MIS­SION AC­COM­PLISHED

Turn­ing 97, Al­bu­querque man re­calls years fly­ing WWII bombers, as test pi­lot

Albuquerque Journal - - LIVING - BY OL­LIE REED JR. JOUR­NAL STAFF WRITER

You can pile up a lot of mem­o­ries in 97 years, but for Al­bu­querque’s Bill Nor­ris, who reached that mark on Jan. 31, some of the most vivid go back 75 years.

Not so sur­pris­ing when you con­sider that three-quar­ters of a cen­tury ago, Nor­ris was pi­lot­ing B-24 Lib­er­a­tor bombers in per­ilous at­tacks on Ger­man tar­gets dur­ing World War II. Or that just after the war, as an Air Force test pi­lot, he was among the first Amer­i­cans to probe the bound­aries of flight in jet-en­gine air­craft.

Oh yeah. And then there was Daisy June, the spi­der mon­key.

Stuff like that stays with you.

Up like rain

“It would come up like rain. We took hits all over the place, but no one was in­jured. They didn’t hit the bomb bay. We didn’t lose any fuel.”

Nor­ris is talk­ing about the anti-air­craft fire, burn­ing tracer rounds blaz­ing red-hot paths from Ger­man barges along the French coast sky­ward to­ward Amer­i­can bombers fly­ing from Eng­land to tar­gets on the Euro­pean main­land.

Creases cut deep into his face bear wit­ness to his many years, but Nor­ris is trim and fit-look­ing, his hair is white but present and accounted for, his mind sharp and ag­ile, his speech pre­cise and de­tailed. He wears hear­ing aids, but he only needs glasses for read­ing. Wid­owed for more than 17 years, he lives in the Four Hills house that has been his home since he and his late wife, Priscilla, moved to Al­bu­querque in 1972. When the weather is warm enough, he gets around town on his Yamaha 94 mo­tor­cy­cle.

On this day, a re­cent Fri­day af­ter­noon, Nor­ris’ son Bob, grand­son Mike and son-in-law, Lynn Dun­can, are with him, an ad­vance guard of fam­ily com­ing into town to cel­e­brate Nor­ris’ 97th birth­day.

They have brought him a spe­cial gift, a hand-painted leather flight jacket de­pict­ing B-24 air­craft and em­bla­zoned with the words “Never For­get,” the in­signia of Nor­ris’ 453rd Bomb Group and 32 bombs, sig­ni­fy­ing the num­ber of mis­sions he and his crew flew dur­ing World War II, in­clud­ing two on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the day al­lied troops in­vaded the beaches at Nor­mandy, France.

“The first (D-Day) mis­sion was hit­ting beach de­fenses be­fore the troops got there,” Nor­ris said. “The sec­ond mis­sion was in the af­ter­noon. We were hit­ting se­condary de­fenses.”

A good fit

The birth­day flight jacket is a good fit — both for Nor­ris’ frame and for the re­flec­tive mood ques­tions about his long life have put him in.

A Penn­syl­va­nia na­tive, Nor­ris joined a horse cavalry unit of the Penn­syl­va­nia Na­tional Guard right out of high school in 1939.

“We were liv­ing with horses,” he said. “We had 1918 equip­ment and no bud­get. Noth­ing changed un­til Hitler took on the Pol­ish cavalry. He wiped them out and walked into Poland.”

Nor­ris’ Na­tional Guard unit mech­a­nized, switch­ing from horses to mo­tor­cy­cles, jeeps and scout cars and merg­ing with air re­con­nais­sance. He was re­cruited by the Army Air Corps for pi­lot train­ing.

At age 22, he was as­signed to pi­lot B-24s, four-en­gine, heavy bombers, and at­tached to the 453rd, fly­ing out of Eng­land’s Old Buck­en­ham air­field.

Film actor Jimmy Ste­wart, who be­fore the start of the war had al­ready won an Os­car for his role in “The Philadel­phia Story,” was the 453rd’s group op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer.

“He was a nice guy,” Nor­ris said of his movie star su­pe­rior of­fi­cer. “My first en­counter with him was a de­brief­ing (after a bomb­ing mis­sion). He was in­ter­view­ing us.”

Near misses

You did not fly 32 bomb­ing mis­sions in hos­tile air dur­ing World War II with­out the kind of ex­pe­ri­ences that make a man won­der how he lived to be 23, never mind 97.

Once, Nor­ris was fly­ing his Lib­er­a­tor dur­ing a night­time re­turn to Old Buck­en­ham air­field from a bomb­ing run into Germany. Ger­man night fighter planes, twin-en­gine Junkers Ju88s, had pur­sued the home­ward-bound bombers and un­leashed 20 mm hell on the B-24s as they at­tempted to land.

