“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” Quoting these words, spoken decades ago by John F. Kennedy, Joe Duncan, president of Rolling Thunder Tennessee Chapter 2, unveiled the “Chair of Honor,” also known as a Missing Man Chair, at Honor Park in Fort Oglethorpe on May 31.
The single black stadium chair, imprinted with the POW/MIA emblem, sits on a five-sided, white concrete slab that itself sits inside a pentagon frame of white stone. Five metal poles and chain surround the chair to set it apart as a sacred place.
A plaque inside the enclosure reads: “Let this empty chair serve as a memorial to those Who served in the Military of our Great Nation, but never Returned home to us. They are Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.”
“Since World War I,” Duncan told the Veterans, Fort Oglethorpe police officers and firefighters, and members of the community gathered for the occasion, “more than 82,105 [U.S. military members] are unaccounted for. This unoccupied chair is dedicated to those brave men and women, and to the sacrifices each made serving this country.”
Duncan included a special dedication of the chair to a POW who did make it home from war and devoted the rest of his life to helping Veterans: Bill Norwood of Cleveland, Tenn. Norwood passed away over a year ago but his wife, Liz, was at Honor Park to witness the dedication.
At the unveiling of the chair, Liz Norwood placed her hand on it and talked about how much her husband would have appreciated it and would have been pleased to see another instance of POWs and MIAs being remembered.
Bill Norwood joined the Army at 18 years old and found himself at the front in the Korean War. He was captured and sent to a Chinese POW camp where he spent over two years.
City Councilwoman Paula Stinnett, who spearheaded the founding of Honor Park, says she first became aware of Norwood when she was at a Rolling Thunder event and heard him recite a poem he had written called “The Turnip Hole.” She was so moved she invited him to recite it before the Fort Oglethorpe City Council.
The “turnip hole” to which the poem refers was a hole in the ground at the POW camp. The hole was used to punish prisoners. It was just big enough for them to squeeze into in a squatting position, then it would be covered and they would be left for days at a time.
Norwood’s wife says he spent time in the hole on multiple occasions because his captors believed he knew secrets about the Oak Ridge nuclear facility in Tennessee, Norwood’s home state. To maintain his sanity while in the hole, Norwood made up rhymes and poems in his head. “The Turnip Hole” was one of them.
Norwood’s experience as a POW followed him his entire life. His wife says that when he was in the POW camp, he had worms so bad they crawled out his nose. The POWs were infested with lice and put maggots in their wounds hoping it would help them heal.
Liz Norwood says her husband had severe nightmares every night for the rest of his life. “But," she says, "he decided the best way to deal with his post-traumatic stress was to help others. He would wake up and say ‘What can I do for someone today?’”
That lifetime of giving, helping other Veterans and speaking at schools and other places about the importance of patriotism, is what inspired Stinnett to develop a friendship with the Norwoods and Rolling Thunder to honor Bill Norwood at the unveiling of the POW/MIA chair.
“Bill was a POW and the epitome of a humble hero,” says Stinnett. “He and Liz have worked tirelessly to help others.”
Stinnett says that Rolling Thunder has also worked tirelessly on Honor Park, cleaning, digging, planting and building. Rolling Thunder is an organization made up of over 90 chapters that dedicates itself to POW/MIA remembrance and when possible, finding remains and returning them home. Rolling Thunder Tennessee 2 is the Chattanooga and north Georgia chapter of the organization.
“The gift of this chair from Rolling Thunder to honor POWs and MIAs,” says Stinnett, “adds something very important to Honor Park. We’ve planted trees to honor each branch of the military and first responders. We’ve planted one to honor service animals. There will be more to honor others who serve on the front lines of keeping us all safe, but this special monument to those who did not return will be a reminder to the rest of us to never forget.”
Honor Park: A Tribute to Those Who Serve is located at the end of Cleburn St. just off Shelby St., about two blocks from the Fort Oglethorpe Fire Department, along the city’s multi-use walking trails.