“We aren’t certain about the exact cause of Dad’s death,” said Lee Magnuson when I called this morning to express my sympathy over his father’s passing. “Even though he was 89, dad was so darn busy all the time people forgot that he had heart by-pass 23 years ago and wore a pacemaker..so we figure his heart just gave out”
It’s true.. Morris Magnuson was a dynamo all his life. After retiring from a long career in South Dakota education, he and his wife of 65 years, Edith, not only traveled the world but immersed themselves in helping others through their church, senior care programs and veterans affairs
When I first met Morris Magnuson, he was a teacher in Volga. His son, Greg (Sioux Falls physician, Gregory Magnuson) was a year behind me in grade school and we chummed around together. I remember somebody saying Mr. Magnuson had been a fighter pilot in the war and taken prisoner by the Nazi’s after being shot down. I recall thinking that was pretty cool..but it wasn’t until years later that I learned the magnitude of Magnuson’s service to his country.
He enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor with intentions of flying fighters..but it wasn’t until February of 1944 before his training in the P-47 Thunderbolt was complete and he was headed to Europe to join the fight.
As part of Keloland’s coverage of the World War Two Veterans Memorial dedication in Pierre a few years ago, I made arrangements to interview Morrie at his home. He answered the door wearing his Air Corps uniform which still fit like a glove . We chatted about his time in Volga and then I started asking questions about the war. His broad smile disappeared as he recalled some of those early missions; of looking down and seeing our men advancing on the beaches of Normandy into the teeth of Nazi bombs and machine gun fire. Of escorting B-17’s on their bombing runs into France and Germany..only to turn back and leave them vulnerable because the fighters didn’t have enough gas to escort them all the way. “Our assignment,” Morrie said, “was to bomb and strafe any suspected Nazi target we could find from bridges and railroads to convoys of enemy soldiers and equipment.”“There were times,” he said, “when I thought about the awful business of killing people. I was raised a church-going Lutheran and it dawned on me that many of those falling victim to my guns were probably Lutheran too. But, I soon realized that Hitler and the SS had to be stopped and it was my duty to do whatever was necessary to help bring that horrid war to an end.”
Morrie Magnuson’s war could have come to an end after he completed 60 missions..but a friend and fellow pilot talked him into signing up for 20 more so they could go home together. It was on that last flight while on a second strafing run of a German airfield that his Thunderbolt took a direct hit. He pulled back on the stick and with the canopy filling with smoke headed west until the engine quit and he bailed out. He managed to dodge German patrols for six days before encountering a lone Nazi solider armed with a rifle. Both hid behind trees and started firing at each other, Morrie with his .45 pistol managed to wing the Nazi after being struck, himself, by a glancing bullet to the leg. That evening, so close to the American Lines he could taste it, Magnuson ran straight into a group of German soldiers and was taken captive. The following days were a blur of marching to prison camp with stops along the way to fight fires or repair railroad tracks. His home for the next several months would be Stalag 7 in Germany where conditions were deplorable and food was scarce.
Throughout his ordeal, Magnuson poured through the pages of the New Testament his mother had given him. She had to have a lot of faith too because back home in South Dakota the family had received a telegram that Morrie was missing in action. A day or two later, an Easter lily, which Morrie had ordered delivered home just prior to his final mission, arrived. She believed it to be a sign that her boy was still alive and would survive.
Well, it turns out she was right because on April 29th, 1945 General Patton’s forces showed up to liberate Morris Magnuson and 70 thousand other P.O.W.’s from their Hell on earth that was Stalag 7.
It’s good to remember Capt. Magnuson as the war hero he was: recipient of the Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 13 Oak Leaf Clusters, European African Middle Eastern Service Medal with 5 Bronze Stars, two Presidential Unit citations and the French Legion of Honor.
It’s also fitting that he remembered for 40 years focused on our children’s education as a teacher and school administrator.
But I’ll bet he’d be just as happy if your thoughts of him simply be as that nice guy from church who instructed the AARP safe driving course, drove the Project Car, helped people with their taxes, delivered “Meals on Wheels” and was a faithful loving husband, father and grandfather. Yeah, I’m sure he would.
(Thanks to Greg Latza for some of the photos.)