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Hollywood Goes to War: Wayne Morris

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 15, 2022 3:01 am

Hollywood Goes to War: Wayne Morris

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 15, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, it’s time for another one of Roger McGrath’s “Hollywood Goes To War” stories. So far we’ve heard the stories of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Tyrone Power. Today McGrath will be treating us to the story of Hollywood’s strapping, steely-eyed, leading man, Wayne Morris.

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And we continue with our American stories and now it's time for another one of Roger McGrath's Hollywood goes to war stories. Today McGrath will be treating us to the story of Hollywood strapping steely-eyed leading man, Wayne Morris. Here's McGrath with the story of Wayne Morris.

Wayne Morris was born and bred in California. Though he didn't think about it growing up, he looked like something created for screen stardom. He was tall, athletic and handsome.

He was also intelligent and good natured. It wasn't until college though that he got the acting bug. Then the six foot two and a half and well built 200 pound Morris began taking acting lessons and appearing in plays. The blonde haired, blue eyed college boy was soon signed to a Warner Brothers contract. Morris appeared in 29 movies by the time he was 27 years old and starred in most of them, including the box office and critical smash hit, Kid Galahad.

He then walked away from Hollywood and stardom to serve as a Navy fighter pilot in World War Two. Wayne Morris is born Bert DeWayne Morris Jr. in February 1914 in Los Angeles. His father, Bert DeWayne Morris Sr. has New England roots by way of the upper Midwest in Nebraska. There is a Morris ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War as an officer. Wayne Morris's mother is the former Anna Fitzgerald from Texas.

There is a Fitzgerald ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War as an enlisted man. Wayne Morris will have a younger brother, Richard Morris, who also becomes a pilot in World War Two. When Wayne Morris is still a little boy, the family moves to San Francisco and remains there before returning to Los Angeles when he is almost 17.

Morris graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1932 and begins college only a few miles away at Los Angeles City College. There he becomes a theater arts major and starts studying with the then famous Pasadena Playhouse. He begins appearing on stage and attracts the attention of a talent scout from Warner Brothers. The studio gives him a screen test.

The camera loves him and he's signed to a contract. Morris makes his screen debut in 1936 in China Clipper starring Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart. A fictional account of Pan American Airlines establishing the first transpacific commercial flight service, the movie has Morris playing a navigator on the Martin M130C plane. Making the movie gets Morris interested in aviation. In his next seven movies, Morris has only two substantial roles, but even his minor roles mark him for stardom.

In 1937, in Kid Galahad, he gets his chance for the big time with the role of a heavyweight boxer, Kid Galahad. His co-stars are Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart. In that tough company, Morris holds his own and his character makes him the favorite of audiences. The film is a major success and Morris is elevated to leading man.

Morris stars in a variety of roles in his next 20 movies. While making the movie Flight Angels in 1940, he begins taking flying lessons. He's soon a licensed pilot, flying regularly and logging many hours of flight time. With Japanese aggression in the Far East and in the Pacific increasing, Morris joins a naval reserve unit in 1941 and is commissioned in Ensign. Following Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy activates Morris and sends him to flight school. By late summer 1942, he has his wings. He desperately wants to fly fighters in the Pacific, but the Navy wants him here at home as an instructor so he can also make public relation appearances. Moreover, the Navy considers him too big to cram himself into the cockpit of a Grumman Wildcat, the Navy's fighter at the time. Now a Lieutenant JG, Morris is less than thrilled when he's ordered to a Navy airfield at Hutchinson, Kansas as a primary flight instructor. He begins his assignment with resignation rather than enthusiasm.

But the plot is about to thicken. Morris is married to Patricia O'Rourke, a beautiful young actress. Her mother has a younger brother, David McCampbell. McCampbell is a Lieutenant Commander, a combat veteran and one of the Navy's top pilots. One day, McCampbell happens to fly into Hutchinson on a cross country trip. Morris greets Uncle Dave and pleads with him to pull some strings and get him into the fight in the Pacific.

Give me a letter, says McCampbell. McCampbell is able to push Morris's letter of request through the chain of command and get Morris transferred. However, Morris now finds himself training in Jacksonville, Florida in the PBY seaplane. The Navy still thinks Morris is too big for fighters. Morris reckons he will now make it to the Pacific, but as a PBY pilot, he will be flying reconnaissance and rescue missions.

