The Search for Bill Norton
by Jack Bentley
William W. “Bill” Norton, Captain, Artillery, Aerial Observer
108th Artillery Group, Sundowner Whiskey
In the early 1990s I kept hearing about this new thing coming to our small mountain community called the “internet”. I had purchased my first computer, an Apple IIe in 1981 and had used it in our business for over ten years. I began the transition to the Windows based PC in the early 90s and was the 5th person to sign up for the internet (in our community) in 1995. I was quickly in touch with Charles Finch and found Scott Cummings Catkiller Web Site. The whole thing snowballed and eventually I realized what a great tool it was for locating old friends.
In the late 90s Jim Hooper was trying connect the dots for the book and I was eager to assist as much as I could. At that point I decided I was going to find Norton come hell or high water. My search began with phone books being published on the internet and making phone calls to every Bill Norton I could find, but quickly realized I needed to narrow the search.
In 2003 I wrote to the NPRC requesting morning report information from the 108th Arty Group for the period around July of 1969. I remembered that Bill had been injured about that time and had left the 108th on a medical evacuation. It took them 9 months but they sent me a morning report, dated 4 July, 1969, which confirmed my recollection—but more importantly gave me his full name and middle initial. More phone calls, with no tangible leads, and as I grew weary of the search it went on the back burner.
In 2006 I ran across an entry on the Vietnam Helicopter Pilot Association web site that listed a William W Norton, who had died from unknown causes 12/31/1994 at the age of 59. We all knew that Bill wanted to go to flight school upon his return from Vietnam, and his flight school class from the VHPA was listed as 70-26. This information seemed to be too much of a coincidence not to be the Bill Norton that we flew with. I searched the VHPA web site for a class picture to no avail. The mystery seemed to be solved, but I was still curious as to what had happened to him—had he stayed in the service, had any children, etc.?
I shelved the search once again and then received an email from Gary Huber as he had stumbled across the same entry on the VHPA website. Gary had been thoughtful enough to make a copy of the posting, and as I stared at it I realized the information had been provided by a VHPA member named Bill Sullivan. Having been a rotor head prior to flying fixed wing, I was already a member of the VHPA and it dawned on me that I had access to the membership roster. I found a phone number for Bill Sullivan and gave him a call. A lady answered the phone and I politely told her who I was and why I was calling, and she promptly burst into tears, saying she was a Sullivan family member and Bill Sullivan had passed away the previous week! I politely offered my condolences as well as apologies. After I got off the telephone, I wondered if Norton had gone to work for the CIA, and didn’t want to be found!
As I thought about the information I had, I realized I had a full name, a date of death, and a city. I contacted the Florida Department of Vital Statistics and requested a death certificate. When it arrived, I had an address and the maiden name of his wife. His occupation was listed as Pilot and business was Air Service, so I was 99% convinced that this was our Bill Norton. I did a web search for Norton and his wife’s maiden name and came up with a half dozen addresses. As I sent letters (with photos) to each of the addresses I wondered if this would be yet another dead end.
A few days later I received an email from Bill’s stepdaughter and confirmed that he had passed away in December of 1994. She told me that he was the only “real father” she ever had and was a wonderful grandfather. Bill had taught her son to scuba dive when he was 5 and the two of them were inseparable. Here is a paragraph from her letter:
“Bill and my husband were hunting buddies. He lived a large life until the day he died. When he died he was working for a prince in the Middle East flying the helicopter to gold mines. He was home for the holidays. All of our vacations were together (diving, fishing, hunting and snow skiing). Relax was only in his vocabulary when there was a cocktail involved.”
Sure sounded like the Bill Norton I remembered! I spoke with her a couple of times on the telephone and got the distinct impression that Bill’s wife had remarried and was getting on with her life and not willing to discuss the past. I also got the impression that Bill had served another tour in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. I believe Finch and Hooper spoke with her as well. Certainly a bitter sweet end to the quest, but it seems that our friend had a good life after 1969.