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Star-Crossed Soldier

Written by mayborn


By Vivian Morrow Jones

 

The beach is silent after the thousands of troops have trampled ashore and made their way inland. Waves cover the sand, recede, and wash away the memory of boots and khaki, helmets and guns.  Stories of valor and cowardice follow the troops awhile, but the stories are soon hidden away and eventually lost.

Families have secrets. Governments have secrets. History has the most secrets of all. I’m after the secret of a West Texas boy who was silenced during a war half a world away and half a century ago.

My Uncle Curtis was not yet born when the Morrow family left Alabama in 1920.  On a map you can trace the family’s trail westward once they arrived in Texas: Dallas, Abilene, Big Spring, Colorado City, Presidio, Marfa, leaving a number of family members along the way. When they stopped for good, the patriarch had fled—due to drink or general unworthiness, depending on who’s telling the story—and the two oldest daughters had married. One daughter died of the flu and was buried near Big Spring in a wispy, red-dirt cemetery.                 

Seventh of nine children, Curtis arrived in a family that needed lots of children to work the farm, only the farm was lost by the time he came along. He was an adult when his birth certificate was filed, and it shows that he was born July 2, 1924, three miles east of the town of Cuthbert.

Old timers insist they didn’t know they were poor, and while true, that doesn’t change the fact. The Morrows were poor. Searching for jobs, they had gone to Presidio in 1930, following rumors of railroad construction to Mexico’s west coast. But Mexico backed out, and Presidio went from boom to bust. La entrada al Pacifica indeed.

The railroad work gone, family members scrambled for jobs. My father, 17, dropped out of school and pumped gas, sleeping at the gas station to help nocturnal travelers. Thirteen-year-old Minnie set tables at the town’s hotel, and oldest son Ottis drove the mail truck between Marfa and Presidio.  They were all expected to turn over their wages to their mother. 

Curtis was still a kid with a running buddy named Kelly Pruitt who became a western poet and artist of some renown. In a picture of the two, they peer out from under straw hats wearing Huck Finn grins. Roaming around town unnoticed, Curtis started smoking at age nine and could roll a cigarette with one hand. He and Kelly checked trotlines on the Rio Grande and were admonished to get to school and stay there, but Curtis escaped in the way of boys under no serious supervision. He earned a few pennies gathering sticks to sell as firewood.

After the family settled in Marfa, Curtis, who was not so much misdirected as undirected, rode the mail truck with his brother and worked odd jobs around town. He was employed at Jim Tyler’s Garage when he was called up.

By 1942 Uncle Sam began consuming men from around the country and spitting them out on beaches in Europe and the South Pacific like a hungry dragon. Marfa, remote even by Texas standards, was no exception. It was home to giant cattle ranches, immigrants from Europe and Mexico, and people who tired of moving west and simply decided to stop. It was to this last group that James Curtis Morrow belonged.

 And it’s the group to which I belong. My spiritual home is far West Texas even if I no longer live there. One-stoplight towns beckon, places where voices float around neighborhoods and odors of supper fill the air. The thin blue air is almost visible, making the sun harsher, the moon and stars brighter, and the horizons straighter until you see the earth’s curve. Isolation is there for the taking, and geography possibly the only enemy.

Life in Marfa was slow and uncomplicated. You didn’t jump in a car and hurry anywhere.  If you did, you’d kick up a lot of dust from unpaved streets that would settle on your neighbor’s clothesline. During the rare thunderstorm, lights flickered and power went out, leaving the air still with the fragrance of wet desert. Someone in every family went to the post office every day, turned the dial on a mailbox and took out letters, postcards, and newspapers.

 With two army bases, Marfa’s involvement in World War II was disproportionate to its size. Cadets in their trainers soared skyward from the Marfa Army Air Field east of town, and soldiers hut-hutted in formation at old Fort Russell south of town. Marfans welcomed all of them and were even hospitable to the German POWs housed at the old fort.

Curtis surely tired of the question on everyone’s lips during the war: “When are your brothers going?” And later, “When are you going”?  People tossed questions to each other on their way to work or to the post office, hoping to hear good news, or at least not bad news.

