If we have learned anything through this Covid-19 experience, it is that we never know what tomorrow brings. The phrase “you only live once” trivializes the importance of “taking care of business” while we still have time. I realized that I haven’t done proper estate planning (made a will, looked at all contingincies or “what ifs”, etc). Those I will take care of later this weekend. But first, I have decided to write this tribute to my favorite war hero, US Army PFC Norman Davies, or known to all of us as “Uncle Norm”. Uncle Norm passed away in late June 2019 at the age of 98 years old, less than 2 weeks before a huge birthday celebration had been planned by the Detroit Tigers honoring our hero.
I would like to start this tribute by posting the contents of an email that I wrote to the Detroit Tigers organization in February of 2019 about Uncle Norm. The email was entitled “Subject: Introducing PFC Norman Davies WWII Hero on July 7, 2019”. It was written to Brandon Scherzer (yes a relative former Tiger great pitcher, Matt Scherzer). The email went like this:
Thank you for encouraging me to write to you in hopes of recognizing my “Uncle Norm” at the Tigers/Red Sox game on Sunday, July 7, 2019. I just got off the phone with him and he was ecstatic at the thought of 1) even going to a Tigers game, and 2) being recognized BY the Detroit Tigers and fans for his service. I am also thankful that you and I talked this afternoon as it prompted my phone call to Uncle Norm where I gained insights that were new to me!
Norman Davies (Private First Class (PFC) Davies), was born on May 21, 1921, PFC Davies joined the US army at the age of 18 and became trained as an infantry rifleman (today he would be classified as an 11B or “Eleven Bravo”). After his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky he was assigned to an infantry company in the famed 4th Armor Division led by General George S Patton. While training stateside prior to his overseas deployment he personally remembers General Patton observing training and remembers him as a “hard ass”. Nonetheless, he told me that he has a picture of General Patton hanging on a wall in his house in Livonia, Michigan to this day. He commented on the phone to me this evening that General Patton was the kind of person that you have a “love/hate” relationship with. He also remarked candidly that “that General owed those boys who died a lot as we took a lot of casualties”.
PFC Davies deployed to Europe (England) on New Years Eve 1942. He and his fellow soldiers trained in England for almost 17 months until the fateful Normandy Invasion of June 1944. PFC Davies survived the initial invasion and was part of the force which began advancing only to be confronted with the challenges of fighting in the “hedgerow region” of Normandy. About three weeks after D-Day (June 6, 1944), PFC Davies found himself in a close range gunfight with several German soldiers. He was an excellent shooter and managed to “take care of” a few Nazi soldiers, but during his fateful hour, his rifle jammed, costing him several seconds of time. He attempted to clear the chamber of his rifle and reload, but he hadn’t enough time. Not wanting to stand up and run to a fall back position (standing up would have exposed his entire body to the enemy), he attempted to low crawl back to the hedgerows and pass through to the other side. He found an opening and started to go through, leaving his lower body exposed perpendicular to the hedgerow. He ran out of time and was hit by a spray of German bullets just above his right knee.
In those days, soldiers rarely survived such a wound. Fortunately, his fellow soldiers dragged this now 21 year old soldier to safety where the medics stopped the bleeding and he was sent back to England where they amputated his right leg just above the knee.
PFC Davies was later discharged from the US Army and soon thereafter obtained full time employment at Ford Motor Company as a calligraphist. Before computers were available, Uncle Norm was called upon during his career with Ford to hand draw signs and important invitations for the “brass” at Ford. He loved his days at Ford, and to this day is thankful for having had the opportunity to fight for our nation’s freedom.
My Uncle Norm is also quite a comedian. He is the life of every party, and loves people. He is currently part owner of the North Center Brewing Company in Northville, Michigan.
I feel obliged to tell one of the funniest stories ever about Uncle Norm which just happens to intersect with my own army career.
I’ll digress for a moment to bring us to the funny moment…I graduated from Southfield High School in 1972 and was the first Southfield High alum to actually graduate from West Point which I did in 1976. After attending artillery officer training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma I was assigned to an artillery unit in, guess where, West Germany.
