NEW BREMEN – New Bremen High School alumnus Niles Harris – who was the inspiration for the Big & Rich song “8th of November” – was featured during the New Bremen Elementary/Middle School’s Veterans Day program on Monday.
This year’s Veterans Day program was the largest in the history of the school, Principal Diane Kramer said, with more than 200 veterans invited to attend. Harris, a 1963 New Bremen graduate, was singled out and presented a plaque in recognition of his service in the United States Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team during the Vietnam War.
“It’s really good to see the small towns honoring the veterans,” said Harris, who now lives in Deadwood, South Dakota. “I haven’t seen stuff like this in some of the other places I’ve been in a lot of years. It’s just good to see all the kids learning something about what went on and is still going on. We really support the veterans right now 100 percent. They’re getting good care, they’re getting welcomed when they come home and taken care of.”
Harris was severely wounded during Operation Hump on Nov. 8, 1965. Troops from the United States, Australia and New Zealand sought to drive Viet Cong soldiers out of positions on several key hills but were ambushed by more than 1,200 Viet Cong fighters. Almost 50 Americans died in the operation, including 25 of the 30 men in Harris’ platoon.
“We were very well trained,” said Harris, who was 19 years old during the battle. “We were in Okinawa a year and a half training in jungle warfare and everything else. Our unit was very well trained. That’s why some of us made it through it.”
New Bremen honored members of every branch of the military during Monday’s program with songs by the school’s choirs and band, video presentations and recognition of all the veterans in attendance.
“Our gathering is just one small spark in a flame of pride that burns across the nation today and every day,” Kramer said. “Our assembly here is one small way we can honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live in freedom.”
During the assembly, New Bremen students announced they raised $675 during bake sales at football and volleyball games that they donated to the Wounded Warrior Project in honor of New Bremen veterans.
“Friday was the eighth of November,” Harris told the New Bremen students, who ranged from kindergarten through eighth grade. “Forty-eight of those guys never came back. They were 18 and 19 years old, most of them. So you kids up there, they were four and five years older than you, and they didn’t make it back. And there’s millions of them who didn’t make it back.”
Harris, who served 25 years in the Army, spent two years in hospitals after being injured on Nov. 8, 1965. He went on to serve three more tours in Vietnam.
“When I was a kid, all the old soldiers from World War II were all my heroes and stuff,” said Harris, who fund-raises for the Wounded Warrior Project and helps wounded soldiers. “I’ve always wanted to be a soldier.”
Harris makes it back to New Bremen once or twice a year, he said, but Monday marked the first time he was in the school since he graduated.
“It’s good to be back in the old school,” he said. “I was usually thrown out most of the time I was here.
“I’m here now, and I’m not in cuffs, so it’s all right.”
Harris moved to South Dakota because of the motorcycle culture in the state, the landscape of the area and the small town feel. He was working as a bartender in 2004 when he met William Kenneth Alphin, better known as Big Kenny, and John Rich.
When he met Big & Rich, Harris gave Alphin a top hat that the musician regularly wears during concerts and has become his signature look.
Harris also told the duo about his experience in Operation Hump, which inspired the 2006 song “8th of November.” Harris has met people from throughout the United States because of his role in the song.
“That’s all right, but it’s a pain in the ass, too,” he said of having a song written about him. “That was one story out of a million that happened, you know, and I just happened to meet a couple of guys who are great writers.”
With this being the last school year before New Bremen closes the current elementary and middle school building, Kramer said, it was important that this year’s Veterans Day program be something students would never forget.
“Couldn’t ask for it to be any better,” she said. “We wanted to do something since this is the last year in this building to make it very special and by doing that we invited New Bremen native Niles Harris back to our assembly, which made it even more special.”
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