FlagPOWs are heroes.

Let me repeat that in case there is any doubt: POWs are heroes .

This subject has been in the news a lot recently. I have written in the past of my association, after the Vietnam War, with several men who were taken prisoner and kept in Hanoi.

Most Americans will never experience what they went through. All aircrew members were given a small taste of it before heading off to SEA during the Vietnam War.

The training, called SERE (Survival,  Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), taught the basic survival skills of how to deal with bailing out over a wilderness area: land navigation, camouflage, communication techniques, and how to improvise needed tools and equipment. But since the U.S. was in the middle of a major air war in Vietnam, it also included a mock POW camp to prepare aircrew members for the possibility of capture.

Many of the POWs who returned have written in their memoirs about the techniques that they used to communicate and survive the long, dark days in the Hanoi Hilton. They learned them in this training.

Were these men perfect?  No many were flawed but they kept the faith.

And it is important that Americans keep faith with them now.

The men who went off to War in Vietnam did it with little or no concern for  themselves and they did it with their eyes wide open.

They knew what they were getting into, yet they did their duty.

It was a very selfless thing to do.

I can think of no better definition of a hero.


Posted in 13 TFS, Air Force, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Freeman Norvell and The Detroit Free Press

Freeman Norvell in the late 1870s.

Freeman Norvell in the late 1870s.

Although his time during the Civil War was marked by controversy, in the years after the war things seemed to settle down.  About 1866, my great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell and his brother-in-law, Henry Nelson Walker assumed the ownership of the Detroit Free Press.  Freeman had been very close to his sister, Emily Virginia Norvell Walker and it can be assumed that this relationship facilitated the partnership at the Free Press.   Freeman came from an old newspaper family, several of his uncles, Joshua, Moses and Joseph, had published newspapers in Tennessee, and his father John Norvell was co-founder of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Printer’s ink, it seemed, flowed in his veins.

Things changed during the summer and fall  of 1872 when a crisis developed at the Free Press.

The paper did not support the Democratic candidate in the national election campaign.  The national Democratic party had nominated Horace Greeley.   This selection was seen by Norvell and Walker as a reversal of many long-standing Democratic policy positions.  In his outspoken editorials for the New York Tribune Greeley had supported Republican reconstruction policies, while viciously attacking the democrats.  For him to now be nominated as a democrat rubbed the Detroit publishers the wrong way.

Freeman Norvell and Walker refused to endorse Greeley. They felt this weakened long standing party and personal principles.   They along with William Quinby ran the Press, and Quinby was alarmed.  Norvell and Walker  published daily, strident attacks on Greeley.  Quinby feared the Press would lose readers if it failed to support the candidate of the national party.  This in turn would cause permanent harm to the paper.  There seemed to be a stalement with Norvell and Walker refusing to yield.    Finally, Quinby succeeded in raising  the money to buy out the interests of Norvell and Walker.

The Detroit Free Press announced their departure with the following:

“The proprietorship of the Free Press has passed into the control of those who believe It to be the duty of the democracy and of democratic organs to support the nominations made by the democratic convention in Baltimore.  Colonel Norvell voluntarily retires, rather than yield his convictions ….  The only hope of the country is the defeat of the republican party in the ensuing contest; that the convention of the democracy  having determined that Greeley and Brown should be the standard-bearers …will rescue the country from republicanism and Grantism, and bring back once more an era of honesty, purity and conservatism in public affairs.”

Grant’s adminsitration had become increasingly viewed as corrupt by his second term and it was hoped that Greeley’s win would put an end to this situation — at least in Detroit.  That did not happen for General Grant  the hero of the Civil War was easily re-elected.

It was reported that Freeman Norvell sold his interest for $25,000 which would have been  more than a half million dollars in today’s money.

Much of this money was later lost in bad iron mine investments in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but that is a story for another time.   And the Norvell family would face a major turn of events that took them from Detroit forever.

