WELL-KNOWN Port Alfred resident Ralph Hall Norton, who celebrated his 91st birthday as well as his 64th wedding anniversary on May 25, is an old soldier with some tales to tell.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Port Alfred resident Ralph Norton, a veteran of World War II, recently celebrated his 91st birthday Picture: SUPPLIED
Norton was born in 1921 on the farm Rushden in the Maclear district. This is where he grew up and attended farm school. He then went to boarding school at Maclear High School but was unable to matriculate as he had to assist his ailing father on the farm.
Norton decided to join the South African Army in December 1939. He went to Potchefstroom for his basic training at the then Transvaal Horse Artillery.
After he completed his basic training, his regiment was sent to Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, for combat training. He contracted malaria and was sent back to South Africa for medical treatment. Once he was in good health, he was flown to Egypt to join his regiment while World War II was already in progress.
His regiment was captured while retreating to the Egyptian-Libyan border and Norton was taken to hospital where his wounds were dressed before they were taken across the border to Benghazi in Libya where they were detained in a prisoner of war (POW) camp.
Norton and a fellow South African POW, Willie Kromhout, boarded a ship set that had stopped at the harbour in Benghazi, due to leave for Italy. The following morning the ship was escorted to the southern tip of Italy by an Italian frigate. They had no food when they arrived and had to survive on grass and water for a few days.
They worked for food and shelter on farms in southern Italy, waiting for the arrival of the American troops. They were recaptured by German soldiers while working in northern Italy. After a few months they were rescued by the Russian army and then taken away by the Germans again.
When they reached Dernier in Germany, he was immediately hospitalised due to malnutrition following the two month “march of death” from Breslau in Poland. Here he was cared for well as was eventually set free by the American troops when they came.
Norton learnt to speak Italian and German and can still do so.
He returned to Maclear and in December 1946 joined the South African Railway Police.
It was during his first leave that he met Marie van den Berg, the daughter of a farm foreman, and they fell in love. He had to return to Durban to commence his duties as a policeman.
Marie’s father bought the farm Killarney in the Maclear district in 1948 and asked Norton to farm for him. It did not take much to convince him. He married Marie later that year.
Together they raised their four children on the farm Killarney. None of the children were interested in farming and he and Marie sold they farm and decided to retire to Port Alfred in 1980.
He accepted the offer to help out as a janitor at Port Alfred High School and worked there for 13 years. He was still not ready for retirement and agreed to assist at the Fruit and Vegetable Shop for six years before finally calling it a day. At age 90 he was ready to retire.
Norton has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Asked what his recipe was for such a long and fruitful life, his answer was: “Hard work, honesty, respect, and a whisky every evening”.