G. Homer Harding started training for his long military career in high school with Marlon Brando.
He enlisted in the Army in Pierre at 18 a few weeks after graduation, and within months was shipped out to fight the last months of World War II in the Pacific as a machine gunner.
He steadily moved up the ranks, was a staff sergeant before WWII ended, came home, went to college, got married, went off to war again, came home again. He and Patricia had four children, he pursued his military service in the South Dakota National Guard, built up the family business, got elected to the legislature, appointed state treasurer, got a star and retired as a brigadier general.
And along the way he watched his two sons and six of his grandchildren serve in the U.S. military, a remarkable record of service.
For Brando, the high school military training didn’t do as much. He was expelled before graduation and knocked around Hollywood for awhile.
The two were in the Class of ‘44 in Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minn. Harding transferred there from Riggs High in Pierre during his junior year.
Shattuck was then still an Episcopal school, all boys, and known for military and academic discipline, not hockey.
Harding said he wasn’t aiming at a military life at the time. Neither his father or grandfather served in the military.
“I think my parents wanted me to get a little more education in the sciences. It was noted for that. And a little bit for discipline.”
Brando was sent there from Nebraska, reportedly for the tight-ship atmosphere.
“He wasn’t a friendly guy at all,” Harding said. “He was in theater there. He was OK with me. But I never followed up after school, I had no interest at all.”
The theater of war awaited Harding.
After a few weeks at home in Pierre, Harding enlisted in the Army and was sent to Fort Snelling in St. Paul, then to Camp Wolters in Texas, west of Fort Worth.
To machine gun school.
In a few months he was on a ship headed to the jungles of the Philippines to root out the Japanese soldiers who had driven Gen. MacArthur away.
He was 19, manning a Browning water-cooled heavy machine gun, firing belts of 250 rounds in 20 or 30 seconds.
Looking now at the photo the Army took of him at Camp Wolters to send back to his family as perhaps their last look at him as he was shipped off to war, Harding remarks on his easy, confident smile in the black-and-white photo.
“None of us knew what we were getting into,” he said with a mirthless smile.
Even now, 74 years after, when asked about the war in the jungles of the Philippines against an enemy legendary for their ruthless methods, Harding seems hard-pressed to find words to say what it was like and the emotions still show with the memories.
“It was early 1945 in the Pacific. We were in the jungle all the time. I guess I spent a lot of time doing nothing and a lot of time scared as hell.”
“I joined the 40th Infantry in Leyte Island. I was the gunner so I carried the tripod.”
The tripod was a heavy piece of calibrated, machined steel that allowed the gun to be locked down to an accurate sighting. Another soldier carried the gun.
“I had four ammo bearers, each one had two cans of belted ammo, 250 rounds per can. We went through a lot of them.”
“We would go out during the day and cut fire lanes in the jungle with the gun,” he said. “We would set the dial on the tripod. Then we could come back at night and we would know where we were shooting in the dark. We would lay down crossing lanes of fire to cover an area.”
By the summer of 1945 his unit was training to invade Japan.
That gave him a personal stake stake in the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.
He was to be part of a feint invasion to fool the Japanese, one that “allowed for 40 percent casualties” among Harding and his comrades who were expected to hold for three days against the enemy desperate to save their homeland.
“So do you think we were happy the bombs were dropped? I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today if we had to go into Japan.”
After the bombs ended the war, he was shipped to Korea to help remove the last of the Japanese occupying forces there.
“The people in Korea were suffering terribly. They had nothing. We would take the Japanese up into the hills and make them get their bombs out of caves and carry them down and dump them into the sea.”
He came home, tried to get into the University of South Dakota, but failed the English test, despite all the new words he had learned in the war.
He went back to Riggs High for a brush-up class. He met Patricia Binkley in English class.
Soon he was off to college and they got married.
He joined the South Dakota National Guard to help make a go of mixing college and a new family and was able to start officer training.
By 1948 he was a lieutenant in the Guard, training at Camp Ripley in Minnesota with the same machine gun.
Harding was just in the right spot to get called up when the Korean War started in 1950. His service was in Alaska as a captain with the South Dakota National Guard’s 196th Regimental Combat unit. Their job was to throw back any communist invaders coming over the North Pole.
“I got out in about 1952, I think. Then I figured I had so much time in, I better make a career of it.”
The G. in G. Homer Harding stands for Guy, a name he reserved for his father, Guy Harding, who started Harding Motor Co., in Pierre. It was downtown where Guy picked up the new Model Ts from the rail yard down by the current post office and assembled them.
When Homer came back from two wars and college, he joined the family business and got involved in other business ventures, including banking.
In 1963, the Hardings moved the dealership to the 500 block of East Sioux Avenue. His older son, Steve Harding, now mayor of Pierre, joined the business after college in the mid-1970s and in 1987 the Hardings sold the Ford-Mercury-Toyota dealership.
By the late 1960s Homer Harding had also begun a political career, which probably is why he has a Wikipedia entry. He was in the state senate from 1971-1988 and was state treasurer from 1991-95.
But maybe more important has been the legacy of military service he and his wife built in raising two girls and two boys.
Both boys made careers serving in the National Guard. Both girls brought up children who followed their grandfather’s example in military service.
Homer Harding will talk when it comes to his family.
“I had two granddaughters in the military and three grandsons, and they all were in Iraq.”
A sixth grandson served a couple years in the South Dakota National Guard.
At 93, still with the bearing of a general who knows his troops, Harding can list his grandchildren who have served.
Sara Nehl, his daughter Teri’s child. “She was with the 3rd Infantry, combat engineers, with the South Dakota Army Guard. She was one of the first troops in Iraq. They built the bridge across the Euphrates River.”
“And Patricia Krull, she was in the regular Air Force. Deployed to Iraq. She’s the daughter of my daughter, Barbara.”
Three sons of Harding’s youngest son, Retired Lt. Col. Bill Harding, have served.
“Adam Harding. He just got back from Iraq. he’s in the artillery in the National Guard in Florida. Trent Harding is in the regular Army and he just returned from Iraq. And Heath Harding, he was in Iraq with the South Dakota National Guard.”
One more grandson of Retired Brig. Gen. G. Homer Harding, Travis Retrum, his daughter Teri’s son, served a couple years in the National Guard.
“It is amazing as I look back at a truly amazing experience with the military including all my children and my grandchildren. We had a lot of stars on the door for a while.”
“You know, my kids were all extremely patriotic, and are to this day. And all of my grandchildren, my whole family, is a very patriotic family. We really believe in this country and how wonderful it is.”
He wasn’t wounded in either war he was in and his sons and grandchildren haven’t been, Harding said. “One boy, Heath, had a vehicle hit (by the enemy), but he was OK.”
Harding’s older son, Retired Col. Steve Harding, is mayor of Pierre and retired recently after 34 years in the South Dakota Army National Guard. He is deputy secretary of the state Office of the Military.
“I grew up with him in the military,” Steve Harding said of his father. “I had always intended on joining when I got old enough. He didn’t pressure any of us to join, it was all our own decision. But we were brought up to love our country and patriotism, and to have an appreciation for those who did serve.”
Steve’s younger brother, Bill Harding, recently retired as a lieutenant colonel, working full time for Florida National Guard, after starting his military career with the South Dakota Guard, Steve Harding said.
Homer Harding has kept in touch with his war-time Army comrades over the years, but not many are left.
“From the Philippines, the last one I know that was still alive and in my squad was Duff Lorentson of Miller (South Dakota). He and I met up about three years ago. I haven’t heard from him since then.”