Posted in Family History, American History, Norvell Family History, Michigan History, Detroit History, Detroit Free Press | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


43rdPatchFlying the F4 E aircraft in Alaska was especially challenging, given the unforgiving terrain and the wide range of termpertures that the birds operated under.  The winter of 1970-71  was the first winter that the F-4E aircraft were exposed to such an extreme climate. Many new and peculiar problems were encountered as a result of the cold weather. Hydraulic, pneumatic, and engine problems plagued the F-4s.  G16

The security of Alaska, Canada, and ultimately the continental United States (CONUS) required six fully  armed F-4Es on active air defense alert at all times without interruption. They were prepared to launch in minimum time under any conditions to intercept and identify any unknown aircraft and if required, engage and destroy all hostile enemy threats. These armed F-4s were configured with AIM 7 E Sparrow radar missiles, the AIM 4 heat seeking infared missile, the M-61, 20 mm cannon, loaded with 640 rounds of high explosive incendiary ammunition; and three external fuel tanks. Mission requirements necessitated the three tank configuration due to the vast area of responsibility and the lack of alternate airfields in the sparsely populated arctic wilderness.

Just prior to my arrival  to fly with the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron,  on May 1, 1974 an F-4 flown by Lt James D. Walker/Captain Duane Miller crashed while doing approaches at Eielson AFB, near Fairbanks.

Captain Miller was able to safely eject, but Lt Walker’s seat wouldn’t fire, so he had to dead stick the aircraft in after the engines flamed out. In the ensuing crash and fire, the rocket motor of Lt Walker’s seat fired, ejecting him through the aircraft canopy. On 2 May he was air evacuated to Brooks Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas; on the 6th he died from complications resulting from the fire and head injuries. The accident was attributed to a fuel problem in the aircraft.  1

This accident was especially close to me as we bought our home in Anchorage from Capt Walker’s widow, who sold it to us in July 1974.

In the 43rd ‘s operating theater was the most rugged, inhospitable and desolate terrain in North America. Jagged mountain ranges, freezing water temperatures, desolate expanses of snow, and chill factors often in excess of -100 degrees Fahrenheit existed which put a strain on the most thorough life support program. Across the entire state, there were only a handful of airfields capable of supporting F-4 operations. Flying in Alaska was flying in a genuinely remote area. Facilities were marginal at best; air-to-ground communications wrer often weak or unreadable. Air defense missions often took aircraft hundreds of miles from suitable airfields. Factors such as these would challenge the 43rd ‘s crews and aircraft throughout its stay in Alaska.G4

For the aircrews of the squadron, sitting alert was a major part of their tour. (At first, crews alternated every other day, but by 1972 a three and four day alert cycle had been established; this changed again in 1975 to a seven day cycle.)

It was not only aircraft that experienced extreme conditions, but the long absences  on alert from family took its toll on many marriages, with several of the men assigned to the 43rd being divorced while we were in Alaska.

It was a tough place to fly for so many reasons.


1  I would later in my time in Alaska find myself having major fuel transfer problems over a remote area, which might have necessitated an ejection, but that is a story for another time.

Posted in 43 TFS, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, Alaskan glaciers, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, Fighter Aircraft, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

At the Wall

WallIn the 1980s we moved to the Washington DC area and lived there nearly 9 years.

It was almost inevitable that I would visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as “The Wall.”  One of my ROTC instructors at Hobart College had died in Vietnam – Major Theodore “Ted” Shorack in 1966, and a good friend of mine Pvt James Kirkby was killed on an Army patrol in South Vietnam about 1970.

Early on I decided to go to the Wall to search for their names.     On one of my manyvisits I found the names and stood silently for a moment and remembered these men.

It is hard to put into words the impact of this place on the first visit.   In many ways the place is very disarming.  It starts as a low black granite panel on each end and gradually rises, in a dramatic V to an apex of more than 10 feet high at its center.   As you descend the walk the names grow up the walls, more and more, until they tower above you.  It is very moving.  In the center are two dates 1959 and 1975, mark the first and last official casualties.

One name, twenty names, a hundred names, a thousand names, ten thousand names, they flood the areas in front and behind you, above and around you.  You look at your reflection on the polished granite and you become one with them.  It is almost as if you are behind the names and once again they are part of you.  And, you are drawn back to those days in the 1960s when the war dominated the daily news, people marched in the streets, and the dead were always with us.

