Melvin Norris was born in Hazelton, Pennsylvania in 1936. Like his father before him, he was a coal miner. He joined the United States Navy as a way to get out of the mines. Melvin Norris is not sure of the years of his service but he believes it was after the Korean War. He never saw active duty in Korea. Melvin Norris was posted to Guam and worked as a communications technician.
Escape from the Mines
Melvin Norris worked in the mines with his father before graduating high school. After graduation, he tried mining full time, but he disliked the work and joined the U. S. Navy. He attended basic training in Allentown before moving to California for more schooling.
Cryptology in Vietnam
Melvin Norris studied cryptology in California. He mentions women of the WAVES being trained nearby. After cryptology training, he served Guam and joined bombing raids over Vietnam. His role was to intercept communications and send them to Washington D. C. He recounts an incident of another soldier sending Washington the wrong tape.
No Korean War Service
Melvin Norris did not serve in the Korean War. Because he enlisted in the U. S. Navy around the time the Korean War was winding down, he never served in the war itself. Rather, he trained and saw active duty in Vietnam.
Based in Guam
Melvin Norris was based in Guam during the Korean War. He accompanied bombing campaigns over Vietnam. As a communications technician, he intercepted ground messages from Vietnamese troops and relayed them to Washington D.C. for intelligence purposes.
Norris: My name is Melvin, M-E-L-V-I-N, Leonard, L-E-O-N-A-R-D, my father’s last name, Norris, N-O-R-R-I-S.
Interviewer: Great. What is your birthday?
Norris: (interrupting) No brothers, no sisters.
Interviewer: I’m sorry?
Norris: No brothers, no sisters.
Interviewer: You are the only boy?
Norris: I am the only child.
Interviewer: only child.
Norris: Now there were, but they passed on.
Interviewer: What is your birthday?
Norris: 2/20/1936 now don’t get too technical because some of this is gone already.
Interviewer: two twenty forty-what?
Norris: two twenty nineteen thirty-six.
Interviewer: thirty-six you’re young!
Norris: I’m aging. Yes I know.
Interviewer: hahahaha so, where were you born?
Norris: Pennsylvania. Hazleton, Pennsylvania
Interviewer: Oh, I know that.
Norris: Pennsylvania. Known for their coal mining. That is what my father done when he got out of the First World War. He came back, nothing to do except mining. Which, you should know by now what, when in those days Pensacola, Pens- uh, Florida. Not Florida, Hazleton, Pennsylvania there was nothing going on.
Interviewer: mm hmm
Norris: except coal mining. So I went into coal mining with my father
Interviewer: So, it must be very difficult, wasn’t it?
Norris: It was, yeah, nerve-wracking at times.
Interviewer: Tell me about it.
Norris: Have you ever been down in the coal mines?
Norris: No? Alright, well it can be very scary. Or not, depending on what they’re doing at the time and how many they’re bringing up and I would go every morning with my father down in the mines.
Interviewer: How old were you?
Norris: Oh geez now we’re going way back. Well, let’s uh- I got out of high school so uh I would probably say in the teens, still in the teens, and you tell me how-when the first world war was over I don’t remember that anymore.
Norris: Okay. Well that’s when my father came back from Germany.
Norris: Not that he was over at the time-he wasn’t a German but I mean he came from overseas.
Norris: And uh-that’s uh about where I was. So, he was doing-he had nothing to do when he came back except dig mines so that’s where my beginning started I was a coal miner with my father.
Norris: make some money. Cause I had no brothers or sisters
Interviewer: (interrupting) so in a day how much money did you make?
Norris: My sister, I never knew her. She died before…
Interviewer: Yeah. How much money were you able to make per day as a coal miner?
Norris: Oh, good lord I couldn’t tell you that anymore I don’t reca-remember it wasn’t very much. Most of the money-I went down with my father cause he had just come back-no job except drawing mine—so whatever we made we put the money together to keep our house going. I don’t—I couldn’t tell you anymore about it…
Interviewer: (interrupting) Okay.
Norris: how much I made. It was trifled. In those days, you didn’t make much money coal mining.
Interviewer: Hmm. So, when did you graduate your high school?
Interviewer: Tell me about your school. What school did you go to?
Norris: It was called Hazleton high school
Norris: Z-L-E-T-O-N Hazleton.
