Norton saw Jewish survivors fleeing Germany in WWII
By the time Tom Norton got to Germany, the shooting had stopped. But masses of people were moving as fast as they could. Many were headed in the same direction — south.
As Norton traveled from Bremerhaven to Munich, he noticed countless civilian train cars pulled over to allow military trains to pass. Many of those cars were filled with Jews. And most had a single destination in mind… their Israeli homeland, located in what was then called Palestine.
Palestine had been under British control for decades, and relatively few Jews were allowed to return each year. When news of the Nazi holocaust spread after the war, Jews pressed Britain and her wartime allies to establish a Jewish homeland that would become the state of Israel. It would be almost three years before Israel was officially established, but Jewish survivors of the war were ready to return.
“The Jews Hitler hadn’t killed were heading south,” Norton says. “They were headed for ports to look for ships. Israel was a place they felt they would be safe.”
He now introduces himself as “Brother Tom” because of his pastoring and evangelical work, but he was just plain Tom Norton when he was born in Troup County in 1926.
Norton’s father was a supervisor at Callaway Mills in LaGrange until Norton was four, then took up farming. The elder Norton was a disabled World War I veteran who was wounded and gassed and returned from the war shell-shocked.
“My father tried hard. But after what he went through in the war, he had a hard time,” Norton says. “He was never really well.”
Once the family started farming, everyone pitched in. Norton plowed a mule until he was 16, then worked at the mill until he graduated from Rosement High School in rural Troup County.
Norton enrolled at West Point Business School, completed the course and took a job with Railway Express Company. He drove a 1928 Chevrolet delivery truck that picked up merchandise at train stations up and down the Chattahoochee Valley and delivered the goods to area merchants
One of his stops was a jewelry store in West Point, where a young lady named Maxine Hodnett worked. Maxine says at first she was scared when Norton barged through the door bearing packages and hollering “Ex-press” at the top of his lungs. But the two got to know each other and fell in love and were married in November 1944. They soon started a family that grew to include six children, 20 grandkids and 24 great-grandchildren.
As the war intensified, Norton kept working. One day in mid-1945 he delivered a package to a woman’s home in West Point. Norton was a big, strong young man; and when the woman saw him she was furious.
“She looked at me and said ‘who do you know?'” Norton says. “She had just lost a son in the war, and I was big and healthy and she thought I must have known somebody to get out of service. But that wasn’t it.”
When he was three, Norton developed a high fever that lasted several days. He survived, but the sickness left him with a crossed left eye. All during school he had trouble reading and was picked on by classmates who called him “cock-eyed” or “rooster-eyed.”
“It wasn’t any fun,” he says. “But I just took it and did what I could.”
In 1940, Norton was saved and gave his life to Christ. He says at the time he felt a call to preach, but held back.
“I had that bad eye, and people didn’t know how to act around me,” he says. “I thought if I tried to preach people would be uncomfortable or laugh at me, so I didn’t do it.”
Norton was drafted when he was of age, but immediately turned down because of his vision. He later got some medical help and had the problem corrected by a surgeon in Columbus, Ga.
Norton went back to the Army and tried to enlist, but was turned down again. His eyes were straight, but his vision was still too poor for the military.
It bothered Norton, but not his brother, who was serving with General George S. Patton in Europe.
“With what he was going through, he used to write and tell me not to sign up,” Norton says. “But I thought it was something I should do.”
After being scolded by the woman whose son had been killed in the war, Norton went back to the Army one more time and begged to be taken. This time the Army agreed. Just as the war was ending, Norton joined the Army Air Corps. By then, he already had one child.
“I didn’t want to leave my wife and child,” Norton says. “But I’d never tried to duck the service, and when I got the chance I thought I should go.”
After basic training at Keesler Field, Mississippi, it was off to Scott Field, Illinois, for training as a communications specialist.