Now they are the “Honored Dead” bearing a silent witness to their sacrifice and what it cost this nation.   They are silent, but they are not forgotten.  Along the path you are struck by the items people leave there.  A Teddy Bear, medals, flowers, photographs, a scrapbook, letters, and it goes on and on.  These are so personal it is sometimes painful to see them, almost if you were violating a sacred place by being there.

Over the course of our nine years in Washington, I would be drawn back to “The Wall” many, many times.  I have been there on Veterans Day, a particularly poignant experience as men moved along the wall, stopped and knelt, and cried.   Some men moved with great difficulty, some where in wheel chairs, some were missing limbs,  some were in old army uniforms, some wore medals, many had long hair and beards, but they were all brothers in their losses, and drawn to this place for their own private reasons.

In the years to come, I know that I will again go to that granite wall in the quiet park in Washington .

And I will be glad once more to visit my old friends and think back, as so many do, to our times together so long ago,  and know that as long as the wall stands, they will stand also high in the hearts of their countryman.


Posted in 1960s Turmoil, American History, AntiWar Protests, Family History, Hobart College, Norvell Family History, Vietnam Memorial, Vietnam Protests, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

4th of July long ago

More than anything else, the holidays we celebrated together demonstrated and defined our sense of community. In our little town of Hannibal New York, each holiday had its own special rituals and observances, this was especially true of the 4th of July.  I had not thought much about family and family traditions. Most children don’t, you just do what your parents do, never realizing how much had been passed down from one generation to the next.

The 4th of July was a big occasion and as such merited a parade. Since I was a Boy Scout I always marched in these parades, some years carrying the US flag, other just in the ranks. As marchers we were a motley crew, all different shapes and sizes, some with uniforms, most without and seldom in step; which now strikes me as also true of the adult leaders, but we seemed to fit in nicely with the rest of the parade.

The parade usually formed the school, marched down Cayuga Street, around the town square and sometimes down Fulton Street or back up Auburn Street to the school. The Hannibal Central School band led the parade. George Tripp, the director, had molded the varying degrees of talent into a remarkably good marching ensemble. Following the band came the scouts, some floats pulled by tractors, some kids on colorfully decorated bicycles that invariably won the rider honorable mention. Finally, the town firetruck brought up the read blowing their sirens, as the firemen threw out candy to the kids along the curbs.

4th of July at our home today

4th of July at our home today

One year, 1960, the parade marked the centennial of the founding of Hannibal and was particularly a big deal with two or three times the usual number of participants from all over the area. The Hannibal Centennial was not only celebrated with a parade, but also with fireworks.  Finally, a time capsule was buried in the town square to be opened in 100 years. Alas, now since most of the beautiful, old square is gone, the time capsule is probably buried under pavement.

These events seemed to bring out everybody, which surprised me as every parade was always the same. I was a teenager and found this amusing. People would come early to get a seat, often bringing lawn chairs or sitting on the top of cars. I couldn’t understand why, as the parade would last all of five minutes.

Now I realize that these events were the cement that held our small town together. People came not only to watch the parade or the band concerts and plays at the school, but also to see each other and be seen– to gossip, to talk, to inquire about family and friends, and to let their neighbors know that they cared about them.

Posted in 4th of July Celebrations, American History, Family History, Holidays, New York, New York State History, Norvell Family History, NY | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Washington in the 1830s

JNorvellWe often see politicians as living exciting lives today filled with much media attention. It wasn’t always so.

In a letter dated December 18, 1835 John Norvell, soon to be a US Senator, wrote to Kate Mason commenting on his life in Washington:

This city is miserably dull to me. I find no one to supply the endearments of home and of friends in Detroit. The show of the fashionable life, the glare and splendor of office and power; even the anticipated seat of a senator of the United States, come when it may, gratifying as they may be to the eye, or to ambition, afford but a poor (substitute) for domestic and social enjoyments: for wife, children and friends. They would be more desirable, if they could be participated in by all that we love and esteem….

