Stirlin Harris: 'I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into'

Sep 8, 2017

After serving in the U.S. Navy for about a year, Stirlin Harris volunteered to go to Vietnam. He was part of a swift boat crew. "Three of us are still alive and we very much keep in touch right up to today," he said.
Credit Emily Hunt/WXXI

In the 1960s, Stirlin Harris was living as a landed immigrant in Canada. And once his draft notice came through, he decided that he was going to stay there.

“So I went down to the American consul and said, ‘I want to renounce my U.S. citizenship,’ ” he said. “And they said, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ ”

He was told to think about it for three days.

“So three days later, I came back and I did the unthinkable: I renounced my U.S. citizenship,” Harris said.

A couple of years later, though, he and his fiancée broke up, and Harris decided he wanted to finish college in the United States.

“I applied for a visa,” he said. “Funny thing, they wouldn’t give me one. So, I just came across the border. I didn’t even have to lie because they didn’t ask me the right questions.”

Once back home, he said his father pointed out that the way he got there was likely going to be a problem for the rest of his life. Working with immigration officers in Buffalo, Harris agreed to return to Canada – and then come back to the U.S. as a landed immigrant and join the military.

“My father had been in the Navy. I loved boats, so I went in the Navy,” he said.

After serving in the Navy for about a year, he volunteered to go to Vietnam.

“My captain of my ski team from high school got killed in Vietnam, so that prompted me to go over there and see what was going on for myself,” he said.

The arrival was unforgettable.

“They opened up the aircraft door. I had never felt such humid heat in my life. It came pouring through that door,” Harris said. “I saw the guys with the 10,000-mile stare waiting to come home. And I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into.”

Harris was part of a swift boat crew.

“We were six guys and we were very close. Three of us are still alive and we very much keep in touch right up to today,” he said.

Harris is matter-of-fact when asked about his combat experiences: “Something I could have done without. What can I say? Wasn’t fun.”

He recalls the exact dates he served in Vietnam: May 17, 1967, to May 17, 1968. He said he learned pretty quickly to keep quiet about his service once he returned.

“People certainly weren’t very supportive of it,” he said.

So while he didn’t talk about it much, he did think about it – a lot.

“I had the greatest urge to go back and do it all over again,” Harris said. “It’s a funny thing to explain. But the bonding, the camaraderie, whatever goes on when you’re in a war … I really wanted to go back, but I didn’t.”

Once home, he finished up college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – “where before I had been a C student, I was now an A student,” he said – and then he went to Rochester Institute of Technology to study filmmaking.

He would go on to establish his own companies and produce documentaries, commercials and films. He said one film starred Jane Fonda, who was a notable anti-Vietnam War demonstrator.

“Most Vietnam veterans hate Jane Fonda, they think she’s a traitor,” Harris said. “I don’t quite see it in the same light. I think she was a legitimate protester.”

Harris said he doesn’t regret coming back to the United States and joining the Navy. But he doesn’t think the U.S. should have been in Vietnam.

“I’ve been there since,” he said. “The country has turned out the way we wanted it to, only 30 years later. All we did was slow it down and kill a whole bunch of people on the way to making it happen.”