Norris Olson grew up during the Depression, flew 70 missions as a B-25 tail gunner during World War II and, along with so many other members of America’s aptly dubbed “Greatest Generation,” returned home to help build the most prosperous and productive economy in the history of mankind.
But he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.
Not even a war hero.
“Not in any way,” Olson said during a delightful, two-hour interview in the guest house of his barrier island home. “I have nothing to brag about. I was just part of an effort to win the war, same as all the others who fought in Europe and North Africa and the Pacific.”
When I first approached him, in fact, he was reluctant to talk about his combat experience – because, as he saw it, he really didn’t do anything extraordinary. Yes, he went to war. But so did a lot of other guys.
Besides, that war was a long time ago.
“I’m not sure my story is all that interesting,” Olson told me earlier this summer. “I don’t know why anyone would care now.”
“I think a lot of folks around here would care,” I said. “And people should care, particularly our younger people who probably don’t know as much about World War II as they should. They need to know what you guys did and understand why you did it, so they can appreciate the sacrifices that were made. They need to care.”
Olson, who reads four newspapers each day, knows what’s going on around the world, which again is rife with chaos and threatened by evil. He knows how much America has changed across the past 70 years. He knew what I was getting at.
And, eventually, he agreed to share his story, which turned out to be even more compelling than I had anticipated – because it provided so vivid a picture of that pivotal chapter in our history, of the men of his generation and how dutifully they answered their country’s call.
Born in 1924 and raised in tiny Horicon, WI, during the hardship of the Depression years, Olson was 17 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
“It was so hard to believe,” Olson said. “The next day, I was having lunch and listening to the radio when President (Franklin) Roosevelt made his ‘day that will live in infamy’ speech and thousands of men enlisted.”
He wasn’t at all surprised by the patriotic response.
“I don’t know if I can explain it, but there was a fiber that ran throughout the country,” Olson said. “There was a real sense of pride in being an American, even during the worst of times.
“Even during the Depression, people would do anything they could to avoid going on the county – which, back then, meant accepting welfare,” he added. “Neighbors would help neighbors. Churches got involved. But people were ashamed to take a handout.
“So after Pearl Harbor, when the country called for us to fight, there was never any hesitation. We did what was expected of us.”
Olson’s path to war, however, included a few twists and turns, even some well-intended trickery.
At age 18, enrolled as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Olson said he was approached by the U.S. Army Air Corps, which was seeking qualified candidates to stay in college and become war-time meteorologists. He accepted the offer, which involved a transfer to the University of Minnesota.
There, though, his conscience began to trouble him.
“Friends of mine were in combat, fighting for this great country of ours, and I was in a classroom in college,” Olson said. “It didn’t feel right. I needed to be there.”
So he took a dive.
He deliberately failed a physics and mathematics exam, scoring only 25 out of 100, which prompted the instructor to tell him, “You don’t belong here.” Asked by the program’s commanding officer about his poor showing on the test, Olson fibbed, saying he had answered the questions to the best of his ability.
“I felt awful about the deception,” Olson said, “but I was 18 years old and I didn’t know how else to get out of it.”
The Army then wanted him to go to Officer Candidate School. He said he wanted to go to combat. To get there, however, he’d need to play fast and loose with the truth again.
“I told some terrible lies to get into combat,” Olson said. “But it wasn’t because I wanted to be a hero. I just wanted to do what was expected of me, what I expected of myself.”
He was sent to a base outside St. Louis for basic training, then to armament school in Denver, then to flight gunnery school in Kingman, AZ. It was only a matter of time, he thought, before he would be on his way to combat.
But before any such orders came through, Olson was told the Army wanted to keep him in Arizona as an instructor.
So he lied again, this time to a chaplain.
“I told him I needed to get to combat because I had an uncle in Norway, that he had come to the United States every summer to study hydro-electiric power and that he was like a brother to me,” Olson said. “And I told him he was in a German concentration camp in Norway.
“I had quite the imagination for a young guy, and it was an out-and-out lie. I didn’t know if they even had concentration camps in Norway. But the chaplain went to the head of the camp and, when he came back, he told me I was going to combat.
“I don’t know if they really bought my story or not – and I’m not proud of it – but that bit of chicanery got me over there.”
After training as a tail gunner for three months in South Carolina, Olson was delployed to Casablanca, Morocco. His 70 combat missions took him from his base in North Africa to southern France, northern Italy and Austria.
He remembers his first mission in detail.
“We were flying over Marseilles, France, and the shells started coming up from the ground,” Olson said. “We didn’t get hit, but it was frightening knowing that they were trying to kill us.”
On another mission, his plane was hit but managed to return safely to its base on one engine. He still has a small piece of the shrapnel from the enemy shell as a keepsake.
“I kept a few mementos,” said Olson, who went to combat as a staff sergeant and was promoted to tech sergeant. “Most of them are packed away in a box.”
He still remembers seeing planes getting hit and going down, knowing that his buddies were aboard. He also preserved memories in a diary he kept throughout his combat service.
“I kept a record of every place we went, what happened and what were the results of each mission,” Olson said. “If you lived through it, what an adventure it was.”
Olson admits he was fortunate, entering the war late, after many of the Nazi’s top fighter pilots had been killed or were brought back to Germany. There were few “milk runs” – missions during which his plane encountered little or no resistance.
“Fortunately, I lived a charmed life,” he said. “Occasionally, we’d see fighters. We’d see explosions. We were bombing important enemy positions, so we were always getting fired at. But nobody on my plane ever got seriously hurt.”
The day the war ended in Europe, Olson was on a ship leaving Italy. A few weeks later, he was in California, fully expecting to be sent to the Pacific theater. But his combat time, along with the five air medals he earned, gave him enough points to be sent home.
Upon his return to civilian life, Olson went back to the University of Wisconsin and earned a degree, then took a job with a company that manufactured dial telephones in Chicago. In 1951, he and a partner started a successful plastics business in Columbus, OH, where he worked for 15 years before selling his share of the company and moving to Vero Beach in 1966.
Here, Olson opened a Merrill Lynch office, which he managed for 15 years before retiring in 1990. On Tuesday, he celebrated his 90th birthday by having a quiet dinner with his wife, Millinda, but he remains active.
In addition to playing golf – he has been a member at Riomar for 47 years – he works out at the Jungle Club three times per week. He also reads 8 to 10 hours per day.
“I’m a low-profile kind of guy,” Olson said.
The same can be said of many of his “Greatest Generation” peers. Sadly, their numbers dwindle each year. And with each one that leaves us, we lose our connection to a special time in our history.
We lose something as a nation.
“You had to grow up during that period to understand, but people were different then,” Olson said. “Nowadays, you see advertisements for government assistance and how you can qualify for disability. We’ve got 45 million people on food stamps. We’ve become a welfare society.
“That does not build character,” he added. “That’s not how it was when I was growing up. I think the fiber and character of this country has changed.”
He should know.