Photograph leads to unlikely reunion in Barrington
Years ago, Skip Learned’s son returned home from elementary school one day with three photographs: a picture of a B24 bomber, another with some soldiers standing on an island, and a third of a World War II submarine.
Mr. Learned remembers pausing to study the photo of the submarine.
He then asked his son — who was then a third-grader — where he found the pictures. “It was Mr. Morrison. He came to our class to talk today. He was on a plane and got shot down and got rescued by a sub,” Mr. Learned said, recalling his son’s response.
Mr. Learned looked closer at the submarine and saw its name: Mingo. A flutter rose in his stomach as his mind raced back to stories he had heard of his father who had served on a sub during World War II.
Skip had never known his father — Millard Learned died when Skip was a baby — but he knew his mother had kept letters from him ... letters with the name of the submarine on the stationary. Skip checked the letters and read at the top: Mingo.
The coincidence was too much to ignore, so he searched the phone book for the name Morrison, and found a listing in town. He called the number... “I said I’d like to talk to him. He told me the whole story,” Mr. Learned said.
Unbelievably, Skip Learned’s dad had been on board the Mingo the day nearly 70 years ago when the submarine surfaced off the coast of a Japanese-occupied Indonesian island and rescued Stew Morrison... the same Stew Morrison who now lives less than three miles from Skip, in an unassuming home in the Alfred Drown neighborhood.
“What are the odds?” Mr. Learned said, during an earlier interview.
Mr. Learned, who works as the director of facilities for the Barrington School Department, always wanted to know more about his father’s military service, and was able to gather a bit of information when he sat down with Stew Morrison a few years back. Mr. Morrison was glad to share his story.
This is what happened:
In Oct. 1944, a 21-year-old Mr. Morrison found himself stranded on a spit of land, stuck in his parachute harness and hanging from a tree. On the ground below lay a tremendous creature, and off in the distance passed Japanese patrol boats.
On his first mission as a nose-gunner in a B-24 bomber, Mr. Morrison’s airplane — Bit-Ur-Quitchen — had taken heavy fire and lost use of one of its engines. Mr. Morrison can still recall the tiny space in which he sat in the plane, and how he had to crawl back past the pilot and co-pilot through a hatch to the center section of the plane.
When the pilot told him to clear out of his gunner seat, he knew bad news was going to follow.
"There was no way in hell we were going to get back,” he said.
The Bit-Ur-Quitchen had flown from Numfoor loaded past capacity with heavy bombs. The US crew dropped the shells on the Japanese oil fields at Balikpapan and was on its way back to Numfoor when Japanese Zeros swooped out of the sky and blitzed the bomber. Mr. Morrison and his crewmates did their best to repel the attack, but the speedy enemy planes riddled the B-24’s engine and left the plane slowed and vulnerable.
Mr. Morrison remembers crawling toward the exit hatch and preparing himself for the jump. He also remembers his friend, navigator Dan Berklecka, as the two prepared to jump. Mr. Morrison, who had the nickname “Morry,” said he told Dan he would jump first, and did so.
Dan followed just seconds later, but the difference in wind currents pulled Mr. Morrison’s friend out over the sea. Not a strong swimmer, Dan was never heard from or seen again, a fact that still haunts the 90-year-old Mr. Morrison.
A native of Nova Scotia, Canada, Mr. Morrison remembers how his head was snapped back hard as his chute opened, and can clearly recall getting hung up in a tree over a deserted section of jungle on the coast of the Makassar Strait.
Before cutting himself out of the harness, Mr. Morrison said he needed to scare off the animal that sunbathed on the ground below. He used a small firecracker of sorts, snapping it hard to make a “pop,” which startled the beast — in past years he said the animal was a huge wild board, but more recently remembers it having a yellow coat, like a leopard. He freed himself from the parachute lines and climbed down the tree to the jungle below.
Eventually Mr. Morrison met up with his crewmates — half had landed in a section of jungle just south of the equator, while the other half landed north. They gathered along the coast and for two days waited to be rescued. Mr. Morrison said they knew the US had ships in the area, but also saw a few Japanese patrol boats. The airman would duck behind the thick foliage when the Japanese boats came near.
When the coast was clear, the airman used mirrors, flashing them against the sun in an effort to attract an allied craft. Eventually, a US plane spotted the stranded soldiers, and not knowing that if they were Americans or Japanese, tried to bomb them. The shells missed, barely, and a short while later the Mingo saw Mr. Morrison and his crewmates.
Aboard the Mingo was a submariner by the name of Millard Learned, a young man originally from New York and then later Abbington, Mass., who would one day have a son. He named his son Millard, also, but most folks came to know him as Skip.
While Mr. Morrison said he could not recall many of the sub officers, he was more than willing to share the details of his rescue. He even remembered the sub as being a “very nice ship.”
Skip Learned said he has spoken with another Navy man who said Skip’s father served on every mission for the Mingo, confirming the fact that Millard was aboard the sub the day Mr. Morrison was rescued. A few years after the war, 36-year-old Millard Learned died after a pancreas infection.
“My dad died when I was one,” Skip said. “He was a career Navy man ... I never really knew him. ... Then my son, who never brought anything home from school, comes home one day with a picture of the Mingo. ... What are the odds?”
Mr. Morrison said he was happy to share his tale with Mr. Learned.
After being rescued, Mr. Morrison went on to complete 37 more missions during World War II.