At 0300 on June 25, 1943, a jeep crept quietly through the dark to one of the Niessen huts at Thorpe Abbotts airfield. The sergeant on board, entered, reached the bunk of Lt. Stanley O. Morrison placed a hand on Morrison’s shoulder and nudged him awake. Not that anyone in the barracks was asleep. Each of the dozen or more men lying on his own bunk had heard the low rumble of the jeep as it approached and came to a halt, idling outside the barracks. But this morning, all but one could go back to sleep. It was Morrison’s turn. Whether he expected to fly that day or not we don’t know. But, in an unusual substitution between squadrons, Morrison (from the 418th) was tapped to substitute for Lt. Louis B. Grate (from the 349th) as bombardier on the B-17 Flying Fortress Blue Bird for the first official mission of the Bloody 100th.
As dawn broke, clouds built over the English countryside. It would prove anything but a blue bird day. Of the Group’s thirty bombers that would soon take to the sky, three would not return.
After breakfast and a pre-mission briefing, Morrison, the twenty-three year old Midwesterner hopped aboard the Fortress, joining a group of other twenty-somethings from across the country. Their home states ranged from Connecticut to California, Illinois to Texas, and South Dakota to Mississippi. Their destination, Bremen, a city in northwest Germany that straddles the Weser River with access to the North Sea. Their target, the submarine plants and pens where U-boats lay, some under construction, some waiting for duty.
Details of the June 25th mission, seventy plus years ago, and in particular the experience of the 349th Bomb Squadron are sketchy. Historians report that the 349th flew as the “low squadron” and may have been a mile or more behind the lead squadron, the 418th. In part, the weather was to blame. A dense overcast and heavy layers of clouds interfered with the Group’s plans, leaving the Fortresses scattered across the sky and thus more vulnerable to attack.
The mission reports say that at a “point a little north of the East Frisian Islands, Crew #1, (Morrison’s crew), disappeared into the undercast and was not seen again. No doubt it fell victim to enemy fighters as did crews #2 and #3.”
Fate. The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice. Morrison perished that day in June while Grate finished his missions and returned home.
What might have happened to Morrison had he not flown with the 349th that day? His original crew, #29, flew together aboard the Stymie until October 1943. Then, according to mission reports: “After severe flak damage and attacks by fighters, the pilots made a successful belly landing.” Only the ball turret gunner, Max Drudge, and the radio operator and gunner, Carl Battin, were injured, but all ten crew became POWs.
As for Louis Grate, little is known of his post-war life except that he married and later resided in Sacramento. California, where he died of natural causes in 1988. What questions must he have asked of himself and his God in the forty-five years he had to reflect on WWII? We will never know, but hope he found peace and lived a full life.
A group photo of airmen, presumably of his B-17 crew was posted online in his memory.