CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
WWII / Korea / Cold War
Raymond B. Morgan
World War II / Korea / Cold War Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, 3rd Marine Division
Date: August 16, 2013
Interviewer: Carol Fowler and Vincent Gonzalez
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Veterans History Project
Raymond B. Morgan was born on August 1922 in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1941, the effects of the Great Depression still lingered; and, for a fresh high school graduate like him, there were “no jobs to be had.” At least it was so in the civilian sector; military service, in contrast, offered stable employment. Thus, he enlisted, expecting to serve several years. At the recruitment building, Morgan chose the Marines for a straightforward reason: “The Navy was on the eleventh floor, and the Marine Corps was on the first floor!”
Morgan also had a cousin in the Marines. At the outbreak of war, he had been captured by the Japanese in Tientsin (Tianjin), China. Though made to do forced labor in Japanese mines, the cousin did survive the conflict. While in captivity, he helped a fellow marine with food rations; and, after the war, that man repaid him with a job at his father’s business!
Enlisting in July 1941, Morgan first traveled to the Marine Corps recruit center in San Diego. “Of course, everybody at that age was a little homesick,” he noted, “but the Marine Corps doesn’t permit that!” Morgan enjoyed meeting recruits from across the country (an exciting opportunity considering the economic inability of most Americans to travel at the time). Service itself, he explained, “was like an everyday job. You trained early in the morning ‘till late at night. Then you were free to go on liberty, if you had the money.”
Morgan was at Camp Elliot (near San Diego) when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. (He had heard of Pearl Harbor; but, like most Americans, he did not know its location.) Alongside the few personnel on Sunday duty, Morgan was sent “into the field.” Perhaps, the troops were marshalled to counter Japanese landings… but they had no ammunition! “No one knew what was going on,” he said.
For the next few days, Morgan loaded .30 and .50 caliber machine gun belts and test-fired the base’s small arms (some of which had been stockpiled for years and had to be replaced or repaired). Afterwards, he hiked with his unit, the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, to nearby Camp Pendleton for mobilization. Meanwhile, daily news reports told of marines being overrun in China, the Philippines, Guam, and other places across the Pacific.
In May and June, the unit conducted amphibious training at La Jolla, north of San Diego. The troops gathered at their debarkation station to crawl down nets into landing craft. There was a sense of urgency, but no strict time limit. The men stepped on the vertical ropes, and grasped the horizontal ones, so as to not tread on each other’s hands. To eliminate the choking hazard for those who fell overboard, they did not buckle their helmet straps. Mortars and heavy weapons were lowered down with ropes.
Of course, the troops also trained for the landings themselves. Though modern landing craft featured dropping ramps, troops had to disembark over the gunwale on some older boats. Morgan felt that the training made everyone “well qualified” for real assaults.
Morgan joined a mortar platoon, first as a gunner, then as a forward observer, and finally as a section leader. In the latter position, he led two mortar teams, with ten crewmembers and ten ammunition carriers between them. Promotion had been sped up considerably during hostilities; a private first class at the outbreak of war, in April 1942, Morgan became a corporal, a jump which took four to five years during peacetime.
After amphibious training, in September 1942, Morgan returned to Camp Pendleton for reassignment to the 3rd Marine Division. He then headed for New Zealand on a twelve-day voyage. His troopship, a former cruise liner, sailed briskly at 30 knots and did not travel in a convoy. New Zealand had been chosen for a training environment partly because of its climate, similar to that of embattled islands in the South Pacific that the men would subsequently visit.
The camp, housing 1,000 Marines, primarily served as a physical exercise center. The men lived in three-bunk wooden sheds and received one liberty day out of every eleven. There were only three showers, so Morgan would wake up extra early to gain access to the hot water. Every day consisted of training, except for a sixty-plus mile hike once a week. At the end of the hikes, the men were called into double time to push their limits.
After training, Morgan travelled to Efate in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Conditions on the troopship were cramped – the men waited hours in the chow line, and slept in beds three to four bunks high. There was little to do onboard, and soldiers passed the time by playing cards, reading, or simply resting. They remained below decks at all times.
In July 1943, Morgan arrived at Guadalcanal. Coming ashore via Higgins boat (LCVP), he passed the anchored American fleet: “As far as you could see was [sic] ships.” Though by now the Japanese had fully evacuated troops from Guadalcanal, they maintained aerial bombardment operations. Stray bombs targeted at Henderson Field there sometimes landed around the adjacent camp where Morgan stayed. One night, two Japanese planes were caught above the airfield by searchlights. A P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft shot both down, inducing cheers from personnel across the island.