Thirty four years after being wounded in France, Uncle Norm plus many more relatives flew to Europe from Detroit to join me on a three week vacation in Europe. Uncle Norm had only been to Europe once before, and it had been no vacation. I will never forget seeing Uncle Norm after he got off the plane in Frankfurt, West Germany. As he approached me in the airport, he said (in a very comical tone of voice), “Where’s that Nazi bastard, I’ll get him now!!!” We all cracked up laughing and that began a great vacation for us all.
I was fortunate that my 23 year career in the army did not require me to sacrifice like my Uncle Norm. I’ll end on a slightly humorous note and tell you that I am a real live “Colonel Sanders”. I retired from the US Army in 2001 as a lieutenant colonel and my last name is Sanders, so there you have it.!
So, why July 7?. I now live with my wife near Philadelphia and will be driving to Detroit to spend one week with Uncle Norm from July 6 – July 12, 2019. He is wheel chair bound, will soon be 98 years old, and that is the only date that we can actually come to a game together.
I would like to recreate a memory of a day in 1968, September 1 to be exact, when Uncle Norm, his son Jeff Davies, me, and my dad (now deceased) watched the Tigers beat the Baltimore Orioles in the rubber game of a three game series at Tiger Stadium. We will never forget the moment in the top of the third when Oriole Boog Powell laced a bullet of a line drive straight back to pitcher Denny McLain who turned and fired back to shortstop for a double play, and then a bullet throw to Norm Cash at first base for a TRIPLE PLAY. We all screamed so loud and we could not hear anything! I personally will never forget watching Norm Cash jumping up and down with fists clenched after catching the throw completing the triple play!
I want to thank you for reading this message and I hope that we can do something to recognize my “Uncle Norm” at the Tigers/Red Sox game on Sunday, July 7, 2019. I know that three of the four who attended the Sep 1, 1968 game will be present, with my dad watching from above) and can’t wait to enjoy a home Tigers game one more time with my hero, my Uncle Norm. I have a feeling that this will be my last chance.
And GO TIGERS GO!!! “
Later in the Spring we decided that the best tribute would be a stadium scoreboard announcement. Prior to Uncle Norm’s passing, the Tigers were going to post the following in the scoreboard (paper copy of my original message):
Uncle Norm wasn’t totally comfortable with being called a hero. As a matter of fact, through the later days of Spring I remember him consistently asking me about the July 7 date and that he wasn’t sure he would be able to go. I showed him the words that we had planned on posting on the scoreboard and he specifically had reservations about being singled out as a hero. “I was only doing my job, like everyone else” he would state over and over. He also said words to the effect of “those kids in the stadium don’t have a clue that I was just a normal guy, not a hero.” I finally had to “pull rank” (in a joking manner of course) by saying, “Listen to me PFC Davies, I am a colonel giving you a direct verbal order. When that announcement goes up on the scoreboard, you will wave to the thousands of adoring fans out there. They all need something and someone to believe in. This will be your final patriotic act, do you understand me Private Davies?”. From the greatest generation, there was no way he could disobey a direct verbal order of an officer! He responded with an exagerated salute and comment “YES SIR!!!”
I guess that both Uncle Norm and I knew that his days on earth were winding down. My February email to the Tigers citing the thought that this would be our last chance to see the Tigers live along with Uncle Norms doubts about the July 7th date had me concerned. Thankfully, in April 2019, just two months before Uncle Norm passed, I drove out to visit him at his assisted living facility. It was the BEST day of my life with Uncle Norm by far and I want to share it with you.
After speaking on the phone with my Cousin Vanessa (Uncle Norm’s daughter) in mid-April, I decided that this old almost 98 year old army private was looking to get out of his last patriotic duty. (that’s a sarcastic statement that Uncle Norm would have approved of). Seriously, Vanessa’s concerns about her father’s health had me worried and I decided to pull the trigger on a visit to Motown. I arrived in Livonia atound 10am on Wednesday, April 24. Uncle Norm was happy to see me, as I was him!
Vanessa, who worked in the area, arrived shortly after me for a “care conference”. She had some concerns and specifically asked about when her father had last been bathed. The crew told her that they would ensure Uncle Norm had a bath after lunch. (It was almost lunch time by the end of the care conference). Vanessa had to go back to work, so I walked her out and purchased a guest meal ticket so I could eat with Uncle Norm. It was at this point that the magic of this day began….
