from Cherbourg, normally on Channel patrol, remained in port. Despite the massive number of Allied ships heading inland, German shore radar detected nothing until 0309 hours, 6 June.
Once alerted, enemy reaction was swift. Armed patrol boats departed Cherbourg at 0348 hours as German Admiral Krancke raised the alarm. Encountering the immense fleet, enemy craft launched torpedoes at maximum range, hit nothing and sped back to Cherbourg. Krancke soon understood the magnitude of Allied might. More than 24,000 British, American and Canadian airborne troops were on the ground behind enemy lines, securing bridges and exit roads.
Utah Beach, 0745 Hours:
Unlike Omaha’s formidable coastline, Utah Beach presented an entirely different topography. From its sandy dunes, the terrain shifted to a narrow rise. On the other side, the troops encountered boggy marsh-like ground, an impediment to swift movement.
At 0745 hours, PFC Harper landed with the 3rd Battalion. Under the command of Lt. Colonel Arthur S. Teague, the 3/22 was the first element of the Regiment to land that morning. Utah Beach concealed heavily mined sections of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, the so-called impregnable Fortress Europa. Two assault units, Companies I and L (PFC Harper’s company) also encountered withering artillery fire. Company L took a supportive, assembly position to the rear of Company I. Together with Company K and tank support, Companies I and L began immediately to eliminate German pillboxes and strong points.
At 1030 hours, the 44th Field Artillery Battalion landed in support of the 3/22. Eight minutes later, they fired steadily on enemy emplacements. The 3rd Battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its achievements in attacking those beach fortifications during the days of 6-9 June 1944.
In his book, Utah Beach to Cherbourg, author Roland Ruppenthal described the 22nd’s movements on D-Day. "At approximately 0745 (H plus 75 minutes) the 3d Battalion, 22d Infantry (initially attached to the 8th Infantry), touched down on Green Beach and moved north along the coast to reduce beach strong points. From that direction, the battalion moved past les Dunes de Varreville and the Exit 4 road and reached the southern edge of Hamel de Cruttes by nightfall."
During the 6 June assault, James was mortally wounded and evacuated to the battalion aid station. Subsequently, James Thomas Harper, 22, died as a result of his injuries. Tragically, his body was lost in the chaotic conditions of the battlefield. The final disposition of his remains unknown, PFC Harper’s status became one of missing in action.
PFC Harper was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, posthumously. James Thomas Harper was survived by Helen, his widow, his parents and siblings. He is memorialized at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Colleville-sur-Mer, Departement du Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France.
This story is part of the Stories Behind the Stars project (see www.storiesbehindthestars.org). This national effort of volunteers is writing the stories of all 400,000+ of the US WWII fallen servicemen and women here on Fold3. Can you help write these stories? Related to this work, a smart phone app will allow people to visit any war memorial or cemetery, scan the fallen individual’s name and read his/her story.
22nd Infantry Regiment Society. Selected Documents. Michael Belis, DMOR 22nd Infantry Regiment, 22nd Infantry Regiment Society Historian, Webmaster 1st Battalion 22nd Infantry, SGT C 1/22 Infantry RVN 1970-71.
Ancestryinstitutions.org. 1920 United States Federal Census.
Ancestryinstitutions.org. 1930 United States Federal Census.
Ancestryinstitutions.org. 1940 United States Federal Census.
Boice, William S. History of the Twenty-Second United States Infantry in World War II, 1959.
Memorandum of Record, James T. Harper. Personnel Actions Branch, U.S. Army, 18 November 1949. Private Documents Collection, Walter Harper, Contributor.
Public Member Photos & Scanned Documents.
Ruppenthal, Roland G. Utah Beach to Cherbourgh. Center of Military History, United States. Department of the Army. Historical Division, 1948.
U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current. James Thomas Harper, Portrait. Collection of Della Phillips Harper.
U.S., Headstone and Interment Records for U.S., Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, 1942-1949.
U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946.
U.S., World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947.