Norris: Hazleton: hazel: H-A-Z-L-E-T-O-N Hazleton ton: t-o-n
Interviewer: high school?
Interviewer: When did you graduate?
Norris: don’t apply to my memory it’s not that good, but I was there for
Interviewer: 48? 44?
Norris: right-something like that. Close to that.
Interviewer: What did you do after high school?
Norris: After high school, mining with my father like I told you.
Interviewer: Continue to do it? Continue to do the coal mining?
Norris: Well I done—I was with my father until finally I said to—I didn’t care for going down in the mine besides you know he carried a little bird with him did I ever tell you about that?
Interviewer: Yes so that they can detect a problem, right?
Norris: If you got gas, you had to get out of there cause it would kill you. So, I told my father I don’t really care to do this coal mining so I said I’m going to join the navy. My father said, since he was in the navy himself World War one it was alright with him so that’s where I started.
Norris: I graduated from high school,
Norris: and doing odds and ends and mining with my father making some money and then I finally said well I’m going to join the navy I can make a little bit more money and do something so that’s what I did.
Interviewer: So when did you join the navy? Can you tell me?
Norris: Well, uh—I don’t remember exactly how long it was anymore but after I got out of high school I was uh with my father for about uh hmm I’d say two or three years. Maye not quite that long but I got tired of it real quick cuz I was doing it before I took it on full time with my dad. And uh I didn’t care for coal mining—to be down there.
Interviewer: So, I think you said you were born in 1936 right?
Interviewer: So you must have been around 18 years old in 1954.
Norris: Probably so, yeah.
Interviewer: So, you joined right after high school? The navy
Norris: Uh, let me put it this way, not right after high school, I went in mining with my father
Norris: And then I was doing some other work like working for a butcher, taking, you know, odds and ends to bring some money home. I had nothing really steady, so after I had done that for a while I finally said “hey, you know, I want to do something,” and my father was in the navy, so that’s when I joined.
Interviewer: So where did you get the basic?
Norris: Basic was in, uh it was in Pennsylvania, and uh some place exactly around Allentown Pennsylvania
Norris: They had a navy and a school, well not school they had where I enlisted in the navy because to get to the schooling I had to come here. That was the only place for it. And it was something new being started—it’s like the movie they made one time.
Interviewer: So what did you do with the basic? Did you get any special training?
Norris: No, I was in the regular training part of the navy until this came up about how they were starting this. The school was going to be here.
Interviewer: In California?
Norris: In California. So they ask us if anybody would like to go to this schooling cause I didn’t know anything about the schooling and a lot of the other fellas didn’t either so we decided we would go to the schooling. So that’s when they said okay, they took us all together, sent us to California over here. Then is where we had our schooling in California. They had women also here with us doing the same thing since the navies would be—I forget the name of the—they put us in a place where the men were all together and then there was a water in between ad the waves were on the other side they had schooling over there where they went to school and so forth over there and we were on this side. They kept the navy—the women from us. We were not allowed to mingle around with the women because they were there to learn too just as we were.
Interviewer: What did you learn?
Norris: How to listen—no I’m not going to tell you all of that. haha
Norris: You almost started that—I’ll give you a little tip: we learned how to listen to everybody’s communications.
Norris: Vietnam. Yes. Vietnam. We were not allowed to get off the plane. We had to travel with the contingency of the marines in case they were shot down. We could not be taken alive. This was in this movie. But not of us.
Interviewer: But wasn’t it difficult to understand this cryptology?
Norris: Uh, well I won’t say it was easy to learn how to do it, but after you learned how to do it pretty well and you had all the equipment with it, it wasn’t that bad.
Interviewer: So it wasn’t difficult.
Norris: For instance, let me adjust something to you: we would go over to Vietnam. Now at the time, we were in Guam. We had a contingency in Guam and the air force base was in Guam also. They had a big air force base there that would fly and bomb Vietnam. Well, when we would go over with them, they would send a contingency of us with the plane going over there and while they were fighting with Vietnam if you wanna call it that, we were listening to any communications that were coming out from Vietnam to outward and that was being bought and sent to Washington D.C. I’ll tell you a little joke I’ll cut it up. One of the fellas out there wasn’t doing it right and he liked country and western music, so what was he doing on the aircraft when he was doing something else. Listening to country and western music. Well when they sent all this information listening to what was going on in Vietnam he sent the wrong damn thing and it sent to Washington D.C. and it came back and the captain was all upset. He said we don’t have enough damn music here, we don’t need that. haha he said we sent the wrong tape over to Washington and they were listening to country and western music. hahaha
Interviewer: So, you’ve never been to Korea?
