My grandfather, Sgt. Donald Norris of Sugar Grove, Ill, and Lt. John Howard of Winnetka, Ill fought in the 745th Tank Battalion, First Infantry Division alongside each other in a three tank, fifteen-man unit. Both fought from the earliest days of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Both defended
and crossed the Ludendorff Bridge over River Rhine at Remagen, Germany moments before its destruction on St. Patrick’s Day, 1945. While both officers received battlefield commission and promotion, Howard meritoriously earned two Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts; Norris earned the Bronze Star and carried a piece of molten tank turret in his calf until his peaceful death in 1990.
Both men depended on each other to survive the war. Here’s just one of their stories:
During the block-by-block cleanup of German cities, my grandfather enjoyed the warmth of his woolen cap rather than the chill of the "steel pot" helmet, especially during cold weather. Lt. Howard spotted Norris, and would have none of it – ordering Norris to put the helmet back on. Soon after an unseen German pillbox disabled my grandfather’s tank. Bailing out, Norris took a sniper shot to the head. The steel pot, though dented, held strong.
On this Memorial Day 2016, I’m only able to write this piece because of Lt. Howard’s forceful directive to my grandfather. It was a generational gift culminating in 79 descendants. Surviving the war meant that my grandparents Don and Marna Norris could raise ten children, including my mother Janet. Don and Marna would have 23 grandchildren. Today, my girls are three of their 46 great-grandchildren.
So, who were Lt. John Howard and Sgt. Donald Norris? Both men represented the best of America in 1943. Neither were natural warriors, but both rose to the occasion and rapidly learned Army tank warfare.
Howard was a bespectacled intellectual. After the war he became President of Rockford College, Rockford, Ill, founded two influential center-right think tanks, exchanged many policy letters
with President Reagan and accepted a Nixon appointment. With a family lineage traced back to the Mayflower ship, Howard’s great-grandfather was John Manny, who, in 1855, invented a superior reaper. After Cyrus McCormick sued, Manny assembled the successful legal team that included Edwin Stanton and Abraham Lincoln.
Howard’s father, Hubert Howard, was appointed Chairman of U.S. Munitions by President Truman. His son John Howard left after his third year at Princeton to serve in the U.S. Army, eventually earning a Doctorate degree from Northwestern University.
Norris was a family man and generational farmer with his ancestor John Norris’ colonial settlement in 1695. Don’s wife, Marna, traced her family history to Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of New Amsterdam (pre-New York City). The Norris family settled Spring Bluff Farm in Sugar Grove, Ill in 1844. Between 1844 and 1913, the family worked
450 farm acres plus a Hereford cattle operation, and raised hogs, chickens, and horses. They also engaged in milling, all without the benefit of electricity. In 1942, Don Norris left the University of Illinois at Champaign only a few credits shy of graduation to join the Army. Today, the Norris family still owns the farm, eight generations later.
Each man was prayerful and ethical in battle against Hitler’s army.
During the second day of the Battle of the Bulge, Lt. Howard was out with his unit on top of a ridge overlooking a meadow at the edge of a thick forest. A battalion – approximately 500 German soldiers – occupied the meadow and were without armor. So, Howard commanded his gunners to load the anti-personnel shells and sight the machine guns. Then, Howard disembarked from his tank and walked forward to the front of the tanks – demanding to meet with the German commander. Howard could have wiped out the enemy. Instead, he successfully negotiated their surrender without loss of life.
After fighting the Germans through France, Belgium and into Germany, Howard wrote
later in his essay, World War II: A Half Century and a Whole Civilization Ago:
"It is a shock to fire weapons at other human being and kill them; to adjust to a continuing series of deaths of people you have worked closely with and liked and counted on; to come to terms with the fear for your own life; to bear responsibility for life and death decisions, some of which turn out badly for your comrades; to carry on through prolonged periods with next to no sleep; to spend day after day never knowing what will happen the next minute."
On May 8, 1945, Americans awoke to the news of Germany’s imminent surrender and, with celebration, declared the date V-E Day. On the ground in Germany, during this emotional moment, Lt. John Howard called his platoon together for a voluntary prayer behind the barn.
On this momentous day in history, Howard read from his field notes:
"Dear God, we pause to offer our simple thanks that this day for which the world has waited is at hand… God help our leaders, and God, help us too, to be worthy of the fact that we were chosen to survive the war.
Let us not forget our friends who gave their lives that we might see this day. In their memory may we be better men, may we have the courage to stand for what we know to be right, and if necessary may we have the courage to carry out whatever tasks are assigned to us in freeing the Orient. God keep our Loved ones safe until we return to them. Amen.
Dr. John Howard | May 8, 1945 | read original ‘The Prayer Behind the Barn’
Lt. John Howard and my grandfather Sgt. Don Norris were part of the ‘Fury’ boys of World War II – the tank commanders of the European theatre. Many of the heroic men they served beside never returned home. Those men died depending on the living to finish the story for them.
Looking down from heaven, they would not be disappointed in the lives of men like Howard and Norris and the others gathered behind that barn. Those men would never forget. Nor will we.
Last summer, only three weeks after being interviewed for this column, Dr. John Howard died on August 7, 2015 just three days before his 94th birthday.
Adam Norris Andrzejewski is CEO of OpenTheBooks.com.
The Howard stories in this article were collected, in part, from first-person interviews with Dr. John Howard (July, 2015) with the help of Matthew Tyrmand, Deputy Director of OpenTheBooks.com. Matthew’s father, Leopold Tyrmand, co-founded The Rockford Institute with Dr. Howard and was the founding editor of its periodical: "Chronicles of Culture" in 1976 after fleeing communist Poland a decade earlier and later decamping from New York City.