Pilot lost in war found at last

Using DNA from relatives, the remains of Roy Harms, for whom Grafton’s Legion post is named, are identified 79 years and one day after he was killed in ill-fated WWII bombing raid

THE ROSE-HARMS AMERICAN LEGION Post in Grafton was named in part for Roy Harms, a native son who was the first local soldier killed in World War II, and the Legion hall was built on land donated by the Harms family. A plaque telling the story of Harms’ service was held by Commander Ken Kasprzak (left) and Allen Buchholz, vice president of the Ozaukee County Historical Society and a local military historian. An Ozaukee Press headline from Aug. 19, 1943, announced that Harms and two other servicemen were missing. Harms’ remains were recently identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Seventy-nine years and one day after Grafton native son and 1st Lt. Roy Harms was killed in the ill-fated Operation Tidal Wave during World War II, Harms’ remains were identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Harms’ nephew Slade Gerholt said Monday while reflecting on the call the family received notifying them of the news. “It was a surprise. Everyone’s pretty excited about it.

“I’m glad our uncle’s remains have been identified and there’s hopefully going to be some closure for the family, his friends, the Village and Town of Grafton and beyond.”

Slade’s wife Linda called the news “totally amazing.”

“I can’t get over it,” she said. “It’s a shock. It’s amazing — the whole family does feel astounded by it.”

Roy Harms was 26 when he died in the ill-fated attack on nine oil refineries around Ploesti, Romania, Allen Buchholz, vice president of the Ozaukee County Historical Society, said. Those refineries provided about 30% of the fuel needed by the Axis powers.

The battle was one of the costliest for the Army Air Force during the war, with 53 aircraft and 660 crewmen lost. Five Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers for their actions that day, more than on any other single day in any war, as well as 56 Distinguished Service Crosses, among them one given to Harms.

Harms was a member of the 329th Bombardment Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Unit,  who piloted a B-24 Liberator during Operation Tidal Wave. Of the 183 bombers that left Benghazi, Libya, on the mission, only 175 reached Romania, Buchholz said.

The attack was to be a surprise, with the planes flying at treetop level to evade radar, but the surprise was on the Americans, he said. Whether because of spies who notified the Germans ahead of time or whether the surprise was lost when the Allied planes crossed mountains in Yugoslavia hasn’t been determined, but the Germans were waiting for the planes and decimated the ranks of the Allies.

Harms’ plane, Hell’s Angel, was among those shot down, Buchholz said.

“It was a horrific crash,” he said. Harms and seven of the crew members were killed and one crew member parachuted out and was quickly captured.

Romanians in the area buried the bodies and remains they found in the Ploesti area, Buchholz said. After the war, the U.S. Graves Commission moved the unidentified remains to the Ardennes American Cemetery near Liege, Belgium.

Harms’ names was also listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy.

The DPAA, which is tasked with identifying the remains of servicemen, began exhuming the remains at Ardennes American Cemetery about 10 years ago to conduct DNA testing, Buchholz said.

Harms’ sister Laura Harms Murphy and nephew Tim Murphy provided their DNA for the testing.

“My mom couldn’t believe they would go to such lengths after so much time,” Tim Murphy said. “I told her, ‘Mom, you don’t leave your people behind.’”

His mother always hoped that her brother’s remains would be identified, he said.

“It would have been really neat if she was still around to hear about it,” he said. Laura Murphy, who was the youngest of Roy’s four siblings, died at age 99  on Feb. 20, 2020.

Murphy said he was astonished when he got the call notifying him that Harms’ remains had been identified.

“It was like ‘Holy smokes,’” he said. “I was very pleased to hear the news. I had been crossing my fingers it would happen.”

While it took a long time to identify the remains, Murphy noted that it is a painstaking process.

“It’s a lengthy process. They have to be 100% sure these are the remains of Roy Harms,” he said.

Murphy said it’s important to recognize the work of the DPAA.

“They do incredible work,” he said. “There were a lot of people who were lost and some of them will never be found, much less identified.”

Now, it’s up to the Harms family to determine what will happen to the remains. Gerholt said the family will meet with representatives of the Army in the next several months to discuss, among other things, where Harms’ remains will ultimately be placed, be it in Grafton or at Arlington National Cemetery.

Laura Murphy had expressed a desire that her brother’s remains be returned to Grafton, Gerholt said.

“There are so many roots in Grafton for Roy and the family it seems appropriate,” he said.

But, he said, he hasn’t discussed the matter with every family member yet and until he does no decision will be made.

The Harms name is well known in Grafton, and Roy Harms is particularly well known. He was the first Grafton solider killed in World War II, so his name was incorporated into the name of the American Legion Post.

Roy Harms has a place in Grafton lore as well. The Grafton High School graduate who worked at his parent’s general store on Bridge Street was known for tooling around town on the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he bought.

He joined the Army and was originally assigned to a tank unit, but later joined the Army Air Corps and became a pilot, Buchholz said.

After completing his final training in Nebraska, he headed to England in his B-24, a massive plane with a 120-foot wingspan, taking a route that sent Harms and his nine crew members over Grafton, Buchholz said.

They flew low over the family home on June 5, 1943 — “They say he rattled the windows of all the houses in the neighborhood,” Buchholz said — and threw out the window  a note to the Harms family signed by them all, wrapped around a 50-caliber bullet with a kite tail tied to it.   

They then flew to a farm off 17th Avenue, where Harms’ horse Bonnie was being boarded and circled the barn several times so he could try and catch a glimpse of the animal, then buzzed the farm where his friend Kenny Helms lived before heading overseas, Buchholz said.

Harms’ family donated the land on which the Rose-Harms American Legion Hall now sits.

Post Commander Ken Kasprzak said the news that Harms’ remains had been identified is significant for Legion members.

“Obviously for us it means a lot,” he said, adding that when the news was announced at the Legion picnic “there were some very emotional words spoken and happiness that they found his remains.”

Kasprzak said that if Harms’ remains are interred in Grafton, the Legion plans to be part of it.

“We’re going to have a full military funeral. It’s going to be a special thing for us,” he said.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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