Lebanon, Nebraska: A 60-year-old tale of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the CIA, and a death in Jerusalem.

When I had seen the tree that was marked as a cedar but turned out to be a Juniper in South Dakota, I knew that Lebanon, Nebraska would provide an answer as to whether that first town was the only one that got a fake cedar, or whether there were more of them.  More so, I was hoping it would answer some pressing questions I had from before I even left Beirut.

I headed towards the center of the town in Lebanon, Nebraska and, as with many of the small towns I had seen before along my trip, there were no people to be seen; I was alone on the empty streets. The stores around me looked as if they were abandoned decades ago. One of them had in front of its locked doors a vending machine that belonged well in the 1970s. A few steps away was a public telephone post with its receiver off the hook. The sign at the town entrance said Lebanon had a population of 70, and I was wondering where they all disappeared.

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Town Entrance

I continued walking on that road and, at the intersection, I found the town hall, a small one-story building. Right next to it, there it was, a tall juniper tree, not unlike the one I saw in South Dakota, but better maintained. There wasn’t any plaque next to it, but I was almost certain that this was the supposed cedar that was sent from Beirut and stayed in a nursery in Ohio for 2 years before being sent back to town. And herein lies a key question I was trying to find answers for. Back when the delegates from the Lebanons of the US came to the country of Lebanon in 1955 for a visit, the representative from Nebraska was a tree expert and he – not the one from Ohio(1) – was meant to take care of the saplings for two years. But a tragedy prevented this from happening.

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Lebanese First Lady Zalfa Chamoun giving Charles Harris a cedrus libani sapling. (Photo: L’Orient-Le-Jour)

In March, 1955 six of the delegates returned home to the United States. Charles Harris from Nebraska stayed behind to go on a tour of the Holy Land. On April 15, he was shot dead in Jerusalem.
He wasn’t the mayor of the town, but was chosen by the elderly mayor, Chester Keith, to represent him. He was only 24 years old, an Agronomy senior student at Nebraska University, and he had taken the semester off so he could go on his visit to the Middle East.

I left Lebanon and headed towards McCook, the nearest town with a library, some 40 minutes away. I wanted to research their archives for any information I could get on Charles. I found many newspaper articles about him that ran following his death. One in particular mentioned his last home address. Coincidentally, it was only a few blocks from the library. Charles Harris had been born in Lebanon, but he, his parents Tipo and Jessie Mae, and his sister Margaret, 6 years his junior, had moved to McCook later on.

I walked towards the house wondering who might be living in it after all these years. I knocked on the door and introduced myself to the lady who opened. She was very surprised to hear the Harris name after all these years. She and her husband had bought the house from Tipo, and she very well remembered the family and how devastated they all were after Charles’ death. Especially his father. She remembered Tipo as a jovial man who, as a lodge Mason, used to dress up as an Indian snake charmer in the town parade. But he was never the same after the loss of his son.

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Last house of Charles Harris in McCook, Nebraska.

My fascination with Charles’ story doesn’t stem only from his death, but rather from the peculiar circumstances under which he was killed. Back in 1955, Jerusalem was a split city, the Jordanians on the East side, the Israelis on the West. In between the two was a territory controlled by neither party, aptly called No Man’s Land. On April 15 Charles, wearing blue Jeans and a red fez hat(2), wandered into that area and was shot by a Jordanian guard. The reports following his death were very contradictory. One such report mentioned the guard saying he shouted a warning when he saw the young man walking in the restricted area, but Charles ignored his warning so he shot him(3). Another said that Charles had been talking to an Israeli soldier and then he went crawling by the Old City wall, after which the guard opened fire (4). There wasn’t even a consensus about where he was shot, either with three bullets and the deadly one lodging in his chest, or with one single fatal bullet to the head.

Ironically, just one month prior, Charles had written to his Farm Fraternity in University saying: “We in America have much to give these people in the Near East, but we have so much to gain from them too, in the way of love and understanding.”

A United Nations investigation followed. Colonel Brewster, head of the Israeli-Jordanian Mixed Armistice Commission, issued a statement saying the death was a tragic error and that there was no violation of the general armistice agreement. He said that Charles had probably crossed the line from Jordan into No Man’s Land, an area which is forbidden to all persons and therefore a most dangerous spot. He, however, added: “We are time and again called upon to act when an animal wanders into No Man’s Land. Why should we not be alerted when a human being crosses the demarcation line?”(5)

I returned to the McCook city park with my RV that evening, figuring I would return to Lebanon the next day, hoping to meet someone who might have more clues about Charles’ story. Early in the day, I had posted a picture of the town’s sign on Instagram, and I received a message from a woman who lives there, asking if I talked to anyone about the history of the tree. I told her about the tragic event that surrounded the tree, and then came the unexpected answer: “My mother was a classmate of Charles’ sister. Would you like to meet her?” I couldn’t believe my luck and, yes, I very much wanted to meet her.

The next morning, Mrs. Virginia Grafton and I met at the Lebanon Presbyterian Church; a very welcoming, soft-spoken lady who must be in her late seventies. We talked a little about the history of the town, but I really wanted to know more about what happened in 1955.

She described Charles as a man who was mature well beyond his years. Even our government attested to that fact. Lebanese officials had sent a letter to his parents, dated March 13, praising him for his serious-mindedness. It was the last word on him his family ever received(2).

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Lebanon United Presbyterian Church where I met with Mrs. Virginia Grafton.

