Fred Norton (1893-1918), One of Marblehead's Hometown Heroes
Updated: Jul 3, 2022
This post first appeared in the Lakeside Heritage Society Blog April 17, 2020. It has been updated with additional information.
Located seventy miles east of Paris, France lies the World War I-era Oise-Aisne Cemetery and Memorial. It serves as the final resting place of 6,012 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War I in this vicinity of France, including former area resident, Fred Norton, a pilot in the United States Army Air Forces, who was stationed at Touqin Aerodrome. He died July 23, 1918, three days after receiving injuries during aerial combat with German planes. So how was it that a small-town Ohio boy ended up in France? Fred was born February 3, 1893 in Marblehead, Ohio, to Frank and Catherine "Kate" Lynch Norton. Two days later, he was baptized at the village's St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church. His father, Frank, was born near Elmore, Ohio in 1868. Fred's mother, Kate, was born in Marblehead in 1877.
In September of 1908 Fred entered Lakeside High School, which was then located on present day route 163, near today's south entrance to Lakeside. The school's enrollment in 1908 was only thirteen students, and by this time, it had graduated only 26 males. Few of them had come from Marblehead's working class homes, similar to Fred’s, where most family breadwinners were supported by the Kelley Island Lime & Transport Company's huge neighboring limestone quarry.
The time around Fred's graduation from high school marked the beginning of his outstanding secondary school academic and athletic career, both in Lakeside and at the Ohio State University. At Lakeside High School, Fred played and competed in football, baseball, basketball, and track. Perhaps the highlight of his local athletic stardom came May 27, 1912, two weeks before graduation, when he competed in the first ever Ottawa County track meet. Fred won seven first places and four second places, earning Lakeside High School the title of Ottawa County champions!
Around this same time, Fred began to work for the Lakeside & Marblehead Railroad Company to earn money for his future. His name first appears in payroll records May 8th, 1912, when he began working in "train service" ten hours per day, six days per week. He probably served as the motorman of the railroad's small gasoline motor car, which the line used to carry passengers the six miles from Lakeside to Danbury and back. Later, that fall, he began to divide his time up between train service, locomotive repairs, motor car repairs, car cleaning, and building repair, including working 7.5 hours on Christmas day 1912. It would seem that he was working hard to build savings in order to better himself.
Fred Norton wound down his railroad work and began studies at The Ohio State University in 1913. He was OSU's first four-sport varsity letter winner, participating in the school’s baseball, basketball, football, and track-and-field, teams, between 1914 and 1917. Mentioned at times by the press as the greatest all-around athlete at Ohio State, Norton was the blocking back for Chic Harley on the 1916 championship football team, but he also scored six touchdowns in one half against Indiana that year! He was the OSU baseball team’s most valuable player in 1917, leading the Buckeyes with a .422 batting average. The fact that Fred was able to do all of this while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average earned him induction into the Sphinx Honorary, the oldest and most prestigious senior honorary at Ohio State (later inductee: Woody Hayes).
Fred then enlisted in the U.S. Army Aviation Corps in 1917, after graduation from OSU, and received pilot training with the 27th Aero Squadron in Toronto before being sent to France in January 1918. Six months later, on July 20, 1918, during the Chateau-Thierry campaign, Norton led a patrol of eight American planes over the German lines in the Toul sector. His command gave battle to nine enemy planes. Both guns in Norton’s airplane jammed at the beginning of the fight but he stayed in formation. During the engagement, he was attacked at least four times by German planes, but successfully out-maneuvered them and, as his citation for the Distinguished Service Cross says, “his continued presence was a great moral help to his comrades, who destroyed two of the enemy planes.”
During battle, Fred was severely wounded by ground fire while strafing a column of German troops. Although he was able to land his Nieuport 28 airplane behind Allied lines, traffic congestion near the Front caused two days of delay getting him to a hospital for care. As a result, although he did make it to the hospital, he contracted pneumonia and died on July 23, 1918, near Angiers. His last conscious act was to scribble a note to his squadron: "Twenty-seventh, more power to you." He was buried in France. For his acts of heroism and valor in the sky, Fred Norton was posthumously awarded the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Cross in 1918.
Mourners from across the Marblehead Peninsula came to St. Joseph's Catholic Church on August 25, 1918, to attend the first mass in memory of Fred Norton. His memory lives on.
In Columbus today stands Norton House, a dormitory on Ohio State’s campus built in 1962. And from 1923 to the early 1950s, Norton Field, the first airfield to be built in central Ohio, was located in Columbus and served as a refueling site for U.S. Mail planes as well as a military training location. On display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, is Norton’s WWI pilot jacket, with the same bullet holes in the back and right arm caused by the projectiles that cost him his life. And Danbury Township Schools, the Peninsula's local public school district, gives out Norton Awards each year to seniors who have amassed high amounts of student activity points in a wide variety of areas.
Still, not much more is known of Fred’s earliest years and his childhood on the Peninsula. As perhaps the area's most impressive former resident, his story will no doubt continue to be uncovered for years to come.