The memory never fades.
There are instances, down to the minute it occurred, that Calvin Harbin simply remembers. The timeline of events go back more than 70 years. But for Harbin, what he went through in World War II is still clear.
There is one lasting memory he has carried with him about the war, maybe more than just about any other one.
“It ruined my life,” Harbin said.
Wednesday was the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, eventually signaling the United States’ involvement in World War II.
It was then, 75 years ago, Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese fighter planes flew over the U.S. naval base at Hawaii, consistently bombing it. The U.S. promptly entered the war it had tried to stay out of.
It was that day that changed the lives of millions. It was a day that changed the United States.
In the middle of the living room of the house in which he resides with his son, Ed Harbin in Hays, Harbin sits in a cushioned chair. A lamp next to him, it’s curved above his head. Light shines down upon the 100-year-old as he looks through the number of papers on his lap. Most of it is military paperwork related to his past. He sifts through the papers, looking close at it through his bifocals, deciding which one was related to a specific event.
Harbin served in the military for 35 years. He was drafted into the Army in 1941 after he had called the draft board and offered to volunteer his name be put in earlier. Not that Harbin was anxious to get into the military. That was far from why he offered.
What he was hoping for was he could serve the required one year of military service and then go back to his home in California and become a lawyer. That was his dream.
“(The draft board) said you have a high number, and we’re only taking about 25 a week. You’re up 300 and something,” Harbin said, remembering his conversation about the draft. “So I said, if anybody has a hardship and can’t go, you can slip me in and let me get my one year over with. The next day, they called and said report for duty. I knew I had made a mistake then.”
Twice while serving, Harbin tried to resign. Both times, his resignation was denied. The U.S. military saw something in the young man who wanted nothing more than to go home.
In the span of WWII, Harbin was deployed seven times to Europe. His tours included duty in England, Scotland, Wales, France, Belgium, Holland and Italy — some of them of secret missions, which included one in England and another in France. His position at the time was called Foreign Positive Intelligence.
Harbin spent nights in complete terror inland a few miles from Omaha Beach in France, where the Germans would bomb the area at sundown, then return at sun up to drop more bombs. He was a second lieutenant at the time. He can remeber helping to dig trenches and bury soldiers.
On his third tour, Harbin was on a ship that was hit by a German torpedo somewhere in the Atlantic ocean. It would be hit a second time.
The remembrance of it all is still there. He still can recall a soldier shouting for his mother as he died in Harbin’s bunk.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.
Harbin was one on the ship who would be able to get in a lifeboat and eventually be found by a French fishing boat. They were 80 miles off the coast of France before a U.S. torpedo destroyer picked them up.
If there was a silver lining for Harbin, his action in war was over after duty during the Korean War. By 1952, he and his wife, Dorothy, had settled in Hays and raised their three children, Mary, Ruth and Ed.
Through his time in the military, Harbin was promoted 10 times. There is no specific infantry he was enlisted to in any of the paperwork, other than a few sheets say “Army.” He worked with all branches of the military along with the Army: the Air Force, Marines and Navy. He did some work with the Kansas National Guard as well.
“I thought it was interesting who did the promotions a couple times,” Harbin said with a grin, stretching his arm out to show the paper.
Twice he was promoted by the president of the United States.
“Usually, someone else does it,” he said.
Harbin became a professor of education at Fort Hays State University and then dean of education. He was the first dean at Fort Hays State. He still was working for the Army at the time and while he was at Fort Hays, from 1968 to 1974, he worked on the faculty at Fort Leavenworth. He retired from Fort Hays in 1981, where he also taught law. He then spent 24 years at the Dane Hansen Foundation in Logan as a counselor.
To this day, Harbin receives birthday cards from the White House. Most of them signed by the wife of the president who was in office at the time the card was sent.
“This one is from Laura Bush,” Harbin said as he smiles and holds it out.