World War II veteran Norwood Thomas, from North Carolina, went through hell and back, and not just because of his experiences in World War II. During the war, shortly before D-Day, as a matter of fact, Norwood met and fell in love with a British woman named Joyce Durrant Morris. But Norwood never got to take her home with him. And so, life went on. But he never forgot about her. Even after a long marriage and three children, the widow just couldn’t forget the “one that got away.”
Decades after the war, the two reunited. While their reunion was nothing short of touching, it was short-lived. Norwood, who had already lost her once after the war, was devastated to lose her yet again… but this time for good.
After the lovebird story, stick around for a recap of Norwood’s involvement in D-Day…
Norwood was 93 years old when he rekindled his love with Joyce on a Skype call that was set up in November 2015 between the two former lovebirds. “I’m a little nervous,” he said. “But this should help.” He sat on his living room couch, slowly sipping a glass of whiskey, anticipating the virtual reunion.
His thoughts wandered: What will she think of him after all these years? Will she even recognize him? Norwood said that believe it or not, he still remembers the sound of her laugh. He recalls the way she looked – “a pretty little thing” – on the day they met long, long ago by the banks of the River Thames.
They first met a few months before the 21-year-old parachuted into Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division. Some seven decades later, he can still recite her mailing address from a long time ago: “4 Darrow Road, Richmond, Surrey, England.” Yes, he loved the 17-year-old British gal, but, no, he didn’t marry her and bring her back home to America. Why? Because she didn’t let him.
Or rather, it just “wasn’t meant to be.” The two young lovers happened to connect briefly during the war, but once it ended, they went their separate ways. After the war, his “orders to go home came so quick there was no real chance to even say goodbye.” But recently, rather amazingly, the two crossed paths once again.
The computer in the other room started ringing. “Is that her?” Norwood asked, hurriedly rising to his feet. “No, Dad,” his son, Steve Thomas, said to him. “It’s not working yet.” It took four attempts for the Skype connection to finally work. After both of them fiddled with the camera settings, the image and the sound became clear. And there she was, on the other side of the world, the 88-year-old version of the woman he had fallen in love with all those years ago.
Joyce squinted at the computer screen. “Tommy?” she said in her British accent. Norwood hasn’t heard anyone call him that since 1945 when the two bid their farewells. “I’m here now,” he said in his Southern drawl. “And there you are.” Joyce replied, “It’s been a while.”
For many years, Norwood thought his past lover was dead. That’s because he had read a news story in the 1990s about a plane crash out of London. He read that one of the victims in the report was an Englishwoman who sounded a lot like “his Joyce.” It meant, for Norwood, that he had lost her twice by that point.
His Joyce confessed to thinking about her Tommy over the years, too. She admitted to sometimes daydreaming about her romance with him, and she wondered how his life had turned out. Then, one day, her son Rob was working on his computer, and she asked him, “Can you find people on that thing?” Rob typed in “Norwood Thomas, 101st Airborne.”
It led him to a story about a D-Day paratrooper who went skydiving for his 88th birthday. Rob then contacted a reporter in Virginia, who called Norwood directly on his cellphone. He happened to be shopping at The Home Depot when he got the call. “Joyce Durrant?” he said aloud, using her maiden name.
Then he gasped: “Oh my God.” That afternoon, he went home and pulled a bag of old photographs out of his closet. He flipped through the stack until he landed on one with her face. Joyce had given him that very photo before he went off into battle. And after all these years, the photo is still in near-perfect condition.
After the war, Joyce moved to Australia with her new husband. It was from Australia that she and her son called Norwood through Skype. On their virtual date, the two reminisced about that day they had met down by the river when Norwood and his buddy were on leave in the London suburb.
They were walking along the Thames River when they noticed two women renting out a rowboat. They went up to the pair, and Norwood introduced himself and even suggested they rent two boats, with him and Joyce in one and his friend and her friend in the other. It was essentially his pick-up line, and it worked.
They hit it off and exchanged contact information. After that, they saw each other on several weekends. Throughout his stints in the Battle of Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge – whenever possible – he slipped back to London to see his Joyce. They made trips to seaside villages, had dinners at their favorite café, and enjoyed late-night films.
“I remember we used to take a lot of walks,” Joyce said. “I remember you were walking with me one day, and the girls coming this way all had a silly look on their faces,” Joyce recalled. “Then I look sideways, and you’re winking at them!” He said, “Not me! I would never wink at another girl.” They both laughed.
