Many Hoosier families sent a son or daughter to serve in the military during World War II (1939-1945). Pride in their child’s service mingled with worry about their safety. Families’ anticipation of news about the war mixed with trepidation about what each day’s news would reveal. Long days and nights were spent wondering whether Hoosier children would ever return home. Norman Vandivier was one such serviceman. Norman grew up in Franklin, Indiana and graduated from both Franklin High School and Franklin College. He excelled at sports and had a keen interest in airplanes. After college he enlisted in the Navy and trained to become a pilot. He received his commission in June 1940 as an ensign assigned to Bombing Squadron 6 on the USS Enterprise joining the crew of 2000 on the aircraft carrier. Norman spent the next year and a half cruising the islands of the Pacific Ocean, while flying training missions in his Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. Letters home were censored, which prevented him from sharing details about his official activities.
As the war raged in the Pacific, tensions between the United States, who had not entered the war, and Japan, who had allied with Germany and Italy exploded when the Japanese attacked the Pearl Harbor military base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The Enterprise was one day out from Hawaii when the attack happened. Rumors of her destruction as a result of the bombing reached Vandivier’s nervous parents in Franklin. Finally, many days later, a telegram arrived which read simply “Safe and sound. Letter following. Love Norman Vandivier.” Vandivier honed his combat skills and proved his mettle as the US began its campaign in the Pacific. He received the Air Medal for “meritorious conduct” amidst heavy antiaircraft fire during the attack at Marshall Island in January 1942. Later in April the Enterprise and her crew provided air support as the USS Hornet led a successful strike known as the “Doolittle Raid” against Japanese-held islands.
Enraged by the Doolittle raid, Japanese forces planned to attack the American-held Midway Island and lure forces into a decisive battle. In May 1942, American servicemen working to decode communications between the Japanese forces learned of the plan. The Enterprise and two other carriers headed toward Midway to scout for enemy invasion forces. Low on fuel, Vandiver had the choice of returning to the carrier possibly allowing enemy carriers just out of range to bring an attack on Midway, or to continue searching. Continuing to search and risking their lives, the masts of Japanese ships were spotted on the horizon. Vandivier and the other Dauntless dive bombers brought on an attack. As his plane bore down on the Japanese flagship Akagi, Vandivier and the rest of his squadron unleashed their payloads. Too low on fuel to return to the Enterprise and possibly suffering damage from the air fight, Vandivier radioed that he was making a water landing. Vandiver and his gunner who manned the bomber were declared missing in action. The Vandivier family in Franklin held on to hope that he was alive and awaiting rescue. One year later, they received a letter from the Navy that their 26 year old son was officially considered killed in action. Though sorrow and grief laid heavy on their hearts, the Vandiviers were proud to learn that their son was posthumously promoted to Lieutenant and awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award the Navy gives. Vandivier was awarded for “extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy” and “extreme disregard for his own personal safety” during his actions against Japanese forces during the battle of Midway. The Navy also honored him by naming a John C. Butler-class destroyer escort after him. In December 1943, Norman’s mother, Mary Vandivier christened the USS Vandivier as she launched from the Boston Naval Shipyard. Though WWII ended before work on the ship finished and was mothballed for several years, she was finally commissioned in October 1955.
A digital archive of letters received from Norman is available in Indiana Historical Society’s Digital Archives https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/.