By Kevin Wilson
Johnny Morgan celebrated his 88th birthday on Monday, but he’ll always go back to his 28th birthday. It was on that day — May 2, 1945 — that German armies in Italy surrendered in World War II.
“It was a good birthday,” Morgan said with a smile.
Morgan was honored for that day and many other that led up to it, where he served as part of the United States’ 804th Tank Destroyer Battallion.
Morgan was given a medal, a French Croix de Guerre (Cross of Honor), during Saturday’s ceremony at the Portales Senior Center.
Morgan was one of 28 Roosevelt County men called from the National Guard into battle in World War II. Of those men, 14 went to the 200th Command Artillery unit. Morgan and 13 others were part of the tank battallion.
Morgan is now the only surviving member of the 14.
“They were considerate and they were the best buddies a guy could have,” Morgan recalled of the members, who were honored near the conclusion of the event with a candle lighting ceremony.
Morgan said that the men have had about 50 reunions over the years and he still talks to surviving family members of the other 13 about memories from the war.
Col. James Morgan (who is of no relation to the Morgan family) represented the Adjutant General and came from Santa Fe to present the medal to Johnny Morgan.
James Morgan said that many people received the medal from the French government for help during the war.
“France was overrun early on,” James Morgan said. “The award itself was given to those organizations and civilians who contributed to France retaining its sovereignity as a nation.”
The battallion received many other awards as well — two Legions of Merit, seven Silver Stars, 62 Bronze Stars and 136 Purple Hearts.
“We never thought of ourselves as heroes,” said Sandra Morgan Little, as she read from Johnny Morgan’s prepared remarks. “We were just a small part of a great effort.”
The effort took up a great deal of Johnny Morgan’s life. Omadene Morgan, Johnny’s wife, said that Johnny left for war when she was a sophomore in college. He returned to find her teaching sixth-graders in the Portales school system.
More than 60 years after his service, Johnny Morgan was given recognition with the Croix de Guerre. James Morgan didn’t feel the long period could be classified as a military oversight.
“It wasn’t as much an oversight,” said James Morgan. “The French government recognized the unit, but there was no mechanism to award the medals.”
James Morgan said that a similar event was set up in Santa Fe to award the medals two years ago, but Johnny Morgan couldn’t make the trip for health reasons.
Johnny and Omadene were happy to receive a second chance for a medal presentation.
“It’s a fantastic thing,” Omadene Morgan said, “and it also lets a new generation realize what the war was and what the sacrifices were.”