Interviewer: Are you a Korean War veteran?
Norris: No, we had no foot put on Vietnam.
Interviewer: Are you a Korean War veteran?
Norris: No I was not. I knew what was going on but I didn’t really have much to do with Vietnam, or—Korea.
Interviewer: Korea yeah
Norris: I think more or less I was getting into the navy at that time. I don’t remember the time frame fragment anymore.
Norris: But that’s where I started.
Interviewer: mhmm. Okay
Norris: And this what I’m doing right now, I would venture so to say but I talked to them and they talked to me but I imagine it’s still goes on but not—it’s probably more sensitive what they’re doing now than what they’re doing then
Interviewer: So you joined the navy around the end of the Korean War right?
Norris: Uh yeah so to speak because I had joined the navy but not too long after that it was over with
Interviewer: Right so you joined the navy before the Korean War officially ended is that right?
Norris: That’s right.
Interviewer: So then you are called a Korean War era veteran?
Norris: Well I guess you could say I was since I went in under that terminology, but I wasn’t there since they shifted me over here and continued to tell them what we are known as then-chronologic technician.
Interviewer: when were this char—navy?
Norris: Oh lord I don’t remember it was years and years ago. The last two or three was while I was in uh let’s see, Pennsylvania, not Pennsylvania but uh I came back to the states from there and I was in Florida with the blue angels have you heard of them?
Norris: yeah I was in the same area as they were-they were teaching pilots how to fly and uh I wasn’t doing too much while I was in the service but I worked for and with the blue angels getting their planes ready and so on and so forth to fly but I was in Pensacola Florida for quite a while that’s where I finally got out of the service. And I bought a home there so I liked it very much yeah.
Interviewer: Are you proud of your service?
Norris: Absolutely positively and every man that went with me. Every man that wet with me and every marine that went with me. We would not fly. They would not let us fly with anybody by ourselves. Somebody had to go with us and most of the time it was contingency of marines. We were not, and we knew it, and we were told we were not to be taken alive. Now I don’t think that that was broadcast but the movie that was made quite a few number of years ago was uh, they were using Indians to—they would talk among themselves other people didn’t know what they were saying.
Norris: that was a movie that was made
Interviewer: yes I know about that
Norris: I don’t know if you remember anything
Interviewer: that’s a cold language right?
Norris: yep that’s basically the same as we were
Interviewer: so what did you do after you discharged from the navy?
Norris: after I discharged from the service? I worked for another uh officer who had his own uh wells Fargo. He worked for-he had a wells Fargo and I went with wells Fargo for a while. Security.
Interviewer: Ah. So you continued to work on the cryptology right?
Norris: yeah um I don’t work on it anymore and I haven’t had any where they had to call me back up or anything I think they had enough people take care of that anymore they don’t need me. And besides, I’d probably get lost many times.
Interviewer: Do you have any message to the young generation about military service?
Norris: Uh, most of the people here have been in the service long enough to know what the service is about. It, well, I didn’t know much—my father was in the military that much I knew so when I told him I was gonna join the military he more or less. It’s about being in the military. I enjoyed my whole time in the military probably because of what I was doing. I was not a foot soldier to start with. It’s hard to say foot soldier. Most of the time I was on ships. But I spent a lot of time on ships too even when I was doing aboard a ship. We’d get into that area where we could listen to their communications and we would take whatever-whatever-let me put it this way-I can’t actually tell you. Whatever Washington needed, they would send us to take apprehensive-what we could get.
Interviewer: mhmm. Where were you during the Vietnam War?
Interviewer: were you close to Vietnam in the ship or were you in California?
Norris: pensico-pens-uh I was in Vietnam. Uh I was in uh Guam.
Interviewer: You were in Guam?
Norris: Guam. Right.
Interviewer: What were you doing there?
Norris: that’s where-that’s where we were situated in Guam
Interviewer: mhmm. What did you do?
Norris: same thing. Communications technician.
