Cecil Harris: South Dakota’s other fighter pilot ace


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — With Veterans Day just around the corner, we want to take time to pay tribute to veterans and their sacrifices.

A lot of us know the name Joe Foss, a World War II fighter pilot who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting down 26 Japanese airplanes.

But you may not have ever heard of another World War II pilot from South Dakota, whose heroics and accomplishments were just as significant to the war effort.

Cecil Harris, an American hero, who seemingly flew under the radar.

Captain Cecil Harris of Cresbard, South Dakota was an American Naval Aviator and World War II flying ace.

Harris, who served aboard the USS Intrepid, shot down 24 Japanese airplanes in the Pacific, which earned him nine combat medals, including the Navy Cross, the highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor.

Not once did his plane get hit by a bullet.

“Cecil Harris was part of a strategic initiative,” John Mollison said.

John Mollison is an artist, writer and filmmaker, who not only draws pictures of vintage airplanes, but also films documentaries of America’s heroes.

He’s been commissioned to draw Cecil Harris’ F6F Hellcat airplane.

“Well, I think first of all, Cecil Harris is famous for, for being another one of South Dakota’s great contributions to the world history, but technically he was the number two scoring World War II fighter ace, and with 24 victories, which is a very substantial number,” Mollison said.

But even so, not many people have heard of Cecil Harris.

Long before he was an American hero, Cecil was a school teacher in South Dakota.

He also graduated from Northern State University where a statue now proudly stands on campus detailing his service and heroics.

But by all accounts, Harris was never into such fame; he was a very humble man.

“There are some who liked the publicity, there are some who enjoyed being in front of the camera, and it’s certainly not a reflection of ego or anything like that it’s a personality. But Cecil Harris, that wasn’t what he was about. He seemed to have a desire to simply let the past be the past and go on and build another life,” Mollison said.

“Every branch of the service has its own culture and in World War II, leadership was especially important and Cecil Harris was especially well liked by the people who flew with him, as well as being an extremely proficient fighter pilot,” Mollison said.

One of those fighter pilots who flew with Cecil was Harold Thune, the father of Senator John Thune.

“My dad used to tell the story one time before they left the deck of the carrier, that they were sitting in the pilot’s ready room and they were talking about what would happen if you got into this type of a situation and Cecil explained that if you got a Zero on your tail this is a maneuver that you could end up reversing the roles and get on the Zero’s tail my dad said sure enough that day when they were in combat he had a Zero on his tail and he used this maneuver that Cecil had taught him and ended up getting on the Zero’s tail and shooting him down and he said that maneuver saved my life,” Thune said.

Cecil was never shot down, but years after combat his career sadly crashed and burned in a tragic way after being arrested for DUI. It’s part of a dark past that not a lot of people want to talk about.

“You can’t tell Cecil Harris’ story without asking the question, what happened to him, the official record is he committed suicide in a jail cell and probably because he was very ashamed of having a high blood alcohol content, but we’ve got to be very careful when we go back and we we talk about heroes, and the people we uphold at the very best hero is a human being like every one of us. And these are people with struggles and these are people with achievements. So, we can talk about what happened to Cecil Harris, it was unfortunate and it was terrible, but at the same time, he had an integrity with his life not only being an excellent fighter pilot but the people who served with him and under him had high regard for him, you can’t go back and find anybody who flew with Cecil Harris and didn’t say he was exceptional, and they weren’t just being nice, they were telling what they really felt,” Mollison said.

Mollison says that’s what Cecil Harris should be remembered for; his sacrifice and service and commitment to country.

On May 25th, 2009, a segment of Highway 20 in South Dakota was designated the Cecil Harris Memorial Highway.

Senators Tim Johnson and John Thune read their remembrances of Harris into the U.S. Congressional Record to mark the occasion.

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