VETERANS DAY 2017
Role as WWII aviator prepared Harrell for the pulpit
By Miles Layton
Saturday, November 18, 2017
EDENTON – Robert S. Harrell was a lieutenant serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps when his bomber veered off a course a bit one night during a training run over the Pacific at the tail end of World War II.
Since there were no gas stations in those skies where the B-24 could pull over to get directions, he said, another approach was needed to get the bomber crew home.
Harrell, the plane’s co-pilot, said the bomber's navigator went up inside a window at the top of the plane to make some calculations.
“There were no computers then, so he looked at the compass, took a sexton up there and pointed it at the stars,” Harrell said with a smile. “We made it back to base – straight line – saw the lights of the landing strip.”
A native son of Chowan County, Harrell served in the army air corps between May 1943 and Dec. 1945.
“I was always interested in flying,” said Harrell, who graduated from high school in Chowan in 1942.
He described flying as “peaceful” and that aircraft didn't have a lot of the modern technology which is commonplace today. Harrell said his unit was training so as to be ready to conduct bombing runs toward the end of the war, but that day never came because Japan surrendered soon after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But that's not the end of Harrell's story. After the war ended, Harrell attended North Carolina State University and the University of Richmond. His new flight trajectory was to become a Baptist minister. Harrell said his military service didn't inspire him so much as it was “a calling” from God to be a pastor.
Harrell may not have been on the front lines of any battlefield, but he was certainly in the trenches during the racial divide in the 1960s. An active pastor who served churches in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, Harrell was appointed to the Good Neighbor Council in 1966 by Governor Dan Moore. The group's purpose was two-fold: to encourage the employment of qualified people without regard to race; and to encourage youth to become better trained and qualified for employment.
“I think we made real progress from businesses hiring blacks,” he said.
Harrell's tenure between 1966-69 was an active one as he recalled the racial unrest at the time. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968, a wave of civil disturbance swept the nation.
“When we heard the news about Dr. King's death, we were all shocked,” Harrell said.
Harrell recalls how afterward, a lot of places across the country were “burning” but he did what he could to calm tensions wherever he was sent.
Many years later, Harrell, now 92, looks back on his life with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Harrell said he's glad to have helped as many people as he could by serving the Lord. When Harrell was asked if he would re-enlist – do it all over again – he said, “Oh yes. We were at war at the time and I felt I had an obligation.”