“I did enjoy beauty,” Norwood said. “And I still do.” It’s clear he still loves her after all the time and distance that had separated them. And although she wasn’t the only pretty young lady he chased in Europe as a young man in uniform, she was special.
During their Skype date, Norwood said that he placed her “on a pedestal,” thinking of her as “pure, untouchable, unattainable.” She interrupted him, though, to ask him when he met his wife. He told her that he met her in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina, “Not long after I got your refusal,” he told her, to which she laughed again. “You broke my heart,” Norwood admitted.
According to Joyce, that fact can be blamed on “miscommunication.” Months after returning to the United States, Norwood wrote her a number of letters. In his final letter, he wrote something along the lines of: “Why don’t you come and make my house a home?”
Joyce, a divorcee, revealed that she couldn’t recall why, but the letter confused her. She thought he had already gotten married – and that he wanted to leave his wife for her. With that assumption as his motive, she wanted no part of it. “And that was the end of it,” she said. Norwood, who often told his children, “Your mom was almost an Englishwoman,” hadn’t been married at the time of his letters.
Joyce went on to nursing school, got married, gave birth to a couple of boys, and moved with the family to Australia. As for Norwood, he also married and had three kids – two girls and a boy. He worked in construction before eventually re-enlisting in the Army. He served again in Korea and then in Vietnam before settling in Norfolk and finally in Virginia Beach.
For a long time, both Joyce and Norwood were in great health. However, more recently, Norwood has been battling prostate cancer. Joyce ended up losing most of her vision. “Tell me,” Norwood said, grinning into the camera, “Do you see me now?” He told her that he’s smiling, to which she said, “I bet you are.”
She held up a black and white portrait of Norwood in uniform, which was taken before he entered the war. Her son found it on the Internet a few weeks before their virtual date and printed it out for her. She even framed it and hung it in her bedroom. She told her Tommy that it’s the first thing she sees each morning.
When she asked him where she’s spending Christmas, he told her that his wife died in 2001, on the morning of Christmas Eve, and ever since then, Christmas hasn’t been the same. He told her that it was a good marriage. His wife, like many veterans’ wives, had to deal with her husband’s undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
As for Joyce, she told him that she married “an absolute sod… He was totally immoral.” Still, she stayed with the father of her children for 37 years but admitted that she should have left him a lot sooner (she left him after 30 years). She never remarried. At this point in their conversation, she suggested they change the subject.
“I tell you what,” Norwood said. “If you had come to the States when I asked, we would have been together for 70 years.” That remark made her blush. Their chat about his hobbies, American sports, the sea level rise, and the presidential election lasted almost two hours. One of the last things he told her was, “This is something I wouldn’t trade anything for.”
The only problem was, he told her that he couldn’t take her in his arms “and give you a squeeze.” And when he leaned forward in his seat and asked her what she would do if he could give her a little squeeze, she said, “Oh, it would be lovely. We could always do with a hug, can’t we? Whatever age we are.”
As they were saying their “goodbyes,” it became clear that neither of them has a clear memory of the last time they parted. They suspected it was at a train station in London, but neither one could picture it. Either way, they made plans to talk again soon.
The story of the two former lovebirds reconnecting was posted on The Virginian-Pilot. After that, a bunch of people wanted to do whatever they could to help reunite the two, this time in the flesh. , After all, to hug each other again was something both of them wanted badly. And so, following The Virginian-Pilot’s online report about their seemingly impossible reunion, many readers contacted the newspaper.
The goal: to raise enough money to fly Norwood to Australia to see his Joyce. One reader, in particular, Barbara Lee McDonald of Virginia Beach, went a bit further. She contacted Norwood and got his permission to create a GoFundMe campaign. He told Barbara that he’d love to go to Australia, but health and money were two obstacles. He was living under a fixed income after all.
Norwood was surprised by all the attention he was receiving after that initial post, and he was hesitant to accept donations at first. But if it meant getting to see Joyce in person, it was worth it, he said. As for Joyce, she said it was “something fun. Something to sustain the last years of our life… Because we’re very much at the end of it now, aren’t we? I mean, we can only go on for so long.”
Joyce said she was glad she asked to look him up “before it was too late.” And so, after their first Skype date, the old couple reunited via an international satellite feed on Australia’s live Today Show.
In January of 2016, thanks to over 300 donations (mailed directly to Norwood) and over $7,500 raised, he was able to purchase a ticket to Adelaide, Australia. But since the money didn’t cover his travel there and back, Air New Zealand said they would take care of the rest. Not only that, they flew him first class.
