Lt. Col. Joseph A. Morris, First Commanding Officer of the 353rd Fighter Group

Regular followers of this blog will note that I recently completed detailing 353rd operations carried out in 1943. Before I move on to operations that took place in 1944 I want to deal with some loose ends and do some tidying up on the website. Luckily Bruce Mahoney, the nephew of Col. Morris, has kindly been back in touch and has updated me on his research into his uncle’s life and career. The below post is to detail some of the information we now have thanks to Bruce’s research efforts that he has kindly shared and some of the questions still out there. As always, any further information is greatly appreciated.

At 31 years old Joe Morris was considerably older than many of the men in his fighter group. The war had brought a massive influx of young civilians to the Air Corp (the USAAF from June 1941) in its desperate attempt to expand from a near standing start. Born in Alva, Wyoming on December 8, 1911 Morris, in many ways, represented an older America and a different generation to those now taking up arms for the first time. His mother, Mary Gertrude Seeley, known as “Gert,” was a school teacher in Alva. He never knew his biological father – Stephen Morris was killed by lightning near Broadus, Montana on June 30, 1912 while on a trip to take some horses north to Canada for sale.

Gert was left a widow with two children to bring up (Joe had a sister Mary Ellen). To provide for her family she worked as a house keeper for John Mahoney who she subsequently married on December 22, 1915. Joe grew up on Mahoney’s 2800 acre ranch near Alva, Wyoming with his mother, sister and further five siblings Fred (also a pilot in WWII), Alice, John, Lloyd (who died of diabetes in 1929) and Edward. Joe appears to have had a good relationship with his stepfather and before enlisting Joe worked the ranch. His stepfather died in 1937.

Throughout his education Joe seems to have been quite a sportsman who enjoyed playing American football and baseball. At High School in Hulett, Wyoming he was a basketball, baseball and track star. Later, at the Black Hills Teacher’s College, he was a football star. He also seems to have had a keen interest in mechanics – at one time he built a “car” from scrap parts that ran, but lacked brakes and a windshield.

Joe Morris (number 13) was a keen sportsman. This picture was taken when he was a cadet at Randolph Field. (Mahoney)

Joe Morris (number 13) was a keen sportsman. This picture was taken when he was a cadet at Randolph Field. (Mahoney)

Sporting prowess and mechanical interests seem to be a common trait among the pilots of this era (maybe all eras) and Joe was naturally drawn to and fascinated by aircraft. While in High School he approached Clyde Ice, the owner and director of Belle Fourche Airfield in South Dakota, to let him jump from an aircraft with a parachute. Ice agreed to let Joe make the jump on the next July 4 celebration, but became concerned about the risk when Joe actually showed up to do it. In an attempt to dissuade Joe he demanded five dollars for the jump thinking that Joe would not have that kind of money. In the event Harry Turner (Joe’s future brother-in-law) came up with the five dollars and Joe made the jump. Not knowing how to manoeuvre the parachute canopy almost brought disaster – Joe survived with only a skinned cheek to mark his escapade.

The injury sustained as an early parachutist did not end Joe’s love of aviation. He still had a strong desire to fly aircraft and was determined to join the Army Air Corp to fulfil that goal. At the height of the Great Depression Joe hitch hiked all the way to Louisiana (about 1500 miles) to enlist. When he got there he found he did not have the required level of college credits to become a pilot trainee. Undeterred he hitched back home and resumed studies at the Black Hills Teacher’s College to obtain the required credits. After gaining the correct amount of credits he then hitched back to Louisiana and entered the Air Corp as a Private First Class at Randolph Field in April 1934.

Joe Morris with his wife Bernice. (Mahoney)

Joe Morris with his wife Bernice. (Mahoney)

Things were beginning to happen for Joe – on August 4, 1935 he married Bernice Lown. Bernice’s father owned several banks in Spearfish, South Dakota and they had met while he was at Teacher’s College there. He also commenced flight training as a Flying Cadet June 29, 1936 at Randolph Field, Texas before moving on to Kelly Field. He completed his training and became a fully-fledged Second Lieutenant in the Air Corp Reserve on June 30, 1937. He was immediately placed on active duty though he remained in the reserve until he became a Second Lieutenant in the Air Corp of the regular Army August 15, 1939. His first assignment was to the 13th Attack Squadron at Barksdale Field, Louisiana from July to November 1939. He then moved to the 79th Pursuit Squadron in Moffett Field and later Hamilton Field California.

