Religion has an essential role in military history, which is reflected in military material. Steel-covered New Testaments were popular keepsake gifts for soldiers going off to fight in World War II. Advertised in newspapers and magazines as protection from bullets, the small books were designed to be carried in the pocket over one’s heart as both symbol and shield.
AUSTIN, TX (KXAN) – Donald Morrison didn’t know if he was going to make it as a soldier. He wanted to go into the Navy right after high school, but didn’t pass the physical.
“I was rejected because of my flat feet. I passed the written exam, but not the physical,” Morrison said.
In May of 1944, after his last rejection, he listened to his father’s advice if he really wanted to get into the military service.
“He said, ‘If you want to go that bad, get off the farm,’” Morrison said. He quickly got a job working for the county doing construction. Just six weeks later, he got drafted.
On Aug. 21, 1944, at 18 years of age, he was sworn into the Army, entering active duty from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Immediately, Morrison went into the standard 16-week training course. During that time, the Battle of the Bulge was going on and the death toll was climbing, so Morrison says the training course was cut short at the end of the 14th week to get soldiers into Europe faster.
From there, Morrison and his fiance traveled to Fort Meade, Maryland and then he was sent to Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts.
“The big ship was there, it was a large one,” Morrison recalls.
The ship was a former luxury liner that had been converted to carry the troops overseas. Morrison says his crew were the first ones on board.
“It took two days to load the boat and in the meantime we were being assigned to our duties and everything,” he said. “Low and behold what do I get stuck with? Cutting cheese. Slicing cheese. And that was for 11 days.”
The boat sailed from Boston Harbor on Jan. 8, 1945 on the Ile de France and arrived on Jan. 17 in Scotland. From there, the troops were moved by truck across France and into Belgium. Morrison was assigned to the machine gun squad with Company K, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.
Unfortunately, Morrison wasn’t there long before he fell ill.
“They took me in and the first thing I knew I was in the hospital and the next morning the doctor, he flipped the covers back and he says, ‘I’ll tell you what was the matter, you’ve got bad frostbite,’” Morrison said. “While I was there, that’s when they found out that I had the mumps.”
Morrison had to recover for two weeks before they sent him back to the front lines. But after only two days, he developed a fever, which the doctors determined to be Scarlet fever. He spent another three weeks in the hospital.
“In essence, I was lucky. There was five weeks I didn’t have to be on the front lines,” he said.
When his health was back up to par, Morrison returned to the battlefield. On March 23, 1945, while moving through the hills near the Rhine River in Germany, his team was attacked. Morrison says as he reached down to grab his machine gun, a shell detonated close by.
“That’s when that other one came in, the shrapnel went across my face and it hit here and knocked me out,” Morrison says.
Lying unconscious and bleeding from the wounds on his face, his fellow soldiers believed he was dead and continued marching on.
Moments later, Morrison woke up alone. “I looked around there wasn’t a soul, nobody,” he said.
But he quickly gained enough strength to get up and search for his comrades. When he found them, they were all in disbelief. Morrison says they “looked like they were seeing a ghost.”
“Their faces all turned white,” Morrison said.
It was then he discovered how his life was saved that day. In his left breast pocket was his Bible, one he carried in the same pocket every day. The piece of shrapnel pierced through his coat, but it was blocked by the thick pages of the Bible. The piece was still wedged half-way through the book.
“Had it not been there, there was nothing else stopping it, only bones,” Morrison said.
Looking back now, 73 years later, Morrison says he remembers the blast. He says right when it happened he saw his younger sister and brother flash before his eyes.
“All I remember is they where there, right when it happened,” he said.
Morrison went on to fight in the Army for two more years. He was discharged as a corporal on April 12, 1946 and returned home to the family farm near Darien, Wisconsin.
Then in 1970, Morrison and his wife decided to move to Austin because of the warmer weather.
The 91-year-old is now a Life Member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, affiliated with Texas Capital Chapter 1919.
This Veterans Day holiday, Morrison will be hosting programs at the Buckner Villas Senior Living Community in North Austin, where he lives, to honor the local veterans in our community.