Pensacola, Florida
Monday January 21st 2019


A visit with Pensacola’s Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr.

By Christian Wagley

Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr. was raised in Pensacola and currently oversees all U.S. military forces in the Pacific region as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. Born in Japan of a Japanese mother and American father, prior to moving to Pensacola he spent his early years on his family’s subsistence farm in East Tennessee after his father retired from the U.S. Navy as chief petty officer.

He is a 1978 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and is the Navy’s “gray owl”, an award given to the naval flight officer on continuous active duty who has held that designation the longest. Inweekly sat down with Admiral Harris at his office inside the Nimitz-MacArthur Building on Camp H.M. Smith, 600 feet high on a hill above Pearl Harbor.

INWEEKLY: I know that you spent your teenage years growing up in the East Hill neighborhood. What are your boyhood memories of Pensacola?
ADMIRAL HARRIS: I went to A.V. Clubbs Middle School on 12th Avenue. Then I went to high school at Booker T. Washington. I think I was in the second class after segregation ended, and so the facilities at the school were not good, but the teachers were fabulous. I remember the quality of the teachers I had both at Clubbs, and especially at Washington.

I liked walking downtown, because we lived in East Hill, and I would walk down Ninth Avenue and go across Gregory or Wright Street and go downtown to some of the bookstores. And just hang out as a kid in Pensacola. Great weather, beaches…I loved the beaches.

INWEEKLY: Is there anything in particular that led you to choose to become an officer in the United States Navy?
ADMIRAL HARRIS:  Well, my dad was a big influence, but he was not an influence on me becoming an officer. I was in Junior ROTC in high school, and it was my ROTC instructors who introduced me to the concept of going to college on the Navy’s dime.

I knew I wanted to go into the Navy because of my dad’s service. His was the generation that everybody served and they expected their children to serve for some amount of time…And then growing up in Pensacola with the Blue Angels, it’s hard not to fall in love with the Navy and naval aviation.

INWEEKLY: As a career Naval officer, you’ve obviously had a number of different duty stations (including Pensacola) and commands. Are there any particular ones that are especially memorable for being enjoyable, challenging or formative for you?
ADMIRAL HARRIS:  Your first ship, your first squadron, your first platoon, battalion–whatever it is–the first one matters. It sets the course that you’re going to be on for the rest of your career. I started out in Brunswick, Maine, flying P-3s, at the height of the Cold War. I loved it.  We deployed to the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and then we deployed to the Atlantic and Mediterranean… I loved every bit of it. It really helped form who I am.

I’ve spent half my career, out of 37 years, posted outside the continental United States. That includes four tours in Japan, a tour in Bahrain, a tour in Cuba, a tour in Naples…Three tours now in Hawaii…The most challenging tour I had, the hardest tour, was Guantanamo Bay. I was the commander of the joint task force down there. That was a pretty hard tour.

INWEEKLY: Describe the elements of your current command as Commander, U.S. Pacific Command.
ADMIRAL HARRIS: I’m lucky. I got to be the commander of the US Pacific command, which is our nation’s largest combatant command under the unified command plan. PACOM is the oldest and the largest. There are about 400,000 uniformed and civilian men and women that comprise PACOM. I tell people that the PACOM AOR (area of responsibility)–you can describe it as Hollywood to Bollywood, and polar bears to penguins. It covers 52% of the earth’s surface.

INWEEKLY: You are the first Asian-American to reach four star rank in the Navy and to command the U.S. Pacific Command. What is the significance of that for you personally? And does it influence your interactions with the many East Asian nations you work with in your command?
ADMIRAL HARRIS: I try not to think about it in how it impacts me personally…But I do know that it’s not without some significance, so I try to understand that significance. I try to embrace what it means to a lot of people, and  I try to give of myself and my time to honor the Asian-American servicemen and women who’ve gone before me…like General Eric Shinseki, like General Tony Taguba, like the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion here in Hawaii.

In the region, to the surprise of me, it has had an impact, it’s been noted that I’m Asian-American. That may allow me to get my foot in the door in different places. But I want to emphasize that I don’t look at the world through a Japanese-American lens. I look at the world through an American lens. I’m an American naval officer, I only have one loyalty.

The other thing is that I think it’s important for those countries that I deal with to know that America is a country of diverse people. We have an African-American president and we have an Asian-American Pacific Command commander, and we have other minority combatant commanders. The commander of the Pacific Air Forces here in Hawaii, a four star, is a woman, the vice chief of naval Operations is a woman, and these things matter.

INWEEKLY: The Pacific is a dynamic region of burgeoning and sometimes erratic nations. What are the greatest challenges to U.S. interests in this region?
ADMIRAL HARRIS: The biggest threat we face, the enduring threat we face, is from North Korea because of its unpredictability, because of its nuclear weapons and its quest to deliver those intercontinentally. And I think the biggest challenge we face in the Pacific is managing the growth of China and all that China is trying to do. That’s not a threat in the sense of North Korea, but it is a challenge.

INWEEKLY: I think the people of Pensacola can’t help but look at you and your career with great admiration and hope. Do you have any words of advice or hope for young people looking to move to a higher and better place in their lives?
ADMIRAL HARRIS: I’m where I am today due in large measure to where I’ve been. Again, I had fabulous teachers who took an interest in me as a person and my educational development. I think that the advice I would give the young people today…is that you need to do your best in whatever it is, and don’t be swayed by the crowds to do anything else but to concentrate on your studies, concentrate on your sports if that’s what you do. You need to apply yourself, and if you’re bored because it’s too easy, then get in a harder class. And I think it’s important…to find a mentor and seek-out their advice and listen to them and apply that advice.

INWEEKLY: Is there anything else that you would like for the residents of Pensacola to know about you?
ADMIRAL HARRIS: I think how proud I am that I spent my teenage years in Pensacola. I went to junior high school and high school in Pensacola. And I got to go to the Naval Academy from Pensacola…And so I’m proud of that, and I hope the folks in Pensacola know how much I love the town and how much of Pensacola is with me this very second here in Hawaii.