Veteran Norfolk only known survivor of plane crash

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Veteran James Norfolk was drafted into the Navy and served six years.

OKEECHOBEE — Veteran James Norfolk has the distinction, as far as he knows, of being the only man to ever survive the crash of a Grumman S2F Tracker antisubmarine plane while wearing no harness. Mr. Norfolk was born and raised in Maryland. He was drafted in 1956, but unlike most draftees, he was put in the Navy rather than the Army. He said when they heard his last name, they said he needed to be in the Navy. He joked that when the North Koreans heard Jim Norfolk was in the Navy, they were ready to sign that peace treaty before he ever got out of boot camp in Bainbridge, Md.

After boot camp, he was sent to Norman, Okla.a, where he was put through engine schooling. Next, he went to Millington, Tenn., near Memphis. There, he was offered the chance to pick his squadron, and he did not know one from the other, he said, so he picked VS-30. He believes it was a good choice. He got along well with everyone there. He was born on a farm and was not afraid of hard work, and they appreciated that.

He had never been in an airplane before, and when they asked him if he wanted to be a crewman, he told them he did not know, but he found out he could make an extra $40 a month for flying, as it was considered hazardous duty. He decided to take it, because he wanted to buy a car. He ended up stationed at the Norfolk Naval Air Station in Virginia, which probably explains them putting him in the Navy, he said, and he became an Airdale.

He was in Squadron VS-30, which was an antisubmarine squadron. Four or five of the men in the squadron had last names that were also the names of towns — Norfolk, Cleveland, Houston, Austin and one was another town in Virginia.

The crash happened on the first Saturday in November, 1958, in an S2F antisubmarine plane. It was nighttime, and they were flying about 300 feet above the water looking for a submarine. They needed to know whose sub it was, he explained. He had just returned to his seat and had not put his harness back on when it happened. You have to understand, he said — they never got much sleep. The pilots were always exhausted. “The pilot must have dozed off just for a second, but when you are flying that low, it only takes a second, and we hit the water,” he said. People ask him if he was scared, but he tells them there was no time to be scared. They had no idea it was happening until they hit the water.

His first thought when they hit was to get out of that plane, and that’s what he did. He did not realize until later that he kicked his friend a couple of times on his way out. “I have always, even when flying commercial, made it a point to know where the exits are in the plane. I always knew which seat I wanted and where to get out if we crashed,” he said. “It sure paid off that day.”

The only injuries he had were a chipped front tooth and a small cut on his lip. Everyone thought it was a miracle, because no one had ever survived a crash without a harness before. That crash was also the first one where the life raft deployed successfully, he said. The plane went under and when it came back up, there was a raft sitting right on top of it. He climbed in and broke the rope holding it to the airplane, then went to find the rest of the four-man crew. Everyone survived that night, he said. They were picked up by a freighter that was nearby.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
James Norfolk loves the town of Okeechobee and wishes he had moved here right out of high school.

“When I tell people about it, a lot of them think I am lying, but I’m not lying. That’s something I don’t do. I don’t like a liar or a thief.”

About three months after the crash, he was transferred to Whiting Field in Milton, Fla., near Pensacola. At first, he worked as an aircraft engine mechanic, but later he took a job inside where it was air-conditioned. “It gets hot in that part of Florida. I’m telling you!” he laughed.

He was sent to jet engine school, but has no idea why. He said he told them he was getting out and was not going to reenlist, but they sent him anyway. He went to North Carolina to a Marine base. “It was the best duty I ever had,” he said. He was second class, and in the Marine Corps, second class or E5 is a god. In the Navy, it’s just one of the guys. They cooked the food the way he wanted it and treated him great. He really liked it there.

When he left there, he went into a jet squadron, VS-41. He was not there long before his discharge. He was in charge of keeping the barracks clean and had several airmen working for him.

After his discharge, he went to work for an electronics company for a short time before becoming a carrier for the post office and worked there until he retired in 1988.

The Norfolks ended up in Okeechobee after coming down to visit the ocean in 1991. A friend asked him to come to Belle Glade to help him with a project. On their way home, they passed through Okeechobee and fell in love with the town. They intended to stay a couple of days but stayed a month on that first visit. They came down every year after that until his wife passed away in 1995. Then, he bought a place here the following year. Mr. Norfolk never had children of his own, but he raised his wife’s four children and considers them his family. He decided to tell his story because “I’m 87 years old, and if we are ever going to do this, it better be soon, because my mind will start to go any day now,” he laughed.

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