BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with Joseph Morrison, April 18, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Interview with Joseph Morrison, April 18, 2003
April 18, 2003
Interview with retired military Chaplain Joseph Morrison.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Morrison, Joseph Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  4/18/2003 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  58 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock, a staff member with the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Library. We’re at the home of Pastor Joseph G. Morrison, retired military chaplain. Today is the 19th of April in the year 2003. We’re video taping here in Wilmington, North Carolina as I said at Pastor Morrison’s home.

Zarbock: Good morning sir, how are you?

Morrison: Very good.

Zarbock: Would you tell me, what series of events led you into the ministry and after that what series of events led you into the Chaplaincy?

Morrison: I was raised in a Christian home, and was surrounded by Christian influences from my very first days. I was being carried to church by my parents before I was a year old. I had a grandmother that lived in our home and she influenced my life I think spiritually more than anyone else. I was a Presbyterian. It would have been very difficult for me to be anything but a Presbyterian with my early surroundings and influences.

Then when I was a senior in high school, I had an experience, a very real sense of call that the Lord wanted me in the ministry. It was something that’s hard to describe, but it was something that I couldn't escape.

Zarbock: What year was that, Pastor?

Morrison: That was in 1929. My uncle, who was a physician, wanted me to study medicine. He offered to pay my expense for Medical School if I would become a doctor and join him in his practice. I thanked him, and told him that the Lord wanted me to be a minister and that I had made a firm decision to do my college work to prepare myself for seminary. I was always very glad that from my early years and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I could take those courses in college, Greek History that prepared me for seminary.

Zarbock: Where did you graduate from college? What college was it?

Morrison: I attended Davidson College in North Carolina for four years, and graduated in 1933. This year we’re having our 70th class reunion. Our numbers have thinned out considerably. I attended the 65th Anniversary and there were only seven that showed up. I’m sure the numbers have gotten less since then.

Zarbock: Are you going to attend the reunion?

Morrison: I haven’t made plans to attend the 70th because there are so few class members will be able to attend.

Zarbock: Well after college, did you go directly into seminary?

Morrison: I went directly to Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Received my Master’s Degree in Religion. However, when I was in college, I took four years of ROTC and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in Infantry when I graduated from college. By 1939, I’d been promoted to a 1stLlieutenant in Infantry in the Reserves.

In 1939, my uncle who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the North Carolina National Guard advised me to change my Reserve Commission from the Infantry to the Chaplain’s Reserve. It took me three months of correspondence to get transferred from the Infantry to the Chaplain Reserves. Then in 1941 I received this message from Uncle Sam that he wanted me to report to Fort Bragg for a physical and I did. I received orders to proceed for one year in the Chaplain’s section.

Zarbock: World War II hadn’t started.

Morrison: No, World War II was yet to come. I was sent to Camp Davis, which is located between Wilmington and Jacksonville, a little place known as Holly Ridge, had a population of 28 and suddenly 30,000 troops descended on them. I was assigned as a Chaplain in the 96th Coast Artillery. All of our selectees came from New York City, from Queens and Manhattan. Most of them had never been out of New York City in their life.

When they got to Camp Davis, they thought they were at the end of the world and they were just about. I was a chaplain in the 96th Coast Artillery for about six months and finally we received a Catholic chaplain. Of the 2400 selectees, 350 of them were Jewish men. Well since we had no Jewish chaplain at Camp Davis, I had to import rabbis to come in and hold services. I had never realized the big difference between the Orthodox Jews and the Reform Jews.

I would get an Orthodox Rabbi and the Reform Jews wouldn’t come. I’d get a Reform Rabbi and the Orthodox Jews wouldn’t come to the services. I was there 11 months. I had 30 days leave time saved up and I was on leave in Richmond, Virginia, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Everyone was being advised to come back to their camp, or to the Navy in Norfolk.

When I got back to Camp Davis, everything was being packed up in boxes and crates getting ready to move out. They’d received orders, our Regiment, was to go to San Francisco. When we left Camp Davis, our troop train took 11 days. This was in January of ’42, to get to San Francisco. We wandered all over the country. The government was using Land Grant Railroads where they didn't have to pay any costs. We went as far North as Evansville, Indiana and as far South as Dallas, Texas.