Ten years later, in the 1950s, the playground question framed a whole new generation: “What did your dad do in the war?” I said my uncle was killed in the Philippines, repeating what I had heard. Battles in the South Pacific hovered over the collective war consciousness of my peers. D-Day in Europe then and now was the biggest story.  Second-hand tales of foxhole heroism were still making the rounds when I was young, but I soon learned that World War II heroes themselves didn’t talk much, if at all, about their experiences.

I became interested in Curtis’s story because there wasn’t one.  Families tell anecdotes, pass them around and down, and their veracity varies depending on the storyteller. Of all the Morrow family stories, Curtis’s stood out because it trailed off after “he died fighting in the Philippines.” Influenced by the movie culture surrounding this war, I wanted the story of Pvt.  Morrow. Thousands of islands make up the archipelago known as the Philippines. Where did he die? What battle?  Ambush or hand-to-hand combat? In light of his sacrifice, there should be more. The unexamined death of a soldier is not worth his dying.

Men of my generation died in Vietnam, or came home injured, or in most cases didn’t go at all. We perfected the culture of questioning, a luxury not afforded those before us. The movie running in my head was blurry and in need of specifics.

When Curtis was sixteen, a thousand men, half the population of present-day Marfa, trained at Fort Russell. Marfa’s newspaper, The Big Bend Sentinel reports in January 1941 that a Major General Walter Krueger came through and inspected troops preparing for war in Europe. Who could know that three years later Krueger would instead command the Sixth Army when it landed 200,000 strong on Philippine beaches? By then, Pvt. Curtis Morrow was one Krueger’s troops.

After Curtis turned 18, his mother wrote my parents, “I don’t know when the call will come, but it will be soon enough.”  As a girl growing up in Alabama, my grandmother had heard plenty of Civil War horrors. “The war is to come, and it will get to the point it’s hard to understand,” she wrote, no doubt expecting the worst for her four sons.

Months later, the Sentinel’s headline reads, “Thirteen More Leave For U. S. Military Work,” sounding as if they were going off to build bridges, not offer their lives on a battlefield. The story lists all the new recruits, many with Spanish names. Of the thirteen listed in that story, only Curtis never returned.

After taking off from the air base east of town, air corps cadets saw the Chihuahuan Mountains of Mexico and watched dust devils whirl around below them. But Curtis was destined to board a bus headed in the opposite direction, westward to induction at El Paso’s Fort Bliss.

An old cardboard candy box contains photos, letters, and souvenirs Uncle Curtis sent my mother. She was a teacher and the first person in the Morrow family with a formal education. She was disappointed when he quit school. She wrote to him overseas and sent a dollar or so, despite my father’s comments that he’d “just spend it on poker.”

Wondering how to find the details I wanted, I tacked Curtis’s letters and photos on a bulletin board near my computer. The letters and clippings became a familiar part of my desk’s landscape. And then inexplicably one day, they were inadequate.  With veteran’s web sites, library books, and unclassified archives now available, I was in the middle of a serious search for Curtis’s wartime story.

He trained for the infantry at Camp Wolters Replacement Training Center in Mineral Wells, Texas. GIs trained as replacements in Mineral Wells were thrown into already existing units, a situation that led many to feel like replaceable parts in the giant war machine. “When casualties left, replacements came in. The reality became that replacements often had…no one in their new unit looking out for them,” according to historian Rich Anderson.

Curtis was assigned to an infantry regiment of Wisconsin men who had been together since well before the war. They stayed together, or at least the survivors did, all the way to Japan. What must these Midwesterners have thought of a skinny, country boy from Texas with a soft drawl and tentative ways? Had his lack of education dictated his fate in the infantry, as my mother had feared? Army historians record that two-thirds of those who took the army’s classification test couldn’t read or write above the third-grade level. But Curtis’s letters were well-written, punctuated more or less correctly, and in the proper “How are you? I am fine” friendly letter format taught in English classes. 

