Gary Morris

(Disclaimer: To the best of our knowledge, the information provided in this oral history interview is accurate. We do not make any representation or warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of the information.)

Oral Interview with Gary Morris

Conducted by Dan Hartman, Veterans’ Memorial Hall Program, St. Louis County Historical Society

Recording Date: August 4, 2010

Recording Place: Silver Bay Veterans’ Home

Transcriber: Susan Schwanekamp, St. Louis County Historical Society

Transcription process funded by a grant from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation

DH: We are now recording. I am going to ask you some really obvious questions that I know that you know. But I’m only asking them so that they go on…..So we’re conducting an oral interview today, August 4, 2010 with Gary Morris, who was a Vietnam veteran, correct?

GM: Yes.

DH: The interview is being conducted by Daniel Hartman from the St. Louis County Historical Society. So I’ll start this off with what year were you born, Gary?

GM: December 23, 1951.

DH: And what were your parents’ names?

GM: Raymond. Maggie.

DH: What was your mom’s maiden name?

GM: LaBarge.

DH: And where were you born?

GM: Hibbing.

DH: And did you grow up in Hibbing?

GM: Yes, I did.

DH: And how was it growing up in Hibbing? Was it kind of a fun place, or…?

GM: Yeah. Compared to the places I’ve been, it’s actually a dump.

DH: But what did you do for fun as a kid in Hibbing? Did you play baseball or play in the mines at all?

GM: Used to be an old locomotive that we used to play in all the time.

DH: What part of town was that in?

GM: Across the tracks. West side.

DH: Now when you were growing up in the 1960s, how was it? Do you remember….?

GM: There was a big strike back then. US Steel. Things were tough.

DH: And what do you remember about the strike?

GM: Well, we was without things, a lot of times.

DH: Was your dad working for US Steel?

GM: Yeah.

DH: What did he do for US Steel?

GM: Locomotive engineer.

DH: How long did the strike last?

GM: I think it was seven years it lasted.

DH: A seven year strike? Wow. And what did your dad do during the strike?

GM: He worked at the sign company, painting. Basically contract labor.

DH: And what did – what was the cause of the strike – do you remember what they were fighting for?

GM: Pay raises, usually. And vacation time. And safety.

DH: And was it resolved, or…what was the…?

GM: I remember my Dad coming down to Duluth, to keep his rights, so he didn’t lose ‘em. Worked down here at the mills. I’m not quite sure if they were building ‘em, or what. He worked there and he used to come down dirtier than hell, complaining all the time.

DH: So, I imagine growing up during the strike, you probably didn’t want to work for US Steel, too much?

GM: I did one year up there at MINNTAC.

DH: How was that for you?

GM: A very and dirty job.

DH: Can you explain why it was so dirty?

GM: A lot of dust. Rocks and breaking them all the time. Break them up. Cleaning them. Railroad ties would come through, railroad spikes – sit there on a belt – the buzzer would go off and you’d have to go find it before a rock would tumble out and go down below, breaking it into pellets. I had to load cars down there, too. It was a very dusty job. A lot of high noise pitch all the time.

DH: Did your mom work, too, or was she at home?

GM: By that time, my mom and dad had divorced.

DH: And so you graduated from Hibbing High School, I would imagine?

GM: Yeah, by the skin of my teeth.

DH: And what year did you graduate?

GM: I believe it was ’70.

DH: And correct me if I’m wrong, but in 1971 was when you joined the military?

GM: Yes.

DH: And correct me if I’m wrong, but you joined as a Marine, correct?

GM: Yes.

DH: And may I ask what made you want to be a Marine, vs. the Navy or Air Force, or….”?

GM: When the judge says 3-5…I had to join the Marine Corps to get away. You still had the draft at that time. My draft status was F4. It means you had a felony. I was not a nice kid.

DH: You can talk about that if you want, but if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.

GM: I don’t want to bring that back up.

DH: OK. So you joined the Marines in 1971.

GM: Yep.

DH: And where did you go to boot camp at?

GM: San Diego.

DH: How was that?

GM: It was different country. Get used to crabs and sand fleas and all that sand. The base was right next to the airport, there. The Navy base. Across the other side. It was nothing like at home I had ever saw.

DH: Was it positive? Or was it just different, or…?