Zarbock: What were living conditions like on the train? Did you have bunks?

Morrison: Well we had one experience. Going over the mountains in the western part of the country, our engines were steam engines and the steam lines froze up half way back. We woke up at 1:00 in the morning nearly freezing to death. Finally we got another engine hooked onto the back and began pumping steam and got things thawed out.

When we arrived in San Francisco, they had no facilities for quartering a large group of soldiers. They placed us in the Cow Palace, which was an exhibition building. No heat! I hadn’t realized how cold it could get in San Francisco in February. We were there 11 days. We were better off though than the next group of troops who came in. They put them under the grandstand at the dog racing track.

We heard that we were headed for Hawaii, a warmer climate. They placed us aboard one of the big Matson liners. There were 22 ships in our convoy and this was the first convoy that went out to Hawaii following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Took us 11 days to go from San Francisco to Honolulu. Then our Regiment was moved on over to the big island of Hawaii.

The only troops on the island of Hawaii were was one Company of National Guard and over half of them were Japanese. Our antiaircraft Regiment, one Battalion was placed on Hawaii, one on the Island of Maui and the other on the Island of Kawai. We were there about one year and then I was made District Chaplain for the whole island of Hawaii. I rode herd on 28 other chaplains covering the entire island.

Then after about twenty-eight months, our Regiment was moved over to the island of Oahu where Honolulu is located. I served there for nearly a year with an antiaircraft group.

Zarbock: What were your duties and assignments at that time?

Morrison: Well you had services all during the week. Many times you weren’t able on Sundays to reach the antiaircraft groups that were stationed in various localities. You had quite a bit of counseling to do. Everything that you can imagine came across the chaplain’s desk, things that ordinarily a person would see a lawyer or a social worker, all of those things the chaplain had to deal with. So it was quite a varied experience.

I got a postgraduate course in human experiences. Then I was assigned to a task force. We found out after we were one day at sea where our destination was, it was the Island of Yap. I’d never heard of it. It was out near the island of Truk. We had 25,000 in our Task Force. We got to within two days of Yap. We received radio orders that there was a change in plans, for us to turn around and go back to Einewetok and await further orders.

Well they decided to bypass Yap and we sat at Enietok for 11 days and then we were ordered to proceed to the Admiralty Islands near New Guinea.

Zarbock: All that time, you’re on ship? You couldn't get off?

Morrison: We were on ship 58 days. Well when we got to the Admiralty Islands, we found that they were forming the task force to go into the Philippines.

Zarbock: The year is now what?

Morrison: This was in ’44. Twenty-four hundred ships came into the Island of Manos in the Admiralty Islands forming the largest task force that had been formed in the Pacific. We proceeded to the island of Leyte in the central part of the Philippines. We went ashore on October 20, 1944. I was in the second wave that went in. We climbed down the rope ladders into the landing craft.

I spent the first night in the wreckage of an old Catholic church. At a place called Dulong in the southern part of the landing area. The second night I dug a foxhole on the beach. That night the Japanese launched a counterattack. I found out that I hadn’t dug my foxhole quite deep enough. Tracer bullets were going over the top of me just like water out of a hose. I could only get my head about an inch below the surface. Death was just inches away.

The next day I dug a deluxe foxhole, one that I could get my legs stretched in and my head further below the surface. We were able to move in a little bit further. The fourth night I made a decision that probably saved my life. I decided to sleep in a ditch that night. A Japanese plane came in from the ocean side and dropped a 500 pound bomb that hit about a hundred feet from me.

Most of the blast went over the top of me. That was the only thing that saved my life. There was a solid sheet of flame and all this dirt came in on top of me. Well before I had laid down, I took off my shoes. I rolled up my billfold in a towel. I made a pillow out of that billfold and towel. Well I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, I was covered up except part of my head and face and arm. I put my hand up in front of my face. I couldn't see, I thought I was blind.

