Former Air Force pilot and historian chronicles WWII Medal of Honor recipient's career, heroism
By CARA ROBERTS MUREZ | For the (Eugene, Ore.) Register-Guard | Published: June 30, 2019
EUGENE, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — After 25 years serving in the U.S. Air Force, Dan Simmons was working as a civilian historian for the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Wash. While reading about U.S. Air Force history as part of his job, he stumbled upon an almost unbelievable series of events experienced by a pilot during World War II.
Simmons wanted to read more about this death-defying B-17 pilot, who had survived not one but three shockingly eventful missions, so he looked for a book about him. There wasn’t one.
Now, he has written the book “With His Hand,” which details Medal of Honor recipient John C. “Red” Morgan’s experiences during World War II.
“If it wasn’t true, if you saw it in a movie, you’d say that could never happen,” Simmons said. “It’s a true story.”
Simmons’ own story started in western Pennsylvania, where most of the men in his family had served in the military for a time, but then worked in either the coal mines or the steel mills. Simmons’ father and grandfather both were coal miners.
Yet Simmons always wanted to fly.
“That became my dream. I was very fortunate to get nominated by my congressman in Pennsylvania for an appointment to the (U.S. Air Force) academy,” Simmons said. “It was the biggest moment in my life.”
He attended the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., for four years, finishing with a Bachelor of Science degree, and then was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. His family was proud both of his decision to serve and because he was the first in the family to go to college. While in Colorado Springs, he also met his wife.
The couple spent the next 25 years living where the Air Force sent them: Spokane, Grand Forks, N.D., Omaha, Neb., Montgomery, Ala., Great Falls, Mont., Altus, Okla., back to Alabama, one assignment overseas in Belgium, and finally back to Spokane.
Simmons spent most of his career as a KC-135 pilot in air refueling operations, retiring in 2003 as a colonel. He continued to work for the Air Force as a civilian historian from 2005 to 2012 at Fairchild Air Force Base.
“I’d been there a long time. Longer than any place I’d ever lived,” Simmons said.
He and his wife, Wendi, raised two daughters. One is married and lives in Seattle. The other lives in Eugene with her husband and two kids, ages 3½ and 7. They’re what brought Simmons and his wife here 2½ years ago. The couple live in Springfield.
Stumbling upon history
As an Air Force historian, Simmons’ job was to write an annual history, documenting everything the unit had done in the past year both at home and on their deployments. With all his history in the 92nd Air Refueling Wing, Simmons was shocked that so much time had passed before he had learned about Morgan.
“I thought, ‘Shame on me for not researching the legacy of the unit I was in, but shame on the leadership for not telling me,’ ” Simmons said. “It kind of became a goal of mine to find out more about this gentleman.”
Though Simmons began thinking seriously about writing the book in 2007, it wasn’t until after he retired in 2012 that he finally had enough time. Still, life kept intervening until he was able to finish it in 2018.
“With His Hand” touches on Morgan’s premature birth — he nearly died then, too — and his childhood before focusing in on his military experiences. Morgan, who had broken his neck while working on an oil rig in Texas, actually started as a Canadian pilot flying missions for England after the U.S. military wouldn’t take him because of the neck injury.
After the U.S. entered World War II, and Morgan was trained, he was accepted into the U.S. armed forces.
Among the missions Simmons chronicles in the book — and for which Morgan received his Medal of Honor — was a bombing mission in which he had to fly the plane while another pilot clung to the controls despite a major head injury. Simmons details this and a series of other calamities that happened aboard the aircraft, all of them harrowing, in the book. That story may be familiar to some because it was fictionalized and included in a World War II novel and subsequent movie called “12 O’Clock High”.
“Red Morgan had to fly the airplane and get this guy off the control column because the airplane was going out of the protection of the formation and was going to be a dead duck to the German fighters,” Simmons said.
Another of Morgan’s hard-to-believe missions had happened only a couple of weeks before, when he somehow had managed to keep a plane in the air after it was damaged so badly it should have been impossible for it to keep flying.
Morgan experienced his third death-defying flight after his Medal of Honor mission — when he was no longer supposed to fly because he was a national hero. He managed to serve anyway and flew a mission that ultimately had him careening through the air with a parachute secured only by his hand. As he fell toward the ground, he struggled to get the parachute on. He did survive, as Simmons further details in his book.
“For somebody who was never supposed to fly, John C. Morgan made a lot of history doing just that,” Simmons said.
Recognizing a hero
Those who remember Morgan knew him as a humble person, Simmons said. He was known to not like to talk about the medal. However, he did get asked to do a lot of interviews after the war, and among the questions were whether he panicked during some of his critical missions.
Morgan had responded, Simmons said, that twice in his life he knew he was about to die. He felt so certain that he didn’t panic because it’s the uncertainty that frightened him.
“I related to that because it’s always been the fear of the unknown that has given me the most stress,” Simmons said.
“I think he was just a great, decent man,” Simmons added. “I just wish I could have met him.”
Simmons made it his mission to get Morgan the recognition he deserved, leading an effort to have a building at the 92nd Air Wing at Fairchild named after him. The Red Morgan Center now serves as a base community center for events.
“As soon as you walk in, there’s Red Morgan’s portrait and his story,” Simmons said. “That was one of the coolest things that I did.”
Simmons’ research included reading Air Force history and books, interviews, the internet, Canadian military documents and personal scrapbooks from Morgan’s son, Sam Morgan.
“His son mailed me three scrapbooks that were pure gold,” Simmons said. “There was stuff in there that, of course, I’d never seen anywhere else.”
As part of his efforts, Simmons photocopied the scrapbooks and included an appendix of letters written by Red Morgan’s father.
“The reason the letters from Red’s dad were so important is because I had all these old newspaper and magazine articles from the 1940s, from World War II, that had conflicting information,” Simmons said. “The letters from Red’s dad were able to allow me to separate fact from fiction.”
He hopes they can be a resource if any major historian ever decides to write a more thorough book on Morgan.
“My reason for writing it was because I considered it the greatest story never told. I hope somebody does write a more in-depth, bigger book on it,” Simmons said.
He’s already received the best acknowledgment for his own work that he could want.
“I tell you why I feel great because the only opinion that mattered was from his son, Sam. As soon as I got the book, I sent him multiple copies,” Simmons said. “He responded to me and said, ‘I’ve read it three times now and I’ve cried every time.’ ”
Simmons thinks the book will be his only one. He doesn’t plan a memoir of his own career. In fact, after finishing the book, he looked for new ways to spend his time and became a volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul. And he spends a lot of time with his grandchildren.
“I consider myself a small-time historian who just stumbled on to a huge, fascinating story,” Simmons said. “If that ever happens again, I could change my mind.”