Saturday, May 1, 2021

From Hollywood Actor to Ace Fighter Pilot

by Cindy K. Stewart


Wayne Morris - American Actor. Courtesy of WDW

Have you heard of film star Wayne Morris? If you answered in the negative, we had the same response. But after reading his story, I had to tell it. He is one of those little-known war heroes who played an important role in the Pacific during World War II.

Actor Wayne Morris. Courtesy of Famous Fix. 

Bert DeWayne Morris was born and raised in Southern California and played football for Los Angeles Junior College. While acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, he was discovered and recruited by Warner Brothers Studios. Beginning in 1936, Morris played supporting roles in films with actors, such as, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan, Eddie Albert, and Jane Wyman. Playing the second lead in Flight Angels, a story about pilots and stewardesses training for commercial airline service, spurred him into earning his pilot's license.

Flight Angels (1940) Courtesy of Famous Fix

Morris joined the Naval Reserve before Pearl Harbor and later became a primary flight-training instructor in Hutchinson, Kansas. With his acting career on hold, Morris had no intention of riding out the war in a comfortable position. He wanted to be in the thick of the action, so he asked his wife's young uncle, David McCampbell to get him into a fighter squadron. McCampbell was the commander of the VF-15 fighter squadron.

McCampbell told Morris to write a letter with his request, but because of his six-foot, two-inch height and muscular build, Morris was transferred to a patrol-bomber unit and assigned to Catalina amphibious aircraft based in Jacksonville, FL. The cockpit of a fighter plane was built for a person of average height and weight. McCampbell and Morris ran into each other in FL, and Morris repeated his request to be a fighter pilot. McCampbell made it happen, and Morris transferred to the "Fighting Fifteen."

Hellcat F6F which Morris flew from the USS Essex
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In addition to learning to takeoff and land from a carrier deck and shoot down bombers while tangling with enemy fighters, Hellcat pilots were expected to bomb and strafe sea and land targets. All of these lessons were taught in a short time frame and were dangerous. During training, Air Group 15 lost a dozen pilots and crewman. The group deployed to the Essex in 1944.


With three other Navy pilots, Wayne Morris (second from Left) poses for a picture aboard their carrier 
after a strike against Formosa in 1944. Courtesy of WWII in Color.


  • Lieutenant Morris shot down his first Zero (Japanese fighter) in the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" off Guam on June 20.
  • On September 9, Morris and two other pilots took down a Japanese patrol plane over Mindanao. 
  • The next day he led a group of fighters who attacked two airfields and destroyed camouflaged fuel dumps hidden in the woods. 
  • On September 13, Morris shot down another Zero.
  • A few days later he and another pilot hit a docked Japanese submarine with rockets.
  • On October 10, Morris led another group of fighters over Okinawa and sank an eight-thousand-ton freighter. 
  • He took out a Tony (Japanese fighter) during the same battle.
  • On October 24, he shot down two Zeros that were escorting Japanese bombers attacking the American fleet. 

Wayne Morris in his Hellcat aboard the Essex
Courtesy of Military Wiki.org.

Lieutenant Commander Morris participated in fifty-seven missions during his six-month combat tour on board the Essex. In total he was credited with downing seven enemy aircraft (five downs were needed to become an ace) and for sinking an escort vessel and a flak gunboat and helping to damage a heavy cruiser and a mine layer as well as the wins listed above. Morris was awarded four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals. 

What was Wayne Morris most afraid of? "Every time they showed a picture aboard the Essex, I was scared to death it would be one of mine."

The actor turned soldier was one of twenty-six aces in VF-15. Together these aces shot down 310 enemy planes in combat and sunk or damaged half a million tons of Japanese shipping. Can you pick Morris out in this photo?


The Aces of VF-15 with their victorious scorecard at the end of their six-month tour of duty . Photo dated 12/1/1944.
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Morris played in over two dozen films before the war and another three dozen after, including a supporting role in Gary Cooper's 1949 aircraft-carrier film, Task Force. He went on to star in westerns, a 1957 WWI film, Paths of Glory, and played for television series.

In 1959 Morris visited his former commander and uncle-in-law Captain David McCampbell aboard the USS Bon Homme off the coast of Monterey, California. While watching air operations from the bridge of the carrier, Morris collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was forty-five years old.  He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

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Sources:

Strange and Ocscure Stories of World War II by Don Aines. Skyhorse Publishing, 2020.

The Pasadena Independent newspaper, September 15, 1959.

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Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical romance author, was a 2020 finalist for the Georgia Romance Writers Maggie Award of Excellence, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-nine years. Their married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live only an hour away. Cindy’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.



11 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing! I've not heard of Wayne Morris. Now, I need to watch some of his movies!

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    1. Thank you for dropping by, Linda! I'm with you - I want to watch some of his movies too.

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  2. I enjoyed reading this, Cindy. It's a shame he died so young.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Ane. I was shocked when I read about his early death too!

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  3. Cindy, thanks for posting this interesting article. My WWII homefront novel is due to release 5/18 and having had the opportunity to go inside a vintage B-17 as part of my research I can appreciate how his 6/2" frame would make it difficult for him to get into a bomber's cockpit. It was VERY tight inside that plane!!! He sure packed a lot into his short life. How ironic he survived all those bombing runs and passed away during peacetime while standing on a carrier that was docked. Thank you for your service, Wayne Morris!!!

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    1. That was supposed to read 6'2", which you probably figured out.

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    2. Thank you for commenting, Pam. I'll be ordering your book and will look forward to reading it! I plan to visit the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum next month and hope I might be allowed inside too!

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  4. Thanks for the post! It's great to hear of an actor who wasn't just consumed with making his name known. Thanks for telling his story.

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    1. Thank you, Connie! The Greatest Generation really was special.

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  5. I recall this actor. Nice to learn about his life off the screen.

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    1. Thank you for dropping by! I love learning about famous people who were willing to risk their lives to help us win the War.

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