And at 91, Oliver Morris’ mind is even sharper for details long grown cloudy in others’.
“I was 20 then, working at a Sinclair service station, listening to the radio,” he recalls of the Day of Infamy. “Gas sold for 10 cents a gallon then,” he laughs.
“Then we heard about Pearl Harbor. My boss immediately fired me, figuring I would be drafted.”
Morris had other plans.
“Next day, I joined the Army Air Corps at the induction center in San Antonio.
Thus began his longest journey — unique, yet of common, uncommon courage.
HIS TRAINING time is a travelogue: San Antonio to sign up, Fort Sam Houston for mustering, Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls for basic training, more training in Pendleton, Ore.; even more training in Santa Anna, Calif., and finally Blythe, Calif., where he washed out of flight school because of pickles.
“I had two boils on my neck and couldn’t turn my head, which you have to do when you’re flying. I learned later that I was allergic to pickles. When I stopped eating them, the boils went away but, by then, it was too late.”
He hasn’t eaten a cucumber since.
On to aircraft mechanic school and then to Las Vegas to be an aircraft gunner.
By then, it was 1943.
“I was assigned to a B-24 crew in California,” he says.
It was grueling, as was so much labor in wartime. “I was in school half a day and flew the other half for three-and-one-half months.”
Finally, his business as a right waist gunner began. His crew picked up a new B-24 in San Francisco. They named it Sleepy Time and flew it to England — via Florida, South America and Africa.
“I was assigned to the 453rd Bomb Group. We were one of 65 bombers. We got there in April of 1944.”
POST-WAR motion pictures that depict the daylight bombing campaign of Europe have but one aircraft as their star — the Boeing B-17, a tail-dragger that performs gallantly in “Command Decision” (1948, starring Clark Gable) and “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949, Gregory Peck).
The B-24 had more powerful engines – therefore could carry more bombs – and was the first four-engined bomber to land on tricycle landing gear. At its peak, a Ford Motor Company factory turned them out at the rate of 600 a month.
But no movie about them.
It rankles Morris to this day.
Former pilots will confide that the B-24 did all the work but the B-17 got all the glory.
“Well,” Morris says, his eyes twinkling, “there’s a reason for that. The B-24 had a crew of 10; the B-17 had a crew of 12. Two of them were public relations officers.”
Morris’ plane acquired a dubious distinction. En route to Europe, the crew spotted a German U-boat on the surface, recharging its batteries.
“We didn’t have any bombs aboard,” Morris remembers. “We were flying from the U.S. to our base near Norwich, England. The plane was filled with mail sacks.
Someone noticed they had a five-gallon can of water aboard that resembled an anti-submarine depth charge.
“So, we hauled the thing into the bombay and told the bombardier to tell us when to drop it. We may be the only plane ever credited with bombing a German sub with a water can.”
The U-boat submerged.
MORRIS KEEPS a detailed list of each mission: date and destination.
“Our first mission was on May 22, 1944, to St. Polo to bomb German buzz-bomb installations.
Buzz-bombs, known as the V1s, used a noisy ramjet engine to fly to England. When the fuel ran out, it fell and exploded.
The V1 was subsonic; many were shot down by Allied fighter planes.
Later came the V2, the first true missile, that went to the edge of space before plummeting faster than the speed of sound. Rarely were they seen before they hit the ground and exploded.
“We usually flew between 20,000 and 25,000 feet over the target,” Morris says. “It got a little cool — the outside air was minus 35 (degrees).”
By his last mission in August 1944, he had flown on missions that included Paris three times, Hamburg, over Normandy twice on D-Day, Bremen, Brunswick and Berlin.
“When we first arrived, you had to complete 20 missions to rotate back to the U.S.,” he says. Then they raised it to 25, then 30, then 35.”
His closest call was on his 15th mission — to Berlin — when a piece of flak tore off his intercom throat microphone. Close enough.
In an ironic twist, his last mission — like his flight to Europe — involved German submarines. Sleepy Time’s last task was bombing submarine pens at Brunswick.
“It was rougher than Berlin,” Morris says, “because there was more anti-aircraft guns surrounding it.”
The crew celebrated their survival by buzzing the field “as low as you could get.”
“All the other crew members celebrated well into the night,” Morris said. “I went to bed and slept all night. Most people don’t know the schedule we kept, getting up at 3 a.m. and flying until 10 p.m.”
AND THEN, stateside for hydraulic and electrical school for the newest bomber in the fleet — the B-29.
“We were being trained for the Pacific.”
Morris was in Amarillo on VE (Victory over Europe) Day and in Denver for VJ (Victory over Japan) Day.
He was discharged soon after in San Antonio.
Sitting in the home he and his brothers built east of Tilden — just before Morris married Ada Lou, and stayed married for 62 years — and dressed in blue jeans and wearing a camouflage cap, his ability to recall intimate details is astonishing.
“I hitchhiked home, in the bed of an empty truck.”
Long-distance phone calls being both expensive and time consuming, he didn’t tell any of his family.
When he arrived at Tuleta, his first mission was to repay a debt.
“Mary Lee Dirks used to write all of us letters while we were overseas. The first thing I did was to go see her and thank her,” Morris says
While there, her son, Bill — a South Texas oilman — asked, “You need a job?”
Dirks figured that after all those missions Morris probably needed a rest. “Take a week off, and then come see me.”
Morris worked for Dirks for the next 34 years.
A soldier may leave the service but the service never completely leaves them. They may have their official discharge, government form DD-214, but the shared experiences in time of war linger.
In the late 1940s, some former members of the bomb group started meeting informally once a year in Chicago.
It blossomed into more than 9,000 members meeting once a year, including their returning to Norwich, England, nine times in 32 years.
By this year, appropriately in Chicago near O’Hare Airport, their number was 39. Of Morris’ 453rd Bomb Group, five.
“We decided it was time to stop,” Morris says.
On the last night, at the last dinner, they folded their wings,singing “Auld Lang Syne.”
Tears? “Oh, yeah.”
He was the group’s treasurer. His last official duty was to divide the group’s remaining funds, around $16,000.
Beneficiaries included the Norwich Memorial Museum, the group’s newsletter and website (it now has funding for a decade).
And one other.
For as long as the funds last, the 453rd will be remembered with a memorial wreath, reverently laid each Armistice Day, in Norwich.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.