Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Profile 85: FINAL - "030" as flown by Lt. Chris Morgan, 529th FS, 311th FBG

Finished!

"The last three years have been harder than any Japanese prison camp."

What?!  What could be harder than the worst POW system of WW2?!

I'll get to that.  But first...

Killing a person with a .45 is easy.  Pull, snap and BANG!  At ten feet away, he wouldn't know what hit him; the big slug would obliterate the Jap's head like a baseball bat on a pumpkin.  He also wouldn't know who hit him; the enemy had his back turned to Chris.

The Burmese jungle is a dense, creature-infested salad.  Bill Creech told me that it took him an hour to hack through a mere 50' of the stuff.  So, while the enemy stood, listening for the little crackles and pops that would reveal a hiding human, it was understandable that he would have no idea just how close his quarry really was.  Hollow heartbeats, drips of sweat, a chirp of an insect...and then, inexplicably, the soldier continued on his way.  Chris exhaled in a restrained purge of nervous breath, lowering his trembling arm as to not make a sound.  

It had been an awful three days since the three pilots had bellied-in.  Major Nameless, the guy who got them into their current mess, was captured right away.  Chris and the other pilot, however, managed to stay one-step-ahead of the search party.  Close-calls, a stolen canoe, quicksand and fresh tiger tracks brought anxious thrills while sweet berries pulled from the jungle thickets provided food.  It'd be a great Reality TV show had it not been so real.

But, the reality was, though a highly trained fighter pilot, Chris was really just a bright kid from New York with less than a single week in-country.  He was no more prepared to survive in the Burmese highlands than one of their own would be had they been picked up and dropped into the concrete jungle of Manhattan.   Capture was inevitable.
Chris Morgan, Primary Flight Training, circa 1942.

As it happened, the two men were betrayed by a chance encounter with Burmese natives.  The locals promised to point them back to India but instead, delivered them to their new Japanese overlords. On October 19, 1943 the lost fighter pilots found their fate before the clenched fists of front-line, war-hardened Japanese Army soldiers.  Ouch.

Then, the hurt began—BANG!  The hard butt of an Arisaka rifle cracked against Chris's head.  A shot rang out*, and the ex-fighter pilot went down.  Repeatedly.  It didn't stop until an English-speaking officer was able to intercede and begin the interrogation "properly."  That moment was a scene out of a B-grade war flick—rote questions followed by Chris's courageous proclamation of name, rank and serial...BANG!   What did you...BANG!   Who is your...BANG!  When will you...BANG!

An ex-POW from Vietnam let me know that, once torture begins, "...everyone talks.  Everyone spills the beans.  Everyone confesses.  Of course, anything you say is pure bullish*t, but if you're getting the sh*t beat out of you, you talk!"

Chris finally admitted that his "commanding officer" was none other than General "Hap" Arnold (about the equivalent of admitting you knew who the President of the United States was).  Chris also rattled off whatever other answers his ringing head could conjure...he can't remember and it didn't matter.  Anything he said was as ridiculous as their situation.

However, in the course of "conversation," Chris did describe the soldier that he had almost plugged.  This piqued the interrogating officer to the point that he had to know, "Why didn't you shoot him?  Why didn't you kill the soldier that was looking for you?"

Chris answered, "He had his back to me.  I didn't want to shoot him in the back."  Somehow, that struck a sympathetic nerve in the officer's soul and he responded unexpectedly.

One can only imagine the scene—the crisply uniformed Japanese leaning back, steepling his fingers and saying, "So.  You showed...honor."  Some how, some way, the anecdote attached itself to Chris (and the whole Lost Flight) and it became a perverse endorsement that followed them on their forced-march to their final prison camp far, far to the South.

"From then on, we seemed to get a little better treatment," Chris explained.  "Not much better.  Maybe they didn't hit as hard.  But looking back, I feel that not shooting that Japanese soldier somehow helped save us, too.  At least on our trip to (our prison in) Rangoon."
A drawing of Rangoon Prison. The artist's last name is Ratcliffe.

