Ceremony to honor crewman

Fifteen thousand feet above France, their cockpit ablaze and bullets ripping through their B-17 bomber, five men donned parachutes and leaped for safety on Sept. 6, 1943.

The enormous plane groaned toward the ground, a damaged wing ripping off before it slammed into the French countryside. Five more men were still inside – among them Alvin E. Morrison, a 23-year-old with a wife and young family in Altoona.

They were all killed. Their decimated unit would call it “Black Monday.”

Buried by villagers in a communal grave, Morrison and his fellow crewmen have been honored each year for seven decades in the town of La Chapelle-Champagny. On Saturday, the 71st anniversary of his death, he’ll be honored in his hometown when a bridge over Mill Run is dedicated in his name.

“We grew up talking about him over the years. We always talked about him,” said Morrison’s daughter, June Rossman, 77. “We’re just so thrilled to see that Dad’s being honored after all these years.”

Born in Greenwood, Morrison graduated from Altoona High School in the years before World War II. He lived along Eighth Avenue with a young wife in the war’s early days, working as a car mechanic and truck driver before he signed up for the Army Air Forces, according to an Altoona Mirror profile published weeks before his death.

His children were little more than toddlers when he left.

After months of training for combat and advanced radio operation, Morrison was assigned to an England-based bomber group in 1943.

Riding the claustrophobic ball turret in an already cramped B-17 Flying Fortress, he hung in a metal bubble under the plane, firing machine guns at German interceptors during runs over continental Europe.

It was a brutal time for American bomber crews: Nazi-occupied Europe was heavily fortified, with German forces killing crews at a rate of 30 percent each month. The Army Air Forces found it difficult to replace the pilots and crewmen lost during massive daylight raids on German industry.

On Sept. 6, Morrison was among 10 men in the B-17 nicknamed “Slightly Dangerous” as 338 bombers thundered together toward Stuttgart, Germany, where a key factory network was situated. His unit sat in the dangerous flight position some called the “coffin corner,” according to a later article in a unit publication.

In the early morning hours, the crews found their main goal covered by clouds and split to bomb convenient targets throughout the region. Morrison and his comrades in “Slightly Dangerous” were nearly four miles over France when a group of high-speed German interceptors set upon them, pilot Demetrios Karnezis would later write in a report.

The Germans riddled Morrison’s plane with bullets – first destroying the copilot’s controls, then peppering the cockpit with shells until an oxygen tank exploded.

As the battered plane fell, five crewmen managed to escape with parachutes. Three would be taken prisoner, and two would later meet with French Resistance members and make their way back to England.

The remaining five weren’t so lucky. Morrison – likely positioned far from a parachute in his cramped turret – went down with the plane.

Word arrived slowly: More than two weeks after his death, a War Department telegram informed Morrison’s parents that he was missing in action, the Mirror reported on its front page.

Two days later, the newspaper’s opinion editors offered their hopes that he would be found alive, perhaps having parachuted to safety. Their hopes, it would turn out, were in vain.

“It is unfortunate that the cost of victory must be measured in terms of anxiety and sorrow, but the fight we have begun must be finished and those who are dead, wounded or missing would have it so,” they wrote.

When villagers in La Chapelle-Champigny gathered the crew’s remains, they buried them in a communal grave and, after the war, marked the site with a stone carving of the falling B-17. Later offered a chance to repatriate their sons’ remains, the families elected to leave them together in France.

“This was before DNA testing,” Rossman said. “They didn’t know if they’d get their son.”

Each year, the people of the small town 60 miles from Paris pay homage to the Americans buried there. Their monument reads, in French: “In memory of five American airmen killed in action on Sept. 6, 1943 for preserving the freedom of the world. Pray for them.”

With the announcement from Harrisburg that Morrison’s name will now be inscribed over an Altoona bridge – a short stretch of Route 764 where it intersects with 31st Street – his descendants can celebrate, said grandson Russ Brown, who pushed for the honor. Saturday’s event is set to include a military honor guard, political figures including state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona and relatives of fellow crewmen, he said.

Having already succeeded in getting most of his grandfather’s lost medals reissued, Brown said, his final goal is to get back the U.S. Air Medal that has long since disappeared.

“I’m ecstatic,” Brown said of the bridge dedication. “I want him to be remembered by my children and my grandchildren and their children forever. This will be his bridge.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.