Surviving the South Pacific: 104-year-old WWII veteran looks back

by Judy Stringer

The first celebration using the term “Veterans Day” occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, following earlier recognitions of the end of World War I that went under the name “Armistice Day.” This year, Hudson Life honors veterans with the remarkable story of George Harabin, Sr., who served in World War II and turned 104 in July.

 “Unfortunate” is a word George Harabin Sr. uses often when he talks about his World War II service, but not about himself. That is how the 104-year-old Army veteran – a St. Mary Catholic Church parishioner who lives in Twinsburg Township – describes friends and fellow soldiers not making it home.

Having spent 16 months in Pacific Theatre combat, Harabin knows that he was one of the lucky ones.

Lucky not to be among his 124th Infantry peers randomly diverted to deadlier missions in Europe, including the bloody Battle of Anzio that claimed the lives of close military buddies. Lucky to have made it safely through U-Boat infested waters during the two-month voyage to the South Pacific.

Lucky not to have been dispatched in the early waves of the 31st Division’s landing at East Indies island of Morotai and again at the landing at Mindanao, an island in the Philippines. And, very lucky to have taken a “right” wrong turn during a 503-man advance on Mindanao’s mountainous Kibawe-Talomo trail – a decision that spared the outnumbered American soldiers from an awaiting ambush.

Months later, when Japanese General Gyosaku Morozumi surrendered his Mindanao troops, “he said there were 2,000 of them waiting for us,” Harabin recounted. “They would have annihilated us.”

Harabin was born in 1919 on a farm two miles outside of Westport, Pennsylvania, where his family relied on horse and buggy, as there were few cars at the time. They moved to Cleveland in 1928, just before the onset of the Great Depression.

“You couldn’t get welfare unless you were a [Cleveland] resident for years, but people used to help each other. It’s not like it is today,” he said of the difficult period.

Harabin was 22 when he was drafted, leaving for basic training in February 1942. After boot camp, he said the outfit joined the 124th Infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia, where officers were trained in heavy weapons, “30 caliber machine guns and big mortars.” He performed this duty for 22 months and, during a home visit in September 1943, married his late wife, Stella.

Unexpected orders sent Harabin and his company to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he – now a Communications Sergeant – was assigned to the 31st Division and boarded a February 1944 convoy that landed in Oro Bay, New Guinea, 62 days later.

“When I was down at Fort Benning, I saw the movie or some news about the Battle of Buna, and at that time, I never thought I’d ever see anything like Buna,” Harabin said, “and there we were in the New Guinea swamps.”

As part of the Allied campaign to free New Guinea and the Philippines, he spent the next 16 months in thick swamps, dense jungles and rugged mountain terrain facing intense heat, monsoon rains, limited rations and fierce Japanese resistance. During the 31st’s dangerous landing on the occupied island of Mindanao, Harabin said he believes his role in communicating closely with the captain kept him from the frontlines.

“What was amazing to us was how indoctrinated the [soldiers] were, that they’d die for their hero Hirohito,” he said, reciting stories of Japanese troops walking willingly into ambushes or refusing to retreat from cave hideouts before being gunned out.

That “right” wrong turn came in the spring/summer of 1945 as part of a mission to cut off Japanese troops retreating from Davao City through mountains to the northwest. The taxing drive was on a narrow, rain-soaked and often impassible trail, and at one point, the division had to choose between two paths. They selected one that ended up in the jungle and, out of food for four days, returned to the base to find the mission had been serendipitously canceled.

“We later learned they knew there were 503 of us. They knew that my captain was a redhead. That’s how good [of] binoculars they had,” Harabin said. “Thank God it was called off.”

Harabin was present at Morozumi’s surrender on Sept. 8, 1945, documenting the historic moment with his prized Kodak Brownie camera. He returned home to Stella on Dec. 22 of that year and began an apprenticeship with the Carpenter’s Union – of which he is the oldest living member – and became a cabinet maker.

The couple, which had four children, eventually settled in Independence where Harabin lived for 62 years. He moved in with his eldest, George Jr., about five years ago, in an Old Mill Road home where he enjoys spending time in the light-filled sunroom and can visit frequently with grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren that live nearby.

Harabin appreciates the recognition of his service, particularly around holidays like Veterans Day this month, and encourages others to cherish WWII vets every day, as their ranks are quickly declining.

“Some of these younger people, when they see me, they don’t realize. I tell them, ‘I am a World War II veteran, and not only that, I am 104 years old. What you see today, I don’t think you’ll ever see that again in your life.’” ∞

George Harabin Sr.’s company landed at Morotai in the East Indies in September 1944, wading ashore through chest-high surf waters, and holding the island until early 1945. Photo submitted.

Harabin captured a photo of Japanese General Gyosaku
Morozumi signing surrender documents on Mindanao,
Philippines. Photo submitted.

On our cover (photo): George Harabin Sr. survived 16 months of combat in New Guinea and the Philippines. A St. Mary parishioner, Harabin lives just north of Hudson with his son, George Jr., and daughter -in-law. Read about Harabin’s WWII service on page 4. Photo by J. Stringer