In the last photo taken of Curtis, he’s in the at-ease position, a too-slim young soldier in army khaki, the foldable cap sitting cockeyed on his head. Surrounded by his mother and three brothers with a little dog at his feet, he squints hard into the sun. He’s not as tall as his brothers nor does he appear as confident.

After basic training Curtis was assigned to the 32nd Division in the South Pacific, a division that had lost three thousand men, with another eight thousand suffering high fever and malaria. In late 1943, the division received new equipment and replacement men, including Curtis. After he joined them, they fought in New Guinea before heading to the Philippines.

For a Texan, where almost every day is white-bright and cloudless, October monsoons created a thick gloom with no respite. During the army’s invasion of the southern Philippine island of Leyte, the soldiers fought through an earthquake and three typhoons. Through the fall of 1944, the rain fell at least twenty days every month. Soldiers advanced in knee-deep mud, dodging grenades tossed at them by the Japanese hiding in caves. The weather conspired with the enemy, and Americans were thwarted by breakdowns in supply lines and communication.

Charlie Mazoch lives in Weimar, Texas.  He was a member of Curtis’s regiment, although he didn’t know Curtis. I talked to him after a veterans’ organization gave me his name. All he wanted to talk about was the weather. “It was the worst,” he told me. “The weather was treacherous, and we had no protection. I have never in my life seen rain like that.”

The sunny days weren’t a lot better. World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote a syndicated column that appeared in newspapers around the world, including the Marfa paper. Next to stories about rationing, the new USO director, and advertisements for war bonds, Marfans read Pyle’s dispatches hoping to understand what their boys were going through in a world so distant.

Pyle writes about the men being “pineapple crazy” in the South Pacific Islands, where on dry days, the weather was breezy warm.  “Yes, the islands are a paradise…except that it’s empty and the monotony eventually gnaws at a man.” In the same column he mentions a US Naval administrative paper subtitled “Our Enemy, Geography.”

Pyle was right about that, and another thing:  Nothing about war was like home, and home was getting farther away. In every letter Curtis begs for any and all to write him, “I didn’t get but three letters the last two weeks, and it sure makes you feel blue to see other fellows getting them all, but I realize everyone is so busy these days.”

Letters to his sister Minnie are slightly different from those to my parents, but every letter is full of yearning. He asks about every family member, taking care to mention each of their names and spouses, children, and neighbors. He writes about the New Guineans, and the way they can shinny up a coconut tree. He teases Minnie, promising to bring her a grass skirt. I wish I could tell you there was a girl in the picture for Curtis, but there wasn’t.

A plastic disk-shaped into a heart is one of the souvenirs that Curtis sent from New Guinea. On a dark blue background, the sky inside the pendant has two stars, surrounded by palm trees. A small brown hut sits on an invisible beach. Red letters proclaim, “New Guinea Friend 1944.”   Curtis mentions the gift in his next letter, “At least you have something to remember me by.” 

Curtis’s letters are V-mails, so small they are hard to read. During the war, correspondence was censored, then photographed, and sent as microfilm. Upon arriving at their destination, the letters, called Victory Mail, were enlarged and printed. I used the magnifying glass to read Curtis’s admonition to my father to avoid the army. “I hope [he] gets the navy or something else. You lead a hell of a life in an outfit like this.”

Pulling the letters from their miniature envelopes, I tried to imagine being one of the recipients sixty-eight years ago. Did they study one of the maps in the newspaper, trying to figure out where Curtis was, or did they look at a wristwatch, wondering about the time difference?

In another letter Curtis wrote, “I wish I could get hospital [sic] for awhile. If I don’t get out of this hell hole before long I’ll go nuts.” Apparently, not everyone in this, the good war, was anxious to fight.  I didn’t recall such un-Hemingway like sentiments in the books and movies about World War II. Through the magnifying glass I looked at the word “hospital” in the V-mail. What was he saying?

The story of Curtis’s death is in one of the clippings in the candy box. No obituary section per se ran in the small paper. Every death got its own story.