To Morris's rescue comes Uncle Dave a second time. Commander McCampbell has been tasked with forming a fighter squadron and again tells Morris to give him a letter of request. McCampbell says he picks only those men who have a burning desire to fly fighters in combat. McCampbell's squadron, designated VF-15, will be flying the new Grumman Hellcat, which is a far superior fighter in every way to the Wildcat.

But it doesn't have much more cockpit room and pilots still have to sit on top of their parachute packs. It will be a very tight fit for Morris. In the spring of 1944, after many months of intense training, McCampbell's squadron is assigned to the carrier Essex. By May, Essex arrives in the Marshall Islands, now being used by the Navy as a staging area for the invasion of the Marianas. While waiting for the invasion, Essex launches raids against Japanese-held Marcus and Wake Islands. This gives Lieutenant Morris his first taste of combat. Morris and the others encounter no aerial opposition from Japanese fighters, but are met with intense anti-aircraft fire. Several American planes are lost, and nearly all, including Morris's, suffer damage.

During June, McCampbell's boys begin hitting Saipan in the Marianas. Morris is in a group of Hellcats that destroy several seaplane ramps and nearly a dozen seaplanes on the ground. Then Morris sights a Mavis that has gotten airborne. Mavis is the U.S. Navy's identification code for the Kawanishi Seaplane, a large four-engine plane with a crew of nine.

The Kawanishi is armed with four 30-caliber machine guns and one 20-millimeter cannon. And you're listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of Wayne Morris. And what a story indeed. Has family roots in battle that go back to the Revolutionary War.

Not one family member, but two. Goes to L.A. City College, studies acting. In the end, becomes a star. Kid Galahad makes him a huge star. But what does he do? He joins the military like so many other stars. And in an ironic twist, he pulls strings to get into battle, not to get out of it. And not just any battle. He wants to get into the air.

And this is the most dangerous of all positions. When we come back, more of Hollywood Goes to War and more of Wayne Morris's story here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and with Roger McGrath's Hollywood Goes to War stories, this time capturing the story of Wayne Morris.

Let's return to McGrath with more of the story. Morris dives on the Big Bird and opens up with his Hellcats, six.50 caliber Browning machine guns. The.50 caliber slugs rock the Japanese seaplane and cause it to roll.

Out of control, it plummets into the ocean. Lieutenant Morris has his first aerial victory. His next action comes a week later in the great Marianas Turkey Shoot, which is what Navy pilots call the airborne phase of the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Morris and others of VF-15 are flying cover for torpedo planes and dive bombers when four Zeros drop out of the clouds above and begin a run on the bombers. Morris takes on the lead Zero. The Hellcat and the Zero each bank and dive and roll, but it's Morris's machine gun fire that takes effect. The Zero begins smoking, noses over, and plunges straight down thousands of feet into a layer of clouds. Morris follows it down, but once he emerges below the clouds, the Zero is nowhere to be seen.

Morris soon spies an oil slick on the water, indicating the Zero must have plunged into the sea. However, since he didn't actually see the Zero crash into the ocean, he can only count what was surely an aerial victory as a probable. For the next two months, Morris and the rest of VF-15 hit targets not only on Saipan, but also on nearby Guam and Tinian. Most of the time the Hellcats bomb and strafe. Their enemy is anti-aircraft fire. After the Turkey Shoot, the skies over the Marianas have been nearly cleared of Japanese planes, so more aerial victories will have to wait. In September, Essex and other American carriers begin launching strikes against the Palau Islands, especially Peleliu.

McCampbell leads the first sweep. Neither he nor any of his pilots are able to after their kill totals because they catch the Japanese planes on the ground. They destroy dozens of them, but under Navy and Marine Corps regulations, only planes destroyed in the air count as kills.

After several days of pounding the Palau Islands, Essex and other carriers are ordered to sail west to the Philippines and strike at Mindanao Airfields. On their first sweep over Mindanao, Morris and two other VF-15 pilots spot a Japanese patrol plane and blow it out of the sky. Later in the day, on a second sweep, Morris sends a burst of machine gun fire into a top sea, the Navy's code name for Mitsubishi Twin Engine Troop Transport Plane.

The transport's starboard wing tank erupts in flames, and soon the entire plane is ablaze and spiraling to the earth. It's Morris' second confirmed aerial victory. Several days later, over Negros Island, Morris spies a Zero below him. As Morris dives and banks to get in behind the Zero, the Zero goes into a steep spiral dive. Probably to the Japanese pilot's surprise, Morris is able to put his Hellcat into an equally tight spiral dive and fire several bursts into the Zero. The Zero explodes in a ball of flame, and Lieutenant Morris has his third confirmed kill. Later the same day, Morris and Ensign Ken Flynn jump a Nate, the Navy's code name for the Nakajima Fighter.

