Remembrance of D-Day Veteran Norwood Thomas | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

Remembrance of D-Day Veteran Norwood Thomas

Norwood Thomas WWII paratrooperWe were deeply saddened to learn that D-Day veteran Norwood Thomas passed away on January 24. We were honored to have Norwood and his son Steve travel with us to Normandy for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day along with several other WWII veterans.

Connie Kennedy had the great pleasure of meeting Norwood when she was a tour manager for Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours during the 70th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. Norwood was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division and on D-Day, he landed in a field at La Fiere Bridge just south of St. Mere Eglise, which is where Connie met him. He had been invited to France at the request of the French Mayor to receive the French Legion of Honor Medal during the D-Day ceremonies.

As Connie recalls, “Norwood was kind and happy to tell our group his landing story. One of the people traveling with us knew Don Malarkey, another member of the 101st, and Norwood shared that Don Malarkey actually landed where Norwood was supposed to have landed the morning of June 6, 1944.”

Prior to jumping into Normandy, the men had been told to fight for three days and they would be pulled from the front lines. The three days became six weeks.

Norwood Thomas at 101st Airborne Memorial
Norwood Thomas at the 101st Airborne Memorial on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day Tour.

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.”

Connie wrote a wonderful article, “Fighting Across Europe with the 101st Airborne,” about Norwood’s remarkable story of war, service, and home life in WWII History magazine. We hope you will read her article in remembrance of this remarkable man and our dear friend.

We would like to extend our deepest sympathy to Steve at this difficult time.

Fighting Across Europe with the 101st Airborne

101st Airborne paratrooper Norwood Thomas survived D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the fighting in Germany during World War II.

“Oui.” It was one of the few words 101st Airborne paratrooper Norwood Thomas knew in French, and it served him well on the morning of June 6, 1944. After he assisted in the clearing of Causeway No. 1, which led off Utah Beach in Normandy, Norwood spotted a pub in the town of Pouppeville and decided that “the war was over.”

Thomas and another soldier went in for a drink to celebrate, and the French bartender asked in broken English if the American forces were in St.-Mere-Eglise. They answered, “‘Oui!” and received a shot of brandy. The bartender asked about another French town, and the soldiers again replied, “Oui!” and another shot was poured. This continued for eight or more towns with the soldiers replying, “Oui!” The “Oui” festival ended abruptly when a lieutenant entered and ordered the men to move out.

Some 21/2 years earlier, Norwood had been working at an auto shop in Durham, North Carolina, when he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. “I was a typical kid, ignorant of politics,” said Norwood, just 19 years old at the time of the attack. “But all I knew then was that I wanted to bomb them back to eternity.”

Norwood believed that the war would last only two weeks. “I had no idea of how much our resources lacked militarily speaking at the time of the war,” he said. “We had just come out of the Great Depression where I had nothing, so looking back, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But it was.” The United States had no shortage of men willing to fight as recruiting centers were bursting at the doors and lines were down the block. “Kids lied about their age just to get a chance to fight,” Norwood remembered.

On March 16, 1942, Norwood enlisted in the Army.  He was later assigned to the 82nd Infantry Division. Since he had worked in the auto shop, he was assigned to the signal company and worked in the motor pool. In October 1942, the 82nd Infantry Division became the first airborne division in the U.S. Army. The 82nd Airborne Division was then split into two divisions, and Norwood, along with half the men, was assigned to the newly created 101st Airborne Division. During training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, two officers from Fort Benning, Georgia, arrived on base and asked for volunteers to be paratroopers. Norwood, anxious to do something new and earn extra pay, raised his hand. He joined a group of about 150 men in a physical endurance test.

“They ran us until our tongues hung out,” said Norwood. “I swear mine was by my belt buckle when we finally stopped.” The survivors of the exercise fell back into formation and were asked again who wanted to be a paratrooper. Norwood raised his hand and dropped to do push ups. “Men were dropping out, and those who could keep going, did,” he said.  Approximately 16 men remained and were sent off to Fort Benning to complete the five-week Jump School.

Airborne training was arduous. Jump School consisted of physical training, parachute education, tower jumps, and five active jumps to receive the coveted jump wings. Active jumps were live from an airplane at regulation altitude. The training was difficult. “It was like they didn’t want just anyone there,” recalled Norwood. “They were very hard on us because we had to be good. We had to be great.”

Norwood completed his program successfully and proudly wore his jump wings and bloused his pant legs into his boots before heading back to Fort Bragg to join the 101st. Paratroopers were identified by the bloused pant legs tucked into their boots as they were the only units allowed to do this to their uniforms. He was assigned to division artillery headquarters with 25 paratroopers and 125 glider men. Norwood became a division radio operator. After attending signal code school, he was part of a communications network to direct fire during combat. A benefit of training at Fort Bragg was its location close to his family home. He was able to visit during weekend leave.

Training continued throughout the next year and a half. “Soldiers trained hard without equipment,” said Norwood. “They would do training exercises with a rifle that had been given to the soldiers only for that day, turning in the rifle at the end of each training [session] during those months. The word ‘TANK’ was painted on the side of a truck to simulate combat in a training exercise.”

In September 1943, the 101st Airborne Division deployed to England. Norwood boarded the transport RMSStrathnaverand endured an inglorious start to his wartime experience. “The ship broke down three times” he said. “We had to stop in Newfoundland for repairs, only to strike a large rock when leaving the harbor.” The men were then placed on another ship to complete the journey to England. It took 45 days to get there.

Continue reading Fighting Across Europe with the 101st Airborne on Warfare History Network >>

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