Norman Collins was born in the small Southeast Texas town of Votaw in 1924. He has always been a hard-working person. When drafted into the Army at age 18, and after all the physical tests, they asked him, “What do you do at home?” Norman replied, “Well, just whatever is around there to do.” His dad couldn’t work and Norman had the responsibility of supporting his family that included a younger brother and sister.
At age 17 He had realized that he needed a steady job. So, he went to the labor union office in Orange, Texas and applied for an assignment. He said, “I had to find work. I didn’t have a trade. I had to do something to get started. I didn’t know anything.” The man in the office told him that they could not use him because he was too young. Norman argued with him a bit, then finally left.
Never having been the type of guy that would take no as being final, Norman went back to the office two days later. Telling the man that he had to go to work, He received the same reply, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it. You’re too young.” Norman said, “Well, I went back a third time! I got there real early that day. There was a wooden shade that covered the office window. I beat on it this time.” The man opened the window and realizing who it was said, “You again!” He turned around, grabbed a work order, filled it out and said, “Now get outa here!”
Young Norman now had his job in the shipyards with Consolidated Steel in Orange, Texas. When he turned 18 he registered for the draft and was drafted into the Army shortly after. A few weeks later he shipped out for basic training at Camp Butner, North Carolina.
Here Norman bunked with Eddie Graham, from Cross Plains, Texas, who was about nine years older and quite a bit taller than him. They would go through basic training and all through the war together. “He was like my daddy,” Norman remembers. “He kinda took me over as his boy. If I didn’t do things what suited him, he’d tell me about it.”
Norman and his company began training on the 105 MM Howitzers for about nine months. Then they transferred to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where they trained on the 240 MM Howitzer for the next three to four months. He says, “I mean a huge thing, you know!” This large gun broke down into two pieces, the tube and the carriage, and a motor crane to lift it. They totaled 64,000 pounds of massive fire power. They traveled with four M10 tanks (only equipped with machine guns) and two M2 tanks.
His crew became proficient with this gun. Norman’s job in the gun crew was to operate the large elevation wheel on the side of the gun. “We’d get the numbers over the radio, then I’d wind it up till it matched the bubble level; the man on the other side would have his set also. I’d holler ‘Ready!’ The he’d holler ‘Set!’ Then the boys on the ground would pull the lanyard and off it’d go!” The projectile weighed 360 pounds and was loaded with 54 pounds of TNT. This gun’s range was 10-12 miles with a 400-square yard killing radius at impact.
Norman says they never saw or heard the direct impact on their targets. But the noise level was tremendous as they began firing. They could fire a round every three to four minutes. I asked him if the Army issued earplugs and Norman said they did not as he pulled a hearing aid from his ear, as if to say, “These are my earplugs.”
At the end of his training, Norman had not been home for a year. He was issued an eleven-day furlough and he had to pay his way from North Carolina to Texas on the bus. After he sent money home to his parents and paid for insurance, he was left with $6.00 on payday. He also had to purchase his own personal essentials as they deployed overseas. As we have seen, Norman was resourceful. He says, “Well, I started playing nickel poker. I got fairly good at poker. I’d build my pot up enough to tide me over.”
As they began the deployment to the war zone, they were transported to New York and then to Ellis Island. “I guess so we couldn’t run off,” Norman laughed. Then after a few days, they were back to a holding area in New York.
It was at night and in a very large metal building with a jazz band playing. Norman remembers the two songs – A Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around a Flag Pole and Hold That Tiger. (Ah, the innocence of music from the 40’s.)
This large building had two giant doors in the back, as they looked around. They soon discovered this to be their transport across the Atlantic, the British ship Aquitania. This massive ship was built in 1913 and served in both world wars. It was the second largest ship in the world at the time.
They sailed for six days to Glasgow, Scotland and while on the open seas, were threatened by one of the notorious German Wolf-pack submarine groups. Everyone was brought on deck, 8,000 troops plus Army WAC’s, nurses and crew, all packed tight and ready to disembark if they had to. But a Navy PBY aircraft came and took out some of the subs out and the threat was over.