“The sacrificing of his life in the service of his country by Pvt. James C. Morrow was announced in a telegram received by his mother…” Thus begins the Page One story.  He had died one week to the day after Thanksgiving, 1944. Christmas cards and gifts were certainly on their way to the APO box in San Francisco. Did his mother, or any brother or sister have a ghostly hunch Curtis was dead?  The telegram announcing his death arrived February 5, 1945.

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Requesting files from the nation’s many archives is discouraging. The accounts for one soldier alone can be a tangled string of information, sizeable and duplicative.

First, Curtis’s individual personnel record was burned in a 1973 fire that destroyed millions of records at the St. Louis personnel center. At my request, copies of fifty-two black, burned pages arrived, and with magnifying glass, flashlight and mirror, I tried to decipher the words. Then, another archival institution advised that Curtis’s serial number fell in a gap in the records that were destroyed in a scanning process. Finally, the official deceased personnel file, requiring a Freedom of Information Act request, contained a warning about its graphic nature.

November 30, the day Curtis died, was about halfway into General Douglas MacArthur’s successful if controversial return to the Philippines. Curtis’s division landed on November 16. Military accounts describe combat in an area devoid of cover and against a fanatical enemy.  Never dry, the men immediately began a struggle for the Ormoc Corridor.  On a mountainous ridge, Curtis’s company gave supporting fire to another battalion. Injuries and casualties were high. But Curtis was not with his company. He was in the hospital and had been since two days after his company landed.

Still looking for specific unit movements, I posted my frustrations on a genealogy website. Like a fresh breeze, an email arrived from a man doing exactly the same thing as I was: looking for an uncle killed in the same place on the same day as Curtis. My new friend suggested a researcher who could track down Curtis’s company’s Morning Reports.

These daily reports disclose unit location, transfers, killed and wounded in action, wound descriptions, and evacuations to hospitals; perhaps in kindness they do not distinguish between the enlisted men and the draftees, bestowing on all the term Enlisted Men or EM.

Still surrounded by files, books, and the candy box, I was scrolling through a thread of emails when the movie film unreeling in my head snapped. There should have been a mention of Curtis on the Morning Report the day he was killed, but no such notation was made.  Instead, the researcher found his name listed more than a month later on the January 8 Morning Report. Below Curtis’s name was written: 

39 [sic] November. Limon, Leyte, Philippine Islands.  EM accidently killed by a guard near the 128th Infantry Command Post… at approximately 2000.

I didn’t understand. His own guard killed him?  What time is 2000 hours? The words “accidentally killed by a guard” prompted a few words of my own.

In the army portrait of Curtis on my desk, he appeared younger than ever. I tried to figure exactly how old he was. Twenty years and four months. I wrote the researcher back, angry and flip: I guess that’s the end of that. Check’s in the mail.

But I couldn’t let go. There had to be more. In less than a minute I posted again: I feel so sad, like it just happened. How strange.

Details began to take on a life of their own. The daily reports confirmed that Curtis had gone to the 2nd Field Hospital on November 16, but no daily record indicates he was ever released. November 27, three days before his death, he was still in the hospital.  A penciled note in the November 27 report offered more facts:

                  Moved Company Command Post about 300 yards East to better position.

The command post was moved while Curtis was in the hospital? And he was accidentally shot near a command post?

I nursed an image of a young soldier, in the mud and rain, at the wrong command post, not knowing the password, falling in pain after being shot by another American GI.  There’s no way to know what happened. The simple truth of what I’d been told by my family, that “he died during the war in the Philippines,” was almost preferable to what I had learned. 

The Morning Report was written by the first sergeant and signed by the company’s captain, Capt. La Verne W. Hebbe, who wrote two letters to my grandmother. He told her Curtis “died almost instantly and that he suffered no pain.”

The ambiguously phrased second letter volunteered a version of Curtis’s death: “On 30 Nov 1944 our battalion was bivouacked near the town of Limon in North Leyte. That night, during a period when the Japs were attempting to infiltrate our perimeter of defense, James was shot in the chest and abdomen, and died almost instantly.”  In retrospect, I wonder why his words weren’t enough of a story to suit me.

