Utah vet mourned his flight crew for decades - but lost more than he realized

By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
November 11, 2008

Nine men. One plane. Falling from the sky. Falling to the sea.

This is the scene, as it played out in Norman Workman's dreams, again and again, until dementia finally - maybe mercifully - stole it from him, a year or two ago.

This was his cross, his great regret. Those nine men were supposed to be 10.

He was supposed to be on that plane.


The date is Aug. 6, 1944. A Sunday in England. The allies are on the march, but the war is not over.

The boys in 2nd Lt. Orville Spenst's flight crew are getting their plane - a B-17 some of them have taken to calling "Heaven's Above" - ready for takeoff at the Royal Air Force Base at Bury St. Edmunds.

They're racking bombs, loading guns and firing up the plane's four thunderous radial engines.

Today's target is "The Big B" - Berlin, the capital of Hitler's Germany. It's their 23rd mission en route to the 35 they need to be rotated home. They're getting closer - and the anticipation is causing arguments. Tail gunner Frank Trilling thinks they should be volunteering for more flights. The sooner he can get back to his wife and daughter in Wisconsin, the better.

Workman is angry, too, but for a different reason: He is on the bench.

He's 23 years old. A look-at-me-sideways-and-I'll-kick-your-ass sergeant from Park City. He cut his chops as the co-captain of the small mining town's championship football team just a few years earlier. But today, with a small, moon-shaped shrapnel wound on his hand from a previous mission, he has been ordered off the rotation. Heaven's Above will fly without him to Berlin.

And it will fall, without him, into the North Sea.


He was a crackerjack shot - a photographer and side-door gunner with an extra gift.

Workman's colorblindness nearly kept him out of the Army, but military officials lifted that ban when they realized soldiers like him could better see through camouflage.

After enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Workman was assigned to Spenst's crew. The 10 men met up in Salt Lake City, trained together in Texas, then deployed to Europe.

On one early mission, Workman had spotted an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun, hidden right under an allied flight path.

"We've got to go back and take out that gun," he told Spenst.

"I don't see no gun," Spenst argued.

"Trust me, it's there," Workman said, "and if it doesn't take us out, it's going to take someone else out."
Spenst obliged. And on that day, the Germans lost an artillery piece.


It was a biting, bitter thought.

"He felt like maybe whatever hit them must have hit them on his side of the plane," says Workman's daughter, Vordakay Kenyon. "Maybe if they didn't catch it, he would have. Maybe he would have brought them back."

It was wishful, resentful thinking - for it wasn't even clear why the plane had gone down. The only eyewitness to the crash was a P-51 pilot named Claude Thomas. On the day the Heaven's fell, he had seen a B-17, three engines smoking, sailing lower and lower in the sky before crashing into the sea. And he hadn't seen any parachutes.

Workman finished his final 13 flights as a substitute gunner for other B-17 crews. He was never around any crew long enough to get close. And he didn't want to be.

After the war, Workman returned home to Utah, then moved to California. He took up work as a machinist. He became a husband, a father, a grandfather. Ultimately, he wound up back in Utah.

"He had a good life," Kenyon says.

But a big part of it remained lost in the North Sea.

"His whole life was, 'Why me? Why did I have to come home?' " the daughter remembers.

It was painful to hear her father say that. It's still an open wound.

"He never meant that with any malice," she says, tears welling under her glasses. "He just hurt so much."


Every now and again, Workman would retrieve a small, green duffel bag from his closet and finger through its contents. A few photographs. Two small notebooks. Six smoking pipes.

He'd always intended to deliver the mementoes to the families of Jim Theiss and Charlie Brown, his closest friends on the Heaven's crew. But he didn't know where to start.

Once every few years, he would receive an invitation to attend a reunion with others who were stationed at Bury St. Edmunds, but he never went. He had no one to reunite with.

The years went by. Slowly, the memories began to fade. The duffel bag was forgotten.

In 2005, Workman moved into a care center with his wife, Val, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer's disease. His children offered to take him in, but he rejected the suggestion. He wouldn't let the woman he loved go into this fight alone.