Though Morgan’s unit suffered no casualties from the bombings, disease did claim lives. The jungle teemed with malaria-infested mosquitos, which made living conditions miserable. At night, men tucked their long-sleeved shirts into their trousers, spread vanilla oil on their hands and face, and wore black head nets. Large nets were also placed around their tents, and sentries would patrol and wake people up if their legs were touching the net. Though not universally effective, the proliferation of Atabrine medication reduced fatalities for those who caught malaria (though it would turn a man’s teeth yellow, making him appear to have jaundice!).
Morgan’s first direct combat service came during the Bougainville campaign. On November 1, 1943, he landed in the third wave of the amphibious assault on the island. The heavy surf overturned seventy approaching landing craft, but fortunately, for those who made it ashore, the beach itself did not extend far inland. As the troops landed, a strafing Japanese plane flew over the beach, with an American fighter chasing, and another Japanese fighter in tow. The American plane was damaged, supposedly by friendly ground fire, and crash-landed on the beach, fortunately out of the way of friendly infantry.
Morgan was attached to a rifle company as a mortar observer, and moved with its command post. Whenever a platoon needed fire support, he would travel to a position several hundred yards ahead of the frontline for observation. Morgan brought along a radioman or operator with an EE-8 telephone to communicate fire direction.
The experience on Bougainville was not enviable. “Bougainville was one of the worst places I have ever been in my life,” Morgan lamented. “It rained constantly… Guadalcanal was considered a paradise compared to Bougainville.” The water led to many soldiers, including him, suffering from an ulcer condition known as “jungle rot,” as well as bacterial conditions which turned one’s toes purple.
Even with the incessant precipitation, potable water “was a premium” on Bougainville. It was one of the three important supplies referred to by the acronym “WAR” – water, ammunition, rations. In the field, soldiers cut bamboo stalks with machetes, and then used them as straws to suck water out of notches in the rock.
On the Marine Corps birthday, hot chow was served on the beach. Unfortunately, attendees had to walk several miles with a sixty-pound cloverleaf (pack of three tubes) of ammunition, or a jug of water. Instead of participating, Morgan and two other soldiers found a 10-in-1 ration (meant for ten people!) and had a full meal.
Morgan noted that normal C-rations were “miserable,” consisting of stew, corned beef hash, and “something else.” Though a small heating pad was included, it proved insufficient for cooking, and the rations were eaten cold. The Marines also experimented with R-rations, which featured a sack of raisins, a D-bar (chocolate bar), and a small sack of rice. (There was rarely enough spare water for boiling rice, so it was usually thrown away.)
To gain an elevated position for observation, Morgan received special tree climbing equipment. One day, while perched among the branches, he began to feel profuse itching. Morgan was covered in red ants! “I jumped out of the tree. Of course, everybody thought I was shot!” He later found red welts all over his body.
In December, as the Allied offensive bogged down, the Marines were relieved by Army units. Before their withdrawal, they began to reinforce their foxholes into bunkers with wood and earth, though a severe earthquake delayed those operations. At the end of the year, Morgan returned to the staging area at Guadalcanal.
In 1944, plans called for Morgan’s unit to participate in an invasion of New Ireland, but this never materialized. Their next operation, an invasion of Guam in June 1944, was postponed due to heavy enemy submarine activity. Instead, they boarded an LST and served as a “floating reserve” during the Battle of Saipan.
One night, near the Caroline Islands, Morgan’s convoy was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The ship behind his was bombed and sunk; but, in turn, no enemy aircraft were downed. The next morning, six TBF Avenger torpedo bombers overflew the convoy. Despite flying low and slow and tilting their wings, they were mistaken as foe, and all six were unfortunately destroyed!
Morgan remained on the LST for 47 days before it had to return to the Marshall Islands for provisions. Afterwards, he sailed for the rescheduled invasion of Guam at the end of July. Morgan and the 3rd Marine Division were to land on the island’s west coast, near the Piti navy yard. Meanwhile, the 77th Infantry Division and the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landed to their south, across the Orote Peninsula.
