Admiral George Stephen Morrison
George Stephen Morrison was a Rear Admiral and naval aviator in the United States Navy. Morrison was commander of the U. S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident of August 1964. He was the father of Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the legendary rock band, The Doors.
Morrison was born in Rome, Georgia to Caroline and Paul Morrison. He was raised in Leesburg, Florida. Morrison entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1938. He graduated in 1941, was commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and was sent to Hawaii. Assigned to the minelayer Pruitt (DM-22) at Pearl Harbor, he witnessed the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.
In 1943, he studied flight training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, graduating in spring 1944. Morrison flew missions in the Pacific Theater for the duration of World War II.
After the war, he was an instructor for secret nuclear-weapons projects in Albuquerque. During the Korean War, he was assigned to the joint operations center in Seoul, earning a Bronze Star for his part in combat operations against North Korea and Chinese forces.
In 1963, Morrison took command of the Essex-class aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard (CV-31), flagship of a 3rd Fleet Carrier Division (today’s Carrier Strike Group) in the Pacific and based at Naval Air Station, Alameda, California. Morrison was in command of the Carrier Division during the controversial Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, which resulted in a dramatic escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1966, he was promoted to Rear Admiral; at age 46. In 1972, he was appointed Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in the Marianas. As such, he was in charge of relief efforts for Vietnamese refugees sent to Guam after the 1975 fall of Saigon.
Admiral Morrison was the keynote speaker at the decommissioning ceremony for Bon Homme Richard, his first ship as an admiral, on July 3, 1971 in Washington, D.C., the same day his son, Jim Morrison, died in Paris, France at age 27.
Morrison retired in 1975.
Morrison met and married Clara Clarke in Hawaii in 1942. Their son, James Douglas, was born in 1943 in Melbourne, Florida. A daughter, Anne Robin, was born in 1947 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a son, Andrew Lee Morrison, was born in 1948 in Los Altos, California.
In retirement, the Morrison’s lived in Coronado and Chula Vista, California. Clara Clarke Morrison, 89, died after a long illness in Coronado on December 29, 2005. Rear Admiral Morrison died in Coronado on November 17, 2008. His private memorial service was held on November 24 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. His ashes were scattered at sea near the same spot off Point Loma, where his wife’s ashes had been scattered nearly three years earlier. Admiral George Stephen Morrison left behind the legacy of an outstanding military career as well as his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
A Silver Medallion
Admiral Morrison was Commander-in-Chief of Carrier Division 9 stationed at Sasebo, Japan. He had a fleet of carriers and was doing some serious ass-kicking during the Vietnam War. One of the carriers used was the mighty battleship, the New Jersey, which had 16-inch guns and once unleashed a salvo which sank half of a small island. The Admiral received a glowing citation which was written on fine parchment accompanied by a silver medallion as big as your face. He read it to us out loud at a family gathering. His countenance radiated deep pride and pleasure.
Admiral George Stephen Morrison was so small as a child that he was given shots to spur his growth to little or no success. He stands 5’8” and his sisters and parents were also petite. Anne is 5’7”, Andy is about 5’11”, and Jim was 5’10”. Jim appeared taller because he wore boots that elevated his height by several inches. Jim was not big-chested and neither was his father, who was perfectly toned, but never large nor muscular.
The Admiral used to tell us stories of his years as a cadet at the U. S. Naval Academy. He always inserted the Morrison touch of humor into all. This was one of his favorites:
Because of his stature, he had difficulty keeping up with his long-legged shipmates, who ran him ragged. Running was the order of the day. The cadets ran everywhere.
When the dinner bell rang, Steve, as part of a fire crew that consisted of a cart, ladder, and fire bell propelled by six galloping cadets, took up the rear. By the time they reached the dinner table, the fire crew was lobster-hot in addition to the sauna-like Maryland heat. “Wow! My feet never touched the ground a lot of the time!” When the Admiral told this story, he did it with so much animation that it left us in stitches with his theatrics.
