A true local hero finally comes home after 78 years. Killed in Action on August 1, 1943, in Ploesti, Romania and with his remains just recovered, Frank “Ardith” Norris will finally be laid to rest April 30, 2022, in his hometown of Quinlan, Texas. He was 23 at the time of his death.
Well for Uncle Ardith it all started right here 102 years ago.
This has been a long journey that started with his parents, our grandparents Mary Lee and Robert Walter Norris (Bobbie and Daddy Bob), and ended on that fateful day in 1943.
For Mary Korby, Nancy Gaddis and me, it has been our opportunity to connect with and get to know our uncle, and even though he was lost before we were born, we’ve gotten to know him well through family stories, their letters to each other and history itself.
With that said I’d like to share parts of his story with you now.
He was born December 5, 1919 here. He was the second youngest among seven children. He grew up during the Depression, on the family 100-acre cotton farm here in Quinlan, working hard in the fields from an extremely young age, as did most kids during that time. He was a farm boy, strong, hardworking, funny and smart with great common sense and good old-fashioned values.
He attended elementary school in the Payne Store and Prairie Hill schools, and completed High School in Celeste, Texas. He then attended East Texas State Teachers College in Commerce for two years before entering the service.
Ardith enlisted in the Army Air Corp November 11, 1941, one month before the declaration of War against Germany.
We always wondered why? Because times were hard, did he run out of money for college, did the farm need financial help? Most likely it was because he saw the inevitable.
The headlines on the first days of November that led up to Ardith’s enlistment November 1st included:
A German U-Boat sank the destroyer, USS Reuben James. Hitler claimed that the United States had attacked the U-Boat and Germany first.
A French convoy of passenger and cargo ships was captured by the Germans.
The Germans were commissioning one or two U-Boats every day.
Several more allied ships were sunk.
The list of examples goes on and on. Ardith knew that war was imminent and chose how he wanted to serve.
He was part of what we often refer to as the “greatest generation”. Defined by hard work, sacrifice, and old-fashioned values, he clearly had that unwavering desire to defend our and many other countries’ freedom.
Like most young people at the time, he was fascinated with flying, so he took the opportunity and chose how he would serve, in the Army Air Force.
He went through Basic Training at Chanute Field, Illinois, Airplane Mechanics school at David Monthan Field, Tucson, Arizona, Aerial Gunners school in Las Vegas, Nevada and then on to Aerial Engineers school, Hendricks Field, Sebring, Florida.
In his letter of August 5th, 1942, he said he had been assigned to a crew and they were headed out to pick up their ship. He said he was rather anxious to get it and that he hoped to stop by home on the way -- that he was homesick. And in the very next sentence he said he was ready to go over there and fight.
Now a trained flight engineer, he was assigned to Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas for combat training.
As a flight engineer Ardith had many responsibilities. In his words, “his job was to keep his ship in tip top shape all the time.” In flight he had to troubleshoot any problems with the plane’s fuel, electrical and hydraulic systems. He was the ranking enlisted man of the crew and also served as the top turret gunner and trained as a back-up pilot. Again, he wrote that he only flew the bomber in emergencies or to let the pilots rest, that it didn’t bother him in the least and that he was perfectly comfortable handling that big bird. And he added that “it handled easier than one would expect.”
By late September he had made sergeant and was excited because his pay increased form $78 a month to $97 a month and he could start sending more money home. They were working 7 days a week and only got off to go to church once in 2 months.
On February 1st, 1943, he was deployed and assigned to the 9th Air Force, 345th Bombardment Squadron (B-24 Liberator Heavy), 98th Bombardment Group (the Pyramiders).
He was originally to be based in China. However, after the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in 1942, the Japanese took the Chinese airstrip where they were first assigned. Ardith’s Group was reassigned to Benghazi, Libya, North Africa.
They flew from El Paso, to either Cuba or Panama, then Brazil, then across the Atlantic to Africa and then up to Benghazi.
Ardith’s B-24, named “Old Baldy”, flew dozens of missions before the fateful day known as “Black Sunday”.
The 98th bombed land targets, air fields, railroad lines, shipping, and harbor installations in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Crete, and Greece to cut enemy supply lines to Africa.
During the next 6 months, based on a family story from his sister Orene that was passed down to Mary, Ardith flew at least 32 missions. He could have rotated at 20 for R&R but wanted to stay.
