Col. Edwin A. Harper (USMC, Retired), the next to last survivor of the fabled World War II “Black Sheep Squadron” and later the commander of a squadron of fighter pilots poised to strike during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, has died at his home in Lake Saint Louis. He was 93.
Col. Harper’s life was the stuff of which movies are made, or at least TV shows. The Black Sheep Squadron was immortalized by the highly fictionalized 1970s television series, Baa Baa Black Sheep. Col. Harper was not bothered that the raucous series strayed so far from the facts.
“Laughing, he’d say it would have been nice to have all of those nurses there (like on TV),” said his daughter Debbie Espin of Charlotte, N.C. “He told us it was not what their life was like at all, but it didn’t really bother him; he knew the truth.”
Espin said her father died of complications of kidney failure and congestive heart disease on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. Services will be Feb. 21 at Baue Funeral and Memorial Center in St. Charles.
The black sheep
In a military career that spanned nearly three decades, it was his time as a member of Marine Corps Fighter Squadron 214, which became better known as Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington’s “Black Sheep Squadron,” that will forever stand out in a life punctuated by legendary exploits.
Col. Harper was one of the original 49 fighter pilots and two ground officers who constituted the unit. They were organized on the World War II battlefield to meet the urgent demand for another combat squadron in the South Pacific.
Boyington pulled them together in just four weeks, but the self-named group was hardly the outcasts and misfits their name – and the television series – implied.
They were well-trained fighting men and proudly carried the appellation because “(We) didn’t belong to a regular outfit; didn’t deploy with a regular outfit, and that was OK,” Col. Harper told Newsmagazine Network last year. “Black Sheep” beat the name they were first called: “Boyington’s Bastards.”
The Black Sheep fought the Japanese for 84 days over the Solomon Islands, en route to becoming the most famous Marine Corps squadron in history.
“Ed was modest, but he really was a standout in the squadron,” said Bruce Gamble, a former naval officer and the author of six books on World War II. “He often said ‘
Boyington made young men brave.’”
Col. Harper soon became brave enough to split off and fly alone, a move Boyington approved. It made it easier to spot enemy planes; it also made it easier to draw enemy fire. On one such mission, his F4U Corsair became surrounded and took a hundred bullets before help arrived to help dispatch the swarm of Japanese bombers.
On another mission, he took just a few bullets, but one was to his cockpit. He was a hit by flying glass, but his biggest problem was the loss of his instruments and radio. It took an old-fashioned floating compass to get him home.
He was later seriously injured when a .51 millimeter bullet pierced his canopy, nicking his spine. Despite temporary paralysis, Col. Harper landed his plane safely. Such feats earned him and his fellow Black Sheep the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in action.
The military man
It was 1941 and he was in his second year at the University of Idaho when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After completing the semester, he joined the war effort, becoming a Navy aviation cadet. When he was ready to be commissioned as a pilot, he switched to the Marine Corps where there were more flying opportunities.
In his 28-year Marine Corps career, Col. Harper flew 97 combat missions during World War II, 21 combat missions in the Korean War and another 14 missions during the Vietnam War. Along the way, he collected three distinguished Flying Crosses, seven Air Medals, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
But he never thought himself a hero. Not even when he was piloting the lead plane that sat on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the Gulf of Mexico awaiting the order from President John F. Kennedy to strike during the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis. Luckily, the order never came.
When he retired from the Marine Corps in 1969, he stayed close to the military. He soon joined McDonnell Douglas, now Boeing, and led the Harrier program from concept through full production. He introduced the Marines to the plane that needs no runway for takeoff.
“Everybody was just delighted to work with Ed Harper,” said Lewis Watt, a retired Marine Corps colonel who was still on active duty when Col. Harper became his liaison at Boeing. In a serious, sometimes contentious industry, Watt said Col. Harper had a special way. “He would say, ‘We can do all this (work) without making enemies. He was amazing. He was a gentleman.”
A 17-year career with Boeing was not enough. When he retired in 1987, Col. Harper became a consultant with England-based Smith Industries for another 10 years.
Onward and upward
Edwin Arthur Harper was born on July 26, 1920, in Bassano, Alberta, Canada. He was the middle child of Frank and Vera Crawford Harper, wheat farmers who turned to mining and logging during the Great Depression. The family moved to Wallace, Idaho, where he graduated from high school. He left college to join the Navy. Newly commissioned with his wings, he married Adolyn Louise Pearson before going off to war in 1942. They later divorced; she died in 1997.
During his years as a Marine, Col. Harper was deployed throughout the U.S. and abroad, including Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, California and France. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Maryland in the mid-50s. Upon leaving the Marine Corps, he worked for Boeing in California for a year before moving to the St. Louis office. The family first lived in Des Peres.
For the past 30 years, Col. Harper, who was a member of the Golden Eagles naval aviators group, had lived in Lake Saint Louis with his second wife, Jane F. Mattern Harper.
He was a Cardinals baseball fan long before arriving in St. Louis. The Black Sheep proudly sported Cardinal caps that the team sent to them after, as lure has it, Pappy Boyington promised the squad would shoot down one enemy plane for every cap they received. The Cardinals sent 20 caps (Col. Harper’s was pilfered from his cockpit), along with plenty of bats and balls. The Black Sheep shot down 48 enemy planes; one was attributed to Col. Harper.
“Growing up, he’d tell my sister and me to be strong, self-reliant and that everything was going to be ‘an experience,’” Espin said. “And when he bade farewell, he’s say ‘onward and upward – God bless America’.”
Col. Harper was preceded in death by his parents, an older brother who died in infancy; his older sister, Helen Harper; his younger sister, Elsie; a daughter, Diane Merry Hoel; an infant son, Christopher Lee Harper; and a stepson, Jim Mooney.
In addition to his wife Jane and his daughter, Deborah “Debbie” (Al) Espin, Col. Harper’s survivors include two stepdaughters, Karen Weidemann of St. Louis and Katherine Mansfield of Irvine, Calif.; seven grandchildren, Beth Lomas, Chris Hoel, Gretchen Peck, Nathan Hoel, Kriste Morgan, Eric Weidermann and Bobbie Ruppert; seven great-grandchildren; a son-in-law, Craig Hoel (the late Diane), and the last surviving Black Sheep, Lt. Harry “Skinny” Johnson, of Destin, Fla.
Visitation will be from 2 to 5 p.m., Friday, Feb. 21, followed by a funeral service at 5 p.m. at Baue Funeral and Memorial Center, 3950 West Clay Street, St. Charles.
Col. Harper will be inurned with full military honors at a later date at Arlington National Cemetery.
Memorials may be made to Paralyzed Veterans of America or the Salvation Army.