Local veteran, recent Southeast Tennessee Veteran’s Home Council Veterans Service Award recipient and one-time prisoner of war Bill Norwood has served as president of the organization for the past six years, bringing his total years as president to 13.
“Due to the age and the health conditions, our ranks have really diminished,” Norwood said.
He was one of the founding members in 1976. The first reunion had 12 ex-POWs. The second year, “42 states were represented, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico,” Norwood said. “We have attended a reunion somewhere across the country since that time.”
The reunion has been held in 26 different U.S. cities, 13 of which were used a second time. Each event includes special speakers, time to catch up and banquets.
This year a South Korean government official will be present to speak.
Norwood said the 39th and final reunion will be held this year where the first reunion was held — Louisville, Ky.
“It’s been a good ride,” Norwood said.
Only one of the other founding members is planning to attend. Norwood said the planning aspects have become challenging due to his age and not getting help from other members.
He said his daughter has been a great help in organizing the gathering. Norwood said he plans to maintain contact with some of the ex-POWs to whom he has gotten close. In addition to working with an event planner to organize the reunion, Norwood also sent out a newsletter four times a year. The organization ran on donations and never had mandatory dues.
The organization began as a way to make good on comments made by the POWs during the time of their capture that they would “have a good time” together when they got “back to the States.”
“Those of us who were captured became very, very close because our lives depended on a friend who would help,” Norwood said. “I was captured south of the 38th Parallel in South Korea, then we marched all the way from South Korea to the very northern part of North Korea, which took four months. During this time, we had to help each other. We carried the sick and the wounded, so we became close very, very close.
“I very ever seldom take a drink of cold water that I don’t think of how much that would have meant to me at that time,” Norwood said. “By helping each other and strong determination to live, 50 percent of them did survive.”
When the war ended, each POW went home and lost contact with the others.
Norwood said he did not even know many of the men’s real names because of nicknames, such as “Ole Tex,” they developed while in the service.
Norwood decided he needed to reconnect with his fellow former POWs and began the search for them in 1974.
“There was something inside of me, bothering me. I was having all kinds of problems and I couldn’t figure out what it was, really, until I decided: ‘I need to see some of these fellows and talk to them, and see if they are having the same problems I am,’” Norwood said.
Another nagging thought was what had happened to soldiers who had been taken from the group in the middle of the night. Did they survive?
“I searched for two years, and I found 12 guys,” Norwood said.
He said many did not want to talk about their war experience, until another POW asked them, as well.
As a result of his searching and the first reunion, Norwood said he found many of the ex-POWs were dealing with the same issues.
“They needed to talk to someone who knew what they were talking about. I couldn’t talk to my family about that stuff. They would listen. They would be sympathetic, but they couldn’t understand,” Norwood said.
The first reunion proved to be what Norwood needed — an outlet to express his war stories to someone who knew what it was like.
“At our peak I think we had about 1,200 people. Now, that included family members as well but there were as many as 400 [ex-POWs]. It just became a tradition. I’ve had many tell me this one weekend that we spent together meant more to them than what a psychiatrist could do in a whole year. Relieved some of the tension,” Norwood said.
There were 71 POWs in attendance last year.
As a result of the reunions, Norwood learned many of the POWs who had been taken from the rest of the group had survived.
“Those people are the reason I am here today. I don’t think I would have survived without their help, and I like to think I played a part in helping them survive,” Norwood said.
He said his commitment to the organization and others who serve veterans is part of his duty “to remember and honor those who didn’t return. They can’t speak for themselves.” His other efforts to make sure people remember will continue.