My eyes were full of dirt. I managed to crawl out from under the dirt. My shoes were burned up. I never found my billfold or towel. Sixteen soldiers next to me were killed. There was not enough found of their remains to identify any of them. Fortunately I survived it. About a week later, I got a letter from my wife wanting to know what I’d done to celebrate my birthday. Well I thought, “ it was going to be my last one!” It was a very close call.

Zarbock: During these battle days, what would you characteristically do? What services would you as a chaplain…???

Morrison: I had funeral services. While there on Leyte, I would go out to the cemetery twice a day and there’d be maybe 50 or 60 bodies laying there in a row. They were from all branches of the Service. You would have a Protestant Chaplain and Catholic Chaplain and they’d have funeral services. The big regret that I had was that I wasn’t even able to write a brief note to the families of those that I held funeral services for. You didn't have the time! You didn't have the information.

We moved inland from the beaches there to San Pablo Airfield. On the 7th of December, we had an unfortunate experience. The only time the Japanese used paratroopers in the war was to jump on that airfield, 600 of them. It was a suicide group. There were 50,000 of us. It took us five days to kill all 600 of them and they did a lot of damage. There were 11 of our group that were killed. One Lieutenant, a very close friend of mine, was killed. They did quite a bit of damage. They burned up most of the equipment that the 11th Airborne Division had.

They destroyed 11 of our planes. They ran down the flight line and dropped hand grenades into the planes and blew them up. It was a harrowing experience, that first night. The Japanese paratroopers were dressed in American uniforms. It was very difficult to tell one of them from one of our soldiers. They had captured these uniforms somewhere along the way and why they selected the 7th of December to jump. You’ll never know the answer to that. I proceeded then with our group up to Manila.

Zarbock: What Division are you in now?

Morrison: It was in an antiaircraft group. We weren’t attached to any single Division. I was in Manila the day we recaptured it. It was total destruction. I’ve never seen anything like it, the buildings were destroyed. A lot of the Japanese were holed up in the big buildings. We had to bring the big guns up and fire point blank into these buildings and totally destroyed them.

I heard about four missionaries of our church that were being held prisoner over in the Old University, Santo Tomas. I got a jeep and went over there and located these four missionaries, two couples. They were walking skeletons that were almost starved to death. Many of them had already died of starvation. The Jankens had a little boy six months of age that had been born there.

Mrs. Jankens was allowed to trade her diamond ring for a milk goat that the Japanese allowed them to bring in to the prison compound. That saved that little boy’s life because she got something like diarrhea and had to quit nursing. I loaned Bill Jankens 200 pesos. His glasses had been broken. We heard that the Red Cross had some glasses and we were hoping that he could replace his broken glasses.

They were brought down to the island of Leyte. They didn't want to bring them back to the States in such an emaciated condition. They wanted to fatten them up a little bit. I was able to send word to my wife by Mrs. Jankens, that I was headed for Okinawa. Our mail was very closely censored so we couldn't write them of any future destination.

Our group was transferred from Luzon to Okinawa. The ship that I was on was an LST which is a Landing Ship Tank. It had just come from Iwo Jima landing Marines on Iwo Jima. The cabin I was in, had a five inch hole on one side and a five inch hole on the other where this five inch shell had gone through and hadn’t exploded. I would have hated to have been in that cabin when that five inch shell went through.

We arrived up at Okinawa. We landed on April 1, 1945, which was Easter Sunday. We had services aboard the ship the day before knowing that we wouldn’t be able to have services the next day when we were landing. We had a difficult time getting ashore. When we got within 200 yards of the base, our ship ran up on this coral reef and got stuck. We had to sit there six hours before we could back off.

We moved down the beach about a couple a hundred yards. The Captain put it in flank speed, which was top speed , thinking that if we hit another reef, we’d have enough momentum to go over it, but we didn't hit another reef. We plowed into the sand beach, pushed up all this sand in front of the bow doors. It looked like we were jinxed getting off.

The Kamikaze planes were diving into the ships all around us. Finally we got a bulldozer to push the sand away and finally got ashore. I walked up to the Yontan Airfield which was close to the beach. There was one white horse grazing on the side of the airfield. All the Japanese took off. It took us four days to catch up with them. They headed back to the mountains where they’d dug all these caves into the mountainside.

