By Sherrie Norris
Anticipating another Veteran’s Day observance, Melvin Norris was reclining in his chair on Thursday at Deerfield Ridge Assisted Living in Boone, reminiscing about his military career and looking forward to local upcoming celebrations.
“I like to go to all of them that I can and I like to wear my uniform. That’s not something every veteran (my age) can still do.”
But, Melvin Norris is not your typical veteran, either. While most served one stint in the military, he not only was drafted into World War II, (“I received an official invitation from the government,” he said with a chuckle) but later reenlisted during the Korean War and eventually gave 30 years to the Navy Reserve.
At 95 years of age, Norris still has a clear recollection of those days — and he loves talking about his service. For any details that may escape him, he has scrapbooks and photographs that help tell the story, in addition to video documentation, depicting his service and a long life well lived. There is also quite a collection of commendations he’s received through the years, from the military, his church and various community organizations.
“It was an honor for me to defend my country,” Norris said. “ I consider myself lucky to have come back home when many others didn’t.”
Where it all began
Born Aug. 31, 1924 and raised in the Rutherwood Community, “just outside of Boone,” he described, Norris had graduated from Appalachian High School when, in 1943, at age 18, he was drafted into the US Navy.
“I’ve always said I received the same letter from the government that a lot of my buddies were receiving. It was my official invitation to join a war that I didn’t know a thing about,” he said.
He was working at the time in the local hosiery mill, actually making socks for the military. “I was offered a deferment, but I turned it down,” he said. “I wasn’t any better than any of the other boys who were having to go. It wouldn’t have been right to take the easy way out. Anybody can make socks.”
It was a rude awakening in a variety of ways, he admitted. “I had never been any farther from home than Hickory. And I hated to leave Rosa Lee (my childhood sweetheart). We had been courtin’ pretty heavy for about four years.”
At this point in our interview, he stops his military reminiscing long enough to talk about how he and Rosa Lee Clawson had grown up on nearby farms in the Rutherwood community, attended the same school and church. One of his favorite stories took place one morning when Rosa Lee was only 13.
“The preacher’s son had walked her to church, but after it was over, I told them that I was walking her home. The other fellow said he had walked her to church and would be walking her back. I knocked that old boy down, took Rosa Lee by the arm and walked her home.”
Her dad wasn’t too happy about it all, apparently, and told his daughter to stay clear of Norris. She didn’t listen —and has been by his side ever since.
Headed To War
When it was his turn to go, Norris rode the bus to Spartanburg for induction; two weeks later, he reported to the Bainbridge Training Center in Maryland.
From there, he said, “It was on,” as he headed out on the USS Burke for destroyer escort duty, and for the next 22 months, escorted convoys to and from ports in Europe, France, England, Ireland, Africa, Spain and South Africa.
Despite a lot of “rough sailing” in the midst of a fierce war and weather, Norris said, he was never seasick or injured, even though they went “straight into the storms,” even a hurricane, more than once.
“Our quarters on the ship were awfully cramped — bunks were three high and we had to strap ourselves in to keep from falling out. We didn’t get much sleep” he said. “It wasn’t just something you took a trip on for fun, like a cruise ship.”
“We made 11 round trips across the Atlantic and back — 22 times crossing, altogether” he said. “Don’t let anybody tell you the Atlantic is like the interstate, because it’s not.”
He clearly recalls “going over on Christmas Day and coming back on Christmas Day, the next year.”
After a conversion in a Brooklyn, N.Y. shipyard, Norris’s ship left for the Pacific, where it made several stops, including one in San Diego to pick up a demolition crew. They finally arrived in Japan, where the peace treaty was signed in late 1945.
“We were the first to make it into Tokyo Bay and anchored about 2,000 yards from the U.S.S. Missouri, where the action was taking place,” he said. “The excitement was great. Everybody was hollering and the guns were firing. There was some partying going on, that’s for sure.”
All Norris could think about, he said, was going home. “By that time, I’d had enough.” His ship soon returned to Norfolk, Va.
Waiting for her Sailor
A short time after Norris had entered the service, Rosa Lee had moved across the country to Seattle, Wash., where she worked as a time-keeper in the payroll office for Boeing Aircraft.
Living with relatives, she often accompanied her cousins after work to the USO to serve refreshments, socialize and dance with the servicemen and enjoyed watching their ships come and go.
But, there was only one sailor who occupied her heart and mind.
In December, 1945, Rosa Lee came back to Boone and got a job at the Dime Store. Soon thereafter, in February 1946, Norris was discharged from the Navy and also returned to Boone.
Four months later, on June 16, after rekindling their relationship, the two were married in an intimate ceremony at the home of Rosa Lee’s mother.
