A young man of 21 years, Bud Turner of Douglas took to flying low.
In most of these circumstances, he wasn’t supposed to. But Turner and the others did it for the fun of it.
Turner and three others had picked up their planes from Langley Field and flew to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. The East Coast was on alert. When a plane or flight pattern couldn’t immediately be identified, Turner and the others were sent out to check. If they couldn’t identify the craft, the instructions were to shoot it down.
So Turner and the others would take off and stay pretty low. They’d peel around the White House and the Capitol, then move on.
After several times, they got a call from someone at the White House. It would be much appreciated if they stopped doing that, the caller said.
“We quit it after that,” Turner said.
Later based at Grenier Field in New Hampshire, he and a friend flew down a main street in town, at the level of the second-story windows.
The colonel’s wife happened to see them. She wrote down their tail numbers. The colonel grounded them for two days.
“We thought we were hot shots, you know, at the time,” Turner said. “We didn’t do it anymore.”
Before the U.S. entered World War II, Turner was studying at the University of Wyoming. He left in the spring of 1941.
“I was afraid the war was going to be over before I’d get in, so I quit school,” he said.
Turner wanted in the Air Corps, but he said he was told to wait until he was 21. He had to have his tonsils taken out, too, he said.
Finally, in November 1941 in Casper, Turner passed the tests mandated by the traveling board. By the new year, he was called for training in California. Before advanced training, the bombers and fighters split. Turner went to Luke Field in Arizona to train on AT-6s as a fighter pilot. Before he could make a solo flight, he had to prove he was ready by locating all of the instruments blindfolded. He graduated in August 1942.
Turner shipped overseas to Nigeria on a C-54 transport plane. The P-40 Warhawk couldn’t fly that far and instead arrived in Africa in crates where a mechanic put the single-engine fighters together.
Turner’s outfit, the 315th Fighter Squadron of the 324th Fighter Group, was attached to the British 8th Army. The P-40s escorted bombers and did dive bombing and strafing of their own. The P-40 eventually carried bombs, from 250 to 500, even 1,000, pounds.
Turner’s flight once sunk a ship off the coast of Africa. Turner remembers swimming out to the ship one day and taking its nameplate, which he would give to his grandson decades later.
Turner never named his P-40, but he has pictures of it: No. 66. For every mission, miniature bombs were painted on the side of the craft. By the time Turner left, he had 80.
New to the desert near Cairo, Turner had just gotten his plane when he got into trouble for the first time. He was supposed to be putting slow time on the P-40, which meant flying as slow as he could without putting pressure on the engine.
A British Spitfire made a friendly pass at him, so Turner took off after it.
“I hadn’t had enough time on it,” Turner said of his plane. “It was a new engine and froze up, so I had to belly into the desert over there.”
Once in the sand, Turner blew up his radio like he had been taught, so the Germans couldn’t get on the frequency, he said. Turner walked, then came upon a nomadic camp. He saw tents, goats and camels. The leader of the camp came out and grinned when Turner said he was American, Turner remembers.
The other nomads put spears in the ground and placed a camel skin over it so Turner could rest in the shade. Soon, he was eating a big plate of beans.
Turner said the camp’s leader motioned for him to come into a tent filled with Persian rugs.
“He had a gold telephone,” Turner said. “I said, boy, someone sold this kid the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The man gestured to the phone, and Turner picked it up and said, “English,” then asked for his captain.
Two airplanes took off from base and found the camp. A jeep followed. At the time, Turner remembers, the military offered $250 to anyone who helped a downed airman.
“He wouldn’t take the money,” Turner said. “... He said all he wanted me to do was call him on his phone. Nobody ever called him before, he said.”
Turner later tried to call, but never could get the nomadic group. But whenever the P-40s flew in the camp’s direction, they’d fly low.
The fighter squadron covered the Salerno and Anzio beachheads in Italy when the Allied troops moved in. A flight of planes was in the air at all times at Anzio to keep the Germans from strafing troops below, Turner said. There, a 40mm cannon shot a hole through Turner’s plane, and he had to push full throttle to keep airborne.
But that wasn’t the worst Turner saw. The day he thought he was done for came when Turner was escorting bombers over Sicily.
“We were flying along there, and I looked up and I see these yellow noses coming out of the sun,” Turner said.
Turner had been told yellow-nosed planes indicated the premier German fighters, ones who had at least five victories. He called his flight leader, but the message didn’t go through. Turner said he turned in toward the seven German planes. The yellow noses circled until three were behind Turner, two behind his wingman, with two planes above them.
Turner said there was no choice. German planes were faster, and all the P-40s could do was turn toward the planes and try to meet them head on.
“If they wanted to fight, we had to fight,” he said.
Turner and his wingman turned toward the planes. At some point, Turner lost his wingman. And the German planes, too.
“I don’t know to this day how I lost those yellow noses,” he said. “I’ll never know.”
Turner found his wingman and they flew across the Mediterranean back to Africa, where the rest of their flight was waiting.
“I think we didn’t have over eight or nine gallons of gas left in those P-40s,” he said.
“That was one day that I can still see how the sky looked, I’ll tell you. That was the day I thought I’d had it.”
When they could, P-40s made flights of opportunity. From Africa, Turner’s outfit would take off without any particular mission, and if they spotted enemy ships, they could dive bomb them. One day, Turner flew in a flight of eight and came across the biggest ship he’d ever seen. It was white, painted with a red cross. It looked like a hospital ship.
British radar suggested something else. The flight got a call to disregard the marking and bomb the vessel.
“We started down, and the whole back end of that opened up and they started using pom-pom guns, shooting at us,” Turner said. “A hospital ship’s not even supposed to have a 45 on there, no guns at all on a hospital ship.”
That night, the guys listened to Axis Sally’s Nazi propaganda broadcast on the radio.
“She said, ‘Today, American gangster pilots sank our hospital ship,’” Turner said. “We sure knew who she was talking about. But it wasn’t a hospital ship at all.”
Within his first 19 missions out of Africa, Turner started having sinus trouble. The flight surgeon was going to send him home, but Turner said he didn’t want to leave. Just give him aspirin.
At that point, pilots were supposed to rotate every 25 missions. But there were no replacements, so the number of missions got pushed to 45. Then it increased to 50. Soon, there was no cutoff.
After Turner’s 80th mission, his flight surgeon was waiting for him on the runway. In the spring of 1944, he was finally going home.