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Local man witnessed World War II at sea level
By Daniel Nash
When Robert Norton heard that Japanese forces had attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, he was having breakfast with his brothers after a night playing banjo at the local dance hall. While they ate, the news broke on the morning radio program.
Norton didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was. He was a student, a banjo player like his father, 17 years old and too young to be drafted. That would change soon enough.
“What I remember most (about the attack) is that I had Japanese friends from my high school who were rounded up with their families and placed in internment camps,” he said. “Many of them are still quite bitter about it. They were placed in the camps out of fear and then later on they were brought into service as interpreters. It made some of them bitter to this day, and I can understand that.”
Norton is now 84. He still plays banjo with a band that meets at the Sumner Senior Center, though not as well since his stroke last year, he said. He lives with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
Norton was too young for the beginning of the war, but he saw its end. He served as an electrician on the battleship U.S.S. Colorado, which was on hand in Tokyo Bay at the time of the Japanese surrender. Notably enough, it was also the key ship in the fruitless search for Amelia Earhart’s plane after her disappearance, he said.
Norton was drafted as soon as he turned 18, the summer before his junior year (he was two years behind because his family needed help during the Depression). After boot camp, he attended service school in Fairgate, Idaho, where he studied to be a ship’s electrician.
“I found my time there very interesting, because we learned all about the new electrical systems going into cars,” he said. “I worked on cars quite a bit as a teenager and car companies were just beginning to add sealed-beam lights and turn signals into their cars at that time, so it was interesting to learn about those things as they were being introduced.”
Upon graduation, Norton was shipped off to Bremerton, where the Colorado was in port waiting to depart on Operation Forager in the Mariana Islands of the Pacific Ocean.
Operation Forager was the effort to secure the Japanese-held islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian in order to disrupt Japanese communications and use the islands’ bases for B-29 assaults on the Japanese mainland. The Colorado’s mission was to destroy fortifications along the beaches and support assault waves by pounding enemy troops immediately adjacent to the landing points. Norton helped to keep the electrical systems running alongside the other electricians of E Team.
Norton’s battleship saw much of the action in the final year of the Pacific campaign, but it could get boring cooped up in general quarters and waiting for an attack, he said. At night, they had to keep the deck completely dark so they couldn’t be spotted by the enemy.
“They don’t tell you much in the service,” he said. “They tell you what you need to know, and I didn’t need to know much. Most of what I know now about my time out there I read about in books years after the fact.”
Norton learned about events around him from a pilot friend onboard. It was through his friend that he found out about new developments in weapon technology like proximity shells, and the temporary recruitment of island natives as spotters to point out new or unusual developments – possible Japanese encampments – on their home islands.
The first action Norton saw was on the shores of Saipan, the largest island of the Mariana Islands. The Colorado bombarded the Japanese installation there alongside several other ships of the U.S. Navy fleet, ending in the successful seizure of the island. It wasn’t until years later that Norton learned that many Japanese civilians on the island hurled themselves and even their children from the cliffs rather than face the American cruelty they had heard about in war propaganda.
Norton saw similar action on the other islands of the Marianas and was on board during the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” when more than 300 Japanese planes were shot down by U.S. fighters and ships.
Norton saw his ship take damage as well. During a bombardment operation at Tinian July 24, 1944, Japanese counter-ordinance sent 22 shells ripping through the battleship’s starboard hull. The Colorado’s damage was repaired in Bremerton and it returned to combat that November. About a week later it was struck by a kamikaze plane, sustaining just minor damage..
“After we took their bases, the Japanese didn’t have any more island planes, so these ones must have flown all the way from the mainland,” Norton said. “Only two of them made it to us, but there were probably more that ran out of fuel along the way.
“One of them hit the guns on the ship, and one of our gun barrels snapped right off. We had five-inch ammunition guns with real thick barrels made entirely out of metal, and this one snapped off like a tree branch.”
Additional suicide attacks, some of the most furious of the war, were witnessed at Okinawa Bay, though the Colorado wasn’t damaged.
In September 1945, the ship was anchored in Tokyo Bay for the final combat of the war and the peace accord.
After peace was reached, Norton snuck off his ship and into Tokyo via the train from Yokohama. He was struck by the way of life in the city, he said. Each home had a small pool of water in the back to put out bombing fires, but many of them had proven not to have enough water to extinguish the overwhelming blazes. There were cars, but the few that were on the road ran on jury-rigged, coal-powered engines. During his time in the city, Norton was able to watch a play rehearsal in a city theater and picked up a souvenir: a picture of a pilot with a man in a lab coat. He found out 30 years later it was just an advertisement for medical services.
Then it was time to go home to a hero’s welcome. On the way, Norton and the other soldiers would be able to enjoy a sweet, simple pleasure. They would be able, finally, to walk on deck at night with the lights on.