Meeting the Remarkable Doug Morison

Wartime Wednesdays brings people together. After my recent post about Jack Dye, the young Halifax bomb aimer who saved his entire crew before losing his own life, another connection was made – Jack’s niece Nancy had an emotional meeting with Doug Morison, the pilot of her uncle’s aircraft on that fateful night. Each had been unaware of the other's existence.

This photo shows Doug Morison at his Calgary home.

First, a quick synopsis.

Jack Dye of Regina, Saskatchewan, was a young bomb aimer in a Halifax. During one bombing mission, a shell struck the aircraft and Jack was badly wounded by shrapnel. In spite of his injuries, he was able to tell the pilot that they were flying in the wrong direction – straight into Germany! The pilot corrected his course, the aircraft arrived safely back in England, and two hours later Jack died of his injuries.

To read the original blog post that appeared on June 3, click here: Jack Dye Followed His Star. This is a photo of him taken during wartime.

What happened after the original post appeared should be told in the own words of Nancy Cuelenaere of Edmonton, Alberta.

                                       By Nancy Cuelenaere

Doug Morison is a former pilot who wrote the tribute to my uncle Jack that appeared in June 3rd edition of Wartime Wednesdays.

In one of those wonderful coincidences that occur in life, local historian Anne Gafiuk of Calgary read the blog on June 3, and got in touch with Elinor Florence to say that she knew my uncle’s pilot Mr. Morison, and that he was living in Calgary, Alberta!

Exactly one week later, my husband Michael and I drove three hundred kilometres from Edmonton to Calgary to meet him for the first time.

We spent over three hours with Mr. Morison at his home in Calgary, listening to his recollections about the war, and my uncle, and learning about the rich life that Mr. Morison has led post-World War Two.

Michael’s father, Marcel Cuelenaere, was also a pilot in World War Two, flying Lancasters. Consequently, Michael was interested in comparing what he learned from his father to what he heard from Mr. Morison.

Here’s a photo of Mr. Morison with Michael Cuelenaere.

While Michael’s Dad and Mr. Morison differed in their choice of airplane – Marcel would take the Lancaster over the Halifax any day, while Doug had a definite preference for his own plane, the Halifax – the two faced the same dangers and shared similar experiences.

Both, for example, were 'coned' during the war during bombing runs.

Tail gunner Bob Pierson describes the terrifying experience of the aircraft being coned in searchlights in this 2012 article:

‘One moment you’re in a complete blackout and the next you are caught by beams of intense light,’ Pierson recalled. ‘One thought floods your mind — that you’re the one, that you’ve been picked out of all the other aircraft around you. And you know what happens next because you’ve looked out and seen it all before — seen other planes suddenly illuminated, then hit by shells from the ground. Balls of flame come from the engine, then from the fuselage, and you see it going down and down until it disappears into total blackness again.’

To read the whole article, click here: Scared Witless.

Mr. Morison took evasive action, changing his altitude, elevating and lowering his aircraft to avoid the bursts of anti-aircraft fire from the ground, then successfully dropped his bombs on the target and “did some wild maneouvers to get away from there.”

(Readers, here’s an old Star Weekly cover that shows the searchlights scanning the darkness, trying to locate a bomber. Of course the sky would be almost pitch black, not illuminated as shown here. After a searchlight operator found a bomber and honed in on it, all the others would follow so that the bomber was lit up in a “cone” of glaring searchlights, allowing the anti-aircraft gunners to shoot it down.)

Mr. Morison provided us with a vivid picture of what many sortis were like – so many planes, so close to one another that wingtips would sometimes touch!

He recalled one incident where one of his crew looked down and saw an Allied plane below, with a bomb dropped clear through it. The crew tried unsuccessfully to find identifying markers so they could report the plane to Bomber Command. After their return, Mr. Morison and his crew were surprised to see that very plane parked along with the other returned planes!

This reminded me of what another uncle, who was in the navy, told me about many of the planes he would see flying overhead. The planes were in such bad shape that he marvelled at how they flew back to base.

