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.

____________________________________________

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.

Friday, April 4, 2014

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





"He was a good man. A good officer.  But he should have never been behind the stick of an airplane."*

Well now.  That's a heck of an opening line, don't you think?!

But before we go any further, it's important that we come back to the topic of "Unfair" that was brought up in the first post on this airplane.

Unfairness is a powerful toxin.  Think back to that moment you first experienced it—something was taken from you, a promise unkept or perhaps an outright fallacy grafted upon your reputation—where you three?  Four?  Yeah.  You experienced it early (we all have)  and from then on, things were just a little different, tainted, perhaps.  Right?

However, I want you to decide right now to bear with the fullness of this story as its reconciliation is at once beautiful and startling.  It will not disappoint, and you'll never suspect where it ends.  Never.

Ok?

Good.

Look above.  You'll notice that I've been at work but not quite finished.  The challenge has been to really understand the color, "Olive Drab."  Sure, there is/was a formula, but that's just a recipe.  Differences in pigments, sun, oil, rain, storage...it's like buying two Big Macs from two different McDonalds.  They won't ever be the same.

But, I do understand the markings.  In a word, Basic.  Chris' A-36 was one of 40 that had been shipped straight from the Group's home airfield at Waycross, Georgia.  No personal, group or squadron livery were applied - just "star'n bar" and serial number, 42-84030.  "030" was a workin' bird, not a peacock.

Why so bare?  Well, they simply hadn't had the time.  When the 529th arrived at their Dinjan, India base on October 11 (1943), mission planners were already hovering over maps trying to figure out where to hit first.  The Squadron had only four days to get ready; October 16 was showtime.  The push to perform was so intense, the Squadron hadn't even logged any orientation flights!  Remember, they'd just "gotten off the bus" from eight thousand miles away...

Oh man...you know where this is going already, don't you.  (sigh)

Anyway, 12 airplanes (3 Flights of four) made up the attack force with a mission to bomb Japanese placements near the town of Sumprabum, Burma.  Fast at low-level and easy to control, the A-36 was pretty-well suited to provide the kind of close-air-support needed to aid the fevered and splintered jungle-fighting below.

There was "good" reason for the urgency to get into action, however; arriving in-country was a big deal. Not only was it the Inaugural act of the unit, it was part of a bold push to support the beleaguered British ground forces and establish the Americans as the strong players in the Theatre.  Remember, this was back in the days when the British had an Empire and Japan wasn't just expanding their empire, they were taking British (and French and Chinese and Dutch and American...) property.

The CBI was so much more than a battle ground.  It was the entitled land of tremendous ego, power and investment!  That the Japanese—upstarts and newcomers to the Industrialized World—could flip their middle finger at so much of the world establishment was an outrage.

Understand this—the 529th wasn't just off to bomb the enemy.  They were there as an opening round of violence to punish the Japs and return something far more valuable than all-the-tea-in-China:  Pride.

It should be no surprise that the Mission attracted its share of big-shots.  The leader of the first Flight was Brig. General William Old, one of the architects of American air power in the CBI.  The second Flight was lead by Colonel Harry Melton, a West Point grad with a slew of missions under his belt.   The third Flight was lead by—well, his name isn't important right now.

So, the three Flights took off toward the target, setting up a course that shot almost straight east-southeast toward Sumberbohm—some hundred and sixty miles away—where the Japs would soon learn who the real Boss was.



Now, there's something more you should know about the concept of a Flight.  A Flight has four airplanes—two Elements of two, of which one of the pilots is the Flight Leader.  It is the Leader's job to lead the rest to the target.

Ok.  If you've ever flown in a small airplane, you know that the machine, especially at altitudes below 20,000 feet, is subject to the lifts and sinks of air currents.  Like a boat on water.  For a flight of four, flying in formation (about 10 feet apart) is not as easy as driving four cars down the freeway.  It's focused business.  Drift a little this way or that and a collision can happen.  Or you fall away and expend precious fuel and focus to get back into place.  It's complicated, but the pragmatic, hammered-home truth is that being IN Formation was good.  Out was bad.  And follow the leader.

