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Our War: Mascoutah pilot flew missions from India to China and back 63 times

Bob Morris lounges between missions.
Bob Morris lounges between missions.

In 1940, everybody knew war was coming for the United States: China had been invaded by Japan in 1937, and Britain, France and Germany had been duking it out for a year.

So Bob Morris and his brother Leo paid $900 for an old plane and lessons to fly it. Their goal was to avoid becoming infantrymen by learning to be pilots before the Army came calling.

The plan seemed to work, said Morris, who lives in Mascoutah with his wife, Marie. He trained pilots stateside for a while after the war began. Then he ferried planes across the country. But when the Japanese seized control of the Burma Road in the spring of 1942, the only way to get supplies to allied forces in the interior of China was to fly them by plane over the Himalayas.

"They sent me over there to fly barrels of 100 octane gas to the Flying Tigers," said Morris, now 86. "The next thing I knew, I was flying at 18,000 and 19,000 feet through thunderstorms -- it was always storming up there, with lightning all over the place -- in what was basically a flying bomb."

Morris said he made the 500-mile-plus round trip from India to China and back 63 times in a C-46 Curtiss Commando cargo plane. Less famous than the more-widely produced Douglas C-47, the Commando could carry more, and it could carry it at a higher altitude.

"People think the bomber pilots had it bad," Morris said. "But we flew to China at 18,000 feet and back at 19,000 feet so we didn't run into each other because we couldn't see anything. The weather was always so bad up there that we were bouncing all over the place."

While the pilots in the European theater were being shot at and the hump fliers usually weren't, they faced other dangers. Pilots struggled to maintain an altitude high enough to clear the mountains in fully loaded planes. They also had to contend with lift-robbing ice buildup on the wings. Pilots used air bladders to try to manually chip the buildup off while in flight.

"They told us we better not crash," Morris said. "Because if we did, it was so rough up there that they couldn't even come to look for us."

Rarely, a downed pilot would walk out of the jungle after four or five days of walking, according to Morris. But usually, guys who didn't come back on time were never heard from again. More than 1,000 men and 600 planes were lost flying The Hump before the war ended.

Some pilots refused to make the trip.

"If they came back without making their delivery, they called that a turnaround," Morris said. "If you got three turnarounds, you were court-martialed."

Morris said he took off for one trip and found one of his plane's two engines not to be running right. It went dead before he could make it back to the runway.

"They told me 'that's one turnaround,'" Morris said. "I said 'my engine went out' and they said "it doesn't matter. That's one turnaround.'"

Morris never made another one.

During war, the little things mean a lot. Morris said he always looked forward to landing in China because during his hour and a half layover while the plane was unloaded, the locals would serve the pilots a meal of two fried eggs and toast.

"You couldn't get that in India," Morris said. "I couldn't wait to land."

When the war ended in August 1945, the work wasn't over for the hump fliers.

"They switched us from carrying 100 octane gas for the Flying Tigers to 88 octane gas to run the cars and trucks over there," Morris said. "I did that for a while, but then my younger brother was hit by a school bus, and they sent me home to take care of my mom."

Morris, who started the war as an airman, was in the first ship through the Suez Canal in November 1945, heading home a lieutenant. He almost made it home in time for the birth of his son, Robert, who now lives in Fairview Heights. But his first child came while he was still out at sea, five days from American shores.

The end of World War II wasn't the end of the military for Morris. He once again took to the skies, flying a cargo plane during the Korean conflict.

When the Vietnam War came calling, Morris was ready to hop into the pilot's seat once again. But by then he had a master's degree in computer science from Texas A&M.

"They said they needed me more to run their databases than they needed me to fly a plane," Morris said. "So that's what I did."

Morris stayed in the military until 1975, when he retired from the Air Force. But he never stopped flying. He bought and restored two civilian planes over the years and he still has the airplane bug.

Marie Morris said she overheard her husband last year when he was in the hospital making plans to put in a bid on a plane. She added that he is deeply involved in radio controlled flying. Their sunroom is filled with more than a half dozen model planes and helicopters in various stages of completion.

"That used to be a nice sunroom," Marie Morris said. "Now it's a hangar. But at least that stuff isn't on the kitchen table anymore."

She figured letting the issue go was the least she could do for a guy who served his country in three different wars.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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