Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
CMSGT Doug Morrell Part II: “The Legend” in Vietnam
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CMSGT Morrell rode along on bomber missions over Europe as a combat cameraman in order to document them. He was called upon several times to replace gunners after they had been killed, and was shot down three times during his service.
Doug Morrell joined the Army Air Corps two years before World War Two as a combat cameraman. He completed glider pilot training, and was sent to the University of Southern California for a year to study film and photography.
Once the war started, Morrell accompanied crews on various missions all over Europe and Africa. It was his job to document the mission with film or photos so that the operation’s execution could be evaluated afterwards. He almost exclusively flew on bomber missions, and was called upon several times to replace gunners mid-fight after they had been killed. As a result, he was provided with the gunner’s wings despite never going to gunnery school.
On one mission, Morrell’s aircraft was shot down over the “Iron Gates” of Romania. As a navigator was bailing Morrell and a gunner out, he made a mistake that sent them miles away from where the rest of the crew landed. The two of them spent twenty-six days evading capture and walking across the mountains of modern day Kosovo and northern Albania. Eventually they reached the Adriatic Sea, where they paid a fisherman to take them to Italy where they could meet up with allied forces.
Morrell was later shot down in Romania again, but this time he was captured by German forces. He was kept in a prison camp for four and a half months before being rescued by the Russians. After that, he was sent back to the States.
These two incredible stories earned him the nickname “The Legend,”, but his adventures were far from over. He was redeployed to Europe during the Cold War, spent five years in Panama documenting civic actions, and served in Korea and Vietnam.
In Vietnam, Morrell would be shot down for a third and final time, where he shattered a bone in his ankle on landfall. He landed in hostile territory, and radioed for help. Nine hours and one firefight later, Morrell was air evaced to safety. You can learn more about this story here.
After being shot down over enemy lines for the third time and escaping, Chief Master Sergeant Doug Morrell truly cemented himself as “The Legend. He was later awarded the Combat Camera Lifetime Achievement Award and the AIr Force Outstanding Civilian Career Service Award.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Chief Master Sergeant Doug Morrell. Nicknamed “The Legend”, Morrell was a combat cameraman that accompanied flight crews during missions. It was his job to photograph or film the missions so that the operation’s execution could be evaluated afterwards.
In this final part of his interview, Morrell recounts serving in various conflicts after WWII, and tells the story of how he was shot down for a third time in Vietnam.
In the Korean War, I was in RB-36s. That was a reconnaissance airplane, the RB-36 was a Peacemaker. It had six pusher engines and two jets on each wing, so we had four jets and six pushers, and they were big. It was a big airplane. It was the biggest they ever had had at that time. Our targets were all in Russia and China, and we would've never come back. Of course, at that time, they were all classified, but that's all then, now we don't have to worry about that. But we would've never got back. So we had severe survival training all the time. Survival, survival, survival. Every time you traded it, you changed a crew, you'd have to go through survival again with that crew. For crew integrity, they called it.
But Korea, no. None of our airplanes went over there. Earlier, we had some of our B-50s, which are RB-50s, RB-29s, which they also had in Project Crossroads, the bomb tests. But they were over there. But we just got transitioned to these new B-36s, and we didn't go. But we practiced 30-hour missions. People say the only way you'd ever get down from a B-36 is to shoot it down. You're up there forever, it seems like. Of course, we had bunks.
But that Korean War, I went in 1952. I had a five-year break between '47 and '52, and that was because I went back in for the Korean War. And I immediately went back in on flying status, aerial photographer again. But in the RB-36, we had 20, 30 cameras in there. And we also had the FICON system, which was a small... Or the RF-84K, which was, oh gosh, I forget its name, but it's a F-84K, meant that it had a hook on the front that retracted, it had two pins that retracted and went out. And the cameraman had to do this, we'd put down this trapeze, would come down like that. Then there's an arm that came out like this, and then this had a thing like that. The pilot would go down, the pilot would fly in between that and hook on. Then we'd lock him up and bring him up inside the airplane. And we had to reload his cameras, and refuel him, and give him a walk-around bottle. He loved it. He'd come up in there and he'd say, "God, coffee in the airplane? This is great." It was quite a deal, but it wasn't in combat. But we were ready anytime.
The B-36 was a deterrent more than anything else, because it could go nuclear equipped, everything. Nuclear. And it could go anywhere. We could fly halfway around the world and back.
