CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — Sonny Harris and his friends hooked a shark and some catfish April 27, 1947.
His other catch was life-changing.
Mustang Island surf was churning that Sunday as 12-year-old Peggy Dillon was swept from a sandbar.
"She was past the third cut, and it was deep," Harris, 83, said recently. "I saw the current carrying her south, so I ran that way about 100 yards before heading into the water.
"She was moving too fast, and my trousers got wet and heavy," Harris said. "I took them off so as she floated by I could catch up to her. She looked like she was sitting up in a tub of water as I grabbed her arm."
Harris kept Peggy from drowning that day, and 65 years later she remembers — sending cards from her travels, and holiday notes with pictures of her two children and three grandchildren. She has never forgotten that her life could have ended before she was a teen.
Peggy's parents didn't swim, and they had visited the seashore that day with her cousins, she said.
"I was jumping in the waves on a sandbar having a good time and must have come off it," she said.
Her pink swim cap was bobbing in the distant surf as high schoolers Harris, Bobby Dean and Ron Wilson were leaving the beach and saw her family members — her father running neck deep into the surf frantically waving his arms and her mother's petticoat flapping in the wind as she cried.
"As he was pulling me, I swallowed so much water," said Peggy (Dillon) Webb, 77, now of Sugar Land. "I told him: 'Let me drown, I'm dead anyway.'"
As then-17-year-old Harris reached shallow water he realized that he was nude and that Peggy's family was gathered along the shore. He dipped into the water and handed Peggy to Ron Wilson to carry ashore.
It was a rescue by relay, Wilson later wrote to his parents in California, telling them about the experience. He was staying with friends to finish the sports season at Corpus Christi High School.
Harris was voted Most Handsome Senior that year, and Wilson was Most Handsome Sophomore.
"We had that in common," Wilson, 81, said from his Portola, Calif., home. "That was a long time ago."
Wilson, a retired shopping center developer, never saw Peggy again but found the letter he sent his parents, after their death. He shared it at his 1989 school reunion with Peggy's brother, who sent it to her.
From the letter:
"Her dad was almost crying and was he grateful," Wilson wrote. "Sonny had to wait in the water because he was nude, until I could get him a bathing suit. We gave her artificial respiration and she finally could sit up."
Wilson explained that her father grabbed him and Harris by the arms.
"He handed up a fifty dollar bill," Wilson wrote. "I told him to forget the whole thing, but he wouldn't, so when he went back to his daughter I put the money in the pocket of his car. Sonny started urping then, because of the water he had swallowed. The lady couldn't say anything, she just kept crying. It was then that Sonny remembered his pants, his wallet had $10 in it and all his papers, and his pants cost $5, so the man made us take the money again."
After receiving a copy of the letter, Webb contacted Wilson and Harris and has stayed in touch since.
"These boys who saved me are real heroes," said Webb. "I still haven't seen Sonny, but hope I will one day. I want to give him a big old hug on dry land.
"It's been a wonderful life," she said. "If it wasn't for these brave boys I wouldn't have lived in South America, Canada and traveled the world. I'm just a very grateful person."
So is her husband, who met her at the skating rink on Corpus Christi Beach when she was a senior in high school.
"I immediately knew Peggy was the one I wanted to spend my life with," Jerry Webb said.
The couple married a year later in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. After his one-year absence while in Panama with the Army, the couple lived the next three decades from Alberta, Canada, to Venezuela, as he worked for an oil field service company. Last month they celebrated 59 years together.
"Peggy has always tried to live her life to its fullest, and I suppose that is, in part, because she is grateful to be alive," Webb said. "I love the girl and will be eternally grateful to the young men who saved her. I know my life would not have been the same without her."
Harris served in the Marines during the Korean War. He was first stationed in Hawaii and worked in communications, then later served eight months in Korea with an air support group.
During a firefight with the Chinese, he took some of only a few existing photos of napalm bomb explosions, he said.
His hearing was damaged by a comrade's gunfire, when the muzzle velocity was too close to his left ear.
"I couldn't hear for three days, and it hasn't been the same since," he said. "Most things I hear don't amount to anything anyway."
Harris married Ruth "Niki" (Knox) Harris, of Alice, in 1958 after they met on a double date. They were both with other dates, but there was a spark that drew them together later, and it has been there since.
"Sonny's always been a good guy," Niki Harris said. "Peggy is the sweetest person for not forgetting his help. But he doesn't consider himself a hero for helping her. He survived 20 below zero cold in Korea. I consider that heroic."
The couple had two daughters.
"I know every woman thinks her dad is a hero, but mine really is a hero," said Lynn Harris Harnett, a college counselor at Ray High School.
Harris operated a grocery wholesale business, started by his father, for more than 40 years.
In his retirement he has built furniture and wooden decorator items at his private workshop.
One sentiment has remained from his lifesaving catch: He is wary of the Gulf.
"I was just a helping hand the minute we were together," he said about Peggy. "She's found happiness in life but carries that pain. She is always a No. 1 person with gratitude.
"Most people don't respect that Gulf enough," Harris said. "I've known it my whole life. It's a monster waiting to swallow you alive. Peggy was just a little girl and didn't know better."