Not all people
have a great story, even if they think they do. My 93-year-old uncle, Sam Morrison, born Sam Meiselman, had one: This always wisecracking Jewish World War II ski trooper veteran from the Bronx was an early member of the Army’s elite 10th Mountain Division that trained in Colorado.
In 1945, four months before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the 10th was activated and shipped off to Italy, where they drove the Germans out from several strongholds. In doing so they faced gunfire as well as grenades stuffed with white phosphorus they called “Willie Pete.” The 10th suffered the most casualties of any division in the United States military: Nine hundred and seventy-five were killed in action and over 4,000 were wounded. Back in Italy, my uncle participated in the (once famous) Battle of Riva Ridge the night of February 18, 1945 — surprising German defenders and defeating them. The next night, February 19, his unit captured Mount Belvedere, thereby breaking the German line in the Apennine Mountains. He saw many of his friends killed.
Two weeks later he was almost blown to bits during the Italian campaign, and was found badly mangled and facedown in the dirt. After he was revived on a cot in the field, he was brought to a U.S. Army hospital in Italy, then shipped across the Atlantic by a military hospital ship to Charleston, South Carolina, and then by Red Cross train to New York. On Long Island they would treat his lingering post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating condition that was then called “battle fatigue” or “combat stress reaction.” Uncle Sam was hospitalized for over two years before he was released back into American society. For many years he did not speak about his internal struggle. After joining veteran groups, he slowly changed his mind and believed in remembering the past as a way to heal.
In the late 1990s, at my mother’s urging, I accompanied him to the Tarrytown Hilton for a 10th Mountain WWII luncheon, where he was honored as a regional Man of the Year; he told everyone that I’d write his story shortly. For years, I’d been promising him I would write something soon. Twenty years later, he no longer believed me.
This past March, I got a call from Sam’s daughter, my 48-year-old cousin Tracey Morrison; her father had a failing heart and liver, and maybe a week to live. After recovering from the shock, I asked her if I could interview him in the hospital. He wanted to speak to me right away: “Kid, you better hurry up this time.”
I arrived at the hospital in Yonkers, New York, and sat at the edge of his bed, noticing his usual props on the table: he had brought a blond woman’s wig to the hospital to amuse his nurses, insisting he was merely in for a sex change operation. I wrote down as much as I could, waiting at times for him to catch his breath. All the color in his face had drained away.
While I was in the hospital my 95-year-old aunt, Etta Kutner, called from Boca Raton, Florida.
“What can I say?” he told her. “It won’t be long. Good luck to both of us, Etta.” “I love you very much, brother,” she replied. “Laurie’s here,” he said. “She’s finally found the time to tell my story.”
By the end of my visit I had worn him out, and I knew I had asked enough questions. After I tearfully said goodbye for what was probably the last time, Tracey drove me to her father’s apartment to search his boxes of stuff for anything that would help fill in the gaps in his story. He parlayed his penchant for joke telling into regular radio appearances: In Westchester he was known as Sudden Sam — a Yonkers man who ran a very successful pinball and jukebox company, Musical Moments, and who might just pop in Westchester’s local station WFAS to tell a good one.
I couldn’t find any tapes of those appearances. I did find an interview about his pinball and jukebox years in RePlay Magazine, and a yellowed newspaper clipping by legendary sportswriter Maury Allen, who loved Sam’s authentic New York flavor: Allen had sought out Sam’s perspective when a new 10th Mountain Division helped secure the country after 9/11. Doing online research the next morning, I was shocked to find there were two recordings of Sam in the Denver Public Library’s 10th Mountain Archives: a long 1991 chat on WFAS where he later popped in with jokes, and raw footage of my uncle from,“The Last Ridge,” a 2005 television documentary directed by Abbie Kealy about the 10th Mountain.
What follows is an oral interview cobbled together from articles, my own interviews over decades, and those precious Denver library archives.