By TERRI JO RYAN
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Sandy Irwin Ragsdale is a woman obsessed by - even haunted, in a sense - by a man she never met.
Her uncle, Morgan Ross Irwin, was killed in a Waco-area plane crash 60 years ago tomorrow, while teaching a Baylor naval cadet not much younger than he how to fly. In the middle of World War II, in the rural heart of Central Texas, he died five years before her birth.
Yet Sandy said she feels in some ways he's been a constant presence in her life. She grew up hearing the stories of Uncle Morgan - impossibly talented and popular to boot. He played the violin, he spoke Spanish, he drove a single-seater auto, he flew a private plane. Other friends recalled a muscular man of 5'7" who had a strong grip from milking cows.
"When I was a child I was annoyed by the frequent mention of this young man - surely he couldn't have been everything my family said. But the things I have learned from others in my adult years tell me that he was enormously valued by his community, not just by his very loving family. The whole family just never gave up on the living Morgan. In tales, he was still alive to them," she said.
Now, her son, Paul Ragsdale, 26, is the same age as the late, deeply lamented aviator in the clan. So discovering more about Uncle Morgan's life and death takes on a special poignancy, she said. "He never had a chance to marry or have kids of his own, so if we don't remember him, his story ends with us," she said.
"Much of my interest in Uncle Morgan stems from my respect for my father, Wayne Irwin, because Morgan seems never to have been far from his younger brother's thoughts," When I would do something Dad had not seen me do before, he'd say immediately 'That's just like your Uncle Morgan!' " she said.
The College Station woman's quest to preserve her uncle's memory as a homefront hero is indicative of a universal yearning to ensure that the sacrifices made on behalf of one's country are not forgotten. Earlier this week, she came to Waco to see what she could learn about the last day of Uncle Morgan's life.
Sandy's investigation has uncovered a virtually unknown segment of Waco's World War II history. Waco had two Army Air Fields in the area during the war, Waco and Blackland. Waco air field became first Connolly Air Force Base and eventually Texas State Technical College, while Blackland is now the Waco Airport.
But Jack V. Newland Air Field, the base the two doomed pilots took off from, has almost disappeared from memory or record. It was named for a Waco aviation pioneer of the 1920s, and located on East Tinsley, southeast of Waco, off State Highway 3400. A field of hay behind a rusty airplane hanger grows over the old landing strip.
Sandy Ragsdale and her son Paul were able to parlay scraps of information into maps of two locations to explore - with a one-line citation on longitude and latitude in a 1944 military air field directory unearthed in the History of Aviation Collection at the University of Texas at Dallas, and the name of the farm in rural McLennan County where Irwin and his student crashed.
Thomas E. Alexander, author of The Stars Were Big and Bright: The United States Army Air Forces and Texas during World War II, said many commercial flying schools had contracts with the military at that time to provide primary flying training, before cadets moved on to the next stage of their military education. Relentlessly sunny weather in the region made Central Texas an ideal location for pilot training, at a time when pilots were desperately needed, according to historians of the times.
Morgan Ross Irwin was a civilian flight instructor at Newland, a government-approved flying school under contract with the U.S. Navy. He told folks he hoped to making it to Berlin someday in his nation's service; but the front page news the day he died was of the Allied assault on Sicily and the impending ouster of the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.
The tale told in the July 23, 1943, issue of the Waco News-Tribune, by eyewitness W.N. Nobles, was that he was hoeing cotton in the farm of Walter Maynard, near Rosenthal, about 5 p.m. July 21 when he observed a plane with its wings see-sawing, and it was headed right for him. He threw down the hoe and ran.
The earth was rock hard because it hadn't rained for weeks. The temperature had soared to 101 degrees that day.
"When the plane crashed, one wing hit the ground first and the plane swung around," the page 5 article continued. "Nobles ran to help the occupants and he said the man in the rear was either dead or unconscious. The man in the front seat was saying calmly to the one in the back, 'Get your foot from around my neck, please.' When he saw Nobles, he said, 'Help me get out of here, friend'."
But while he was working to free them, Nobles later told a reporter, the plane exploded, bursting into flame. He repeatedly tried to save the man trapped in the wreckage from burning to death, but had to stop because of the heat and smoke.
Michael Toon, librarian of The Texas Collection at Baylor University, said that in war-time Waco, such training accidents were not front page news, but at least an every other day occurrence. It was considered the cost of conducting war. People mourned quickly and moved on with their missions.
With the help of three employees of the map department in the McLennan County records building, the Ragsdales were able to conclude their afternoon's pilgrimage at the plot of land where the crash happened 60 years ago. The Maynard farm had been sold to the Rosenthal Common School District after the war, and when it closed years later, the land was bought by Carol and Mike Makovy.
Stepping onto brittle, browning grass in the afternoon sunshine, with grasshoppers dancing about their ankles, Sandy and Paul Ragsdale ventured tentatively into the field behind the old school building, unsure if they were treading on sacred soil.
"To feel it the way he felt it," she said quietly. "It's so desolate and bare, and he was such a complex man. I really feel for his mom."
In her mind's eye, she said, she'd always pictured autumn, the season of loss.
"As dreadful as our heat is, I have a clearer picture now. A bright, sunny day with an endless blue Texas sky doesn't portend such an end," she said.
Reflecting later on the experience of finally finding the site, she said, "It's as if Morgan Ross Irwin has begun coming alive for us with each new piece of information. So, even at the crash site, he is not 'deceased Uncle Morgan, the stranger,' but the smart and lively and decent young man we have discovered through friends who loved him. "
She didn't want to place a wreath on the site, because it would be like burying him again, she said. "We want his memory and his trait-legacy to live on. At the site, we want to say, 'Morgan, we're here to tell you that the gene pool and the family ways live on! In fact, some of them are right here in us'!"
It was far more meaningful for her to bring her son, Paul, the one who resembles him in size and shape and personality, she said, than any grave ornament. "My plan upon finally locating the place of his death has always been for us to go empty-handed and bareheaded, like Israelites did when they approached a meaningful site," she said.
Uncle Morgan was a 1938 graduate of North Texas State Teacher's College (now the University of North Texas), and a civil aviation instructor at Hardin-Simmons University before the war. He came to Waco only months before is death from advanced flight training at Southern Methodist University.
His funeral on July 25, 1943, had to be held in the gymnasium at Roanoke High, where he had taught school and coached for two years, because no church was large enough for the 400 who attended the service. He was buried at Sweet Chapel Cemetery in Haslet, in a family plot.
"It's a sad coincidence that 60 years later we are once again in a large war, losing courageous young people who intend to serve. These days we are rightly mindful of our losses on foreign soils, but we don't generally think of the lost lives and family sacrifices that occurred on the homefront" she said. "We always say that we will not forget those who died in the service of our country - but we do forget, unless we work at it."
Terri Jo Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or at (254) 757-5746.
article © terri jo ryan/waco tribune-herald, and used with permission