Norvell’s confirmation as a Senator continued to be delayed.   He was granted the title of Observer in the Senate, but yet a member.  The fledgling Michigan statesmen discovered that other states did not view the admission of Michigan into the Union in simple terms.

Almost immediately the Ohio and Indiana members brought up the border controversy and tensions began rising. Newspapers in Detroit demanded the return of the “Toledo Strip.” which had been the cause of the so-called “Toledo War” between Michigan and Ohio.   Some in Detroit felt that it might be better to remain out of the Union.  Norvell clearly set forth his position in a letter written on April 27, 1836 to Catherine “Kate” Mason, the sister of Stevens Thompson Mason:

. . . Your view of the pending subject of boundary and admission into the union is correct. If we could better succeed in the final attainment of right and justice by remaining out of the union, than by coming into it, I should unhesitatingly reject admission upon any other condition that the retention of our southern boundary. But to refuse admission would, I fear redound to the more certain the ultimate hope of that right and possession. By accepting admission as a state, with a declaration of our determination hereafter to adopt all legal and constitutional means to regain our desecrated and violated territory, we shall be in a position better to accomplish that object, than by remaining out of the union.

The debate over the admission of Michigan would drag on and on creating a major financial crisis for the Norvell family.

Since he was not yet a Senator John Norvell refused to resign as postmaster of Detroit.  Never a wealthy man, this was the only source of money that the family now had.  Norvell was is such dire straits that he borrowed money from Stephens Thompson Mason, the former territorial governor, so that his family could survive.   The postmaster job was a prime political appointment and Norvell was criticised for not resigning and opening it up to others.  He simply could not, as he had a family of 10 to provide for.   This lack of wealth would come back to haunt him when he was finally named a senator, but for the moment he remained in limbo — not yet a senator and not a private citizen and stuck in Washington as the debates dragged on.  And seemingly miserable.

Posted in American History, Detroit History, Family History, John Norvell, Michigan History, Norvell Family History, US Senator | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Up in the Air so Blue


When you fly in the military there is a path that you follow.  All do it.   You start as a student flier, earn your wings, become qualified in a certain aircraft, move on as a squadron member, and then if you are proficient, and do well, become an instructor for others.

From there you might become a member of the unit’s Stan Eval shop –or Standards Evaluation – which is the group that annually checks that fliers to make sure they are qualified and certifies their abilities in the air.

It  also should be noted that flying in the military is not just strapping on a fighter and taking off.  There are countless jobs that are done in addition to the primary duty of flying: Administration officer, schedulers, flight commanders, operations officers, supply officer, and the list goes on and on.

And if you are really crazy enough  you become part of a Functional Check Flight crew.

FCF is a very specialized type of flying which involves the most experience fliers.   And you get to experience the type of flying that is the closest to being an astronaut and is the most fun.

“How does it feel to go up in the air
Up in the air so blue
Oh I do think its the most pleasantest thing
That ever a child can do.”

Flyers take a child like joy in flight and are really big kids at heart, and FCF flying is the ultimate experience.

Another poem by John Magee,  that is less well known to most Americans,  captures the feeling:

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of –
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.”

Late in my time in the F4 I came to FCF flying.


The FCF crew takes planes that have been grounded for mechanical problems and after they are “fixed” takes them up and tries to break them again.

Yes I said we were crazy, but boy was it fun.

And as the poem above says, we did a hundred things you have not dreamed of.

We pulled G forces in excess to try to rip off the wings, we flew at the height of the envelope on the edge of space at nearly 60,000 feet and were as free as anyone can ever be.  We swooped and turned on a dime, as the adrenline and speed built.  We pushed the bird to nearly Mach 2, then we landed.  “OK, she’s fit to fly,”we told the crew chief, and signed off the forms.

And then… we went back to your other jobs as a squadron planner or ops officer, which was never as much fun.   And we all know how that feels when we are bound to a desk for 8 hours a day.

I would choose slipping the surly bonds any day.

Posted in Air Force, Air Force lingo, American History, F-4 Phantom II, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment