By Dave Tanguay
At the height of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and U.S. were in the midst high stakes’ nuclear sword rattling, in the waters of North Korea, the North Koreans intercepted and captured a U.S. Navy vessel purported to be in international waters. The ship? The USS Pueblo.
From that moment the crew of the Pueblo became pawns in an ugly, international game of chess and a black mark on the Nixon Administration. In that ship’s crew, in the engineering department was a Navy Sailor from Maine, Norman Spear. He and his fellow crew members endured brutality and severe conditions prior to their release eleven months later. The ship, after fifty years, remains a memorial in North Korea dedicated to the sins of the West.
Norman Spear passed away about a month ago. He was a Windham resident and a quiet man.
I met Norm on March 21st, 2016. I remember the day because it was the first day of the American Legion Post 148’s Veterans Coffee Social advertised as a drop-in for local veterans to gather each Wednesday. Norm was one of the early arrivals and sat quietly on the far side of the table.
From all appearance he was a man who had seen a hard life, bent, but not broken. He didn’t say much that first encounter and I wondered if he would return the following week.
He did, and except for illness, never missed a Wednesday gathering in two and a half years; always the first to arrive to claim his seat. After a few weeks, the group learned more about his military service and his status as a former POW in Korea. He never spoke much about his service, but occasionally would pass on a little bit about his past. Many days he half-heatedly played a game or two of solitaire as he listened to others in conversation and would occasionally join in.
In the spring of 2017, I was working on a project to locate the grave of a Medal of Honor recipient buried in Forrest City Cemetery, South Portland. Norm overheard the conversation and perked up. He had worked in Forrest City Cemetery in an earlier time in his life and felt he might be of help in the search. He was. Within two weeks, Norm had located the pauper’s grave site and was able to get copies of documents that confirmed the location of Emile Lejeune, the Medal of Honor recipient. With that information, I was able to forward the information to the Medal of Honor Association and get approval for a dedication of the grave by the VA with a VA provided bronze plaque.
On October 10th of that year, a formal Medal of Honor dedication ceremony was conducted with the assistance of the Legion Post 35 in South Portland. Many dignitaries from the state and city were present. Norm was invited to attend and was included in the ceremony with the duty of placing the Medal of Honor flag on the grave. You could see the sense of pride as Norm undertook the task. It became a defining moment in his life which he would speak about often.
Norm continued to come to each coffee hour without fail. He could also be seen almost daily, sitting in his car in the parking lot of the Windham Veterans Center with a cup of coffee, his newspaper and a pack of smokes. Norm enjoyed the solitude of the Center and even when he could not drive due to a recent accident, would ask family or Post members to drive him, stop by McDonald's for a coffee and take him to the Vet Center. It became his second home.
Norm had his own table and an elevated chair that allowed him to sit more comfortably. His table always had the same vets around him. They were family.
Norm was a bit of an eccentric, but, noted once to me that the Legion Post, “was an organization worth belonging to.” Norm was a member worth having in the Field-Allen Post and will be missed at the weekly gathering.