I was surprised to learn that Uncle Norm was accostomed to eating lunch in his room, alone. But, since I had purchased a meal ticket for the lunch buffet, I wheeled him out into the dining room area so that we could share a table together. Also to my surprise was the fact that there were no spare tables left! We canvassed the dining room twice and no vacancies were to be found. And then, out of nowhere, an elderly man sitting at a table with his wife waved us over. There were two vacant seats and he was inviting us to sit with him. I wheeled Uncle Norm to the table and thanked the man for his generousity. His wife was incapacitated and every day he would visit her for lunch. She couldn’t talk or move much, but he, at 90 years old, visited her every day.
This gentleman happened to be from France, the Normandy region. His name was Pierre (no kidding). Pierre was 8 years younger than Uncle Norm which meant he was a French teenager (13) on D-Day when the Allies invaded Normandy. Pierre, upon learning of Uncle Norm’s “visit to Normandy” in 1944, insisted that Uncle Norm join him and his wife for lunch every day going forward! He later joined Uncle Norm and me outside for some fresh air.
You recall that after lunch Uncle Norm was supposed to get his bath. It was the most beautiful day of the year outside and I mentioned that maybe he and I could take a little detour instead of heading back to his room after lunch. Also not one to follow all of the rules all of the time, he agreed so I wheeled him out to the front of the facility to catch a few rays together. After all, “after lunch” was subject to interpretation, and we would be able to gaurantee that his next bath would, in fact, be “after lunch!”.
What a great time we had talking about things we had never discussed before (which I will take to my grave). Another veteran, this time a Vietnam Vet, also came outside with his grandson. We quickly engaged in an army conversation and before you know it, we had made more friends. For the Vietnam Vet, meeting Uncle Norm made his day.
Uncle Norm, a lifetime Ford Motor employee, loved cars. One gentleman drove up in a beautiful car that really caught Uncle Norm’s eye. Uncle Norm struck up a conversation with the gentleman as did I. He called himself “Motown Mike”. I gave Mike my phone number and told him that if he ever came to Philadelphia to call me and I (as an Uber and Lyft driver) would pick him up at the airport and give him a free ride. He and I talked while Uncle Norm took advantge of the beautiful sunshine.
Several other nice people passed by us as Uncle Norm and I sat outside together, and he greeted them all. At about 3:30pm, one of the health care staff came outside in a panic and said, “Mr. Davies, we have been looking all over for you! We promised your daughter that we would be giving you a bath after lunch!” I pulled the lady aside, mentioned that I was leaving to go back to Philadelphia the next morning, and that this might be my last chance to see my Uncle Norm. I gave her a wink and said something like, “It will still be “after lunch” when I leave, so are we good 😉 ?” . She gave me an understanding smile and retreated back into the building.
Vanessa came by after work and I told her about the afternoon. I told her that I had usurped the bath plans, and she understood. I told her that this was the best day I had ever spent with my hero, my Uncle Norm. We bade Uncle Norm farewell for the day and headed out. I felt completely satisfied with life, feeling that I had gotten closer to my hero than ever before. I love that man.
Less than two months after my visit with Uncle Norm I got “the call” from Vanessa. My hero had passed from this earth. I was heartbroken, yet still feeling that God had given us our day, April 24, 2019, that nobody could take away from us. We had purchased tickets to the Tigers game and decided that we would still honor our hero. I contacted The Tigers and modified the scoreboard message.
So the lesson today is this: Do not wait to act on your instincts. We actually DO only live once and you need to take advantage of opportunities when they arise! When I look back on my life there are a few things that I regret, but as Frank Sinatra sang in “My Way”, they are too few to mention. Go out and LIVE LIFE, we do not know what tomorrow brings!
My Uncle Norm was a very wise and funny man. Words cannot express how much we all miss him. I have literally hundreds of pictures and stories about Uncle Norm, but we will end this in a dignified way. On this Memorial Day weekend, I thank God for my Uncle Norm, along with all the other patriots who fought for our country.
Farewell Old Soldier, with love, your loving nephew, Joey