Woodford County

Central Kentucky woman will be looking for her dad in WWII epic 'Unbroken'

Katey Meares' home in Versailles is filled with memorabilia and photos of her father, including the portrait behind her.
Katey Meares' home in Versailles is filled with memorabilia and photos of her father, including the portrait behind her. Herald-Leader

VERSAILLES — Katey Meares has a personal reason to see the movie Unbroken this Christmas season.

The epic movie,, based on Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 best-selling book of the same name, describes the life of Olympic runner Louis "Louie" Zamperini and his harrowing ordeals in World War II.

One of Zamperini's colleagues in a hell-hole of a Japanese POW camp was Marine Lt. Col. William "Bill" F. Harris.

Meares calls Harris "Dad."

"I won't be able to go to the movies Christmas Day because I'll be too busy, but I want to go see it as soon as I can," she said on a recent night in her home in Versailles.

At least a half-dozen scrapbooks crammed with black-and-white photos and memories of her dad and other relatives were spread out on the floor of the front room.

"I've heard his character in the movie is not as big as it is in the book, but I'm still excited and proud about it," she said.

The movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, is expected to be one of the holiday season's blockbusters.

Hillenbrand, a Washington, D.C., writer whose first book was the acclaimed Seabiscuit, a non-fiction account in 2001 of the career of the great racehorse, corresponded with Meares about her father by email.

Meares' name and photo are in the book, which remains on the New York Times best-seller list.

In the book's epilogue, a photo shows Meares as an excited toddler on her father's back with her arms around his neck in Jamestown, R.I. He is a 32-year-old doting father.

The photo of the two, Meares said, was taken in 1950, a few months before her father disappeared as a soldier in the first winter month of the Korean War.

Photos of Meares' father and her other military ancestry adorn the walls of her house. Her family's military heritage dates to the Revolutionary War.

Her great-grandfather on her mother's side was John Archer Lejeune, a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant general.

Lejeune, known as the "greatest of all leathernecks" and the "Marine's Marine," commanded the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division during World War I. At the end of his nearly 40 years of military service, he was superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute.

Meares' paternal grandfather was Field Harris, a highly decorated lieutenant general in the Marines. He commanded the Marine aviation units during World War II and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing during the Korean conflict.

Born in September 1895 in Versailles and a 1917 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, the elder Harris saw his son, Bill, the night before he went missing in Korea.

In 1953, Field Harris bought the house in Versailles where his granddaughter Katey now lives. He died in December 1967. A historical marker about his life is near his grave at Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Woodford County.

Nearby is a moss-stained headstone that marks what are thought to be the remains of his son, William F. Harris. It gives a brief account of his military history, his birthdate and his date of death. The bottom line on the stone reads "Semper Fidelis," a Latin phrase for "Always Faithful," the Marine motto.

Meares is not certain whether the remains are those of her dad.

In the 1990s, she wrote U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, seeking information about her father's identification.

She learned that the Navy thought that the remains were of Bill Harris. But only a DNA test could prove that, she said, and probably that effort would not be worth it. Regardless, she honors the grave site as that of her father.

Bill Harris was born on March 6, 1918, in the old Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Lexington.

He lived all over the country as the child of a military leader. But he often returned to Kentucky to visit his grandmother on Big Sink Pike in Woodford County.

Following his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1939, Harris was commissioned in the Marines.

He was an infantry officer in World War II when he was captured by the Japanese at Corregidor in May 1942.

He escaped with another American, Edgar Whitcomb, who would later be governor of Indiana from 1969 to 1973. After an 8½ -hour swim across Manila Bay to the Japanese-occupied Bataan Peninsula, they joined up with Filipino guerillas. Whitcomb wrote about his and Harris' exploits in the 1958 book, Escape from Corregidor.

Harris later was recaptured and incarcerated, and he met up with Zamperini, the main character in Unbroken.

Throughout his imprisonment, Harris plotted with others to escape but never did.

At the end of the war, he was selected to stand on the deck of the USS Missouri as Japan accepted terms of surrender.

After the war, Harris returned to America, fell in love with Jeanne Lejeune Gleenon, married her in 1946 and had two daughters.

Katey Meares was his first child. The other daughter, Ellie, now lives in Colorado.

"Certainly I remember him," Meares said. "I was about 3½ . He was a wonderful father. I have nothing but happy memories of him. He was never cross with me even when I was naughty.

"He told me stories, read to me, played with me and carried me around. He was a very involved father, particularly for that era."

They were playing in the 1950 photo that appears in the best-selling book.

Meares remembers the day her mother got the telegram near Christmas Day in 1950 that said Harris was missing.

"I saw her crying," she said.

The little girl put her arms around her mother as she had done a few months before with her father.

After the Korean War, liberated prisoners of war said they never saw Harris in captivity. Many years later, Harris' family received a box of bones from North Korea that were said to be his remains. The remains were interred in the small country cemetery in Woodford County.

Katey Meares, a laboratory technician for the University of Kentucky's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said she never thought much about her dad until she turned 30.

"All these years since then, I've been very interested in him, who he was, what he did," she said.

When Unbroken came out, Meares participated in a book club discussion about it.

She also wrote to Zamperini and heard from him. Author Hillenbrand sent her an autographed copy of the book.

Meares' husband, Claude, died in 1988. Their son, Claude, is a former member of the Army Reserves. He now works for PNC in Lexington. Daughter Vicki Meares teaches school in Louisville, and another daughter, Nancy Snoke, is a software engineer in Nashville.

They will be in touch this Christmas season.

Perhaps, Meares said, some of them might go with her to the movies to see, as Hillenbrand calls it, "A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption."

They will be on the lookout for a person special to them.