I met one of the last Americans to see Churchill, Stalin and Truman together and who also has met several Hollywood stars.
On Wednesday, I was excited about the interview and wore a skirt and turtleneck rather than my usual outfit of jeans. I wanted to show respect to this particular interviewee.
It was already a crazy morning after driving 20 minutes to a wreck and I was running a little late for our 10 a.m. appointment.
I pulled up to a beautiful ranch style home, I later found out he and his wife built it in 1954, and was greeted at the door by 88-year-old Fred Norman before I even rang the doorbell.
I’d seen younger photos of him and he looked basically the same-still wearing his hair in the 1940s wave style and a few pounds heavier.
“Hello!!” he happily said inviting me inside. We sat down and started to talk about his war years.
Norman was in the 3rd Army, sixth division (or Super Six) that fought under General George S. Patton. Under Patton he fought in the Siege of Bastogne to relieve the U.S. 101st Airborne Division who was surrounded by the German in the Battle of the Bulge (this is shown in the 1948 film “Battleground”).
Norman was with the American, French and British forces who went into Berlin, Germany after the Russians. He was also there with hundreds of other soldiers and tanks that lined the Autobahn as Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin rode into Berlin for the Potsdam Conference that determined Nazi Germany’s punishment.
“Churchill had his daughter Sarah with him and Stalin was in the biggest limousine I’ve ever seen,” Norman said. “Truman road up in a convertible and I slipped out of rank and snuck into the forest to take a picture. I’m probably one of the last people living to see those three together. I was 21 at the time and it was 66 years ago so there can’t be many of us left.”
Born and raised in Elkin, N.C., Norman was 19-years-old and a student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he was drafted into the Army. He was sent to California for basic training before going overseas to England.
After the war, Norman married his sweetheart since the fourth grade, Nan ‘Hon’ Johnson. She passed away in 2007.
“When I got out of the Army I said, ‘Nan we aren’t having any long engagement, we’ve been engaged since the fourth grade,’” Norman laughed. “Hon and I were married for 62 years and we had a great life. Someone may go but the memories never leave.”
Towards the end of the interview I asked if he saw any movie stars or went to the Hollywood Canteen while he was in California for training.
“I saw a bunch of stars when I went to Hollywood, but I don’t think you’d know anything about them,” he said.
I quickly said I was actually a big movie fan. Mr. Norman smiled real big and we talked an extra 30 minutes about people he had seen at the Canteen and during the 1940s and 1950s.
“I remember seeing Joan Blondell at the Hollywood Canteen-she was real famous at the time. That was a really great thing they did for us,” Norman said. “I also saw Frank Sinatra, he was mine and Hon’s number one.”
Norman and a friend used to travel to New York City to see the Lucky Strike Radio Hour and listen to Frank Sinatra sing.
“The girls just went crazy for him. I asked my friend ‘What has he got that we haven’t got?’ Every time he would move the girls would go crazy,” Norman said. “He was sitting on a stool and knelt down to adjust his loafer and the girls went ape. They did the show again two hours later for California audiences and I’ll be doggoned if those girls waited another two hours to listen to Frank again!”
Norman also saw big band leader Kay Kyser several times since they both went to UNC Chapel Hill, but at different times.
While overseas he saw Marlene Dietrich perform.
“See what the boys in the backroom will have,” he sang thinking about the famous song Dietrich sang. “World War 2 was so different. Everyone was so dedicated. I don’t believe anyone would do that now.”
In Berlin, Norman saw one of the most modern theaters he had ever seen. It had 12 doors that lead to every row of seats and an elevator stage.
“The elevator stage rose up and there was Mickey Rooney,” he said. “I didn’t know how small that rascal was! He came out and said, ‘I know you are all going to tell me to get off my knees, but this is as tall as I get.’ He gave quite a show.”
Norman met many incredible actors that we have lost today, but most importantly I’m thankful for what he did for our country. He fought under one of the greatest generals our country will ever see, and is the sweetest man I have ever met.
For a long time, Norman didn’t talk about his war experiences.
“I didn’t talk about the war for many years after I got home. Nobody did, I didn’t even talk to daddy about it,” he said. “It wasn’t until Tom Brokaw came out and said we needed to tell our stories that I did. I don’t mind telling some of the anecdotes, but there are a lot of things I saw that I just don’t want to talk about.”
I’m proud that I was able to talk to him, and that I consider this man a friend.
Thank you Fred Norman, and all the other veteran’s who have served our country.
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