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Our War: Shiloh POW survivor endured hell

Vic Morris was a  flight engineer in a B-29 during WWII.
Vic Morris was a flight engineer in a B-29 during WWII.

Vic Morris signed on with the Army Air Corps in June 1940 because he knew war was coming.

By enlisting before the fighting started, he figured he could stay out of the shooting by learning to be an aircraft mechanic.

Sounded like a good plan. But on May 24, 1945 -- 63 years ago this month -- Morris found himself bailing out of a burning B-29 during a night raid over Tokyo. Just as he climbed out of the battered hulk, one of the wings ripped off the fuselage, and the massive bomber started tumbling toward the ground.

For Morris, the war was over. But his nightmare had just begun.

"It was our 24th mission, and we were acting as the pathfinders," said Morris, whose experience as a mechanic led him to become a flight engineer on the 11-man crew of a B-29. "We thought it was going to be an easy run because it was overcast. But we broke out of the clouds just as we reached the outskirts of Tokyo, and they opened up on us."

Pathfinders were aircraft that led the way to the target. The planes that followed aimed their bombs at the fire started by the lead planes. Originally assigned to the Pocahontas, which flew 56 missions and ended the war in one piece, Morris' crew was split up to help man the Danny-Mite, a brand new B-29 with state-of-the-art radar.

Danny-Mite met its demise when anti-aircraft flak set one of its engines on fire, Morris said. A burning plane was usually a death sentence because even if the fire was manageable, it attracted enemy fighter planes to finish the job. Soon, Danny-Mite had a second of its four engines on fire.

"We managed to get our bombs off, but we lost electrical power," Morris said. B-29s had remote-control defensive machine guns that protected it from fighters. So when the power went out, the crew knew it was time to bail.

"There were lots of ways to get out of the back of the plane," Morris said. "But with the fire, we couldn't get back there. And there was only one way out for those of us up front -- through the landing gear door."

With no power, the crew had to try to hand-crank the gear down, but by the time they had gotten it only halfway down, the plane began breaking up. Morris squeezed through between the tire and the sheet metal, badly cutting his leg on the way out.

The action report from the fateful day said only that the Danny-Mite "lost two engines over target -- last reported trying to reach sea."

As Morris fell, he found himself illuminated by searchlights. He could see enemy fighters swarming and expected it to be a matter of time before they strafed him. Not knowing whether he was above land or sea, the western Pennsylvania native who could barely swim reviewed his over water-bailout instructions in his head as he watched the burning, detached wing of Danny-Mite flutter down alongside him.

Morris found out the hard way he was over land when he crashed into a tree. A mob of civilians surrounded it.

"The first thing they tell you to do if you have to bail out over Japan was to get rid of your .45 sidearm," Morris said. "They'd kill you on the spot if they found out you were armed."

None too pleased with the B-29 firebombing raids, townspeople cut Morris down from his parachute and began beating him until Japanese military police arrived on motorcycles. One pulled out a sword and pushed it against Morris chest. The downed airman shouted, "No gun! No gun!"

They dragged him through the streets to a police station, where they put him into a cell with a Japanese businessman charged with embezzling money.

Knowing he was going to be there for a while, Morris tried to make a friend.

"I said to him, 'How about you teach me a few words of Japanese?' Morris said. "He taught me how to say 'medicine' and 'airplane.' Over the next couple of weeks, in between daily interrogation sessions and beatings from the guards, he probably taught me about 50 words."

The impromptu language lessons may have saved Morris' life later on.

After leaving the city jail, he was taken to a horse stable near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, where he and 15 other prisoners of war were kept in a single stall about 8 feet wide and 14 feet long.

"I talked to the guards with the few words I knew, and they were flabbergasted," Morris said. "They couldn't believe I took the time to learn their language, and I think it made them think of me more as a human."

