Like Mother, like Daughter: A Family's Navy Legacy

Wilma Norris, left, and her daughter Rosemary Agee, right, both served in the U.S. Navy. (Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP)
Wilma Norris, left, and her daughter Rosemary Agee, right, both served in the U.S. Navy. (Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP)

ROSEBURG, Ore. — "Growing up, my mom shared a lot of her stories from the Navy," said Rosemary Agee, nestling closer to her mother. "You could feel the patriotism — God, country, and family. She showed it in her values and what she did."

Agee's mother, Wilma "Marcene" Norris, was born in Ohio in 1924. Her parents separated when she was very young and her father moved to California, leaving her mother to raise four children by herself, the News-Review reported.

"Some nights all we had to eat was hot water and crackers," Norris said. "Sometimes we'd have coffee on crackers. I don't drink coffee now, and I think that's why."

Norris was in high school when America entered World War II. After graduation she was determined to find a way to help her family and her country.

"I was going to work in a defense plant, but you had to be 21 in Ohio," recalled Norris. "I moved to California and got a job working at Douglas Aircraft as a riveter, making airplane wings for bombers. I sent money home every month."

Norris wanted to do more, so in 1944 she returned to Ohio and enlisted in the Navy. During that time, women were assigned to the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) — a part of the Naval Reserve. But for Norris the distinction didn't matter — she was Navy through and through.

"They gave me three choices: secretary, nurse, or airplane mechanic," said Norris. "I loved airplanes, so I chose mechanic. I was assigned to Ellyson Field in Florida.

"They took us out to the flight line, pointed out a plane, and said 'that's your plane.' I enjoyed it. All the work, the airplanes. I enjoyed helping. My plane was an SNV Valiant - the ones used to train new pilots."

Norris adjusted well to the military life and the sisterhood she found there. She loved the camaraderie, sports, barracks life, and the nearby USO. She earned the nickname "Ping Pong" after winning the Ping Pong championship at her airfield. After a year of hard work, she was promoted to the control tower. Eventually, the war ended and Norris was moved to Whiting Field.

"I met my husband there, on Thanksgiving," Norris said. "They'd just set up a bowling alley but all the lanes were full. My (future) husband came up to me and asked if I wanted to bowl. I said there's no lanes, so he wrote 'Joe plus one' on the list for bowling and said 'your name's on the list now.' We started dating.

"A few weeks later we were coming out of the USO, and he asked me if I had a date for New Year's, and I said 'I don't know, do I?'. He said 'yes, for life,' and handed me a ring. We got married six weeks after we met."

Their marriage lasted 57 years, until Joe passed away. They had six children, including three who served in the Navy. Their youngest daughter, Rosemary, joined the Navy in 1983. Although things in the Navy had changed from her mother's time, in some ways they were the same.

"I'd been out in the workforce, making good money," Agee said. "But I wanted to do something out of the ordinary that wasn't my normal skill set. They convinced me to be an Interior Communications man. But back then, everything I learned I could never do because women weren't allowed on ships that weren't tenders. It was still a man's world.

"But the Navy was so good — they taught me to DO. Really gave me a sense of purpose."

Agee was first stationed in the Philippines, working on telephone lines and intrusion alarms. She loved the beautiful country, but it wasn't home. She later transferred to San Diego.

"I was at a base club," said Agee. "They had belly dancers that night, with all this long hair. I had a buzz cut, almost a guy's cut. I made a comment about long hair and this guy I met said 'I like short hair!' He stands up, knocks the table over, and spills beer all over me.

"We got married eight months later."

Agee and her husband had two sons, both of them serving in the military. One of her sons met his wife, also in the Navy, during a deployment to Afghanistan.

After a few years living on the east coast Agee told her husband, a Yoncalla native, that she wanted to move to Roseburg.

"I love Douglas County," Agee said. "Community. Family. this is home to me."

Norris and her husband soon followed, eager to be near their grandchildren. A few years after Joe died, Norris moved in with Agee and her husband. The strength of their relationship is immediately apparent.

"A while ago my grandson bought me an iPad - that's been a lot of fun," Norris said. "I like to play Scrabble and Words With Friends."

"She cheats!" Agee said.

Norris turns 92 in May. She has a burial plot saved next to her husband's. While making funeral arrangements for him, she was asked what to put on his tombstone. Norris told them to put "Gone Fishing." For her own tombstone, she told them to put "Gone Fishing Too."

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US Navy Topics World War II