I hope this aspect of Aerial Discipline is fully appreciated because what happened next is a moment of supreme...unfairness.

Taking off into the vast, cloud packed aerial sea,  General Old's and Colonel Melton's Flights found each other.  Chris's Flight, lead by Major Nameless, however, somehow missed the others.  It wasn't for lack of trying; the Major wanted nothing more than to find the rest. Not only for the effectiveness of the mission but getting lost with "The General" up front could not help the Major's career, 'know what I mean?

So, the third Flight weaved, searched, looked, circled...and in that process of never-finding the rest , three terrible things happened.

1. The bomb-laden airplanes burned a prodigious amount of fuel.  So much fuel, they soon reached the point where they could not return to base.

2.  Chris's wingman caught a glimpse of the other Flights and peeled off to join them.  Without letting the rest know.  Ugh.  (This was verified after the war).

3.  The Flight Leader doomed the flight with a single act of arrogant insecurity.

Here's how it went down.

But one last time, hold that thought because you need to now take another look at the map above.  Notice the green hills?  That's not the picturesque stuff of New England.  They're the Kachin Mountains and that green is a canopy of jungle.  Underneath are the rocks that cut their way North to the Himalayas (home of Mt. Everest).  Parachute into there?  You'll die.  Ditch your airplane in there?  You'll die burning (or at least have your bones crushed into shards).  And the enemy is down there.  Somewhere.

And, remember this is before GPS and maps of the area were not the rich photographic imagery that anyone can instantly click-to today.  The map looked more like the map below.  It doesn't tell you much, does it?


Umm...yeah.  Being lost over Northern Burma in 1943 meant you knew only one thing—you were in trouble.

Back to the Flight.

Chris, following a gut feeling, tucked up on the wing of Major Nameless, got his attention, and flying wingtip to wingtip, rising and falling in the mountain-heaved air, pantomimed with his hands that he knew where they should head.

"I can do this.  I can get us home!" Chris shouted through leather-gloved gestures.  "Let me lead!"

The Flight Leader then made a most regrettable decision.  Lost, embarrassed, pressured, he chose to honor his one last vestige of Control; he reached around with his left hand and flicked the Major's insignia on his collar.   In other words, he pulled Rank.

Oh.  No.   Major Nameless let pride prevail over facts...ugh.

He also sealed their fates.  While there remained debate as to exactly where they were on the map, one fact could not be argued—they needed to find a flat place to put their airplanes down.  All things considered (namely the rocky peaks below) the first smooth spot to be found was the only option.  And there it was—a rice paddy at the foot of where the peaks and hills transitioned into a giant, ancient valley.

One by one, the three pilots resigned to their plight.  Chris and another pilot picked a rice paddy while Major Nameless chose a sandbar in the narrow nearby river.   All three bellied-in in a strap-straining grind of metal and dirt...close your eyes and see if you can imagine the chaos of neck-snapping deceleration, the howls of bending metal, the slurp of mud... then the sudden silence of halt while the hot engine sizzles the wet away...

It had to be horrible.  First mission.  Got lost.  Someone wouldn't listen.  Ditched on the enemy's door.

Ok.  Take a deep breath.



The photo above is Chris Morgan, circa 1943.  Have a good look as this will be the last we see of his fullness of face and healthy glow.  In three days, he will be captured by the Japanese and experience the wrath of these cruelest of captors.

And all because Major Nameless...

Stop right there. If you're like me, you're fu'll of vinegar for the Major and every other lump-head "Leader" that's lead you astray.  Bastards; every one of them.  Right?  And this story won't get better.**  But, the very reason I get to complete the tale at all is because I promised Chris that we wouldn't dwell on the pain.  Or the suffering.   Or the stupid things people do.

Like I wrote, you cannot guess where this story is going.

Never.

So please.  Stay with me on this.

I won't lead you astray.

(wink)



*The names of every man mentioned in this story are known.   A good researcher can probably have them in an hour or two, too.  But for this particular telling, it does no good to name them.

**Actually, it does.  It just takes...well, you'll see.