From the bridge of the USS Enterprise

Centenarian WWII veteran shares his eye-witness accounts of historic events.

Night was close when the USS Enterprise (CV-6) edged into Pearl Harbor the evening of Dec. 8, 1941. The harbor had seen staggering devastation and death over the past 36 hours due to a Japanese effort to disable the United States’ Pacific fleet, and Bill Norberg, a young seaman first class, took it in from the captain’s bridge of the massive, Yorktown-class aircraft carrier.

“We just had to get in there to refuel,” he recalled. “We saw the havoc: capsized ships, others on fire, others sinking in the mud. Sight was terrible, and the smell was the worst thing that I noticed. I thought I would never forget it.”

The Enterprise crew made a lightning-speed pit stop in the burning harbor.

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“We replenished our supplies. We had to get ammunition, and we had to get food. It normally took 17 hours in the daytime to do, and we accomplished it in seven hours,” Norberg said.

The Enterprise slipped back out to sea before daylight, eluding the Japanese submarines the crew believed were still in the area, and Norberg knew then what the entire ship’s company knew: “We were at war.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

‘A national treasure’

This Dec. 7 will mark 81 years since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but Norberg still rattles off details of his World War II naval service with keen precision. Bespectacled and wiry, he neatly navigated Zoom as he told his life story recently from his home in Pineville, North Carolina, just south of Charlotte.

At age 100, Norberg still speaks publicly about his wartime experiences, and he’ll be in Georgia Dec. 17 to address the Atlanta World War II Roundtable, an organization dedicated to supporting veterans and preserving their stories. The event is open to the public.

Pete Mecca, current Roundtable commander, estimates he’s interviewed at least 150 WWII veterans for his books, newspaper column and website, veteransarticle.com. Norberg’s story, he said, stands out among others he’s heard.

“The WWII generation is dying off at a rapid pace, and to have Bill coming to Atlanta — he is probably the last person surviving that was on the USS Enterprise for the duration of the war,” Mecca told the AJC. “He is actually, to me, a national treasure. This guy is one in a million.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Grey Ghost

When the attack occurred, the Enterprise had been gone from Pearl Harbor for the better part of two weeks on a mission to deliver a Marine fighter squadron to Wake Island about 2,500 miles away. Bad weather delayed a scheduled Dec. 6 return, saving the ship from possible attack and putting it in position to take quick action against opposing forces by sinking a Japanese submarine three days after the Pearl Harbor bombing.

The ship spent the remainder of the war participating in key Pacific theater events that are now enshrined in history books. Norberg was on hand to witness the beginning of the Doolittle Raid on Japan; the Battle of Midway; the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands where the Enterprise’s sister carrier, the USS Hornet (CV-8), sunk; and the Battle of Okinawa.

Japanese forces inflicted significant damage via bombs and kamikaze hits to the carrier over the course of the war, but they continually underestimated the Enterprise, falsely claiming on several occasions to have sunk it, which earned the ship the nickname, “Grey Ghost.” Norberg remembers those assertions, and even in the present day, his response to statements against the carrier’s stoutness is a crisp: “My shoes never got wet!”

The Enterprise was one of only three American carriers the U.S. government commissioned before the beginning of WWII to survive the conflict. With its 20 battle stars, it was, at the end of WWII, the country’s most decorated ship. Its scrapping began in 1958, but its legacy has lived on.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Pathway to history

Norberg’s presence on the captain’s bridge that historic day is a marvel, considering the narrow path that led him there.

After high school, he’d secured a 40-cent-an-hour job but saw more promise in the Navy and joined in February 1941. After boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island, he traveled by train to naval communications school in San Diego and buckled down.

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“I knew that I had to learn shorthand in order to be a chief yeoman, which was my goal,” he said. “So I was very, very studious and learned that, and I was second highest in my class in the 13th or 14th week.”

He went aboard the Enterprise on Sept. 14, 1941. “Immediately, I was struck by the cohesion of the group,” he said. “Morale was just wonderful.”

Beginning in the captain’s office as a striker, he moved up through the ranks until he became chief yeoman in February 1944. In that role, he took correspondence dictation under nine captains, managed secretarial functions for the captain’s office and filtered all business mail that came aboard the ship.

He held the position for the last 18 months of his naval service, working frequently on the ship’s bridge three stories above the flight deck.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

‘A good man’

Norberg turned 100 on Nov. 13 and partied accordingly with two celebrations 30 miles apart — one for family and one for friends closer to his age.

His arrival as a centenarian is a wonder for his family. A few years ago, he was gravely ill with pneumonia, and hospital staff instructed them to say goodbye. After six months of hospice care at home, however, Norberg rallied.

“He went from his bed to a wheelchair to a walker to a cane and now, nothing. He rarely even uses a cane. All of us look at his life now as an unexpected blessing from God,” his son, Jack Norberg, said.

Over the past decade or so, Jack, 71, has become involved in facilitating his father’s talks and travel. Venues have ranged from the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, D.C., to the retirement community where Bill lives. He didn’t talk much about the war while he and his late wife, Opal Hardister Norberg, were raising their three children.

“In his mind, that was all in the past, and he had to worry about paying bills and getting us through school and driving lessons,” Jack said. “He was always a good man. We had a great childhood experience. He and our mom did a great job raising us and teaching us living skills.”

He knew his father carried the experiences with him, though, and they began emerging when Bill participated in interviews for the History Channel’s Battle 360 series.

“We realized, ‘Hey, he’s pretty bold. He’s out talking to the world about his experience.’ And these were a lot of things we had never heard,” Jack said. “We knew he was serious about passing on the history of the Enterprise.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

A job well done

One of Norberg’s stories that stands out is about a bomb that descended through the ship’s decks and ignited a gunpowder magazine below, causing an explosion that killed 43 men, including an acquaintance of Bill’s who helped inspire his conversion to Christianity later in life.

“I just can’t imagine what that was like — watching dozens of enemy planes coming at you and dropping bombs,” Jack said. “It’s just kind of awesome that somebody actually lived through that.”

Bill’s shares his recollections in his book, “It’s Been a Merry Whirl: An Autobiography,” available on Amazon. Jack said his father keeps the ship and its engagements at the center of his narrative.

“He doesn’t try to inject himself into the war at large or politics or anything else. He focuses on the Enterprise and its duty during the key parts of the war,” Jack explained.

Mecca sees this tendency in other veterans of the era.

“These guys are humble,” he said. “They’ll all say, ‘Well, I just did my job.’ Well, what a job they did.”


EVENT PREVIEW

A yeoman’s tale at the Roundtable. Naval veteran Bill Norberg discusses his experiences aboard the USS Enterprise. Dec. 17, 10:30 a.m. social hour, 11:30 a.m. lunch. $20, includes lunch. WWII veterans free. Reservations required by Dec. 13. Dunwoody United Methodist Church, 1548 Mt. Vernon Road, Dunwoody. 404-886-7383, atlantawwiiroundtable.org.

Editor’s note: Bill Norberg’s discussion at the Atlanta WWII Roundtable has been postponed until January 2023. For event information, atlantawwiiroundtable.org.