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Semper Fi, Henry Charles Harmoning

August 20, 2020

‘I was proud to be Harry and Lola’s son.  I was proud to be a Marine.  I was proud of my 35 years of service with the water treatment plant.  Most of all, I was proud to be ‘dad’ to my two sons, Andy and Eli.

Henry ‘Chopper’ Charles Haarmoning passed away August 15, 2020.  Henry was born in Billings on Sept. 5, 1951, to Harry and Lola Harmoning, joining three sisters.  He was later joined by three more sisters and a brother.  He graduated from Billings Senior High School in 1969 and joined the Marine Corps, serving from 1969-1971.  After leaving the military, he worked a variety of jobs before joining the city water department in 1974, where he worked until retirement in 2009.  For several years he was also the ‘maintenance man’ at Pioneer School.  Henry married Gail That in 1984; divorcing in 2006.  Together they were blessed with two boys who are an extreme source of pride.

Fall was Henry’s favorite time of year.  He loved hunting, both in his youth with his father and good friend Leon, and later with his son; and football, especially the UM Griz.  He was extremely handy and spent many hours building outdoor ornaments for family and friends.  If Chopper couldn’t fix it, you might as well throw it away!

Henry was preceded in death by his parents and his sisters Nancy Johnson and Beverly Comer.  He is survived by his sons Andrew and Eli (Brenda); siblings Judy (Ron) Williams, Betty (Mike) Ready, Carol (Robert) Sen, Gene Harmoning, Elaine Harmoning;; grandsons Hunter and Braxton; numerous nieces and nephews; and his beloved friend Zoe.

A Memorial Service will be held Saturday, August 22, at 10 a.m. at Heights Family Funeral Home.

Billings Gazette 8/19/2020

I wondered if this was the same Private Harmoning from USMC boot camp more than 50 years ago?  I reached for my bright red copy of “1969 San Diego California Marine Corps Recruit Depot.”  This book, published in hard back by Jostens Military Publications, was always mostly disappointing to me, still is.  Most of its un-numbered pages have stock photos of Marine Corps basic training life:  yellow footprints, mess hall, drill instructors, uniforms, close order drill, rifle range, hair cuts, graduation.  The good stuff is at the back, photos of our Platoon 3213, hastily snapped.  Last and best, photos of each recruit and our instructors.

We lined up for photos.  We each took a turn with a fake dress-blue uniform blouse that had been cut at the back so we could wear it by sticking our arms through the sleeves; and a white hat perched on our head.  Our instructor told us we would be in a world of hurt if we smiled at the camera.

Anyway, I quickly confirmed that the Henry Harmoning in the obituary was the same as my fellow private from long ago.  He even had a Facebook page.  I didn’t delve into his personal information, but I did write a note on the website of the mortuary where his service will be held Saturday.  To my sorrow, I will not be in town Saturday because we are attending a memorial service for my sister-in-law in Big Timber the same morning.

I felt remorse he and I hadn’t known we lived in the same town for nearly 40 years.  

Therefore, I resolved to reach out to all of the other men in my basic training platoon.  So far, I’ve gotten in touch with one, Dennis Grisawald, of Helena.  Dennis was my squad leader, and an excellent one too.

We entered the Marine Corps in November 1969 during Vietnam.  Some of us ended up getting the 0310 MOS, infantry rifleman.  Others, like me, got an MOS for aviation.  That’s another story.  Every Marine was a basic rifleman, we were told.

I didn’t know anything about the Marine Corps when we filed through AFEES Butte for our physicals and tests.  We got on a school bus in downtown Butte and they took us to the airport for a direct flight to San Diego.  The pilot announced our presence.  He said we would be flying over Camp Pendleton where we could look down to see night operations under flares that lit up the mock battlefield like day.  Before we went home on leave months later we had our turn with the night flares.  I thought I’d freeze that February.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Henry Harmoning.  Could have been after we stood on the yellow footprints and were made to read about the UCMJ:  the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the law under which we had to abide.  We filed into a room with individually numbered tables, were made to strip and pack up all our civilian clothes to send home by mail.  We each received a service number.  Haircuts. Showers and shaving.  I nicked myself.  Shaving cream in a tube.  Barber missed one long hair near my ear during my one-minute haircut.  We got some basic clothing and sneakers and a big green sea bag to carry everything.  If we accidentally touched any furniture while we filed through the supply depot someone would curse at us.  I got called a “hippie,” but I don’t know how they knew.

Eventually we ended up with our bag of military stuff in the room with the numbered tables.  My number was 43.  Or perhaps 47.  I was starting to go schizophrenic and decided the number was important and indicative of my place in eternal madness.  

I also decided (1) I didn’t like the Marine Corps, and (2) I would do my best work.  A voice commanded us all to “sit at attention with our hands on our knees and our butts on the floor.”

We sat for a long time.  Hours.  Some of the others eventually quit sitting at attention and stretched out their legs or lay down on their sides.  After another couple of hours just about everyone but me was kicking back.  

I decided that, as much as it sucked, I would stay at attention, hands on knees.  Perhaps I would be the last of my family members ever to endure this (by now) painful position.  I felt I was in an alien place and I didn’t want to get used to it.

I spoke with a fellow recruit later whose way of coping was to adopt a “soft look.”  He explained he would make a wrinkle or some other purposeful imperfection in his uniform in order to thumb his nose at the Marine Corps.  I sort of liked his idea, but by the time I learned of it I was finished with training. 

Without warning, while sitting on the floor, we heard the loud voice of one of our drill instructors, SSgt Feyerchak.  He hollered and swore at us because we got him up in the middle of the night to babysit us.  I thought it ironic that he blamed us.  Perhaps he was trying to be funny?  No.  He acted like he despised us.  And, moreover, turns out he was the nice one.  

Took me weeks and weeks to realize the drill instructors didn’t hate us personally, but acted like they did.  The other one was Sgt Moser.  He was cold hearted, but good at teaching us how to march, make up our beds, clean things up.  

Our senior drill instructor, whose name I can’t remember except he was a gunnery sergeant, early on disappeared for no apparent reason, replaced by SSgt Feyerchak, who became a couple degrees warmer once promoted.  He’s the one who told us he wanted things done “neat.”

We started calling him “the grand old man of the corps” when he wasn’t listening.  Most evenings, if he was on duty, he’d give us a “daddy talk.”  He allowed us to ask  him questions and he’d swear at us and throw things.  Like our mail.  Or packages, if one of us got one.  I think those evenings were called “commander’s time.”

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  1. Blaine Ackley permalink

    Hi Dan, What an interesting story and he lives in Billings too?

    Please pass along our sympathy and condolences to Penny about the death of her sister. Was this sudden and unexpected?

    We will leave you to mourn in peace, Love you both, Blaine & Fran

    Best wishes, Blaine Sent from my iPad


  2. Thanks, Blaine and Fran.

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