Flight Cadet Joseph A. Morris (0-022421) in 1937. (Mahoney)

Flight Cadet Joseph A. Morris (0-022421) in 1937. (Mahoney)

Joe moved with the 79th Pursuit Squadron to Wheeler Field on Oahu, Hawaii in November 1940, but then transferred to the 19th Pursuit Squadron, 18th Pursuit Group stationed at the same field. Joe was at home with his wife when Wheeler Field was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 – his wife Bernice later recalled they could see the enemy Zeros from their window. Joe quickly got his wife to take shelter in the bath tub and rushed to Wheeler only to find his aircraft already destroyed. Twelve P-36s and P-40s from the 15th Pursuit Group did manage to get off the ground to defend the base, but 33 people were killed and a further 75 wounded at Wheeler that day. It was three days before Joe could return home to see his wife.

As the Air Corp expanded promotions came more readily than they had during the interwar period when an officer could well stay at the same rank for ten or more years. Joe was made First Lieutenant October 7, 1940. He attended the Fighter Command School in Orlando, Florida from September 21 to and on October 3, 1942 was awarded his Captaincy the day before he completed the course. Joe was then given command of the newly form 353rd Fighter Group (instituted at Mitchel Field, New York on September 29 1942 and established in Richmond, Virginia the same day as Joe gained his Captaincy).

Joe set about building a fighter group from scratch – quite a task with over a thousand men and three squadrons in three different locations to oversee. Age and experience of the Regular Army certainly came into play and, at times, caused friction with some of the young, near-civilians drafted into the 353rd. This was particularly true of the 350th Squadron who felt aggrieved when Joe decided a popular Squadron Commander couldn’t cut it and fired him. The 350th were more under Joe’s eye at Baltimore where the Group headquarters were also stationed and so it is possible the early sins of the 351st at Norfolk and the 352nd at Langley were noticed less because of this. Regardless, Wallace Hopkins was replaced by Ben Rimerman – no doubt chastened by the experience Hopkins went on to a distinguished career with the 361st Fighter Group.

Joseph A. Morris in 1942. (Mahoney)

Joseph A. Morris in 1942. (Mahoney)

Joe was one of the Group officers that went to England ahead of the Group and records indicate he may have arrived there as early as March 10, 1943. It would certainly be interesting to learn what he did in the time before the main Group arrived in June. Joe received further promotions during this period – to Major on April 21, 1943 and to Lieutenant Colonel on June 16, 1943. This led to a further curious custom specific to the 353rd (though it may well have applied in other groups). Joe insisted that officers of Field Grade (Major or above) should bunk together away from their unit. This was definitely a Regular Army thing to do and was resented by many of the senior Squadron staff. Nevertheless, the 353rd retained a “Wheel House” where senior officers resided separate from their men throughout the war.

As the Group prepared to enter combat from Metfield in Suffolk, Joe and Shannon Christian of 351st went to the 56th Fighter Group at nearby Halesworth for some combat familiarisation flights. We know that Joe flew Mac McCollom’s wing in the 61st Squadron on July 26 (see previous post HERE), but I have been unable to establish exactly how many or what flights he went on (If anybody can help with this information it would be very much appreciated). We do know that Joe had a landing accident during this time. On the evening of July 25 Joe set off from Wittering on a cross-country training flight back to Halesworth. He was, by this point, an experienced pilot with over 2026 hours in total with 1421 of those in Thunderbolts:

I made a normal landing, rolling down [the] runway. The plane started swerving to the right. I applied left brake. It was ineffective. The plane ground-looped to the right. The left wing, propeller, and left flaps were damaged. An engine change was required. The tail wheel was unlocked.

A subsequent investigation signed off by Col. Hub Zemke, famous leader of the 56th Fighter Group, determined 100% mechanical failure as the cause of the crash. The brake cylinder had a leak leading to a lack of pressure on the left brake pedal. The P-47C-5-RE Joe crash landed was Capt. Orville A. Kinkade’s YJ-K – it was subsequently repaired but then lost along with Kinkade on November 5, 1943 (See HERE for further details).

