Monday, August 10, 2009

Interview with Pacific B-24 Pilot Kay Morris

8/7/09-- It’s a long way from Rigby, Idaho to the war-torn skies over Okinawa and Japan, and many years have passed since young Kay Morris flew as a B-24 pilot in World War Two, but thanks to good health, a good memory, and a mother who liked to scrapbook, Morris’s war experiences are as meticulously recorded as if they’d happened yesterday. Every letter Morris wrote to his future wife, from basic training through the end of the war, maps, photographs, chits, dog tags and patches, they’re all there, most bound up in a scrapbook covered with white silk from the parachute Morris brought back from the war.
Kay Morris started life on the Snake River Plain, in Idaho’s premier potato-growing region, and went off to school at nearby Ricks College, a Latter-day Saint-run school now known as BYU-Idaho, before transferring to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Morris joined the Army Air Forces in April, 1943, and was selected for the Aviation Cadet program. He trained at San Antonio, Texas, deciding to go into multi-engine aircraft because “I didn’t like aerobatics particularly”. After earning his silver wings on August 4, 1944 in Altus, Oklahoma, Morris was assigned to the 494th Bomb Group, 865th Squadron, a B-24 Liberator outfit that flew medium altitude bombing missions against the Japanese.
Angaur Island is located South of Peleliu at 6 Degrees 55 Minutes North Latitude 134 Degrees 8 Minutes East Longitude. Angaur Island is about 2 miles long and one and a half mile wide Morris’s photo of Anguar during the war, airstrip at upper right. (Courtesy Kay Morris)

The 494th Bomb Group was nicknamed ‘Kelly’s Kobras’, in honor of General Laurence B. Kelley, who led the group. Created in 1943, the 494th was assigned to the U.S. 7th Air Force, the 494th arrived in the combat zone in August 1944. The group history describes the arrival of the advance echelon in less than idyllic terms. The group was dumped on the island of Angaur, “the meanest of the Palau Group...Though all organized resistance had ceased in the estimation of the communiqué writers, there was still plenty of the unorganized variety, and few if any of that first echelon will forget the first weeks of trying to cope with Jap snipers, land crabs, pup tents, K rations and the jungle growth separately and collectively. Pelelieu Island, on this 30th of September '44 was still in the process of being separated from its Japanese defenders, and the strip at Angaur was far from complete. The Advance Echelon wondered if it would ever see the rest of the Group again.”
(484th Unit History,

By October, the group was flying missions, bombing targets in the Phillipines.

A 494th B-24, photo courtesy of Kay Morris.

Initially a copilot, he ended up as the aircraft commander of his own Liberator, flying out of Angaur, Palau. The island had been taken by American forces in fierce fighting in September and October 1944, a battle that cost 264 American lives and over 1,300 Japanese lives. The strategically important island gave the Americans a vital airfield from which it could bomb Japanese targets in the Philippines. Photos show a small island with a runway and not much else. “We were in tents,” he recalls, “four officers to a tent and six enlisted men to a tent. There wasn’t any entertainment or anything to do, really. It was pretty boring. We spent a lot of time resting between missions. Sometimes there were movies and of course there were card games. Morris also did his best to practice his Mormon faith, and wrote letters to his sweetheart and family back home.

Morris remembers that the missions from Anguar to the Phillipines were relatively short ones. However, they were not without their dangers. Morris remembers one plane in his formation going down after its wing was shot off.

Map of 7th Air Force Operations. (Courtesy Kay Morris)
Later, as the war moved closer to Japan, the 494th flew out Okinawa and bombed Japan proper.
In the Pacific, the B-24 was classified as a medium altitude bomber. The B-24 was a four engine bomber that normally carried a crew of ten—four officers and six enlisted men. Officers included the pilot and copilot, bombardier, and navigator. The enlisted personnel was comprised of the flight engineer, radio operator, ball turret gunner, two waist gunners and a tail gunner. High altitude bombing was the job of the advanced, pressurized Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The B-25 Mitchells handled the low-altitude bombing.
According to Morris, the most important man on the crew was the navigator. “Most of our missions were eight hundred miles over water,” he remembers. “You had to rely on the navigators pretty heavily.” Not only that, but unlike their counterparts who flew over Europe, the Pacific bomber boys of the 494th flew in formations of only six airplanes, with limited fighter support.

