Monday, November 11, 2013

Derrill McMorris, Watseka Hero

Most Watsekans remember that Derrill C. McMorris was an elementary school principal.  He was also much more than that.  I knew who Mr. McMorris was. However, I didn’t know him. My mother once told me he was quiet and very good at his job.

Mr. McMorris was born on January 8, 1921. He grew up in Charleston, Illinois and graduated from Charleston High School in 1939. From what I can tell, he took a job after school. Perhaps, like many young Americans, he was biding his time. War in Europe and Asia was picking up speed and most people knew the United States was going to be drawn into it.

In March 1942, at Chanute Field in Illinois, Mr. McMorris enlisted in the Army Air Corps. By December 1944, he’d received flight training, a commission as a second lieutenant, and he was flying B-25 Bombers on missions over Italy. He was assigned to the 428th Squadron of the 310th Bomb Group, flying out of a village on the east coast of Corsica. 

On December 10, 1944, Second Lietutenant McMorris was co-piloting a B-25 named the “Donna Marie II” on a mission to bomb a bridge over the River Adige. On the bombing run, the Donna Marie II was hit by flak (anti-aircraft fire). The crew managed to drop bombs on target but the aircraft lost power to an engine. The Pilot, First Lieutenant Lee McAllister, Jr., ordered the crew (including Second Lieutenant McMorris) to bail out of the aircraft. McAllister kept the aircraft aloft until everyone was out and then managed to bail out too.  The plane crashed into a mountain.

Second Lieutenant McMorris was captured the day after the B-25 was shot down. Everyone, except for First Lieutenant McAllister, was captured quickly.  McAllister was aided by Italian partisans for three weeks until he was captured. Then, McAllister was murdered by the SS. 

McMorris was sent to a POW Camp, Stalag Luft I, in Germany.

Mr. McMorris was liberated in June 1945. He was discharged from the Army as a First Lieutenant. He graduated from Eastern Illinois University, in his hometown, in 1948. He probably used the GI Bill to attend college.

Mr. McMorris taught and coached basketball in Crescent City for several years. In his final season as coach (’55-56) his team was 23-6. He received a Masters Degree and, as far as I know, finished his career as a school administrator in Watseka.  He passed away in October 1985; he was 64 years old. He is buried at Oak Hill - with many other heroes.

Please think about what Mr. McMorris did in his early twenties. He left his small town. He learned to fly bombers. He went half-way around the world. He parachuted from a disabled aircraft into territory held by an enemy - an enemy he'd just bombed. Then, he spent six months as a prisoner of war.

At some point, Mr. McMorris learned that the guy seated next to him (in the bomber) was murdered. Having survived the War, Mr. McMorris must have pondered fate.

Then, after all that, Mr. McMorris came back to small town Illinois and made a little portion of the world a better place.

Sources available on request (moderated comments).