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July 20, 2008

Our War: East St. Louis man got his wish for adventure in India

As a young man growing up in East St. Louis, Henry Turner loved to read "One Thousand and One Nights" and dream of having adventures like those in the book -- Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

As a young man growing up in East St. Louis, Henry Turner loved to read "One Thousand and One Nights" and dream of having adventures like those in the book -- Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

"I always wanted to go to India see the place where many of those adventures happened," Turner said. "It was my dream. But I never thought I would really get to go there."

It certainly didn't look good. In the fall of 1942, Turner was toiling as a chipper in the steel mills of Granite City, producing the materials needed to support the war effort when he got a call from Uncle Sam.

"I was actually happy to be drafted," Turner said. "All of my close friends had already gone off to war. So I was ready."

Turner's draft notice came from the Army Air Corps. He was sent to basic training near Pensacola, Fla., where he joined the 1883rd Engineers Aviation Battalion. After getting instruction on how to operate a 22,000-pound bulldozer with a 12-foot-wide earthmoving blade, Turner was sent to New York to be shipped overseas.

When he finally got his orders, Turner couldn't believe his ears. He was going to Bombay, India.

Turner rode up the eastern seaboard in a luxurious railroad car that had a rare treat for those days: Air conditioning. The young man from East St. Louis had never traveled before. So when he got to New York, he took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Apollo Theater where he and some buddies from his unit saw legendary bandleader Lionel Hampton perform.

Their jubilation ended when the men arrived at New York Harbor to board the troop ship West Point for a 33-day trip that would take them to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and Cape Town, South Africa, before arriving in India.

"Once we got on board the West Point, it was just like being in a big hotel," Turner said. "I remember that it had a big swimming pool but, instead of water, the pool was filled with cases of Coca-Cola."

There were no destroyers or cruisers to chase away enemy submarines. The West Point would use its speed and the guile of the captain to make its way through dangerous waters.

Turner said the ship zig-zagged every six minutes during daylight hours to make it a harder target for enemy submarines to hit.

"A whistle blew when it got dark, and after that there was no smoking allowed on deck," Turner said. "They told us that you could see the glowing end of a cigarette for 10 miles in the darkness out at sea."

When the 1883rd arrived at Bombay, India, its men found that they wouldn't be hacking air fields out of the jungle as they originally expected. Instead, they would be working on the Ledo Road, a ground route through the foothills of the Himalayas from India through Burma and on to China. It was designed to lighten the load on cargo plane pilots who "flew the hump" over the mountains to supply Chinese troops with gasoline, weapons and ammunition for fighting the Japanese.

"We would climb up a hill and scratch out a flat spot where we would work, then gradually make longer and longer cuts," Turner said. "You didn't want to make a mistake because in some places it was 800 or 900 feet to the valley below."

The road twisted back and forth like a corkscrew in the steep foothills. Turner said trucks kicked up so much dust that only the driver of the first one in a convoy could see where he was going. The other guys all just followed the rear end of the truck in front of them -- and hoped that guy didn't veer off the road and drive over the edge of a cliff.

The road crews worked 24 hours a day, burning drums of diesel for light in the darkness of night.

Fortunately, they felt relatively safe from enemy attacks.

"The infantry and the Air Force did a good job of keeping the Japanese away from us," Turner said. "But sometimes, if I turned the motor on my bulldozer off, I could hear explosions way off in the distance. It would make you wonder how close they were."

The closest Turner came to being a casualty of war came when a member of his unit tried to cut an empty gas drum open with a blowtorch. The lingering fumes caused it to explode, sending the lid from the drum flying over his head like a circular saw blade.

Turner said he also spent two weeks in the hospital with malaria and another stint there after gasoline that was spilled on him ignited. Members of his unit were safe from the enemy, but not nature. They killed two tigers while they were working on the Ledo Road as well as an 18-foot-long snake they came upon in the jungle.

"I felt kind of guilty about not being at the front line like the combat troops, but I was there as part of the support troops and I did what I was told to do," Turner said. "We had people killed. But it was because of work accidents, not fighting."

Near the end of the war, Turner went to radio school and learned to decipher coded messages for his unit's commander.

It was a high-pressure job that he didn't like as much as running his bulldozer.

"When you decoded messages, if you got even one thing wrong it threw the whole thing off," Turner said.

He once had so much trouble decoding a transmission as his colonel stood impatiently waiting for it that he had to call headquarters on the phone to straighten the mess out.

"I wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it," Turner said.

His embarrassment was quickly forgotten, however, when word came that some special bombs had been dropped on Japan and that the war was over.

After nearly three years of scratching a vital lifeline from the mountains of India, Burma and China, men from Turner's unit turned around and used the road they built to head back to India for a ship home.

"It was a bumpy 300-mile trip, but we didn't mind," Turner said. "We thought about all the good days, rough times we spent there.

He was then 24 and sent to Fort Sheridan along Lake Michigan in northern Illinois to be discharged. As he waited to be sent home, he went into a service club on base where he listened to a young man play a piano while Turner read Time magazine.

When the youngster finished playing, he came over to Turner and asked "Don't you recognize me?"

Turner said the kid looked sort of familiar, but he couldn't place his face.

"I'm your brother," The young soldier insisted.

"What brother?" Turner asked.

"Haywood," the kid replied. "Haywood Turner."

After being away so long, the elder Turner didn't even recognize his own brother.

"He was only 12 when I left," Turner said. "He fibbed about his age and joined the Army when he was only 16. He had been in three months and nobody told me."

Haywood confessed his true age, not only because the war was over, but because he was also homesick. And soon the brothers were back in East St. Louis to get reacquainted.

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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