At 96 years old, he’s had a long time to develop stories and tales. From his 32 combat missions to the time he called in his own close air support and medical rescue after being shot down — the man is filled with nearly as many stories as he has told from behind the camera.
Morrell’s love of photography was rivaled only by an obsession to fly, so he joined the Army Air Corps just before World War II. He began a combat photography career that included 32 combat missions and four months as a prisoner-of-war in Romania. Doug Morrell received two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star, bailed out of three airplanes during World War II and in Vietnam after they were hit by enemy fire. The first time he bailed out, he evaded capture for 25 days. In addition to earning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star, Morrell earned a nickname.
“They call me The Legend,” he said. “I went from the beginning of the Air Force all the way through World War II. I was in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada … I’ve been through so many near disasters around the world.”
More than one of his stories include abandoning his equipment and unexpected free falls. “You’d be surprised at how many cameras are in a plane crash,” he said. “Back then, cameras were big and got in the way. No way was I worried about taking that with me when my plane caught on fire.”
He spent his first year on special observation status, which rotated him through four major movie studios in Hollywood. Morrell then made training films that specialized in field production and aerial documentation and spent a year in glider pilot training before his transfer to Africa and Italy in 1943. He flew in the B-24 Liberator in combat missions that supported Operation Tidal Wave, which focused on nine oil refineries around Ploesti, Romania to deny petroleum-based fuel to the Axis powers.
“This was very important because Ploesti was where Hitler was getting all of his oil,” Morrell said. “We were bombing that place to keep those oil barges down.” During Morrell’s third combat mission in March 1944, his B-24 was disabled by anti-aircraft fire over the Iron Gates of Romania, forcing the crew to bail from the airplane.
Morrell and a fellow crewmember evaded capture for 25 days as they walked across Yugoslavia and northern Albania to the Adriatic Sea. They finally bribed a fisherman with a .45-caliber pistol and $100 in gold certificates to take them back to Italy. Morrell was returned to duty, and his green-brown visual color deficiency, which he disguised during his Army Air Corps entrance testing, enabled him to notice a fake Messerschmidt factory in Austria. He shot the area in infra-red stills, and intelligence was able to target the factory. The same result followed his pictures of a pair of camouflaged German submarines he shot near Venice.
But two months after his return to duty, Morrell was filming his fifth raid on the Ploesti oil refineries when anti-aircraft hit the B-24 and forced it to leave formation. An attack by several German ME-109 fighters set the B-24 afire at 18,000 feet. Morrell bailed out moments before the plane exploded and killed five crewmembers still on board.
A German Luftwaffe major on a motorcycle was waiting for Morrell as he descended in his parachute. The major took Morrell to the Balkan headquarters of the Luftwaffe, where he was detained for nearly Morrell was then moved to the main American POW camp in Bucharest, where he stayed for three and a half months.
“I went in at 165 to 170 pounds and came out at 97 pounds,” Morrell said. “It’s a very good diet.”
One day, Morrell nearly escaped through a trap door in the mess hall ceiling. He sneaked through the trap door after the last person left the mess hall that night and walked out the next morning. He walked halfway through the city before a German army truck picked him up. Morrell told the German soldiers he was an Italian pilot who’d been shot down and was trying to make it back to Bulgaria. The lie worked until the truck reached the post near the Danube River.
“When we got to the post near the Danube, there was a kid there who spoke Italian, and I couldn’t understand him,” he said. “He told the Germans I wasn’t an Italian, and they took me back.”
When Morrell returned to the states, he spent four months in rehabilitation status in hotels in Santa Monica, California. He later photographed the atomic bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, guided missile tests in Africa and Alaska, and he left the Army Air Force in February 1947.
Morrell worked as a professional photographer in Montana for the next five years, but returned to the Air Force during the Korean War in March 1952. In 1968, he was an operations noncommissioned officer in charge of a photo flight at Koret, Thailand, when he had to bail out of his third damaged airplane. Morrell was documenting a sensor drop over the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos when his O-2 Skymaster was hit by anti-aircraft fire that knocked off half of the left wing and set it on fire. Morrell bailed out with the pilot at 5,000 feet, and they faced anti-aircraft fire as they descended into the jungle. He landed in the middle of a truck servicing and parking complex that was guarded by six anti-aircraft guns. Morrell called in the rescue team with his survival radio and gave the positions of the Viet Cong guns. He was rescued by a Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter nearly nine hours after he parachuted into the jungle, but his pilot was captured and held as a POW in Hanoi for four years.
When contemplating recreational skydiving, many have said, “Why would I jump out of a perfectly good plane?” Morrell said he would feel the same way, had his planes not been on fire.
“I’ve had dreams of me bailing out,” said Morrell, who jumped out of planes three times over the span of World War II and the Vietnam War when his aircraft caught fire after being hit.
In addition to earning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star, Morrell earned a nickname.
While Morrell no longer faces being shot down or held prisoner, retired life is anything but boring. “Life is an adventure. I’m 96 years old, and I don’t worry about anything,” he said.
Morrell may be older than the Air Force itself, but his gears still turn just as they did some 60-plus years ago. Most stories have endings, but legends do not, and Morrell has forever secured his spot in history.
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