The military career of Joe Norz ran from the end of World War II to the moon landings.
Norz, 92, resides at the Illinois Veterans Home in Manteno.
A longtime resident of Bolingbrook before moving to the veterans home four years ago, he had enlisted in 1946.
At the time he joined up, the nation’s military aircraft were still part of the Army Air Corps, a branch of the Army.
It wasn’t until 1947 that the Air Force became a separate armed force.
That fact that Norz enlisted in the Army, he said, hampered his military rank. He was an Army sergeant. Had he joined later, when it was the separate Air Force, he would have had a much higher rank — certainly an officer, he said.
When he did join, though, he quickly got a very good assignment. He had taken accounting courses at St. Rita High School and St. Mel High School in Chicago. When the Army learned that, he got put on a fast track toward training to serve in a headquarters.
“It was like a rocket,” Norz said. “I went up the chain so fast that people wondered if I had a general in the family.”
Following training at Fort Sheridan and at Lackland Field in Texas, he went to headquarters command in Dayton and then out to the Pacific. Assigned to the Capital Command near Tokyo, he was an 18-year-old who was quickly put in charge of keeping track of all the American aircraft in the Pacific.
Norz was working with documents “as thick as a phone book,” poring through the serial numbers of engines and fuselages. Which aircraft were still workable and flyable? Which ones could be saved? Which ones were to be destroyed?
Tests would be run. An aircraft with 500 hours would merit a complete corrosion test. Engines would be fired up to full throttle. Rust was a problem. There was an occasional B-29 engine that would just fall off, he said.
Some, Norz said, would be transferred to other governments. South Korea and China got surplus planes, particularly transport aircraft.
There were also cases where trenches would be dug and deteriorating aircraft just pushed in and covered up.
Once a month, Norz said, he would meet with General Douglas MacArthur, who was overseeing the Occupation of Japan.
Norz described their meetings as very businesslike.
MacArthur would check, he said, to see “if this was being looked at and if that was being checked.” Half a world away, Norz realized that a similar report was being presented to Dwight Eisenhower in the European Theater.
In retrospect, Norz says, he thinks that with the Cold War coming, America drew down its military manpower and material too quickly after World War II.
Life in occupied Japan was good duty, Norz recalls. The Japanese, he said, were grateful to the Americans as they saw their country being rebuilt. He befriended a Japanese ex-major of Marines who had fought in China. He also knew a Japanese ballerina, a woman who spoke English flawlessly. There were Japanese children that he would give apples and oranges to. Repaid by big smiles, then, he now wonders if they are still alive.
He remembers, too, taking hunting trips in Japan. The hunters would carry Thompson submachine guns, as protection from worrisome bear attacks, he said.
Eventually, Norz moved out of active duty, joining the Air Force Reserve while becoming a civilian tech and a consultant. Returning to Chicago, he was part of a team that built gyroscopes for Minuteman rockets at an old Studebaker plant. He bought the Bolingbrook home with a “military discount” and lived there 46 years.
Norz would wind up working on the space program. He’s reluctant to talk about that, saying part of it is likely still classified. He has autographed pictures of all the early astronauts, who, he says, were nice people.
He got to take his family on escorted tours of Mission Control. He also remembers watching the moon landing, with his family, in Fort Lauderdale.
He and wife Loraine were married for 63 years before she passed away about a decade ago. They had sons, Michael and David, and a daughter Debra. His granddaughter, Dana, looks in on him now regularly.
Proud of his service, Norz wears a sweatshirt adorned with military patches, including the 5th Air Force, the Air Force in the Pacific and the Air Force Material Command.