At 80, he jumps at chance to lead skydiving event A veteran who practices in Williamstown will help commemorate D-Day in France.

Posted: June 03, 2004

On June 6, 1944, legions of paratroopers jumped from the sky and deep behind enemy lines in France, launching one of the grandest, gutsiest invasions in war history.

Tom Morrison, then a 20-year-old soldier in the Army's 101st Airborne Division, was not among them. Back then, he had not even jumped out of a plane. He got into D-Day by ship.

Morrison, of Ambler, will be back in Normandy next week. But this time the 80-year-old veteran - now a veteran sky diver - will approach by air.

On Monday, Morrison is scheduled to lead a jump of half a dozen veterans at the town of Sainte Mere Eglise to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the World War II battle that gave Allied troops a foothold in German-occupied France.

"It's going to be an honor and a privilege to jump with these men," Morrison said yesterday as he strapped on a harness at Freefall Adventures Skydiving School in Williamstown before a final rehearsal jump.

The men for whom Morrison will act as "jump master" used to be the experienced ones.

A member of a glider artillery battalion, in September 1944 he descended into the Netherlands in a glider towed by a transport plane. He made his first parachute jumps in June 1945. Seven months later, Morrison, a sergeant, was discharged.

He would not jump out of another plane until 1963. After watching Navy parachute teams practicing at Willow Grove Naval Air Station from his backyard in Ambler, he decided at age 39 to give the sport of skydiving a try.

It was much different from the jumping he had learned in the Army. Back then, parachutes were round, and you could not steer them. And everything was done "static line" - meaning the rip cord, attached to the plane, was yanked automatically after a jump, deploying the parachute right away.

Skydiving, you got the rush of free-falling before pulling the rip cord. And you could steer.

"I had to try it again and again and again," Morrison said.

He was hooked. He still is.

Almost every weekend, he drives more than an hour to Gloucester County to jump at Freefall Adventures, often with his daughter, Suzanne. Every so often, he travels farther afield to do formations with free-falling pals from around the globe who make up Skydivers Over Sixty and Jumpers Over Seventy.

At Freefall Adventures yesterday, he was the oldest by at least 40, maybe 50 years.

Not that that makes any difference. At 6-foot-2, he is lean, strong, fit. He mingles and talks shop with the younger jumpers as if he, too, is in his 20s.

"The colonel," as he is called, has earned a name for himself.

"He has the perfect balance of fun and respect for the sport," Freefall Adventures manager Rick Roe said.

Morrison, who runs an advertising promotional business, believes in staying young, and skydiving is a perfect elixir.

"I think it's important to keep this computer up here working," he said, tapping his temple. "A lot of people retire at age 62 and go to pot. They eat and eat and play golf and play golf. They vegetate. Not me."

Since 1963, he has jumped out of an airplane nearly 9,400 times. He has made countless exhibition jumps to celebrate the openings of everything from golf courses to banks. In 1999, he jumped with George H.W. Bush to celebrate the former president's 75th birthday in College Station, Texas.

He has been back to the Netherlands several times to sky-dive for Prince Bernhard.

Next week's jump will take Morrison to Normandy for the first time in 60 years.

"I choke up sometimes when I think about it," he said. "I can't let it take over. When I'm representing the men I was with, it's emotional, and I have to keep that in its place."

Williamstown local Frank Thomas, who served in the merchant marine during World War II, watched Morrison prepare.

"These guys probably won't be around for much longer," said Thomas, 79, of the group Morrison will be jumping with. "It's nice for them to do this."

Yesterday, Morrison wore a replica of his combat uniform. On his left shoulder was a badge of the Screaming Eagle - symbol of the 101st. On his right was the oilcloth American flag he wore as his boat washed ashore on Normandy's Utah Beach.

He strapped a full-size flag in a pouch across his stomach, and red, white and blue streamers in another pouch to his leg.

Then Morrison and about a dozen others, most a quarter or a third of his age, climbed aboard a Twin Otter. At 6,000 feet, he jumped, free-falling about 25 seconds before his parachute appeared in an explosion of colors against the blue sky. As he slowly drifted down, the American flag and streamers billowed behind him, growing ever larger before he made a steady landing.

Other jumpers clapped as he approached the hangar, clutching his parachute and the flag.

"Good job," one yelled.

Another saluted him.

"Thank you. Thank you," he said as he walked past and into the hangar to pack up his gear and enter jump 9,391 into his logbook.

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 856-779-3810 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.

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