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In Memoriam: Mort Harris

May 6, 2021

Northwood University is saddened to hear of the passing of Mort Harris on May 5, 2021. Among many accomplishments, Mort had a decorated military career, where he served as a Flying Fortress First Pilot in WWII. He flew 33 missions in WWII, and received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, six air medals, Polish Medal of Honor, Presidential Citation and led a mission over Warsaw to drop supplies and ammunition to the Polish. Without Mort, and his generation, freedom and free enterprise are not possible. Please read the following article published with Northwood University’s In Defense of Capitalism to learn more about Mort’s impressive life.

A Hero, an Entrepreneur, a Philanthropist and a Gentleman: The Morton E. Harris Story

By Dr. Timothy G. Nash and Dr. Keith A. Pretty

First published in 2018 by the National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force

I. Introduction

Morton E. Harris was born in Detroit, Michigan on April 11, 1920, and in 1939 began taking classes at what is today Wayne State University. Mort never completed his degree, yet began making major contributions to the school in the late 1960’s. The philanthropist is among the university’s most distinguished alumni and is the founder, co-founder and/or owner of several companies, including American Axle and Manufacturing, Inc. (AAM). His illustrious life has spanned almost ten decades.

While studying engineering at Wayne State, Harris answered his country’s call and enlisted in the United States Army Air Force, where he became an officer and a highly decorated pilot. According to Harris, “At a young age I was highly susceptible to the flu and knew that if I was drafted, it was very likely that I would become an infantry soldier. I would be battling the cold European winters and the strong likelihood of having to battle influenza. I enlisted in the Army Air Force for health reasons as well as a fascination with aviation.”

During his time fighting Nazi oppression in World War II, Harris earned the nickname “Berlin Kid” in recognition of his 33 successful missions flying a B-17 “Flying Fortress” behind enemy lines with many resulting in the strategic bombing of the German capital of Berlin. Mort noted, “there were many times my crew and I were frightened to death, but knew that we had to complete our mission and return to base if at all possible. The most difficult times were when one of our fellow B17’s were shot down and we watched the plane become engulfed in flames as 10 valiant airmen plunged to their deaths. It is still something that haunts me to this day and has caused me to question my faith.”

Harris, like many American aviator heroes, is featured in the American Air Museum in Britain where their many accomplishments are recorded. Mort achieved the rank of captain, and was a member of the 95th Bomb Group, 334th Bomb Squadron of the U.S. Eighth Air Force Group, commonly referred to as the “Mighty Eighth” for its sheer power and success. Its motto was simply “Justice with Victory.” According to museum records, the 95th Bomb Group was the only part of the Mighty Eighth to be awarded three Distinguished Unit Citations. The first, shared by all four bomb wing groups, was for the bombing of an aircraft factory under intense enemy fire at Regensburg on August 17, 1943. The second was awarded for a raid on marshalling yards at Muenster on October 10, 1943 and the third for bombing a suburb of Berlin on March 4, 1944, the first time the German capital had been bombed by the United States Army Air Force. After VE Day, the 95th Bomb Group transported liberated prisoners and displaced persons from Austria to France and England.

II. From Fly Boy to Hero

Records from the American Air Museum in Britain show that the 95th Bomb Group:

  • Flew a total of 321 combat missions between May, 13,1943 to April 20, 1945

  • Dropped 19,769 tons of bombs, and 456.5 tons of food

  • Completed 8,625 sorties

  • Lost 156 B17s in combat and 36 in other operations

  • Had 1,362 planes that were battle damaged and 61 that were forced to land on the continent

  • Claimed 425 enemy aircraft confirmed destroyed, 117 probably destroyed and 231 damaged

  • Lost 569 men who were killed in action, 3 were missing in action and presumed dead

  • Lost 825 men as POWs, 61 internees, 61 evaders, 192 wounded in action, 63 killed in non-combat injuries

  • Totaled casualties of 1,774

III. A Knack for Entrepreneurship and Intrapreneurship

After the war, Harris embarked on a business career in Detroit, becoming one of the state’s best known and successful entrepreneurs. He started, owned or coowned many companies, including the Mercier Corp., a manufacturer of metallurgical products, which he purchased in 1952. Later, he acquired Erie Coke and Chemical Company out of Erie, Ohio. At one time, Erie was the largest privately-owned coke company in the United States producing coke for the steel, iron and sugar industry. Harris was the co-founder of Euroad, an over-the-road trucking company that provided logistics in Poland. When it was sold it was one of the largest trucking companies in Europe. He also served for many years as a board director of Michigan National Bank. He is a renowned investor and entrepreneur in numerous real estate ventures, including hotels, apartments, shopping centers and mobile home communities. He co-founded the auto supply giant, American Axle and Manufacturing, Incorporated (AAM).

