Topsham resident Harry Saunders was 18 when he was drafted into the Navy during World War II. Photo by Janet Briggs

Eight decades after he served in the Navy during World War II, Harry Saunders still has vivid memories of his time in the Pacific Theater – working on a minesweeper, bringing injured soldiers back on a transport ship, driving crosses into the ground at a cemetery.

Saunders, now 98 and living at The Highlands retirement community in Topsham, was 18 when he was drafted in 1943.

Harry Saunders on the day he entered the Navy in December 1943. Courtesy of Harry Saunders

“I was in my senior year of high school and went home for Christmas break, and I never came back. They took me at that Christmastime, and I went into the Navy,” Saunders said. “As they say, ‘Join the Navy and see the world,’ but you see nothing but the sea.”

Saunders, who served most of his two-year stint as a quartermaster in the Pacific Theater, is one of only 864 living World War II veterans in Maine, according to data on the National WWII Museum website that was updated in September. Of the 16.1 million Americans who served in World War II, only 119,550, or less than 1%, are still alive.

Richard Davis, a Topsham resident who frequents The Highlands, met Saunders in June and decided that he wanted to document Saunders’ experiences in the war.

“I met Harry and started talking to him about his story, and I thought ‘This would be good to put on film,’ ” Davis said. “I wanted to do something focused on Harry.”


Since then, Saunders and Davis have met frequently for interviews, and Davis hopes to show the film to The Highlands community on Veterans Day.

Much of the rehashing has revolved around uncovering Saunders’ stories from the war.

After attending basic training in the Great Lakes, Saunders went to New Guinea to work on a transport ship that brought back injured veterans who had served throughout the South Pacific.

After six months, he returned to Hawaii to await restationing.

“One of things I didn’t like in Hawaii was I had to go to the cemetery there and drive crosses into the ground. Most of the crosses were marked unknown. We were told ‘get ‘em straight,’ ” Saunders said.

Following his stint in Hawaii, he was assigned to a high-speed minesweeper for over a year, traveling throughout the Pacific.


Working on a minesweeper meant going into minefields to locate active mines and neutralize the space – not a job for the faint of heart. Sometimes, it meant working under the cover of darkness in areas where Japanese forces were active.

Saunders, however, was unfazed.

“I was never concerned about it, and maybe that’s because I was so naive,” he said.

He was on Okinawa, less than 1,000 miles south of Hiroshima, when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb in August 1945.

After the war ended, Saunders was stationed in Japan to help sweep any remaining minefields, and saw firsthand the wreckage left behind by the war and the atomic bombs.

He was particularly fascinated by the kamikaze boats recovered after the war. The small, plywood speedboats were equipped with bombs and often powered by motors from American automobiles, achieving speeds up to 35 mph.


“We got ahold of some kamikaze boats, and we were playing around with them,” Saunders said.”We weren’t supposed to be doing that, but we did. We were speeding all over the harbor.”

After the war, Saunders returned to his hometown of Orange, New Jersey, and completed his high school degree. He then went to Rutgers University and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees before attending Cornell University to earn a Ph.D. in physiology and biochemistry.

He went on to work at GlaxoSmithKline for over 30 years. He married, and he and his wife raised four children in the Philadelphia area. He relocated to Maine in the last decade because his daughter, Pat, is a nurse in Waterville. Two of his grandchildren are in New England as well.

He has been in The Highlands for almost a year and enjoys the independence that comes with the space and the proximity to his family.

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