GM: It was totally different.

DH: Did you like it?

GM: When they brought up my F4 status they asked me if I wanted to get out of the Marine Corps and I said “yeah”. They ripped up my discharge in front of me. I just stayed. What else can you say?

DH: They actually ripped up your paper but you still stayed in?

GM: Yeah. So it was different. It was a challenge.

DH: What was the challenge about it? What was tough? All the training, or…?

GM: Yeah. It was different. Not being home getting your ass getting beat all the time. My dad was very mean.

DH: So the Marine Corps was actually nicer to you, then?

GM: Yeah.

DH: And what was some of the stuff that they had you do, for training?

GM: They had a place called Mt. Motherfucker. Climb that son of a bitch up there to the top of that hill and turn around back down, go back down with a back pack. Rappel, climbing up ropes, up a building, climbing over a building, or a ship, whatever, rappelling back down, see how fast you can get back down. Long runs. Marches. Knuckle pushups. There was always a challenge.

DH: Sounds like it. And how many guys made it through? Did most of the guys make it, or did a lot of the guys…?

GM: We dropped six people out of our platoon.

DH: And how long were you in San Diego?

GM: Nine weeks.

DH: And then where did they move you to from there?

GM: I was at Cherry Point, North Carolina.

DH: So from one end of the country to the next. I imagine that was a different place, as well.

GM: Yeah, it was a swamp.

DH: Why did they bring you out there?

GM: Had to go to some more school, for jet mechanic.

DH: And were you happy, possibly, to be a jet mechanic, or…

GM: Yeah.

DH: I imagine that was some pretty tough schooling to go through that, though.

GM: Oh, a lot of memorizing. It was fun. It was always a challenge to work on jets. Always a challenge to change a part. Or later on I worked – it was more fun teaching somebody else how to put the part back in.

DH: What kind of jets did you work on? Was it always an F4?

DH: I did Ns, Bs, Js, Ss, different models of them.

DH: Did you ever work on some of the older planes? The Corsair – any of that?

GM: No.

DH: I’ve been told that working on a jet is pretty complicated, pretty tough work. How much schooling did you have to go through to feel like you had an understanding of it?

GM: The first year I had it figured out. A lot easier than a car.

DH: A lot easier than a car?

GM: Mmhm.

DH: Explain how a jet would be easier than a car, I guess, for somebody who doesn’t know anything about jets.

GM: A car engine’s got a crank, valves to go up and down all the time. A jet engine takes fuel, all it needs to force or suck the air down there. The more it takes---faster you’re going to go.

DH: So the more air you can get in, the faster the plane’s going to go.
GM: Yep. I went to Top Gun quite a few times. I learned a trick on how to turn the guides inside of those motors to get more air down there. You could burn up those motors, though.

DH: What were some of the motors that you worked on?

GM: J79.

DH: You remember it pretty well. And how many years did you work on the J79s?

GM: 10.

DH: And where did you go from North Carolina – where were you mostly working on these jets at?

GM: Out there on the flight line. North Carolina was a training base, basically.

DH: OK. And where did you go from the training base?

GM: Japan.

DH: And about what year was this?

GM: ’74.

DH: And did you have any off time in Japan, or was it straight work all the time?

GM: You get your weekends off.

DH: What do you think of Japan? Was it a fun place, or…?

GM: Very expensive. It’s a beautiful country, though.

DH: What was beautiful about it?

GM: The old castles. The people were nice. You would set there and listen to them, communicate with them, they were nice people. You couldn’t communicate, you are shit out of luck. They had signs that said “No Americans allowed” – a lot of places I did go into. I didn’t act like an American there.

DH: What were the “No Americans” signs for? Just the ….

GM: Americans are actually assholes, to tell the truth. They be laughing at people. But I don’t. I remember as a kid, people used to make fun of me, because I was Indian. Dark skinned. I said I’m not going to do it to other people.

DH: But Americans in Japan you thought were assholes, for sure?