AAM headquartered in Detroit was founded in 1994 when a private investor group led by Mort Harris, James W. McLernon and Raymond Park purchased the Final Drive and Forge Business Unit from General Motors. The investor group would hire Richard E. “Dick” Dauch as CEO and partner and together they grew AAM into a very successful multi-faceted company. AAM became a leader in the manufacturing of automobile driveline and drivetrain components and systems. In 1999, AAM became a publicly traded company on the NYSE and is a component of the Standard & Poors 600. American Axle and Manufacturing has a worldwide focus producing products for passenger cars, light trucks and commercial vehicles. Annual sales totaled $6.9 billion in 2017; a record year. Its major U.S. market competitors include Meritor, Inc. and Dana.

IV. The Recognition Continues

On November 14, 2017 in Bloomfield Hills, Harris received the French Legion of Honor, making him a member of the Knights of the French Legion of Honor.

The Legion of Honor medal was created by Napoleon in 1802 and is the highest national decoration of the French Republic. The medal was presented to Mort Harris by Guillaume Lacroix, Consulate General for France in the U.S. Midwest on behalf of the President of the French Republic. According to Lacroix, in the eyes of the president of France, Harris was deserving of his nation’s highest honor for acts of heroism during Operation Cadillac, in which Harris twice led squadrons of 12 B-17s to deliver cannons to the town of Footman-Lilas, where the French Maquis – courageous freedom fighters – and farmers used the cargo to liberate the first major city in France. The cannons were dropped out of planes with green and white parachutes and helped turn the tide of World War II. Paris was liberated soon after this mission.

In addition, Harris and his crew were part of the magnificent sky of flying fortresses that assisted American and Allied ground troops during the battle of the Bulge and went on to take part in the attack across the Rhine in March 1945. Harris, twice had his plane shot down and was rescued at sea, was the lead pilot on many of his bombing missions and is the only airman to successfully complete eight bombing missions over Berlin in World War II. All in all, for valor in combat, Mort received three U.S. Distinguished Flying Crosses, six air medals, one presidential citation, the Polish Medal of Honor, and the French Legion of Honor medal, all recognizing rare heroism by a young man who at the time was barely above the age of 21.

Morton E. Harris is a good, decent and humble man, and has been a hero in every facet of his life. As a young 23-year-old fly boy, he flew 33 missions behind the wheel of a B-17 bomber when the average pilot flew 24, playing a major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of France. From supporting the invading ground troops at Normandy on D-Day to volunteering to lead the Eighth Air Force to Warsaw, Poland to drop ammunition, food and medical supplies to Polish freedom fighters, Harris was the living embodiment of his squadron’s motto “Justice with Victory.” During the war, Harris spent time in Moscow with American ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time, W. Averell Harriman. Harriman would go on to become the 48th governor of New York and was pivotal in managing the relationship between the United States and the USSR during the crucial years of World War II. In fact, it was Ambassador Harriman and General Dwight D. Eisenhower who planned the mission Mort led to Warsaw.

In 1987, Harris, still the aviator and a contemporary who was an engineer, flew a personal light engine aircraft across the North Atlantic, breaking a thenworld record.

Harris has been recognized for his support of numerous community organizations, including Henry Ford Healthcare Systems, of which he is an honorary trustee; The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Focus:HOPE, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Detroit Science Center, The Detroit Riverfront Federation, The Henry, Oakland Family Services and Detroit Public Television. Harris and second wife Brigitte Harris (now deceased), have given significant dollars to create scholarships for the Wayne State Medical School as well as the university’s community outreach program in adult literacy. In honor of his first wife, Edith (deceased), he established the Edith Harris Memorial Lecture Series in the School of Social Work, the College of Engineering, the Law School and other university initiatives at Wayne State.

V. The “Greatest Generation” Personified

After the war, Harris created tens of thousands of jobs allowing individuals, families and communities to thrive and prosper throughout the state of Michigan, across America and around the world. Harris believes “my business success can be attributed to hard work, unique ideas, and the counsel and input from partners, mentors and advisors.” The three attributes that drive Mort’s life are a constant sense of humility, kindness, and charity. ”What good is your success if you cannot share it for the good of others?” is the truly the premise of Mort’s life. Mort and his family are heroes because their economic success not only created financial prosperity, but afforded them the opportunity to use a portion of their economic gains to support philanthropic efforts from hospitals and universities to symphonies and the underprivileged. Morton E. Harris was a part of this country’s “Greatest Generation.” Without heroes like Harris, much of Europe would not exist today and America might not be the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s all be thankful for Mort and the exceptional life he has lived to date.

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