Sheila Gasuk found out her father was a decorated World War II pilot when she was 16. She was cleaning out the basement of her parent’s house when she found a box that contained a piece of a parachute and her father’s service jacket, hat and medals.
“I was just so emotional at the moment. I was like, ‘You have to tell me what all this means,'” Gasuk recalled in a recent interview.
She eventually learned that her father, Jesse Monroe Harrison, had dropped out of college a day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Force and was assigned to the 77th Troop Carrier Squadron in Missouri.
Harrison, a longtime resident of Rocky Hill, is one of two World War II veterans who will be posthumously inducted into the Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Hartford on Dec. 6. Robert T. Cahill Sr., who lived in Vernon for 18 years prior to his death in 2001, also a member of the U.S. Army Air Force, is the second posthumous inductee.
The hall of fame recognizes distinguished Connecticut veterans who have made significant contributions to their communities after leaving the military.
Harrison and Cahill were part of a war that changed the trajectory of world events. Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, and as time passes, fewer of these vets are left. Connecticut’s Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are 12,000 World War II vets living in the state.
Harrison, who died in 2015 on his 94th birthday, was involved in several major events of the war, including the 1944 invasion of Normandy. He piloted a C-47 that dropped paratroopers over the shores of Normandy. After returning to England from a drop, Harrison and his crew counted 67 holes in the main body of their aircraft.
Months later, while towing a glider to Son, Holland, in September 1944, the aircraft he was flying was hit by ground fire. He ordered his crew to bail out from the aircraft and continued alone to the drop zone. With flames nearly reaching the glider he was towing, Harrison continued flying until he reached the drop zone and released the glider.
He then managed to get out of his aircraft, which was engulfed in flames. Harrison was badly burned when paratroopers found him and transported him through enemy lines. He later was taken to a hospital in Southampton, England, where he spent 15 months undergoing a series of procedures to completely restore his face and save his left ear.
Harrison was awarded several medals for his military service, including the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart, among others.
“My dad never spoke about war or what he did,” Gasuk said. “He came home and started his life.”
She said she nominated her father for the hall of fame as a tribute to him, and his service to his community after the war.
“This was my payback,” she said. “I wanted to get him this recognition, not just as a veteran, his service record speaks for itself, for being such a humble, giving person.”
Harrison served seven terms on the Rocky Hill Town Council, and as chairman of the town’s finance board, insurance committee and Planning and Zoning Commission. He was a member of several civic groups, including the Rocky Hill Lions Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2138, and the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 12. For more than 10 years, he made appearances as Santa to Rocky Hill’s schoolchildren.
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