Questions never answered

Had a great experience over the weekend. I visited David Garbe who lives about ½ hour away and has reconstructed the front part of an F4 D aircraft which had flown with the famed 555th Triple Nickle at Udorn. It took him several years to buy the fuselage and other parts from dealers all over the county and then he clearly, lovingly put the bird back together. He returned it to the state it would have been when I last flew in the F4 nearly 40 years ago.

I sat there in the back seat, my wife was in the front, and talked with David who explained how he had accomplished the restoration. Then I moved to the front and we talked about my time in the F4. It was a very thought provoking discussion. It later struck me as one of those moments out of time – a universal experience that anyone who has been in combat experiences. Me the old warrior sitting there and he the young man asking questions about what it was like.

What it was Like.

As I talked with David for more than two hours my mind drifted back to those long ago days. And we shared some thoughts that I have not shared with many people. Bonnie sat there I sensed hearing these things and perhaps gaining a new understanding of the complexities of flying and being in combat.     

Combat, of course, is one of the things that men never talk about. Oh Fighter Jocks kid each other, and shoot the bull on many flying-related subjects, but they never share their inner most thoughts on going into combat. They sit in the bar after a combat mission and drink and talk late into the night, sometimes too late and too much. But they never share a deeper conversation.

Of the men I flew with I never knew how many combat missions they had flown; if they had a close call, or if they had been decorated. It simply was never discussed. Years later I learned that my old boss in Alaska had flown more than 250 missions over North Vietnam and was highly decorated. But I found it out only when he was featured on the History Channel program Vietnam in HD.

Men never talk about if they are afraid or have even thought about it before a mission. Once a former F4 jock shared with me that on the crew bus he sometimes, as I did, thought briefly about what the day might bring. Then he swept it aside and focused on the tasks at hand. The mission was all important.

Another thing men never ask of fellow fliers who did not go to war: “Did you feel left out?”

This is something that I have always wished to ask; but never did. Of my F4 class, only about 1/3 of us went to SEA and were in combat. I have a good friend who didn’t go to SEA but remained stateside.

I wonder did he feel he missed a great adventure or was he glad.

Americans have always wanted to be part of the great adventures. Going to war in the 19th Century was called “going to see the elephant.” Did my friend in his heart feel that he missed seeing the Elephant? I will never know.   And those of us  who saw the Elephant in the skies over Vietnam seldom talk about it.  All this has come back to me from the weekend; throughout the last few days these thoughts have come and gone.

These are thoughts that will never fade, they are linked to a time and place that changed me and many others. Sitting in David’s wonderfully restored F4 backseat again took me to that place. And I thank him for returning me to a time when I was young and the runway stretched far ahead of me.


To read about David’s work see


Posted in 13 TFS, American History, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, SEA, Veterans, Vietnam War | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Mystery Solved

My father never knew what happened to his brother Hamilton Redfield Norvell Jr, — shown below in one of  his only photos.

Perhaps not on the scale of what ever happened to Amelia Earhart, but in our family in many ways just as important. And certainly very convoluted in its own way.   About 1940 my uncle disappeared.  When I was a kid, that was all I knew.   For many years I had hoped to solve this puzzle, but with little luck.   And then. About two weeks ago I had the long-sought-for break through. But I get ahead of myself.

Hamilton Redfield Norvell Jr was born in 1892, nineteen years older than my dad. As a result my dad really didn’t know him well. By the time my dad was a grown man — “Ham,” or “Reddy” as he was sometimes called, was living in the Cleveland area. This was about all my dad knew. But there was a lot more to Ham’s story.

Ham first moved from the Buffalo area to Indiana where in 1917 he married Elizabeth Dorrier.   She is listed on his WWI draft registration record (a wife we never knew about). This didn’t last long then they appeared to divorce in 1921, appeared is the operative word in Ham’s case.

Next Ham pops up in Cleveland, where he married Estella Wolfe in 1922. They had two children – Lila and Genevieve. It was this family my dad knew about. Not the short-lived first marriage.   Then Ham abandoned them.  A letter from one of my dad’s aunts mentions him in about 1936 only in passing, but that is all. No clue where he was.

He next turns up in WWII registration materials in Toledo in 1942 with another wife. Their Ohio marriage document from 1940 lists him as a widower. As far as we know he was still married to Estella Wolfe Norvell.

