Thousands of young Americans rushed to sign up to defend America after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

But Norman Norcross already was serving his country. Norcross signed up for the Army Air Corp before the Pearl Harbor attack, he said while relaxing in his room at the Hickory Creek at Columbus retirement home on the city’s north side.

“I had been in the Air Corp for six months when they bombed Pearl Harbor,” the World War II Army Air Corp veteran said. “I was there when it (the war) started and I was there when it ended.”

Norcross, who will turn 102 on Dec. 23, has a black-and-white photo of himself as a young enlistee on his wall at the retirement home, showing a handsome 27-year-old with his jaunty military uniform and airman’s cap and a disarming smile.

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The smile is still there all these years later, and the Missouri native is quick to reveal the secret to his longevity.

Norcross never got married, didn’t drink or smoke, didn’t have kids and walked every day — including walking at FairOaks Mall in Columbus in its early years. He’s been living at Hickory Creek since 1991.

There have been girlfriends along the way, including a war widow who lost her husband in Italy during World War II. Norcross spent 35 years of his life with her and remembers her fondly.

So when asked, “You never got married?,” he flashes that grin from his youth and says, “Haven’t yet.”

Aspirations to be in the air

Norcross wanted to be a pilot when he enlisted. But at the time, the Army Air Corp’s age limit for pilots was 26, and he already¬†was past that.

“I wanted to be a pilot, but the Army grounded me before I even got in a plane,” he said.

There was a brief flirtation with becoming a tail gunner, but the Army eventually decided Norcross’ talents were in the mechanical needs of the motor pool, and he eventually was sent to Okinawa to keep the Jeeps and other vehicles operational for the troops.

Norcross hinted that motor pool parts were often hard to find, but the vehicles needed to keep running. So he and his fellow servicemen would sometimes take excursions to find vehicles that might have the parts that were needed.

“And we had to secure them,” he said, laughing.

The U.S. had taken control of Okinawa after the Battle of Okinawa, which began on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, and concluded on June 22, 1945. An estimated 12,520 Americans died in that battle, along with 100,000 Japanese and an untold number of civilians. The island then became a massive American base, and a staging area to invade Japan, which was 375 miles away. The invasion did not materialize because atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just six weeks after the Battle of Okinawa ended.

Most of the news about Pearl Harbor, and the war in the Pacific, came from radio reports, Norcross said. Holidays could be difficult, as it was a time normally spent with family, but Norcross said he got used to life on Okinawa.

It used to rain almost every hour, he said, and sometimes the servicemen would just grab towels and soap and shower in the rain.

Norcross said he never felt in any serious danger while serving on Okinawa, or when he visited Guam. After serving in the Army Air Corp for about four and a half years, he returned to his home in Springfield, Missouri, and began a series of jobs, including working for a butane gas company and then in civil service. He wanted to work for the Post Office, but it wasn’t hiring, so he went to work for the national cemetery in Springfield.

“We buried soldiers,” he said of the job.

When Norcross returned home, he took his uniform, canteen and bayonet with him — and kept them all these years.

Uniform shrunk

In honor of Veterans Day this year, he decided to wear his Army Air Corp uniform and help the staff at Hickory Creek of Columbus deliver pumpkin pies to the American Legion and local veterans organizations on Nov. 23.

However, when he tried on the uniform, it was too small.

“It has shrunk,” he said, laughing again. “Apparently I gained a little weight in the last 74 years,” he told the Hickory Creek staff.

Norcross did wear his Army Air Corp cap and the staff wore camouflage shirts in his honor. He celebrated the day with dinner at Sirloin Stockade in Columbus, something he described as “a pretty good outing.”

Norcross has never made a visit to Hawaii or Pearl Harbor, but counts one major achievement as traveling south of the equator on his way to Okinawa, in a convoy of troop ships all those years ago.

He still talks about the 19-year-old young woman he was dating back in Missouri when he enlisted more than 70 years ago, and how she had plans for the two of them to get married when he got out of the service.

“I just said I got things to do,” he said. “She ended up marrying my best friend.”

About Norman Norcross

Age: 101

Hometown: Springfield, Missouri

Lived in Columbus: Since 1991

Education: Graduate of Mansfield High School, Springfield, Missouri

Military service: World War II Army Air Corp serving as a sergeant over a motor pool.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.