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Our War: Belleville vet vividly recalls Christmas 1944

World War II veteran Earl Morris, now, and Morris at 24.
World War II veteran Earl Morris, now, and Morris at 24.

When Belleville resident Earl Morris woke up on Christmas in 1944, he was feeling down in the dumps.

The 22-year-old was sleeping on the floor of an unheated, unfurnished room in the attic of a French farm house and dreaming of his mom's roast turkey and freshly baked pies. He started to feel sorry for himself, so he got up and took a look out the window across the snow-covered fields.

"I looked up into the sky and here comes a Kraut fighter right at us," Morris said. "I yelled to the guys, `It looks like we've got company,' just as he started to fire his machine guns. I bet he shot every shingle off of the roof of that farm house."

So much for peace and goodwill toward man, Morris thought.

"I yelled at him, `You dirty bastard! It's Christmas morning. Don't you have any religion in you?'" Morris said. The eight men in the squad survived the attack, and a nickname was born. "After that, the guys started to call me `Preacher'."

Morris, now 87, has been married to his high school sweetheart for 60 years and is retired from a long career as a salesman for Chapman's Ice Cream in St. Louis. But he still wakes up every Christmas morning thinking about the attack.

"Every Christmas morning, I tell my wife, `I hope that German pilot isn't over Belleville today,'" Morris said. "I'll never forget that."

While the bad memory never goes away, Morris said the best part about his time in the service was the bond he made with his buddies in the 79th Infantry Division where worked as a communication runner.

They met for an annual reunion every year until 2003, when the number of survivors who attended had dwindled to 25 men --- and they were finding it hard to travel.

Tears came to his eyes when he talked about the last time the group met in Pennsylvania and the guys parted in the lobby of their hotel.

"In one eye, I see what everybody else sees: a bunch of old men," Morris said of that last meeting. "But, with my other eye, I still see a bunch of 22-year-old boys with dark, wavy hair and not a care in the world."

The close relationships were formed after Morris and a couple of his buddies --- Jim Delaney and Charlie Gregory --- decided to leave their jobs at the Alcoa aluminum ore plant at 33rd Street and St. Louis Avenue in East St. Louis to join the Army.

"Everybody was really patriotic after Pearl Harbor," Morris said. "And we were all 20 years old and single, so we knew there was no way that we weren't going to be drafted. We decided to enlist and we told the Army that we wanted to stay together if possible."

The men signed up in June 1942 and trained in the United States until April 1944, when they were shipped over to Liverpool, England.

"They put us on what used to be a luxury ship and sent us across the Atlantic by the northern route --- from Boston to Iceland to Greenland --- to try to avoid the German submarines," Morris said. "We had a battleship and some destroyers with us. One night I was sitting on the deck and I could tell that the destroyers were starting to leave us. I think I prayed all night after I saw that."

In the morning, Morris noticed the destroyers were back and asked around why they had taken off. He found out they spotted an enemy sub and went chasing after it. Rumor was that they got one. That didn't make Morris feel much safer.

Three months after they arrived in England, the 79th Infantry was shipped to London where the men received a pep talk in a theater from Gen. George S. Patton before being told that they were shipping out for Utah Beach in France a few days after D-Day.

"We crossed the channel and they made the announcement at 5:30 that we were about to land in France," Morris said. "All I could think to myself was, `Lord, I wish to hell that I was back at the aluminum ore plant.'"

Although the Allies had pushed the Germans back a couple of miles from the shore, the beach was still within range of their 88 mm artillery, which they used with deadly accuracy.

Four men on Morris' landing craft were killed as soon as it hit the beach and another 11 were injured. While many of the obstacles placed in the Allies' way had been pushed aside, the beach was still littered with bodies of the dead and wounded who were waiting to be shipped out. It was horrifying for the young men getting their first glimpse of the shooting war.

The 79th Infantry headed for Cherbourg, where it seized the important deep-water port so the Allies had a place to bring heavy equipment, including tanks, into mainland Europe.

"We took 4,000 prisoners there," Morris said. "They told us they didn't want any part of Hitler's deal."

After that, the 79th was on the move.

"We started in England, went to France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia and finally to Germany," Morris said.

In all, the 79th Infantry spent 248 days in combat. It had 2,476 of its soldiers killed and 10,971 wounded and took 35,466 prisoners. But Morris, Delaney and Gregory made it home safely. Delaney now lives in Minnesota, Gregory passed away a few years ago.

Morris, who rose through the ranks to sergeant by war's end, earned a Purple Heart in the fighting's closing months when an artillery shell hit a truck that his jeep was passing in the opposite direction. The two men in the truck were killed. He was bleeding from cuts to his head but the injuries weren't life threatening.

By the end of 1945, Morris was sent home where he met a girl named Virginia that he knew from high school.

They went on four dates before he decided she was the right girl for him and proposed. One reason they are so compatible is that Virginia loves to hear her husband's war stories.

"I've heard them so many times and told them so often that I feel like I was the one who was there," Virginia Morris said.

While he can't shake the bad memories of his Christmas in 1944, Morris said the holiday season is responsible for him being able to keep up with his war buddies for so long.

Members of the 79th Infantry compared their Christmas card lists when they decided to start holding reunions as a tool to track down members of the division.

And the memories from those gatherings are countless.

"People ask me if I would do it all over again," Morris said of his service in the war. "I'm glad I did it because I still think this is the greatest country in the world. Besides, that's where I made so many close friendships."