Transformations

Recruit vs. soldier (1)My ancestry is replete with American patriots, soldiers – veterans. From Anthony Morse Jr., a lieutenant in the militia at Newbury, Massachusetts, in the 1660s, to Samuel Morse, a soldier in the War of 1812; from Thomas Morse, a patriot in the American Revolution, to Colonius Morse, a private in the 19th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War,[1] I have ancestors who served in most major U.S. conflicts from the colonial period to the 1970s. I often wonder what life was like for my family in these times of turmoil. How did war affect the young men who served? How did it change them?

My father recently shared with me two very telling photos of one veteran ancestor, my grandfather Leon Norman Morse (1919–1976). These pictures illustrate his physical and perhaps emotional transformation.

The picture on the left is of Leon on 10 June 1942, eight days after he joined the 76th Infantry Division as a medic and ambulance driver/mechanic at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. While at Fort Bragg he was promoted to sergeant and helped train recruits for the newly formed 100th Division. In the fall of 1944, as a part of Company A, 325th Medical Battalion in the 100th Infantry Division of the 7th Army, Sergeant Morse crossed the Atlantic from New York to Marseilles, France, aboard the USAT George Washington with 7,000 other infantrymen.

Once in Europe, the 100th advanced slowly through German-occupied France. At the battle of Bitche in March 1945, the medical battalion worked tirelessly to aid the high number of wounded and dying. One morning, my grandfather awoke to discover a fellow soldier in the foxhole had been killed in the night by a sniper.[2] By VE-Day the 100th division had spent 163 days in combat, suffering 12,215 casualties (including 933 killed in action, 3,667 wounded in action, 589 missing in action, 1 prisoner of war, and 7,425 non-battle casualties).[3]

The second picture on the right was taken somewhere in Germany around this time in 1945.

My grandfather died before I was born. I never had the chance to ask him about his service during World War II, but these pictures speak volumes – a veritable “before and after” of a young man of 22 transformed in just three years. Beyond physical change, there is a more profound shift. The first photograph shows a boy with an unknowing, innocent smile; the second shows a man who has traded that unknowing smile for a knowing stare.

This Veteran’s Day, I urge you to reach out to a veteran and thank him or her for their service and their sacrifice. Consider how your veteran ancestors may have changed because of their military experiences. That transformation may be hiding in your family photos.

P.S. This post was a suggestion by my father, Leon Norman Morse II, a veteran of the Vietnam War. My father enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1964. After successfully completing a military language acquisition exam, he learned Chinese and Vietnamese at the Institute of Far Eastern Languages at Yale University. He was a Radio Intercept Operator in Da Nang in 1966 and later stationed in Pleiku in 1968–69. His service in the military earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with bronze oak leaf cluster, and Air Force Commendation Medal.

I have never asked my father explicitly how his service changed him. Luckily, I still have that chance.

Notes

[1] He served at the Battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.

[2] As relayed by Leon Norman Morse to Leon Norman Morse II ca. 1950.

[3] Wikipedia “100th Infantry Division (United States)” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100th_Infantry_Division_(United_States)#World_War_II.

About Ginevra Morse

As Director of Education and Online Programs, Ginevra manages online learning opportunities that showcase NEHGS resources. She previously worked in educational publishing, where she also created webinars, and as Publications Coordinator for NEHGS. Ginevra holds a B.A. in anthropology from McGill University in Montréal.

6 thoughts on “Transformations

  1. Good Morning, Ginevra. I am Paul Morris Hilton from Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada. I have many links to the Morris, Morse families via my MOM- Hila Morris, who was born in Wallace, Nova Scotia, Canada. There are many links to Chepstow Castle, Monmouth, Wales. I wish to try a and locate any possible links between us. I am single and have never been married. I am a Guest member of the NEHGS. I would like to be a paid member of NEHGS but I live in a Seniors Home. I was injured in a car/truck accident in 1983. I wish to look into our links between your Ancestry and mine if possible. Thank you for posting this amazing data. Sincere Best Wishes. Thank you for sharing your Ancestry’s links to the many efforts that they put into protecting out freedoms.

  2. Excellent post! The photos of your grandfather are very moving. In my own family research, I have discovered three 19th-century divorces, two of them by Civil War soldiers from their wives in 1872. One of these men was seriously wounded twice, the first in the terrible battle of the Wilderness. The other was a prisoner of war in the POW camp at Salisbury, NC, where conditions when he was there were incredibly bad. This led me to do some reading on the history of divorce in the United States, and I learned that in the early 1870s there was much alarm over a sudden spike in the divorce rate in this country. No one at the time seems to have seen a connection between the sudden high divorce rate and the recent war. Learning all this was for me a little like gazing at photographs like yours. Thank you for the reminder to remember the pain as well as the “glory” of war.

  3. Thanks for this article. My wife is also descended from Anthony Morse, Jr. And if my recent research is correct, so am I.

  4. Thank you for this excellent post. So far as I know, I’m also descended from Lt. Anthony Morse of Newbury, MA, though through a different path. My father and brother have the middle name: Morss.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It really is amazing what you’ve deduced from two photographs of your grandfather. None of my direct ancestors served in American wars, except in the Civil War and before. Two uncles, though, served in WW II. Neither talked about their service; neither were physically wounded. One, who spent years overseas, seemed to live a normal life afterward, happily married, with a professional career. The other was sent overseas at the end of the war; we’ve no idea where he went or what he did. When he returned he lived with his parents, and never married. Since we were in the same town, I saw him a lot. He was hard for a child to deal with. Multiple times he called my mother to drive him to the closest VA mental hospital, where he would stay for weeks at a time. In, probably, his sixties, the doctor refused to discharge him unless he found his own place to live. Now I suspect he had PTSD, and understand him a lot better than I did as a child.

    This memory was triggered by Bobbie’s comment on the spike in divorce after the Civil War, which I was unaware of. Over time, we see a bit more about the toll war takes on the young men who participate in it.

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