He is virtually unknown to Americans today, though he appeared in 65 movies and was the only actor to become an ace during World War II. Born in Los Angeles in 1914 to Nebraskan Bert DeWayne Morris and Texan Anna Fitzgerald, he would be christened with his father’s name but go by Wayne Morris. While attending Los Angeles City College, he began acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. Handsome, blond, blue-eyed, and 6’2″, he was a striking figure. Succeeding wonderfully in a Warner Bros. screen test, he signed a contract with the studio and debuted in the role of the navigator for the trans-Pacific flight in China Clipper (1936).
Warner Bros. kept Morris busy with bit parts in six more movies during 1936-37 before he was cast in the principal supporting role in the western Land Beyond the Law (1937). Then came his title role in Kid Galahad (1937). Teamed with studio heavyweights Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart, Morris played an innocent and naive young boxer to perfection. The movie was both a critical and a box-office success.
Morris appeared in a dozen more films, usually as the lead, before being cast as a pilot in Flight Angels (1940). His role would have significance far beyond whatever he could have imagined at the time. To prepare for the role he began taking flying lessons. He was immediately hooked. By 1941 he was an accomplished and licensed pilot. With Japanese aggression increasing, he joined a Naval Reserve unit and earned a commission as an ensign. None of this slowed his production at Warner Bros. He appeared in seven more movies following Flight Angels in 1940-41, including I Wanted Wings, in which he played an Army Air Corps pilot.
Activated following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Morris was ordered to flight school. Before 1942 was out he had his wings of gold. He desperately wanted to fly fighters in the Pacific, but the Navy thought it could best use him as an instructor at home where he could, as a prominent actor, also make p.r. appearances. Moreover, the Navy considered him too big to cram himself into the cockpit of a Grumman F4F Wildcat.
Morris was not pleased when he was ordered to a Navy airfield at Hutchinson, Kansas, as a primary flight instructor. He began his assignment with resignation rather than enthusiasm. But the plot was about to thicken. Morris was married to Patricia O’Rourke, a beautiful young actress. Her mother had a younger brother, Lt. Cmdr. David McCampbell, one of the Navy’s most accomplished aviators. One day, McCampbell happened to fly into Hutchinson on a cross-country trip. Morris prevailed upon Uncle Dave to get him into the fight in the Pacific. “Give me a letter,” said McCampbell.
McCampbell was able to push Morris’s letter of request through the chain of command and get Morris transferred. However, Morris now found himself training in the PBY—the Navy still thought Morris too big for fighters—in Jacksonville, Florida. He reckoned that he would be flying reconnaissance and rescue missions in the Pacific. But Uncle Dave had been tasked with forming a fighter squadron and told Morris to give him another letter of request. McCampbell later said that he only picked men for his squadron who had a burning desire to fly fighters in combat. His squadron would be flying the new Grumman F6F Hellcat, which was a far superior fighter in every way to the Wildcat but didn’t have any more cockpit room—and pilots still had to sit on top of their parachute packs. It would be a very tight fit for Morris.
By September 1943 McCampbell had organized Fighter Squadron 15, which he would train intensely for the next several months. VF-15 was assigned to the carrier Hornet in January 1944, and training continued. Late in February, Hornet left Norfolk, Virginia, and sailed for Pearl Harbor. The training continued en route. However, once in Hawaii, not only VF-15 but all of Air Group 15 was detached from Hornet and stationed on Maui for still more training. By the end of April when Morris and the other pilots were beginning to think they might spend the rest of the war training, Air Group 15 was assigned to Essex, which was bound for Majuro Lagoon in the Marshall Islands.
Recently wrested from the Japanese, the Marshalls were being used by the Navy as a staging area for the invasion of the Marianas. Essex arrived early in May but was soon off for raids on Japanese-held Marcus and Wake islands. With the invasion of the Marianas a month away this would give the young pilots of Air Group 15 a taste of the real thing: no aerial opposition, but intense anti-aircraft fire. Several American planes were lost and nearly all, including Morris’s, suffered damage.
McCampbell’s boys began hitting Saipan on June 11. Their primary targets were the seaplane base in Tanapag harbor, ships in the harbor, and military installations at Marpi Point. Now they were encountering several types of Japanese airplanes, including the famous Zeros. Near Garapan, the Hellcat pilots knocked three Zeros out of the sky. On a second run later in the day McCampbell himself shot down a Zero. In his after-action report, McCampbell noted that the Hellcat could stay with the Zero in turns and when climbing, something the Wildcat had been unable to do. The Zero was the Japanese Navy’s Mitsubishi A6M5, called “Zeke” in U.S. Navy identification code.
Wayne Morris was in a group of Hellcats that destroyed several seaplane ramps and nearly a dozen seaplanes, either in water or on Marpi Point. Then Morris sighted a “Mavis”—the code for the Kawanishi flying boat—that had gotten airborne. A large, four-engine seaplane with a crew of nine, the Mavis was armed with four .30-caliber machine guns and one 20mm cannon. The Japanese normally used the plane for long-range reconnaissance, but it could also be loaded with more than 2,000 pounds of bombs. Morris dove on the big bird and opened up with his Hellcat’s six .50-caliber Browning machine guns. The Mavis rocked and rolled, and plummeted into the ocean. Lieutenant Morris had his first aerial victory.
