94-year-old Leila Morrison of Windsor, CO appears on episode #463 of Hometown Heroes, airing March 17-19, 2017. Leila grew up in Blue Ridge, GA, as the youngest of seven children.
Her mother died before Leila had a chance to know her, and she remembers growing up around her father’s unique small town business. He sold hardware and furniture out of one side of the building, while facilitating his work as a mortician out of the other half. Leila remembers a strong influence from her six older siblings, and also a lifelong ambition.
“I just always wanted to be a nurse so badly,” you’ll hear her remember. “That was uppermost in my mind, even as a little girl.”
After graduating from high school, she headed to nursing school in Chattanooga, TN, which is where she was when Imperial Japan attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says of hearing that tragic news. “As the days went by, I began to realize how that was gonna change my life as a nurse.” She remembers a man coming to her school in the months that followed and telling the students that it would be “a disgrace to the nursing profession” if they didn’t volunteer for military service. Two of her four older brothers were already in the military, and Leila decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps with the aim of becoming a flight nurse. After training in Colorado and Mississippi, those flight nurse dreams took a detour when the Army had a greater need to fill out its nursing corps as casualties mounted in Europe. Leila was sent to learn the Army way at Camp Bowie in Texas, which turned out to be a fateful assignment. On her second night in Brownwood, TX, she and some fellow nurses agreed to accompany some soldiers to a dance. Listen to Hometown Heroes to find out how she first met a “tall, dark, and handsome” gentleman from Nebraska named Walter Morrison.
You’ll also hear about her six-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and how she responded in England when a young Briton asked the Georgia native if she was a “Yank.” She didn’t know until landing in France which outfit she would be assigned to or what her duties would entail. Assigned to the 118th Evacuation Hospital, she would spend most of the war living in a tent, moving forward as the combat lines advanced. Her “shock and pre-op” tent was right behind the surgeon’s. “My job was to bring fellas out of shock,” she explains. “I got them ready for surgery.” Fully aware that many of the men she helped treat would not ultimately survive, Leila was struck by the courage and patriotism of those wounded young soldiers. “They had a wonderful spirit, every one of them,” Morrison remembers. “They were there to win that war. They loved America.” She witnessed just about every type of wound imaginable, and during the Battle of the Bulge encountered many men who would lose their limbs from frostbite in the brutally cold conditions. As horrifying and burdensome as the duty could be, Leila found great satisfaction in what she saw as the privilege of saving lives. “That was encouraging,” she explains. “To think that you could be there and have the little bit of knowledge it took to bring them out of that shock and get them on their way to recovery.” Morrison also remembers two occasions on which the hospital’s tents were set up in areas that had not yet been secured. Their tents were marked with giant red crosses, but she still remembers the anxiety that enemy bombers flying overhead could produce, and she concedes that she did consider the possibility that she could lose her life. In fact, her account in Brad Hoopes’ book Reflections of Our Gentle Warriors details how she prayed that if a nurse were to be killed, she would prefer to die herself than to see the life of a wife or mother taken.
“I was young and single and my siblings were all grown and on their own,” you’ll hear her say. “I just felt it would be so much easier for someone like me to lose their life than some of those who had such ties.”
Among the memories that stick with Leila are patients who hallucinated because of the trauma they had endured, a wounded soldier who asked that the nurses let him die, and the absolute horror of entering the Buchenwald Concentration Camp not long after it had been liberated. “That was terrible,” she says. “I still have a hard time believing it, and I saw it with my own eyes.” Listen to Hometown Heroes for what she remembers about the camp, the condition of the prisoners, and the things she witnessed that she’ll never forget. When the war in Europe ended, Leila and her fellow nurses were told they would have 30 days leave, then begin training to tend to the wounded in the planned invasion of Japan.
Walter Morrison was to be part of that invasion force, and he and Leila reconnected briefly in France before they sailed west. Walter, who had mentioned marriage when they first met in Texas, again suggested that tying the knot would be a good idea, but the prospect of heading to the war in the Pacific dissuaded Leila. She did agree to meet up with him in Chicago while they were both home on leave, and while they were there, news came that Japan had surrendered. Leila had run out of excuses, and two days later, she became Mrs. Morrison. Leila and Walter were married 65 years before his passing. They raised three children, got to enjoy seven grandkids, and now count five great-grandchildren.
Morrison says she feel very blessed, and because of her experiences during World War II, she will never take her freedom for granted. “Oh, the price was high,” you’ll hear her say, remembering those countless wounded soldiers she cared for on the front lines, aware that some survived and some did not.
“Every Memorial Day, every time I say the Pledge of Allegiance,” she explains. “I see their faces.”
At the conclusion of this Hometown Heroes podcast, you’ll hear from Brad Hoopes, who has preserved the stories of hundreds of veterans in more than a decade of recording oral histories. You can visit Brad’s website at rememberandhonor.com, and find a link there to order his book. “I always had an appreciation for veterans,” you’ll hear Hoopes say. “But doing this, I’m just blown away about what these people have done for our country.” If you make it to Colorado for the 2017 Bolder Boulder, the nation’s largest Memorial Day gathering, make sure to thank the Grand Marshal, Leila Morrison, for her service to our country, and thank Brad Hoopes for his continuing service to our veterans.