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Culver area’s Norris recalls WW2 service with WAC

March 24, 2014

Lida Norris in uniform during World War II.

There are just a handful of surviving World War II veterans in the Culver area today, and it might surprise some to learn that one is a woman.

Lida Norris, a 1936 graduate of Culver High School, didn't serve, as some assume when they learn of her status as veteran, as a Red Cross nurse or the like. Instead, she was one of over 150,000 American women who served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during the war, they being among the first women (besides nurses) to serve within the ranks of the United States Army (for the record, Culver's other WWII vet is Pearl Harbor survivor Jim DeWitt).

Norris, whose maiden name was Cowen, actually grew up on a dairy farm in Green Township, just outside Union Township. In those days (much as has become the case again in Indiana in the past few years), students could choose which school they attended, as long as they were able to get there. So, while her older sisters rented rooms in Argos and attended high school there, Lida took advantage of the free bus service to Culver, which was rumored to have started because the township trustee's daughter wanted to attend CHS but needed transportation!

"Anyone who lived west of Muckshaw Road could get to Culver using the free bus service," she recalls, adding she's not aware of any of her class of `36 classmates who are still living.

After graduation, she started secretarial work at Culver Military Academy's headmaster's office, later moving to employment at the State Exchange Bank where the venerable W.O. Osborn held court.
Lida Norris' adventures began after she'd taken a job she didn't really enjoy in South Bend and her boyfriend at the time, who had been drafted into the military, asked her to bring his car to him in Texas, something she was all too happy to do as an alternative to her work at the time.

That was in 1941, that time of infamy in US history ("I remember Pearl Harbor Sunday," she notes. "I actually sensed my world falling down around my ears; I knew we'd be at war.").

While in Texas, Norris met a girl who wanted to go to Houston; young Norris wound up working at a Shell refinery there, making $30 per week at bookkeeping, to the $55 per month she'd been making in the Hoosier state for the same work.

In 1943, Norris returned to Indiana to care for her ill mother ("I was conscience-stricken (as the) only one in the family who was not yet married"). Her mother recovered quickly, but Norris found herself in Indiana in January and "freezing to death."

With no desire to go back to Texas but a hankering for warmer climes, Norris recalled a training base in Georgia for the WACs.

The Women's Army Corps wasn't new to Lida Cowen. Several friends had joined when it was first introduced in the spring of 1942, though she herself "had absolutely no interest whatsoever" in joining. "But," she adds, "the seed had been planted."

As might be expected, the notion of women in uniform during the 1940s was met with alternate befuddlement and discontent by many in the public and the military as well. The contributions of women, however, were desperately needed in supporting the massive war effort.

"The media was not kind to us, either," says Norris of reaction to the WACs. "What female would join the service except for one thing in mind?"

But little of that was on her mind as she headed south to Georgia. Her wishes for warmth, however, were thwarted when Norris was stationed at Ft. Ogelthorpe, which she said was "just like Indiana -- I was frozen to death!" There she trained at the Woman’s Army Corp Administration School.

Eventually Norris was sent to an overseas outfit at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, from which she traveled in a major ship convoy to England (due to the ongoing German U-boat attacks in the Atlantic). In Britain, she was one of over 200 women assigned to the 2nd Air Division of the 8th Air Force, which was flying B-24 bombers in missions over Germany. Norris herself worked in the Statistical Control Section, tracking current flight missions and helping schedule the next day’s missions.

"Every night each of the 16 bases would send in the number of planes and crews available," she explains. "We would teletype that and send it to London, and they would send back how many they expected to send on bombing runs that day."

"Every Saturday morning we had our parades," she recalls. "We had to learn to march and salute. We could not have our hair touching the collar of our shirts.

"One Saturday morning at inspection, the officers were walking our line and we were all straight and proper, and one of the girls said (to an inspecting officer), 'Ma'am, your hair is on your collar!'"

Norris adds that women in the WAC "never even saw men -- we were in our own corner. You hear so much about girls being raped (in the military today). But we were entirely women, so no men were involved."

The main roles for women in the WAC were secretarial, though Norris says she's "sure the men weren't happy to see us coming. They put a lot of (men formerly handling secretarial work) at the war front. That was difficult to live with. The B-24s had crews of 10 that so often didn't come back. One day we had 10 planes (not return), so that's 100 men who didn't come back."

Stationed 80 miles from London, Norris and her fellow WACs heard German V-1 bombers going over.

"There were trenches outside (our base) that we were trained to jump into," she says. "When that (airplane) engine quit, you wanted to get into those!"

On days off, many WACs would visit London, which Norris recalls was rife with bomb warnings.

"You usually slept in a bottom room somewhere," she notes. "They really pelted London (with bombs)."

She recalls June 6, 1944 -- "D-Day" -- vividly.

"The sky was black with planes to bomb the European beach, both the B-17s and B-24s. They had a sound all their own. And of course we were right across the fence from one of the bases where they were revving up the planes all the time."

Norris remembers one of two boys from Argos, who had been next to one another that fateful day at Normandy, being killed on D-Day, though not the one she knew personally.

She also remembers "quite a celebration" at the end of the war.

"I remember the (popular song of the day), 'Sentimental Journey' so poignantly. All these thousands of GI's were waiting for this sentimental journey home. I remember how fitting it was."

From the time she volunteered to serve, Lida Norris (then Cowen) didn't come home until October of 1945. She recalls the understandable surge of military personnel ready to come home at the war's end, and the point system put into place by the military in order to make the return more orderly.

"Luckily I wasn't homesick. I had been gone for so long, but homesickness is a terrible feeling."

She repeats emphatically that, even after her return stateside, "the media was not kind to us (WACs)."