GM: Umhm. You seen it on the golf courses over there. People teeing off, taking their time, people lined up behind ‘em. They just do it out of, resentment, I guess. The Japanese had to pay lots of money just to golf on that base. There was a restaurant on that golf course, there. They used to make fun of the Japanese people that were cooking. It wasn’t Japanese food – they were never good enough. Basic hamburgers. They were always making fun about that. It was too bloody. It wasn’t done right. They should go to horse and rice or somethin’.
DH: Do you think some of the Americans, just based off of – just coming out of WWII a little bit, or do you think too many years had passed since then? It’s been twenty---

GM: Too many years had been passed. I seen demonstrations up at the gate, though. People climbing up the fence. They had fire trucks inside there, water guns, they call it, shoot ‘em off the fences, knock ‘em over. The Japanese did that to their own people. They were demonstratin’. The AV-8 Harrier came over there, they went all the way around the base – they never seen a jet fly straight up and down, come down, protest about a week straight. It was unbelievable.

DH: The protested the Harrier? And why were they against, what was so bad about the Harrier? Just that it was loud, or…? Were they scared of it?

GM: Nuclear capable, too. They didn’t want nuclear capable aircraft.

DH: Did you ever work on the Harrier, at all?

GM: I think the Harrier was a piece of junk.

DH: Explain.

GM: I had to take the wings off just to get a motor out, looked at the space you are eating up in the hangar. You got a bad storm comin’ in (??), you got two engines out, there were spots where two airplanes could have been inside that hangar. They brought it from the Brits to make about a hundred of them. First year they crashed a hundred Harriers.

DH: Wow.

GM: They came over in boxes and you put them together like a model car. You buy a plastic model car that comes in a box, that’s how the jets came over, like that.

DH: So, why did we want the Harriers? What was their strategic purpose?

GM: Close range support.

DH: Did they work at that, at all, in your opinion, or were they not worthwhile even at doing that?

GM: The Falkland Islands proved them finally. (Some talking here about using the same sights for rockets and guns to clear out an area.) No problem. The Falkland Islands proved it to me – it is a worthwhile airplane. The Brits had it for a longer time. And they knew how to operate it better than we did.

DH: So they kind of sold us their junk and got some new stuff.

GM: Theirs is called a jump jet. It’s like a ski slope that comes up, they get them off their ships that way. You get a lot better lift.

DH: So you seem to know a lot about jets, then.

GM: I know quite a bit about airplanes. I guess I know that much.

DH: So what was one of your favorite jets that you had to work on? Was it always the F4, or…?

GM: I think A4.

DH: What was good about the A4, vs. the rest?

GM: Small, single engine. Two men capable. You had one man, one student (trainer plane). Easy changing the motor on it. Easy to fix parts, to change parts out. A4 avionics is designed for nuclear capability – go over there, carry a bomb, turn around and get your ass out of there.

DH: I imagine you didn’t work around the nuclear side of the …?

GM: Nope. Just the jet mechanic part.

DH: And so how long were you in Japan?

GM: A year.

DH: And where did they move you on from there?

GM: They put me to El Toro), California.

DH: So back to California a little bit. Tell me a little bit about California this time. Now you’re not in training, now you’re the…..

GM: Aircraft line. I worked on almost every aircraft that came through. Props. T28s, anything you want to know. F86s. Saber Tooth Corsairs. Anything that came in, we had to handle. President Nixon was in then. We used to get the helicopters in all the time. We handled the Air Force One, too.

DH: So were those handled any differently than the other planes, or…?

GM: Wing span. You had to pay attention. You were turning them all the time. See a pilot – I made a mistake one time – had a C5 come in, wanted fuel. There’s one area you can park that C5 in, take the fuel, ___the jet,100,000 gallons going into the airplane, it’s gotta be in one spot, front tires. I parked the airplane, looked up, I said “Oh, shit!” I see the pilot up there, I said stop and he did. He got on the correct spot. The fuel was reached, I’m happy about that. It’s better than moving a house, it’s so damn assed big. And it’s a hundred thousand gallons of gas.
He flew to Vietnam, turned around and came back, without taking on fuel. He came back and off-loaded a bunch of people, cargo, they wanted to go back on there, get some more fuel. I parked him right on the right spot that time. I stayed back, watching, so he can see me.

DH: For someone who’s never seen one before, how big is it? How big is a C5?

GM: You see these trucks? They ain’t nothin’. See that building, have at the mines there, that big steel building? Imagine cutting a hunk out of these. That wing span you could say was about two city blocks. About three blocks block long. The nose opens up, the back opens up, drive right through like a football field. It’s huge. Two stories inside there. On top there’s 92 seats.

