THE RARE BREED |
Recognizing Area Veterans Of World War II
From South Africa To Egypt-Syria-Italy
and 'Best Kept Secret' For Billy Morton
BILLY MORTON IN THE 1940s
Born at the Slone Ranch on Nov. 9, 1920 to Thomas Warren and Irene Morton, Billy M. Morton was working at Camp Hulen, awaiting orders to report to the Army Air Force, when America was plunged into the war by the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Within the next two years, he went down along the coast of South America, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to South Africa, up to Egypt and Syria, back to Egypt and across North Africa then to Italy--just in time to survive a disaster that was one of the best kept secrets of World War II.
Morton says that in the latter part of November 1941, he and R. M. Right went to Victoria and talked to the Recruiting Sergeant. Morton signed up for the Army Air Force and Right chose the Navy.
"I was sworn in as a Private at San Antonio on Dec. 20, got a bunch of shots, a short haircut and took tests to determine which schooling I would begin," he says. He continues as follows:
"I was sent to aircraft mechanic school at Shepherd Field in Wichita Falls, then to Inglewood, Calif., for training on B-25s. From there, it was to the air base at Alexandria, La., assigned to the service company, Squadron 331. I believe this squadron is still in operation in Alaska.
"We left Louisiana with 211 men for Fort Dix, N.J., where we spent two weeks getting supplies and more shots. Then, it was a train trip to 75th Street, New York, where we boarded the ship, Louis Pasteur, the fourth largest ship in the world at that time and a sister ship to the Normandy, which had just been sabotaged at the dock in New York.
"After the Normandy sank, we left New York with an escort of boats, planes and balloons all around us. Germany's wolf pack submarine fleet had been very active offshore and was looking for ships leaving the harbor.
We traveled down the coast of South America, running 28 knots in daytime and 32 knots at night. At night, the course changed every two to seven minutes, varying the course in a zig-zag fashion. This was supposed to be fast enough to keep any sub from being able to fire on us.
"All my time aboard was spent mostly in cleaning a new type gun I had been issued at Fort Dix, an M-1 Grand, that had grease all over it.
"We finally landed at Free Town, South Africa, where we waited three days for destroyers to come and escort us to Capetown, South Africa. Then we were on our way to Port Said, Egypt. In Egypt we loaded aboard a train and ended up at Rayak, Syria in the Bekaa Valley where, between the Cannon Mountains the temperature was 130 degrees.
"The Vichy French were there. I will never forget that. The French didn't seem to know which side they were supposed to be on. We marched into camp and they came out to meet us, seemingly happy to see us.
"We had no planes, so we continued to clean our guns that were still dripping with grease. We were given sacks that resembled cotton sacks and told to go to an airplane hangar and get some hay which we stuffed into the sacks to make a mattress. What they didn't tell us was that the hay was full of fleas! That was no way to rest.
"A couple of days later we all got a cholera shot. By the third or fourth day everyone was so sick that we thought we had already lost the war. Goat meat hanging in that heat for days didn't set too well, either. People came from miles around to see an American doctor, but there just weren't medical supplies to help everyone. The supplies had been sunk off the coast of South Africa.
"Some planes were flown to Alexandria, Egypt and some of us were sent there to get tents set-up for supplies. Planes also came in from Cairo, Egypt, over 100 P-40s. General Arnold was over the 9th Air Force and we were detached to British General Montgomery, who was over us and the 8th Army. We were in the 398th Bomber Group.
"Everything got started at El Alamein when both sides went at it heavy for about two weeks, then Rommel starting falling back, to Tobruk, Tripoli and Benghazi. At one point, General Jimmy Doolittle flew in and I don't know what happened, but all of a sudden we didn't have too many planes. We soon ended up in the 15th Air Force.
"When the Americans invaded North Africa, we met up with them at Oran."
In late 1943, after several months in North Africa, Morton went aboard the Liberty ship, Samuel J. Tilden, that was loaded with aviation gas and also critically-needed medical supplies for the British 26th and 35th field hospitals at Sicily. By the time the slow-moving Tilden arrived at Sicily, the field hospitals had been moved to Italy.
"We were sent on to Taranto, Italy, but they couldn't unload us, so we were told to go around Italy's "heel" to unload at the British-controlled port of Bari, on the Adriatic Sea."
