The star athlete who went to war

WAY BACK WHEN

September 21, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Earlier this month, veterans of the 2nd Air Division's 492nd Bombardment Group who flew in Europe during World War II met in Baltimore for their 55th annual convention.

And it was natural during a weekend of reminiscences and fellowship that talk should turn to one of their fallen comrades, Jack Turnbull, a Baltimorean and Olympic lacrosse star who was killed on a mission near Belgium's border with Germany in 1944.

Turnbull, 34 when he died, was perhaps one of the most exciting athletes ever to come out of Baltimore. As a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in the late 1920s, he established records in both football and lacrosse.

He was the younger brother of Douglas C. Turnbull Jr., himself an outstanding athlete and four-time All-American in both football and lacrosse, who thrilled spectators with his ferocious style of play at the Johns Hopkins University in the early '20s.

A scholar-athlete, Jack Turnbull entered Hopkins in 1929 and graduated three years later with a degree in mechanical engineering. While in college, he earned the title "greatest attackman ever to play lacrosse" by historians of the sport.

In 1932, Turnbull was captain of the U.S. Olympic lacrosse team and, before 145,000 spectators in Los Angeles, helped the U.S. team beat Canada 2-1 in the series.

After lacrosse was stricken as an Olympic event, Turnbull joined the U.S. field hockey team, playing halfback, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"After a U.S. victory at the Berlin Olympics, [Turnbull] was invited to Hitler's box and witnessed first-hand the dictator's infamous snubbing of Jesse Owens," wrote James J. Mahoney, an Army Air Force buddy, in his memoirs Reluctant Witness: Memoirs of the Last Year of the European Air War 1944-45 (Trafford Publishing).

"Jack once mused over our warm beer in a cold Nissen hut, `I could have reached over and strangled the sonovabich then, and we wouldn't be here now!' " he wrote.

Interested in aviation, Turnbull earned his pilot's license while a student at Hopkins, learning to fly at the old Curtiss-Wright Field on Smith Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.

He was as accomplished in the air as he had been on the playing field as a member of the 104th Observation Squadron of the Maryland National Guard, which he joined before the war.

He rose through the Army Air Force ranks quickly, being promoted to lieutenant two months before Pearl Harbor and making lieutenant-colonel in 1944.

After arriving in East Anglia, he served as operations officer for the 492nd Bombardment Group, responsible for planning combat missions over Germany.

In a letter to his mother, who lived in Mount Washington, Turnbull described his duties.

"I lead many of these missions as a command pilot, or in other words, I become the pilot on the lead ship to take care of command decisions en route to and from the target.

"The training that the various crews have received and their ability to handle successfully situations which may arise are of great importance to me. Beyond this, I am concerned about the welfare and spirit of our team," he wrote.

Ever the team player, when Turnbull flew as command pilot in the first bomber, he refused to pull rank, choosing to sit on a makeshift seat in the cockpit behind the pilot or co-pilot instead of taking the co-pilot's seat because he believed maintaining the integrity of the cockpit team was important.

Mahoney, who took a different view, insisted the arrangement had problems.

"Whenever we met at divisional meetings of Officers' Club gatherings we continued to needle each other on this subject, each insisting that the other's way of riding command pilot would one day be his undoing. Little did I realize how sadly right I would be," wrote Mahoney.

On Oct. 18, 1944, Turnbull was aboard the Flying Ginny, on a bombing run to Leverkusen, Germany. While returning to England, the B-24 ran into a severe storm at 24,000 feet.

Unable to go above or around, the squadron flew into the storm when suddenly the Flying Ginny went into a sharp bank to the left.

"The engines were then throttled back. Now it became apparent that the airplane was in some trouble," wrote Robert Bruce Turnbull, nephew, in a family memoir.

Turnbull was heard instructing the pilot, "Center the needle! Center the needle!"

"Very soon thereafter the plane flipped over on its back. Now, obviously, completely out of control, the plane began to fall," wrote the nephew, a retired Army major and West Point graduate.

As the B-24 spiraled toward the ground, it collided with another B-24 mid-air. As the crew desperately fought to save the spinning aircraft, the Flying Ginny finally crashed nine miles southwest of Ghent.

Two crewmen bailed out of the plane while all others were thought to have been killed on impact. Turnbull's B-24 came to rest near a convent, and its nuns came to the rescue of the crew.

In a report filed afterward, one of the surviving crewmen wrote, "It should be noted that Colonel Turnbull was not killed immediately, but died two days later."

While visiting the convent in 1987, the nephew was shown a photograph of the remains of 12, not 13, airmen. It is possible that Jack Turnbull survived several days after the crash, cared for by the nuns, while his comrades were taken to Flanders Fields for burial.

"Had Jack been in the co-pilot's seat where he could have taken over the controls, it's unlikely a spin would ever have happened in the first place, and if it did, with 20,000 feet under him, I'm certain Jack could have recovered from it," wrote Mahoney.

Turnbull, whose decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, later joined his fellow airmen temporarily in Flanders Fields.

In 1947, his remains were returned to Baltimore. After a funeral at St. John's Episcopal Church in Mount Washington, 12 P-47s flew over the church in formation as a final tribute.

Turnbull was buried at All Hallows Episcopal Church in Davidsonville.

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