DH: How would……when you worked on the Air Force One helicopter, or plane, did you treat that differently? Was there a different security protocol for that? I mean…

GM: You had to have a badge on…a presidential support badge on, to get close to it. You touch it, you better have a right to wipe those fingerprints off. It was that bad. Everything spotless clean.

DH: It was definitely extra care for the….

GM: Yep.

DH: I imagine the repair crew and the mechanic crew had to be pretty…

GM: They’d bring in an Air Force person up for that.

DH: So you guys weren’t even allowed to work on it?

GM: No.

DH: So was there any plane that you worked on in particular that you thought was kind of neat, or…that you haven’t mentioned already, that you think would be kind of fun to talk about?

GM: The Marine Corps had a recon R4B. It was a good aircraft to me. Designed perfect for breaking the sound barrier. Its nose is tilted just a hair. When you broke the sound barrier, wind would go around it. You could see it, you know, the waves go by ‘em. You couldn’t see it visually but in my mind I can see it. Maneuverability is a big difference, too. Three inches, short wings are standard. When you pulled the wings you could see the difference between the original F4s. It took almost twenty years to get with the recon, I worked with them two years. They run misfits in the main corps.

DH: Why is that?

GM: The recon guy stole it, wherever he could get, for parts. Priority was always shitty for us (parts priority).

DH: Why? Just cause…?

GM: Peace time. Priority, to get the parts in. No matter what you had coming up, they’re going on a carrier, priority wouldn’t change for ‘em until you got on a carrier.

DH: And did you ever feel like, being part of the Marine Corps, the aviation department was treated differently than it would be in the Air Force?

GM: Yep. The Marine Corps got the junk.

DH: And are there example stories where you felt like the Air Force was treated differently?

GM: I used to have a parts locker at every base I went to. I had a room bigger than this one. Spare parts, ordered low priority, got ‘m back rebuilt. It was not legal to do it. Bypass the supply system. I was at Nellis Force Base in Los Vegas, there. And my lieutenant up to me and he said “Gary, you got a main fuel control?” I said “We do”. Then the Air Force says where they rebuilt at? I’m thinking “What the fuck?! You need the part, I’ve got one. It’s a metal can. It’s sealed, at the station where they built it. It was built at Ogden Air Force Base in Utah. He said “what do you want for it?” I said “We want your old one, in the can.” And he goes “What else do you want?” I said pay me for my time carrying that damn thing so I can re-order it again. It’ll cost you a case of beer for my boys. He went to buy a case of beer, too! (Laughter)

DH: I imagine there’s got to be some sort of rivalry between the two, between the different aviation units, as well.

GM: Yeah. They’ve got a lot of money, all the time.

DH: So, how long did you stay in California?

GM: About three years that time.

DH: OK. And where did you go after that?

GM: I went off the Marine Corps for a year. I was up there in Hibbing, working on mines again. It was 80 below. I said “What the fuck am I doing here, freezing my ass off, in the mines, wide open?” I went and seen my recruiter. My wife and I was getting ready to buy a house. I went home and hold her I was going back in the Marine Corps. She said “What about the house?” I said “What about it? It’ll still be there.” So I joined up and told ‘em I wanted California and they sent me back to California and I spent a year in a carrier there.

DH: Which carrier? You remember the…?

GM: Coral Sea (CV-43)

DH: And, uh, where’d you guys cruise?

GM: Up and down the coast, ended up going to Hawaii, went past Japan, down to the Philippines – we were there taking in supplies, getting repairs done, and we went to the Indian Ocean from there.

DH: And were you pretty happy to be back in the Marine Corps, now, or…?

GM: I would go back in, yeah. But I’m not in there now.

DH: Did you enjoy the sea voyage, on the Coral Sea?

GM: Hell, no! Hundred and three days at sea and you never see no land – not even a sea gull.

DH: So when you drove by Hawaii, you didn’t stop and hang out at all?

GM: e took on water and that was it.

DH: So 103 days at sea. I can see why that may not have been enjoyable. So what did you do on a carrier?

GM: Worked on planes and launched ‘em every day. Two hour shifts. Seven days a week.

DH: How was the food on the ship?

GM: Sucked.

DH: What did you eat?