Mrs. Grafton later drove me to the tree I had seen the day before, and it was the supposed cedar they received. “I can attest to the fact that this is the tree because I was there when we received it; it came in a very small package.”, she said. I asked her if Mayor Keith had regrets for sending Charles on the trip and whether the town people had negative feelings about the tree, given the tragedy. She said that the mayor did feel guilty for a long time, but that he couldn’t have gone himself due to his age. As for the tree, people didn’t associate it with Charles. “In fact,” she added, “when the tree grew a little, we started decorating it for Christmas every year. Mayor Keith used to be the one decorating at first. And we kept with this tradition until a couple of years ago when someone stole the decorations, and then we stopped. By then it was too tall to reach anyway.”

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The cedar tree by the town hall.

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Mrs. Virginia Grafton.

Going back to the subject of Charles, I asked if she had any memories from the time surrounding his death. “It was devastating”, she said. “His dad took it very hard. We were all told that he went to some place where he shouldn’t have been. No Man’s Land. Growing up around here you can go anywhere you want to go; Charles probably never realized the area where he was going was restricted.”

I am in no way a conspiracy theorist, and never was. But this story has one additional element of intrigue. Back when I was researching the mayors’ 1955 visit to Beirut, I found out that the trip was organized in the United States by the now-defunct “American Friends of the Middle East.” (AFME) When gathering information about this association, I discovered that despite its friendly name, the association was a front to, and was funded by the CIA, seeking to advance a pro-Arab view in the USA. At first I thought this must have been a typo or false information. CIA and pro-Arab? Certainly a joke.

Then I followed the source, and it was a book by Hugh Wilford: “America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East.” Purchase instantly. As the title mentions, it wasn’t the whole agency that was pro-Arab, but a secret faction within it. AFME was one part of their covert operations. On paper, this association was headed by Dorothy Thompson, the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany after writing an article critical of Hitler, and who Time Magazine called in 1939 the second most influential woman in the United States after First lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But behind the scenes, AFME was led by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and personal friend of Jamal Abdel Nasser; he was the Chief of CIA covert operations in the Middle East. Kermit’s cousin, Archibald Roosevelt Jr., was the head of the CIA’s Beirut desk, and husband to a now-renowned Lebanese-American journalist of Druze origins called Selwa Shkeir (Americanized as Showker). AFME’s recruiter was an anti-Zionist rabbi called Elmer Berger.

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New York Times – 15 April 1955

How are AFME and the CIA connected to Charles Harris’ trip and eventual death?, I kept asking. Isn’t it possible that this was all just a coincidence? And if AFME was pro-Arab and if Charles was truly passing a note, wouldn’t he pass the note to the Jordanians instead of the Israelis? Was my imagination taking me too far? Perhaps. But there are still two nagging questions that can’t be answered. First, at the end of February 1955, before the mayors’ delegation came to Beirut, they all convened at AFME’s headquarters in New York City, a building called “Middle East House”. Then Charles Harris flew alone to Beirut on March 1st, and the other six followed him a day later. Why?

Second, as Mrs. Grafton told me, the family never got Charles Harris’ body back. She drove me to the cemetery and showed me the stone they had put as remembrance. It read that Charles Harris was buried in “Ramallah, Jordan.” (Ramallah was still under Jordanian rule in 1955). I had read in one of the newspaper articles that the US State Department informed his parents that, under law, the body could not be removed for one year after the burial. But Mrs. Grafton mentioned that Tipo went to Amman, Jordan after that to try and repatriate his son’s body, but they wouldn’t allow him. Even today, Charles’ remains are confined to stay in Ramallah. Why? Was – and is – there any fear that exhuming the body might reveal a different story than the one mentioned in the press?

Since Ramallah is now in Palestine and since, as a Lebanese citizen, I can’t go there, my research unfortunately ends here. Was Charles Harris a spy? No one knows. But there are too many question marks around his story that any person with a shred of curiosity would get intrigued by. Maybe one day, if he truly was a spy, details about him would become declassified by the US government. I know I will keep hanging on to these threads I have. But until then, it was time to continue my trip and to move on to another Lebanon.

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Lincoln Evening Journal – 5 March 1955

Abandoned gun club in town


Sources:
1: Albany Democrat-Herald – 7 September, 1955.
2: Lincoln Evening Journal – 15 April 1955.
3: New York Times – 15 April 1955.
4: Jerusalem Post – 18 April 1955.
5: New York Times – 17 April 1955.
6: Lincoln Evening Journal – 22 April 1955.

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23 thoughts on “Lebanon, Nebraska: A 60-year-old tale of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the CIA, and a death in Jerusalem.

  1. How impressive and utterly unexpected! Stunned that you could end up digging such a story, just by asking about a tree! What will the other Lebanons have in store for you, I wonder…

    Happy new year, by the way! Happy wandering and discoveries!

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  2. Hi Fadi, it is Joe Hackman, the videographer from your trip to Lebanon, Ohio. Would you mind if I use some of your pictures as b-roll for the segment that I am producing for our cable show? I searched through City Council agendas and minutes from 1955 and 1958 for any more information on Mayor Fraser’s trip, but didn’t find anything that would add to what you already have. Hope all is well wherever you are.

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  3. I just drove through Lebanon Ne yesterday evening. Such a neat town. The old houses there are beautiful! I took a picture of one that had what looked like hands on a clock so I started looking up the history of the town and found this article. Very neat story!!

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  4. If the body was not allowed to be released, I would presume that He was still alive! Would you not keep a prisoner alive and try to torcher them for info? We have prisoners here from past wars, what would make them so different?

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  5. I grew up in that area of Nebraska. Even though I was young I remember the discussion of this event. It a a bought on the nation of Lebanon and the Middle East.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting Story about the town I grew up in, and a great interview with my big sister. I remember when it happened I was all of 12 years old at the time, Talk of the area for several months even would be brought up years after it happened.

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