The bond Morris made with his guards earned special privileges for him and his men. Sometimes they were allowed to spend a little time outside the stall. They used the time to rummage through the garbage for a few fish heads to supplement their diet of three rice balls and a little water each day. Men who spent an extended time in Japanese POW camps often lost 50 pounds or more -- or starved to death -- before they were liberated.

Morris even befriended a Korean Shinto priest who sympathized with the prisoners and brought them what medicine and salve for their cuts and burns that he could sneak in.

Morris begged the guards to include him and some of his men on an outdoors work detail that he hoped would allow them to stretch their legs and get some exercise. He was confused about why they always took other prisoners and refused him.

"I later found out that they were taking them out to raise money for the war effort," Morris said. "They would take them out in cages, and for every so many yen you gave, you could beat on the prisoners a little bit."

While downed airmen in Europe were often treated with respect by their German counterparts, American flyers -- especially B-29 crew members downed in Japan -- were loathed and treated brutally by their captors, who ignored the Geneva convention that called for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.

Morris' arms and legs are covered with scars from cigarette burns. He and the other fliers were threatened with execution almost daily. They were often blindfolded and tied to a post while Japanese soldiers clicked the bolts on their rifles as if they were getting ready to shoot.

One time, the prisoners were blindfolded and put into the back of a truck, Morris said. They could see around the edges of the blindfold that a bed was filled with picks and shovels, the implication being that they were going to be forced to dig their own graves.

Near the end of the war, Morris was transferred to a larger POW camp, where he met legendary World War II fighter ace Greg "Pappy" Boyington. Boyington shot down 26 planes, and is best known for leading Marine Fighter Squadon 214: the Black Sheep Squadron. Boyington was shot down Jan. 3, 1944, over Rabaul, and was declared missing in action. He was picked up by a Japanese submarine and spent 20 months as a prisoner of war before being liberated.

Morris said the legendary flier was desperate to hear news about how the war was going from pilots who were captured after him. Boyington was thrilled to learn the Allies had captured Iwo Jima and that the U.S. had a fleet of more than 900 bombers trained on Japan.

With Iwo Jima only 700 miles from Tokyo, flights to bomb the Japanese mainland were reduced to less than three hours each way. Before Iwo Jima fell, it had taken more than 6 1/2 hours one way to fly from Saipan, and countless bombers damaged over Japan were lost in the sea because they couldn't make it back.

After Morris' capture, the American forces' good fortunes continued, and suddenly, the guards in prison camps became quite a bit friendlier, fearing they soon would be held accountable for their actions.

"When the A-bombs were dropped, they beat the hell out of us," Morris said. But soon after that, the commander of the camp "apologized to us for the treatment they got and told us we were going to be friends from now on."

The commander predicted that the Japanese and Americans would soon be allies fighting shoulder to shoulder against the communists.

The prisoners were set free and were taken on PT boats to the hospital ship Benevolence, anchored in Tokyo Bay near the battleship Missouri.

Sidelined for the last six months of the war as a prisoner, Morris now had a prime vantage point to see the Japanese surrender.

The starving prisoners were suddenly treated like kings.

"On that ship they had the biggest buffet set up that you ever saw," Morris said. "Apparently, they didn't know what happens to people who have been starving when they eat a bunch of food."

Morris was craving fresh bread with butter more than anything.

"When we were done eating, our stomachs made us look like a bunch of pregnant women," Morris said.

Most soldiers, sailors and airmen who went home after the war made the trip by ship. But Morris was in such bad shape that he was flown stateside on a C-54 cargo plane.

Signed on as an airman, Morris was a captain by the time he arrived home five years later. He decided to stay in the Air Force, and was stationed at several bases around the country before he made his last stop at Scott in 1958. In 1961, Morris was going to be transferred when he decided he had spent enough time moving from place to place.

"They were going to send me to Japan, of all places," Morris said. "I had five kids by then, and I had been in 21 years, so I retired as a lieutenant colonel."

He worked in civil service until 1987 when he retired after 51 years of government service.

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

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