It was Feb. 28, 1941, more than nine months before America entered the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, when his boyhood chum in South Shore, Russell Porter, talked him into joining the Army with him.
They both sailed for North Africa. They were assigned to the Third Infantry Division. Porter was a foot soldier, while Morton was in the Quartermaster Corps.
Porter made it through Africa but was killed during the invasion of Sicily.
“He was dropping mortar shells in on the enemy, he was in one of those kind of outfits, when the Germans shelled his group and killed him,” Morton said.
Morton’s job was to keep the troops supplied with food and clothing and other supplies. He was not on the front, though he carried an M-1 rifle and was close enough to the fighting that he was kept busy digging foxholes to sleep in.
“When shells passed over our heads, they would make a loud noise when they broke the sound barrier. I didn’t know about the sound barrier noises. I thought the Germans had built an extra booster into the shells that kicked in.”
During World War II, the Quartermaster Corps trained thousands of soldiers to fill specialized roles in every theater of operation - from the Pacific Isles and the China-Burma-India theater to North Africa, Italy, and central and northern Europe.
They performed heroically at such far-off places as Bataan, Iwo Jima, Leyete, Salerno, Anzio, Normandy and Bastogne. The “Red Ball Express” became famous with the massive amount of logistics conducted during World War II.
At the height of the war, Quartermasters were providing more than 70,000 different supply items and more than 24 million meals each day. When it was over, they had recovered and buried nearly a quarter of a million soldiers in temporary cemeteries around the world. There were 4,943 Quartermaster soldiers who lost their lives during the war.
Morton’s decorations and citations included the EAME Theater Ribbon with eight Bronze Stars for the battles and invasions he was in on; the American Defense Service Medal; the Croix de Guerre with Palm per Order of the Day 1st French Army, Distinguished, on Feb. 20, 1945; and — surprisingly, to hear him tell it, considering his intense dislike of officers — the Good Conduct Ribbon.
He was promoted to private first class six weeks after joining his unit and he was a private first class when he received his honorable discharge on Aug. 17, 1945.
“I was promoted to corporal three times, and each time I went AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) just so they would bust me back to private first class,” he said. “I could have become a corporal just by changing my ways. I did not want corporal because it would mean I would have to be associated closer with officers. Officers looked down their noses at the enlisted. They felt they were so much better, so much more important. Nobody was more important than a Morton, or at least that’s how I thought of it in those days.”
Once he was undergoing a summary court-martial (“I had three of those,” he said) and one of the officers participating gave him that derisive look and asked him, “Do you realize I could give you a dishonorable discharge?”
“I broke from standing at attention, put my nose almost against his, and said, ‘Would you please, sir?’ He sentenced me to walking around the orderly room tent with my rifle for four hours a night for seven nights. One of my buddies brought me a canteen filled with whiskey and I drank it as I walked.”
What was the crime he committed that caused him to be punished and docked 37 days without pay? He wouldn’t say.
“Just write in your story,” he said, “that he did something so bad that he wouldn’t tell me what it was.”
Once, in the north of Africa, Morton’s outfit had set up camp near a grove of olive trees, and a flock of sheep crowded them close and would not leave. The company colonel did not like sheep. He sent several different men out to try to run them away from camp, but they couldn’t be budged. The last one to try it was a sergeant, and, much to the colonel’s disappointment, he did no good at moving them either.
Morton, leaning back against an olive tree, was watching all this with amusement.
When growing up on his father’s small place near South Shore, it was his job to take care of the cows — see that they were pastured, watered.
“Those cattle meant a livelihood. It was important to take care of them, protect them from any harm,” Morton said. “The little boy who was sheepherder over this flock I knew had to feel the same way about his sheep. That was the key to getting rid of the sheep.
“I got up, sauntered over, and kicked an old ewe — who looked like she was about to have a young one — in the side, hard. The little sheepherder jumped up, whistled to his dog, and in a minute those sheep were leaving the area like a stream of flowing water.
“The old colonel, surprised and pleased to get rid of them, asked the sergeant, ‘Who is that man? Who is that man?’ I heard the sergeant telling him, ‘That’s Morton. He hates officers. He’s done this just to belittle me.’ And he was right, too.”
Like many good Kentuckians, Morton was known to drink a little during his war years. Once, after they broke out of Anzio Beach and pushed the Germans out of Rome, he headed straight for a bar in one of Rome’s fine hotels and drank enough cognac that he wound up spending the night on the shag carpet.
“They sent a Jeep for me the next morning. I crawled in and said, ‘Take me home.’”
Morton said although he prayed when he was in a foxhole, he did not “bother the Lord” on other occasions.
“If He’s God, and He is, you can’t sell him a deal when you’re fixin’ to leave this world. He knows how you think, he knows your heart.”
It was some time after he returned home from the war that he became a “blood-washed, born-again Christian.” He was never ordained, but pastored a church in the South Shore area for eight years and filled in for preachers in various pulpits.
He said he saw evidence that, even though he didn’t recognize God as his Savior during the war, God “and the Holy Spirit” were watching over him.
Once, in the compound, he was getting ready to dig into a thick, juicy steak (quartermasters didn’t always have to rely on K rations) when an inner voice seemed to say, “Go ahead. Eat that steak. Enjoy it, because if you eat it it’s going to be your last meal.”
He said he cut the steak into bite-size pieces, laid his fork and knife on the plate, then set the whole mess down on the fender of a truck he had been leaning against, and walked away. A few minutes later a German artillery round hit on that very spot, blowing his meal and most of the truck into smithereens.
Another time he said he was getting ready to climb into a truck beside the driver to go up and check on the supply needs of a new area. “A corporal asked me if I would mind to take the next truck, since he had a soldier standing by who needed to join his buddy, because he had the other half of the tent they would share. I said sure, I didn’t mind.”
He learned later that the truck he would have been riding in was hit by a German 88. It came through the windshield, killing instantly both the driver and the soldier who had taken Morton’s place.
Morton’s wife, Sally, who came into the living room to listen to her husband being interviewed about his war experiences, broke into the conversation.
“Yes, he made it through that terrible war without a scratch,” she said, “and it was all because he had a Christian mother at home who was praying for him every day and every night.”
“Amen,” Morton said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.