The saga of the Morgan family's brush with Bonnie and Clyde continues as an heirloom stirs questions and remembrance of a WWII hero.
COMMERCE – Following up on my feature in the Miami News-Record “The Morgan’s Run-In with Bonnie & Clyde,” published April 14, 2017, I recently chronicled the first part of a new revelation in my family's brush with the infamous crime duo.
In "More to the story Part I: New twists in tale of the Morgan’s and Bonnie & Clyde," published in the last Weekend Edition of the News-Record I shared the rediscovery of what was thought to be a long-lost family heirloom. There was apparently a bullet Ralph Morgan is said to have found at the scene of the deadly 1934 standoff between Bonnie and Clyde and Ottawa County law enforcement near to the Morgan's Commerce home.
My mother, Yvonne (Morgan) Allen and her sisters Dorothy Lee (Morgan) Barton and Dora May (Morgan) Gray let me know they had more to tell. They shared the story of their brother Ralph also going to the scene of the crime where he found a bullet belonging to Bonnie and Clyde left over from the gun fight. He wore it on a rabbit’s foot key chain on his pant’s belt loop, but they said all that was left of the bullet was their memories of it ever existing.
As fate would have it, on June 9, 2017, my mother's sister Dorothy brought her a box of old pictures and newspaper clippings that had belonged to their mother, Edna Morgan. Dorothy had given the box to her daughter, Rita Kay Griner and for the past 35 years, Rita had kept the bullet in her jewelry box.
Now Rita wanted me to have the bullet along with the priceless old family pictures and clippings. As expected, I was overjoyed. The heirlooms were handed down to me because of my recent work in publishing the book, "Morgan Family History."
Curious about the bullet, I decided to research it on the Internet resulting in conflicting findings.
About the bullet
The cap of the bullet is imprinted RA 17, and the flash hole is indented as if fired. The bullet has tinned cases with six flutes (grooves running along the case), and three holes drilled in the case on the flutes. It was manufactured by the U.S. military in 1917.
This style of bullet is a “Dummy” bullet; a round that is completely inert (no explosive charge). It was used to check weapon function and for crew training, or demonstration purposes. Live bullets have no flutes.
This begs the question, “Why would Bonnie and Clyde have dummy bullets – they were killers?” Simple answer, “They would not!” Would they?
Then what gives?
Ralph did witness the Bonnie and Clyde shootout, and he very well could have found one of their bullets as he claimed he had. However, his sister Yvonne long suspected that Ralph was pulling off a “fast one,” or just stretching the truth for attention. Another sister, Dora also remembers her mother Edna telling her it was a dummy bullet, and that Ralph made up the story of finding it at the Bonnie and Clyde crime scene because he wanted the attention.
Yvonne said, Ralph tended to be boastful, a jokester, and liked being the center of attention. But where did he get the bullet?
Yvonne recalls when Ralph was around age 16-17 he was mischievous and got into trouble with the law. His mother Edna had a choice of sending him to reform school or The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). She chose the CCC.
The CCC was a public relief program during the Great Depression providing unskilled manual labor related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands for the government. It operated from 1933-1942. Men who participated in the CCC were provided shelter, uniforms, and food, together with a small wage of $30 a month ($25 of which had to be sent home to their families). The CCC provided lessons which the Army used in developing its wartime and mobilization plans for training camps.
Ow-ha, past secrets are unraveling, “pulling off the fast one” is being exposed.
My personal conclusion is that Ralph in all probability had rifle training with dummy bullets while stationed at the military-like camp. When he was discharged from the CCC, he possibly kept one of the dummy bullets. For a laugh but more importantly to him for attention he made up finding the bullet at the Bonnie and Clyde shootout. I can’t prove my hypothesis. It’s pure speculation on my part. Perhaps the bullet actually did belong to Bonnie and Clyde. It’s equally possible Ralph told the truth.
Other family members disagree with my assumption. They believe Ralph’s story is true. They very well could be right. They claim when Bonnie and Clyde stole weapons and ammunition from a military base, dummy bullets were part of the arsenal. During the Commerce shoot-out they could have dropped some of the dummy bullets, and Ralph found one of them. This explanation has equal merit to mine. So the bullet’s authenticity remains a mystery.
It seems to me after all of these years it would be most difficult to document whether or not it is a bona fide unquestionably genuine artifact. Then again, it has never been examined by experts who could perhaps determine if it’s the real deal.
Thinking I had a bullet belonging to Bonnie and Clyde disappointingly vaporized but I still consider it a cherished family heirloom from the boy that I believe fooled the family for years.
If I’m right, the best and most amazing part of the story is Ralph had everyone convinced right up to the present. Ralph died in 1945, but his story lived on. I say, “Good one, Ralph. Well played!”
If I’m wrong, then I was the one fooled. The bullet could be one of Bonnie and Clyde’s. The truth has yet to be discovered, and so the mystery remains!
Real or not, it remains a valuable 100-year-old antique as well as a family heirloom.
What happened to Ralph
Ralph grew up and matured. He enlisted in the army becoming a Sergeant in WWII attaining the distinction of hero. He earned many military medals including the Purple Heart and Silver Star. Letters to his mother Edna from the heads of the military (one signed personally by General Douglas MacArthur) confirmed Ralph’s dedication to the army and his compassion for his men.
Ralph died April 19, 1945, in Luzon, Solomon Islands, Philippines at the age of 22 in Service for his Country. He was an automatic rifle gunner in the 37th Infantry Division wounded in action at Bougainville, Solomon Islands. He also had developed jungle rot on both feet and legs due to the jungle’s unrelenting heat and humidity causing his boots to be perpetually wet. After his recovery, it was recommended by his commanding officer that Ralph be sent home. He refused to leave his men behind, and it was that decision that ultimately resulted in the loss of his life. He was that dedicated!
His mother, Edna, received a telegram from Western Union on March 13, 1945 at 8:41 a.m. It read, "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son PFC Morgan Ralph E was slightly wounded in Luzon 17 Feb 45 You will be advised as further details are received."
Shortly after, Edna received a letter from Richard Donovan, the Commanding General on June 8, 1945 that the War Department wanted to inform her that her son had given his life in the performance of his duty.
Ralph was cited for fierce action in the Solomons. His company took part in the counter-attack which drove the enemy from the positions they had seized atop Hill 700, overlooking the entire American beachhead. More than 1,700 Japanese were killed in the bitter four-day struggle for the important height in the foothills of the Crown Prince Mountain range at Empress August Bay. Ralph was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in the battle of Hill 700.
Under a national executive order by President Roosevelt, Ralph was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. His infantry unit was cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy at Bougainville, Solomon Islands. The President affixed his signature as public evidence of deserved honor and distinction. It is the highest battle honor awarded to a unit by the War Department.
Ralph's unit was wiped out by the enemy, and they were buried in a mass grave in the Solomon Islands. At his mother's request, Ralph's body was returned to the United States to be buried in Miami, Oklahoma.