His new wife was Mary Louise Heath. She was previously married to two other husbands: Norman Hope and Arthur Wood. She divorced Hope about 1928;  the marriage to Wood was short when he died in 1929 in an electrical accident.   Before their divorce Norman and Mary had a daughter in 1927, Margaret Cecilia Hope.

This fact was the key to solving my uncle Ham’s disappearance.

Margaret Hope’s marriage license record in 1947 shows her listed as Margaret Cecilia Hamilton — did a light bulb illuminate,  it did for me.  Hamilton.

Her birth parents were listed as Mary Louise Heath and Norman Hope.  However, the parents who gave consent for her underage marriage were Charles Hamilton and Mary (Heath) Hamilton.

Even better they had to sign the document.   It was an easy task to compare the word Hamilton on the marriage document to Ham’s WWI draft registration.   Both seemed to be signed by a left handed person and both were nearly identical in penmanship.

So there it was.  After 1942 when he vanished from Toledo uncle Ham began using the name Charles Hamilton, which is on the records in 1947.   A search of the Social Security records finds a Charles Hamilton aka Hamilton Redfield Norvell who died in Ohio in 1963, with the same birth date.  Mystery solved.

Mary Louise Heath Hope Wood Norvell later pops up in California where, using a different name Teresa A. Heath,  she married and divorced Francis R. Pople.   If there were any question, is it she, her parents and birthdate  are identical.  Further there is no record of her having a twin sister.   She died in 1987.

As stated perhaps not on the scale of Amelia Earhart but from our standpoint finally solved after 50 years of searching.

And much more satisfying.


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Of Fireworks and other things

There is no way around it. The 4th of July makes me think of fireworks.

When we were small there were always fireworks in Fair Haven, a town located on Lake Ontario about 8 miles away. We lived on the top of a hill and the distant fireworks just cleared the horizon. So every year we went out to the back yard and watched them small and bright against the falling night.

I would have to say, of course, that dropping bombs in Cambodia on July 4, 1973 was the most unusual type of “fireworks” I have ever seen and certainly the loudest. I wrote 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.”

If I found myself in combat on Independence Day, I was not the first one is my family to do so.

On July 3, 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. He was not alone, three of his brothers also were at Gettysburg: Major John Mason Norvell, Lt Dallas Norvell, and Major Edwin F. Norvell. One can only imagine the noise of the battle and the realization that the outcome of the fight would determine the fate of the Union. As July 4, 1863 dawned the men of the North realized that they had prevailed. It must have been a very special Independence Day for them.

My own time in combat in 1973 was followed by reassignment to Alaska. Now fireworks in Alaska are never shot off until about 12:30 a.m. in the morning. That is because the sun never really sets in Anchorage in the summer. It becomes dusk and slightly dark and then the sun is back up by 2 a.m. The squadron that I flew with had a policy for returning combat veterans that they didn’t have to sit alert on any holidays that first year. Since aircrews were on air defense alert 24 hours a day every day, it was a nice surprise to be able to enjoy that first Independence day home after the war even if the fireworks went off after mid-night.  But even more special to be with my wife and back in the U.S.

As we moved in the Air Force, we discovered that California and Virginia allowed the purchase of small fireworks for home displays. As we lived on the base in California we went to a friend’s home to celebrate; in Virginia we had our own home and along with the neighbors set off small firecrackers and fountains in the street. Much to the delight of our daughters.

The most exciting personal displays occurred at our family camp in Ontario Canada. There you could buy rockets, roman candles, and all kinds of explosives. My sister loved to purchase a large selection and as the night settled in at camp, she would have her husband set them off over the lake. Sometimes things went well and sometimes the fireworks seemed to have the upper hand.  I always worried that someone would set himself on fire, but if he did, as least he could dive in lake. That never happened.

Americans mark their lives by holidays: where they were, what they did, and of course who they shared them with.  We remember them when we are little and our parents seem to always be there.  We remember them when we are far away.  And we remember those who are now gone that made them special.

Those 4th of July celebrations are in many ways the most precious  of all.

Posted in Alaska, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska, Cambodia bombing 1973, F-4 Phantom II, Family History, Holidays, U Dorn RTAFB | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Norvell Boys Write to the President

In the 19th century, Americans often wrote to the chief executive asking for jobs or advice on how to conduct their lives. Two such letters were sent to Thomas Jefferson by members of the same family. The first one was from John Norvell dated May 9, 1807, who wrote in part:

“It is well known that your time is employed in more important and beneficial concerns, but it is fondly hoped, that you will find a leisure moment to confer a benefit and favor on a an individual…

It would be a great favor, too, to have your opinion of the manner in which a newspaper, to be most extensively beneficial, should be conducted, as I expect to become the publisher of one for a few years.”

