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Veteran-turned-author was paratrooper in war

Merle McMorrow1 / 2
Bob Lind, Neighbors columnist2 / 2

Seventy-six years ago Dec. 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killing many Americans and sinking or badly damaging many American ships.

One of those who helped repair those ships was a young guy from Breckenridge, Minn. That would be the first but far from the last task he'd perform in serving his country.

Merle McMorrow was born in Hankinson, N.D., in 1923. When he was 2, his family moved to Breckenridge, where he graduated from high school in 1941.

When Pearl Harbor hit, Merle tried to enlist, but he was 18 and the services were only taking older men at the time. So he was given sheet metal training and sent to Bremerton, Wash., to help repair those Pearl Harbor ships.

But in March 1943 he enlisted in the Army paratroops, took 16 weeks of rigorous basic training and then went to jump school in Fort Benning, Ga. Then he was sent to Italy to be one of the replacement troops for the many losses at the battle of Anzio.

For Merle, the shooting war began in August 1944 when his unit was called on to parachute into southern France. Its mission was to prevent Axis forces from bringing reinforcements in to oppose the Allied forces hitting the southern France beaches by landing craft.

Merle writes Neighbors that this was his first jump into enemy territory. He'd practiced jumping at 1,200 feet, but now he was jumping at 800 feet with the enemy shooting at him.

"You wanted to get down to the ground as soon as possible, because you would be getting shot at as you came," he says.

The landing zone was located in wine country, filled with steel stakes and wires and was terraced, which meant a trooper could suffer an injury such as a broken leg if he landed unevenly.

Merle made his jump at 4:30 a.m. He got down safely. And he and his unit successfully did their job.

The unit's mission was completed by the end of November and was deactivated. Merle then was transferred to the 463rd Field Artillery Battalion and shipped to northern France.

"We believed we were to spend the winter there," he says. "It was thought the war might be over by Christmas. Then on Dec. 16 the Germans launched an attack through the Ardennes area which, because of their penetration, became known as the Battle of the Bulge."

Merle's unit was shipped into Belgium to help stem the attack there. He wound up in the Bastogne area, where he'd remain in the fight until January 1945.

The fighting was bad enough, but it was bitterly cold, too. Merle says he could handle that, since he grew up in Minnesota. "But those guys from the south really suffered," he says. "They didn't know enough to take their boots off and dry their socks over the fire. There was a lot of trench foot and frostbite."

One of his duties was to lie in a foxhole and give the sight settings for the guns behind him.

Then came January and Merle, mercifully unharmed, went with his unit to the Alsace area of France, then to Mourmelon, where General Dwight Eisenhower presented Merle's division with the presidential unit citation for its outstanding performance. Merle was then transferred to Dusseldorf, Germany, where some 300,000 German troops surrendered after the city was captured.

Merle's experiences in Europe were many and often grim. But finally the war ended in May and after doing guard duty in Berlin, he was sent to the U.S. in December 1945. And on Christmas Day, he came home to Breckenridge.

Honors, books

On June 12, 1946, Merle married his high school girlfriend Kathryn. He earned an engineering degree from the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University), and worked for the North Dakota Bureau of Reclamation in Bismarck until he retired in 1980 and moved to Fargo.

Kathryn died in 1996. In 2001, Merle married Margaret Chapman, a good friend of his first wife. He has two sons, Tom, Wayzata, Minn., and Mark, Fargo.

In 2013, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., awarded the prestigious French Legion of Honor medal to Merle for his wartime efforts.

Merle has written two books titled "From Breckenridge to Bastogne" and "From Rome to Berlin via Bastogne,"

He's now 95. But the memories of his World War II experiences live on in the books and certainly in the mind of this paratrooper out of Hankinson and Breckenridge whose first area of service was repairing ships from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 241-5487 or email blind@forumcomm.com.

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