And when the group wasn’t threatened by flak from the ground, they were still in danger of attack by German fighter planes. The crew was constantly on the lookout for fighters coming from below, above and behind.

The pilot heard his rear gunner call out “Fighter, hard to port!” This told him to take evasive action toward the opponent’s approach, to lower the angle of attack, making it more difficult for the attacker to bring guns to bear. There were other many close calls during Mr. Morison’s thirty-nine ops.

We learned that there were three landing strips for emergency situations. The best one, as far as Mr. Morison is concerned, was the American landing strip because the mess at the base carried ice-cream! (As a fellow devotee of ice cream, I understand completely.)

We also spent some time talking about my Uncle Jack. Even though I never met my uncle, his picture was on my grandparents’ wall (it now sits on our wall) and he was very much a presence in my life. I would wonder about this young man, my Mom’s only sibling. Like thousands of other young men, he went off to war, never to return.

About 25 years ago, my Mom started sharing letters that Jack sent from overseas. He would come to life in those letters. They disclosed a young man full of spirit and humour who clearly loved his Mom and Dad, adored his younger sister Betty (my Mom) and was sweet on his girlfriend (Sybil).

I smiled when I came across passages that revealed the personality of the letter recipient – comments Jack made to his Dad showed that his Dad was clearly the same man I knew as grandpa.

To speak to the man who piloted my uncle’s plane and was one of the last to see him alive, was a humbling and very emotional experience for me. While I was anxious to hear what Mr. Morison had to say about my uncle, at the same time I could only handle so much.

Here’s a photo of Nancy with Mr. Morison and his log book.

So, what did I learn about my uncle?

I learned more about the bomb aimer’s role. The bomb aimer received specialized training that allowed him to do his own job over the target, but also provided back-up to other positions in the crew, including pilot duties. The bomb aimer was the only crew member that had no specific duties on the flight over, so could provide backup where needed. Also, the bomb aimer was trained in the use of stars for navigation.

Mr. Morison said: “Jack was all about the stars.”

This knowledge of the stars allowed my uncle to provide the critical navigation information to the crew. On the night of his death, their plane instruments were badly damaged with both compasses malfunctioning. The magnetic compass indicated they were flying back to England when in fact they were heading to Germany.

I learned that my uncle would sing as the crew headed out on its missions. Mr. Morison explained that his crew, unlike many crews, never complained about what was being asked of them, but would follow through to the best of their abilities. “On our way to the target, we would sing, just the usual wartime songs. It was pretty helpful to relax before we got to the target area. The men seemed to enjoy it.”

I learned that Jack was the only crew member who Mr. Morison lost during his tour and that attending Jack’s interment ceremony was very difficult.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a bit about Mr. Morison’s life after the war. He graduated from the University of British Columbia as a mechanical engineer in 1948, married the love of his life, and had three children. Now widowed, he continues to work to this day, having two businesses. One of his businesses does work for NASA, so he has watched several space shuttle launches – he showed us pictures of one launch.

Mr. Morison is a man who radiates integrity and grace under pressure, inside and outside of war. He relayed a time in 1950 when he was flying to Houston in a twin-enged aircraft with about ninety people aboard.

“I was sitting next to the window, and I saw the engine quit. Then I saw the pilot lift his flaps, meaning that we lost altitude, and then he turned toward the dead engine. Based on those two mistakes, I knew that we were going to crash. I turned to the guy next to me who was taking photographs and said: ‘Save those photographs because we are going to crash!’

“The pilot put the plane into a flat spin, and we came down toward the airfield where we had just left, and hit some trees. The plane caught fire, and we landed in a bog. The soft ground meant that the plane didn’t break up, and we all survived.”

When I remarked at how composed he seemed while saying this to his fellow passenger, Mr. Morison replied that at that point there was nothing to be done!

I really appreciated him spending time with us, patiently answering our questions. It was truly an honour to meet this man who truly epitomizes "The Greatest Generation."

