WWII vet can't help thinking of the horror he witnessed
Ottumwa Courier, Iowa
Editor’s note: Some of the war memories Mr. Morris shared contain violent and graphic imagery that may be upsetting to some readers.
KEOSAUQUA, Iowa — Former U.S. Army Sgt. Darrell Morris said there are war veterans who paid a higher price than he did. Yet he has carried the trauma of war thousands of miles — and for more than 65 years.
A Van Buren County farm boy drafted into World War II, Morris first went into combat at the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest prolonged conflicts in Europe.
“They drove us 12-15 miles from the front line,” Morris, now 87, recalls. “They said we had to be in our foxholes by daylight, because if you weren’t, you were dead. We marched all night. I never thought we’d get there, but we did.”
He and the sergeant they’d put him with on his first night saw a German grenade land in their two-man foxhole.
“I knew I was in a war and a long way from home. I guess I learned to pray in the Army. I prayed and prayed and prayed.”
The other soldier, recalled as “a full-blooded” Native American from New Mexico, picked up the grenade and threw it right back, killing three Germans.
“Sergeant Wayne. I tell you, he was a soldier. I never seen any better,” Morris said.
The bodies — Americans and Germans — around the foxholes reminded him of what could happen if you didn’t keep your head down, or if you did but were unlucky. Being killed quickly seemed better to him than slowly.
“The unit first sergeant, who I hadn’t met, had been shot, but you couldn’t go get him. You couldn’t even peek your head out, they’d shoot you.”
While the new recruits sat shivering on their first day, the top enlisted man for their company lay a few yards away, moaning and dying. He survived the night, then part of the next day before going silent.
Every day seemed to reveal more death, more suffering — and more cruelty. When they’d find fellow soldiers who’d been killed, the SS troopers left the bodies in a way that still gives Morris nightmares.
The boys’ own rifles with the bayonet would be jammed straight into the soldier’s heart and left sticking up. And a “certain external body part” would be cut off and placed partially into the soldier’s mouth to freeze that way for his friends to find him.
Morris sees these horrors still, he said, as if he saw them yesterday. It was more than anyone should have to bear, but none of them had a choice, he said.
After months of freezing and starving, not being able to touch anything for fear it was mined (because they almost always were) and only fitful sleep, few Americans were feeling merciful toward the enemy.
“Our platoon leader took six of us for our first hot meal. We got there about 15, 20 minutes before the mess truck. And there was this German, gut shot, on the ground, with all this, I don’t know, green coming out of him, and he was still alive. He was begging us to shoot him.”
The snow all around the SS trooper was stained with green, but no one felt like killing him quickly. They just let him lie there, crying and begging to die. Two of his buddies, snipers, were in a nearby tree, dead.
When the food jeep arrived, one of the supposedly dead snipers shot the driver through the head.
“We killed the one in the tree, but not the other one,” Morris said.
Then, with the dead snipers, the disemboweled, weeping German and the recently killed driver still there, the men ate breakfast.
“Hot coffee, pancakes. For our butter and syrup, they’d sent us orange marmalade.”
Morris also can’t forget one of the very few men in the 134th Regiment who “was no soldier at all.” He was one of the least liked men in the whole of 3rd Army’s 35th Division. Morris saw him hack a dead American’s fingers off and steal his wedding ring. The thief eventually disappeared in the combat zone. Morris doesn’t know or care, he said, what happened to him.
“What he done was nearly as bad as what the [SS] Germans had done.”
Once in a while, he said, he caught “a break,” like when everyone was marching and he was able to ride on the top of a tank. Zipping through the forest, there was barely a handhold on the armored vehicle, and if you fell, the next speeding tank was only about 10 feet behind, plus it felt like every frozen branch in those woods whacked him in the face.
Worse was the crunch made by bodies as tanks went over their heads, one of the sounds Morris said he’d never forget.
“I want people to realize there was a lot of prayer involved,” he said.
And for him, one miracle.
Toward the end of the war, trudging through snow, alone and separated from his unit, he knew he was dying. He couldn’t feel his legs. A tank he’d seen burning with American soldiers still inside would be his final resting place, too, he decided.
“I knew I was never going to survive the night. I got down in front of the tank tread and leaned back. That was where I was going to die.”
He would have, too, if a military ambulance hadn’t seen him while it’d been passing.
“He called out, ‘I have room for one more.’ It was a miracle.”
He remembers being put on a stretcher, being “inside” for the first time in days and that the ambulance was heated. Though frostbitten, he didn’t lose his legs. After starting to recover, he helped pin patients to the operating table when the hospital ran out of pain medicine, helped feed thousands of American POWs so thin, they couldn’t walk or eat and eventually got out of the Army.
If he had to do it over again, he would — with one heart-breaking regret.
“I made a promise, and I never kept it.”
His one good buddy, Don Swagger from Michigan, had traded addresses, promising if the other were killed, they would contact the other’s family to tell them what happened.
“I kept putting it off. Then it seemed like it’d had been so long, would it do more harm than good?”
Or maybe his wife had remarried. ... whatever the case, he never contacted his friend’s family. That guilt has plagued him for 65 years.
A group of GIs were staying in a bombed-out house for a little bit of shelter. They switched guards late one night, and Don went upstairs to sleep. He lay down on the floor on his back; there was no roof, but it was better than laying on the ground, Morris said.
Downstairs, the soldier next to Morris put his M-1 on the ground, butt first. The sentry’s weapon discharged, fired up through the first-floor ceiling and instantly killed Don Swagger where he lay.
Maybe, Morris agreed, someone in 2012 would like to know that.
Morris was just recently — fifty years after his discharge — diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
“I never asked the government for anything. I got a letter telling me to go to Iowa City for a physical [a few years ago], so I went. They said I’ve had the PTSD, untreated, since I was discharged more than 50 years ago.”
The best they can do for him now, he said, is “stabilize” the disorder, and give him something to help him sleep. That’s actually important, he said.
“If I don’t take it, I don’t sleep. I fight Germans all night long.”