On the night of June 5, 1944 First Lieutenant Ernest O. Harris and the 101st Airborne dropped into the German stronghold of occupied France. Like so many that frightful night, Harris and his men had landed far from their intended drop zone and were lost in hostile country. Upon establishing their position, the men advanced in the dark toward a place called Marmion Farm. As the paratroopers approached they suddenly came under fire from hidden enemy positions. The ranking officer, Major John P. Stopka, ordered Lieutenant Harris to take two men and flank around the right of the enemy’s position – probing for a weakness. Minutes later, a short but intense exchange of fire was heard from the direction of Harris and his men. The major brought up his troops to support Harris’ outgunned detachment, but there was no need for alarm. Lieutenant Harris emerged from the darkness with twenty-four beleaguered German prisoners. According to the major’s recollection, Harris had gotten behind the enemy position and attacked – making “so much noise that the enemy apparently thought he had a small army with him.”
Remarkably, after turning over his prisoners, Lieutenant Harris jumped right back into the fray. Harris and his two men returned to “mop up,” but instead found another strongpoint larger than the last. Major Stopka recalls: “When I got to the rear of the garrison, I could see Lieutenant Harris jumping a trench, shouting, firing his rifle, and generally making quite a scene. Following him at about fifty yards were his two men, creeping and crawling on their stomachs, looking rather timid and afraid to get out and move, but in seeing Harris jump up and fire, yell, and carry on like he did, they got up and did the same thing.”
Inspired by Harris’ example, the paratroopers took the position. Later, the men learned that they had captured the headquarters for two-hundred enemy soldiers – the strongpoint for the entire German defense in the area. In the words of Major Stopka: “Lieutenant Harris’ actions, in the face of such apparent great odds, his tenacity, aggressiveness, and sheer guts inspired the men to do things they would not normally do” and made the enemy “think that there were thirty men” instead of only three.
Ernest O. Harris won the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions that night. Tragically, Ernest died just six days later, in the fight to take the key town of Carentan. He is buried in the land he fought to save, in the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Riley County honors the sacrifice of a man who “fought like thirty men.”