The humble man was naturally in shock when he heard the news. “I’m numb,” he said. “I have no idea what my emotions are going to be once we meet face to face.” When word of Norwood heading to Australia spread, he became the talk of the town (or the world, rather). People Magazine called. And then ABC, then CBS, then The Washington Post, Time, Women’s Day, The Daily Mail, and so on.
The calls didn’t stop. At one point, their story was the top trending story on Facebook (topping a post about Jessica Simpson wearing a bikini). The night before the flight, he tossed and turned in anticipation. Not only is it remarkable that a man in his mid-90s is traveling across the world to see his former love, but he (together with his son) also has to take a 10,500-mile journey to do so.
He even said, at the age of 93, that he’d “rather die traveling to Australia than live sitting around at home wondering ‘what if?'” Needless to say, there aren’t many people his age who would board a plane and head to the other side of the earth. “I’m an old geezer, but I don’t feel old,” Norwood said. “I’ve been blessed with good health.”
The man outlived most of his friends and family and stated that he has no idea “if there’ll still be romantic feelings. But at the very least, I’ll get to spend time with an old friend. Just sitting and reminiscing will be wonderful.” While at the Norfolk airport, a man named Bil Letchford was there to pick up his girlfriend from Brazil.
With a bouquet in one hand, he stuck out the other to shake Norwood’s hand. “I just wanted to shake your hand,” he told the veteran. “I’ve been reading about you, and I wanted to thank you for your service, sir. And I think it’s fantastic you’re going to see your girl.”
The day finally came. The two met again, seven decades later. He was there for three weeks, and everywhere they went, people stopped them to say congratulations. As the old couple walked past a restaurant in Adelaide, people dining on a patio yelled for the couple to stop. Then, they stood up and gave a toast: “Here’s to love, at any age.”
The two spent Valentine’s Day together, and he gave Joyce her first-ever valentine. “He loves me, and I love him,” Joyce told the Australian Associated Press afterward. But she didn’t reveal what her Tommy wrote inside the card. By the time the two had to say goodbye again at the airport, it was nothing short of emotional.
Tears were rolling down his cheeks as he hugged Joyce at the airport before flying back home. He knew that this goodbye would likely be their last. “It was hard,” he said once he was back home. “Given our age and other circumstances, we both realized we most likely wouldn’t ever see each other again in person.”
The two parted ways for the last time, although they planned to meet again via Skype. Sadly, on December 9, 2016, nearly a year after meeting in Australia, Joyce passed away. After their in-person reunion, Norwood and Joyce called each other four to five times a week. Believe it or not, he planned on returning to Australia in the spring.
Joyce suffered a heart attack from which she wasn’t able to recover. Upon hearing the news, Norwood was tearful and reflected on the whole thing. “It was a blow,” he said. “For all those years, I never thought I’d see her again. But I did, thanks to so many people. It’s a great loss, I feel now.”
“She was my first great love,” he said, his voice trembling. His love for her may have even trumped his loneliness. He is, in fact, the only remaining member of his family. “All the men I parachuted into Normandy with are gone. I can’t locate any of my old high school friends. I have new friends but none left from my earlier life. So I do feel somewhat alone.”
Reconnecting with Joyce helped him in many ways. But nearly a year after they reconnected, she was gone. He lost for the third and final time. Was the grief worth it? “Oh, yes. It was probably the greatest event of my life.” Norwood plans to purchase a memorial bench for Joyce and have it placed along a path in Australia where they strolled arm in arm.
While this was a real blow to the romantic veteran, it wasn’t the end of his eventful life. A year later, at the age of 95, Norwood Thomas set a record. Two days after his 95th birthday, he became the oldest person to jump out of a plane at Skydive Suffolk.
“I’m proud to be the oldest, it makes me feel good,” he said after jumping (with a tandem instructor) from about 14,000 feet. In 2011, he came up with a bucket list, and his number one desire was to jump out of an airplane again. Norwood has been suffering from a number of health issues, including Type 2 diabetes, stage four kidney disease, and prostate cancer.
His son Steve said that the cancer is in remission, and the kidney disease seems to be under control. Skydiving, as Steve said, gives his father “a purpose for being.” He added that this is “where old men can come back and be boys again.”
Norwood landed safely with only minor injuries to his ear and hand. “I was enjoying the scenery,” Norwood said about his experience in the air. “When you’re up there looking down on the world, it’s beautiful scenery. It’s a feeling you don’t get unless you get up there.”
As a member of the 101st Airborne Division, Norwood hopes to have six more birthdays. “This may be his last one,” Steve said. “He doesn’t want it to be his last one, I don’t want it to be his last one, but his health may dictate otherwise.” As for Norwood, he just likes to enjoy his life to the fullest.
