News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

September 15, 2013

Billy never came home

Discovery in Italy gives hope in hunt for WWII remains of two Terre Haute men

TERRE HAUTE — A Terre Haute family shares the story of a member it lost 68 years ago, “buried at sea,” and its hope of finally bringing him home.

Speaking from more than 1,500 miles away in Phoenix, Ariz., Mary Morrison-Kinnear could not help but get emotional as she recalled her family’s stories about Pvt. William Charles Morrison Jr., the uncle she lost to a tragic accident on Italy’s largest lake during World War II — so close to the end of the war in Europe and so close to coming home.

In 1945, “Uncle Billy,” was fighting in Northern Italy as a private in Company B, 605th Field Artillery Battalion in the 10th Mountain Division. He enlisted in the Army on Dec. 11, 1941 — just four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor — alongside his older brother (Kinnear’s father), Robert James Morrison, and his father, William Charles Morrison Sr.

“Of course, they didn’t take my grandfather because he was too old,” said Kinnear of her grandfather, who served in World War I.

The men in the family, all born in Terre Haute, enlisted for one simple reason.

“They were patriotic. It was the thing to do,” Kinnear said during a Wednesday telephone interview.

During the brothers’ time in service, “Uncle Billy ended up in Italy.” His brother, Robert, was also sent to Europe and later to the Pacific.

On April 30, 1945, a Monday, the men in the 605th Field Artillery Battalion, to which Uncle Billy belonged, was tasked with carrying supplies and ammunition across Lake Garda to an American military camp near its northern tip, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

“When the enemy blew up tunnels through the mountains ringing the lake’s northern end, the division’s commanders sent soldiers across the lake...” according to an Associated Press report last week.

The supplies and the men were in a six-wheeled amphibious truck called DUKWs. The soldiers affectionately called them “ducks.”

But weather became a factor, and the trucks were met with gale force winds and strong waves during the night’s storm.

One of the trucks — the one carrying Uncle Billy and 24 other American soldiers — stalled during the night’s journey and began taking on water as it approached the harbor at Riva.

The men threw heavy equipment overboard in a desperate attempt to save the vehicle — and their lives.

Twenty-four men drowned that fateful Monday night. Only one survived.

Two soldiers from Terre Haute died during the tragic accident: Pvt. William Charles Morrison Jr. (Uncle Billy) and Cpl. William R. Armstrong. They were both graduates of Gerstmeyer Technical High School.

And within 24 hours of the accident, the German forces in Italy surrendered.

‘I want your Uncle Billy to Come Home’

For the first 20 years, Kinnear said, her grandmother — Uncle Billy’s mother — refused to believe that her youngest son, her “baby,” was gone.

“She waited 40 years for him to come home. That was her only wish,” Kinnear said of her grandmother, Lena Cleveland Morrison, grand niece of President Grover Cleveland. She held on to that wish until she died in 1984.

Kinnear said that her grandmother used to tell her “I want your Uncle Billy to come home.”

“She knew that he was dead but for the first 20 years refused to acknowledge it,” said Kinnear, who only heard stories and saw pictures of her uncle. She was born a year after his death.

Kinnear said her grandparents “never truly believed” he was dead. There was no body. No proof.

“There was no comfort until the body is returned,” she said.

Morrison (Uncle Billy) was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Kinnear recalls how her grandparents spent a lot of time calling and visiting “every veterans hospital” in the U.S. looking for him “for years, close to 10 years.”

“Until my grandfather said, ‘We’ve got to stop. He’s not here. They didn’t bring him home,” she said.

Kinnear recalls one incident in the early 1960s when her grandfather wanted to retire and move to Florida.

“If Billy comes home, he won’t know where we are,” Kinnear’s grandmother apparently said in protest.

“I remember all of us crying. I was just a little girl,” Kinnear said. That was the only time, she said, that she has ever heard her grandfather say to her grandmother, “You have to accept he’s gone.”

They didn’t move for another two to three years.

For years, the family was told that it was “hopeless” and impossible to retrieve the bodies from the lake because it was “too deep.”

Glimmer of Hope

 But many, many years later, a glimmer of hope appears.

More than half a century after the tragic accident, an Italian group of volunteer divers started a search for the lost wreckage and succeeded where many have failed before.

The Garda Volunteer Group used a sonar device to scan the depths and made a discovery 900 feet down, according to media reports.

“We saw the camera hovering over a vehicle ... and we could see the insignia of the U.S. Army,” Luca Turrini, a spokesperson of the group told BBC in January.

The group “announced last December the discovery of a WWII DUKW sitting upright on the lake bottom,” according to the Associated Press in an article published last week.

While the group has not positively confirmed that it is the same DUKW that sank carrying the 24 soldiers, Garda Volunteer Group plans to continue the work of locating remains and recovering the vehicle later this year or early next year, according to the AP article.

This was welcome news to the Morrison family, who has already contacted the U.S Army regarding this issue.

“It’s been almost 70 years. It’s about time. It’s never too late to bring him home,” Kinnear said.

 “I want to make sure that this is resolved before something happens to me,” Kinnear, who is 66-years-old said.

“I want to bring my uncle home to his mother and father,” she added.

Together again

Kinnear said she is one of the last members of her family who remembers that tragic part of the family history. Her grandfather died in 1969, and her father, “who never got over losing his little brother,” passed away in 1987.

“I know that they know where he [Uncle Billy] is now, but I’d like to do that [bury him in Terre Haute] for my grandparents and for my father,” Kinnear said as her voice seemed to crack over the phone, holding back tears as she talked.

Three generations of the Morrison family are buried at Roselawn Memorial Park in Terre Haute.

“It’s a terrible thing not to have something returned to you. It’s a terrible thing for families to go through,” Kinnear said.

And she is hopeful.

“Now, they’re going to bring him home. I just have a feeling,” Kinnear said of the discovery and recovery efforts.

“He’s [Uncle Billy] going to be with his family again,” she said.

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.

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