U.S. Army Air Corps, 22nd Bombing Group, 2nd Squadron
World War II (1942 – 1945)
Life as a young man was good on Catalina Island. There were beautiful beaches, girls and, in the summertime, big-name bands would come perform at the island ballroom. It was a fun place for Noel Turner to grow up. He moved there from Mobile, Alabama when he was eight, after his parents divorced and his mother remarried a man who worked for the Catalina Island Company. By the time Noel graduated high school, he knew that he wanted to fly airplanes and so – after deciding to attend Long Beach Junior College – he signed up for the Civilian Pilot Training program, which paralleled a course at University of California. CPT was a hybrid of flying school and courses in academic subjects such as mathematics, history and English. Some days in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon, Noel and his fellow cadets flew biplanes. There were no night flights, but the training was sufficient for Noel to earn his flying license.
When the United States draft was enacted in 1940, Noel Turner received a low number and was told that he would probably never be called to serve. By this point he had completed two years of college, and despite the probability of his draft number, he continued to proceed with his intention of going to flying school. There were three phases of training: primary, basic, advanced. He had already completed the primary phase through CPT, but flying school continued with the army-run programs in basic and advanced training. So, Noel went to Bakersfield for a ten-month course in basic flying. They trained in BT-13s (trainer aircraft) until the program was cut short by two months. The intention was to get much needed pilots into combat as soon as possible. When Noel entered flying school, the U.S. was in peacetime, but it was not long until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. Immediately, Noel was sent to Stockton to fly AT-6s for the advanced phase of flying school. They were much more maneuverable, faster planes, with retractable landing gear. Having logged about 40 hours in CPT, Noel was ahead of the curve in training, despite the new aircraft he was being introduced to. “In 60 hours time, you make a pilot out of someone and if you didn’t make the grain, they’d wash you out and immediately discharge you from the army and give you instruction to report to your draft board.” He said, “You were discharged from the army for the convenience of the service.” After graduation, they were sent on a three-week ship ride across the Pacific Ocean to a training command base in Australia.
The ship dropped them off in the city of Brisbane, where they boarded a train going to Townsville. When they arrived, they were met by officers and assigned to the 22nd bomb group. They were stationed about 40 miles outside of Townsville, but during their missions they operated out of Port Moresby. When they went on combat tours, they flew up to Port Moresby, New Guinea and took off from there.
By this time in the war, the Japanese military had expanded throughout the south pacific. Their goal was to conquer Australia and New Zealand, which would put the United States in an extremely vulnerable position. It was Noel’s and the other pilots’ job to consolidate the Australian military presence in the south pacific and prevent the Japanese from advancing further. The South West Pacific theatre was primarily under Japanese control after they had conquered territories in the Philippines, New Guinea, Dutch East Indies, Borneo, Solomon Islands and several other surrounding islands. By 1942 the Japanese were making their final offensives on the islands off of Australia’s north coast, in preparation for an invasion of the mainland.
Noel’s first mission was as a copilot on a B-26. “I was amazed at that airplane, we had been flying trainers and an airplane like that would absolutely blow your mind. It was fast. You bring that airplane in at about 135 to 140 miles an hour. Some of the airplanes I flew didn’t even go that fast.” Noel recalls. His assignment was to support ground troops in New Guinea by bombing targets such as Japanese airstrips, airfields, and ships.
When he went on combat missions, he flew from Townsville to Port Moresby and operated from there. The war at this time was a step-by-step process, conquering one island at a time. New Guinea was an important island because it’s close proximity to Australia would enable the Japanese to be within flying range of the mainland. The battle for New Guinea was an integral campaign in the south pacific. While making a bombing run on the northern edge of New Guinea, Noel’s squadron was attacked by Japanese fighters. The glass bubble of his plane, which contained his navigator, was penetrated by a bullet just before the navigator stuck his head up. The resistance from fighters as well as anti-aircraft fire from the ground, was intense above New Guinea. “I must say this,” Noel remarked, “we had it easy compared to what those guys went through in Europe. I mean they were under constant attack as soon as they went across the coast of the continent to their targets and back, either fighters or anti-aircraft fire. We would fly over this open ocean, nobody down there to fire at us.” Despite his humble appreciation for the pilots in Europe, the Army Air Force in the South West Pacific encountered significant resistance as well. The Japanese anti-aircraft guns were less accurate and sophisticated than the German guns, but still claimed many planes. When Noel was flying a combat mission through flak, the puff of black smoke from an anti-aircraft gun was a good sign for him. Although he would be under fire, the smoke indicated that he had not been hit, so he would simply fly right through the explosion. A mission typically took only two to three hours, and when he returned to base he would simply, “forget about it, knowing very well the next day you’d go out again.”
