Nearly 60 years after a Korean War veteran made a promise to himself to find the daughter of a friend killed in action, he finally got to shake her hand and tell her about the man she never knew.
Alphonso Harris, 81, of East St. Louis, and Bea Harrison, 59, of Irwin, Pa., met for the first time at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville on May 3. They greeted each other as strangers but soon settled into easy conversation that was frequently interrupted with comfortable laughter.
Harrison broke the ice with a gift of a coffee mug from Pittsburgh.
"You can use your mug and think of me," Harrison said with a laugh. "It took you long enough to find me."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Harris grinned and held the mug.
"I've waited 60 years for this," he said. "This certainly took a load off me because I could finally talk to you about him. It means a whole lot to me to be here. It makes me feel so good to get a chance to do what I said I'd do. I was beginning to wonder if I'd live long enough to do that."
Harrison touched his arm and smiled.
"It all happens in God's time," she replied.
Harrison learned from a reporter in January that Harris was hoping to find her so he could tell her about her father and how he died, despite Harris' efforts to save his gravely injured friend. Since they connected via telephone they have remained in touch through weekly phone calls where they talk about the weather, fishing, daily life and the memories that Harris has of Harrison's father, Pfc. Kenneth Roger Eisenhardt.
"Sometimes he'll think of things about my dad and he'll give me a call and tell me about it or leave me a message," Harrison said.
She brought a stack of photographs of her father, mother and herself as a child. Her mother passed away in 2006.
Harris held a photo of Eisenhardt and looked at it, the memories apparent in his eyes.
"Oh yeah, that's him," Harris said. "Oh, I am so glad to see this."
She shared a picture of herself as a young child, standing in a cemetery holding an American flag while visiting her father's grave. She remembers visiting on the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Veteran's Day and in November, the month he was killed. She still stops to visit.
Harrison's family, including her husband, Addison, her two sisters and her stepfather, have been supportive and encouraging of her endeavor to learn more about the man she never knew.
"There has been a lot of information I didn't have before because we had no clue about what happened over there," she said. "Alphonso's information has made it clearer. It's filled a lot of holes."
Gerald Phillips, 81, is Harrison's stepfather and is the only father Harrison has ever known. Phillips, a decorated Korean War veteran, understood his daughter's desire to learn more about the man who was killed when she was four months old. Phillips served with the 72nd Heavy Tank Battalion and was wounded when he pulled two soldiers from a burning tank. He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Korean Service Medal with three distinctions, the U.N. Good Conduct Medal and Service Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.
"Being a veteran, my dad understands the importance of getting together and talking," Harrison said. "He has friends who don't know what happened to their family members. He has a different perspective than most of us in understanding the need to talk and learn and know what happened."
At the end of their visit the pair walked back to their cars, Harris walking slowly with the aid of a cane, Harrison keeping pace and talking.
"I'm glad you got to come up here," Harris told her. "I have enjoyed this 100 percent, 100 percent. It was so wonderful to see you but I should leave before I start crying."