McDonough native Joe Turner was born in 1927 during hard times, then lived through the Great Depression. As a member of the Greatest Generation, Turner served in World War II, came home to finish college, and became a successful insurance salesman. As a history and geography enthusiast, he dreamed of going to far-off places, of glimpsing history, and vacationing in countries he’d only read about or studied in school.
Sometimes dreams come true. Turner and his future wife Josephine, would visit 120 countries and set foot on every continent except Antarctica. Even with the passing of Josephine almost two years ago, Turner still dreams of far-off places. He said, “My son has promised to take me to that last continent, Antarctica. I’m 85 years old, but what the heck, you only live once.”
Turner and his wife moved to Rockdale County 38 years ago. At the time of her passing they had been married for 63 years. But before the travel, before the insurance career, and before the marriage, World War II took Turner to his first far-off place: the Philippines, followed by occupied Japan. Turner enlisted in the Army Air Corps after high school graduation in 1944. “I had dreams of being an Ace fighter pilot,” he said. “And when I was sent to Clemson University for two quarters of advanced military training, I figured a seat in a fighter would be in my future.”
Turner was sent to Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., at that time training B-24 bomber copilots, but with the war winding down, the need for pilots lessened. “I had orders for Europe,” he said. “But my grandmother passed away so I had to go home on leave. When I returned, I had orders for the Philippines.”
With his dreams of piloting shot down (pardon the pun), Turner’s port-of-call was Tacloban on the island of Leyte.
(The beaches of Tacloban and Palo were where General Douglas MacArthur made good his promise ‘I shall return.’) Turner said, “Instead of pilot’s wings I ended up an assistant flunky, handling and dispatching war material no longer needed. The war had ended so part of my work crew were Japanese POWs. They did a good job and caused no trouble. Shoot, we even had a Japanese houseboy, so we were pretty lucky when compared to the guys who saw combat.”
Material that couldn’t be repaired or deemed too expensive to repair; or material the Filipinos didn’t want, took a one way trip to the bottom of the ocean via large barges. Turner said, “I hate to tell the taxpayer that, but jeeps and trucks or you name it was deep-sixed.”
His roommates (actually tent-mates) were, in Turner’s words, two Yankees. “Jan Beck was from Pennsylvania and Nick Verven was from New York,” he said. “Great guys, but they decided to teach ‘the Southern boy’ how to drink. Nick mixed up some whiskey and beer, Boilermakers I believe they’re called, shoot, next thing I knew I was laying on my cot and the tent was going around and around. I figured a cold shower would help so I stumbled tent to tent to the showers; it didn’t help. Then I figured some food would help so I staggered to the mess hall; it didn’t help. I started feeling like a human again in about two weeks. I said to Nick, ‘I don’t know when or how, but I’m going to kill you!’”
Turner also had assignments in Manila, capital of the Philippines. “There were Japanese holdouts in the mountains, but most of them had been hunted down,” he said. “I liked Manila and the people, but I remember it as very busy and under reconstruction from a devastating war.”
One trip Turner will remember for the rest of his life was a flyover of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both targets of the atomic bombs that ended the war. “The bombs saved lives, both American and Japanese, had we invaded their home islands, but I was still overwhelmed by the destruction caused by those atomic bombs. Total devastation, nothing left, it was a very sobering experience.”
Joe Turner completed his military service in Manila and returned home to earn a degree from Emory at Oxford, where he met a young local girl named Josephine. “We met in the bleachers,” he said. “I walked by her father’s house every day so I’d stop by and court Josephine on the porch swing.” They married in 1949.
One of the 120 countries Joe and Josephine would eventually vacation to was Vietnam in 2003. “It was part of a travel package that included Cambodia and Laos. The Vietnamese were very nice to us and they hadn’t caught-on to the art of gouging tourists. That’s always a good thing.”
Vacationing in Toronto, Canada, the Turners ran into Nick Verven, the roommate drink mixer during the war that Joe had promised to exterminate. “We enjoyed each other and agreed to meet for dinner. He didn’t show up.” Vacationing later in upstate New York, Turner ran into someone that knew Nick Verven and gave out his telephone number. “I called him,” Turner said. “We had a very pleasant conversation. I urged him to come south for a visit, but he never did. But he did ask, ‘Why haven’t you killed me yet?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m still looking for the right time and place.’ I don’t think he’ll ever come South, do you?”
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website at aveteransstory.us.