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Uncle Norman, Thank You For Your Service

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On May 13, 2012, James Norman Price, Jr. passed away in quiet anonymity at age 93. He was the last surviving combat aircraft commander from the 509th Composite Bomb Group that dropped atom bombs on Japan to end World War II. Norman was a reserved, polite, unassuming man, and, had you ever met him, you’d never peg him as a decorated pilot who flew B-17 and B-29 bombers in heavy World War II combat. Norman could have cashed in on his flying skills after the war, but, instead, he came home, took a 9 to 5 job, and cared for his elderly parents until they passed.


When I was in my late 20s, Norman married my Aunt Ruth. It was the first marriage for both of them. He was 50, she was 47, and they had 29 years together before Ruth passed away in 1997. I wasn’t close to Norman and Ruth, primarily due to my own work and family life. By the year 2000, I had been around him only a handful of times and that was the year when my family and I first learned the full extent of his war experience. Members of his own family also did not even know the full story. In fact, after learning the full story, one of them poignantly wrote, “I felt that sickening jolt of discovery that comes with realizing you’ve just lost something rare and valuable that you didn’t even know you had.” I only got to talk to Norman one time about his amazing war service and that was during my last visit with him.


Norman was born in 1918 in Bishop, Texas. He was raised there and graduated high school there. He had his civilian pilot license by age 18, and he flew crop dusters. He attended Texas A&I (now Texas A & M Kingsville) for two years before enlisting in the U. S. Army Air Corps on November 1, 1941. He was just a few days from turning 23. Less than four years later, Norman would be a player in what was arguably the most significant event in secular human history. Even so, he was just one of the innumerable, unheralded heroes given to us by that “greatest generation”.


Norman received his B-17 flight training at Boise, ID. He said that after just four landings, they made him an instructor. After instructing for just two days, they assigned him a B-17 and shipped him off to the South Pacific. His first combat experience came late in 1942 in the Guadalcanal campaign where he piloted bombing and reconnaissance missions from the island. On his first mission, his plane was attacked by eight Japanese Zeros and his radio operator refused to fly after that.


Norman felt like Guadalcanal was his war, with 22 missions totaling more than 200 hours. He said those missions were so hellish that he did not believe he would ever leave Guadalcanal alive, and he started smoking. However, he survived terrible flying conditions, withering Japanese anti-aircraft fire, and attacks by Zeros that flew so close he could see the pilots’ faces. While returning from one mission, and dangerously low on fuel, he and his crew sank a Japanese troop ship. He later received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal based on his Guadalcanal service.


After Guadalcanal, Norman was stationed back in the U. S. at the Army Air Base in Alexandria, Louisiana, where he served as Operations Officer, overseeing the training of new B-17 pilots. While there, he was recruited for B-29 training and was one of 15 aircraft commanders assigned to the 393rd Bombardment Squadron. Col. Paul Tibbets, Commander of the 509th , selected the 393rd to be his combat flying unit because of its excellent training record.


In January 1945, Tibbets selected 10 of 15 aircraft commanders and their crews to go to Cuba for long distance navigational training exercises over water at night, and for further high level bombing practice. Norman and his crew were among the ten. Those men didn't know it then, but they were training to drop the atom bomb.


Flying from its base on Tinian Island in the Marianas, the 509th also executed 16 conventional bombing missions over Japan from July 20, 1945 to August 14, 1945. Each mission had anywhere from 6 to 10 B-29s making the 3,000 mile round trip. They dropped 10,000 pound pumpkin bombs, so called because they were similar in size and shape to the “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Norman and his crew flew their B-29 “Some Punkins” on five of those pumpkin bomb missions.


Norman was not selected to fly either atom bomb mission, nor was his assigned B-29, “Some Punkins” used either time. However, he performed the important role of Expediter for the historic Hiroshima mission. The Enola Gay and six other B-29s flew that mission, and, as Expediter, Norman’s responsibility was to run continuous checks on each aircraft to assure that no last minute problems occurred to prevent on-time departure. He was just 26 years old. He did his job well.


Even after the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese government and its military remained divided and publicly silent on the matter of surrender. As a result, seven B-29s from the 509th carried out one last strike against Japan on August 14, 1945. Each aircraft dropped a single 10,000 pound pumpkin bomb on its assigned target. Nogoya, Japan was the target for Norman and his crew, and some experts believe that theirs was the last bomb dropped on Japan in World War II. The next day, Japan’s public announcement of surrender ended the war. RIP Lt. Col. James Norman Price, Jr. and thank you for your service.


(The photos below show (1) the nose art on the B-29 “Some Punkins”, (2) James Norman Price, Jr. as a young man, and (3) James Norman Price, Jr. ca. 1999.) (Note: The book, “Enola Gay: Mission to Hiroshima”, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the subject.)

Some Punkins color ed.jpg

James Norman Price Jr Obit Pic.jpeg

Norman Price.jpg

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