BRANCHVILLE -- Johnnie Norris Sr. navigated the intricacies of keeping naval battleship engines running with precision and poise. He had to safely keep his fellow soldiers moving from island to island toward mainland Japan during history’s biggest and deadliest war.
Involving more than 30 countries and sparked by the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, World War II raged on for six bloody years until the Allies defeated Nazi Germany and Japan in 1945.
Norris, a 94-year-old Branchville resident, was a machinist’s mate 1st class in the U.S. Navy during World War II and recalled leaving his hometown at age 17 to join the military.
“I graduated from high school in 1942. I went to the Navy Yard at Charleston to work for one year and then a friend of mine and myself joined the United States Navy on May 5, 1943.
“We were sent from Branchville to Bainbridge, Maryland. That was the training center for the United States Navy, and that’s where we picked up our training. I was assigned to a ship, the USS Wyoming, a battleship, for all types of training. I guess it's still in the Navy. I have pictures of it,” Norris said.
From there, Norris went to machinist school to learn how to drive the naval ship engines.
“I went to school to learn to drive that old boy, the engines. After school, I was then assigned to the USS Leo as an AKA-61. And then from there, we went as straight as we could go overseas. We went from there to the Pacific and didn’t leave the Pacific for 3-1/2years,” he said.
Norris added, “That was a fighting Navy. We didn’t play. Sometimes you wonder, ‘Why so long?’ Well, when we went to the Pacific, we started in San Francisco and from there we went to the different islands.”
He took pride in being a member of “the amphibious force” and the insignia patch that came with it.
“You had to have that amphibious patch to show that you were an amphibious man. I was a first class machinist mate. I operated them engines. My battle station was on the throttle in the engine room. ... That’s not an easy job. You keep them big engines running and keep things moving,” he said.
He recalled the Iwo Jima, a major battle in which the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy landed on and eventually captured the island from the Imperial Japanese Army.
“We made the invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19 and for 3/1-2 years we stayed in the Pacific. From one island to the next, we went all the way to Japan,” he said.
Norris’ daughter, Charlene Negron, said her dad’s ship was hit during the battle, but not demolished.
Norris said, “It was one of those type things where a loaded airplane comes after a loaded ship to demolish it. But the trouble of it was, we didn’t let him do it. We stopped him. The only thing he said when I picked him up was, ‘I’m not going.’ I said, ‘I got something on my side, a .45. Whether you want to or not, you going. Get in the craft,’ and he did.”
Negron said her dad was also shot during the battle but made it through that, too.
“It missed everything vital, but he took the gun away from the guy that shot him and took it apart, put it in his duffel bag, brought it home and put it back together,” she said.
“Here it is right here. It’s a pure Japanese machine gun,” Norris said, pointing toward a case filled with the machine gun and three Japanese rifles.
Negron said, “I remember when me and my siblings were small, he would tell about how things affect you in life. Like when they got on the shore of Iwo Jima, he said your fellow brother was being shot. As you were landing, they were shooting. He said people would say, ‘Please kill me,’ because they had either lost their legs” or whatever.
Norris said he had a job to do despite the difficulties and challenges of war.
"You know, I came from Branchville, South Carolina. I was an American, and I fought for America. We had no other object whatsoever I know of, anything in the Navy that would say anything else. The Navy expected loyalty, and I did, too. And I went through the whole Navy like that.
You have free articles remaining.
“We went to the Pacific, and we didn't come home for 3-1/2 years. Fighting up and down the Pacific, all the islands. You started off with this island and that island and as soon as that island was secured, you started looking for others. ... I was always ready to fight,” he said.
Norris was discharged from the Navy in 1946, but soon got called up to serve during the Korean War. This time around, he had to leave behind a wife and two children.
"After that first war was over, I thought I was through. I got discharged out of the Navy, but I was still in the Navy Reserves. And then war. I got called back. I was told to be there in Norfolk, Virginia, ready to go, and I said, 'I'm coming.’ My feelings were different than they ever have been because I had a wife and two children. I didn't want to leave, but I went,” he said.
He stayed and fought in Korea for two years.
“We were stationed at Bremerton, Washington. Our headquarters was on the battleship USS Indiana,” said Norris, noting that Korea was a place where he saw a lot of death.
“That was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in war. It’s not only just one battle. It was an area. You can’t hardly describe it. ... I missed my wife and my children, but later on I moved my wife and children to Bremerton, Washington. And there while I was awaiting discharge, I was a shore patrol officer at Puget Sound in Bremerton. In that position, I guarded the gates and other things,” he said.
Norris said he was proud of his military service and was glad to serve.
“Well, you know, my country needed me and I needed it. Back before the war, times was hard. Jobs wasn't just plentiful, but I had the skills to take care of what I needed," he said, noting that the military was an opportunity for him to grow further.
"You take advantage of things. You can get in the military and mess up and do all kinds of things,” he said.
Norris said he learned dedication from his service.
“You found yourself in a situation and you acted and reacted for the good of the company, or for the country. You took care of everything that needed to be taken care of, remembering that your family was there, too, during the Korean War. I had no family except me during the Second World War, but you accumulate friends that you never had before in your life," he said.
Norris is one of six children born to the late Morgan and Pearl Norris. His late twin brother, Tommy, also served in the Navy. Norris and his late wife, Hazel, had three children: Johnnie Norris Jr., Christine and Charlene.
After his military service, Norris worked for the Norfolk Southern Corp.
“I went to work for one of the finest railroads in the United States. I worked for the railroad for 45 years. I was a proud member. I was general manager of all signals and communications. When I retired, we had merged and become a large railroad, one of the largest in the world. At that time, I was general manager of all communications of the railroad,” he said.
The Southern Railway Passenger Depot stands today as a symbol of Branchville’s rich railroad history and contains Branchville’s Railroad Shrine and Museum.
Norris now spends his time as director of Branchville’s museum, which is filled with railroad memorabilia. A local family also operates the eatery at the Depot, where three former U.S. presidents once ate in its dining room.
“I do it voluntarily. I don’t never get tired. I don’t mind showing people the things that it used to take to do a certain job. We have a lot of articles in the museum. We don’t charge anybody to come to the museum,” said Norris, who is at the museum from 5:30 to approximately 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Negron said, “He has a collection of books in there that list every person from South Carolina that served in World War II.”
Norris lives with his daughter, Charlene, and her husband, Antonio, a 20-year U.S. Navy veteran.
A brother, Mike, who lives in St. George, is his only living sibling.
Norris said he has enjoyed a full and complete life.
“I’m 94 years old. I’ve enjoyed living. I’ve enjoyed family, friends and grandchildren most. I enjoy fellowship with them. And my son-in-law is a good man, a good Navy man,” said Norris, who said he looks forward to the future.
“I’m gonna make the best of it as well as I can. I will never embarrass my country. I never have and don’t intend to start,” he said.