It was a very costly process of getting those Japanese out of those caves that they’d fortified through the years. Some of them wouldn’t surrender. We had Japanese interpreters with us. We were trying to persuade them to come out and surrender, but they wouldn’t so we had to take satchel charges, throw them into the cave and blast them shut.

It looked like we were going to bury half of every Division there before the fighting got over with. I had funeral services for over 2100 servicemen. It was some of the greatest losses during World War II that we suffered.

Zarbock: Chaplain, let me interrupt. All those funerals day after day after day, wasn’t that terribly hard on you too?

Morrison: Oh yes, very stressful. Many times I’d think to myself, “now you could be laying there in that group of bodies as well as standing here conducting this service.”

Zarbock: But who ministered to you during these stressful and grief filled days?

Morrison: Well of course we had other chaplains that we knew and were very close. We somehow managed to make it through. By the time the fighting got over with, the Japanese were pushed back to the Southern end of the Island. Over 200 of them, rather than surrender, jumped over a cliff and committed suicide. We captured 400 Japanese, the largest number of prisoners anywhere during the war in the Pacific.

I received orders that I could go back to the States for a 45 day rest leave if I would sign an agreement to come back to my Command at Okinawa and would make no effort when I was back in the States to get transferred to any other unit. Well after 42 months out there, I was ready to sign anything.

The ship that we were loaded on to, also loaded on the 400 Japanese prisoners of war. On the trip to Honolulu, we had four teams of doctors operating on the wounded Japanese. Eleven of them died during the voyage. I had funeral services for 11 of the Japanese. I gave them a Christian burial realizing that probably none of them were Christians. But their bodies, we’d sew them up in canvas and put a five inch shell in the foot to weight the bodies.

At the conclusion of the service, the body was on a dolly type arrangement at the fantail of the ship. We’d tip it over and the bodies would go down into the water. I often wondered how deep those bodies would go before the pressure of the water would overcome the weight of that 5-inch shell. I’m sure that those bodies never reached the bottom of the ocean.

When we loaded aboard ship at Okinawa, one of the fellows in our outfit had a monkey that he had become very attached to. We received a notice that no animals could be brought aboard ship. He decided he was going to bring the monkey back home anyhow. So he went by our medic’s tent, got a can of ether and poured some of it on a towel and held it to the monkey’s nose until it put him to sleep, put him in his duffel bag and carried him aboard ship.

Well all went well until we were one day out of Honolulu when they were having a ship’s inspection. The Captain and the Commander of the Troops, were going down through the hull of the ship and they saw these two eyes shining under this bunk. Well it was the monkey. They said, “this is directly against Navy regulations!” When we get into Honolulu, we’ll have to turn that monkey over to the health authority”. Well they did have very strict regulations in Hawaii. They had no rabies, and any animals brought in had to be put in quarantine.

The last we saw of the monkey was on this Health Inspector’s shoulder. We spent three days in Honolulu, loaded aboard another ship heading back to San Francisco.

Zarbock: Did you leave the Japanese prisoners in Hawaii?

Morrison: In Hawaii, in a hospital there. We arrived in San Francisco on August 6, 1945, the day we dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I was coming down the gangplank of this ship. I heard this sailor call across to another one and said, “We dropped a Buck Rogers bomb on them today”. That was closest he could come to describing an atomic bomb.

Three days later we dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki. I always appreciated Truman’s decision to drop those two atomic bombs because I would have been on the invasion of the mainland of Japan if the Japanese hadn’t decided to surrender. That would have been another very costly landing.

After the 40 days rest leave, I had a 120 days leave coming to me and they wouldn’t discharge me until those 120 days were up.

Zarbock: Where were you living at that time?

Morrison: I was living in Kenansville, North Carolina.

Zarbock: And you were married.

Morrison: Yes.

Zarbock: Children?

Morrison: Yes, one son.

