Pathfinder History: RAF Alconbury’s Medal of Honor recipient

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jennifer Zima
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

A U.S. Army Air Forces pilot stationed at RAF Alconbury, England, received the Medal of Honor in 1943 for his bravery during a flight over Germany during World War II.

John C. Morgan wanted to fly. As World War II raged in Europe, Morgan tried to enlist with the U.S. Army, but was denied entry because of a previous neck injury. Instead he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force’s pilot-training program. In May 1943, he was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces as a flight officer assigned to the 326th Bomb Squadron, based at RAF Alconbury, England.

On July 26, 1943, Morgan was a B-17 Flying Fortress co-pilot during a strategically important bomb raid above Hanover, Germany. The B-17 was attacked by numerous German fighters. The attacks smashed the cockpit’s windshield, heavily wounding the pilot and damaging the aircraft’s oxygen system and the interphone system. This made it impossible to call for help.

Morgan regained control of the aircraft and made the decision to stay in formation on target with the other bombers. At the same time, the pilot, delirious from his open head wound, tried to violently wrestle the controls away from Morgan. For two hours Morgan continued to fly with one hand while fighting off the bleeding pilot with the other. In the back of the aircraft, the upper machine gun turret gunner was seriously injured when an anti-aircraft shell tore off his arm. The navigator successfully bailed him out of the aircraft in a parachute, saving his life. 

Since the interphone system was damaged, Morgan could not call for backup from the rest of the crew. Hearing no gunfire from the back, he thought the gunners bailed out. He didn’t know that they were unconscious from lack of oxygen. Two hours later the navigator, who had been busy during the attacks, entered the steering compartment and assisted Morgan in securing the pilot. 

The mission successfully reached the target at Hanover, where it unloaded its bomb bays. After a gruelling return flight, Morgan landed his aircraft at RAF Foulsham, England. The B-17 was declared too damaged to ever fly again.

On Dec. 17, 1943, Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker, Eighth Air Force commander, presented Morgan with the Medal of Honor and authorized him to not fly any further combat missions. But Morgan volunteered for several more missions, including the first Berlin raid of March 6, 1944. On that day, his B-17 was shot down and he was captured. He was held for the remainder of the war, a total of 14 months, as a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft I, Barth, Germany. He remains the only person to become a POW after being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Morgan separated from active duty in 1946, having flown 26 combat missions. However, he rejoined the service as a major when the Korean War broke out in 1950, flying cargo planes. Morgan retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, Air Medal and Prisoner of War Medal. He died on Jan. 17, 1991 at the age of 76 and is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. 

"There's no such thing as a hero,” said Morgan. “I was pushed into circumstances where I was forced to act. You can never say how you're going to react to something until it happens, but I think most people would have done the same."