Major Benjamin White Norris

Benjamin Norris, seen here as a captain, probably in early 1942. Photo from “A Glorious Page In Our History” by Robert Cressman.

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Service Number: O-004382

Birth and Early Life:
Benjamin Norris was born in Lima, Peru, on May 15, 1907. His father, Alexander Norris, was himself born in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and met Fredericka Henshaw while working as a civil servant in Frederick, Maryland. They had two children before heading down to South America, where Ben entered the world.

In April, 1917, Fredericka and Benjamin sailed from Panama to New York. Ben would not see his father again; Alexander died in Peru in 1918. The rest of the Norris clan settled down in Frederick with their Henshaw relatives shortly before Fredericka passed away in 1920. Benjamin attended the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and, after graduating, was accepted to the freshman class at Princeton University.

Norris’ entry in the 1924 PEAN yearbook.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Norris entered the Marine Corps Reserve on July 11, 1928. He reported to the Aviation Base at Rockaway Beach, Long Island and passed his initial flight training before being transferred to Pensacola on September 10, 1928.

Service Prior to 1941:
On November 21, Norris was sent to Observation Squadron 6M in Philadelphia where he accepted an appointment as a Second Lieutenant in the Volunteer Marine Corps Reserve in June, 1929. That November, he received his wings as a Marine aviator. Norris gradually advanced in rank over the following decade; he stayed as a reservist with scouting squadrons based in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, where in 1933 he was commended for his work in the rescue efforts following the loss of the airship Akron. (1) and Quantico. By December, 1940, Captain Norris was serving as the executive officer of VMS-2R based out of Floyd Bennett Field; he accepted a commission in the regular Marine Corps in February, 1941.

Not long after his promotion to captain, Norris married Ruth Lord. They had a daughter, Sara, born in 1941.

The Norris family photos are courtesy of Fiona and Matt Green.

Wartime Service:
Ben Norris’ experience running a squadron as an exec came to the notice of his superiors in early 1942. He was transferred to the West Coast in April, 1942 – on May 16 he was promoted to Major and ten days later was stepping off the USS Kitty Hawk to join his first combat unit, VMSB-241, on Midway.

Norris had no sooner reported to his commanding officer, Major Lofton Henderson, when he was informed that he would have to shoulder more responsibility than the exec of a peacetime squadron. The newly arrived major would be in charge of a group of second lieutenants – whom Henderson called “the ‘greenest’ group ever assembled for combat” and who had arrived on the Kitty Hawk with Norris – and would lead them into battle flying the clapped-out Vought SB2U Vindicators that were obsolete when the squadron first received them. The “Wind Indicators” were fabric-skinned relics whose nickname derived from the adhesive tape that held them together – the loose ends would flap in the wind like an airfield’s windsock. With green pilots, greener gunners (some had been recruited from among the squadron’s mechanics and truck drivers) and limited fuel and ammunition with which to train, Norris faced a daunting task – and he would have just a week to prepare his men for the fight of their lives.

“The new pilots are assigned to the SB2U-3 unit and are in need of much training, but are making excellent progress” said the squadron’s war diary, “despite two groundloops today that cost us two airplanes.” The Vindicators could not reliably bear the stress of diving, so Norris contented himself with following Henderson’s training plan of a fast glide, dropping bombs as late as possible, and getting our as fast as possible. Even so, some of his men had time for only three or four practice flights before the dawn of June 4, 1942.

Date Of Loss:
Norris and Henderson would have spent a great deal of time – almost all the time they could spare – anticipating the latest intelligence reports from Army, Navy, and Marine reconnaissance teams. Norris in particular was concerned – a green major, expected to lead green pilots into combat against an enemy force that was popularly acknowledged as being “overdue.” (2) The bomber crews were told to stand by their aircraft before dawn on June 4, then to warm up their engines, then to power down and wait. At 0530, American reconnaissance planes spotted the Japanese carrier fleet; word was soon passed to the Marine pilots on Midway. Henderson’s men piled into their Dauntless bombers and took off first; Norris (with PFC Arthur Whittington as his gunner) and his Vindicators followed. Just minutes after the last of his flight left the ground, the tail gunner of the last plane reported seeing smoke and flame from Japanese planes attacking their base. The Marines hoped to return the blow with interest upon the enemy’s carriers.

Once in the air, the disadvantages of the Vindicators became apparent. In the hands of experienced pilot, the top airspeed of a Vindicator in peak condition was significantly less than that of a Dauntless; the worn machines in flown by Norris’ green pilots fared even worse. As Henderson’s men disappeared into the distance, Norris found himself operating independently. He had his orders – head for the carriers.