And people instantly presume she would have served the war effort as a nurse, which of course was certainly quite common during the war.

Perceptions of the day aside, Lida Norris is clearly proud she was able to serve, and she says of her fellow members of the WAC, "There's a camaraderie there that you don't find anywhere else."

The 2nd Air Division held conventions and reunions every year, including several return trips to England. But last year, Norris says wistfully, was the last. There are two few left. One of those gone was her bunkmate, originally from Memphis, Tenn., with whom she kept close contact through the years.

"But she's no longer living," adds Norris quietly.

One powerful memory for Norris was the dances held on any given base which had flown its 30 missions, one of the few interactions WACs had with male military personnel. There she met her first husband, Carroll Thompson, a native of Kansas who completed his 30 B-24 missions in 1944.

The two were married at Thanksgiving, 1945.

Initially the couple lived in Kansas, though every year after the wheat harvest was in, they'd come to Indiana to visit. In 1948, they bought a house on 18B Road that had just gone up for sale, and Norris found herself back in the Culver-Argos area in 1949, assisting her husband in establishing a dairy farm.

The Thompsons had five children in all, two of whom were boys (the eldest became a flight instructor, though he died in a crash in 1972 when his plane caught fire).

In early 1974, Carroll Thompson died from sleep apnea, something his wife Lida only came to understand more fully after his passing.
Twelve years later, she married Dave Norris, a widower whom she had date in high school. The two had attended church together at Poplar Grove, now a United Methodist church on State Road 10.

The Norris family dates back to their 1836-37 arrival here from Vermont, with the family noted in the past for the Maple Grove hotel they operated off the southeast shore of Lake Maxinkuckee, as well as Everett Norris' early 20th century-launched apple orchard off the east shore (Everett was Dave Norris' father). Dave Norris passed away in 2011.

Lida, a longtime member of the Argos American Legion and frequent face in Culver, continues to serve, though perhaps there's a tad less adventure in so doing today.

She was honored in 2013 by Operation Quiet Comfort, the non-profit organization which honors and serves American military personnel ill or injured during their service, an organization to which she lends her talents. She also continues to serve the pioneer-era church of her own ancestors as well.

The WAC, which in 1978 merged into the general branches of the military and is no more, remains all too unknown to the general populace.

"There are few of us left to advocate (for WAC)," she notes, though here in the Culver area, there is Lida Norris and her story.

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EARLY DAYS ON THE FARM: NORRIS LOOKS BACK ON A CHILDHOOD IN SLOWER-PACED DAYS

Besides her unusual perspective on World War II, Lida Cowen (Thompson) Norris was also eyewitness to a bygone era in Culver history. Her earliest memories dating back more than 90 years, she recalls a childhood of a much slower pace than today, absent electricity or even, in the early years, automobiles.

One of eight children (seven were girls), Lida Norris remembers making hay on the family farm just over the Union Twp. line in Green Twp., and especially recalls "re-planting" corn by hand, corn kernels in their pockets and eyes on the ground walking the field to see where corn stalks should have grown, but didn't.

"We did it with a hoe," she says. “We were farm kids and we did farm work."

"Going to town" meant a trip to Argos, which in those days had several grocery stores and was a bustling village.

"We had dairy cows and we sold cream; we separated the milk after each milking," she explains. "There had been concerts on Tuesday night in Argos. If the cream can was full, we could go to the concert."

Norris was born at Rutland and remembers accompanying her father in the horse-drawn wagon to a livestock place on the north side of the railroad at Rutland, where the trains would pick up the livestock. She also recalls the family's first Model T Ford automobile.

"With eight kids, we really piled in there."

Electricity wasn't part of the family's life until well into the 1930s. In earlier years, the youngsters had to substitute for the windmill which didn't work on hot, humid summer days to pump water for the livestock.

"It was hot and miserable," says Norris. "Each one of us would pump so many strokes."

And while the days of Norris' youth were the days of the ice box, when tons of ice were harvested off Lake Maxinkuckee each winter, the Cowen family didn't even own an ice box.

"We were not that close to the lake," she points out, alluding to the fact that the family farm was outside the boundaries of regular ice delivery routes.

People closer to her childhood home, however, harvested their own ice. The Norris family, one of whom -- the late David -- she would marry later in life -- harvested their own ice, she notes, in partnership with other nearby families, filling their own small ice houses on the lake shore.

"My dad was tight," she adds, referring to the family's frugal lifestyle. "He was raised as his parents before him and them before that. They were really frugal back then."

She remembers cold winters with all eight children pushing and shoving for space over the one-register furnace.

She also recalls the children walking to church -- often without their mother, who didn't make the trip while pregnant, a state she was in quite often given the number of youngsters in the family -- at least three miles to the Poplar Grove neighborhood.

Poplar Grove United Methodist (then Methodist Episcopal) Church remains active today on State Road 10, certainly the oldest in the area. Prior to the Civil War, church members -- many of whom were pioneers to the area -- met in the old hewn-log combination church and school. Sometime prior to the 1880s, today's wood frame church was built and later (in 1891) moved to its present location.

In a 2008 interview with The Culver Citizen regarding the church's fund-raising efforts to restore its antique stained glass windows, Norris recalled headier days of busy activity amongst the church’s women’s group, including quilting (for a penny a yard), chicken supper fundraisers (a quarter a supper in the 1930s), ice cream socials with homemade dessert, and mincemeat pie sales.

Church services for many years took place Sunday nights to accommodate pastors whose home church­es required their presence on Sunday mornings. Lighting, then, became a concern.

“We had no electricity then, but we had an engine in the basement (that) supplied our lights. Every now and then it would quit. Somebody would have to go start the engine again so we could have lights! Electricity came in 1938.”

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