"I promised her that I would never leave her side," he told his daughter. "And I won't."

But the years at the Alzheimer's home were difficult for Workman. Stories left untold for long periods of time further faded from his mind. By the time Val died, on Dec. 18, 2007, he had lost most of his long-term memories. His time in the war was gone.

And so, too, was the burden he had carried for more than 60 years.


The date is July 22, 2007. A Friday in Draper. Jim Kenyon has recently discovered his father-in-law's old duffel bag. Now he is seated at his computer, searching the Internet for the families of Jim Theiss and Charlie Brown.

He begins with a search of U.S. military cemeteries in Europe. Nothing.

Perhaps their bodies were never found? He punches the names into a database of service members taken prisoners of war or declared missing in action.

There they are.

James Theiss. Charles Brown.


Kenyon shakes his head and leans into the screen.


"Vorda!" he screams. "Vordakay come down here!"


The date is June 18, 1945. A Monday in Newport News, Virginia. A group of soldiers stumbles off the deck of a ship. They're emaciated. Exhausted.

But they're alive.

In the next few days, they'll return to family and friends in Colorado and Illinois, Ohio and Maine, Indiana and Maryland and New York.

In the months to come, they'll shed their Army uniforms and take up new calls of duty as fathers and husbands, police officers, gardeners, teachers and business owners. In the years to follow, they'll get together for reunions and barbecues, for golf tournaments and family vacations.

They'll tell stories about the day they crashed into the North Sea. About the night they spent on several rafts, tied together, watching Hamburg burn over the horizon, and the dreadful morning in which they were taken prisoner. About their months spent moving from prison camp to prison camp as their German captors were surrounded in ever tightening circles by allied forces.

About their liberation.

About Frank Tilling, who wanted nothing more than to get home to his wife and daughter in Wisconsin, but who never made it out of the tail of that damned plane.

And about Norm Workman - that roughneck brawler from Utah, that crackerjack shot with the colorblind eyes, that lucky SOB.

What ever happened to him?

At this moment, though, they're standing at the harbor, overwhelmed by the enormity of their circumstances. They're shaking hands and patting backs and wiping away tears.

And thinking of going home.


The old man was sitting in his favorite chair, in the living room of his Bunker Hill, West Virginia home, when he got the call.
"Is this Charlie Brown?" the caller asked.

"Yes," the man answered.

"Were you on a B-17 crew?"

"Sure was."

The caller was Jim Kenyon. He introduced himself as the son-in-law of Norm Workman, and waited for the name to register with the man on the other end of the line.

Six decades had passed, but Brown hadn't forgotten that name.

"Well I'll be damned," he said. "I'll be damned."

Brown never stopped thinking about Norm Workman. And he says none of the other members of the crew did, either.
"We were all such good friends, you know," says Brown, who at 84 years old is the last living survivor of the Heaven's crash. "There's something about a flight crew - you just get so close to each other."

Brown says the group began reuniting in the early 1950s. And almost immediately, they started looking for Workman - Orville Spenst even made a trip out to Salt Lake City to search for the lost crewman. "When he joined the crew, Norm was from Utah," Brown says. "So, that's where we looked - but we couldn't find him."

By that time, of course, Workman had moved to California with his family. And in the pre-Internet age, that was all it took to disappear for decades.


The date is Oct. 30, 2008. A Thursday in Salt Lake City. Vordakay Kenyon looks across the room at her father.

He is staring intently at a framed photograph of his crew, taken just before the 10 men deployed to Europe.

He is studying the picture carefully, but he doesn't recognize the nine other men. And he doesn't recognize himself as the 10th.

When she learned that Charlie Brown was alive - that eight of the nine other men in that photograph had lived long and happy lives after the crash - Kenyon wanted nothing more to tell her father.

And she has. Again and again.

But Workman doesn't remember any of it. He doesn't know that he cheated death. And he doesn't know that life cheated him of the friendships forged in the Heaven's Above.

"But maybe it's for the best that he doesn't know," Kenyon says. "Maybe it's for the best."

And again her eyes are filled with tears.