Heroes reunite after 60 years
Published: July 13, 2007 | 6520th good news item since 2003
When pensioner Norman Wood hadn’t seen his boyhood pal Ron Rogers since their days fresh out of the Navy, he’d given up all hope of tracking him down.
Having lost contact with him during the late 1940s, Norman, of Staveley in Wolverhampton, often wondered what his old friend had got up to over the years.
Only last year, he patiently called all the Rogers’ in the Wolverhampton telephone directory in a bid to trace him, only to be told each time he had got the wrong number.
At 87, he’d resigned himself to the fact he was unlikely ever to see Ron at this late stage in his life – until someone passed him a recent copy of the Express & Star.
There, on page 25, was a picture of a beaming Ron, now aged 83 and celebrating his diamond wedding anniversary to his wife Mary, another childhood pal of Norman’s.
Yesterday, almost 60 years since their last meeting, all three had a tearful reunion after our reporting team put them back in contact with each other.
Norman, who was driven to the Rogers’ Bilston home by his daughter, choked back tears and said: “I’m so happy I’ve found him again. I’m totally overwhelmed.”
They spent the day talking about their days working together at a popular Black Country greengrocers, sharing their fascinating tales from the war, and learning about each other’s achievements over the decades. Norman had been 15 when he first met Ron, then 12. Ron worked as an errand boy for a fruit and veg shop in Willenhall, while Norman worked at Joseph Heath greengrocers in the town’s High Street.
After leaving Willenhall Central School in 1937, Ron went to work at Joseph Heath, which was one of a well-known chain throughout the Black Country, and struck up a firm friendship with Norman, a confident lad he looked up to and admired.
Working at Heath’s was no easy feat – every Monday morning they would be faced with preparing “five ton o’ spuds” for customers – and the working day ended when everything was sold. Norman recalled: “The bags of potatoes were huge, about one hundredweight. There would be a stack of them waiting for us. We used to have to carry them on our right shoulders, and some carried them on their head,” he said.
Rabbits were also a popular on the dinner table in those days – and Norman and Ron became skilled in skinning the animals. In fact, it is this image of Norman that Mary Rogers, who also worked at Heath’s as a teenager, remembers so well.
“I remember one day he was there, with braces of rabbits around his neck singing You Are My Heart’s Delight,” she laughed yesterday. Mary had also known Norman as a young lad, and remembers going around to his mother’s in Catherine’s Cross, Darlaston, from her own home in nearby Mill Street, to have some dripping on toast.
Despite the hard slog, all three remember their days at Heath’s very fondly. In 1939, a friend of Norman’s came into the shop and told him he was going to Birmingham to sign up for the Navy. Norman joined him and was called up a year later. Ron wanted to be in the Merchant Navy, but ended up in the Navy on submarines. Both have amazing tales of bravery, excitement and terror from the years spent fighting for their country, and they both managed to hit the headlines back at home with their courageous feats.
Norman, an air mechanic, was a survivor of HMS Ark Royal, which was sunk by a German U-boat in November, 1941. She was torpedoed off the east coast of Gibraltar and, while at first it looked as if she would make it to port, was eventually defeated. Norman and the rest of the 1,600 crewmen were told to abandon ship. Norman said: “I remember jumping over the side into this dinghy and there were six of us. We rowed and rowed and eventually we came back to Gibraltar. It was quite terrifying,” he said.
When Norman arrived home, the Express & Star reported on his return with the headline “Safe and Sound”.
Ron, according to Norman, is a “hero”. He was a stoker on the submarines, and while aboard HMS Tally Ho, sunk a Japanese cruiser. His story also featured in newspapers around the country.
During their time in the Navy, Norman managed to track down Ron down in Colombo in Sri Lanka.
He said: “I can’t remember how I knew he was there, I remember someone telling me the crew from Tally Ho were there and I went down looking for this Willenhall lad. I told them I was from Darlaston and we soon found each other,” he added.
But after a few meetings back home while both members of the Naval Association, they eventually lost touch.
Their last meeting was in 1948 at the Castle Hotel, Darlaston.
Ron said: “Norman and the others asked me where I’d been wounded, but I couldn’t lift my trouser leg high enough.” Norman said they all formed a circle around him so he could do the honours.
After their marriages they drifted apart.