BINGHAM LAKE -- It was quite an opportunity for a southwest Minnesota farm boy -- flying one of those airplanes he'd often admired from the ground while growing up.
August "Wig" Turner had an entirely different feeling as the pilot of a Martin B-26 bomber in a 6-ship formation over enemy territory in Europe on a mid-February day in 1945, though.
Brought in as a replacement, Turner had taken to the skies over Belgium and Germany less than three weeks after the Battle of the Bulge.
The 40-day fight had resulted in more than 108,000 casualties, according to the U.S. Department of the Army. More than 19,200 American soldiers were killed, nearly 62,500 were wounded, and another 26,600 were captured or reported as missing in action.
It was Turner's job as a bomber pilot to advance the American front by dropping anywhere from 100-pound up to 2,000-pound bombs on enemy territory.
In all, he completed 38 missions in a span of two and a half months leading up to the end of the war. Victory in Europe was declared by the Americans on May 8, 1945.
Perhaps no flight was more harrowing for the 21-year-old pilot than his second combat mission.
His B-26, a medium bomber also known as the Marauder or the Flying Prostitute, was assigned to help wipe out a section of Germany's transportation system when the group of planes was pelted with enemy fire.
The bomber directly in front of Turner's aircraft took a direct hit from an anti-aircraft gun, burst into flames and plummeted toward the ground. An aerial photograph captured the scene, and Turner keeps a framed print on the wall of his rural Bingham Lake home as a daily reminder of the perils of war.
Looking at that photograph earlier this week, Turner said of his own fate as a bomber pilot, "I wasn't very optimistic."
The sky's the limit
The son of a World War I soldier, Turner grew up on the family farm near Bingham Lake. He graduated from Windom High School and completed half a year at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter before he enlisted in the Air Force in November 1942. He was 18 years old.
"There were recruiters that came around, and I didn't want to be in the infantry," he said.
Turner had long had a fascination with airplanes, often admiring aircraft magazines his junior high science teacher had at school.
"It was so rare to see somebody flying a plane," he recalled, adding that when his family heard an airplane on the farm, they'd often run out of the house to watch it fly over.
Turner made it through the physical, meeting the height and weight requirements, passing the multitude of vision tests and successfully completing the mental evaluations.
"It seemed like every time you moved, you had to take a physical exam," he said.
Turner completed basic training in Missouri before transferring to Wisconsin and then on to Texas. He was promoted from cadet to 2nd Lieutenant in April 1944, after graduating from pilot's training.
Turner was trained to fly the B-26 in Del Rio, Texas, and was assigned his flight crew in Lake Charles, La. After flying several test missions there, the crew was sent to Savannah, Ga., in preparation for his overseas deployment. In early December 1944, he boarded a ship and headed east toward Europe.
While in training, Turner practiced a lot of formation flying, which was put to use over the battlefield.
"When they first started using those airplanes over there, they were to fly low-level missions," he said.
An English bomber commander suggested flying at 12,000 to 15,000 feet. At such a low altitude, a 5-degree turn was made in 12 seconds -- in similar fashion to the zig-zag pattern used by the U.S. naval fleet in World War II.
"The first three missions you flew as a co-pilot with someone else so you got a feel for what was going on," said Turner.
His missions were all planned in advance, based on information gathered through intelligence. The lead bombardier navigator had a map, and the planes went out in search of key structures, from bridges to crossroads, command centers and fuel stations.
"If you couldn't see the target, you went after the target of opportunity," Turner said. "We were able to see the target most of the time, except when we were in the clouds."
On overcast days, Pathfinder planes were used to lead the squadrons into the target zone.
"We had some pretty good luck on bridges, fuel dumps and railroad yards," he said. "We wanted to stop the Germans from bringing in supplies for the ground forces."
Turner documented each of his missions in a personal journal he kept during his tour of duty, and they are also listed in a historical book published for the 344th Bomb Group of World War II. Turner served with the 496th Squadron of the 344th.
"I was pretty lucky -- I only picked up three or four holes at a time (from artillery shell shrapnel)," said Turner. "My name wasn't on that shell.
"It was something to fly that airplane and come back alive with it," he added.
Though his job as a pilot came with a great degree of danger, Turner said everything he did was to better protect the American soldiers serving on foot.
"That guy on the ground deserves all the help he can get and he deserves all the credit," said Turner.
When the war was over, Turner thanked some of those ground troops by offering half a dozen flights over the war zone so they could see the extent of the damage from the air.
After his discharge in November 1945, Turner returned to rural Bingham Lake and started farming with his brother. In the fall of 1950, several months after he and his wife Wanda were married, he enlisted with the field artillery unit of the Windom National Guard.
Turner completed artillery school in Fort Sill, Okla., and then-President Harry S. Truman called for the National Guard's 47th Division to report to active duty in the Korean War. Already a war veteran, Turner found himself headed to Camp Rucker, Ala., and then to Fort Lewis, Wash., the Aleutian Islands, Tokyo, Japan, and finally on a ferry to a replacement camp at Seoul, Korea.
Wanda, who had followed her husband to Camp Rucker, returned to southwest Minnesota when her husband returned to the battlefield.
Turner served in the 8th Field Artillery of the 25th Division in Korea, but his tour lasted less than eight months when he was called home on a family emergency. His wife was pregnant with their first child when he left for Korea, but there were problems and the infant girl died. Turner didn't learn of the baby's death until he arrived home.
About a month later, Turner reported back to Fort McCoy, Wis., but was told he didn't need to return to Korea. He was honorably discharged on June 2, 1952.
With his military service behind him, Turner settled into farming. Now, at age 85, he's still involved in the operation with one of his four sons. He does the combining in the fall and serves as a "go-fer" in the spring.