R.I.P. Morris Magnuson

Posted: Tuesday, August 31, 2010 at 12:46 pm
By: Doug Lund
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morris orange shirt“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.

morris p-47

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.”morris plane“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.

morris testamentThroughout 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.

morris medals

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.

morrie1 (2)

(Thanks to Greg Latza for some of the photos.)


  1. Don Jorgensen says:

    Morris was a heckuva pilot, but even a better person. I will cherish the times seeing him at soccer/basketball games as I coached his grandaughter Liz. Morris also flew along on South Dakota’s First Honor Flight and was willing to share his stories with us that were part of our Edward R. Murrow award winning special. Will miss you Morris. RIP my friend.

  2. Doug this makes me proud to honor our Vets. GOD Bless One & All! Thank You Mr Magnuson for your service!!

  3. W Tom Simmons says:

    Thanks for a great story. I knew Morrie as that nice guy from church, and a lot more! Through no overt effort on his part, the hero in Morrie shined through his actions of service to so many and the pleasant way he treated everyone. He radiated kindness, consideration and a steady strength that inspired confidence, and I mean confidence as in the words origin, con fide meaning with faith. Clearly Morrie’s life was lived with an amazing amount of faith in himself, his family, his friends and his Lord and Savior.

    Rest easy dear friend. You will be missed!

  4. Mike H says:

    A wonderful story told very well, as usual. God bless and thank you to all the “Morrie’s” out there for making such a profound mark on so many people by doing extrordinary, and very ordinary, things.

  5. Greg Latza says:

    Doug, this is a great tribute to a great person. Well done.

  6. Jim Clark says:

    Morrie was one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known.
    His positive influence on my sons, my wife and I will last our lifetimes.
    We’re really going to miss him but we take comfort in knowing he is in the right place.

  7. Gene says:

    I’ve known Morris for most of my life. He was a teacher and a great friend. The last time I talked to him was after KELO did a segment on my daughter and myself for playing Taps last Memorial Day. He called me and told me that he was proud to know me. RIP in peace my friend.

  8. What a joy to have known a truly humble man. In my years in the Senate Education Committee and events since I have to say a never met a more gracious person. Few of us could ever even come close to his life’s experiences but all of us can certainly learn from them. A truly remarkable South Dakotan. Harvey Wollman

  9. Linda R says:

    good story Doug! After seeing Morrie on KELO TV a few years back (I believe on Eye on KELO)my husband called Mr Magnuson to ask about a book he had written about his years serving our country, he explained that it was in manuscript form and he had just written it for his family. He invited us to stop at his home and pick up a copy to read and mail back to him when finished. A truly fine gentleman.Thank you Morrie, and all Vets for your service to our Great Country

  10. Derek says:

    Wow, what a life! One can only hope to leave this world having touched the number of lives Mr. Magnuson did in his nearly nine decades. Well done, sir.

  11. Nancy says:

    What a wonderful man!

  12. Cody Huisken says:

    Just this article is inspiring and motivating. I can’t even began to imagine the positive ispiration and motivation that Morrie had on the lives of so many… Thoughts and prayers go out to the Magnuson family.

  13. Craig Crissman says:

    I am 50 years old and still call him Mr Magnuson. Mr Magnuson was the superintendant at Brandon when I went there. I was a 16 year old kid who would walk down the hall and he would walk out of his office and I thought oh no there is the superintendant. He had that look on his face that, though he was in command he would still be approachable to talk to if you had a problem. I talked to him in later years and he was the nicest and most genuine person you could meet. Mr. Magnuson I only wish there were more of you in the education field. RIP

  14. Thank you for this excellent tribute.

    For anyone interested in seeing more pictures of Morrie or learning about his airplane, they can go to my website – johnmollison.com – and click on the icon in the left column titled, “Capturing a Thunderbolt – the story of Maj Mac.”

    Regardless, Morrie remains someone so many are grateful to have known.

  15. Sandy says:

    Morrie Magnuson was a hero in every sense of the word. He was the guy at church that would anything and everything to help where he could. His wonderful smile and radiant personality glowed about him and he remembered who you were even after meeting you once. Morrie was such a vibrant, active man that you forgot that he was nearly 90! He will be missed by many of us who he helped during his years of service to others. Heaven is a better place with Morrie there.

  16. Jon Bernstein says:

    Godspeed Mr. Magnuson from one attack pilot to another. Rest in peace.

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