George E. Morris and John W. Watlington had left Jackson, Tenn. together in September 1940 and were together in the same Company L of the Third Battalion through training and frontline action in France, Belgium and Germany until December 1944. The following accounts of war experiences were written by Bettye McKnight Morris, George's sweetheart during those years and wife since 1945. With her permission we share them here as a part of the World War II memories of the 117th Regiment which included many Madison County soldiers.
No one old enough to remember December 7, 1941 will ever forget where they were or what they were doing on that Sunday afternoon.
I had gone home from church with my friend, Aileen Haltom. We had eaten lunch and were talking and half-way listening to a ball game on the radio with her brother, Billy. He was hollering and carrying on like he was at the game but we didn't see anything to be excited about.
We heard the announcer say, ``I interrupt this program to tell you the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.'' We couldn't believe what we were hearing at first. How dare that little island attack the United States! With repeated announcements we had to believe it. I thought immediately of the boys, and George Morris in particular, who had been called up in the National Guard in 1940. They would surely be the first to go!
A community prayer service was held at the Methodist Church. Mother and I went and everyone was in a state of shock. The next morning during Chemistry class, Mr. Copeland, our principal and teacher, let us gather around the radio to listen to President Roosevelt ask Congress to declare war. Everything in the country was thrown in high gear. If you weren't helping in the war effort you wanted to be. Everything else lost importance.
The Red Cross asked women to meet at the ``Y'' and make hospital gowns and bandages to send to the front. I never was convinced that they would actually be used but it was an effort to be involved in so Mother and I signed up.
Since being called up with the National Guard, George E. Morris of Bemis, Tenn. had been in the 117th Infantry, 30th Division. They were stationed at Fort Jackson, S.C. and had been training since September 1940. Although they were on duty when war was declared they were not the first to go overseas. The powers-to-be had other plans for them.
The 117th was sent to Fort Benning, Ga. to train officers and to Camp Forest, Tenn. two summers to train soldiers in field practice. To Camp Blanding, Fla., they were sent for further training. George applied for parachute training but at that time they were not taking any more to train. George stayed on in the 117th and went to Camp Atterbury, Indiana where he received Ranger training. From there they were sent to Camp Miles Standish, Mass., to await orders to sail. They shipped out of Boston Harbor in February 1944 for England. They were stationed not far from London for several months. So many soldiers assembled so quickly in England that the supplies could not keep up with the demand. Rations were short, security was tight and letters were censored. To save space on ships, mail was microfilmed. It was called V-mail. General Eisenhower was in command of the European theater. George saw him when he was inspecting the troops in England during the time when secret planning was going on for the invasion of Normandy. D-Day was June 6, 1944. The 117th Infantry followed six days later on Omaha Beach. Inch by inch, those lucky enough to survive, made their way up the beaches to the hedgerows. K-rations were all they had to eat and after six weeks their teeth began to get loose. Soon orders were given to use the packets of lemonade containing Vitamin C that the soldiers had been throwing away. After using this for a while their teeth tightened up. From listening to the radio, reading the papers, and bits and pieces that George could write in his letters, I tried to keep up with the events and where they were fighting. The news was full of hard fought battles and casualities, some of whom I had known. When I got a letter, the first thing I wanted to know was the date so I would know George was alive on that date.
The 117th Infantry received two bombing attacks at St. Lo, France from American planes. It was there that Lt. Rudell said he liked to get in the foxhole with George because he tried to take his mind off the bombings by talking about his mother's fried chicken. Sometimes the soldiers were lucky enough to find a basement to set up their commands in and sometimes food had been left in the basements. Occasionally, George would send something in a letter that he had found in an abandoned house. Once they were so close on the heels of the retreating Germans that the fires used for cooking were still smoldering and the food still warm.
As they moved through the French towns, civilians would line the street to cheer the soldiers. Sometimes they would be given bottles of wine. The French women who had fraternized with the Germans would be caught and their heads would be shaved as a sign of being a traitor.
