‘They never spent a night apart:’ Conway twins remembered as heroes 75 years after their death in WWII

Complete Norton twins report
Updated: May. 17, 2018 at 7:36 PM EDT
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CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - Twin brothers born in Conway, rarely ever seen apart.

They were so close, they wore the same football jersey number at Clemson, and were jointly named "Most Popular Boy" in their senior class at Conway High.

Then there was that moment exactly 75 years ago, when the Norton twins became heroes. The local airport terminal is named in their honor.

Edward Robertson and James Arthur Norton came into this world on Aug. 18, 1920, the last of seven children born to Dr. Jamie Norton and his wife, who was known as Ms. Ed. They were a family well-known for their civic contributions to the city of Conway, even back to Dr. Norton's father, Dr. Evan Norton, who served in the Civil War, became a physician, started a newspaper called the "Horry Herald," ran a drug store and served as a trustee of the historic Burroughs School in Conway, which now houses the Horry County Museum.

The Norton family seems to have been fond of nicknames, and the twins Edward and Arthur became "Hogie" and "Wack" to most who knew them. They had a brother named Evan and two sisters, Eugenia Wood, called "Gene Wood," and Jamie, known as "Pick."

According to family members, the twins were inseparable and they were infatuated with flying from a young age.

"Throughout their upbringing, they had an obsession with, with planes," said Marion Haynes, a public education specialist at the Horry County Museum. "So they loved anything to do with aviation. They had model planes, they flew model airplanes."

As teenagers, when their mother wouldn't let them buy a motorcycle, they bought a second-hand plane instead. Larkin Spivey is the twins' nephew, son of their older sister, Gene Wood Norton Spivey. He recalls that they actually first flew out of a small airstrip that was located where the Conway Country Club's golf course is today.

"They flew around Conway, and they were kind of local heroes," Spivey says. "They were very adventurous."

During the twins' senior year at Conway High, they were named, jointly, "Most popular boy," and their yearbook pages have a long list of sports teams and clubs they were involved in, along with quotes about bravery.

Arthur chose "Whoever is brave, should be a man of great soul," by Cicero as his quote.

His brother Edward chose "The brave love mercy and delight to save," written by English poet John Gay.

At 18, the twins went to Clemson, where they enrolled in the civil engineering program, ran track, and played football. They both wore the No. 4 jersey.

But this was the early '40s, and civil engineering wasn't in the Norton twins' future. After two years at Clemson, they decided to enter the Army Air Corps, the division that would later become the Air Force. Together, they were accepted for pilot training in November 1941, less than a month before Pearl Harbor changed everything.

"They never spent a night apart," Haynes recounts. "In fact, most of their training, they were each other's roommate. It wasn't until towards the end of their training that they actually had another roommate. So everything that they did, they did it together."

The Horry County Museum has letters the Norton twins wrote to their friend Leo Spivey while they were in training, using his apparent nickname "Numy." Their boisterous and jovial spirit, and their essential oneness, are apparent in the letters, which are signed jointly.

"Hey Numy—have you built any battleships yet? You haven't! What's the trouble?"

Describing a daily routine of reveille, exercise, meals and parades, they write, "Time goes like lightning at this rate."

And about their bunkmates, they say "We room with a boy from Florida, one from California, one from NY and one from Ohio… The boys from Florida and California always argue about each other's oranges, etc."

You can almost hear a wink and a smile in the boys' writing as they end, "Glad we won't have to land on any of your battleships."

The letter is signed, of course, Hogie and Wack.

In September 1942, the twins got their wings and were commissioned as second lieutenants.

"They deployed in 1942 to England, with the 322nd bomb group" Spivey says. "And went to an airport called Bury St Edmunds, St Edmunds in England, kind of north of London."

There they were co-pilots on a B-26 Marauder bomber, a plane that Spivey says the Air Corps wasn't quite sure how to utilize in its early days.

"This was the kind of raid my uncles were on, was a low level, like 50 to 100 feet off the ground, daylight penetration into Holland. And this … this mission was to bomb a power plant."

But the Germans were in position, both on the ground and in the sky.

"There were 10 aircraft on this mission and they were all shot down by either anti-aircraft fire or enemy aircraft," Spivey says.

Of the 60 men on board those 10 planes, few lived to see the next day. The Norton twins were not among the survivors.

"My uncles' aircraft went down in the channel and one body, Arthur's body, was recovered and Edward's never was. And that was May 17th, 1943," Spivey said.

Seventy-five years ago, these adventurous, animated twins from Conway, South Carolina, lost their lives while serving their country. Back home, the whole town was devastated.

"They were just well known, like they were everybody's children. And so it was a blow to the entire little community of Conway," Spivey said.

And, of course, to a family who loved them dearly.

"My mother always said after that incident that she kind of became the mother," Spivey said, "that her mother never got over that event."

It even created a change in policy for the Air Corps.

"The Air Force didn't send brothers, this pilot and copilot anymore after that," Spivey says.

Perhaps the most tragic part of the story is that the Norton twins, who spent nearly every living moment together, didn't get to rest beside one another in death. While Arthur's remains washed up on the banks of the North Sea, the body of his twin brother and co-pilot, his best friend, was never found.

When their father, Dr. Norton, was asked if he wanted Arthur's remains transported home, he wrote to officials:

As I have so often said before, this boy is one of twins, the other now lying at the bottom of the North Sea not far off the coast of Holland…and never having been separated in life, they are as close as they can ever be, just where they are, and so I wish this boy to stay exactly where he is, not only at the moment, but for evermore.

Both Norton boys are honored at Margraten Cemetery in Holland today.

Another nephew, Rev. Ed Norton, son of the twins' older brother Evan, recently visited his uncles' resting place. Arthur's remains are interred in a gravesite at the cemetery dedicated to American World War Two soldiers, and his brother Edward is remembered on a wall there.

The Norton twins also are honored in Horry County where they were born, in a way that would probably make them happy. The general aviation terminal at the Myrtle Beach Airport is dedicated to them—local twins, adventurers and heroes.

When asked what the dedication means to the Norton family, Larkin Spivey, himself a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marines, tilts his head and gets a gleam in his eye.

"It means a lot that they're not forgotten. There are a lot of great young men that we should not forget. But of course, I, I'm partial to those two," he said.

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