‘Back in Those Days’

World War II veteran Robert “Bob” Morgan captivates audience at Caldwell Heritage Museum’s ‘Coffee with the Curator’

By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR, N.C. – Speaking conversationally with remarkable recall, captivating memories and fascinating details, Caldwell County resident Robert “Bob” Morgan enthralled the audience of about three dozen at the monthly “Coffee with the Curator” event at the Caldwell Heritage Museum.

Bob Morgan by Bill Tate

Mr. Bill Morgan speaking at the Caldwell Heritage Museum. Photo courtesy of Bill Tate

Mr. Morgan, 91, relaxed in an easy chair as if sitting in his living room. Gesturing with his hands, eyes sparkling, he preceded many of his stories saying, “Back in those days…” He punctuated his storytelling with numerous pauses followed by, “Now, that’s a story in itself.” And off he would go, telling the story that had interrupted his thought, wrap it up, and then return to the previous recollection.

Mr. Morgan’s stories centered around his time in the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa during and following World War II. During the war, he served in the Air Transport Command (ATC) of the Army Air Force, flying a C-46. However, he mentioned the war years only briefly and then shared the remarkable – and often harrowing – moments he had experienced following the war.

He was accompanied by his daughter Jan and Kyle Kirby of the Hickory Aviation Museum. Mr. Kirby pointed out that ATC pilots logged more hours during the war than even fighter pilots because they were often flying further and flying in conditions that, though unfit for flying, were ignored so that critical supplies could be delivered to front line units.

Mr. Morgan was introduced by the museum Executive Director Jeff Stepp, who explained that the purpose of the monthly series is “To cast a backward glance.” He added, before turning the floor over to Mr. Morgan, “The greatest value of history is to encourage us during our own tough times.”

Whether intentional or not, Mr. Morgan immediately reaffirmed Mr. Stepp’s remarks, as he began by saying, “What I’ve going to talk about is that I’m the most lucky man in the world.” Considering the stories he was about to share – stories indeed of incredible opportunity, but also of unimaginable risks – his positive, authentic outlook was inspiring.

He offered, “I’ve been asked by folks to tell them where I’ve been. I say it’s easier to identify where I have not been.” He met President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Mr. Morgan shared that he found Mr. Churchill to be an arrogant individual. Speaking briefly about shuttling supplies and patients between Northern Africa and Italy during the war, as well as his admiration for his commanding officer, he acknowledged, “At the end of World War II, VJ Day, I knew we were finally going home. …I didn’t know what to do.”

Learning forward in his chair, Mr. Morgan took the audience back in time a little, admitting, “I’m a high school dropout.” However, his daughter Jan added, “Tell them why you dropped out daddy.” As he hesitated to respond, Jan shared, “He was class president. He dropped out because they needed to eat.”

Mr. Morgan gently nodded his head and said softly, “Yes.”

Bob Morgan audience by Bill Tate

The audience at the Caldwell Heritage Museum listens with rapt attention to Mr. Morgan. Photo courtesy of Bill Tate

Moving back to the end of the war, he shared that he and other select pilots were offered jobs with multi-national oil companies. He was paid $1,450 per month plus expenses. Mr. Morgan recalled, “Here we were a bunch of kids. We went from insecurity to the top of the world.”

Indeed, before long, he was piloting aircrafts containing the most precious of cargo – Ibn Saud, the founder and first king of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He would land aircraft where there were no airstrips, relying instead upon his knowledge and experience of landing in the sand. “We only had one or two problems. I went through the crust once, but it was no big deal.”

Turning then to look a photo of several of his buddies from those days, he said, matter-of-factly, “We were pioneers.” From those early days, Mr. Morgan would spend 45 years in commercial aviation.

A native of Baltimore, Mr. Morgan moved with his wife to Caldwell County is 1987 upon his retirement. After his time in the Army Air Corps and flying for Aramco and Saudi Arabian Airlines, he returned to the states and was hired on by Slick Airways, which was the largest freight carrier at the time.

According to his daughter Jan, “When he was in Texas, he met my Mom and they married. During his career, they moved to Kansas City, Kansa; Ft. Worth, Texas; San Antonio; Chicago; and, then to New Jersey.” She continued, “By that time my sister and I were getting close to school age and my folks made the decision that Dad would commute to his base instead of moving every time his base changed. This sacrifice on their part allowed my sister and I to attend a really wonderful school district and get a first rate public school education.  During that time, Dad had bases in California, Florida, North Carolina, Philadelphia, and New York.”

She offered, “Dad was an international airline pilot who pretty much traveled the world during his career.  He has a GS15 rating (equivalent to a colonel), so he was able to go into places that a regular passport holder could not go. He was generally away for 10-15 days per month and the rest of the time he was either commuting or at home. He flew in and out of Viet Nam for 5 years and was there for the Tet Offensive. There were a few times that Dad flew the Hajj in and out of Saudi Arabia and he was gone for a couple of months.”

Mr. Morgan retired in 1985 when he turned the mandatory retirement age of 60.

He was clearly humbled by his experiences. Mr. Morgan explained, “Ninety percent of what you read in the newspapers and see on TV about the Middle East is pure wrong. People are the same the world over. No matter where they are. Despite language barriers, despite religion. They’re all good people. We share the same concern – our families and children.”

As he had said many times during the presentation, “That’s a story in itself.”

Indeed, his storytelling brought to mind the song, “Listen to the Old Man” by the Lonesome River Band. The chorus challenges us: “If we would sit and listen to the old man / we’d realize just how this world could be / To live and learn and learn to live / our lives with love and kindness / a better place this world just might be / If we’d all just sit and listen to the old man.”

To learn more about the Caldwell Heritage Museum and the Coffee with the Curator monthly series, call (828) 758-4004 or visit its website.

© The Lenoir Voice, 2016

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Caldwell Heritage Museum

Mr. Morgan Interview by Bill Tate

“Listen to the Old Man” by the Lonesome River Band

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