Events now moved quickly and Joe flew his first solo mission in command of his Group on August 14, followed quickly by two further missions on the following day. His next mission on August 16 was an escort to bombers attacking Le Bourget airfield near Paris where Charles Lindbergh had landed to great acclaim in 1927. The 353rd were required to fly down to Thorney Island and, using belly tanks, provide cover as the B-17s from Elbeuf, near Rouen, to the target. As the Group reached the target area ten or more enemy aircraft (Fw190) were seen coming down on to the bombers from the direction of Paris. Large numbers of enemy aircraft (both Fw190s and Me109s) were also seen scattered over a wide area in singles and in pairs.

It is difficult to imagine what Joe thought and felt at this point. Being at the head of a fighter group with 43 green pilots who had never seen the enemy before looking to him for orders must have been a daunting prospect. He was expected to demonstrate resolve and leadership. He needed to make a decision based on his years of training and experience, but also with a mind to providing an example to his men of how things should be done. Joe made his decision and led his flight down to port in an almost vertical dive on the tail of an Fw190 attacking the bombers. Lt. Herfurth, his wing man, acted as cover and drove an Fw190 from his tail, coming out of the dive below 13,000 ft but in doing so lost sight of his leader. Lt. Juntilla leading the second flight in the squadron later reported seeing a P-47, believed to be Joe’s ship, firing at an Fw190 that appeared to be hit and out of control emitting a large cloud of black smoke (Joe was awarded the credit of an Fw190 damaged). Morris was never seen again. Joe had made his decision and it cost him his life in the service of his country.

After seventy years, tracing what happened to Joe Morris is enormously difficult. Eighth Fighter Command lost three pilots that day – in addition to Joe, Lt. Joseph Matthews from the 4th Fighter Group was hit by enemy fighters over St. Denis (he evaded and later made it back to England) and Lt. George Spaleny became a POW after his aircraft suffered mechanical failure near Gournay. The Germans claimed four P-47s shot down. One, claimed by Ltn. Friedrich Meyer near L’Isle Adam, can probably be discounted because the timing of his claim was long after the 353rd had returned to Metfield. Three other claims by members of JG2, however, are possibilities. Ltn Johann Santler claimed a P-47 near Pontoise at 10:27 hours (Continental time), Ltn Hugo Dahmer claimed one at 10:30 hrs and Maj. Egon Mayer claimed one at 10:37 hrs near Mantes. All three are northwest of Paris and thus in the correct area, but the simple mathematics of Eighth losses that day indicates that some must be incorrect. The question of who shot down Joe is therefore a mystery that may never be solved.

Another mystery is Joe’s final resting place. If you take a look on a map at Pontoise and Mantes la Jolie you will see that they are right on the edge of a vast national park to the north of Paris. Given that Joe was lost 70 years ago and that, even now, parts of this area are sparsely populated you can quickly understand why the authorities were never able to locate the spot where his aircraft crashed. Joe’s mother died April 15, 1965 never knowing her son’s final resting place.

As a further (though less important) problem the cumulative lost listing for the Eighth Air Force indicates Joe (Wakeford 19) was flying P-47 42-7990 that day. I have seen this sometimes listed as 42-7865 and do not know the source of this reference so any clarification would be gratefully received. I have also seen it noted that this aircraft carried YJ codes – again I have no idea as to the source of this information and welcome clarification.

Probably one of the last photos taken of Joe Morris in England.

Probably one of the last photos taken of Lt Col. Joseph A. Morris in England. (353rd FG Archive)

Joe was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart and is commemorated on the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery. History is full of unanswerable questions and I often wonder what the 353rd’s record would have looked like if Joe Morris had not been lost that day in August 1943 over Paris…

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under 353rd Fighter Group

4 responses to “Lt. Col. Joseph A. Morris, First Commanding Officer of the 353rd Fighter Group

  1. Patty Bauchman

    I have always wondered about Col. Morris and it is nice to know a little bit more about him. I think he would be very pleased to know of his nephew’s interest (and that of our esteemed blogger!) in keeping his memory alive.

  2. Ed Mahoney

    Great article. Really brought back memories
    Ed Mahoney, Joe’s half-brother.

    • Thanks for your comments Ed and glad you liked the article. I’m also glad we have some more information about your half-brother as, like Patty, I’ve often wondered about him and how little we knew of his part of 353rd history.

  3. Loren Mahoney

    Hi, I’m Loren Mahoney Joe’s half nephew via his half brother John. If it would be of interest to you I have a letter or letters from Joe to my Grandmother. They were written, I believe just before he took command of the 353rd. I may also have a telegram from the war department regarding his death. If you’d like I could scan and send you copies of what I have. Just send me an email and let me know if your interested. Loren

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s