Morrison: I was one of the few chaplains that went back to the same churches that they had served before the war. I was discharged from Fort Bragg in January of 1946. I spent only 30 more days in Active Duty at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina in the Reserves. I was promoted to a Major by the time the war ended. I was almost called back in to the Korean War and would have been except for the fact that I had four dependents. So I missed the Korean War.

In the experience of being away from my family for 42 months, my oldest son was 12 months old when I left for the Pacific. He was five years old the next time I saw him. I was very fortunate to get back alive and in one piece. It was a tough job to do, but I was able to do it and it was a job that somebody needed to do. I appreciate very much this opportunity to share with you these experiences. There were many more, but these are some of the highlights.

Zarbock: Well let me ask a question. Were you ever ordered or was there a strong suggestion that you do something that was against your personal principles or religious beliefs? Were you ever ordered to do something that was wrong?

Morrison: Never had any such orders. I was very fortunate in having Commanding Officers that were very cooperative and supportive so I had no such experiences.

Zarbock: As I understand it, a chaplain is a chaplain so regardless of what faith group or denomination, you attempted at least to serve all military people no matter what beliefs they had.

Morrison: In my experiences, I found that when you got into combat, all religious differences went out the window. I would wade out through mud and water to the various groups and have services. I would have just as many Catholic and Jewish men thank me for coming and having a service with them under those circumstances so it was a very rewarding experience, to be able to minister to all of the various faiths and beliefs.

Zarbock: I would appreciate it if you would educate me. Put yourself back into a situation, you said you were walking through the mud and the water and would get to a group, what was the nature of the service? You didn't have an organ, you didn't have any hymn books. What would you do? What would be a combat service?

Morrison: Well most of the time when I was in the Hawaiian Islands, we had a portable organ and an organist and my jeep driver. We also used local churches. I held services for nearly one year every other Sunday in a Chinese Congregational Church. We had no facilities, adequate facilities to have services in. I met up with this Chinese Minister, Mr. Yee, and suggested to him that I bring soldiers over to his church and we’d alternate Sundays leading the service. That worked out wonderful.

We had about 50 soldiers each Sunday in that Chinese Church there in Hilo. Also we had services in a Hawaiian Church near the airport at Hilo. When the planes would start taking off. I found out it was impossible to be heard above the roar of planes taking off so we’d sit there quietly until the planes got off and then we would resume the service.

I had some wonderful experiences in the Hawaiian Islands with the different denominational groups. Most of the Protestants in Hawaii were Congregational. The early missionaries that went out to Hawaii were from the New England States. Each one of the racial groups had their own churches, the Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, they all wanted their own denominational church. It was quiet an interesting experience in the Japanese Church that I held services.

They had an English service and then one in Japanese. All the younger Japanese had learned English and the older Japanese had never learned English.

Zarbock: But they were Christians?

Morrison: Christians, most of them about third generation Christians. They had been brought to Hawaii as laborers in the pineapple and sugar cane plantations. So I came to realize the value of those early missionaries that went to Hawaii. That all these churches had evolved from the work these missionaries had done.

Zarbock: I’m going to take you back in memory to your…how many days did you say you were on that ship?

Morrison: 58 days.

Zarbock: What did you do? You’re in this steel tub and it’s going or it’s not going, but there you are. How did you fill the day?

Morrison: Well we played a lot of checkers. We had interesting conversations. It was fairly monotonous. There was a lot of anticipation of what we were going to be getting into.

Zarbock: Was mail delivered to the ship?

Morrison: We only got mail maybe once a month. You got a whole batch of mail at a time. Our destination hadn’t been firmed up so they really just didn't know where to send some of the mail. You would get packages occasionally. I got a fruit cake that the women of my church mailed to me in October. It arrived in the Philippines, I had already left the Philippines and it finally caught up with me at Okinawa in May. It was sent in October. The tin can that it was in looked like it had been beaten on with a hammer. The fruit cake had dried out pretty much, but we ate every crumb of it.

Zarbock: That’s another question. Again it seems to low level, but there’s an awful lot of life that’s low level. What was the food like? How were you fed on board the ship and how were you fed when you were on land?