The sand in the desert was so fine that the aircraft engines only lasted 250 to 500 hours instead of the normal 1000 hours before having to be replaced and rebuilt. The engine maintenance shop was in Cairo in a tunnel under one of the Pyramids. We literally hired people off the streets of Cairo and taught them how to turn a wrench. As you can imagine sometimes the rebuilt engines didn’t quite run right.
Swapping out engines gave Ardith a rare day off. Since the 98th were The Pyramiders, what’s more fun than to have your picture taken in uniform on the back of a camel in front of the Pyramids.
This had to be fairly near the time of his death because he was wearing his Technical Sargent stripes. By the time of his death he had been promoted 6 times in 21 months.
For 10 days leading up to Operation Tidal Wave, the 98th flew practice runs over the desert floor with outlines of Ploiesti painted on the sand with mockups of the refineries.
Then on August 1st, 1943, Operation Tidal Wave took place. It was perhaps the most spectacular American bombing mission of World War II and the second largest loss of life in U.S. air raid history. The raid was a bold low-level assault by 178 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers on the Romanian oil refineries at Ploiesti, which supplied Nazi Germany with one third of its petroleum supply. Winston Churchill considered Ploiesti to be, "...the taproot of German might." The Allies decided that a major effort to deny this fuel should take place with hopes it would shorten the war.
In Romanian, Ploiesti means “rainy place” and on that August day all kinds of things rained up from the ground and down from the skies.
Five heavy bombardment groups took part in the battle, including two based in Benghazi, North Africa, the 98th and 376th, and three sent from England to join them in Libya on temporary duty. At the time these were all of the B-24 groups available in the European and Middle Eastern theaters of operation.
The bombers flew low to avoid radar detection and dropped time delayed bombs.
48 of the B-24’s were from Ardith’s group. One, the “Kickapoo”, crashed on takeoff killing 8 of the 10 crew, more aborted enroute. According to one pilot’s eye witness account, when Ardith’s group made their final turn toward the target, the Germans were ready for them.
Back then a big part of navigating was following roads and railways, especially critical at low level. There was a disguised German train on the tracks going top speed with 7 anti-aircraft batteries and multiple machine guns on flat cars. In the fields nearby, the tops of hay stacks flipped open with guns inside.
The pilot of Sandman, a sister bomber, said they were ripped apart. From the turn at Floresti to over the target at Ploiesti, 22 in the group were shot down.
Already hopelessly on fire from the wing back Old Baldy went into the smoke over the refinery, they kept her in the air long enough to drop their bombs on the target. After clearing the smoke, they were fired on again and downed by a Romanian-manned 88-mm anti-aircraft gun. Lt. John Dore piloted the mortally wounded aircraft into a crash atop the gun that hit him and his crew, killing the 6 members of the gun crew as well as all 10 of “Old Baldy’s” crew. Only 4 bodies could be identified.
Today, a monument to the Romanian gun crew stands on the site at Corlatesti, a few miles south of the refinery. You can see the refineries in the background.
Of the 178 planes with 1,726 men on board that took off from Benghazi that day, only 88 planes returned and of those only 33 were air worthy.
90 B-24s were lost, with 900 men, 660 were confirmed Killed in Action, and many others were imprisoned by the Germans.
You can’t help but pause and think what a mighty end for these young men.
In combat Ardith distinguished himself on many occasions for valor and heroism. His many medals and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, a Purple Heart, the Air Medal with Silver Oak Leaf Cluster, the Greek War Cross with Bronze Crown, and the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Four Stars.
Five Medals of Honor were awarded for the Ploiesti raid. All five groups that took part received Presidential Unit Citations.
Ardith was preceded in death by his brother, Ralph Norris, and his sisters, Reba Norris and Baby Ned Norris. Subsequently, his parents, his brothers, Doyle Norris and Norman Norris (both of whom served in WWII), and his sister, Orene Norris Rhoades all have passed away.
Mr. Norris is survived by his nieces, Mary Rhoades Korby of Dallas, Texas, Nancy Norris Gaddis of Mena, Arkansas, and his nephew, Robert Stephen Norris of Frisco, Texas. He also has several great nieces and nephews.
Thanks to the amazingly extensive efforts of the United States Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division, Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, after 79 years, Frank Ardith Norris is now home.