Shortly thereafter, the couple moved to Michigan to work and remained there until Rosa Lee became pregnant with their first child, Jim. She wanted to be near her mother during pregnancy, so they moved back to Boone. Their second son, Larry, was born two years later.
In 1949, they built a little house on the Rutherwood property they purchased from Rosa Lee’s family.
Back to Sea
Again, in early 1950, Norris was unable to find enough work to provide for his family, so he decided to reenlist in the Navy. He moved his family to Norfolk, where the couple’s two daughters, Sheri and Wanda, were born.
It was during this time that the Korean War was happening and Norris was called out, this time on the USS Mississippi, Experimental Auxiliary and Gunnery 128.
He recalls how one of the crew’s “experimental functions” led to the firing of the first guided missile at an aircraft. As operations specialist of the radar combat information center, Norris was responsible for radar navigation, surface contact, identification and aircraft control.
Following another honorable military discharge in early 1954, Norris moved his family back to Boone, but continued to serve for three decades in the Navy Reserve.
His daughter, Sheri Norris Church, shared: “I remember when Dad was in the reserves, he went to so many places on his weekends and two week trainings. He would always come home with stories of what he had done and seen. Dad truly loved being in the reserves. He has always been so proud of his military history. Just bring up the Navy to him and he will break into his memories.”
And Those Memories Remain Strong
As Norris reminisces about his military service, it is, indeed, with a sense of pride, that he talks about those days of war and peace.
His scrapbooks are filled with various awards and letters of commendations, citing him on numerous occasions for “excellent performance as operation specialist,” as well as for his leadership and accountability.
Norris has been a longtime member of the Watauga County American Legion and the DAV, the latter of which he served as captain of the color guard. He was a member of the Appalachian High Country WW II Roundtable, attended monthly meetings and was featured in a video collection the organization produced a few years ago, having appeared on Mountain Television’s “The Veteran’s Voice,” during the taping of same. He participated in an impressive WWII Symposium, also, during that same time.
Surprisingly enough, to some, perhaps, when asked about specific highlights of his military career, it wasn’t what happened during the war that he mentioned, but something many years later.
“It was the Honors Flight that took 23 of us from here to Washington, DC, a while back,” he said. “Nothing has ever made me feel any more special than the 1,000 or more people who were lined up to greet us with cheers and applause when we got there, and then again, the same thing when we returned to Asheville Airport that night. It makes you feel good to think people appreciated what you did.”
He also feels good, he said, that his family has always had a strong presence in the military, including ancestors dating back to the Revolutionary War, his father in World War I, his brothers (with him) in World War II, both sons and a son-in-law in Vietnam and a grandson who served two tours of duty during the Iraq War.
“If there was a war to fight, our family was there,” he said.
Serving on the Home Front
Out of the service, Norris worked at the newly-constructed IRC plant in Boone, where he helped move in new equipment and set up for operation, ran maintenance on test equipment and eventually became millwright supervisor.
He was ultimately responsible for the building, utilities and the grounds, “anything necessary to keep it functional,” he said, including working on the boilers, air conditioners and air compressors.
In 1960, Norris became interested in the Masons and joined Snow Masonic Lodge No. 363. Eventually, he served on all the chairs and offices and was elected lodge master in 1968. He was later named District Deputy Grand Master in the Grand Lodge of North Carolina.
He joined the Scottish Rite in 1969 as 32nd degree Mason; in 1991, he was invested to the title of Knight Commander of the Court of Honor of the 32nd degree.
During the late 1960s, he and Rosa Lee joined the Eastern Star’s Hope Chapter. Through the years, they both occupied every available seat — and served as Worthy Matron and Worthy Patron.
On the state level, Norris served as District Deputy Grand Patron and Rosa Lee served as District Grant Matron.
Norris also served as grand representative of the Grand Chapter of Montana, 1977-1980.
In 1973, Norris received an associate’s degree from Wilkes Community College in industrial management.
He took early retirement soon afterward to care for his ailing father until his heath.
Later, in the early ‘80s, with time on their hands, Melvin and Rosa Lee decided to travel, and purchased a motor home. Today, a map in his room outlines their trek across the country, to every state in the union, except Alaska and Hawaii. They also toured all of the Canadian Provinces, minus the Northwest Territory.
For seven years, they spent winters in Florida before settling back in Boone near their children and grandchildren.
For as long as they could, the couple enjoyed almost daily trips to the Lois E. Harrill Senior Center and loved attending church at Rutherwood Baptist, where they both have been lifetime members.
About two years ago, declining health forced the couple to the extended care facility, where they remain today.
Another Veterans Day has arrived, and Melvin Norris is ready for the much-deserved celebrations.
Thank you, sir, for your valiant service to our country.