1st Lt. Charley Wilcox was a bombardier in the 494th, and describes some of the differences between the Pacific and Atlantic bomber wars. “There are many differences between the European Theatre and the Pacific Theatre. For instance; in the European Theatre the planes were subjected to ‘Flak and Fighters' from the time they crossed the channel until they returned (if they were lucky); whereas in the Pacific; we generally had a peaceful flight over vast stretches of water; generally encountering ‘Flak & Zeros’ only when near the target area. A good indication of how the Brass compared the two theatres is by the number of missions required to rotate home. In the European Theatre, you needed 20 [actually 25] and in the Pacific Theatre, you needed 40. I have pulled some missions with more than 12 hrs of flight time; all over water. I can recall a General who was traveling from a Pacific base to another base - he never made it and to this day no one knows just where he was lost or what happened to him - "Lost in The Pacific" would be a good title for that story.”

Morris agrees. “We didn’t try to think about going down in the ocean,” he says. “The plane had two lifeboats under the wings, and there was an escape sub in the inland sea of Japan if we went down”, but the odds of rescue were very slim in such vast expanses of water. The bomber crews flying over Europe could bail out, for the most part, knowing that they would end up on land and have a decent chance of survival. The Pacific bomber crews knew that death was the most likely result of an ocean ditching, followed by imprisonment by the Japanese, who treated captured prisoners much more harshly than the Germans.
"Blood Chit, requesting protection and safe conduct to downed airmen in multiple languages. Courtesy Kay Morris.
In July, 1945, the 494th moved to the island of Okinawa for attacks on the Japanese heartland. His first really scary experience was over the Japanese island of Kyushu, the first time he encountered flak. The second was a particularly memorable mission on July 28, 1945 to bomb the Japanese battleship ‘Haruna’.

Battleship Haruna (class Kongo) under air attack. Kure, July 28, 1945. (Source:

“We used two-thousand-pound bombs on that mission,” he says. “That was the biggest bomb we ever used in the war. We were over the harbor at Kure, and one of our bombs got hung up in the bomb bay. The nose dropped far enough to arm it, and the navigator and flight engineer went back into the bomb bay—without parachutes—and physically kicked the bomb out. It was said that only one-sixty-fourth of an inch of movement could detonate one of those bombs, and it was one of the two times overseas that I was really, really scared.” After jettisoning the bomb, the manual release stuck the bomb bay doors open, and Morris’s plane began to lag behind. Finally, the crew was able to close the bomb bay doors and catch up. In addition to the hung-up bomb, the group history notes that two B-24s were lost and that “Jap gunners threw up the most terrific curtain of flak ever experienced by our crews. Participating personnel declared that was one mission they would not soon forget.” (Unit History)
Fighter escort was ‘iffy’ at best, according to Morris. P-51 Mustang fighters occasionally failed to show up, even when the ‘Kates’—Japanese fighters—did.

“We had to worry about flak from time to time,” Morris remembers. “And the Jap Air Force would come up and visit to see us once in a while.” On one mission, the pilot behind Morris’s plane was killed by a Japanese ‘Tony’ fighter. The co-pilot managed to bring the plane home. “Missions from Okinawa could be eight hundred miles,” says Morris. “The navigator was a very important guy when flying that far over open water. We normally flew at about 11,000 feet all the way to and from the targets—quite a bit lower than the bombers in Europe—and bombed from that altitude as well. We didn’t go on oxygen unless we were at fifteen thousand feet.” He remembers that the temperature in the planes was quite nice, compared to the heat on the ground back at the base.

With all the missions over water, I was curious as to whether Morris was a good swimmer. He shook his head, and told me he preferred to rely on the Mae West life jacket. In fact, he recalled an incident in training where the crew was pushed from a dinghy to simulate a ditching. Another crewman also couldn’t swim, and grabbed at Morris, who promptly pushed him away. Both men passed.

“We were getting ready to invade Japan. And it would have been bloody, for the United States and Japan. We were very grateful when President Truman dropped the bomb in August,” says Morris. Unfortunately, several 494th crews who had been previously shot down, were prisoners of war at the Military Police Barracks at Hiroshima, Japan on August 6th, 1945, when the A-bomb was dropped on the city. Charley Wilcox writes that “the families [of the twelve POW crewmen] from the aircrafts ‘Taloa’ and ‘Lonesome Lady’ were told their loved ones were ‘missing in action’ and some 3 years later were told they were ‘killed in action’ and never told they died from friendly fire—the A-Bomb.”