When Norwood was 19, he was working at an auto shop in Durham when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. “I was a typical kid, ignorant of politics,” he said. All he knew then was that he “wanted to bomb them back to eternity.” The way he saw it, the war would only last two weeks.
They had just come out of the Great Depression, and the United States had no shortage of men willing to fight. “Kids lied about their age just to get a chance to fight,” Norwood recalled. On March 16, 1942, he enlisted in the Army. In the beginning, he was assigned to the 82nd Infantry Division.
Since he knew his way around machines, he was assigned to the signal company and worked in the motor pool. By October 1942, the 82nd Infantry Division became the US Army’s first airborne division. The division was then split into two, and Norwood was re-assigned to the newly created 101st Airborne Division.
When two officers from Fort Benning, Georgia, arrived on his base to ask for volunteers to be paratroopers, Norwood raised his hand. He then joined a group of around 150 men in a physical endurance test. After a rigorous test, only 16 men remained. Norwood was one of them. They were then sent off to Fort Benning to do a five-week Jump School.
Jump School was no easy feat. It consisted of parachute education, physical training, tower jumps, and a minimum of five active jumps to receive the coveted jump wings. Active jumps were live from an airplane at regulation altitude. “They were very hard on us because we had to be good. We had to be great,” Norwood recalled.
Norwood completed his program successfully and was proud to wear his jump wings and bloused pant legs tucked into his boots as they were the only military units allowed to do that to their uniforms. Norwood became a division radio operator. After training at a signal code school, he became part of a communications network to direct fire during combat.
In September 1943, his division was deployed to England. Norwood boarded the transport RMS Strathnaver, which broke down three times. They had to be placed on another ship, and it took a total of 45 days just to get to England.” Once there, they began more training. The order came that D-Day was set to take place on June 5, 1944.
Norwood and his men made a makeshift airfield to set up camp and await the jump. There, according to Norwood, they ate like kings, dining on steaks, pork chops, real mashed potatoes, and vanilla ice cream. Due to stormy weather, the initial jump was postponed. They eagerly awaited the call.
Norwood was equipped with a .30-caliber M-1 carbine, 12 clips of ammo, and three days of K-rations. On June 5, trucks arrived to dump piles of pre-packed parachutes onto the ground. As Norwood put on his parachute, he noticed General Dwight D. Eisenhower approaching. The General had come to wish the men well.
He asked Norwood, “Were you issued a parachute by serial number as you were with the rifles?” Norwood replied, “No, sir. The chutes were dumped off of that truck over there.” For Norwood, that was a great moment. “It was good to see him there with us,” he said. At 10:30 p.m., Norwood boarded the plane. Once it took off, some men got sick, some slept, and some prayed.
Norwood said that he didn’t smoke, and he didn’t take the pills “they were passing out to help with air sickness,” either. “I was wide awake because I wanted to be wide awake.” Once the plane reached the Cotentin Peninsula, they began taking German anti-aircraft fire. Norwood was in fourth position for the jump.
The Jump Master ordered: “Stand up, hook up.” During training, the paratroopers were told to count “1,000, 2,000, 3,000” after jumping as the parachute would inflate after “3,000.” On D-Day, according to Norwood, they were permitted to say “Bill Lee” instead in honor of the former Commanding General of the 101st. Norwood jumped at 400 feet and landed in a field at 1:23 a.m. near the French village of Bruceville.
He landed in Drop Zone C and cut himself free from the chute. He saved a piece of it, though, and tucked it into his pocket. He couldn’t find one familiar face from the 101st where he landed. He eventually found Julian Necikowski, a radio operator who had trained him. He then found members of the 3rd Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in the early hours of June 6.
Norwood was ordered to join the unit in clearing Causeway No. 1 off of Utah Beach so the infantry arriving that morning could move inland. Norwood took three rounds of ammo and his rifle. He shot at many German soldiers that morning. “I did not feel like I was shooting at a human,” he admitted.
Norwood then shot at the insulators on telephone poles to interfere with German communication, which made a popping sound. Causeway No. 1 was cleared by 10 a.m. D-Day came and went, and over the next few weeks, Norwood fought but was never wounded. He focused on the fight and his desire “to kill anyone in enemy uniform.”
The way he saw it, killing was part of the job, and he wanted to do his job, win the fight, and go home. “I always had a feeling I would make it back home alive,” he stated. “Even with war all around me, the thought never crossed my mind that I would not be going home.”