Because Capt. Hebbe’s facts were wrong. Every file I had seen up to that point indicated Curtis was killed in action and died of gunshot wounds to the left arm and right shoulder, not the chest and abdomen as reported by Hebbe.

The events he gave my grandmother were identical to the description given me by my email friend about the death of his uncle.  It was the same day. His uncle was in the 127th, as was Curtis. Did Captain Hebbe confuse the incidents? Was he complicit, incompetent, or both?   If the events were confusing in real-time, then reportage of them is even more confusing.

Did the company commander even know what happened?  In her sparse cursive and with pencil, Grandmother wrote copies, six of Hebbe’s letter and six of the chaplain’s letter, and sent them to her surviving children, including her oldest son who was by then fighting in the South Pacific.  After copying the letters twelve times, maybe she began to believe what the words said.

During the war, copies of every daily Morning Report went all the way up the chain to the Department of the Army in Washington, D. C., and in the case of an accidental shooting, a field inquiry should have been made to gather facts.  Even General MacArthur would have seen the report on its way up the chain, assuming it existed.

 Curtis had been with the company for eleven months, and Hebbe’s letter mentioned that Curtis was “well-liked.” My family never heard from any friends of Curtis’s.  Of course, such a letter would have to pass censors, and the letter-writer would be dependent on an officer for the address. 

 Jon Krakauer uses the word “fratricide” to describe friendly fire incidents. Considering Curtis had three real brothers, the word seems harsh. Krakauer explains how the family of a victim feels: “When the cause is fratricide, the torment is apt to be greater still. It is not unusual for survivors of the deceased to be overwhelmed by their woe, and to sink into a state of despair that renders them passive and numb.”

The burned file divulged that Curtis was sending his mother fifty percent of his wages, and he had not been a healthy man while in the army. He passed the initial physical, but suffered throughout his nineteen months in the service with severe cramps, nosebleeds, typhoid and the dengue fever. He had a dental occlusion so severe the army fitted him with false teeth a year after he was drafted. Curtis was hospitalized half-a dozen times during the nineteen months he was in the army.

I reread the file containing information about the three interments of Curtis’s remains, looking for corroboration that Curtis was killed by one of his own.  He was first interred December 1 at the US Cemetery in Pinamopoan, Grave No. 192, in between J. C. Patterson and Kenneth Fletcher.

The second burial was six months later in another US Cemetery in Leyte, Grave Number 2897. He was still between Pvt. Patterson and Tec 5 Fletcher. The last interment was in August 1949 in the Ft. McKinley U.S. Military Cemetery in Manila. Grave location F-8-10.  There’s no mention of who’s next to him.

My father made the decision not to bring Curtis’s remains back to the states because, in my mother’s words, he “couldn’t imagine it.”

I think my grandmother didn’t agree, but she stoically acquiesced.  My father may have believed the family had to pay for transferring the remains, or he may have decided Curtis’s remains had been moved enough. She received a flag from the army in July of 1949.

Neither a serviceman nor chaplain visited my grandmother, nor did they most families during that war. The Western Union office was in the old Paisano Hotel in Marfa, and a delivery boy took the Casualty Message Telegram to Grandmother. The address on my copy of the telegram is a Post Office box, but by all accounts she didn’t have to pick it up from her mailbox.

My young uncle was sacrificed along with thousands in pursuit of victory. That he may have never known or understood why or how it all happened is possible. He was denied the chance to make that heroic, gallant stand or react split-second in a courageous way, giving me the story I craved.  Was his sacrifice acceptable in spite of the facts surrounding his death? I have no choice but to believe it was.

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After they trampled the beaches, the soldiers moved inland over the quaking earth, through monsoon and typhoon. The rains seeped into their souls. Heavy with water, their clothes added to the weight they carried. Days became weeks, and it was too much for many of them, the jungle so different from where they’d come from—rural American farms and towns sitting half a world away, waiting for them to return.

When they reached their company command post, no more than a hut or outhouse, they dropped to the ground, letting down their guard for the sly and sneaky enemy who waited. The rain continued, and dark descended, and a sentry finally took his post. A soldier approached out of the dark rain, looking for his brothers in arms. He was lost.

 

 

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