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Captain Thomas O. Harrison

Regimental Chaplain

5th Infantry Regiment, 71st Infantry Division

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Captain Dr. Reverend Thomas Olsen Harrison was born a preacher’s son to a reverend in the Methodist church in 1915. Spending the first few years of his life in his hometown of McGee, Mississippi, it wasn’t too long until his father received a new assignment to lead a Methodist church in Owensboro, Kentucky where the family finally settled down. An extremely spiritual family, Harrison came to pursue a career in the cloth as his father did. Upon graduating high school he decided to attend Kentucky Wesleyan College to study divinity, eventually receiving his master's degree in it from one of Kentucky’s more famous religious institutions, Asbury College. Graduating from Asbury in 1936 now speaking Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Hebrew, he decided to attend a brief school at Harvard University specializing in chaplaincy before receiving his first ministry assignments in the Methodist Church. Spending time teaching at Mt. Gilead, Southgate, Loyall, and Burlington, it was at his final post in Burlington, Kentucky that he watched the United States descend into war. Knowing the extreme turmoil that millions of American soldiers would soon be facing, Harrison volunteered his ministerial services for the United States Army.

Joining the war in 1942, Harrison learned the trade of military ministry and received his first assignment to the 502nd Coastal Artillery in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He didn’t stay long, however, and upon completing his assignment there was moved to the 884th AAA Battalion stationed to guard Washington, D.C.. In the spring of 1944 Harrison received his third, and final, assignment as the regimental chaplain for the 5th Infantry Regiment, 71st Infantry Division.

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Arriving at Fort Benning Harrison found the spiritual strength of the unit unkempt, and services inside his small white frame chapel small. At this point, the division was still being formed as men were rushed in from all around the country to quickly fill the ranks. While the division was in this formative time Harrison was approached by a cheery Norwegian immigrant, PFC Luther M. Onerheim, a devout Christian and musician, sought Harrison’s help to create a regimental men’s choir. Although unheard of in Army infantry units, Harrison was all on board with the concept and played a critical role alongside Onerheim to convince the regimental commanders to support the formation of such a group. After months of rehearsals and work, the choir made their debut during one of Harrison’s church services to tremendous success. The choir was a phenomenal hit with both local civilian churches and the soldiers on base, bolstering attendance to Harrison’s services and bringing more troops in to hear his gospel message. The choir was even invited to perform on an Atlanta radio station when news came that the 71st Division was to imminently ship overseas for combat action in the European Theater of Operations.

Harrison and the division reached Europe on 6 February 1945. The trip overseas had been filled with Harrison’s suddenly increasingly relevant sermons as men began to fear and consider the consequences of incoming combat. For the first few weeks in France religious services, and choir performances were held in a large double-tent serving as a makeshift cathedral for the regiment as the division slowly made its way towards the frontlines. The 5th Infantry first saw combat under the command of the 7th Army in early March as it joined the other infantry units pushing the last Germans out of France and into Germany. The advance was quick and unceasing as the 5th fought fleeing German forces back into their homeland. Now in combat, Chaplain Harrison added funerary services and final rites to his list of daily duties in the performance of his role as the regimental father. As quickly as it joined the 7th, however, the 71st Division transferred to Patton’s 3rd Army where it joined the more northern sweep across Germany, facing extremely tough fights with the 6th SS Gebirgsjager Division and ambushes amongst the dense German forests. Harrison was surely kept busy as casualties mounted but upon that glorious day in May of 1945, the war in Europe came to an end and the prayers of both Harrison and many 5th Infantry Regiment soldiers were answered.

A field service
A field service

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Harrison in uniform
Harrison in uniform

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Map of the 71st ID's travels in Europe
Map of the 71st ID's travels in Europe

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A field service
A field service

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Now in Steyr, Austria, the 71st found itself the farthest eastward-advanced division in Europe. Occupation found the unit moving around all around Germany and Austria with Harrison’s regimental choir becoming a renowned hit across the continent, traveling to perform at cathedrals across Europe and, once, even for General Patton personally. Harrison himself stayed in the army until 1946 when he was relieved of active duty and allowed to return home. His pastorate career in Kentucky found him at many posts, but his most influential and lifelong passion was as chaplain of Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky (1954-1990). There he spent his time administering to the spiritual needs of patients, families, and staff, becoming an iconic local figure and important man of faith for those in suffering. Amongst these years in his primary field, he was an active member of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, a member of the board of the Kentucky Credit Union, Treasurer of the National Chaplains Association, President of the Asbury College Alumni Association (who gave him an honorary doctorate in 1962), member of the Lexington Kiwanis club, and a spiritual mentor for many in his community. Harrison was called home in 2010 but left a mark on the lives of so many both in the field of battle and the bluegrass state.