One thing that I was able to give Mr. Morison was a copy of a letter he sent to my grandparents after Jack’s death.

In the letter he says, among other things, that although Jack was badly wounded, in the spirit of true heroism he put up a grand show, not once making the slightest mention of his injuries and that he even tried to do his job.

Here is the first page of the six-page letter, showing his beautiful handwriting, followed by the complete transcript.

F/O J. D. Morison

JB 4771

R.C.A.F. Overseas

England

June 13, 1944

 

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Dye:

I would like to extend my sincere and deepest sympathy over the recent loss of your son. It is with great difficulty and mixed feeling that I write this note, for in the eight short months that I had known Jack, I had come to regard him akin to a brother. We were always together around the camp, in the mess, or sometimes in the evenings when we would go for a show at one of the neighboring villages. I did not see very much of him on our leaves for I used to spend mine with my relatives, and he used to usually spend his with Tommy (The Navigator). We did have some happy times together, though, especially since I bought a car. I cannot tell you how sorry I am that this had to happen, it has certainly meant a great loss to all, ours, though deeply felt, being only very minor compared to yours.

Although badly wounded, your son, in the spirit of true heroism, put up a grand show, not once making the slightest mention of his injuries and even trying to do his job. We got down as soon as possible but he passed away under the anaesthetic. I can assure you that everything humanly possible was done for him and that he received the best of medical attention, but to no avail.

The crew and I attended the Funeral Service on Thursday, June the 8th, at 11:30 hours, which took place in Brookwood Regional Cemetery, near London. A Canadian Padre, who was with the R.C.A.F. in Regina for some time, conducted the Service. A firing-party and bugler were of course also in attendance. It was a lovely day and amid the rich abundance of trees and heavily scented flowers, one could have no more lovely resting place. Full service honours were given. Pictures were taken and these will be forwarded to you direct by the Padre, along with the grave identification, which I will give you to be sure you receive it. The location is Plot 49, Row F, Grave 6, Brookwood Cemetery. Should you ever want this location and you haven’t the above address, the Superintendent of the Cemetery can give it to you.

It is not the customary thing for the whole crew to attend such an occasion, but in this case, they all wanted so to be there, that I managed to get them the time off and they all paid their own expenses, a small thing perhaps, but something which shows how much we all thought of Jack.

All the kit has been taken care of and should reach you in due course. I saw to it that all valuables (watch, lighter, pen, etc.) were listed and handed over to the proper authorities. There was a small amount of money owing Jack (about $40.00 I believe). This is being collected and the equivalent will be sent to you by Mrs. Melvin, our navigator’s wife.

In closing, I would like to say that if there is anything I can do, or if there is something you would like to know, about which I have forgotten to tell you, please don’t hesitate to ask me. I will be only too pleased to help. Any snaps which I can collect I will send on to you.

I wish once more to add my deep sympathy, and hope that you will be able to find some consolation, and later pride, in the fact that your son gave his life for his country and for all that for which it stands.

In memory of a brave man,

Yours sincerely,

Doug Morison

Little did Mr. Morison know that seventy-one years after his offer to provide more information, Jack’s family would come looking for answers. Thank you, Nancy, for telling us about this remarkable man, and the meeting that added to your knowledge about brave young Jack Dye.

                                                      * * * * *

Readers, I receive many messages from readers who have learned more about friends or family members from reading this blog, which has been copied and shared hundreds of times. There have also been instances of people connecting as a result. In case you missed them, I’d like to share three previous stories.

                                                      * * * * *

1. Hank Herzberg of Chicago learned the fate of his boyhood friend from Hanover

The most amazing of these stories concerns Hank Herzberg of Chicago.

Hank and his friend Georg Hein, both Jewish, grew up together in Hanover, Germany. Both escaped the Holocaust, thanks to their parents who sent them away in time -- George to England, where he became a pilot with the Royal Air Force; and Hank to the United States, where he joined the American Army, trained at a top-secret camp called Camp Ritchie, and was sent back to Germany to interrogate German POWs.