When his training was completed, Norton sailed from New York to Germany to begin work with the Airway and Air Evacuation Service (AAES). As Norton traveled from the port city of Bremerhaven toward Munich he saw devastation everywhere. He says by that time, soldiers could tell if the devastation had been caused by Allied bombs or artillery.
“If the smokestack of the factory was still standing that usually meant the Air Force had bombed it,” Norton says. “If everything was flat, that was probably artillery.”
Norton was stationed near Munich with the 5th Wing of the AAES. His unit handled air traffic control of military planes and helped keep military communications flowing smoothly.
After a stay in Munich, Norton was sent to Naples, Italy, and then on to Rome. He was finally assigned to an air base in San Giusto, just outside, Pisa, Italy.
While in Italy he talked to several Jews, including some who had served with Allied military units. Norton remembers one Jewish man who had flown for Britain during the war. The British flyer told Norton that as soon as he flew one more trip back to England he was going home. Norton asked him were home was.
“He told me ‘I’m going back to the land God gave my people,'” Norton says. “He was talking about Israel.”
Even though the fighting had stopped, danger still lingered. In one building where Norton’s unit was housed, two Italians were killed when an undetonated bomb exploded in the kitchen.
Italy was in economic ruin, and it was always a scramble between military and civilians to get their hands on anything of value — especially American military items, which always brought a good price on the black market.
One time Norton went with some others to the wreckage of a C-47 cargo plane in northern Italy. By the time the Americans had arrived, all the plane’s communications equipment and other useable spare parts were gone.
“The Italians got there first,” Norton says. “You had to be quick.”
After his discharge, Norton returned to Georgia and went back to work for Railway Express. As he rose through the company ranks, he was transferred several times before settling in as the station agent in Sylacauga, Ala., in 1954.
When the company asked him to go on the road again, Norton refused because he wanted to be at home with his family. Instead, he took a job with a local company that made machines that manufactured artillery shells.
When his father died, Norton moved to Atlanta where his mother was living. In 1957 he began work with the Post Office. He was forced to retire for health reasons in 1976, but by then, “Brother Tom” had found a higher calling.
During basic training at Keesler Field Norton spent some time working in the military jail. Ever since, he had felt drawn to the special problems and spiritual needs of men in prison.
In 1961, Norton started a prison ministry at the Fulton County Jail. Over the next few years, Norton was instrumental in opening and pastoring three churches in south metro Atlanta.
Norton also started a Bible correspondence school that now serves inmates and the families of inmates incarcerated at more than 1,600 jails and prisons. Norton’s ministries are now known collectively as Highways & Hedges Christian Ministries.
Tom and Maxine Norton moved to Coweta, GA in 1993 and both continue to serve in their ministry.
“The military was good to me,” he says. “And it really helped me develop my ministry. In the military you learn real quick that if you don’t obey orders there can be bad consequences. That’s a message prisoners understand. It’s been a wonderful life and I’m just very grateful to God for all his blessings.”
“Brother Tom”, 83 of Newnan, Ga., went home to glory on July 10, 2010. He was preceded in death by his grandson Joshua Ivey of Tyrone and his son Norman L. Norton of Fayetteville. Mr. Norton and his wife began “Highways and Hedges”, a prison ministry in 1961. As Chaplain, he shared Jesus with thousands of inmates at numerous prisons throughout the southeast.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years Maxine Hodnett Norton; daughters Melnee Ivey Mitchell of Newnan, Frances N. Ivey of Tucker and Nancy N. Montgomery of Hogansville; sons David T. Norton of Fayetteville and Alan P. Norton of Newnan. He had 19 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations to: Highways and Hedges Christian Ministry, 2800B Pine Grove Drive Powder Springs, Ga. 30127.
A memorial service for Mr. Norton will be held Monday, July 12, 2010 at 6 p.m. at Trinity Baptist Church, 122 Franklin Road, Newnan, Ga., 30263 with Pastor Rick Duncan officiating.