First Lieutenant Louis Robert Norman

Louis Norman at Grove City College, 1937.
Louis Norman at Grove City College, 1937.

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Insignia of VMSB-141
Insignia of VMSB-141
NAME:
Louis Robert Norman
NICKNAME: SERVICE NUMBER:
O-007125
HOME OF RECORD:
Natrona, PA
NEXT OF KIN:
Wife, Mrs. Louis R. Norman
DATE OF BIRTH:
September 13, 1917
ENLISTED:
November 14, 1940
DATE OF DEATH:
October 8, 1942
CAMPAIGN UNIT MOS RATE FATE
Guadalcanal VMSB-141 Dive Bomber Pilot 1Lt MIA
CAUSE OF DEATH:
While piloting SBD-3 03255, became lost returning to Henderson Field following mission
INDIVIDUAL DECORATIONS:
Purple Heart
LAST KNOWN RANK:
Captain
STATUS OF REMAINS:
Missing with aircraft
MEMORIAL:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial

Birth and Early Life:
Louis Norman was born in Natrona, Pennsylvania on September 13, 1917. He lost his father Andrew in 1926 and older brother Andrew Junior the following year. His mother Kathleen raised her surviving children with the help of her second husband; Louis did well in high school and was accepted to Grove City College’s class of 1938. After spending two years working as a real estate agent in Michigan, Norman decided to join the armed forces.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Norman wasn’t interested in just any branch of the service; he wanted to fly for the Marine Corps. On November 14, 1940, he joined the USMC Reserve Aviation Unit at Grosse Isle, Michigan; after completing his elimination training, Norman was named a cadet and transferred to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.

Service Prior To World War 2:
Cadet Norman spent most of 1941 learning to fly in Florida. He showed an aptitude for scout bombers; his classmates included many future Marine Corps heroes – Bruce Ek, Roy Corry, Bill Deuterman, Bill Hayter, David Pinkerton, Allan Ringblom,William Sandoval, and Walter Swansberger, among others – but in the last months before Pearl Harbor, they were all excitable young men out for adventure.

While training in Florida, Louis Norman got married; his wife set up a home on 54th Street in Jacksonville.

In the fall of 1941, Norman earned his wings and commission. While many of his classmates were sent out west, bound for the Pacific, Second Lieutenant Norman headed for MCB Quantico to attend communications school. He was in Virginia when the United States entered the war.

Wartime Service:
With the outbreak of the war, Lieutenant Norman found himself transferred to a combat unit. He joined a scout bombing squadron, VMSB-141; in addition to flying a Douglas Dauntless dive-bomber, he also served as the unit’s Personnel and Welfare officer. Not long after joining the “Bulldogs,” Norman was promoted to First Lieutenant.

Norman and a handful of other VMSB-141 pilots touched down at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field on September 30, 1942, joining a cadre of their comrades already serving with the Cactus Air Force. He and his gunner, Sergeant Joseph Astronskas, had three days to acclimatize to the island’s climate, deprivations, and strenuous flying schedule before being flung into combat.

Joe Astrouskas, Norman's radioman/gunner, 1943.
Joe Astronskas, Norman’s radioman/gunner, 1943.

In the early morning of October 3, 1942, six SBD bombers – five Navy and one Marine – lifted off from Henderson Field, bound for Viru. Norman and Astronskas raised merry hell bombing and strafing Japanese barges and huts near the small village. They landed, refueled, waited out the daily “Tojo Time” raid, and were back in the air at 1615 for an attack on Japanese warships.

Combat was exhilarating, but the Cactus Air Force had fewer planes than air crew. The newer pilots had to take turns, gaining experience slowly as their duties were rotated in an effort to train as many as possible. Norman would not get another chance to fly a combat mission for several days.

Date Of Loss:
Although operating on a shoestring, the Cactus Air Force did their utmost to put out daily patrols. One such scouting mission made contact with a group of Japanese destroyers at 0745 October 8; they radioed back their find and one of the pilots landed with a bullet in his leg. A group of bombers were quickly scrambled, but the targets were deemed too far and too well protected for an effective attack. For the rest of the day, American patrols kept an eye on the Japanese ships, waiting for their moment.

It came at 1655 that afternoon. Eleven Wildcat fighters escorted four Avenger torpedo bombers and seven Dauntlesses – including Lieutenant Norman’s SBD-03255 – in a general attack against the warships, which now included a heavy cruiser. Even as the attackers swarmed on the ships, a Japanese CAP of float-based biplanes and Zeros jumped on the fighter escort. In the confusion and the fading light, many of the American aircraft became separated and had to find their own way home.

One such unfortunate was Lieutenant (j.g.) Raymond Myers, a Navy fighter pilot with VF-5. Myers was also new to Guadalcanal, having joined up with his squadron’s forward echelon on October 5. He was elated to find a lone SBD in the moonlight, and happily obeyed the pilot’s instructions to join up. However, something felt wrong to Myers – by his calculations, the bomber was headed away from Guadalcanal. He tried to signal “turn left” but the pilot of the SBD emphatically refused, indicating “Straight ahead.”

Finally, Myers followed his gut and turned away from the friendly plane, setting a reverse course. With immense relief, he spotted Guadalcanal silhouetted in the darkness; his Wildcat coughed and ran out of fuel as he taxied away from a successful landing. (1)

VMSB-141 had hoped that the approaching engine was that of Lieutenant Louis Norman. When Myers’ story got out, it became clear that Norman had been the pilot headed the wrong way from Guadalcanal. Intensive searches were undertaken – Ray Myers volunteered for several – but Norman had vanished into the depths of the Pacific.

Louis Norman was officially declared dead on February 19, 1945. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain.

At the time of his disappearance, Norman was flying an SBD-3 dive bomber – which ordinarily carried a crew of two. On a combat mission like this, it would have been unusual for a pilot to be flying without a radio/gunner. Norman was evidently not flying with Sergeant Astronskas, as the gunner went on to serve with other squadrons for the rest of the war. The squadron’s war diary reports that Norman’s gunner was PFC Sven E. R. Nelson – a blatant contradiction, as PFC Nelson had been reported lost in the same document on October 2 – six days prior. There is a chance that Nelson was found and was flying with Norman, but such an event would have merited mention in the diary and muster rolls – and six days would have been an uncommonly short time for a return to action. There is no mention made in extant records as to an alternate gunner for this mission; whether Norman died alone or with another unlucky Marine is cause for contemplation.

Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Louis Norman

Status Of Remains:
Unknown

Memorial:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines
_____
NOTES:
(1) Lundstrom, John B. First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign. pg. 318-319.

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