GM: Fast food. I tried not to leave the top flight deck. I stayed up there with my airplane all the time.

DH: What type of planes were on the deck?

GM: We had 86s, which were refuelers and electronically advanced warning aircraft and helicopters up there. Rescue. We had 87s. We had one F8. That sucker was old. Old as since Moby Dick was a minnow.

DH: And, um, when you finally got off the sea, where did you go from there?

GM: We went back to California, finally got orders to Dallas, which was my best duty – sit there and teach Reserves.

DH: So you were teaching the Texas Reserve?

GM: Yep. They only worked one weekend a month. You try to teach ‘em, some of ‘em, everything they wanted to know about an airplane. By the time they come back to you, (they’ve forgot?). Next time it’s a challenge. Looking at your records, figuring out, where you was at, teachin’ ‘em. Try to teach ‘em some more about that area. Now they’re independent. Then you pack ‘em up, send ‘em to the war. Which is good…in the old days you never did that.

DH: And you sound like they weren’t learning enough?

GM: That’s right.

DH: I guess, just tell me a little bit about what you were trying to teach them. Just kind of the basics? Were they having a hard time with that, or…?

GM: Changing parts. Everything points to safety and time. It takes a lot of time teaching someone how to do the job. You gotta teach them the right way…it counts.

DH: And do you know why it took the military to figure that out, that they weren’t learning that way?

GM: They send them on a two week summer time boot camp, for the reserves. It would be a big fuck every time. They tore airplanes up, leaving early for some reason or another. Maybe you need a compass , getting ready to fly over the ocean. The compass had to be exactly right. Take them off of the runway into the ___. They come and got an old fucker like me and ask “How do you get it out of there?. Let me drink a six pack of beer, I’ll tell you how you how to get it out of there. That’s the truth, you come and get me out of a bar. They had a problem, they’d find me where I was at. You’re changing a part of the engine, the engine fell down. They didn’t have the bolt in.

DH: So I imagine that was kind of frustrating for you, at times, too.

GM: Yeah. Just like with kids, they grow up, you gotta teach ‘em. You gotta be patient. They’re grownups, too, came out with Mandies reserve working active people with Mandies. They’re sitting 30 days and we worked them. They got just as dirty as the rest of us got. I see we missed lunch.

DH: When did that happen?

GM: I think they started pushing it in ’84.

DH: At this point, you’d been teaching for a long time then?

GM: Umhm.

DH: So what else was your Marine experience –teaching role - it sounds like you enjoyed the teaching more than you enjoyed the other stuff. Why was that?

GM: Well, I had a woman one time. A woman Marine. Even though I was qualified to work on the engines. You gotta teach them constant. You always got a new person there, teach ‘em how to work there, _________underneath there _________one engine______he cranked that motor up _____80%. The big old planes went out, I put my hand on the back of a motor like that. This kid I was teaching I yelled but it wasn’t even burned, it’s cold. I brought my hand down and looked and that kid is running away. Teach ‘em. Do what I tell you to do. Not as I do. We were at high power. The afterburner kicks in. The ground’s rumbling underneath there. We’re checking this motor out. I’m looking at the plane there. Captain in front of me. I'm talking to him. I told him “#1 engine, I want 80 on it. He spun it up to 80%. I said “after burner”. He after burned it. So big old flames flying out. (Laughter)

DH: So it sounds like you definitely had some fun teaching, then.

GM: Yes.

DH: And any stories about your teaching, other than the one that you just said, to use as a kind of a good story to remember?

GM: I needed an engine one time when I was out in the Philippines. They sent me over a rebuilt motor. They said it was good. They sent me a transport stand. I didn’t have a stand to put the motor on it and put it inside the airplane. I lifted the motor up, put it on the hangar deck floor – concrete floor – half a million dollar motor sittin’ there on the floor, without any engine stand at all. People walked by, looking. They’re crushing the lines. I got rid of that bad motor, put that good motor, put it on the stand, put in there, not a god damned problem at all. I thought I was going to prison for that one, man. (Laughter)

DH: Any other stories like that, anything else that I haven’t asked yet that you want to talk about in your Marines service?