The war was over, much to the relief of the men of the 494th. But they were not going home just yet. On September 26, 1945, Okinawa was hit by a serious typhoon that destroyed much of the base and cut off the island from civilization for several days. “The storm was so strong that it bent the flagpole at Headquarters a perfect ninety degrees about six to eight feet up, with no wrinkle in the tube,” says Morris. Miraculously, Morris’s tent did not blow down during the typhoon, though many tents did and the base was wrecked.

Morris’s photos of the typhoon damage at his base(Courtesy Kay Morris)
Finally, in December 1945, Morris was sent home. He went back to BYU, and got married in January of 1946. He’d brought a parachute back with him, and the family used the silk fabric to make a wedding dress for his bride.
A news article from the Rigby, Idaho paper about the parachute-silk wedding dress. (Courtesy Kay Morris)
After finishing school, he worked for a few years before joining the 116th Army National Guard in Idaho as a liaison pilot. He was serving with the Idaho Falls unit when it was called up to go to Korea. However, as a surplus pilot, he ended up in Germany instead. He was there for three years, his main duty was to fly the commander of the 11th Engineer Group around Germany to inspect bridge sites in the early days of the Cold War.

He then went to San Francisco, California, and flew the Bell H-13 helicopter—one of the U.S. military’s first-- in support of the 30th Topo Battalion, which spent the summer making a thorough mapping survey of the territory of Alaska. While there, he was promoted to Captain.
Morris followed that with a stint at the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama as an instrument flying teacher. While he was stationed there, his daughter Marcia remembers going to the parades on base as a favorite activity. Someone came up with the idea of putting square dance costumes on the H-13s—shirt and tie for the ‘boys’, skirts for the ‘girls’—and the chopper pilots would then ‘square-dance’ over the parade ground, to the delight of all in attendance. This activity was cancelled after a few years due to safety concerns.

Morris and family were then off to Iran, where he supported construction efforts for the Shah of Iran’s airfields and other projects.

Morris lives in the same house he bought back in the Sixties, and his memories are safely stowed in the parachute-silk scrapbook and several others. A shadow box on the wall displays his many military decorations. The movie-star-handsome young bomber pilot is older and has less spring in his step, but Kay Morris still lights up when remembering the days, so many years ago, when he flew the unfriendly skies over the Pacific in World War Two.


Clark said...

My uncle, Joe Sorden was a bombadier with the 494th Heavy Bomb Group, 856th Squadron. His crew was led by Capt. Trowbridge. Their plane had no name, that I know of, just the wolf symbol of the 865th as nose art. My uncle had several pictures of this crew and the crew of "the missouri mule" in his artifacts. He also had a picture of one of his tents you mention in angar, and water was up to his knees after the rain.

His crew (#32) were crashed near Palalu after a bomb exploded shortly after exiting the bombay on a run, and they spent a few days in the water.

My Uncle passed away in 2005. He seldom talked about his experiences, in part, I think, because several of his crew were not recovered. We were always very proud of him. Joe volunteered after my grandfather was drafted, who was married with two children.

It was great reading this website. I have attended three reunions of Kellys Kobras. What a great groups of people. They truly were the greatest generation.

Micah Clark -

r morris said...

Micah, sorry for the delay. I have not checked my messages lately. I could possibly put you in touch with Mr. Morris if you like. Rob Morris (ironically, no relation)

Alan Smithee, Jr. said...

Great article! My father, 2nd Lt. O.C. Kemp, was also a pilot in the 494th, 856th Squadron. I'm curious to see if Mr. Morris remembers O.C., who was in the South Pacific from Jan 1, 1945 till the very end.

Alan Smithee, Jr. said...

My father, O.C. Kemp, was also a pilot with the 856th on Angaur, flying mostly "Rover Boys' Baby." I'm wondering if Mr. Morris remembers O.C. I'm putting together a "visual scrapbook" of my own about the War and any remembrances would be welcome.

r morris said...

I do not. However, Mr. Morris is still alive. He is no relation. I can put you in touch with his daughter if you like.

Alan Smithee, Jr. said...

I would very much like to talk to Mr. Morris, so if you could put me in touch with his daughter, that would be great. You may email me at Thanks.