Today is it hard to fathom anyone writing the President of the United States for career advice, let alone a 17 year old boy from Kentucky. Jefferson’s 1807 response to him focused on the value of the press and was his most famous pronouncement on the role of the press in American democracy. Which he did not hold in high esteem at the time.

Given John’s success in reaching Mr. Jefferson and luck in getting an answer, his younger brother Joshua Norvell wrote to Jefferson in 1808 asking for a job.

“Dear Sir

This may at first excite your surprize: but when you see its contents, I am more than certain that you will feel for my situation.

Knowing that you are about to retire from the cares of the nation; and seek repose and happiness in the bosom of private and rural life, I have taken upon myself to ask a favor; which, if granted, will throw me under every obligation conceivable. Having always had an anxious desire to acquire knowledge, and never yet having had means to effect that desire, I have formed a plan, which if carried into execution, will serve every purpose. As old age and bodily decay have naturrally crept on you, I have thought it probable, that after you remove to Monticello, you may want some person to execute your writing, and other little things which may not be convenient for you to attend to. If this should be the case, I would freely come after the session of congress is over, and assist you in every department of which I am capable; and throw myself into your hands for instruction in such subjects as you thought proper to give it, and such clothing &c. as you deemed necessary. I am, to be sure, blessed with health sufficient to labor for a subsistence; but a bare subsistence is all that can be obtained in this country by labor. Should I live till the next spring, I will be eighteen years of age. My character is untainted as far as I know, for the truth of which you can enquire of Mr Boyle, a member of Congress from this place. The above contains the substance of my request: I submit my case to your own known generosity. That you may always be happy and prosper, is the sincere prayer of your very Humble Servant,

Joshua Norvell

P.S. If you would write as soon as possible, that I may arrange affairs, I would be more than obliged to you.

Is is not known if Mr. Jefferson responded. Especially since Joshua implied he was “over the hill.”





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A Letter Home

Stevens Thompson Norvell (1835 -1911) enlisted in the army on January 23, 1858 as a private in Company A 5th U.S. Infantry.

One of his first assignments was as an infantryman in the West; later he would fight with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, commanding a unit of Buffalo Soldiers — but that is a story for another time.

A letter from 1859 that he wrote to his sister Emily Virginia Norvell details life in camp – and is a classic account of how military life can be filled with boredom when there are no battles and also how inventive soldiers can be.

Camp Floyd, Cedar Valley, U.S.

January 12, 1859

My Dear Emily,

Your letter of November 28th [1858] came to hand on the 3d instant- with incredible quickness for this season of the year, but wonders will never cease…. I am sorry to see that you -and from your account, the rest of the family are ins such low spirits, you should try to be more cheerful. I have no doubt , but that your trip to Virginia will do you good; and if it does not – and I can easily tell from your next letter- I shall immediately desert, and go to Virginia and give you fits: so look out….

I am in great hopes that we shall go back to the States next summer; although rumor has fixed upon Mexico as our destination – one thing is certain that there will be a scattering in the spring, and the 5th is bound to go somewhere. Uncle Sam will never allow this large force to remain idle here.

So far, the winter has been very mild – at least it has in this valley-although, ten miles from here, there is two feet of snow – if you will take three thousand men and throw them into a wash basin and you will have our situation exactly. We have drills and parades constantly, besides school at which , we non-commissioned officers -study tactics three times a week. So that our time is entirely occupied. The officers occupy themselves in gambling, and other innocent amusements such as drinking and getting court martialed – you have my idea of how dull it is. The same thing over and over every day – and – and what shall I write about next week.

Oh yes, we have a theatre capable of holding two thousand persons, and at which Shakespeare and the English language are murdered every night. Private soldiers are the “stars.” Richard III cooks for Lieutenant Stith, Hamlet has a situation in the Post bake house, King Lear is engaged in tailoring for his companions, and I actually saw Henry IV and Cardinal Woolsey mixing mortar for the masons.

