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Veterans recalls going from ‘bulletproof’ job to dodging flak in a B-17 over Europe

James P. Morris, 95

Hometown: Ilion, Herkimer County

Residence: North Port, Fla.; formerly Williamsville

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Technical sergeant

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1942-45

Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Air Medal

Specialty: Ball turret gunner on B-17 bomber

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Jim Morris and his older brother Tom often joked that they would find “bulletproof” jobs when they entered the military in World War II, and both brothers succeeded in finding safe work.

Jim served as an instructor teaching bombardiers how to sight targets at a base in Big Spring, Texas. Tom had to travel farther for his bulletproof employment and, along the way, dodge German bombs.

“I kept in touch with Tom by letter. In late 1942, he told me that he was on a ship waiting to land in North Africa when the Germans came over and bombed the ship,” Jim Morris says.

“I wrote back and told him that it didn’t sound very bulletproof to me. Later on, he landed on a beach in Sicily.”

But Tom, an attorney, secured a safe and impressive post. After arriving on the Italian mainland, he was appointed head judge for the military government established in Rome by the Allies. In the meantime, two other Morris brothers were in the thick of war, also serving in Europe. Edward piloted a B-17 bomber, and Richard flew a P-51 Mustang fighter. A fifth Morris brother, John, served stateside.

Speaking of stateside, Jim Morris says that by the end of 1943, he’d had enough of his bulletproof job.

“The thought in my mind was that I would have to tell my grandchildren that I spent the war in Texas,” he says. “Maybe the best way to say it is that I wanted a piece of the action.”

He applied to serve as a bombardier, but there was a six-month wait, and that was unacceptable to Morris.

“They said if I was anxious to go overseas, I should go to the gunnery school, a six-week course, and ask for a crew assignment,” he says. “That’s what I did.”

At 5-feet-6, Morris said, he “fit the mold” for the job of machine-gunner in the B-17’s ball turret, a cramped bubble compartment on the underside of the aircraft, which was known as a Flying Fortress.

In September 1944, he and his fellow crew members landed in Foggia, Italy, assigned to the 353rd Bomb Squadron, 301st Bomb Group.

“We were all anxious to fly as many missions as possible,” Morris says. “The Army Air Forces had a policy that anyone completing 50 missions and still alive was returned to the States.

“They gave double credit for long missions, and we were a heavy bomber group where all missions were long, so it really meant 25 bombing runs.”

Morris, who often signed up for additional bombing runs with other crews, flew a total of 32 missions by the end of the war. Those missions varied. Bombs were dropped on oil fields, railroad yards, enemy munitions factories and German infantry defensive lines in the Po Valley at the top of Italy.

Many in his squadron paid with their lives.

“One day, our squadron sent seven planes and got back four. A few days later, we sent seven planes and got back five, and a few days later, we sent seven planes and got back four,” he recalls of the bombing runs over Austria. “That was one of the heaviest attrition weeks we ever had, and I was on all three raids.”

At week’s end, Morris says, he was summoned to the orderly room and informed that he was to take a rest.

“I was told, ‘You are going to Rome on leave,’ ” he says. “I said that I was not ‘shook,’ but they said, ‘Be packed in the morning.’ ”

When he arrived in Rome, he hoped to see Tom, but the older brother had been transferred.

As the war progressed and Morris flew more frequently above Berlin, he said he fulfilled a promise he had made to himself early on.

“I had said many times that if I ever got to Berlin or Tokyo, I would pee on them for causing all the trouble. So I did,” he says. “To do this in a ball turret, you have to point your guns straight down and use a little funnel from under your seat.”

And while that provided satisfaction, Morris says, his most enjoyable mission occurred in bombing an enemy airfield north of the Adriatic Sea in the Udine area.

German fighter planes stationed there were in the habit of going after American bombers, some barely able to stay aloft, as they returned to Italy from Germany.

“They seldom tried to prevent us from attacking,” he says. “They usually waited for the bomber formation to get shot up by flak on the bomb run, and then they would pick on the shot-up stragglers.”

The revenge was sweet.

“One day, our group got the assignment to ‘frag bomb’ the whole installation. We were loaded with thousands of fragmentation bombs,” he says.

“Instead of flying in box formation, we spread out wingtip-to-wingtip and dropped our bombs in intervals as we flew over their air base at what, for us, was a low altitude. That air base was a mess, and they stopped picking on our cripples for a month.”

Having crash-landed twice after bombing runs, Morris knew the havoc that enemy fighter planes could inflict. Yet he managed to survive. When the war in Europe was won in May 1945, Morris had earned enough credits to be sent home rather than be assigned to the Pacific.

“Before the war, when I was going to Cornell, I had to wait on tables at a fraternity house to earn my meals,” he says.

“After the war, I went back to Cornell on the GI Bill and I didn’t have to work. I could concentrate on getting good grades.”

He graduated with an industrial engineering degree that opened the door to a job at Bell Aircraft, later Bell Aerospace, in Wheatfield. There, he had the chance to help the country soar to even greater heights in the race to land astronauts on the moon.

“I was part of a team that designed and built the lunar module ascent engine. That lifted the module off the moon,” Morris says.

There was also success on the family front. He and his wife, the former Gladys Rosinski, raised two children.

And on Jan. 1, 1986, Morris retired from Bell.

Of giving up his stateside bulletproof job and flying head-on into danger, Morris says he’s grateful he had the opportunity to defend the country and live to tell of his service.