Crystal Beach resident Jack Turner’s story is so compelling — he was a paratrooper who swapped cigars with General Patton and liberated a concentration camp — that even renowned director Steven Spielberg has it on film.
In the early, moonlit hours of June 6, 1944, a fleet of C-47 planes ferried American and other Allied paratroopers over the rolling French countryside, near the small town of St. Mère-Église.
Twenty-four-year-old Army Capt. Jack Turner stood inside one of those planes, positioned beside an open cargo-bay door.
“Go! Go! Go!” Turner shouted, hastening about two-dozen paratroopers through the opening before he, too, jumped out into the night.
Turner landed atop a silo on a farm at the edge of town. He hid in the farmer’s basement, awaiting the final push that would liberate St. Mère-Église from German occupation.
Three days later, the troops reassembled and overcame the Germans. St. Mère-Église was among the first towns to be liberated.
In the coming months, many more occupied towns — and more than 500 Nazi concentration camps — would be liberated as well.
Turner’s tour of duty
Turner was 22 when he enlisted in the Army in 1942. Raised in Rochester, Turner worked for a Geneva radio station on the weekends. Tired of hearing Hitler ranting and raving on the radio, he left the studio one day and walked down the street to an Army recruitment office. A recruiter told Turner that the Army was assembling a large force of paratroopers, to be part of a coordinated, mass invasion on the European front. Turner was not to tell anyone about the invasion, which even then was being referred to as D-Day.
Turner signed on with the 82nd Airborne Division and headed to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training. His division received further training at Fort Bragg, N.C., then more in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. Finally, their training complete, they returned to New York and departed for North Africa.
The troops arrived in Tunisia just after American forces had suffered a major defeat in the February 1943 battle at the Kasserine Pass.
Under the leadership of famed Gen. George S. Patton, Turner’s division bounced back to win the Battle of Al Guettar in March and April 1943.
Though Turner was only a sergeant at the time, he forged a friendship with Patton.
“I had the most admiration for that man. He was a leader and very human,” said Turner of the general. The two would often swap cigars, and it was General Patton who signed Turner’s promotion papers, advancing the young sergeant to the rank of second lieutenant. At 23, Turner had already become a commissioned officer.
Turner’s division soon left North Africa to fight campaigns in Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio Beach, Italy. Those battles, he recalls, were “bloodbaths,” with German troops outnumbering their opponents 3-to-1.
Soon after the Italian battles, the 82nd Airborne Division headed to England to prepare for the D-Day invasion.
“Boy, were they glad to see us in England. We were battle-hardened by then,” Turner remembers.
Paratroopers in the 82nd liberated St. Mère-Église, then the nearby French town of Carentan. Turner was shot in the shoulder during the liberation of Carentan — “but it wasn’t serious,” he recalls.
While he was in France, Turner made the decision to join a special unit that would liberate Dachau, a Nazi death camp located about 10 miles northwest of Munich, Germany. The mission was so dangerous that only volunteers were accepted — and each volunteer had to sign a statement saying he knew he might be killed. The volunteers were told to expect a barbaric scene, with barracks, ovens and gas chambers.
On April 24, 1945, the liberating forces reached Dachau. And it wasn’t a pretty sight.
“There were armed guards and Rottweilers — the craziest dogs you ever saw,” said Turner. “Those camps were terrible.”
About 32,000 prisoners were still alive when the liberators arrived — some of them, just barely.
Most of the adult prisoners weighed less than 80 pounds, Turner said. He didn’t know how some of them were still alive. The images were haunting.
“I cried, and I hadn’t cried in years. We all cried like babies,” he recalls.
Above all else, Turner remembers the children.
“They were the most beautiful kids, but they were emaciated. Everybody was a skeleton. To think that (the Nazis) would do that to children!
“I think I hugged 1,000 kids that day,” he said. “They were calling me ‘Papa’ and ‘Daddy.’ They probably hadn’t had a daddy for years.”
Some of the prisoners were taken to nearby hospitals for evaluation, and those in the worst condition were transported to better hospitals in neutral countries.
Shortly after the camp was liberated, Turner came home.
Troops in the 82nd Airborne and its brother division, the 101st Airborne, returned to the U.S. as celebrities. Turner recalls a homecoming parade in New York City where 1.5 million people lined the streets to welcome them home.
“You couldn’t even see the sidewalk,” he remembered.
Turner’s combat days were over. Sadly, he would have to don his uniform again a year after the war ended to cross the country by rail and retrieve the remains of his cousin, Doug. The young soldier had been killed in the Philippines.
It was a somber trip. On the way home, Turner had to attend several soldiers’ funerals, as a representative of the Army. He eventually returned to Canandaigua with his cousin’s casket. Doug was buried at Calvary Cemetery, not far from where he grew up.
Turner, now 87, leads a quiet life, residing in a small cottage in Crystal Beach. But 60 years have done nothing to dim his war memories — of jumping out of planes, swapping cigars with General Patton, fighting in North Africa and liberating Dachau. He is a member of five different veterans’ organizations, and his home is a veritable treasure trove of newspaper clippings, photos and war-related artifacts.
Turner isn’t alone in his passion for collecting World War II memories. For years, acclaimed film director Steven Spielberg has been recording survivors’ and liberators’ accounts of the Holocaust, and in 2004 he asked Turner if he would agree to an interview.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Turner, incredulous, when Spielberg first phoned.
But Turner agreed, and sure enough, Spielberg showed up with a film crew and a trailer.
The interview, nearly two hours long, was archived with tens of thousands of other volumes, as part of a collection managed by Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education.
Turner said that he and Spielberg have become “great friends,” and he has visited the director numerous times at his vacation home on Long Island.
Looking back, Turner views World War II as “the most united war in our history, from the standpoint of patriotism.”
But he doesn’t agree with biographers who label his generation as the “greatest.”
Any soldier — no matter the war — is part of his or her own great generation, Turner said.
Contact Hilary Smith at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343 or at email@example.com.