I wish you could send me some papers ; if you get a chance. It is seldom I can to look at one, and when I do, it is sure to be six months old . When you write to mother give her my love and the rest of the family. Congratulate Isabella on her marriage [ to Capt Angus Keith] … send this letter to Grosse Isle, that mother may know I still live. Be sure and write soon.

Your affectionate brother,


Posted in American History, Battlefields, Michigan History, Military history, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Faded and cracked

They are all similar – old, cracked and sometimes faded; the newer ones in washed out color.  There is a commonality to them that may not be readily apparent.  They are photos of young American men and women in uniform.

Sometimes they are serious, sometimes smiling.  One can sense a feeling of pride beneath the surface images –a calling to be part of something bigger.   I have seen them in Civil War, WWI, WII, Korean, and Vietnam era uniforms.  I have one of me before I went off to fly in the Vietnam War.  It shows me on the wing of an F4 proudly smiling.  I think of it today as the photo that would have been used if I had been shot down.  I wonder if these folks felt the same way.  My photo is a stark reminder of the seriousness of all these images, no matter how old they are.

Did the men in their formal Civil War dress understand what lay ahead, did they in WWII, Korea, Vietnam or overseas today.  I venture to say no.   Entry into combat is an exercise in denial.   One never exercises the slightest thought that they won’t come back.   They will do their time and return home.  Yet as we remember them and what they did, we know that this is not true.

These were young Americans who went off to war for a variety of reasons:  love of country, adventure, the need to escape from their home,  a feeling to be part of a larger cause such as saving the Union, and much more.   They arrived in the service still naive, but that didn’t last long.   The realities of service and war intruded quickly and they suddenly understood the seriousness of it all.

At home their folks looked at these snaps and thought about them, hoping that they were well.   For many they remained the only link to the loved one; they became icons displayed in a special place in the rooms of those left behind.  Of those who came back, they  changed in many ways:  some had PTSD a great many, some were injured seriously, some in Vietnam had Agent Orange exposure, the ways that they were wounded in body and soul are too numerous to mention. Some didn’t return.   The photos now  linked to large granite or limestone markers; names carved on a wall or war memorial.  Names now visible to many  but whose stories are known to only a few.

The photos remained and the years went on, Americans  forever frozen in time.   Forever young and proud, forever anticipating a future that never came.   Those who mourned them now gone; but they living on forever in a moment so long ago.

These are the folks we honor each year on Memorial Day, but really need to think about them every day.


Posted in American History, American holidays, Social History, US Army, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, Veterans, Vietnam Memorial, Vietnam War, World War Ii, WWI | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

When Ohio and Michigan Went to war

In 1834, my great-great grandfather John Norvell found himself embroiled in a controversy that involved Michigan with her neighbors.

Ohio and Michigan had long claimed a disputed section of land which included the Toledo area. The dispute over this area had first arisen in 1802 with the admission of Ohio into the Union. But in 1805, Congress declared that the Michigan boundary was a line drawn due east from the southern extreme of Lake Michigan to Lake Erie. This had remained the boundary for more than twenty-seven years, but now Ohio gradually began to press for Toledo.

As the rhetoric grew heated, Ohio sent surveyors into the disputed area and Ohio Governor Lucas ordered 10,000 men to protect the boundary surveyors. In turn, opposing forces under the command of Governor Mason of Michigan marched to resist them.

Although both militias mobilized, no actual fighting occurred.

This was due to two things: first, President Andrew Jackson informed the two states that the U.S. would have to defend its territory of Michigan against the State of Ohio; and second, Jackson threatened to remove territorial Governor Mason from office if he persisted in military actions against Ohio.

So the “Toledo War” ended, at least militarily

In 1835, Michigan adopted a new state constitution and John Norvell was elected, along with Lucius Lyon, as one of Michigan’s first two U.S. senators. Because the Ohio-Michigan controversy had not been resolved, admission to the Union was delayed; the two new senators were not seated and found themselves labeled “observers” to the Senate’s proceedings.

The controversy continued politically for two more years as Michigan attempted to gain statehood. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois opposed admission into the Union if the issue was not resolved. Both Ohio and Indiana were uneasy over the legality of their own northern boundaries. Into the mix now rose the question of free versus slave state. Many Southern Congressmen would only approve admission of Michigan if a “slave state” joined the Union to maintain the status quo. In the end, Michigan lost the Toledo strip but gained the Upper Peninsula in return, which was in the long run a better trade because of the vast mineral wealth of the area.

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