It was an 800 mile journey that would last almost three months.  The trek was made on the bed of a transport truck, on train, on elephant, but mostly on foot.  And that "aura" of protection?  It was academic.  At each waypoint, the trio was still welcomed by a gauntlet of angry, war-curdled militants.  CRACK!  BANG!  SPIT!

If there was any mercy in the moment, it was when Major Nameless stepped to the front of the line at each of these vicious receptions. "I got you guys into this mess,' he'd remind them. 'I should go first."  Of course, there was no way this act of honor could deliver them out of their misery but it did reassure the other two that their former Flight Leader understood the ethic of Responsibility.   Though the facts were impossible to forget, Major Nameless's willingness to pay-extra for his sin triggered a spirit of forgiveness in Chris.

I asked if how he thereafter got along with Major Nameless and the other pilot, (Lt. Mel Bowman) and Chris made a point to tell me of the time he was crippled with Beriberi.  They were still 200 or so miles from Rangoon when the disease hit.  Mel and the Major fashioned a stretcher from bamboo and some old burlap and carried Chris the rest of the way 'home.'   Major Nameless didn't complain.   Mel, on the other hand, did.

"Mel would sit by me and say, 'Chris, 'you just going to lay there and whine?!  Chris, 'you just going to lay there and die?!  Chris, 'you just going to moan all day?!'"  Mel's taunts lit a fire in Chris that overruled his physiological decay.  "Mel did it deliberately.  To make me mad!  And it worked; I got so mad that I pulled through those days until I actually got healthy again.  Mel did that for me."

Chris had entered a particularly challenging School of Hard Knocks. Major Nameless taught Chris how to forgive, Lt. Bowman taught Chris the power of determination; it may have been a tragic education, but it was persistent.

"After I got healthy, the Japanese put me and another guy in charge of the camp's Cholera ward.  It was a terrible place with all the mess and death.  But I remember (when the other guy) announced, 'Chris, if we don't get rescued by Christmas (1944) we're going to die! We're going to die!' That was in June of '44.  Sure enough, we weren't rescued on Christmas and sure enough, he died.  On Christmas day."

I need to fast-forward; after the time when Chris listened as a 13-time bayoneted British infantryman blessed his wife with dying breaths.  After Chris learned to survive by eating things he won't mention. After Chris learned how to harden his soul to anything pleasant and dwell only on the moment by moment dichotomy of life or death...we're going to fast-forward to after the war.

Ok.  Try this—wrap your pinky and thumb around the thick part of your forearm.   Can they touch?  If they did, you understand what Chris looked like the day he was repatriated in May of 1945.  He was a shell of a man.  Yet,  the human body is amazingly resilient; 30 days later, he was cleaned up, half-way back to his pre-capture weight and standing on the porch of his parent's home.  He needed every bit of that strength he'd gained as both his mother and father collapsed onto him at his unexpected arrival.  The moment became an indelible scene as for so much of his captivity, his parents had written their son off for dead.

The letter Chris wrote to his folks shortly after being repatriated. 
He said he lied a little to keep them from worrying.
("Jupes" was Chris's nickname)

"So what next?" I asked.  "Did you have trouble adjusting to civilian life?"

Chris sighed.  "I learned to drink.  A lot."

"Did you get a job? Or did you just sit in a bar somewhere?"

"I was given the choice to stay in the Service or get out; the popular convention was to get out and so I did.  I regret that as it turned out the Service hadn't more regard for POWs than the civilians.  And I just drank more."

"Really?!  You mean people didn't accept that you were a POW?!"

"Let me tell you something.  I was speaking at a War Bond Rally just after I got home and I told the audience what I had went through and I could read their faces—they didn't believe me.  But how could they?  They had no idea!  And when people found out that I was a captured because someone had gotten lost?  I heard laughter.  Laughter!  I couldn't—(pause)—I couldn't deal with that.  No more Bond Rallies."

