Today, on 11-11-11, at 11 a.m., not quite a century since the World War I armistice took hold, vets in Washington County will mark Veterans Day by ringing church bells. In the village of Fort Ann, they will speak before schoolkids. The name of Morris R. Wills, a Fort Ann resident who volunteered to fight in one of our wars, will not be mentioned.
“I don’t think I have heard that name in half a century,” Virginia Parrott, the Fort Ann historian, told me the other day.
On Feb. 24, 1954, Morris Wills and twenty other American POWs turned their backs on the U.S. and refused to be repatriated as the fighting in the Korean War drew to a close. Newsweek Magazine labeled them “The Sorriest Bunch” in a cover story. I was just a kid, but even now I remember the embarrassment and anger that we all felt because some guy from our area, the Fort Ann turncoat as he came to be known, had chosen Red China, Red China of all places, instead of returning to his family and home in Washington County.
“I think we all felt that way,” said Virginia Parrott, who was a couple of years behind Wills in school. “Just couldn’t understand how this kid we grew up with could do that.”
Wills was raised on a farm along with half a dozen or so siblings; their mother died of a leg tumor when he was just 12 years old. He dropped out of school when he was 16, and a year later Wills and a buddy determined to join the Army so they could travel. They traveled to Fort Knox, Ky., for basic training and then to Korea for fighting. In March of 1951, just two months into this sightseeing tour, Wills was wounded by a Chinese booby trap, taking shrapnel in the left thigh and knee. He recovered and resumed his travels. On May 18, two weeks after his 18th birthday, Wills — by now a machine gunner — and his unit were caught in a Chinese ambush and he was captured. He endured a “death march” that lasted for weeks, many GIs dropping from starvation or an executioner’s bullet as they headed for the POW camp on the Yalu River.
In his 1968 book, “Turncoat,” Wills says that’s when the brainwashing began. “Before I went in the Army,” he writes, “I didn’t think the United States was such an awful place.” But Wills says the Chinese guards would hit him with “the Negro problem, unemployment, poverty and crime,” and he was not educated enough to defend the United States. After a couple of years in custody, Wills says he also was angry with the U.S. government for not trying to set him free and “I was getting madder and madder because they weren’t trying to win the war.” He wanted us to drop an atomic bomb but does not say on what or where.
By early 1954, China looked good to him: “By God, this is just the thing that is needed. Equality for everyone. Everything organized, planned, secure.” And that’s pretty much his explanation for turning his back on America: anger at his native land, a lack of education and a good, heavy-duty brainwashing by his captors.
Wills does not discuss the hundreds of American POWs who probably had less education than he, endured the same psychological pressures but still returned home. “I did things I regretted later, we all did,” he said, admitting to signing peace appeals directed against the United States but denying that he collaborated with the enemy, a commonly suspected reason for these GIs refusing to come home — to avoid military courts-martial.
So Wills stays in China for a dozen years, becomes fluent in Chinese, works at Peking University (where, at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, he is a prized member of the P.U.
basketball team), marries a Chinese woman, has a child, eventually becomes disillusioned and, having been used for all of his propaganda value, he returns to the U.S. with his family (because of public outcry, Washington unfortunately had jumped the gun and dishonorably discharged the turncoats, so all but two of them could not be prosecuted).
“I think he came back to Fort Ann once, maybe twice,” says Virginia Parrott. “By no means was he welcomed with open arms; nobody rushed up to shake his hand. By the same token, I don’t remember any open hostility. That’s the way it is around here; everybody just keeps to their own business.”
In the book, Wills says his father greeted him with love, saying, “I never thought I’d live to see my boy again. Now, I’m ready to die.”
Virgina Parrott says there is one sister still living in West Fort Ann but describes her as “reclusive.”
Due to his fluency in Chinese, Wills worked for Harvard University’s East Asian Research Center and later for a library in Utica. He died in 1999.
Virginia Parrott does not buy all this stuff about Wills being so uneducated that it made him susceptible to Chinese propaganda. “He was a dropout, that’s true, and he was no genius, but I remember him as being fairly bright,” she says. Still, she has no strong feelings one way or the other these days about Wills.
Same thing for Samuel Hall, the head of the Washington County Veterans Bureau. “Nobody’s mentioned that name for decades until you called the other day,” he says. “And I don’t think at this point anyone, including veterans here, have any strong animosity or any other feelings about him.”
Wills concludes: “I am ashamed of going to China, of turning my back on the United States and on my family.” But he insists that he always defended the United States to the Chinese. All these years later, few care what the Fort Ann turncoat’s thoughts or feelings were about not coming home.