On D-Day, all landing craft were slated to leave the “line of departure” simultaneously, so as to have a coordinated landing. However, just before launch, Morgan’s amphibious tractor (LVT) caught fire, forcing him to signal another tractor (by waving his hands) to pick up their troops.
Landing with the third wave, Morgan’s sector (on the division’s right flank) was not heavily shelled, as his unit “did not offer a big enough target.” Coral, which could could cut through exposed skin (though generally not boots) posed a hazard to disembarking infantry. On the first day, his battalion was to capture positions just off the beach, before wheeling right towards Cabras Island, a coastal islet. Due to confusion, they did not complete their objectives until the following day.
Morgan’s unit suffered one casualty while taking Cabras Island. A machine gunner unwittingly set his tripod atop a mine and perished in the resulting explosion. Morgan noted that, normally, engineers swept for mines using metal detectors, or sometimes, by crawling and stabbing the grass ahead of them with bayonets.
The 3rd Marine Division advanced inland, joining the southern forces after four days. The Japanese evacuated the island’s southern half, so the American offensive pushed north, until resistance collapsed. An enemy pocket, protected by dense jungle and caves, had been bypassed; after the main battle, American forces assaulted the isolated region, killing six hundred enemy soldiers.
Morgan described the enemy as “fanatics,” recalling several representative incidents on Guam. On the first night of the battle, he witnessed a Japanese soldier use his sword to commit Hara-kiri (ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword) in a cave. In another incident, an enemy soldier suddenly appeared and charged him. Morgan shot the man with his M1 carbine at point blank range; the body landed on the ground about three feet in front. A third event saw a Japanese officer rush a friendly machine gun nest with his sword. Despite having the use of one arm (the other having been bandaged from a previous wound) and taking multiple bullets, the man’s momentum carried him forward, until he fell just in front of the gun position. Seeing such scenes of utter zealotry desensitized Morgan to a degree. “To see a dead Japanese, a dead enemy, it didn’t faze you. But if you saw a wounded or dead Marine, you felt bad.”
In Morgan’s experience, camaraderie prevailed over interservice rivalries. Marines sometimes envied Navy sailors, who remained in the comfort of their ships rather than on the battlefield, but this feeling did not persist. Though Morgan infrequently served alongside the Army, they did have an important role in the Pacific. Sometimes, he explained, they invaded islands on their own, particularly in the South Pacific (post-Guadalcanal) and the Philippines. Other times, they fought alongside the Marines, or relieved them during battle (such as at Guam).
Marines did not enjoy proper rest and recovery periods, though during battles they periodically rotated through reserves for some respite. In addition, in between campaigns, they stayed at “rest areas” – staging bases such as Guadalcanal.
Receiving mail in the Pacific was difficult, especially for frontline infantry. Nothing could be expected during a battle. Some packages might be received during rest area stays, but even then, logistical challenges meant that, “by the time they got to you, there wasn’t much left.”
The Marines also faced salary difficulties. As Morgan detailed, they received no combat pay: “The Commandant said, all Marines are riflemen. If all Marines can’t get it, nobody gets it.” Sometimes, they also felt improperly compensated for noncombat duties. On Guadalcanal, each month, one battalion of Marines helped the Merchant Marine unload ships. Unfortunately, they received no extra salary for their toil! (Enlisting as a private, Morgan earned $21 per month; this increased to $92 when he was a platoon sergeant at the war’s end.)
Initial plans for early 1945 called for the 3rd Marine Division to invade an island in the East China Sea; but, the unit was ultimately redirected to bolster the invasion of Iwo Jima. The 3rd Marine Regiment, however, was kept in reserve, despite the insistence of General Graves Erskine, the division’s commander. 70,000 Marines were already landing and subject to enemy bombardment, and General Holland Smith (the overall assault force commander), seeking to minimize casualties, did not want to pack more troops into the combat zone.
With the other regiments, Morgan joined the Battle of Iwo Jima on the second day. A small incline rose off the beach. Though not steep, the thick volcanic ash made the ascent difficult; he described it as, “two steps forward, one step back.”
The climate on Iwo Jima was extremely hot, particularly in caves. Troops often laid blankets before sitting, to prevent burns from the sun-bathed sulphuric ground. It was so hot that a soldier could place his rations in the dirt, and in ten minutes they would explode!