Well, going into Korea, having the five-year break between World War II and Korea, put me into Vietnam, eligible for Vietnam. After after I got out of B-36s, they sent me down to Panama. I spent five years in Panama documenting civic actions. There'd be medical civic actions, and construction civic actions, a lot of... But we were really building up the rapport between the United States and all these Central and South American countries. I visited every one of them down there, I had a job in every single one of them. And I was a tech sergeant when I went down, and I had a Chief Master Sergeant line number when I came back, which means that those three letters I had of commendation from three different presidents in South America didn't hurt anything.
But anyhow, when I went back from there, they sent me back to Colorado Springs, to the Air Defense Command there. And they had a need for documentation of the Russian Bear bombers that were coming down from the North Sea, way up there. And they were coming down and over our fleet and stuff. And they're electronic gatherers, they gather the frequencies and stuff. So we're up there to document them, to show that there's still a threat from Russian bombers. So they sent me to Iceland for six months, and I documented about 25 or 30 intercepts up there. And that's going right up, we're flying in F-102s, the Delta Dart, and it's a side-by-side aircraft, side-by-side, you're sitting side-by-side. And so the pilot's over here, so you can shoot real well up there.
Well, I had several opportunities to get the Russians up there. We went in real close. And this is almost combat, because at one time, this tail gunner up there and this Russian bomber had these guns stowed like this, and he lowered them like that. The minute he did that, my pilot prepared to fire a missile, and he's got these missiles underneath. The doors fly open, down this missile goes, and it's sitting there like that. And the guy's tail gun went back up again like that.
But other times we'd be flying, documenting these Russian Bears, and we'd show them up the front, and here's the guy up the front, and he's saying, "What's the matter?" So we go back there and this guy halfway back in a window with a camera. So this guy's saying, "Go back there." And we go back away, and he goes, "Click," he says. So it's kind of funny, here's cameramen on opposite sides of the world, even the opposite sides of our cultures, and he's telling me to come over so he can get a better picture of us. And oh, it's funny. It was funny.
And we did document those, and they'd keep sending the same airplanes over with different numbers on, because we'd go up and we'd document their rivet pattern. We'd go right underneath them, I'd shoot straight up to document the pattern.
But after that, after I spent those six months up there, I got the call for Vietnam. So I went over there, took survival at Clark Air Force Base, went through the Survival School there. Went on over to Thailand, they put me in Thailand at Korat. And we weren't getting too good of a coverage from a lot of the bases, so I was starting to go around all the bases and check and see, fly a couple of missions, see what they were doing.
Well, the first mission, I went over there. I went to NKP, which is Nakhon Phanom. It's up on the river, just across from Laos. And, excuse me, anyhow, we went up there in a O-2. This is a forward air controller airplane, it has a pusher engine in the front, Super Skymaster Cessna. Has an engine in the front pulling, and an engine in the rear pushing. So, we're up there about a half hour, flying over to Laos. We were going over to photograph these, what they called? Sensors. We'd drop these sensors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Well these sensor drops are like a javelin. They're about, oh, I'd say, two, three feet long. And an airplane will fly right directly over the trail, and it'll drop a string of those. And as this string goes down, we're supposed to photograph it so we can see the actual position on the ground where they go in. They can tell it later on, they can develop our film, check it out, they can see exactly where those sensors go. Well, if there's activity on the Ho Chi Minh trail, even guys on bicycles or any activity, it will start these sensors broadcasting. When they bury themselves in the ground, they have a tail, a green tail. It looks like a plant coming out, but it's the antenna. So any noise would start them operating. And when they operate, they sent out a beep signal. Well, they'd have these beep signals would be maybe 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or a combination from what started out, so they'll know exactly where that one was, because they know what beep that one's putting out.
So anyhow, airplane didn't show up, and we're still flying around there in this O-2. All of a sudden, we had four bursts of flak, and it went bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. And the fourth one hit us on the left wing, and it knocked the left wing off and set the stub on fire. And the pilot says, "Bail out!" And I'd just been briefed, and I reached down, I grabbed the handle down there, and the whole side of the airplane came out. The pilot had to go out my side. So both of us were rolled around in a strut that goes from the bottom of the airplane to the wing. It's a high-wing airplane. And we were both rolled around, he was knocked out, I was knocked out temporarily. I woke up, I imagined, a couple seconds afterwards, but he went all the way down. And when he opened up, he only had about one swing, and then he hit the ground and broke his legs. I opened up about, I don't know what, we were at 5,000 feet, and I opened up about two or three seconds after we bailed out, I guess. But I didn't even know it until I looked out and I says, "Uh-oh, we better pull this." When I bailed out that time, I said, "Oh no, not again." And almost that casually. But it was funny. In a way, it was funny.