The Nate is the Japanese Army's equivalent to the Japanese Navy's Zero. Morris' first burst causes the Nakajima to begin smoking. Flynn follows with a burst that causes the already badly damaged fighter to erupt in flames and roll into a spiral dive that ends in the ocean. Minutes later, Morris and Flynn go after a Zero that's on the tail of a Hellcat. Morris fires and the Zero explodes in a ball of flame.

It's number four for Morris. Seconds later, Morris finds himself flying directly into an oncoming Nakajima. He hits the Nate with a single burst before banking steeply.

In the meantime, Flynn circles behind the Nate and finishes off the already crippled fighter. During the rest of September, Morris gets no more aerial victories, but together with his wingmen and other pilots, he is credited with putting a Japanese submarine out of action and sinking two freighters and several patrol boats. Then in October, in a strike at Okinawa, Morris dives on a Kawasaki fighter, Japan's most modern fighter. The Tony, as US Navy code identifies the plane, has an inline liquid-cooled engine that the Japanese copied from the Daimler-Benz engine that powers the German Messerschmitt fighter. The Kawasaki fighter tries to outmaneuver Morris by turning inside him, but Morris is able to stay behind the Tony and pour fire into him. The Kawasaki shakes and smokes and loses altitude rapidly. It hits the ocean and cartwheels spectacularly before sinking. Morris now has the big three of Japanese fighters, the Mitsubishi Zero, the Nakajima K57, and the Kawasaki K61. But Kid Galahad is also an ace.

Later, in October 1944, comes the epic battle for Lake Tee Gulf. Dave McCamble and his boys are active in the air over the Sebullion Sea. Morris gets one zero easily while making a high pass, giving him six confirmed aerial victories. Later on the same day, Morris fires at two oncoming zeros, but his rounds either miss or have no effect. He then banks steeply to come around and try again, but finds the zeros turning with him. He doesn't think much of its chances in tight turns against two zeros and ducks into a cloud. Instead of going through the cloud and emerging on the other side, Morris circles inside the cloud and comes out where he entered.

Just as he has hoped, he finds the Japanese fighters waiting for him on the cloud's other side. This allows Morris to come up behind the zeros. A burst from Morris' machine gun sends one zero spiraling into the sea and the other scurrying for home.

Morris is in no condition to pursue. His Hellcat has been riddled with bullets. The engine is coughing and hydraulic fluid is running into his cockpit. Nonetheless, he now has seven confirmed aerial victories. By the end of November, Air Group 15 completes its tour and Morris' war is over. He returns home with three rows of ribbons on his chest.

Among other decorations, he has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross four times and the Air Medal two times. Wayne Morris is Hollywood's only ace of the war. He had no easy days. Three of the Hellcats he flew were so badly damaged by Japanese fire, they were stripped of their serviceable parts and pushed overboard. Yet, said Morris, it wasn't the Japs I feared, but my own shipmates. Every time they showed a picture aboard Essex, I was scared to death it would be one of mine.

That's something I never could have lived down. Back home, Morris serves in a Naval Reserve Unit and is promoted to Lieutenant Commander. He also restarts his movie career in 1947 after a six-year interruption.

He will appear in 36 movies and be cast in dozens of television shows over the next 13 years. In September 1959, his World War II commander and his wife's uncle, Dave McCampbell, now Captain McCampbell, takes command of the carrier, Bonhomme Richard. While the ship is in San Francisco Bay, McCampbell invites Morris and some other former squadron mates to come aboard for a short cruise into the Pacific where the carrier will conduct air exercises.

On the way back into San Francisco Bay, he climbs a series of ladders to the carrier's bridge for a good view of the passage under the Golden Gate Bridge. He reaches the ship's bridge and collapses. A helicopter flies him to Oakland Naval Hospital, but it's too late. He's pronounced dead of a massive coronary.

He was only 45 years old. Hollywood lost one of her stars. The U.S. Navy lost one of her aces. And America lost one of her heroes. And a great job by Greg Hengler is always on the production of that piece. And a special thanks, as always, to Roger McGrath, author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, also a U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA. The story of Wayne Morris, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 20:24:47 / 2023-02-17 20:31:38 / 7

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