Morris got his first Zero a week later in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, the name Navy aviators gave to the airborne phase of the Battle of the Philippine Sea. He and others of VF-15 were flying cover for torpedo planes and dive bombers of Air Group 15 when four Zeros dropped out of clouds and began a run on the bombers. Morris took on the lead Zero. The Hellcat and the Zero each banked and dove and rolled, but it was Morris’s rounds that took effect. The Zero began smoking, nosed over, and plunged straight down thousands of feet to the water below.
On the way back to Essex, Morris spotted a Zero flying just above the surface of the sea. Reckoning he could bag his second Zero of the day, Morris dove on the Japanese fighter. Much to his surprise, the enemy pilot had seen him coming and maneuvered out of harm’s way. Morris made another pass with the same results. Three other Hellcats joined in the hunt—but no luck for them, either, as the Japanese pilot dazzled them with his aerobatics. “He went through every stunt in the books (and some not in) and, as far as I know, escaped unharmed,” wrote Lt. Cmdr. Jim Rigg in his after-action report.
Morris and the other three aviators from Fighting Fifteen had probably encountered one of the old pros of the Japanese air wing, a pilot who had been in action since the invasion of China in 1937. Something less speculative was also revealed—the Zero could outmaneuver the Hellcat at low altitude. While the Hellcat was a far more powerful plane, it was also far heavier than the Zero. In the thin air of 20,000 feet this wasn’t much of a disadvantage, but in the dense air of low altitudes the weight of the Hellcat, despite its superior horsepower, made it less maneuverable.
For the next two months VF-15 hit targets not only on Saipan but on Guam and Tinian. Most of the time the Hellcats were used to bomb and strafe. Their enemy was anti-aircraft fire. After the Turkey Shoot, the skies had been nearly cleared of Japanese planes, so more aerial victories would have to wait.
In September, Essex and other American carriers began launching strikes against the Palau Islands, especially Peleliu. McCampbell led the first sweep. Neither he nor any of his pilots were able to add to their kill totals because they caught the Japanese planes on the ground. They destroyed dozens of them, but under Navy and Marine Corps regulations only planes destroyed in the air counted as kills. After several days of pounding the Palaus, Essex and other carriers were ordered to sail west to the Philippines and strike at Mindanao airfields.
On the first sweep, Morris and two other VF-15 pilots spotted a Japanese patrol plane and blew it out of the sky. Several days later over Negros Island, Morris shot down his second Zero. Later the same day, he and Ens. Ken Flinn jumped a “Nate,” the code for the Nakajima Ki-27 fighter—the Japanese Army’s equivalent to the Navy’s Zero. Morris’s first burst caused the Nate to begin smoking. Flinn followed with a burst that caused the already badly damaged fighter to erupt in flames and roll into a spiral dive that ended in the ocean. Minutes later Morris and Flinn went after a Zero that was on the tail of a Hellcat. Morris fired, and the Zero exploded in a ball of flame. A minute later, Morris found himself flying directly into an oncoming Nate. He hit the Nate with a single burst before banking steeply. In the meantime, Flinn circled in behind the Nate and finished off the already crippled fighter.
During the rest of September, Morris got no more aerial victories but, together with his wingman and other pilots, was credited with putting a Japanese submarine out of action and sinking two freighters and several patrol boats. Then, in October, in a strike at Okinawa, Morris dove on a “Tony” and sent it spiraling into the sea. The Tony was Japan’s most modern fighter, the Kawasaki Ki-61, which featured an inline, liquid-cooled engine that had been copied from the Daimler-Benz engine that powered the German Me109. Morris now not only had the big three of Japanese fighters but was an ace.
Later in October came the epic, four-part Battle for Leyte Gulf, and McCampbell and his boys were active in the air over the Sibuyan Sea. Morris got one Zero easily while making a high pass. His second kill of the day proved far more difficult. He fired at two oncoming Zeros, but his rounds either missed or had no effect. He banked steeply to come around and try again, but found the Zeros turning with him. He didn’t think much of his chances in tight turns against two Zeros and ducked into a cloud. Instead of going through the cloud and emerging on its other side, he circled inside the cloud and came out where he had entered. Just as he had hoped, he found the Japanese waiting for him on the cloud’s other side. He got behind them and shot one down, sending the other scurrying for home. Morris was in no condition to pursue—his Hellcat was riddled with bullets, the engine was coughing, and hydraulic fluid was running into the cockpit.
For another month Morris and his fellow fighter pilots in VF-15 continued to pound enemy targets in the Philippines, but now it was mostly ships and land installations. By and large, Japanese planes had been driven from the skies. By the end of November, Air Group 15 had completed its tour, and Morris and the rest transferred to Bunker Hill, which was headed to Pearl Harbor. Morris’s war was over. He returned home with the Distinguished Flying Cross (four awards) and the Air Medal (two awards), among other decorations. It had not been easy. Three of the Hellcats he flew had been so damaged by Japanese fire, either from the ground or air, that they were stripped of their serviceable parts and pushed overboard. Yet Morris said it was not the Japanese he feared the most, but his own shipmates. “Every time they showed a picture aboard Essex, I was scared to death it would be one of mine. That’s something I could never have lived down.”
Morris returned to Hollywood and appeared in another three-dozen movies, usually as the lead in B westerns. In 1959, he was visiting his old commander and uncle-in-law, Dave McCampbell, now a captain and skipper of Bon Homme Richard. While watching the carrier’s pilots put on an aerial display, Morris collapsed and died of a heart attack. Hollywood’s lone ace was 45.