The enemy commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, proved to be one of the most competent Japanese commanders of the war. Despite facing overwhelming forces, and with little air and naval support, he was able to inflict a favorable casualty ratio. Morgan noted that Kuribayashi, along with many other skilled Japanese commanders, had studied in the United States before the war.
To resist bombardment, Kuribayashi sheltered his forces in an expansive cave network. A live Japanese soldier above ground was a rare sight. Assaulting the caves required close assaults from infantry, often with flamethrowers or explosives. Sometimes, troops attached dynamite to the end of a long pole. The primer cord burnt very quickly, and thus had to be lit as the pole was thrown into a cave entrance. The resulting explosion would result in smoke billowing from several other nearby places – illustrating the extensiveness of the cave systems.
Despite the ferocious air and naval campaign, Japanese artillery still posed a serious threat to the American forces. One night, Morgan’s unit took shelter inside sulfur mines. The next day, the Japanese shelled that position; Morgan’s men were very fortunate to have left just before!
The enemy also turned their tanks into small bunkers, burying their hulls and leaving the well-armored turrets above ground. Each position connected to caves via the tank’s escape hatch, so that in case of bombardment, the crew could retreat to safety, returning to the vehicle after. These fortifications were a major frustration, often requiring close-range assaults to dispatch them.
Though Morgan did not take part in the fighting on Mount Suribachi, he travelled there afterwards. (Notably, he saw the flag on the mountaintop, captured in Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph, which had been raised on the fourth day of the battle.) Though only 554 feet high, the volcano’s slopes were quite steep.
On the mountainside sat many Japanese bunkers and cave entrances with commanding views over Iwo Jima. Morgan saw one bunker which had been ripped open by a direct hit from a 16-inch naval shell. The position featured an azimuth with firing ranges to plot accurate shelling across the island. The bunker itself was so large that an ammunition truck had been backed into it.
Thanks to the immense sacrifices of Morgan, the Marines, and other servicemembers in the Battle of Iwo Jima, the island’s crucial airbase became available as an emergency landing site for bombers returning from Japan, saving the lives of countless airmen. Within a week of the airfield’s capture, the first B-29 landed.
Morgan received a Presidential Unit Citation for his service in the battle. Afterwards, passing through a cemetery, he happened upon the grave of a man he had grown up with. Despite his search, Morgan never found out how his friend had become one of the 6,821 American fatalities of the battle.
Following the battle, Morgan returned to Guam. The island had changed much, having been “built-up” as a staging base. With sufficient combat points and time overseas, he soon rotated stateside.
When asked what he most remembered about his service in the Pacific, Morgan thoughtfully replied, “I remember just about everything. I could put my glasses down – an hour later I say, what did I do with my glasses? But, then, I remember just about everything I’ve ever done in the Marine Corps.”
Unfortunately, Morgan described his return home as “a big disappointment.” Arriving in San Diego with only the clothes on his back, he was prohibited from going on liberty, due to his lack of a new uniform. Finally receiving that, Morgan was placed on a troop train and sent to his hometown of St. Louis. After thirty days at home, he received orders to report to the Navy Annex in Arlington, Virginia.
When the war ended, Morgan shifted to the Naval Communications Annex at the Nebraska Avenue Complex in Washington DC. There, he worked with the press section. Morgan displayed a photo of him touring Annapolis on a surfaced submarine alongside other Navy reporters.
In 1947, through a friend who worked for Admiral Chester Nimitz, Morgan arranged to deploy to China. In Tsingtao (Qingdao) he attended a three-week aerial observation school. Though Morgan never served as an aerial observer, the experience proved noteworthy because of an incident. As his pilot landed a twin-engine SNB-1 Kansan trainer (Beechcraft Model 18) after a mission, a strong crosswind suddenly tipped the plane’s right wing into the ground. The pilot overcorrected, causing the plane to tumble upside down! Fortunately, Morgan was wearing his seatbelt and remained unhurt.
Afterwards, Morgan moved to Shanghai to help evacuate American and US-allied (especially British) nationals from the Chinese Civil War. US troops escorted the refugees along a trail to the Yangtze River, where a boat would shuttle them to a larger vessel. While there, for six months, Morgan lived on a ship in the city’s port. Leaving China in 1949, he returned to Camp Pendleton. A new weapons company was being formed, and Morgan became its first sergeant, the senior NCO.
