Two months after surviving a mid-air ordeal that earned him the Medal of Honor, Lt. “Red” Morgan flew the lead B-17 in the first bombing raid on Berlin on Mar. 7, 1944.
Born in 1914 at Vernon a stone’s throw south of the Red River, John Cary Morgan did most of his growing up in Amarillo. But he finished finish high school at New Mexico Military Institute at the insistence of his father, a prominent attorney.
Late in life after his hair had turned white, Morgan remembered it had been “flaming red during my flaming youth.” This reference to his wild and wooly days was supported by his poor performance in the classroom. He changed colleges at least once a year attending Amarillo College, Schreiner Institute in Kerrville, West Texas State Teachers College in Canyon and the University of Texas all by the age of 20.
In 1934 the head of the family sent his problem child to live with an uncle in the Fiji Islands, where he worked on a pineapple plantation. Despite the fact there were only two automobiles on the small island, reckless “Red” collided head-on with the other vehicle.
Morgan came back to the U.S. in 1938 and found a job as a roughneck in Oklahoma. The broken neck he suffered in an oilfield accident and his sub-par college transcripts proved to be a double whammy, when he tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps. To add insult to injury, he was reclassified 4-F by Selective Service.
The Canadians, already at war as part of the British Empire, could not afford to be so choosy. Morgan was accepted by the Royal Canadian Air Force, trained to fly and shipped off to England in 1942.
The next March, he changed uniforms. The Texan once deemed unfit for duty was welcomed by the Air Corps with a lieutenant’s commission and the grade of flight officer.
On his fifth mission in July 1943, Morgan was the co-pilot of a B-17 nicknamed “Ruthie II” on a 600-plane bombing run over Hanover, Germany. The Dutch coast was coming into sight, when the Luftwaffe met the airborne armada over the North Sea.
German fighters turned “Ruthie II” into a flying piece of Swiss cheese. The oxygen system in the rear of the craft was disabled causing five crewmen to lose consciousness. A split-second after a cannon shell shattered the cockpit windshield, a machine-gun bullet hit the pilot, Lt. Robert Campbell, in the head splitting his skull wide-open.
Still awake but totally disoriented, Campbell slumped forward with a death-grip on the controls. Morgan realized that if the B-17 fell out of formation it would be a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe swarm. So with his left hand he wrestled the crazed pilot into an upright position and with his right hand pulled the bomber out of the dive.
Out of his mind with pain, Campbell fought like a demon for the controls. He punched the co-pilot again and again in the face, loosening several teeth and blackening both eyes, but the six-foot-two, 210-pound Morgan had the strength to keep him at bay.
The Texan reached for the intercom to call for help only to discover that it too had been knocked out of commission. Morgan had two decisions to make and he had to make them fast.
First, should he go on with the mission or turn back to England? He chose to fly onto the target. Second, should he subdue Campbell by removing his oxygen mask, a probable death sentence at 26,000 feet, or wait for the crew to come to his aid? He chose to continue the one-arm struggle.
After the bombs were dropped on Hanover and “Ruthie II” was headed for home, the navigator finally entered the cockpit. Lt. Keith Koske could not believe his eyes. “Morgan was flying the plane with one hand, holding the half-dead pilot off with the other hand and he had been doing it for over two hours!”
“Red” Morgan returned the battered B-17 safely to base with the loss of only one life, the mortally wounded pilot. “Ruthie II” never flew again, but the heroic pilot did over the objections of his superiors.
The general, who presented the lieutenant with the Medal of Honor on Dec. 17, 1943, told him future combat missions were out of the question. But the stubborn Texan was not about to miss the first raid on Berlin on Mar. 7, 1944.
“We had just reached the target area when we were hit by flak,” Morgan recounted decades later. “The aircraft tumbled out of control and subsequently exploded.”
Morgan’s parachute was under his arm rather than on his chest harness, when he was blown clear by the force of the explosion. He fell 20,000 feet before snapping the chute into place with only 500 feet to spare.
Landing almost on top of an artillery battery, Morgan surrendered to the startled Germans. The first Medal of Honor winner take prisoner by the enemy spent the rest of World War II in a POW camp.
If the incredible story of “Red” Morgan sounds familiar, that is no surprise. A thinly fictionalized version of his heroics on-board “Ruthie II” and the freefall into German captivity appear in the novel Twelve O’Clock High and the movie of the same name.
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