Upon landing in Scotland, Norman would get his first look at the Scottish bagpipes. “I never had seen anybody playing bagpipes, and they had them little skirts on, you know…Then I looked around and there were women wearin’ overalls and running a freight train! I said to myself, looks like it oughta be the other way around to me!” (Country boy now see the world!)
From here they went to Birmingham, England, where they stayed six months before the Normandy invasion. They traveled with all their guns and tanks through the narrow and steep streets to firing practice. On their way back to their base, they lumbered down the streets on the wrong side of the road, which brought much cursing from the “Limeys,” as Norman called them.
Norman was up close to General Patton there as he came in, brandishing his pearl handle pistols to give them a pre-invasion pep talk. He remembers Patton’s advice, “When you get to France, do not fraternize with the locals, unless you think you can get away with it.”
Ten days after the invasion, Norman’s gun crew and equipment landed on the beach. A German fighter came out of nowhere and began strafing the beach as the Americas returned fire, Nelson says, “I was scared to death! I tried to find a place to hide, but there wasn’t any. I think I ran around like a scared rabbit for a while till it was over.”
As they began to push the Nazis back, their gun would be about 10-15 miles behind the German army. Two Piper Cub airplanes would spot the German positions and radio the coordinates to them. They initially knocked out three German troop trains. They would move from place to place to take care of targets the smaller weapons could not be effective against. It was also good to keep on the move because German infantry patrols were constantly searching for this powerful weapon.
Once, as they were setting up their big Howitzer, six German Messerschmidt’s flew over. Someone remarked, “They’ll be back.” Sure enough, in a few minutes, they began their attack. Anti-aircraft weapons took out five of them and the sixth one came in very low. Norman said, “He was flying directly at me and he got so close I could see the pilot’s eyes.” The American gunners knocked him down and he crash landed in a field a short distance away.
Norman’s crew rushed down to the crash site to check on the pilot. He was a big guy and was standing on the wing of the fighter plane when they arrived. Norman said he didn’t try to run off, but commented in perfect English, “Boys that was damn good shooting!”
They moved to within 7 or 8 miles of the city that was a German stronghold. Norman’s A Battery began shelling the city and they fired 50-75 rounds. As they moved in after the shelling, they witnessed terrible destruction. A large Tiger tank had taken a direct hit and was still smoking. There were dead Germans as far as you could see. The towns people had no food and some were carving up a dead German war horse for food.
Norman experienced the intense cold at the Battle of the Bulge. He says they weren’t prepared for the cold and only had boots and socks and large overcoats. It drizzled rain continuously and then began to freeze and icicles would form off the bottom of the soaked over coat. He said, “I nearly froze to death.”
As the war was coming to an end, they had pushed the Germans to within seventeen miles of Berlin. The Russians took the city and began bringing German troops out as prisoners. Norman’s outfit now began guarding prisoners. They would bring four to five thousand at a time. He remembers the Russians would treat the Germans very brutally, even beating them with rifle butts. Norman said, “I felt sorry for them.”
They had no fence, just a rope laying on the ground, surrounding all the prisoners. They were to stay inside the rope, but Norman says they really didn’t care if any escaped. There had been no replenishment of supplies and everyone was extremely hungry. The Germans had nothing to eat either. They didn’t give the Americans any trouble.
Norman was standing guard duty on the perimeter one night. He suddenly heard someone or something jump the creek close by. He called out, “Halt!” He heard a voice and knew it was not an American. As the voice got closer, Norman demanded, with rifle ready, “Halt! Advance slow!” The German boy got close and he was speaking in English, “Please don’t shoot me!” Norman asked him what he was doing. He said that he was hungry and that he had left to find food, but there was none to be found. He was coming back to the safety of the rope.
Norman Collins received five Bronze Star medals and numerous campaign medals. It is my great honor and privilege to know him and write his story. Thank you, Norman, for your bravery and all you did to secure our freedom during World War II.