We have several WWII veterans traveling with us to Normandy on our 75th Anniversary of D-Day tours. As will we do in the weeks leading up to D-Day, today we are spotlighting one veteran, Norwood Thomas, who was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and fought across Europe with the 101st in the towns of Carentan, Bastogne, Hagenau, and Berchtesgaden.
Connie Kennedy had the great pleasure of meeting veteran Norwood Thomas when she was a tour manager for Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours in Normandy during the 70th Anniversary of D-Day (she will be traveling with him again on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day tour). Connie wrote a wonderful article, “Across Europe With the 101st Airborne,” on Norwood’s remarkable story of war, service, and home life in WWII History magazine. We have excerpted some of her article below.
Norwood Thomas: WWII Experience
Norwood Thomas was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and fought across Europe with the 101st in the towns of Carentan, Bastogne, Hagenau, and Berchtesgaden, just to name a few.
On D-Day, Norwood landed in the field at La Fiere Bridge just south of St. Mere Eglise in Normandy. Prior to jumping into Normandy, the men had been told to fight for three days and they they would be pulled from the front lines. The three days became six weeks.
Norwood, along with the rest of the 101st, 82nd Airborne and Allied forces, dropped into Holland on September 17, 1944 during Operation Market Garden. The Division Artillery Headquarters had learned a valuable lesson from D-Day in that it took too long for the unit to regroup since the men jumped from several different planes. For Operation Market Garden, Division Artillery Headquarters staff, including Norwood, would ride a glider into Holland. On the glider that day, Norwood reveled in the difference of D-Day and Market Garden. Firstly, it was a day invasion instead of a night time as D- Day had been. Secondly, it was a gorgeous and quiet day. “You wouldn’t know that there was a war going on when we landed,” said Norwood. “It was quiet. Everything went as it was planned.”
Norwood was injured in a Jeep accident one mid-December day after reporting to HQ. The Jeep, hit by artillery fire, skidded off of the road and flipped. He had injured his back in the accident but suffered no broken bones. He laid in bed at Bastonge’s makeshift hospital for three or four days before he was released back to the barracks. Brigadier General Antony McAuliffe was given an ultimatum by the German Army to surrender or face annihilation. His response was profound and exhilarating to the men in Bastonge; “NUTS!” The Germans, in return, bombed McAuliffe’s Headquarters, causing Norwood to go dig a foxhole for himself as well. “It was miserable. Just the cold was enough, let alone what was happening all was miserable.”
The weather broke and supplies were able to reach the men, and this greatly boosted the paratroopers confidence. New supplies made the men feel like they could continue to fight. Patton arrived with the Third Army and broke the German lines surrounding the 101st in Bastonge.
From Bastogne, the 101st was sent to Hagenau, France, where Norwood established communications. He ensured the communications from the front lines to Division Headquarters were intact so that the Germans didn’t cross the river. Artillery movements and missions were well executed in the drive against the Germans back into Germany.
In April, Norwood was just outside of Munich, Germany when he heard that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. “I wondered who was going to lead now that he was gone” Norwood said. He had long ago given up the notion of an end of the war. “I felt like FDR was a great man and I still think he was the greatest President our country has ever had.”
Norwood saw a concentration camp as the 101st assisted in liberating the camp. He does not recall the name of the camp, but speculates that it was Dachau. “Soldiers had been assigned to organize the people who were very ill and find transport to get them better medical attention.”
Norwood stayed in Munich with Division Artillery Headquarters while the 101st continued onto Berchtesgaden. This was the home for many of Hitler’s elite and included two of Hitler’s homes, a personal residence and the treasured ‘Eagle’s Nest,’ a spacious home built on a mountain top as a gift from the Nazi Party. Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945 and the 101st was in a race with the French Second Armored and the 7th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Cottonballers” to secure the Eagle’s Nest first. The 7th Infantry Regiment won the race, but the 101st occupied the home and celebrated there for three days. The elevator to the Nest didn’t work when Norwood arrived, so he climbed the mountain to reach the Eagle’s Nest. He took no souvenirs, but remembered how lovely it was there, looking out on the Alps from Hitler’s armchair.
Germany surrendered on May 8th, 1945 and Norwood was in the second wave to be sent home. He departed from Marsaille, France on the USS Worcester Victory. He brought with him a piece of his D- Day parachute, a Nazi flag he took from a German Headquarters office, Germany money and a prized Luger pistol he had taken from a German captain at a roadblock in Briquebec, France. Norwood touched American soil fifteen days later in Massachusetts a day before Thanksgiving in 1945, more than two years after he had left for war.
Norwood Thomas: Post-WWII Life
Two weeks after coming home, he met Mozelle, a young girl with movie star looks whom he later told that she was going to be his wife. She said that wasn’t possible but he pursued her and after five months, she said “yes.” Norwood went back to his old job at the auto repair shop but just couldn’t settle back into civilian life. He found it hard to be around men who didn’t fight for their country and couldn’t get along with them. They moved around a lot and started a family with three children but Norwood never found a job that was “normal” to him.
Norwood realized that his normal was military life and so he re-enlisted in 1959. He fought in Korea and served in Turkey, Thailand and in the United States as a radio operator and later in service, a chief instructor at a signal school. He retired and settled in Virginia Beach, VA. He has volunteered with the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) for many years. “Patriotism is less now than what is was prior to WWII. It is important to tell these stories so we and our soldiers can become more effective in securing our country. I am glad I was able to serve”
On his 90th birthday, Norwood completed a tandem jump to reconnect with his past. “Being a paratrooper is something I am proud of” he said. “It’s different jumping tandem, but at least no one is shooting at you.” Norwood laughed. He jumped again for the 71st Anniversary of D-Day in Virginia. Norwood has returned to Europe three times including once in 1966, in 1994 for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day and in 2014 for the 70th Anniversary. During the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, Norwood was invited by the Mayor of Normandy to stay in their personal residence as a special guest of honor. He was also awarded the French Legion of Honor for his participation of the liberation of France.
During his visit in 1994, Norwood was walking in Pouppe-ville, France, and saw a familiar building. It was the bar where he was given shots of brandy on D-Day. He went in to have a drink and met a man who asked him about his service. Norwood told him about the D-Day story and the man said “My father was in this bar on D-Day. Will you please come to our home so you can meet him?” Norwood obliged the man and was able to meet the man who remembered two American soldiers coming into the bar on D-Day morning. The bar was no longer there on his visit in 2014, but Norwood remembered where the man lived so he paid him a visit at that time. The father had since passed, but with the help of an interpreter, Norwood explained who he was to the man who answered the door. It was the same man he had met 20 years prior.