Anyhow, I opened up and I could see right below me there was a gun. That gun that shot at us was firing, and he was firing at me. And you'd see a ball of fire come out from down there. It looks like it's coming right at you. And so it comes right up at you like that, and then it pulls off one side or the other. It's kind of the perspective that you get, but it's disconcerting. Anyhow, they fired for a while, and then they finally says, "Well, we're not getting him any." So I swung my chute just in case. And I thought, "Well, heck, maybe I'll swing into it." So I stopped.
But I looked down there and there were people coming out of this place, it was a truck park. It was a little place called Xepon, a sleepy little village of Xepon, where more people had been shot down than anywhere else. But anyhow, this truck park and a garage in a daylight park for the trucks that travel at night. So I saw all these people coming out, and looked like I was going to land right there. I could see the pieces of the airplane coming down all around me. And I could see where they were coming out, so I just like I did in World War II, I pulled on my chute risers, and I sailed along. I saw a tree out there in the jungle sticking up by itself. I had to hit that tree, and I don't know why. But I hit the tree and I went in real fast, and my chute collapsed, and I felt a momentary tug and then I went down, straight down. It was a high jungle canopy... Now, this is a high jungle canopy, and it's 40 or 50 feet, at least, up in there, maybe 80 feet. But I felt that momentary tug, and then I went straight down, and on the way down my right heel hit a limb, and it shattered the bone, the talus, the bone in your ankle that everything swivels on. And yeah, it just felt like a big numbing more than anything else. And I landed, and I imagine I fell about 40 feet. I'm all jarred up and everything, but I got out of my outfit. And survival training says, "Go uphill. Go away from the people, go uphill, because that's where the helicopters can pick you up easier."
So I'm going through this jungle, and I go straight ahead, kind of a halfway trail, and I came on this truck park. You could see the trucks down in there. And so I says, "I can't go there." So I went back, I looked around, there was no way to go up. It was just flat level all over. So finally I saw a way, I got down below the ground, I saw a slight rise, and I headed out that way. And I walked on this broken ankle. You don't realize it, but you were talking about adrenaline a while back. That adrenaline comes, and it makes a beautiful splint for you. I didn't even feel that leg hurting at all.
And anyhow, I got up into an area there and hid in some tall grass. I hid in there, got down, got my radio out, and called up... There was an OV-10, which is, I forgot what they call those two, but this is OV-10 reconnaissance, forward air controller airplane. So I did get in contact with this forward air controller airplane, and I talked to him. He says, "Where are you?" I says, "I'm on the ground." He says, "Well, where are you?" I said, "I haven't the slightest idea." So I described the area around, he says, "Well, the place is full of areas like that." So finally, I says I hear him. So I guided him in with my radio. I says, "Make a left turn." And he came, and I said, "Now you're over me, right now." So he whipped down on his wing and he says, "Oh, you down there in that clearing?" I says, "Oh, no, these guys have got my pilot. They got his radios, everything else. So I tried not to talk to him anymore."
Well, by that time, the rescue force had come in, and he did report that we were down. And the rescue force came in and they had five, what they called? A-1E fighters, Sandys, Navy fighters. And they came in and they sprayed our area around there, sprayed it all around, and I told them where to go. And I told them the whole works on there. It was defended by six guns, six aircraft guns around there. There was five .37 millimeter guns, and then there was what they call a Quad 40, which was four machine guns in one turret that operated. So I had to show where all of these guns were by telling him on the radio. So I told him, about 40 yards ahead where I was, I was within about a hundred yards each place. And I said, "Well, there's one straight ahead, about 40 yards out." And he says, "Okay." So he says, "Keep your head down." Sprayed it, sprayed it with mini guns, and went by with bombs too.
So about the time they sent in a F-100, a jet, so they could... What do you call it? Napalm it. So they're going to napalm this area. So this one gun, they couldn't get it. The one gun wasn't firing properly, but it was still firing, so they sent in the napalm, and the minute he went over and went off the other side, why, everything broke loose. And so I was very busy trying to show all these six guns in there. I didn't know they were there, I only knew one was in there. So I called them in and they put them out. So we got rid of six guns.
