FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) — Until this year, 14-year-old Caleb Wilson knew little about the World War II veterans in his family and their service.
But this spring, the Greenwood teen got an incentive to learn more. His sophomore history class at Hoosier Academy Virtual School had an assignment to find a family heirloom and tell the story behind it, through either a presentation or a poem.
Wilson considered doing a presentation on his maternal grandfather, Raymond Horn, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Unfortunately, he had no heirlooms to tie to his grandfather’s service — only a few stories shared with his mother, Lisa Wilson.
“My father had a tremendous amount of trouble talking about the war,” Lisa Wilson told the Daily Journal. “He wouldn’t talk about the battles or the people he lost around him.”
Caleb then went to his aunt, Nita Norcross, for help. Though she was unable to help him find a World War II relic from his grandfather, she turned up something just as good. When he died in 1987, her father-in-law, Ralph Norcross, left behind an old camera hollowed out by shrapnel during one South Pacific naval battle.
“Ralph told the story that this was his camera, and he’d loaned it to one of his shipmates before a battle,” Norcross said. “While the man was carrying it, shrapnel went in one side and blew out the other. After the battle, the man brought it back to Ralph and said, ‘Well, I guess I owe you some film.'”
This alone made for a good story, but even more interesting to Caleb was the connection between his grandfather and Ralph Norcross, outside of being related by marriage. They both grew up in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis. They each enlisted in the Navy and went on to serve in Leyte Gulf — the largest naval battle of World War II.
During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Horn was a signalman on the USS Appalachian — Adm. William Halsey’s flagship — guiding planes with red-and-white semaphore flags.
South of where the Appalachian saw much of its action, Lt. Ralph Norcross was piloting a gunboat that peppered the shores with machine-gun fire to prepare them for U.S. Marine infantry landings.
With the help of his mother, aunt and uncle, Paul Norcross, Caleb was able to dig up more of Ralph Norcross’ wartime keepsakes, from military ID cards and memoirs to treasured photos he carried of his wife. Looking at all the photos and handling the relics made the 71-year-old battle seem more real to the teen and gave him a greater appreciation for the men who fought there.
“I think sometimes when you watch movies and you read books about World War II, it feels like fiction,” Caleb said. “But when you get to handle the actual items that these soldiers owned, you realize that these were real people. They weren’t just characters in some book.”
Caleb took pictures of the family heirlooms and blended them with his own research on the battle to create an engaging PowerPoint presentation for his class, as well as a short poem. It earned him an A and taught him some lessons about the importance of the many people who have made sacrifices over the years to protect the freedom of others.
“You should never take your freedom for granted,” Caleb said. “You’d better appreciate what people are doing and have done for you.”
Nita Norcross is proud of her nephew and his interest in telling a story that is important to their family.
“He’s a really smart kid, and he always has been very curious and creative. I’m proud of him. It’s just wonderful that this story is coming out about these two local men who touched our lives. We’re still reaping the benefits of their service and sacrifices.”
Information from: Daily Journal, http://www.dailyjournal.net
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