The Admiral is, among other things, a superb athlete. We played doubles table tennis regularly. The Admiral was laser precise, NASCAR-quick, and impossible to beat.
He was also one of the rare ones that excelled on the rings. He can be seen in action from photographs in the 1943 graduation book of the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Steve has remained in perfect shape all of his life. So much so that over fifty years later, he could easily wear the uniform he graduated in to naval academy reunions – and it fit him perfectly.
In the early 1970’s, the Admiral came to visit Anne and I. While we were in the backyard playing with the kids on a set of regulation parallel bars, he gave us a few pointers. He walked languidly to the bars, grabbed them, and went into a perfect kip – a stunning piece of aerial choreography. It was like watching Nureyev as he landed like a leaf. For a split second, he maintained perfect posture as if he was in a competition and the judges were watching.
The Admiral and the UFO
Back in the day, we were sitting around talking about UFOs, Area 51, and all the other lunatic alien legends. We were laughing about the accounts of people claiming they had been abducted by aliens who then proceeded to fiddle or tamper with them. The Admiral suddenly pronounced, “I chased a UFO once.” We sat in rapt silence waiting for the punch line. His story went like this:
Steve and his fighter squadron were patrolling the skies during the Korean conflict when they saw a silver object at three o’clock moving at a high rate of speed. Steve radioed for permission to pursue the unidentified flying object. He and a few other members gave chase for ten minutes. When they finally got near enough to see more clearly, the object started shimmering in the bright morning sunlight. It appeared to be picking up speed while simultaneously sending an urgent transmission.
The young aviators were fixing to blow this sucker out of the shy, when Lt. Commander Morrison, who had arrived on the scene first, discovered that the UFO was an escaped shiny metallic weather balloon.
The Admiral Wore Desert Boots
When Captain Morrison became Admiral Morrison, he received orders for duty at the Navy building in London, England. Clara leased a huge apartment on Bayswater Road just a few miles from the American Embassy. Anne was attending an extension of the University of Gainesville on an Air Force base outside of the city and Andy attended an extension of the American high school system.
The Admiral would take a brisk morning walk to work every day. In 1966, England’s fashion scene was wild. The mini-skirt was barely a skirt at all and most young people looked like peacocks with colors so dazzling one needed furnace goggles just to walk down the street.
The Morrison’s dressed conservatively, indeed. Americans were so shocked and amused to see a nation of popinjays with funny accents that it was a laugh-riot to them.
One day, Andy challenged his father to be more with it and dress in some modern clothes. That evening, when the Admiral came home from work, he told Andy that he had a surprise for him. He left the room and returned ten minutes later wearing Andy’s buttoned down, collegiate-striped shirt, bell-bottomed Levi’s, and a pair of tan desert boots. This was the standard dress for most American high school kids at that time. The clothes fit the Admiral perfectly.
The Admiral always looked young for his age. Even then, at the age of fifty, he sometimes looked like a young man. He wore the clothes the rest of the night. When friends came over to visit, nobody said a word, neither the Morrison’s nor the guests. Clara almost burst her lungs trying not to laugh.
The Admiral Goes Back to School
When the Admiral retired from the Navy, he was only in his fifties. So, he considered a second career as a university mathematics instructor. He began taking refresher courses at San Diego State University.
There is a fine distinction in the Navy when it comes to rank. When a commander retires from the service, he is awarded a final promotion in the form of the rank of admiral. As you can imagine, there are a great number of admirals who are so in name only. Admiral George Stephen Morrison was not one of those. Instead, he rose through the ranks at lightning speed due to hard work and dedication. He was also one of the youngest admirals in the entire history of the United States Navy.
The Admiral’s math professor was a retired naval commander himself and a strict no-nonsense teacher. However, using the previous equation, that would in actuality, make the math professor a lieutenant commander, the lesser rank. The professor, who applied this military manner in his dealings with all the students, was unaware that he had a retired bona fide admiral in his class.
