BY TOM DALTON STAFF WRITER
SALEM — Some of the girls in her elementary school were wearing POW bracelets, so Peggy Cornacchio decided she would send away for one of her own.
When it arrived in the mail around 1970, the stainless steel bracelet was inscribed with a name and date.
“LCDR Giles Norrington...5-5-68.”
“It was definitely an unusual name,” she said.
Cornacchio guesses she was 10 or 11 when she started wearing the bracelet as a way of remembering an American prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“At our age, we weren’t trying to make a political statement,” she said. “We were so young we probably didn’t understand what war was all about, but we knew we were wearing it for people who were prisoners. It was our way of honoring them and not forgetting them. That much we understood.”
She wore the bracelet all the time. She was wearing it, in fact, on March 14, 1973, when Norrington was released after almost five years in North Vietnamese prisons. She remembers her parents pointing out his name in a Boston paper among a list of freed U.S. prisoners.
Cornacchio, the former Peggy Byrne, wore the bracelet even after Norrington’s release. She wore it even though it was too big for her wrist. It slipped off so often that she bent the metal to make it fit, bent it so much that one day it snapped in half.
The broken bracelet wound up in the attic of her parents’ Highland Avenue home, forgotten until this past Christmas when a sister handed her a bag salvaged from an attic cleaning a few years ago when their mother moved out of the family homestead.
“Oh, I found this bag in my closet,” her sister said.
At the bottom of the bag was the stainless steel bracelet, still in two pieces.
And that is where this story really begins.
For the past three months, Cornacchio, 52, a child development specialist, wife and mother has been on a quest, a search for the man whose name was scrawled on the bracelet she started wearing as a sixth-grader at the old Bowditch School.
After a lot of Google searches and phone calls, she spotted an announcement about a scholarship dinner in St. Augustine, Fla., in memory of two U.S. servicemen, one of whom died in Vietnam, the other at the World Trade Center on 9/11 after leading more than 2,000 people to safety.
The banquet’s keynote speaker was Capt. Giles R. Norrington, whom the program described as “a former POW at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ in Vietnam.”
When Cornacchio contacted the banquet organizer and told him about the bracelet she wanted to return, he asked her to come to the dinner. She hesitated at first, and then called back and said she would.
She wanted to hand Norrington the bracelet, but, first, had to get it fixed, so she took it to Phil Potvin at Bernard’s Jewelers.
“He fixed the bracelet for free when I told him the story,” she said.
So last Saturday morning, Cornacchio and a friend boarded a plane for Florida. In her pocketbook was a little red gift box with a bracelet inside.
The banquet at an Elks hall was packed with men and women who had served in the military, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to Bosnia to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cornacchio and two friends were given seats at a table near the front. When a veteran seated next to her asked what her connection was to the banquet, all she could say was, “It’s a surprise.”
It was an emotion-packed evening, culminating with a moving speech by Norrington, now 77 and a little unsteady on his feet.
A former Navy pilot, he was shot down on his 22nd reconnaissance flight over North Vietnam.
“It was about 20 minutes into the mission when I ran into heavy aircraft artillery fire,” Norrington said during a phone interview. “They blew the right wing of my airplane.”
After ejecting from the plane, he and a navigator, both of whom suffered burns, were captured.
Over nearly five years, Norrington was moved from prison to prison, a practice known as the “camp shuffle.” At one point, he was at the same prison as John McCain, a place called “The Plantation.” Through a hole he made in his cell wall, Norrington could see McCain occasionally being led away for interrogations — another term, he said, for torture.
“He was on crutches at that time,” Norrington said. “In fact, he was on crutches most of the time. I knew he was in pretty bad shape...
“I could see him making his way back toward his cell and he was really hobbling along slowly. He would pause for a time...I realized that each time he stopped it was in front of a room with American prisoners. I kind of guessed he was talking to them, but I didn’t know until much later that he was whispering words of encouragement...”
Norrington was part of a mass release of prisoners in 1973, who were shipped to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
That’s where he experienced his first “bracelet miracle.”
While riding in a caravan of three buses, packed with more than 100 POWs, Norrington saw a young boy among the cheering crowd on the base run toward the bus holding a cardboard tube with a metallic object wrapped around it. The boy shoved the tube through an open window right where Norrington was sitting.
The metal object was a POW bracelet. The name on it was “Giles Norrington.”
“He had worn this bracelet for a year or two and happened to shove it through my window,” he said.
Two weeks later, Norrington experienced the second “miracle.”
He was attending a large POW reception on the South Lawn of the White House hosted by President Richard Nixon. The singer Vic Damone was performing under a circus tent. Damone suddenly stopped in the middle of his show and announced that he wanted to return a POW bracelet worn for two years by the daughter of his arranger.
Then Damone read the name on the bracelet: “Giles Norrington.”
The third “miracle” happened last Saturday night in an Elks hall in Florida. Coincidentally, the dinner was held just two days after the 40th anniversary of Norrington’s release.
At the end of the program, the scholarship committee president, Bill Jefferson, presented Norrington with a bracelet, a different bracelet, that had arrived in the mail. It was one of dozens he has received over the years.
After reading a letter from the sender and waiting for the applause to die down, Jefferson looked out at the audience, which was already overflowing with emotion.
“But it gets better,” he told the crowd.
Cornacchio is not sure exactly what happened after that. She remembers rising from her chair and walking toward the front of the hall. Norrington said he saw a woman out of the corner of his eye and rose to meet her.
“A lot of it seriously is a fog because it was so emotional,” she said. “I remember just hugging him. And we were both crying, sobbing.”
After all he has been through in his life, all he has endured, Norrington said he was moved to tears by a woman who flew all the way from Massachusetts to Florida to hand a stainless steel bracelet to an old Navy pilot she had never met.
For Cornacchio, it was a gift of love and the end of a quest, the fulfillment of a mission started decades ago by a little girl who wore a stainless steel POW bracelet on her wrist.