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Van Nortwick family sent three overseas during WWII

November 17, 2017
By GLYNIS HART - For the News (ghart@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - Since the Civil War, and possibly before that, the Van Nortwick family of Saranac Lake has been sending its young men to war. Their house, still in the family, stands at what used to be 46 Lake Flower Ave., now 291. In Pine Ridge Cemetery, 21 Van Nortwicks are buried, including Navy veteran Harry Van Nortwick and Charles Van Nortwick, who served in the Marines in World War II. A Van Nortwick who fought in the Civil War is buried in Redford.

In World War II, one branch of family sent three sons overseas. Jerrie Walsh, daughter of Robert Miles Van Nortwick, said, "We know there were other families that had a lot of brothers serving in the war. We're lucky because they came home - a lot of them didn't."

Walsh's father, Robert Miles Van Nortwick and his two brothers, Archie and Gordon, were part of a family of nine children. When the Second World War came, their father had passed away and although Robert, the youngest brother, tried to enlist, he was refused at first: by that time he was the sole support of his mother, Rose and his little sister Jeannette. (Brother Dan, the oldest, was too old to go; another brother had died at 16, and sisters Bernadine, Beulah and Geraldine, in those days, were not expected to enlist.)

Then came the draft. Drafted, Robert received dependent care pay that would take care of his mother and sister.

Archie served in the Army, achieving the rank of corporal, and Gordon went in the Navy.

"The only thing I know about Archie is that he was wounded," Walsh said. "He had a year of college, which put you above the rank and file. He moved away from Saranac Lake. Uncle Gordon lived on River Street, near where the North Elba Town House is. He always had a big garden in the back."

When Gordon was in the Navy, Walsh said, he had a job moving ammunition.

"I know my Dad once said, 'If Mom knew what he was doing, she'd have put a stop to it!'"

However, it was Robert who distinguished himself most in the war. Although he went to flight school, he didn't care for it and became a waist gunner instead of a pilot. As a waist gunner, he performed an act of bravery that was in all the papers at the time.

In April 1944, Van Nortwick's plane, a B-24 Liberator, was on a bombing run over Truk atoll in the Pacific Ocean. He later wrote a description of the incident:

"Out on one of our bombing raids I could see a light in the bomb bay and knew we didn't want the enemy to see this and start shooting at us 17,000 feet in the sky. I notified the pilot, then inspected the situation myself. The nut that held the 24 volt wire was arching 5 feet from a fuse for a 250 pound bomb of which there were 16. The bomb bays were both open and I walked across a 6 inch catwalk to find out what was wrong. I saw what was wrong, then bent the 1/2 cable and put it back on the terminal. I returned to my waist gunnery position and informed the pilot we had electrical problems."

Van Nortwick was wearing his flotation device, a parachute and an oxygen tank as he walked across the catwalk.

Van Nortwick's act saved the lives of everyone on the plane. Newspaper reports at the time noted that it wasn't the Liberator's only mishap, as the bomb bay doors wouldn't close, the automatic pilot went out, and the plane nearly ran out of fuel. When it finally reached the runway in the Marshall Islands, the plane "keeled over as if exhausted."

When the war ended, Van Nortwick married Rose Bruchan, a first-generation immigrant whose parents came from Austria. He worked for a railway express company, delivering goods from the railroad depot, then later at Ray Brook Sanatorium. He also worked at Whiteface Mountain as an electrician.

"Every summer he took us on a camping trip to Pine Pond," Walsh remembered. "Probably my earliest recollection of anything about the war was when we were back in the woods on a camping trip. He'd say, 'If the enemy captures you while we're in the woods, only give them your name, rank, and serial number.

"We knew our names, and we were all privates in Dad's eyes. And then, of course, he'd laugh."

 
 

 

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