GM: They sent me to 29 Palms one time, out of Dallas, out there in the desert. Six weeks out there, living in a tent. Didn’t bother me one bit sitting there working on airplanes, have Marines working on them all night long. Day crew get off work and go to take their showers, they sit there and watch movies, got the screen to watch a movie on, how you going to watch a movie in the daytime, when you got to work at night, you know? We sat there drinking beer. We asked Mitch, the base commander - you sit there and drink your beers, no different than the day crew. When we get off work we want a cold beer, too. He said I can get the cold beer for you. The next day I went to get a beer, I said “Where do we get to party at?” He said “The tent next to me.” The text next to him was the chaplain’s tent. The chaplain came in there – “What are you all doing?” Here we go again! I got tired of walking from side of the runway to the other side. I said to my boys “Get me a fucking Jeep.” We got a Jeep that night. They repainted the damn thing. It was green, Marine Corps green, with the numbers all changed. We drove it the rest of the time we were over there.

DH: But they repainted the Jeep?

GM: Yes. I went out to Hawaii and then came back to 29 Palms – that’s where they sent me to. I said “Send me to_______________. I know where everything is and how it’s set up. “ They said OK. Hawaii wanted to get. They say you kill a _________ within two weeks you gotta be here. I said “I’ll wait two weeks, you ____ me then.” That night they gave me a meeting and said, “You are running the crew.” I said “All right”, I’m Gunnery Sergeant Morris, I’m running the show! I’m the biggest asshole you ever met. I don’t care if you have an attitude; leave it at home with your girlfriend, your wife, or your ho . We are getting this aircraft ready to go within six weeks or it will be overseas again!” I said “I just left the Reserves and their airplanes looked a lot better than your pieces of shit out here. You’ve got 14 of us and you’re supposed to have 12. You have all of the parts – you better get busy and start working on them. Fix these airplanes.” I had a major standing there, chewing a cigar, and he called me back and (said) “I’ve never heard anybody talk to people like that.” I said “I’m telling them how it is. I don’t have to kiss their ass! If they don’t want to work, tell them not to be here. Send ‘em home! I don’t have time to teach ‘em but get ‘em overseas.” It went nice and smooth. The supply worked good. People went with us snap, crackle – pop! We never lost an airplane at all. They put me on this job called maintenance control. You control people when to work on an airplane and when not to. Have the airplane ready for the air crew, ready for the pilots to fly, decide what pilots you want to fly the airplane, if you don’t like the pilot give him a shitty airplane.

GM: Like the radar. The problem is that we’re not all electricians, working on that crap. The radar didn’t want to work, not my problem. Must have given ‘em a shitty radar man. You don’t have to look at the other aircraft to know that they are flying half-assed. I said, let me fly. Get me off the ground. I gotta keep my flight hours. It was mean. I was. But they sent me back to 29 Palms to that colonel or whoever was in charge of that place (and he said) “You’re back already?” I said “Yup!” He said “The beer’s over there, grab one!”

DH: So what is 29 Palms? Is it…?

GM: Desert. Nothin’ there. Nothin’.

DH: It’s supposed to be place that…is it a good thing to go to, or is it…?

GM: It’s good for pilots. They go as fast as they want to go. They’ll be able to turn the airplane through the mountains but watch out for the cactuses.

DH: OK. Makes sense. And is there anything else I’ve forgotten? Otherwise, I think …….How long did you continue to teach for?

GM: Until ’93.

DH: Until ’93. And what happened in ’93 that made you not want to do it anymore?

GM: I already had two back surgeries. The flight surgeon we had on our base – the squadron doctor – (he said) “You can’t run no more”. I was used to running 26 miles a day. I said “All right.” I told the Marine Corps that and they said “No, you’re fit to run.” I said “You pencil pushers up there in Washington, you don’t know shit.” I already had surgery you twice, but I need it again, I need it right now. I got four more discs blown in my back. I talked to the surgeon, two surgeons, and they won’t touch me. They said “you’ve got too many bone fragments back there, too many spurs. You are walking right now, be happy with where you are at.” I said “I am.”

DH: So that was obviously the decision that pushed it.

GM: Umhm. I just told myself I’m done playing Boy Scouts. Time to grow up. I’ve enjoyed it since then – ’93.

DH: Well thank you for your military service and I’ve learned a lot about jets myself today.

GM: I could tell you some good ass stories, man.

DH: Thank you again.

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