On Sunday, he will take one step closer to the century mark.
James Austin Harper, otherwise know as “Rip,” will turn 99 and he recently reminisced on his career in the military, growing up in the South during the Depression, playing college baseball and his life in Southern California.
Nicknamed 87 years ago after Washington Irving’s famous Rip Van Winkle, Harper has navigated the farms of Mississippi, dodged the Japanese during World War II and gone on to work on some of San Diego’s most recognizable structures.
Farm to MSU
Born in 1917, Harper spent much of his childhood working on farms outside Hazlehurst, Miss. and of course, playing sports. He was a two-sport star in high school in football and basketball.
His high school didn’t have a baseball team, so Harper and his friends were relegated to the sandlot.
Harper also spent much of his youth in the Boy Scouts before earning Eagle Scout as a teenager and joined the Navy Sea Scouts at 16.
Elementary school, though, was a journey for Harper as he trekked five to six miles each way to attend. Of course, he took the bus, which back then was a covered wagon.
The family moved to Vicksburg when Harper was 7, where his dad became a bus driver.
His skill on the diamond, however, led him to playing for his beloved Mississippi State Bulldogs in 1937. Harper was also the first in his family to attend college.
“I had decided that when I was in high school, I was going to college,” he added.
Last year on his birthday, he returned to Starkville and was honored by the baseball team during a game with a signed ball and put on the video screen.
But his road to college baseball was interrupted twice due to the cost of attendance. While tuition was much cheaper in the 1930s, Harper still couldn’t afford school.
Before enrolling as a freshman, he spent a year working for $9 per week selling shoes and saved enough to buy two years at MSU. Following his sophomore year, he was back in the workforce before finally earning his degree in civil engineering in 1943.
‘They had gotten so many students … my first year, as a freshman, I lived in what was a rifle range,” Harper recalled. “They portioned off that rifle range. We only had 2,000 students back in those days.
Upon graduation and already having several years of experience in the Army National Guard, Harper opted to leave the military. However, it pulled him back due to World War II and this time he joined the Marines.
“I joined them in a basic officer’s course for 10 weeks in Quantico (Va.),” he said. “That National Guard time I had gave me experience as if I had been active duty.”
Harper worked his way through the ranks up to Colonel.
His journey, though, began with Army Engineering School before being deployed to Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater.
As a second lieutenant, his commanding officer needed a replacement and chose Harper to be his administrative officer because he was more mature than the other first lieutenants and captain.
“I got a lot of experience from that,” he said. “After a year of that, I was sent oversees.”
His next post was as the admin officer in Guadalcanal and for the rest of the war. Harper’s engineer battalion oversaw demolitions, bridge construction, roadwork and operating flamethrowers.
His post kept him in the rear, although he was awarded a Purple Heart in Okinawa. Japanese soldiers broke through at night, a firefight ensued and the next morning grenade shrapnel struck Harper from a Japanese soldier who was hiding in the bush.
“On Easter Sunday of 1945, it was April 1,” he said. “I grabbed my pistol out and got that fella with the hand grenade. I felt kind bad about getting that fella, but on the other hand, that’s the way it was.”
Several weeks later, he dodged another brush with death when an artillery shell landed 20 feet away from him, although the round killed Harper’s chief medical officer, who was standing between Harper and the blast.
“You could hear these shells swishing,” he explained. “I heard this one and said, ‘Hit the deck.’ The other fella got a piece of shrapnel under his helmet and killed him.”
Several months later, the war was over. After several months in China, Harper returned home.
He spent time at the Marines Corps school in Quantico and an engineer demonstration unit, where he was promoted to captain in 1948.
Harper also spent time in Korea in 1953.
“We had 243 miles of road we were responsible for in Korea,” he said. “It was real busy when the Korean War was over. We had troops in the demilitarized zone and had to pull them out.”
Upon his return to Camp Pendleton after the war, he and his wife bought their Carlsbad home.
He earned his master’s degree in civil engineering in 1957 and returned to Camp Pendleton as commanding officer of an engineering battalion.
Harper retired at 51 from the Marines because he would not be in line to receive another promotion due to his age. Harper was in line to be promoted to Brigadier General, but it was at least two years away after the military changed its age requirements.
Instead, Harper put his education to work and returned to Carlsbad.
“They had a engineering consulting firm that specialized in that area and lined up a job with them,” he added.
Harper met his late wife, Jane, in 1943 and the couple married the following year after five-and-half months of dating. Jane was a Navy nurse and the pair adopted their son, James, in 1952, and had a daughter, Martha, in 1955.
“We decided we would adopt,” Harper said. “He was less than a month old.”
Harper worked with Woodward-Clyde Associates for 19 years and his second retirement came at age 70.
During his time at the firm, Harper was part of projects including the Lindbergh Field runway extension, the twin Marriot buildings and mostly the foundations of skyscrapers.
“The last time they extended Lindbergh Field over mudflats … I got the job to tell them how to prepare and design the pavement over that,” he said. “When they built Terminal 2, I got the job of designing the pile foundation for the terminal and pavement for parking aircraft.”
For the past 20 years, Harper has volunteered at a church cemetery keeping the gravesites clean and tidy. It is the same place where his wife is buried. She passed away in 1992.
He also conducts funeral services, which he never scripts.
When he’s not keeping a watchful eye on the cemetery, Harper enjoys traveling, as he has for many years. He has visited every continent including Antarctica last year.
A 2013 trip consisted of taking part of the Honor Flight, which celebrates WWII veterans with an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C.