“A Ju88 was fir­ing at us on our fi­nal ap­proach and the gun­ners were re­turn­ing fire til we touched down,” Nor­ris wrote about that night. “We sus­tained sev­eral 20 mm hits in the wings and tail, but no one was in­jured.”

Asked about his most har­row­ing war ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, Nor­ris does not talk about a mis­sion in which he might have died but about one that haunts him still.

He was pi­lot­ing the lead B-24 on a bomb­ing mis­sion to de­stroy a Ger­man power-gen­er­at­ing plant. But this time, his bom­bardier could not find the tar­get, even after a risky sec­ond run, so the Lib­er­a­tors’ bombs failed to do sub­stan­tial da­m­age to the plant.

None of the bomber crews were in­jured in that mis­sion. All the planes re­turned safely. But the pain in Nor­ris’ eyes when he talks about it all these years later is ev­i­dence of the in­ter­nal wounds he suf­fered from one mis­sion gone wrong.

As an Air Force test pi­lot after the war, Nor­ris flew dozens of planes — in­clud­ing F-86s, F-94s, F-101Bs, F-102s, F-104s — at su­per­sonic speeds and al­ti­tudes push­ing 60,000 feet, test­ing not only the per­for­mance of planes but that of pres­sure suits de­signed to keep men con­scious and keep their blood from boil­ing at el­e­va­tions they were never in­tended to at­tain.

He sur­vived all that, too, re­tir­ing from the Air Force in 1964 with the rank of colonel and go­ing into de­fense con­tract work. He and Priscilla had two sons and two daugh­ters. Son Bob flew F-14s and F-18s for the Navy. Grand­son Mike, Bob’s son, flew a he­li­copter in the Coast Guard. It was Mike’s idea to give his grand­fa­ther the birth­day flight jacket.

Some­one pointed out to Nor­ris that if he looked close he could see the fig­ure of a mon­key in the top gun tur­ret of the lead B-24 painted on the jacket.

Mon­key busi­ness

In Fe­bru­ary 1944, Nor­ris was as­signed to pi­lot a new B-24, nick­named the Slick Chick, from the United States to Eng­land. Like the plane, Nor­ris and his crew, newly trained but in­ex­pe­ri­enced, were head­ing to­ward their first taste of war.

Dur­ing a 10-hour, night­time cross­ing of the South At­lantic from Brazil to Sene­gal in west Africa, they en­coun­tered tow­er­ing thun­der­storms and heavy rain. The Slick Chick was kicked up and down be­tween 8,000 and 12,000 feet and St. Elmo’s fire, lu­mi­nous plasma, bathed the plane’s ex­te­rior in blue fire, spun halo-like around the pro­pel­lers and cas­caded down the cat­walk in­side.

“It was fright­en­ing in a way,” Nor­ris re­called. “But when the only thing we lost was the ra­dio, I be­gan to feel com­fort­able. It was awe-in­spir­ing.”

Even­tu­ally the storm abated. But not much later Nor­ris felt some un­set­tling vi­bra­tions. Go­ing to the rear of the air­craft to in­ves­ti­gate, he dis­cov­ered that Daisy June, a spi­der mon­key pur­chased by the crew in Brazil, was caus­ing the dis­tur­bance. Ag­i­tated by the re­cent light show, the mon­key was swing­ing on the plane’s con­trol ca­bles.

“The only re­deem­ing qual­ity of the sit­u­a­tion,” Nor­ris wrote some years back in son Bob’s blog, “hap­pened when Daisy June, bless her heart, swung down from a ca­ble, scam­pered over to the ball tur­ret and re­lieved her­self in the sleep­ing bom­bardier’s ear.”

Some things you never for­get.

ROBERTO E. ROS­ALES/JOUR­NAL

Al­bu­querque res­i­dent Bill Nor­ris, who turned 97 re­cently, talks about his ex­pe­ri­ences as a B-24 bomber pi­lot dur­ing World War II. After the war, Nor­ris was an Air Force test pi­lot.

ROBERTO E. ROS­ALES/JOUR­NAL ROBERTO E. ROS­ALES/JOUR­NAL

Bill Nor­ris tries on the hand-painted leather flight jacket his fam­ily gave him for his 97th birth­day. The bombs on the jacket sig­nify the 32 mis­sions, in­clud­ing two on D-Day, Nor­ris flew in World War II. Re­pro­duc­tion of a photo show­ing Bill Nor­ris in his role as a test pi­lot after World War II.

COUR­TESY OF BOB NOR­RIS

Pi­lot Bill Nor­ris, front row, sec­ond from left, with his B-24 Lib­er­a­tor crew dur­ing World War II.

COUR­TESY OF BOB NOR­RIS

At 97, Bill Nor­ris is still fit and in­de­pen­dent. When the weather is good, he rides his Yamaha mo­tor­cy­cle around town.

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