There are some women or men who, after meeting them just one time you hope will become your friend.
Norm Herren was one of those people.
I’m not sure exactly where we first met. I know it was likely sometime shortly after Cindy and I moved here over 20 years ago and needed something for the house we had just purchased. His building supply store seemed like the right place to go.
Our paths seemed to cross often. He was active in the community; he was a big supporter of youth baseball in the community and he was extremely proud of his grandson after he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
I’ll never forget the hours I spent with Norm and his wife, Mildred, at the Herren home. Norman called me one day and asked if I’d like to come over to their house and interview their grandson about his experiences at the Air Force Academy and the training he was receiving to fly jets off of aircraft carriers, which was fascinating.
During the first Memorial Day gathering that I attended in Vermillion, I learned that Norm was a military veteran. He was one of the American Legion members participating in the service.
What I didn’t know during all of the times we’d bump into each other and usually talk about a wide range of subjects -- family, baseball, the newspaper business, the right kind of paint to use on the walls of our dining room -- there were things he never mentioned.
I didn’t learn about one important aspect of Norm’s life until I read about it while editing his obituary after he passed away about five years ago.
Norm, while serving in the U.S. Navy, took part in the D-Day invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944. He wasn’t among the thousands of G.I.s who landed on the beaches there but he was on the many ships -- I can only picture them as big, floating targets -- that transported equipment to the soldiers.
On May 27, we’ll remember soldiers who gave their all to defend the freedoms we enjoy today. Ten days after that, we’ll observe the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It’s why Norm came to mind as I was preparing to write my column.
On Sept. 8, 1942, he enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve V-7 program and was put on inactive duty for one year. After completing the V-7 program at Notre Dame University, he was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy in January 1944. He was assigned as communication officer aboard USS LST 528 for the duration of World War II. He was aboard this ship at daybreak of D-Day, June 6, 1944 off Normandy Juno Beach.
Fortunately, he talked about some of his military experiences during a segment of the South Dakota Public Broadcasting program, “Homefront: South Dakota Stories.”
Norm’s first business experience may have come while he served on the newly commissioned USS LST 528.
“The first order that I received -- the captain told me to start a ship’s store,” Norm told Bob Bosse, SDPB’s director of television in a 2007 interview. “He didn’t tell me how.”
Since he was on a brand new ship, there was no information available to Norm for how to begin.
He found a compartment near the crew’s quarters that would serve well as a location for the ship’s store. He also asked officers and other crew members for money to buy the inventory for the store.
He then went to the PX on the naval base and purchased cigarettes, candy, razors and razor blades that could be available for his fellow crewman once the ship had left the U.S.
Norm was also qualified to be “on watch” while the ship was underway.
“You were up on the bridge, and you were in charge of the ship -- the ship was yours,” he said. “After I became communication officer after a few months, the ship was also mine when general quarters was sounded.”
Norm’s ship sailed from New Orleans, Louisiana to Panama City, Florida for a two-week “shakedown cruise” that served as a training exercise. The ship then returned to New Orleans, where it was fully loaded with fuel and supplies.
The ship then sent sail for the east coast, with stops in New York and New Jersey, where it was loaded with various types of ammunition.
The USS LST 528 began its ocean voyage on April 18, 1944, as part of a convoy of 127 ships.
“It took us 19 days to get across (the Atlantic),” Norm said.
In May 1944, the ship arrived at Northern Ireland, and a few days later was ordered to sail to Plymouth, England.
On May 31, 1944, the ship sailed to Tilbury, located south of London, where tanks, trucks and jeeps were added to its cargo.
The ship originally was to set sail for Normandy on June 4, but that order was delayed for 24 hours. The ship and the rest of the invasion fleet departed from Southend-On-Sea, England, for France at 5:30 p.m. June 5, 1944, and arrived at Normandy at approximately 5:30 a.m. the next morning.
“We had a few tanks which could go in water, and we let those off at sunrise,” he said.
The ship also had six Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) boats aboard, which were used to haul troops to shore.
“We let those off, with 26 men,” Norm told Bosse. “We were set up for the third wave, and we weren’t too happy. We preferred the first wave. We went up on Juno Beach, which was the Canadian beach -- and we had a lot of respect for those guys.”
The ship was designed to land on shore, where it could be unloaded, and it finally accomplished that goal on June 8.
“When the tide went out, there we set, high and dry, and we let our tanks out. Then we picked up wounded there. On D-Day, there was almost 10,000 killed, but there were 41,500 wounded,” he said. “So they were all picked up by different ships on that day, so they could be brought back to England. It was pitiful.”
Seeing the aftermath of the D-Day invasion, he said, was “terrible.” He mentioned during the interview that he never viewed the film “Saving Private Ryan,” which very realistically portrayed the carnage of that day.
Norm said he viewed his role on the ship as a protector of his crewmen.
“I wasn’t afraid to take action. There were over 100 crewmen aboard, and it was my responsibility to see that they arrived safely,” he said. “I felt that I came out of this service a better person than I was when I went in.”
The Vermillion community benefited greatly from Norm’s personal philosophy to serve and care for others.
He was involved in a variety of activities and civic organizations, including the Lions Club, Masonic Lodge, American Legion, Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company, and the First Baptist Church. He was honored as South Dakota Lumberman of the Year (1986) and Grand High Priest of Royal Arch Masons (1993-1994).
He and Mildred supported both academic and athletic programs at the University of South Dakota from which she and both their children earned degrees. Norm was proud that the USD Track and Field program began the Norm Herren High School Invitational Track Meet in 2007.
“I think that we are on this earth to help people,” Norm told Bosse during the 2007 interview. “Otherwise, why are we here? I think having served, and seeing the casualties that I saw, and different things during war, has made me a much better person. I’m more aware of my faults -- I’m very happy that I was able to serve.”
I’m happy that I got a chance to know Norm, a shining example of why Tom Brokaw calls people of his era “The Greatest Generation.”
A link to Norm’s audio interview may be found by logging on to http://www.dakotastories.org/homefront/Vermillion/Herren.html.