The two boys lost touch and never saw each other again.

Now 96 years old, Hank Herzberg emailed me one evening when he idly searched for his old friend’s name on the internet, and came up with a link to my blog!

This is a photo of Georg Hein, who hid his Jewish identity, changed his name to Peter Stevens, and flew with the RAF. His son Marc Stevens researched and wrote a book about his father's life called Escape, Evasion and Revenge.

You can read the original blog post about Georg Hein here: The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin.

Hank was amazed to find out what had happened to his old friend. But his own story was also remarkable!

Hank sent me his written memoirs, and I wrote about him here: From Nazi Camp to U.S. Army: The Story of a Jewish POW Interrogator. Here's a photo of the young Hank Herzberg in the U.S. Armed Forces.

But the most splendid outcome of this story is that Georg Hein's son Marc Stevens of Toronto, who knew very little about his father’s childhood due to his intense secrecy, flew to Chicago to meet with Hank Herzberg.

 This is a photo of Hank Herzberg and Marc Stevens taken in Chicago in June. It’s just an incredible story and I was so glad to play a small part in it!

                                       * * * * *

2. Leo Richer’s son was contacted by his father’s former navigator in Scotland

Leo Richer, who lived near my town of Invermere, British Columbia before his death, piloted a Lancaster in World War Two, and I had the privilege of interviewing him.

I also printed an excerpt from his own book of memoirs about the closest call he ever encountered, on his second bombing raid over Germany. To order the book, click here: I Flew the Lancaster Bomber.

You can read the original blog post, which appeared here on September 10, 2014, by clicking: A Rookie Pilot’s Nightmare.

Then the daughter of Leo’s flight engineer Frank Young, who lives in Scotland, stumbled across my blog post when she was researching information about her father's wartime past.

She contacted Leo’s son Roger Richer, who lives in Vancouver. The two families have written to each other, and hope to meet someday. Read the follow-up by clicking here: Wartime Connection.

This is a recent photo of Frank Young with his daughter and his granddaughter. Again, I was happy to be instrumental in bringing these two families together.

                                       * * * * *

3. My own mother was contacted by the Australian family of her wartime boyfriend

This connection was made through Facebook rather than Wartime Wednesdays, but it once again demonstrates the power of the internet in bringing people together.

During the war, my mother was engaged to a young man named Max Cassidy of Tasmania, who was here to train as a pilot at the big training base in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Like so many other young trainees, he was killed in a flying accident. Here's a photo of young Max.

Decades later, Max’s great-niece Janet Mears found a letter of condolence that my mother had written to the family.

Like Nancy Cuelenaere in the story above, she had grown up hearing about young Max and the terrible hole that his death left in the Cassidy family.

She spent many months searching for my mother, and eventually posted something on a Facebook group dedicated to memories of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

One of my cousins saw the message – and I was able to contact Janet and tell her that my mother at the age of 91 is still alive, and had many fond memories of Max. I taped these, and sent the audiotape to Janet so she could hear them for herself.

This is a photo of Janet, with some of her uncle's memorabilia.

Not only that, but I made Max Cassidy one of the characters in my wartime novel, Bird’s Eye View. People often ask me how much of my novel is based on truth, and tell them much of the content is factual. Max Cassidy was drawn directly from real life.

To read the story of how our two families connected after seven decades, which I wrote and posted on February 19, 2014, click here: Memories of Maxwell Cassidy. 

For me, this was a very poignant and personal connection.

                                     * * * * *

             STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image showing an American sailor and a Canadian soldier, rushing into battle, shoulder to shoulder!

To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

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  • I have a fascinating one-hour powerpoint presentation describing wartime women in uniform, and the little-known practice of aerial photographic interpretation. And I come dressed in my wartime vintage duds! To contact me about speaking at your organization, click: Contact.

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  • Book Clubs across Canada have discussed Bird's Eye View. I would love to visit your club, or answer your questions via email, telephone, or Skype. For a list of discussion questions, click: Book Club Questions.

          

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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