“Class begins at 0800 hours and I require strict punctuality.” The stern officer/teacher had issued this edict to the entire class on the very first day. It had been made the order of the day.
Not too long after that, the Admiral forgot his reading glasses. So, he went home to retrieve them, making him late for class. This, in turn, caused the professor to sneer, “Well, Mr. Morrison, what did they say to you when you arrived late for work at your job?”
The Admiral responded with superb biting humor, never missing a beat, “They used to say, ‘Good morning, Admiral.’”
The silence was deafening and it prevailed for what seemed like an hour as the professor’s face underwent many contorted shapes. The Admiral sat in his chair with all the confidence of a trial lawyer who had just dealt a smug prosecutor a lethal and unexpected legal ass whipping.
The professor/lieutenant commander was blinking faster than “I Dream of Jeannie” as he tried to snap himself back to some semblance of the control he believed he once had. The Admiral sat in bemused silence and so did the rest of the class.
The chastened professor/officer saluted the Admiral every morning after that, especially when he was late.
The Admiral was a specialist in electronic warfare. One of his projects was to put the first ever Navy spy satellite into orbit around the earth. He kept a replica of the hand-sized metal sphere which had five “My Favorite Martian” antennae protruding from its center. “Back then, that’s all we could throw up there”, the Admiral would say, “and there are still things about the project I am not allowed to discuss.” He was true blue when it came to the rules. “Suffer the consequences if you violate the rules.” He was not a lenient man nor was he harsh in his application of discipline with his children and the men under his command.
Yet there was another side to him. While the family was driving across the country on one of their many trips connected to tours of duty, the Admiral said, “The rules were made to be broken intelligently.” I believe there is a part of him that understood that many people cannot function in a gray society or strict environment. In that belief system, you must challenge the boundaries, but not head on. In other words, “You must do what you want without appearing to have broken the rules.” In essence, “Don’t get caught. If you do get caught, you should not receive special treatment and must be punished under the full penalty of the law.”
Celebration of the Piano
The Morrison kids grew up singing around the piano. Over the years, Clara Morrison recorded get-togethers and kept them “in a well by the side of the road”.
Oftentimes, when we gathered at the ivories, Captain McDairmott, the Morrison’s longtime friend and the Admiral’s shipmate, would record our sessions. Some went back to the days when the Morrison kids were quite young. I have a recording of Jim singing, “You Get a Line and I’ll Get a Pole”, when he was ten years old.
During one of our songfests, the Captain asked the Admiral to say something into the microphone for a test. He deferred to me. I, in turn, asked him to repeat something he had said earlier in his lecture about nuclear energy.
“E to the high of pi (or high pi) plus one equals zero”, which he explained was the entire basis of mathematics. In mathematical language, this means, God.
The Admiral Arrested
Admiral Morrison loved to go to Las Vegas to play cards. Two or three times a year, he and Clara would check into one of the big resort hotels for a week of relaxation and gambling. Clara had terrorized every slot machine in Vegas for many years and invariably won.
The Admiral had a formula that he unflinchingly adhered to. It was a mathematical equation known only to him. This method never failed in the big picture — for even though he lost a few hands, he always came away from the table a winner. The only flaw in the Admiral’s near-flawless enterprise was the amount of money he wagered. It was always the same, no matter what. The Admiral was a measured man, who would never indulge in excess to any degree, and so it was with gambling. His bet never exceeded two dollars, ever.
On one of the Morrison’s gambling junkets, the Admiral was having a good old time as he won every round. Each time the dealer issued him a winning hand, all eyes focused in his direction as he placed a new bet – the very same sum of two dollars – over and over again. To degenerate gamblers, this cautiously guarded playing style is a shameful practice and they are appalled by such a punk wager. He might just as well have been playing Monopoly or Parcheesi because to a real gambler, “This guy is a jinx.” His normally steady and sober gaming method elsewhere would be a virtue. However, here in this gamblers’ den of iniquity, it was decidedly unethical, or at the very least, in poor taste.
