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At 97, WWII Vet Is Sr. Legionnaire of Year and World Traveler

Post 229 member George Harrer is Oneida County Senior Legionnaire of the Year. He was honored at the September post meeting.

The award recognizes Harrer, 97, as the oldest living Legionnaire in the county. Harrer has been an active traveler, even self-publishing a travel autobiography, “Horses to Uno: 70 Years of World Wide Travel.”

This penchant for travel and writing seems to run in the family. A distant relative, Heinrich Harrer, was the Austrian mountain climber who became a tutor and friend to the Dalai Lama just before China's takeover of Tibet. Heinrich’s 1953 autobiography, “Seven Years in Tibet,” propelled him to worldwide fame.

George made his first trip around the world before World War II – by train, and even bicycle, through China, India and Egypt (where he slept outside next to the Sphinx) and across Europe, even Nazi Germany. It was during that Nazi era when in 1938 his relative Heinrich became one of the first to climb the formidable north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps.

Heinrich, who died in 2006 at 93, spent much of his life promoting the cause of Tibet. As it turns out, George notes, his daughter, Jane Clemmons, and her husband have been helping the Tibetans -- by printing documents and books for them that pre-date China’s takeover of their country.

Unlike Heinrich, who regretted having joined the Nazi party in his youth, George is a native Utican who served as a personnel specialist with the U.S. Army and then the Army Air Corps (which became the U.S. Air Force). He wanted to fly, George relates, but they wouldn’t let him because of his poor eyesight. After the war, he achieved his dream, earning a pilot’s license on the GI Bill.

Even though “all my friends are dead and I don’t have anyone to talk to anymore,” he says he’s still an optimist.

“We went to the opera…this summer and I had to climb the stairs to the balcony with a cane and a bum leg. That’s what I call an optimist!”

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