Three Independence Days

45 years ago, in 1973, I found myself on July 4 flying combat missions over Cambodia. I wrote the following comment to my wife:   “4 July 1973: To celebrate today I am again off to Cambodia to drop some firecrackers and sparklers. I will be glad when the war ends, but it appears that they will be stepping things up now that we have to be out of Cambodia in August.”  That seems to have been the highlight of the day.   No other memories remain.  No ball games, no picnics, no time with family.

Holidays in wartime are often no different than any other day.  Something most Americans will never experience or really understand.   One day is much like another.  You  catch the crew bus,  have your crew brief, go to the intel brief, suit up and pack on your .38, pre-flight the bird, and are ready for what comes.

For the men who flew North there were no holidays – no 4th of July, no Christmas, and certainly no breaks.   For the men who flew north, there was never an assurance of how any day would end and I often thought about that as we took the crew bus to the revetments.    These were men, whose footsteps we walked in  were admired greatly.  I thought about their legacy of honor and selflessness which I  was honored to share.  That legacy is reflected in this patch,  100 missions North Vietnam.    These were men who  as a former member of the 13 TFS put it:  “… all of whom accepted and completed the mission their country asked of them at the time they served.”

Patch on the jacket of a former member of the 13 TFS — well done to him.

Yet we were not along, across the years since the founding of our nation Americans have done their duty.   If I found myself in combat on Independence Day, I was not the first one in my family to do so.

On July 3-4, 1863, my great-grandfather Colonel Freeman Norvell (1827-1881) found himself on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the midst of that most terrible battle.

Freeman was for a time a professional soldier, he had been appointed a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps by President James K. Polk in 1847.  Thus, he was one of the Marines at the Halls of Montezuma. For a time he remained in the Corps, but the stress of having been in that battle took its toll and he was dismissed from the Corps for being drunk on duty in 1858.  When the Civil War began, he was eager to serve his county again.  Because of his prior military experience, Freeman became commander of the 5th Michigan Cavalry in December 1862.  But the stress became so much for him that he could not cope that he turned to alcohol and resigned his command in February 1863.    Yet, there was more to Freeman than this and he again joined the US Volunteers as a captain, and this is where he found himself on July 3, 1863 as part of Slocum’s Corps defending Culp’s Hill. The post-traumatic stress haunted him the rest of his life, and when he died The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reported: “Colonel Freeman W. Norvell, a well-known Michigan officer in the War of Rebellion and the Mexican War, died this afternoon. He had been in poor health for nervous disorders for some time.” In the end, Freeman was a deeply flawed man who put his life on the line three times for his county, and did his duty as he saw it despite the personal costs.

Captain Freeman Norvell in the uniform of the First Michigan Cavalry.

Freeman carried on a military tradition that began in our family with his grandfather Lt. Lipscomb Norvell –my great great great grandfather

Lipscomb was born in Hanover County, Virginia September 1756 and died in Nashville, Tennessee March 2, 1843. He entered the Continental Army on August 7, 1777 as a cadet in Captain William Mosby’s company of the 5th Virginia Regiment of Foot commanded by Colonel Josiah Parker . Lipscomb Norvell was taken prisoner at Charleston on May 12, 1780 and remained there until the end of the War, spending Independence day there in 1780, and for the next three years as a POW. His obituary in the Nashville press noted:

“Lipscomb participated in the battles of Brandywine, Trenton, and Monmouth –he was transferred to the Southern service, and as a Lieutenant of the Infantry, was taken prisoner at Charleston, where he remained till the close of the war. He subsequently (in 1787,) removed to Kentucky, and as an early pioneer to the West, encountered the dangers and endured the hardships of the then Indian frontier….”

Three independence days spent in so many different yet similar ways – in service to our country.   At Lexington and Concord,  on Culp’s Hill,  at the Bulge,  on the ground and over Vietnam, and in Afghanistan and Iraq,  different men and women  have acted in the best tradition of the American citizen solider:  They answered the call of their county, they did their duty, and they returned home to be valued members of their community.

And that is the real legacy of the 4th of July.

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
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