The word gamble conjures up many reckless synonyms such as action, bet, chance, punt, raffle, risk, spec, stab, toss up, uncertainty, venture, and wager. To the Admiral, it was simply the original derivative of the word gamble which is game. That is what he was doing – playing a game whilst everyone else around him was gambling. His game never changed and he always walked away from the tables either winning or not losing.
One night, the Admiral was up to his usual – that is to say – most unusual display of devil-may-care attitude toward the sacred rules of gambling. He had won nine hands in a row, but kept laying down the same paltry sum of two dollars. The dealer was becoming irritated while the rest of the table wished silently that he would make a larger bet, but he did not.
Finally, a very muscular and very drunk, hardcore gambler at the far side of the table started to laugh out loud every time the high roller won a hand or placed a new bet. In the end, the whole table joined in. Even though they were merely laughing at the drunk’s laughter, which was something between a cackle and a gagging sound, it was getting to the Admiral. Now his smile was beginning to fade. Each time he put down his two-dollar bet, the drunk would loudly sing, Hey, Big Spender, followed by that hideous cackle.
As the dealer laid down the next winning card and before the drunk could issue his next ridiculing remark, the Admiral flew off his chair faster than a light being switched on or off and was in the drunk’s face, “Do you want to do something about it or are you all talk?”
The drunk was flabbergasted and speechless. The Admiral returned to his chair and continued where he left off. He bet the very same two dollars and, by God, he won again. The table was silent and so was the drunk.
Clara related this incident to the rest of the family amid howls of laughter at the prospect of Jim Morrison’s straight-laced father in a near brawl with a drunk in Las Vegas and what a sensational headline that would have made:
“JIM MORRISON’S DAD ARRESTED FOR BEATING OF GAMBLER IN LAS VEGAS”
Andy questioned his father, “What the hell were you thinking, old man, picking a fight with a guy who could crush your head with one hand?” The Admiral answered with pronounced confidence, “I think I could have taken him.”
In his day as a young aviator, he had flown through certain death on many occasions and wreaked serious carnage on the enemy during three separate wars. Yet in civilian life and as a family man, he was the epitome of nonviolence. He never physically disciplined his children or uttered an angry word in their presence. So, it was quite out of character for him to deploy this primitive aspect of his inner self in public.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
It has been two weeks of visiting relatives, sons, daughter, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, grandchildren, and to top it off, Andy Morrison came by for a visit. He told the following story:
“Dad and I were driving to San Diego to pick up some supplies. I had just bought a new Willie Nelson CD and he was anxious to play it. But I didn’t know if Dad would like the music. On this album, Willie is doing the oldies from the Forties and one of the tracks is ‘Stardust’. Well, Dad listened to it intently and when the song was over, he popped the CD out of the deck and put it in his pocket. After a several seconds, he pulled it out of his pocket and asked, ‘Where’s the case?’ When we found it, he put the CD back in the case and returned it to his pocket. I said, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ He replied, “I’m gonna take it home for your mother to listen to.’”
Father and son both laughed loud and long (the Morrison Anthem) at the Admiral’s sentimentality towards Nelson’s rendition of the ballad. Andy dropped his dad off and rode off to the beach to watch the setting sun.
“Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely night
dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
But that was long ago
And now my constellation
Is in the stardust of a song…”
–Hoagy Carmichael / Mitchell Parish
NOTE: The Morrison’s retirement home located at 135 “H” Avenue will be featured in the Coronado Historical Association’s Wings of Gold salute to the naval aviators dubbed the “Home Front” Project beginning in February. Each home of these noted naval aviators will have a sign with a number corresponding to a brochure with a map and a brief bio of each aviator placed in the front yard. Brochures and maps are available through the Coronado Historical Association: (619) 435-7242, www.coronadohistory.org