ID of Norvin Brockett's remains 'reaffirms: We don't leave patriots behind'
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- It’s not likely to make many year-end lists of the top news stories of the year. But an August phone call to an Air Force facility in New Mexico brought big, very long-awaited news for one family with Central Oregon roots.
After nearly 70 years, a box of remains returned by North Korea had been identified as those of Norvin Brockett, a Powell Butte teen who at just 17 had pleaded for and won his parents’ permission to join the Army and go fight for his country, but was killed in battle.
Norvin was the youngest of four sons of Clarence and Zoretta Brockett of Powell Butte, along with Calvin, Melvin and Irvin, and daughter Joyce.
Only Irvin Brockett is still alive, living in Grand Ronde. He turns 90 in January.
"I didn't really think they'd ever find him," Irvin said of his younger brother this fall. "Because he was with field artillery, I expected he probably got blew up -- they aim for them."
Despite the passage of all those years, Irvin still has fond memories of his little brother, and how surprised he was at learning he'd headed overseas.
"He was my favorite brother, because we were closest in age," Brockett said. "The thing was, I wasn't even home when he went into the service. I was working on another farm in Powell Butte, living with relatives."
"The last time I saw him, he was 17. I didn't know until I got home. Being 17, I didn't think the folks would ever let him go. He had to get permission. He wanted to go so bad, they finally gave in” and signed the paperwork.
“It was pretty sudden,” Irvin said. “I was only gone for the summer. When I came home, he was gone.”
A brief article about his interim destination ran in the August 29, 1950 Bend Bulletin: “Pvt. Norvin D. Brockett, son of Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Brockett of Pilot Butte, arrived in Japan recently to fulfill his assignment with the 7th Infantry Division, according to a news release from the far east command. Brockett entered the service at Bend in April 1950. Before being sent to Japan, he was stationed at Fort Ord, Calif.”
Early that December, Brockett’s unit was attacked in the Chosen Reservoir in North Korea, as he defended his position and it was overrun. He was declared deceased at the end of 1953.
The Bulletin article was found by Bend veterans activist Dick Tobiason, who coincidentally won passage this summer of a state law naming U.S. Highway 26 across the state the POW/MIA Veterans Memorial Highway. It's one in a series of efforts he's undertaken to have similar declarations and memorial signs placed along other major Oregon highways, to spark continued remembrance of those who gave their lives for our freedom.
Tobiason plans to erect one of the new POW/MIA Memorial Highway signs in Prineville, where Norvin Brockett attended Crook County High School for two years, before he went off to war.
He says Brockett's name also will be engraved on the Bend Veterans Peace Memorial at the Bend Heroes Memorial in Brooks Park.
In late October, the Defense Department announced that Norvin Brockett had been officially accounted for. In July 2018, a month after President Trump met with North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, met, North Korea returned 55 boxes of American soldiers’ remains to U.S. officials.
They were taken to the Defense Department’s POW/Accounting Agency at Pearl Harbor, where experts used evidence including DNA analysis to identify Brockett.
Irvin was drafted into the Army, and said he was trained to go to Korea, where his brothers served. “But they needed 40 people out of our company to go to Alaska,” and took 10 from each platoon. “The Army does everything alphabetical,” he said, so with a last name of Brockett, that’s where he ended up going, instead.
Asked to share his memories of his favorite brother, Irvin Brockett said of Norvin, “His biggest thing in life was to whip me. We boys would be wrestling, who could take the other one down. That was his biggest ambition, and all the other kids knew it – they’d egg him on.”
With his health failing, Irvin allowed his niece, Katherine Gandara, to take the lead in contacts with the Defense Department, if and when they had any news to share.
Gandara, who grew up in Redmond, said she learned about her late Uncle Norvin from her dad, Melvin, who also served in Korea around the same time.
“A lot of veterans who have seen up close the effects of war, they didn’t really like to talk about it,” she said. “It wasn’t until I decided to join the Air Force that (my father) sat down with me and really talked about his experience in the Korean War, his brother Norvin and what happened.
“He told me, ‘You have to understand: When you join the military, this is not just a job. It’s something that you are willing to give your life for.’”
Gandara said she served in the Air Force for 22 years, retiring as a master sergeant, and still works after retirement as a public affairs advisor at the Air Force Operational Test & Evaluation Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, where they test the country’s major aircraft and weapons systems.
She was at her desk when she got that August 6 call from the Defense Department, with the long-awaited news about the uncle she never met.
Then, in mid-October, a team from the Army's Past Conflict Repatriations Branch traveled to Albuquerque to brief her on the developments regarding her uncle.
She provided the team leader with a briefing room, and invited her teammates from throughout her career to join her and watch what was displayed on several screens.
"It was a bittersweet moment" when her uncle's official photo was displayed, Gandara said, as she wished her father was alive to share it. Still, she said, "I felt a sense of peace and pride," knowing the promise she'd made to him was finally fulfilled.
Gandara said she was especially moved by the list of her uncle's awards and decorations, including a posthumous Purple Heart. All of them, she said, will be cherished by his family.
Now, arrangements are underway for Norvin Brockett’s burial, with full military honors, next summer at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gandara said she has a 30-year-old son who has not served in the military, but who made a promise to his mother, before this year’s news.
“We had talked about the fact that if for some reason in my lifetime, I was not able to see this to the end, he would be the one to continue on,” she said. “We had made a promise to my father, that we would never give up. We were prepared, however long we needed to.”
“When I got that call, I have to tell you, it was shocking – but there was a relief,” she said. “I made this promise to my dad, before he passed” in October of 2008.
“There’s always this heaviness, you wish you could have fulfilled that promise” earlier, while her father was still alive, Gandara said. “For me, as a veteran who continues to work with the military, what it tells me is, it reaffirms: We don’t leave our patriots behind.”
“Our family is just very grateful to the Department of Defense for never giving up. It means a lot to us that he’s home. He’s going to be honored in a way that he deserves. It’s a sad ending, but it’s fulfilling.”
Still, there remains more than 7,600 American service members unaccounted for from the Korean War, including 57 from Oregon. For those families, the wait for answers, and closure, continues.