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Bob Lind column: Neighbors: WWII vet doesn't sweat airport delay

The recent trip back to Fargo from their Alaskan vacation was going fine for Merle McMorrow and his wife Margaret until they arrived at the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The recent trip back to Fargo from their Alaskan vacation was going fine for Merle McMorrow and his wife Margaret until they arrived at the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia.

While they were there, a woman, dressed ominously in black, rushed through security without being checked.

The airport was shut down. All passengers already aboard planes had to disembark and go through security again.

Security personnel hunted high and low for the woman. But she had disappeared.

It was a scary time for people in the airport.

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But maybe not for Merle. He's seen worse.

He was a paratrooper during World War II.

Merle, now retired in Fargo, was the longtime editor of The Thunderbolt, the quarterly publication of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team Association.

Each issue of the Thunderbolt is filled with reminiscences of the men who fought with the 517th, known as the "Battling Buzzards."

And there was plenty of battling.

Merle was a member of the unit when it was formed in Tennessee in 1944 and sent to Italy.

It fought for several weeks north of Rome. Then it jumped into southern France in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 15 -- just over 59 years ago -- to cut German communication lines and to prevent German forces from moving to the southern coast of France to oppose Allied troops landing there by sea.

The 517th fought in the Maritimes Alps until the end of November. With the invasion of southern France going well, the unit's mission there was to keep German troops in northern Italy contained so they didn't move into France.

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So far so good. But now the 517th was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in northern France and Belgium and became caught in Hitler's last gasp effort, famed as the Battle of the Bulge.

Merle was among those surrounded by the Germans in Bastogne. But they held the Germans at bay until Gen. George Patton's 4th Armored Division broke through.

The 517th still had plenty of fight left in it, battling from Lorraine, France, to Neuss, Germany, on the Rhine River, where it arrived on Easter Sunday 1945.

It was fighting in Bavaria when the war ended May 7.

Merle was sent to Berlin for occupation duty until November, when he was sent home. He was discharged Dec. 21, 1945, and arrived home on Christmas morning ... undoubtedly as a wonderful Christmas gift for his family.

With all the fighting, Merle never was wounded, but he had a few close calls. The closest: An 88 mm shell landed within 10 feet of him. But it was a dud.

Merle was born in Hankinson, N.D., and grew up in Breckenridge, Minn., where his father worked for the Great Northern Railroad.

Merle played on Breckenridge's state champion basketball team in 1940. One of his teammates was Sid Cichy, then of Kent, Minn., who later became the coach of the championship football teams at Shanley High School, Fargo.

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After the war Merle married Kathryn Jonietz, attended North Dakota State University and joined the Bureau of Reclamation in Bismarck in 1949. He was involved in the design and construction of area projects including several dams and the power lines from Garrison Dam. He retired in 1980.

Kathryn died in 1996. Merle and Margaret Chapman were married in 2001.

He was president of the 517th members' association as well as the Thunderbolt's editor. The publication went to 1,400 people, many of them sons and daughters of the original team members which at full strength numbered 2,500.

Now Merle has turned over the editing of the paper to a man in Bradenton, Fla. This is allowing him to take part in more retirement activities, such as taking that trip to Alaska.

And sweating out the hunt for the Woman in Black in the Vancouver airport.

The airport was shut down for six hours while the hunt for woman continued.

Finally, she was found. And she had a pistol.

Only it was a toy.

Guaranteed, the guns the men of the 517th faced in Europe weren't toys.

To learn more about the 517th, check its Web site: www.517prct.org

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail rlind@forumcomm.com

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