"So then what?"

"Like I said, I drank.  I drank my way through five years of college.  I didn't graduate."

"And what about the rest of your life?  Did you still have any effects?"

"Aside from (the life that came from) drinking?  I'd wake up screaming.  Even today,  I can't get introduced without someone saying, 'This is Chris Morgan, he was a POW of the Japanese.  That was 70 years ago and it's still my life."

"So have you forgotten the memories?"

"Years ago, like I said, I would wake up screaming.  Which brings up that the last three years have been the hardest in my life."

One more pause, I promise.  Right about now, it's easy to see how you can be completely laid-low by this story.  Reconciling the injustice of it all is like trying to slake thirst by drinking vinegar.  But.  You should know that Chris Morgan is no victim.  As it turned out, Chris built a successful career in the insurance industry, raised a family and devoted years lobbying for veteran and POW rights.  Year by year, Chris gained altitude and the lost life was gradually redeemed as any man would want.  But it wasn't easy.  As it took Major Nameless to get Chris lost, it took another to get him found.

"Why's that?  What's been so hard about the past three years?"

"My wife, Connie.  She died three years ago.  Hardest thing I've ever been through.  (pause) Harder than any Japanese prison camp."

If you're one of the thousands who have been reading this story from the onset, Connie is new to the equation.  See, the challenge of these war stories is that, they are not confined to defined spans of time.   Granted, between October, 1943 and June of 1945 Chris Morgan learned, in dramatic fashion that grudges didn't pay and still, fury can be a life-line to extend one day to another.  Good lessons in survival for a POW, but what of "normal" life?

How long can a guy treat his wounds with beer?  How long can a guy be darkened by the shadow of someone else's failure?  How can a guy cope with challenges by any other means than to get angry?

Ha!  And here is the surprise ending that I warned you about in the previous posts.  Have a look at "030" again.   It's not an airplane lost. It's an airplane restored.

It was Connie that got Chris to temper the drinking.  It was Connie that got Chris the job that ended up bringing back self-respect (and later lead to financial success).  It was Connie that reminded Chris that the same Will that kept him alive in a POW camp was needed in the ease of post-War America.  It was Connie that got up with Chris during the nightmares...


"It all made sense later.   Life is about Will and the reason to persist. Connie helped me put the pieces together."

This isn't a war story.  It's a love story...of one man's amazing strength and a woman's amazing patience.

This about right, Chris?





_____________________

* The Japanese apparently fired the shot into the air in an act of terror.  It's possible the gunshot was somehow an accidental discharge of the weapon but it's doubtful.  The IJA were highly disciplined and most likely had exceptional control over their weapons.

Postscript:  Two readers asked the questions, "Did Chris forgive his captors?" and "Where there any Guards that tried to help you?"

To the first question, the answer is unequivocally, "Yes."  Chris answered that plainly to me.  He holds no grudge against the cruelty of war, recognizing that war is its own ethos.   He reminded me that the 6 .50 caliber machine guns and 2x 500lb bombs mounted on his A-36 were truly terrific weapons.  "Would I have been able to do horrible damage to them?  Of course.  It's just a part of war."

To the second question, Chris replied by retelling the story of how the IJA officer was impressed that Chris hadn't shot the Japanese grunt.  Chris worked to understand Japanese culture and realized later that, to them, an inglorious death would somehow taint the afterlife.    In sparing the life, he brought honor to the soldier's family.

However, Chris also described a moment when a lower ranking Japanese officer approached him and stated, "Though our nations are at war, we can be friends."  The officer then silently stood by Chris for a few wordless minutes as a display of kinship.  What prompted this act of personal revelation lies buried in the passing of time but it remains to Chris as a bright moment in a dark time.

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To the family of Chris Morgan, he is one of those giants we stand upon to see the future.  Thank you for letting me into your story.