by Dennis Dalman
Professor, historian, raconteur, author and Sartell resident Bill Morgan has been intriguing and entertaining his listeners and readers for decades.
The name of one of his talks is Boy at Home: Civilian Life During World War II. Now 86, Morgan is considered by many to be a local treasure trove – a veritable repository of vivid historical/personal details that helps illuminate the present by shining light on it from the past.
So many historical events impinged – sometimes tragically – on the life of young Morgan and his family, events that included the American Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, who took office one month before Morgan was born and who served almost four terms in the White House, helping guide Americans through the dislocations and hunger caused by a bleak economy and the world war that followed.
“I was 12 when he (Roosevelt) died in office,” said Morgan. “My mother and I thought he was a king.”
Morgan and his wife, Judy, have lived in Sartell for 20 years. He grew up in Pipestone, in southwest Minnesota, and he has often said that two events defined his childhood. One was his father’s death at age 49 three months before he was born. The vice president of a Pipestone bank, William T. Morgan Sr. grew up on a farm near Pipestone. One day in 1932, while hunting, he cut himself on a barbed-wire fence. The wound, untreated, led to his death of spinal meningitis in January 1933. Morgan to this day believes a contributing factor to his father’s death was his deep concern and worries about bank closings that were happening all across the Midwest in those years of financial collapses. His father got up from his sick bed and made his way to the bank where he examined books, causing an emotional toll that weakened him along with the illness.
The Civil War also affected the family. Morgan’s mother’s father, Warrington Brown, at age 19, joined a Wisconsin regiment and marched off to war. A week before the war’s end, he was shot in the head while storming a site in the Petersburg battle trenches. A surgeon removed the metal ball and placed a silver plate on the bottom of the hole. Then he was told by the doctor “he would lose his mind by the time he was 40.” He didn’t. Back home, after he moved to Pipestone, he farmed and opened a John Deere dealership. Later he built a Victorian-style house with a wraparound porch with stylish gingerbread trimmings.
“Some of my most cherished memories were forged within the walls of that wonderful house,” Morgan said. “The house I grew up in stood next door . . . Mother and I lived there alone until I left for college in 1951.”
At his recent talk at the Sartell Senior Center, Morgan regaled his audience with a nostalgic account – well seasoned with humor – of his time as a hometown “plane spotter” with his mother during World War II.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed American ships, killing many American servicemen at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That attack precipitated America’s entry into World War II, and it also started a plane-spotting program, among other hometown war efforts, in cities across the nation.
Citizens volunteered as air-raid wardens and plane spotters, which involved the ability to detect enemy planes. The volunteers also canvassed neighborhoods to check if all residents, during mandated blackout periods, had shut their window curtains at night so enemy planes, if they should arrive, would not have easy targets to bomb.
“As an air-raid warden,” Morgan told the Sartell audience, “my mother was given the rank of lieutenant and her sister, Anne, a sergeant. Proudly, I walked beside mother, who let me wear her warden’s white hat and carry a flashlight and whistle.”
Plane spotters were expected to keep a keen eye out for foreign planes in the sky over Pipestone and report anything amiss to the U.S. air base in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D.
“For some reason,” Morgan recalled, “it didn’t seem ludicrous to think the Germans or the Japanese might actually bomb Pipestone or Sioux Falls.”
In fact, there was an airborne attack at Pipestone, `Morgan said, quickly adding the plane was American, not foreign.
“On Aug. 10, 1944, I was standing in front of the Orpheum Theater when my plane spotter’s eyes observed a twin-tailed P-38 diving with a window-rattling roar, seemingly about to strafe main street.”
Hearing the commotion, people began running out of houses and businesses, peering skyward with alarm.
Only later did they learn what happened, as reported by the Pipestone County Star: “Residents of Pipestone watched with interest an army plane as it circled low over the city several times. Later it was learned that flight officer Roger Dibble, stationed in Coffeyville, Kansas, was the pilot.”
His passes over Pipestone were meant to be a friendly greeting because he was a hometown boy, having graduated from Pipestone High School in 1944, son of a Chevrolet dealer. Dibble later died some months after the war ended when a plane he was flying crashed in Germany.
The war effort duties of those long-gone days included residents collecting every scrap they could find of metal, tin, rubber and other materials to build American ships, planes and tanks. In Pipestone, residents even gave up a cannon that had stood symbolic guard over the courthouse square for generations. They sold it at the scrap heap collection for $21.
“As citizens, we Americans relished those (war effort) duties,” Morgan recalled.
He continued: “I am so glad I was alive during World War II. It was a great time for civilians (and in many cases for service men and women) to be alive. The war ended the darkness of the Great Depression by putting 16 million people to work, laying the foundation for a booming economy following the war. It was a great time to be alive.”
Morgan drew laughter from his audience when he commented on his own age, 86. He quoted famed American jazz/pop composer-musician Eubie Blake, who once delivered this nugget of humor (and wisdom), “If I’d known I’d live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
For 22 years, Morgan taught American Studies at St. Cloud State University, and for another eight years he served as an adjunct professor before retiring. He has been a history columnist for the St. Cloud Times and is the author of several books of local history. He and wife Judy have been very active in the Sartell Senior Connection group and in the Sartell Historical Society.