Abbot’s Commanding Officers:
Robert James Norman

July 6, 1959 — July 3, 1961


Capt. Robert Norman held two of the Navy’s top four medals for bravery: He was awarded a Bronze Star for a rescue off North Vietnam, and in 1998 he received the Silver Star for actions during the Pearl Harbor attack nearly 57 years earlier.

While commanding Abbot, Commander Norman led the crew through a crucial early phase of the Project Mercury space program and helped develop new technologies related to advanced sonar techniques used to locate and identify submarines.

Robert James Norman was born in Earlville, Iowa, in 1919 and enlisted in the Navy in 1937. He was aboard the battleship Nevada on December 7, 1941 (see newspaper article below), and was burned during the rescue of a seriously injured shipmate while the ship was afire and sinking. He received the Purple Heart, but further recognition had to wait until the Clinton Administration. In 1998, following an intensive letter-writing campaign by the man he rescued, Congress and the Defense Department approved the Silver Star Medal for Capt. Norman.

In May 1942 he was promoted to warrant boatswain and attended the U.S. Navy Deep Sea Diving School, then in 1943 was commissioned as an ensign.

He spent most of World War II as a salvage instructor and commander of ship salvage operations on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, then served as a salvage officer in the Philippines during the waning months of 1945. After the war he was named ship salvage officer for the 12th Naval District in San Francisco.

By 1949, he was operations officer aboard the Gearing-class radar picket destroyer Turner and in 1951 he took command of the Bolster-class rescue and salvage ship Recovery before switching again to destroyers. He served as executive officer aboard the Fletcher-class destroyer Rooks and then attended the Naval War College in Rhode Island before taking command of Abbot in 1959.

During the Norman years, Abbot traveled as far as Pakistan and the arctic circle as part of Long Ears and other antisubmarine exercises.

He later commanded DesDiv 132, based in Long Beach, Calif., and received the Bronze Star with Combat V for a search and rescue operation off the coast of North Vietnam on February 3, 1966. His later assignments included command of the Naval Administrative Command in Chicago and duties in the Canal Zone.

Capt. Norman retired from the Navy in 1973 after serving 36 years, then thrived in private industry managing pipeline and forestry projects. He died in Sarasota, Fla., at age 93 on August 19, 2013, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery near his first wife, Agnes Isadora Norman. He was survived by his wife, Mary Frances Norman.

The Tulsa World: Unsung Hero to Receive Silver Star After 57 Years

March 22, 1998 — Robert Norman didn’t expect to get up that morning and find Japanese planes bombing his ship in Pearl Harbor. He didn’t expect to risk his life, to be set on fire, while saving others.

And he certainly didn’t expect to receive a medal for it 57 years later.

But this Tulsan knows better than most that life is full of surprises.

The latest surprise came a few weeks ago, when the secretary of the Navy signed a citation to award Norman a Silver Star, the third-highest honor that the Navy can bestow.

Norman never saw it coming. He hasn’t been in the Navy since 1973, and he has been retired from Willbros Engineers since 1995.

Now he’s a 79-year-old who gets up every morning at 5:30, plays golf and looks after rental properties that he owns. And he helps his wife, Fran, take care of their own home in a historic Tulsa neighborhood just south of downtown.

This sudden medal is as big a shock for him as that earlier surprise back in December 1941, when Japan launched the sneak attack that pulled the United States into World War II.

That morning Norman was a petty officer in charge of turret No. 4 aboard the battleship USS Nevada. The ship was torpedoed and hit with 10 bombs, and it eventually sank in the shallow harbor up to its main deck.

While the ship was on fire, sinking, an ensign named Joseph Taussig Jr. was stranded up on the mast, one leg blown off and bleeding badly.

Norman climbed up, his clothes catching on fire as he went, scorching his back. He reached the young ensign, strapped him into a stretcher, tied it to the mast and slowly lowered it down to the deck. Bullets and bombs were flying around his head the whole time.

That ensign, like Norman, survived and had a long, fruitful career in the Navy. Both men rose to the rank of captain.

Norman didn’t seem to think it was such a big deal — not then and not now.

“I’m not the medal type. I figure you go out and do your job, do your duty. And if you happen to do it while bullets are flying, well, that’s what you’re trained for.”

But the other guy, Taussig, long considered Norman “an unsung hero,” and in recent years he began pressing the Pentagon for a medal.

It wasn’t easy. Congress had to grant special permission to award a medal so long after the event. The usual military deadline for medals is three years, expiring in 1944 in Norman’s case.

Undeterred, Taussig kept writing recommendations.

“Medals and citations cost very little,” he wrote in one, “but are priceless to the recipient and family and friends.”

Change of Command

Indeed, Norman said his new medal will be “worth more than all the money in the world.”

“It’s coming way late in the game, of course. But it’s an honor. I’m proud to receive it. I spent 36½ years in the Navy, through World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and I’m proud of all of it.”

Norman will put on his uniform and take possession of the medal April 8 during a ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

He will already have one big medal pinned to his jacket, a Bronze Star with a Combat “V” that he received in 1966 for “performing heroic achievement against the enemy during a search and seizure operation while commanding a destroyer division.”

Still, Norman won’t claim the title “hero” for himself. In a Pearl Harbor Day speech given at Rosehill Cemetery this past Dec. 7, Norman described himself as just a “disciplined member of the armed forces charged with maintaining the peace and protection of the United States.”

But he doesn’t really have to seize the “hero” mantle for himself. Plenty of others have thrust it upon him.

By Michael Overall
Source: From the Tulsa World, not an endorsement
©1998 The Tulsa World