By Sarah Canty
In 1944, 28-year-old Sgt James Frederick Norton of Coventry was fighting for his life and country in the battlefields of Germany.
Like so many young soldiers, he took comfort in writing letters home. He wrote often to his sisters Enid and Gert and his young niece Joyce with upbeat tales that belied the conditions of life at war.
Just over 70 years later, descendants of that young soldier will arrive to Ballydehob, of all places, to reunite with some of those long-lost letters, to remember their Great Uncle James, and to toast Paula Fry who made it her mission to unite the family with the cherished keepsakes.
For Paula it all started in 1995 as she made room to receive a new delivery into her second-hand warehouse, Aladdin’s Cave of Bandon. That she laid her hands on a dusty copy of Shakespeare’s works that once belonged to James’ sister Gert was more than just coincidence to Paula. The handwritten letters inside that book would enliven her imagination, ignite her compassion and send her on a 20-year mission.
‘One end wall of the warehouse was full of books. There were thousands there,’ remembers Paula. ‘I grabbed a book to prop up something and this was the book! It could have been just sitting there for a year or more. That I picked that particular book out of thousands was destiny. ’
Paula came to think of James as family as she read and re-read his words over the following decades. His letters to Gert were warm and upbeat as he shared hum drum details of his day, asked for friends and family, and dared to think of home. ‘The wireless is playing Tipperary,’ he wrote in one. ‘Give my best to Joyce,’ in another. ‘I’ll soon be a daddy,’ he beamed through the pages of another, eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child. Paula soon realised the bleak reality that James never made it home. James’ wife Dorothy relayed the details in a letter to her sister-in-law: ‘Major Reed said that Jim was killed on the morning of March 1st ... He died instantly and didn’t suffer… I got hopes that maybe Jim was ok but ... If only he could have come home to see Robert and I just the once … Love to all, Dorothy and Baby Robert.’
Baby Robert would be just over 71 years today. ‘I read the letters and got goose bumps,’ remembers Paula. ‘My mission, I felt, was to find the son.’
Over the years Paula sent letters to Coventry newspapers and history museums. She searched on-line genealogy sites and war memorial sites but it wasn’t until she enlisted the help of the West Cork Family History Group that Paula’s search took a sharp turn in the right direction.
Just before Christmas, after several internet searches, posted letters and emails, Paula received word from Amanda, daughter of beloved niece Joyce. Amanda confided by email: ‘James was my great uncle. My mother was his niece and Gert was my Nana. My mother was close to James and spoke so fondly of him, as did my Nana, so much so that my youngest son is named in his honour.’
Unfortunately the whereabouts of Robert remains elusive as his mother remarried, moved away and lost touch with the Norton family. This is nonetheless a joyous occasion for both women. Amanda and her son, James’ namesake, are coming to Ballydehob to retrieve the letters written by her young uncle and lovingly preserved by her Nana.
And Paula? Paula can find a new mission now. The letters of Sgt James Frederick Norton are going home.
There will be a celebration at the Irish Whip Bar in Ballydehob on the evening of Saturday February 27th. All are welcome.