The slowness of the Vindicators would, in the end, save the lives of some of the pilots. They arrived over the enemy fleet about fifteen minutes after Henderson’s attack had begun; the Japanese were fully alerted and on the defensive, with their air patrols aloft. However, their fighters had expended much of their ammunition on the unlucky Dauntlesses, and some turned back to rearm. Enough remained to make several acrobatic passes through the American flight; the first man Norris lost was Private Henry Starks, the gunner for the last plane in formation.

Norris, seeing the amount of fire put up by the carriers, correctly judged that trying to make his way to the primary target would be suicidal. They dodged into a cloud and, when they emerged, saw the battleship Haruna below them. Norris radioed the bearing home to his flight and immediately sent his aircraft into a dive, eschewing the glide for a steep attack. His young pilots followed – none scored better than a near miss – and scattered in all directions, flying their battered bombers for their very lives as their gunners shot at anything that moved. They would later claim six Zeros shot down, and three more damaged.

Major Norris landed back at Midway sometime before 1100 hours, took a headcount of his shaken pilots, and found that two lieutenants – James Marmande and Kenneth Campion – were missing in action, along with their gunners. Starks was dead, several other men were wounded, and the planes were much the worse for wear. He received a nastier surprise when informed that Lofton Henderson had been shot down over the enemy fleet – placing Norris in the unenviable position of squadron leader of a depleted, exhausted, and nearly ineffective force.

For the rest of the afternoon, there was not much the pilots could do but calm their nerves, watch as the ground crews worked feverishly to repair the bombers, and hope that the Japanese would not return. However, the ever-present recon planes were still out, and late that afternoon reported a burning carrier some miles away (3). Norris was ordered to take as many aircraft as were still flyable into the air for another strike at 1700, but insisted for the sake of his remaining pilots that the attack be delayed until dark so as to cut down the effectiveness of enemy fighters. (4) Six Dauntlesses (under the new executive officer, Captain Marshall Tyler) and five Vindicators (led by Norris) were all that could still fly, and were airborne by 1915.

The Marines searched and searched but could find no sign of enemy ships, burning or otherwise. They began to head home at around 2200. The Dauntlesses returned without incident, but only four Vindicators landed.

The SB2U-3 Unit stayed together on the return leg until approximately forty miles from Midway, at which time Norris, the leader, attempted a let down through the overcast from approximately 10,000 feet. He went into a steep right turn and lost altitude to 500 feet, at which time all wingmen pulled away and became separated from the formation. Norris is believed to have flown into the water an instant later as the light of his plane was no longer observed. (5)

No trace of Norris or Whittington was ever found, and the cause of their crash was never determined.

Ben Norris was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions in the battle:

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Benjamin White Norris (0-4382), Major, U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession while serving as Division Commander and a Pilot in Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO HUNDRED FORTY-ONE (VMSB-241), Marine Air Group TWENTY-TWO (MAG-22), Naval Air Station, Midway, during operations of the U.S. Naval and Marine Forces against the invading Japanese Fleet during the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942. Leading a determined attack against an enemy battleship, Major Norris, in the face of tremendous anti-aircraft fire and fierce fighter opposition, contributed to the infliction of severe damage upon the vessel. During the evening of the same day, despite exhaustive fatigue and unfavorable flying conditions, he led eleven planes from his squadron in a search-attack mission against a Japanese aircraft carrier reported burning about two hundred miles off Midway Islands. Since he failed to return with his squadron and is reported as missing in action, there can be no doubt, under conditions attendant to the Battle of Midway, that he gave up his life in the service of his country. His cool courage and inspiring devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Ruth Norris

Status Of Remains:
Lost at sea.

Memorial:
Tablets of the Missing, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
USS Norris (DD-859) was named in his honor.
_____
NOTES:
(1) http://ussnorris.homestead.com/MajorNorris.html
(2) Every man on Midway knew that the Japanese would strike at their island eventually. The fall of Wake Island – where some of the pilots and planes had been bound when the island capitulated – and the disaster in the Philippines left little room for illusion about the enemy’s plans for Midway. It was never a question of “whether” the Japanese would come but “when,” and some Marines expressed surprise that they were not attacked sooner.
(3) Though Marine pilots claimed several hits on carriers and the Haruna, none actually scored.
(4) CINCPAC, Report on the Battle of Midway, page 439. An Army Air Force B-17 group ended up taking priority in re-servicing over the Marine aircraft, and none of Norris’ aircraft were ready for flight until 1900 hours.
(5) Ibid.

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