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Former Westfield Councilman Commemorates Resident Who Served in WWII as Navy Pilot

This photo of George Morgan was taken about 12 years before he went MIA off Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on October 2, 1942. Credits: The Pingry School

WESTFIELD, NJ — A brass plaque was recently placed on the center plot on Stanley Oval to memorialize a World War II Navy pilot who used to live on the Westfield street.

Former Westfield councilman and longtime past resident Kenneth MacRitchie shared a detailed story of Lt. (j.g.) George Jasper Morgan, Jr., a former Westfield resident who served his country in WWII as a Navy pilot. 

Earlier this month MacRitchie arranged for the installation of the brass plaque. It reads:

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With the town's approval, MacRitchie anticipates formal dedication of the plaque will occur on Memorial Day.

Both Morgan and MacRitchie grew up in the same house at 3 Stanley Oval at different times. The Navy pilot's parents, George Jasper Morgan, Sr. and his wife Eliza, first owned the house, followed by Richard and Edith Lagreze. Ken's parents, William and Helen, became the next owners. When they died, Ken and his sister inherited the home, which has subsequently been torn down and replaced.  

MacRitchie said that Morgan and his family were considered "upper crust of society" at the time, and he "didn't need to go into military service," MacRitchie stated. "He could have lived a life of luxury but he chose to join the Navy when World War Two erupted."

He had another connection with the late pilot. Both Morgan and MacRitchie's dad were Cornell graduates, Morgan in the 1930s and MacRitchie in the 1940s.

The night before the closing, when the MacRitchies sold the house in 2013, Ken stepped into George's former bedroom. 

"When I saw the attached full length mirror on the wall," MacRitchie recalled, "I could imagine George J. Morgan, Jr. proudly putting on his uniform, checking himself in the mirror, and then going downstairs to say goodbye to his family as he went off to war, never dreaming he wouldn't return."

Morgan was a student at The Pingry School. MacRitchie checked with an official there who forwarded a copy of Morgan's 1932 graduation photo, which "was taken about 12 years before George went missing in action off Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on October 2, 1942," MacRitchie calculated.   

But before Morgan signed up for service, after graduating from Cornell he worked for Tropical Oil Company in Cartagena, Colombia, a subsidiary of Standard Oil, followed by a transfer to the Standard Oil operation in Germany. It was the fact that Morgan turned his back on a stellar career to join the Navy that truly impressed  MacRitchie.  

"With George's knowledge of the oil industry in Germany, it's surprising that he didn't go into the intelligence community," he said. Morgan instead became a fighter pilot.

Instead of Germany, though, the Navy assigned him to the Pacific Theater to serve on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. SARATOGA before being stationed on Guadalcanal where aviation units were known as the "Cactus Air force" (code name for Guadalcanal).

MacRitchie shared portions of a letter Morgan sent to his parents: "I knew I got one Jap zero plane," Morgan wrote from Quadalcanal in the midst of action in the Solomons. He said he hadn't shaved in the four months he'd been there. 

"The dust is terrific," he wrote, "but swims in a river lessened the discomfort." He explained that the reason no one shaved was because anyone who nicked himself in that sultry climate devoid of medical facilities, could develop a lethal infection.

Because Morgan shot down the Japanese Zero, he earned the Air Medal postumously for his feat. In MacRitchie's assiduous research, he found an article on page one of the Feb. 15, 1945 edition of The Westfield Leader titled: "Air Medal for Missing Flyer Lt. George J. Morgan, Jr., Lost in Solomons":
"The Air Medal has been awarded Lieut. (j.g.) George Jasper Morgan Jr., USNR, of 3 Stanley Oval, reported as missing in action in the Solomon Islands on October 16, 1942." Although he was MIA on Oct. 2, the official announcement was on the 16th. The citation was signed for the President by Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal which read in part:

"For meritorious achievement in aerial flight as a pilot of a Fighter Plane in Fighting Squadron Five, attached to a USS SARATOGA Air Group, while serving with the First Marine Aircraft Wing in action against enemy Japanese forces during the early stages of hostilities at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, from September 10 to October 16, 1942.  Fiercely countering the enemy's powerful onslaughts, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Morgan fought his plane against terrific odds during this critical period and, engaging an enemy float fighter in close contact on September 14, 1942 pressed home a vigorous attack and succeeded in shooting the hostile aircraft from the sky ... Morgan contributed materially to the securing of important bases in the Pacific area and his unwavering devotion to duty throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

MacRitchie cited a book by John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign (Naval Institute Press, 2005) as the best source for Morgan's service on Guadalcanal: "George J. Morgan Jr. flew a single-seater Grumman Wildcat plane from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. On October 2, 1942, the squadron took off from Henderson and flew north ... His plane developed mechanical problems requiring him to return to Henderson but on his way back either a Japanese plane shot him down or it was mechanical failure. Squadron Commander Leroy C. Simpler called Morgan 'a cool, resourceful, and highly courageous pilot.'"

Thus, the quote on the brass plaque for all to see on Memorial Day.

The Morgan family came to Westfield from Connecticut. Eighteen headstones at Palisado Cemetery in Windsor are for Morgans going back to 1775. George J. Morgan Jr.'s headstone, near his parents, is over an empty grave.

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