According to later reports, when the Germans and Italians had retreated after the Allies landed in Italy, someone had found a supply of mustard gas, probably stored away or hidden during World War I.
The story goes, Morton says, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, fearing that the Germans had more of the deadly gas and might start using it, had asked President Roosevelt to send some mustard gas, which had been made in the USA, to be available in case a "gas war" broke out. Roosevelt shipped 80,000 tons of mustard gas, most of it on the ship, General Harvey.
The Harvey had arrived at Bari and was just starting to unload when the Samuel J. Tilden, with Morton aboard, entered the harbor just before dark on Dec. 2, 1943. Morton recalls that the harbor was filled with ships that were unloading.
"All of a sudden the place was lit up," he says. "Waves of German planes swept low across the harbor information, with the first wave dropping flares to light up the harbor filled with ships. Then came about 75 German dive bombers, from an airfield in Albania. They hit 18 ships in 43 minutes.
"The bombers finally hit the General Harvey and it blew sky high. The mustard gas exploded into the air and fell over the area like a blanket of rain, drenching boats and docks and, being on top of the water, it saturated your clothes.
"Our ship was hit, was on fire, and with stocks of aviation gas also aboard, it could explode. I cut the ropes that held the life preservers and released my assigned lifeboat into the water.
"To keep from wearing saturated clothing, I took off my shoes and everything except my shorts and jumped into the water. I really couldn't swim, except just 'dog paddle' around, but managed to float.
"I found my friend, then found a Swedish soldier, who had his legs broken and was pleading, 'Don't leave me here'. He put his arm around my neck and we made it to the lifeboat where my buddy pulled him up into the boat.
"Small boats picked up people from the water and carried them to shore. We were picked up by a PT boat around midnight and taken some place where doctors and nurses asked questions. I don't know what happened to the Swede.
"I was one of the lucky ones to survive. Many were not so fortunate. The mustard gas burned your skin and hurt your lungs. The casualty toll must have been in the hundreds, perhaps thousands.
"Since Bari was in the British Zone, Churchill issued an order that there would be no mentioned of mustard gas being involved. It was feared that if the Germans knew about the gas, a full-fledge gas war would erupt."
The news report that was released about the incident, such as the one published in the book, "World War II, Day by Day," by Donald Sommerville, said only that an ammunition ship had been hit and exploded when German bombers attacked the Bari harbor at night and that 18 transports were sunk, destroying 30,000 tons of supplies.
"We servicemen were threatened with court-martial if we ever spoke of the incident," Morton said.
All official reports were sealed until 1977, when the reports were finally unsealed and documented by a group of doctors. By then, most of the survivors had died, never knowing what had really happened.
"This was the best kept secret of World War II," Morton declares. Documentation of the Bari disaster is now recorded in Washington, D.C., he said.
Morton was able to return to his outfit about 10 days after the disaster. He remained with his aircraft mechanic chores in Europe until after Germany surrendered in May 1945.
By the time the war was over, he had been in the Egypt-Libya, Rome-Arno and Naples-Foggia campaigns. Among the medals he had earned were three Bronze Stars, the Europe-Africa-Middle Eastern EAME) Campaign Medal, the Purple Heart and the Good Conduct Medal.
He returned to the States in the fall of 1945, and remained in the Army Force until he received his discharge on Sept. 11, 1948 in San Antonio, with the rank of Sergeant. He was listed as an airplane mechanic-sheet metal specialist, acquiring the rating as an airplane mechanic for the B-29 during his service after the war.
On May 27, 1946, Billy exchanged wedding vows with Delilah Wiley. They were married 33 years until her death in 1979.
There are three children, daughter Teresa Blackwell, an aide in the Palacios School District; son, James Leslie Morton, of Palacios, a deckhand/tankerman; and son, Charles Braxton Morton, in the narcotics division for the Texas Department of Public Safety. There are also four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In later years, Morton became a mechanic for the City of Palacios, from July 1, 1980 until he resigned in 1995, with a few interval months in the late 1980s. Celebrating his 82nd birthday on Nov. 9, he remains active with his lawnmower at the Masonic Lodge, VFW and various other places around town.
BILLY MORTON IN 2002
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