The 94-year-old Portsmouth High School graduate was a commercial pilot for Braniff International when the United States entered the war in December 1941.
The U.S. Army Air Corps needed experienced pilots to fly special missions and asked the airline companies to make some of theirs available.
Morton went in the Air Corps in 1942, and one of his first duties came in the China-Burma-India Theater. Morton said he was the first pilot to fly The Hump, the airlift route from India to China that went over the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world.
When the occupying Japanese armies cut off China from outside contact during World War II, the Americans quickly established The Hump, an airlift over the mountains to keep Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces and the American Volunteer Group, known as the Flying Tigers, equipped with supplies.
Morton and his copilot and engineer flew the twin engine C-53 (military DC3) along the lower altitude, wide-ranging passes through the mountains to keep the Flying Tigers equipped with food and supplies.
But then circumstances changed. The Japanese had taken control of the route to Kunming, forcing The Hump route into use.
“There was only one way to go to get our supplies in, and that was straight across the top,” Morton said. “I just happened to be the first pilot who flew that route, because of the changing circumstances.”
Morton continued to fly the supply route. After several trips, they ran out of their oxygen supply in the plane.
“Flying at 22,000 feet, we turned blue in the face, looking like a bunch of zombies, not thinking very clearly, but luckily we made it home,” Morton said.
Every now and then some high-ranking official from the 10th Air Force Headquarters “would fly with me to see what was going on, and how the pilots were doing,” he said.
He said a “West Point colonel” who flew with him was amazed at how smooth his flight was compared to those with some of the other pilots.
“I told him that flying a commercial plane with 60 passengers behind me, I had to give a smooth ride or I would have been fired,” Morton said. “He asked me if I would like to start spending the nights in the same bed instead of living out of a suitcase. I told him I would love it. That’s how I came to be a test pilot.”
Morton was assigned to the job of Flight Test Engineering Officer, stationed at an air depot located near India’s world famous Taj Mahal.
Morton came into the Air Corps as a second lieutenant and was a lieutenant colonel when he was discharged in mid-1945. He was rated as a major when his new position as test pilot nearly cost him his life.
New planes came in by ship to the east coast of India and Morton and the other pilots would fly them to the base, checking things out thoroughly before turning them over to the fighter squadrons.
“It was fun. I was in charge of my own destiny. I flew everything,” Morton said. “I would read up on the technical manual for that particular plane, sitting in the cockpit and checking things out. I mean, you know, if a plane has wings, a prop, gas in the tank and a pilot, it will fly.”
One day a bunch of P-38 Lightning fighter planes came in by ship. The twin-engine long-range fighter had twin booms, a horizontal stabilizer connecting the tail of each, and central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament. The Lockheed Aircraft Co. built them throughout the war, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day.
German pilots called the P-38 a “fork-tailed devil” and Japanese pilots referred to it as “two planes, one pilot.”
“Somebody came running up to me and said, ‘Hey, major, if you can test flight one now, we can get them all out of here by one o’clock.’ I left my lunch, put my parachute on and took off with my check list,” Morton said. “I shall never forget that date. It was noon, Nov. 8, 1943.”
He was flying at 6,500 feet above sea level – 3,000 feet above India’s jungle terrain – when the P-38 suddenly shuddered and balked as though it had run into a brick wall.
“Next thing I know, I’m doing a horizontal snap roll, completely out of control, and I knew I was going to be dead in about 50 seconds.”
The World War II fighter planes had no automatic ejection system to get a pilot quickly out of a failing plane.
“I pulled the little red handle above my head and the canopy flew off. This distorted the airflow over the plane. It stopped snap rolling and went into a spin to the left, headed down. I climbed out onto the center section of the wing and let go.”
He struck the stabilizer between the tails of the plane with his right shoulder and back. He remained cognizant of what was going on. As he started to pull the ripcord, he noticed a lot of debris from the plane was flowing with him. If his chute opened then he would take all of that debris down with him and stand no possible chance of surviving the fall.
Morton called out four words: “Oh God, save me.”
He said he suddenly felt a presence of the Holy Spirit within him.
“A calm came over me. I knew I was in His hands, and I knew I was safe. I waited a few seconds, until I had cleared the debris, then pulled the ripcord with my left hand. The chute billowed out and I went floating down.”
He could have come down in a remote section of jungle, but he landed instead smack on top of a camp manned by Indian and British troops — landing almost on top of their flagpole. A British officer handed him a cup of hot tea.
“I learned later that my plane crashed and burned in the middle of nowhere. People from my base went to the scene and located my major’s emblem from my hat in the ashes. They assumed I had gone down with the plane. It was awhile before they discovered where I was.”
Morton had been taken to a British hospital in physical shock. As he was recovering, many visitors came by to see him, none of whom he knew, but some of them had witnessed what happened.
“They told me an RAF (Royal Air Force) “Hurricane” dove down behind me and pulled up, and in the process of pulling up he didn’t realize what my speed was and plowed into my horizontal stabilizer,” he said. “That’s how I came to understand that I had been involved in a mid-air collision.”
The British pilot crashed and died.
Morton spent six weeks recuperating and then returned to work. He spent about two years in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.
He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” award, among other recognitions.
In January 1944, he was transferred back to the States, finishing his military stint at Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, then returned to his job as a captain with Braniff.
He and his wife, Jean Marshall, both graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1932 when he was 16 and she was 17. He received his pilot’s license in 1933 at age 17. They were married Jan. 1, 1936. They had been married 59 years when pancreatic cancer took her life on Jan. 15, 1995.
They had moved to Lima, Peru in 1949, as Morton pioneered new flights for Braniff in South America. They lived in the Miami, Fla., area for more than 20 years. When he retired, they bought a place in upper New York State that had an airstrip, and he flew his own plane.
They moved back to Portsmouth in the early 1990s and lived in Hill View Retirement Center. He now lives in Candlewood Apartments in Wheelersburg.
Morton was a licensed commercial pilot for 75 years, until he decided to give it up this past August.
The World War II test pilot enjoys good health and leads an active lifestyle every day. He’s presently a member of the Scioto County Airport Authority.
He said it is only by God’s grace that he survived his airborne adventures and is able to enjoy his later years.
One of his favorite scriptures, relating to his current status, is Psalms 71:9:
“Cast me not off in the time of old age. Forsake me not when my strength faileth.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.