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).


  1. He was on of my favorite teachers at South Side Grade School.

  2. Thank you for your post for Mr. McMorris. It was really great and I forwarded it to all of my 50th reunion classmates from Watseka. He
    had such a quite elegance about him and I had heard that he had suffered
    in the war, but never knew how until now. Thanks

    1. Thank you for forwarding it. Somewhere on the blog is a post about Mr. Jack Oakley; you might enjoy it. Our town had its share of great men and women.

  3. It is strange and touching to see something written about your father so many years after his death. He would have been honored. He, like so many WWII vets talked very little about the experience. I wish I could go back and ask him more. I do know that the Italian family who found him after he bailed out of his plane were discovered hiding him. They lined the entire family up against a wall like they were going to shoot them....hoping to get information from my dad. Luckily the family was spared and I connected with the youngest child (all grown up) from that family a few years ago.
    Thank you, Tom for remembering my dad. Thom McMorris

    1. Thom-

      It was my pleasure. I am so glad you added to your father's story - I did not know about what you shared. We were very fortunate to have had your mom and dad in our community. My best to you.


  4. This clarifies something in Thom's comment: Mr. McMorris "was picked up and medicated by the family of Marco Gaiga, but on the following day he was captured by the Germans."

    1. Hello!

      I just came across this article of yours as I was doing some research into this very story! I am interested in this story because one of my relatives was one of the children in the family who medicated Mr. McMorris! What a small world! I would be interested to connect with Mr. McMorris's son if he would too! Please contact me at

  5. I will contact Thom and ensure he sees your email. Thank you for reading this and I hope you publish something we can read.