In one town the 117th entered all of the civilians had been killed and left in the streets, men, women and children. On they pushed through France, Belgium and Holland. Christmas 1944 the Germans launched a massive attack that was known as the ``Battle of the Bulge.'' They gave the attack all they had but, fortunately, it was not enough. Their line was broken and the Germans began to be pushed back. In March 1945 the 117th entered and crossed the Rhine River in Germany. There was hope that the war was winding down and German soldiers were surrendering on every side to the Americans to keep from being taken by the Russians. Some soldiers with the most combat time were being sent home on leave. Now George was selected for a forty-five day leave. He was sent back to a rest camp and sailed from Cherbourg, France on a ship bringing five hundred German prisoners back to the states. The ships were ``Liberty boats'' and they were in a terrible storm that tossed them about for days. They were five weeks crossing the Atlantic and landed at New York on May 1, 1945. George's remark when he saw the Statue of Liberty was: ``She'll have to turn around for me to see her face again.'' After riding a train to Fort McPherson, Ga. for processing, George arrived safely back in Bemis May 3rd. When his mother heard he was outside the gate she began to run and shout. Finally he had come home. George was safe from war but, as one man told him, he'd never know the war was over because we were married on May 9th. That's a whole other story that will be told elsewhere. On May 8th the Germans surrendered and the point system was put into place to begin discharging servicemen. By the time George's furlough time was up, he was sent to Fort McPherson, Ga. to be discharged. He was a civilian again for the first time in five years.
President Truman ordered the atomic bomb dropped on Japan and in August the war ended in the Pacific. Demobilization of the country began. The Gold Stars in the windows across the nation were proof of the heavy price paid for victory.
At St. Lo, France, the American pilots were given the wrong information and the bombers dropped bombs on the 30th Division, not once but twice. The soldiers dug into foxholes but many were killed or injured. Aaron Hailey and a buddy were buried by a pile of dirt. Aaron kicked his way out and when George saw him, he was scratching with his hands in the dirt. George thought he had been shell shocked but he was trying to get to the other soldier. George helped uncover the man but he had been crushed. They carried him to the medics but he died soon afterwards.
While still in the hedgerows of France one of the Bemis soldiers, J. W. Gore, was killed by his own men. He was asked for the password one night but when he didn't respond the guard fired and killed him.
Part of the 117th had taken a position on one side of the road and part on the other. During the night a German Platoon marched through their lines and not a shot was fired. The officers knew that if a shot was fired it would be bedlam and many of their own men would be killed.
As the war drug on and fighting intensified, soldiers with the most combat time would be sent back for some rest. Once George got to go to Paris. He actually got a bath, clean sheets, and good food. He also got to see many of the sights of Paris. At another time he was given a weeks leave to London. He had the Red Cross wire his mother to send him one hundred dollars but it didn't catch up with him until too late. Some of the soldiers gave him cigarettes though so he had collected a bag full and sold them on the Black Market in France so he had spending money anyway.
During a lull in the fighting, George and John Watlington decided to investigate a cave they had heard about. When they arrived there were a lot of French women, children, and old men standing around the entrance. They began trying to talk to George and John but they could only understand that they didn't want them to enter the cave. John thought he'd bluff his way and continued to converse with them. George got bored so he laid down on the ground and went to sleep. He awoke with coats piled all over him. When he got uncovered and raised up he saw John frantically motioning for him to come on and quick. What the French had been trying to tell them was that German soldiers were in the cave. When the soldiers came out they covered George up and hid John with their bodies. One more close call!
Everything was fair game in war so the soldiers took whatever they found that they could use. It might be bicycles, food, dishes or cover. Once it was pickled eggs.
While training the officers at Fort Benning, Ga. it was necessary to have all kinds of field practices. One day, George was in the pit setting up the targets for shooting practice and a thirty pound block hit him on the head. It knocked him out and he was taken to the hospital for stitches. Having determined he was going to survive, the doctor sent him back to his barracks. His buddies nicknamed him ``Rock'' because they were amazed he could take such a blow. The name stuck.
After the 117th Infantry crossed the Rhine River and had the
Germans on the run, they began to relax a little. George saw some
deer grazing so he shot one, then another, and another. He got help
to drag them to the field kitchen and they had fresh meat for a
-- Bettye McKnight Morris, Oct. 1987 to March 1988