Norris: we’d fly with the air force. They would go out on missions and if the military wanted some we’d fly with them. While they were over doing bombing or whatever they were doing, we were taking their communications. I’m-haha telling you a lot of message huh of just how much—everything of course was top secret. It was just, you know, we didn’t sell it to anybody or anything like that but we’d fly out there but they were bombing or whatever they were doing we were listening to their communications, so if they were sending communications out to somebody to what they needed, we were picking it up and sending it to Washington. So Washington was saying, “Hey! They’re down and out here” so you know things of that nature.
Interviewer: any interesting stories?
Norris: any what?
Interviewer: interesting stories.
Norris: the one about the music was very interesting when they sent in haha-country western music for Washington that was very humorous. To a point.
Norris: but I didn’t run into anything other than something like that because it was so hot and taken care of so high between wherever it was going and so forth. It didn’t slip into too many hands it didn’t belong.
Interviewer: so what was your unit?
Norris: communit? Well, communications technician was what we were doing.
Interviewer: but there is a unit name, did you belong to any fleet forces?
Interviewer: what is it then?
Norris: just a communications technician that’s all
Interviewer: but you dot have any unit to belong to?
Norris: no, not that I can remember any unit. I was stationed on Guam with the navy on Guam. And we might be called communication technician, but no we were never plucked outside as these men who were practicians.
Interviewer: do you know anything about the Korean War and what happened to Korea after the war?
Norris: first I got foot out of- boots on the floor, no.
Interviewer: but do you know anything about Korea now?
Norris: not a whole lot, because we were not allowed to be there alone. We would fly with them when they were going on a mission so we got back to Anderson air force base, we were off the plane into that area there cuz we were there mainly for that to gain wherever we could get intervention from Vietnam over here—Korea I should say.
Interviewer: mhmm. And do you have a message that you want to leave with this interview?
Norris: any kind of what?
Interviewer: any message that you want to leave for this interview.
Norris: how much they’re doing and how far along they are going down—they never send me that information as how big it’s getting or something like that but they keep in touch with me. But uh if you like things of that-how should I put it-into some kind of communications where you need to haha listen to somebody else on what they’re doing and things of that nature I’d imagine there’s a lot of that going on, but what they may be called nowadays I have no-we were called electricians, communications, and that was the name of it so people didn’t get a real idea that, “oh boy, these guys are *whistles*” so…
Norris: but uh
Interviewer: how do you like the veteran’s home here?
Norris: how do I like what?
Interviewer: this veterans home here
Norris: I think it’s pretty good. I really do. Uh, there are things I don’t like about it but uh haha in some entrances I think need to be changed and I’ve talked to some of the people about some of them here because I don’t really understand the way some people operate but that’s only-everybody goes through that. Occasions- they put different things on ships like busted transmissions. Did you ever hear of that? That was a –it’s out now, but that was a new thing for the navy. Burst transmission. They wouldn’t have to get up totally out of the water to get probably up to the top of the water ad they hit the *claps* burst transmission. It was gone. That was the end of what they sent. It was not blub blub blub not anymore. It was a burst transmission. Generated when I was still in the navy. So mainly, the submarines so they could get that antenna up, a little bit high enough-shoot it out! And it’s gone. Things you can see but people never know about. So things are still—I get the idea sometimes: they really-they don’t mind talking to you about what when on from the past anymore, well to a point. But in some cases they didn’t want you talking about most of it at all but uh I liked it. I really did. Although I didn’t get any foot in Vietnam on the ground in Vietnam I didn’t mind flying with the air force. They were good people also but they have a huge air force base in Guam. And I imagine it’s still there, but that’s where they flew out of.
Interviewer: okay Melvin, thank you very much for sharing your story with me.
Norris: Ah, I probably could have done better but uh
Interviewer: oh you did a wonderful job. Thank you so much.
Norris: I used to watch them flights coming in from Vietnam
Norris: we’d get up on top of our buildings out there and the flights would come down and they were smoking. The fire was coming off the back of them where they’d been hit coming in to get back to Guam so they could land after they were shot down. It was, it was very interesting. Some of it was kind of, you know, shook you up a little bit, but I liked it. What I had done, I liked it. I wasn’t a foot soldier, but I liked what I had done. Now the foot soldier, you got somebody to talk about.