And then they sent the Jollys in, the Jolly Green Giant, which is a rescue helicopter. And he came in off the side. I saw him coming in out there. I guided him in, guided him over me. Took off. Well, I waited until the jungle penetrator hit the ground, because it has static electricity, and I had to let it ground out. So I got on that jungle penetrator, something that's tied to a cable to the helicopter. So I got on the jungle penetrator, and it took me right on up. I tied the belt around my shoulder so I wouldn't fall out if I was shot on the way up. And we went up there, no shots, no nothing. And they rescued me. They took off right like that.
On the way back, I had plenty of cold water, had an old rusty hamburger that was left in there for three days, cheeseburger. Best one I ever had. They got me off at NKP, they got me off there, and everybody's standing around congratulating me, the doctor's checking me out, they put me on a stretcher, finally, took me in the ambulance to the hospital. But it was kind of funny. When I was first out there, this Catholic priest says, "Well, we were praying for you, son." And I was about 10 years older than he was, I think. I was 50 at this time. He says, "Well, I was praying for you, son. We were praying for you." And got along a little bit farther, we had another one says, "Well, we were praying for you, son." Another chaplain come along, he said, "We were praying for you, son."
And I found out later that my hooch gal in Korat had put, at least the one that does all your laundry, that makes up your bed, and is a maid. I found out that she had put a little wreath of flowers on Buddha's temple. So I had all three of them working for me. So when I got to the hospital in Clark, I told the chaplain about that. And I says, "Which one of those you think did the most good, chaplain?" He says, "I think knowing how to use that radio and that survival compass did you the most good." He says, "The good Lord helps those who help themselves." So I spent three months in the hospital there, and then they sent me back to States. And that was Vietnam.
The shooting combat camera in Vietnam was, a lot of it was chase. We did an awful lot of chase stuff. We'd get in the backseat of F-100s, and as the airplanes would go, they always go in twos when they're making a bombing attack or a strafing attack. But they'd go in twos, one would what they call chase, the other one would be right behind like this. Well, the cameraman would be in the chase. Well, this guy would go first and then they'd switch and he'd be the chase. But a cameraman would be in one, so we could show where the bombs fell, how it fell, get some quick bomb damage assessment, and things like that. So we had a lot of guys, I had 400 and some guys on flying status in Vietnam as cameraman. Well, there was both still and motion so way different than World War II. And we had better equipment too, so it was a lot better. We didn't shoot 35 millimeter, we shot 16 millimeter in Vietnam. And the camera being smaller and everything else made it a lot easier.
Well see, in World War II shooting, we were almost invariably in bombers. And this was the first time, we were the only enlisted men qualified to fly in high-performance aircraft, jets and things. So there was your big difference, was our shooting platform. Wasn't with getting all pictures of the gun, the gunners going and the bombs falling and all that, it was shooting the next plane doing it. So it was completely different. It wasn't high-altitude bombing, it was low-altitude strafing and bombing. And dropping napalm, well, whatever.
Oh yea, we had color all the time. We had ECN, Eastman Color Negative, it was called. And everything was color in that. We didn't have any black and white, except they had for some instrumentation things, they used black and white. But for all of our documentation was color. And we even put our cameras on the fighters at certain angles, so when they do that without a cameraman in it, we were shooting bomb damage assessment. So you see some of them, you can see pictures of Vietnam today, where you can see the airplanes going backwards and you see these bombs hitting. Well, we have a camera all set up for that, and all fastened to the airplane for that, because you just couldn't turn around and get those clear pictures like that. So it's a lot different, yeah.
We did it and we had a fast turnaround time. We turned around, we'd come back from a mission; five minutes later, not five minutes, but come back from a mission and within, say, about an hour and a half, we would have a turnaround, have the pictures, have a rough cut print already out to intelligence and to the commander of the fighter squadron, whichever. So it was very fast. We had laboratories over there in trailers, so everything was all fixed up, raring to go. You got on the ground, they'd rush out, grab your stuff and run with it, because you didn't take it to the lab, they took it right out of your... So it was pretty good. With the 16 millimeter, we had a little more time we could shoot too. A lot more time. You ever lost that handle in World War II? If you ever lost that handle, you were in trouble, because you had no way to crank that spring up.
Well, I probably survive all the time because everybody up there likes me.
That was Chief Master Sergeant Doug Morrell.
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