ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — 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.”
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.
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.