Morrison: It was much better on ship that ashore. For 11 months, I had nothing to eat but canned rations and dehydrated food. In the Philippines too, our water was rationed. All the water we had was brought from Pearl Harbor in five gallon cans. We had to line up every morning, fill up a quart canteen, and that had to last until the next morning. If you were real careful, you might be able to save enough water to brush your teeth one time. But you had to put a Halizone tablet in that canteen and you had to drink it warm.

Zarbock: I’m sorry, you and I know what a Halizone is, but years from now that language will disappear. Tell me what a Halizone tablet is for the record?

Morrison: It was to kill the germs in the water.

Zarbock: What was the taste?

Morrison: It was very difficult to even drink it. Then we also had to take salt tablets too…we were perspiring so much. The Navy ate so much better than the Army. They had refrigeration, fresh meat, vegetables. Many of us told ourselves that the next war, we were going to be in the Navy (laughter).

When I got back, I was skin and bones. I only weighed 128 pounds. I remember how good milk tasted. I hadn’t tasted any milk in 11 months when we got to Honolulu. You almost had to force yourself to eat. You got so tired of those same K-rations. You could eat your breakfast for lunch or your lunch for breakfast. We survived.

Zarbock: What about recreation, entertainment of any kind? Occasionally were there movies?

Morrison: We had some movies and on Leyte, an improvised theater was built and the USO brought one show out, Oklahoma. We had coconut logs for seats. I had a very unique experience. I went one night down about midway and sat down on this log. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that somebody else came and sat down on the other end of the log. Finally I glanced over and it was a college classmate, George Bailey from Hickory, North Carolina. We played baseball on the same team at Davidson.

Neither one of us knew the other was in the Pacific. I’ve often thought of the chances of both of us halfway around the world coming and sitting down on the same log, it would just blow your mind. We never saw one another for about 15 years later. You ran into some chance meetings that were very unusual.

Zarbock: Chaplain, some of the other chaplains whom I’ve interviewed, a few of them said that one of their obligations was to provide, I’m going to make this a general term, morale, to increase the morale. Was that part of your obligation as well?

Morrison: Well I had played baseball in college and I managed one team in Hawaii. I did quite a bit with other recreational things, but baseball and softball were the most important. We had other morale agents that did a reasonably good job. When we were in Honolulu, Bob Hope and his group came out and performed for us. Joe DiMaggio and a baseball group came out. There were a number of morale building groups that came out and were quite helpful.

Zarbock: I spent five years in the Army and getting adjusted to civilian life, and most of that was overseas, getting adjusted to civilian life was a very, very difficult thing. It got easier over time, but at first it was very difficult. Did you find that in your personal experience?

Morrison: I did not. About the only unpleasant experience I had was I had some very bad dreams for about six months. I went right to work serving two churches that I had left five years before and I didn't have a very difficult time getting adjusted again. I was fortunate in that respect.

Zarbock: Chaplain in conclusion, I told you off camera that one of the marvels of this technology is that you will never be a day older than you are today. The technology assures that you’re the same 50 years from now as you are right now. I keep thinking, for example, of President Kennedy as being a man of 40 years of age. Well he’d be 80 by now. So with all of your years and all of your experiences, would you look into the camera and send a message to your grandchildren and great grandchildren, what have you learned from all of your experiences?

Morrison: Well I’ve learned a lot. It might be difficult to put it into words. In my lifetime, I’ve found that it is very rewarding to be of service to other people and I’ve had an opportunity to touch the lives of many people. As a chaplain, you had an opportunity to influence, touch the lives of more people than you would in any ministry serving a church. It was a very rewarding experience. I would advise anyone to get the very best education that you can, and select some field of labor that you feel you would like and be satisfied with.

I have been very fortunate in that I’ve been blessed with the best of health. All the doctors and nurses would have been out of business if they’d been depending on me. I have lived a very satisfying life. If I never live another day, I have lived far beyond my allotted years. Every new day is a bonus. Let me say that I’ve enjoyed the experience.

Zarbock: May the Lord be with you.

Morrison: Thank you very much.

UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign