Ernest Nason Harmon is a name often glossed over by the history books. A general in the Second World War, referred to by some as “the other Patton” and affectionately known as “Old Gravel Voice” by the men under his command, Harmon lived a life that could easily be viewed as a series of one heroic accomplishment after another.
In 1894, during the waning days of the horse and buggy, Ernest Harmon was born in the booming manufacturing town of Lowell, Massachusetts. He was orphaned at the tender age of ten and moved to live with relatives in Vermont. He grew up in poverty, but he overcame these early setbacks and eventually earned an appointment to West Point. He distinguished himself as a cadet by winning a boxing championship at the academy and went on to enter the army as a second lieutenant of cavalry. Again with the horses, and young Harmon quickly found himself in the thick of things on the battlefields of Europe during World War I. After the war, he was convinced that the cavalry was soon to become a thing of the past.
Not one to spin his wheels, between the wars Harmon further displayed his range of abilities as an Olympic athlete at the 1924 Paris Olympics, where he participated in the pentathlon.
By the outbreak of World War II, this newly-minted general was commanding one of the United States’ first mechanized armored divisions.
During the war the General distinguished himself in numerous battles. Although his arrival at North Africa’s Battle of Kasserine Pass was too late to turn the tide of German victory, he restored order in the battle’s aftermath. He then went on to hold Erwin Rommel in check at Thala, which caused the infamous Desert Fox to end his offensive against the Allies. Harmon’s leadership was also crucial in the early days of Anzio, where the Allies held a very tenuous grip on the beachhead and it wasn’t at all certain if they would be able to gain a foothold and proceed on to Rome. His “Hell on Wheels” 2nd Armored Division played an important role again in the Ardennes Forest, where, during the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler tried and failed to split the Allied forces. It was all downhill for the Germans after that. The end of the war found him with the Army of Occupation, where he liberated Pilsen, Czechoslovakia in May of 1945. His last assignment was as a ground forces commander at Fort Monroe, and he retired from the military in 1948.
This, however, was not the end of his accomplishments, as he then succesfully shifted gears from his military career to a position in academia. Harmon became the president of Norwich University, birthplace of the ROTC, and the school flourished. Under his command enrollment doubled, nearly-full accreditation was achieved by employing more and more department heads with PhDs, several new buildings were constructed, and the parking lot was greatly expanded. The university grew and prospered under his leadership, which lasted from 1950 to 1965. He was also made a Thirty-Third degree Mason during this time, and suffered third-degree burns wresting his coffee from the grasp of an insubordinate waitress.
Harmon also had three sons, all of whom fought in World War II, and two grandsons who fought in the Vietnam War.
A fellow battalion commander, Hamilton Howze, remembered of Harmon, “He had that quality of every really successful battle commander I have ever known, and that is drive. A lot of people call it leadership, but I choose to call it drive … Ernie provided that sort of drive. He was a very ebullient, hard driving kind of guy and a fine commander. No doubt about it.”
The General’s famous tenacity and drive kept the old ticker going, and Harmon did not pass away until November of 1979 at the ripe old age of 85, having lived just long enough to hear Gary Numan’s “Cars.”