The first thing that happened in the morning was reveille and an officer would come in to the barracks and shout, “mission today, strike today, breakfast in a half hour!” Noel would grumble, get up, get dressed and go have a less than delectable breakfast of dried eggs, dehydrated milk, and dehydrated potatoes. Fortunately, he sat in the officers’ mess. Then he would attend briefing for 30 minutes where they would inform him about the take off time and mission. From there, he would take a jeep to his plane and perform his preflight routine. “Preflight was looking the plane over, looking at the tires in the cells, see if there’s any oil leeks or any other damage and once you go in the cockpit you had a checklist. You had to go through step-by-step so you didn’t forget anything and every pilot uses that today, that same checklist for that particular plane.” After they started their engines, they began takeoff and got into formation.
The lead plane would take off and start their turn and the others would follow. The idea was to turn sideways and catch up with the leader to get into formation. By the time the leader made a complete circle of the airfield, the other planes would have caught up and entered formation. The heat was intense and stifling, but fortunately, these planes were not pressurized, so Noel could open a side window for some cool air. In addition, as the planes flew higher, the temperature lowered. One way they took advantage of this was by sending a pilot up in a plane full of beer to cool it down. After a mission, they would have some down time to enjoy their chilled, high-alcohol-content beer.
After several missions, the Army introduced the B-25 bomber. This greatly increased Noel’s time in the Pacific because they had to spend an additional eight months training in the new plane. Even with the extensive training, Noel preferred the B-26 and kept one of them to use as a “fat cat plane” to pick up beverages and ice cream from mainland Australia.
Noel was very fortunate to have flown so many missions without serious damage to his crew, plane, or self. However, one day his luck ran out and on a flight from Brisbane to Townsville he blew a tire. “I just barely kept the plane from crashing into another plane on the side of the runway.” He had to replace the tires and replace the propeller, and his flight checker took the aircraft up for a test flight. He got cleared to fly and when he was in the air, a cylinder erupted. His navigator said that they were 20 minutes away from an airfield with an 8,000 foot-long runway, to which Noel replied, “hallelujah!” He came into the runway a little higher than normal and a little faster than normal, because he knew that the airplane would drop like a brick if it were not moving fast enough. His copilot had never been in that airplane before and Noel remembers him saying, “you’re awful fast and awful high,” to which he replied, “don’t worry about it, this thing will go down.” With a smoking engine that would have caught fire had Noel not shut if off mid-flight, he landed the plane.
The possibility of crashing was very real and very disturbing after hearing of the way the Japanese treated their prisoners. Noel never had survival training, so his only safety measures, if he crashed, were his instincts and the equipment he carried. On board they had parachutes and flashlights, but as an extra precaution, Noel personally carried silver coins in case he needed universal currency. Fortunately, Noel never crashed, and he reached 51 missions without injury. He was made Captain and flight commander, and was ordered to go home.
He flew from Brisbane to Hamilton field in a trip that took 46 hours. The circuitous route made stops in New Caledonia, Fiji, Canton Island and Honolulu – with crew changes and meals at each stop. After arriving in the U.S. he went on leave and then returned to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he taught replacement students how to fly the A-20, which was a single pilot, two-engine, strafing, bombing, attack aircraft. In 1944, he was briefly in ferry command, which involved flying planes from Long Beach to Newark. After two months of that he flew for Trans Pacific: a military transport service operating out of Hamilton Airfield.
As the end of World War II approached in 1945, Noel was on a return flight to Hamilton, when there was a crew change in Honolulu and they received orders to fly back to Okinawa and then to Tokyo. The war was over. Their mission was to bring in supplies and bring back former prisoners of war. By the time they landed in Okinawa the armistice had been signed, yet the horrors of war’s wanton destruction were still apparent. When Noel landed in Japan he was 50 miles south of Tokyo, so he decided to take a jeep up for a visit. “It was a beautiful day, but there was nothing there, nothing!” Only a few buildings remained standing, as almost everything had been burned to the ground by allied firebombing. In addition to this barren and grim scene, Noel’s interaction with his passengers was a sobering experience as well. Many of his passengers were horribly emaciated from being prisoners. They would board Noel’s plane, grateful to be rescued and fed during the flight from mainland Japan to Okinawa, which took about six hours. The flight time left them with enough fuel to make it back, but as a precaution the Navy had stationed a line of ships along the route in case the crew had to ditch their plane and be rescued at sea. After several months of transporting POWs, Noel entered school in military government and went to Korea for two years. He continued flying, this time C-54s, which carried about 50 passengers. His primary occupation in military government was as chief of welfare. He operated 40 to 50 orphanages at the time. From 1946 to 1948, Noel helped orphans receive supplies and food.
When he arrived back in the U.S. after his time in military government, he entered air force communications service, where he served for ten years until the Vietnam War. At that point, he decided he was ready to retire as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Interview by Matthew Bourhis on July 7, 2012.