Morgan did not intend to stay in the military long after World War II, but unforeseen circumstances altered his path. The war had not concluded when his enlistment expired, so he renewed it. At that point, Morgan resolved to stay in until he had ten years of service, in 1951. However, the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 meant that he would have to fight. Thus, Morgan received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant and took command of a platoon.
Morgan did not recall the names of many places he visited in Korea. He did remember seeing Seoul, the present-day capital of South Korea; Wonju, the site of three crucial UN defensive victories (and, as Morgan remembered, “where the beer was kept!”); and Panmunjom, where the war’s armistice was signed in 1953.
Walking was the most common form of transportation in Korea. The terrain, mostly hilly, was not as rough as it had been in World War II. The “main thing” Morgan remembered about Korea was the chilly climate. Initially, the troops were not prepared for cold-weather fighting, and “everybody had colds.” Eventually, better equipment was distributed.
Morgan remembered one incident where American forces occupied one hill, with the North Koreans coming over another, taller peak nearby. The Americans hid a .50 caliber machine gun and set its range to 1500 yards, the distance to the other hilltop. Whenever an enemy soldier appeared, they used the machine gun like a sniper rifle; it was accurate enough to require just one bullet to fell a man.
Returning to the United States after a year in Korea, Morgan served as an assistant base inspector for two years at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He then became the aide of the base’s new commander, General Homer Litzenberg. While there, Morgan remembered hearing about the tragedy of the Ribbon Creek incident of 1956, where a junior drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina marched his unit into a swamp, resulting in six recruits drowning.
In 1959, Morgan deployed to St. Nazaire, France to work in cryptology. His new job came with top-secret clearance: “It was so hushed up, we didn’t even know what it was.” If a conflict broke out in Europe, he was to head to Spain and help with the evacuation. In short, Morgan laughed, his job was to “wait for something to happen.”
While in Europe, Morgan visited Spain, Portugal, and Germany (where he saw the Berlin Wall). It was in St. Nazaire that he married his wife, a military nurse. (Previously, he had joked, “[The] Marine Corps says, if you wanted to marry, they’ll issue you a wife!”)
Morgan retired in 1962 as a captain. “I had enough time in,” he explained. “I wanted to get out before I was too old to find a job.”
Morgan used his GI benefits to attend school for several years. Originally, while in France, he studied European history. “That was the biggest mistake I ever made,” Morgan said, “because everything was dates,” [which he could not remember!]. After returning to the US, he studied business, and later became an office manager of a beer company. Unfortunately, the owner had a heart attack, and the business was sold, forcing Morgan out of a job. Thus, he shifted to the sales industry.
Morgan’s son served in the Navy and was stationed on Wake Island, but returned to the US after an injury. He worked for AT&T and was on the 56th floor of one of the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks. Morgan and his wife, watching the events unfold at a bowling alley, worried for his safety. Fortunately, a Good Samaritan called them with news that their son was safe. Morgan’s son did, however, develop respiratory problems from smoke inhalation; Morgan wished he would apply for medical benefits.
Morgan did not have much to say on his officer leadership in the service: “Some good, some average, some exceptional.” He did, however, speak more about presidents. Morgan liked Truman, a fellow Missourian, for his leadership during two wars and his honorable attitude: “the buck stops here.” He also liked John F. Kennedy. His least favorite president was Ronald Reagan, who “took away all our [veterans’] benefits.”
Morgan described his feelings in war: “You were frightened most of the time. You couldn’t wait for it to be over.” Nevertheless, he did have a general “positive feeling” about making it through, perhaps because of his good luck (which, he claimed, followed him all through life). Morgan also emphasized the importance of teamwork; backing up your fellow soldiers was “the first thing they teach you in boot camp.”
Morgan visited schools to talk about his service, but did not join the VFW. He attended some Marine Corps League meetings, but did not feel the organization was for him. “Every one I ever attended, all they did was complain. At this stage in my life, I don’t need that.”
Though proud of his military career, Morgan remained humble. When asked how he looked back on his service, he simply responded, “Somebody had to do it.”
A resident of Neptune, New Jersey in his later years, Morgan enjoyed bowling, golf, and frequenting the InfoAge Science and History Center museum in nearby Wall Township. On October 10, 2018, he passed away at age 96. Raymond Morgan was survived by his wife, Ann; and his children, Raymond, Sandra, Pamela, and JoAnn; as well as eight grandchildren and one great-grandson.