An interview with Chief Master Sergeant Doug Morrell. Morrell, 96, fought in three wars and several conflicts as a combat camera videographer. video // Andrew Arthur Breese
After fighting in three wars and several conflicts as a combat camera videographer, retired Chief Master Sgt. Doug Morrell has been living the dream since he has fully retired from the Air Force and from a second career as a federally employed civilian with 15 years of service.
At 96 years old, he’s had a long time to develop stories and tales. From his 32 combat missions to the time he called in his own close air support and medical rescue after being shot down — the man is filled with nearly as many stories as he has told from behind the camera.
More than one of his stories include abandoning his equipment and unexpected free falls.
“You’d be surprised at how many cameras are in a plane crash,” he said. “Back then, cameras were big and got in the way. No way was I worried about taking that with me when my plane caught on fire.”
When contemplating recreational skydiving, many have said, “Why would I jump out of a perfectly good plane?” Morrell said he would feel the same way, had his planes not been on fire.
“I’ve had dreams of me bailing out,” said Morrell, who jumped out of planes three times over the span of World War II and the Vietnam War when his aircraft caught fire after being hit.
In addition to earning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star, Morrell earned a nickname.
“They call me The Legend,” he said. “I went from the beginning of the Air Force all the way through World War II. I was in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada … I’ve been through so many near disasters around the world.”
During one such near disaster he and a crewmember were shot down over Romania during WWII and had to evade capture for 25 days as they walked across Yugoslavia and northern Albania to the Adriatic Sea. They finally used a .45-caliber pistol and $100 in gold certificates to bribe a fisherman with to take them back to Italy.
The second time Morrell was shot down during WWII, a different surprise was waiting for him as he floated down to Earth — a not so warm welcome by a German major, who took him as a prisoner of war.
“I went in at 165 to 170 pounds and came out at 97 pounds,” Morrell said. “It’s a very good diet.”
One day, Morrell nearly escaped through a trap door in the mess hall ceiling. He sneaked through the trap door after the last person left the mess hall that night and walked out the next morning. He walked halfway through the city before a German army truck picked him up. Morrell told the German soldiers he was an Italian pilot who’d been shot down and was trying to make it back to Bulgaria. The lie worked until the truck reached the post near the Danube River.
“When we got to the post near the Danube, there was a kid there who spoke Italian, and I couldn’t understand him,” he said. “He told the Germans I wasn’t an Italian, and they took me back.”
Morrell and his fellow POWs were liberated on Aug. 23, 1944, when the Romanians recapitulated. Romanians gave him U.S. money, so he spent several days on the town in Bucharest. When the Soviet army arrived a couple of days after the POWs were freed, Russian soldiers greeted the American POWs warmly, he recalled.
“They were on every corner with a sub-machine gun,” he said. “They’d tear the Romanians apart, but they found out I was an ‘Americanski.’ They went in and just broke the hell out of casks of vodka. They got me in there, said, ‘We drink,’ and poured glasses of vodka. They’d toast, ‘Stalin. Roosevelt. Churchill.’
“Finally, I’m getting ready to go out and get something to eat, and here come a couple of more Russians. They’d say, ‘Americanski prisoner.’ Out comes the vodka again. I’ve never been that blasted in my life.”
Those two stories alone earned The Legend his nickname, but it was cemented more than 20 years later.
Morrell had left the Air Force for a handful of years after WWII, and returned in 1952 for the Korean War.
In 1968, he was in charge of a photo flight at Korat, Thailand, in support of the Vietnam War. That’s when he had to bail out of his third damaged airplane.
Morrell was documenting a sensor drop over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos when his O-2 Skymaster was hit by anti-aircraft fire that knocked off half of the left wing and set it on fire. Morrell bailed out with the pilot at 5,000 feet, and they faced anti-aircraft fire as they descended into the jungle. He landed in the middle of a truck servicing and parking complex that was guarded by six anti-aircraft guns. Morrell called in the rescue team with his survival radio and gave the positions of the Viet Cong guns. He was rescued by a Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter nearly nine hours after he parachuted into the jungle, but his pilot was captured and held as a POW in Hanoi for four years.
While Morrell no longer faces being shot down or held prisoner, retired life is anything but boring.
“Life is an adventure. I’m 96 years old, and I don’t worry about anything,” he said.
Morrell may be older than the Air Force itself, but his gears still turn just as they did some 60-plus years ago. Most stories have endings, but legends do not, and Morrell has forever secured his spot in history.