Turner's ultimate sacrifice

Former prospect is only Red Wings' player ever killed in combat

Thursday, 11.08.2012 / 8:56 PM
Bill Roose  - Managing Editor | DetroitRedWings.com

Before Harry Lumley and Terry Sawchuk began their hall of fame careers in Detroit, there was a highly-skilled goaltending prospect that was already making a name for himself in the Red Wings’ minor league system.

Joe Turner was a 5-foot-10 goalie on the fast track to NHL stardom who easily could have claimed his own place in hockey’s annals. Unfortunately, his course was derailed when in 1942, a sense of pride, and honor, and duty convinced the 23-year-old to turn in his goalie stick for a U.S. Army-issued M1 rifle.

Like many pro athletes of his time, Turner put his playing career on hold to join in the wartime efforts overseas. No fewer than two dozen Red Wings, and their prospects in Indianapolis, signed up for active military duty either with the American or Canadian armed forces, including Sid Abel, Eddie Bush, Les Douglas and Johnny Mowers, who all joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

While every one of Detroit’s players returned home from the bloody battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific, Turner was the only one who didn’t.

Celebrities and athletes who served in the wartime military usually could opt for cushy assignments with a rear unit or servicemen’s club where they helped build morale for soldiers and sailors. But a number served in combat, and Turner’s death is a reminder on this Veterans Day.

As a teenage hot-shot goalie from Windsor, Ontario, Turner could see the skyline of America’s industrial giant from his parents’ modest two-story row house on Gladstone Avenue. It’s there that he likely dreamed of one day playing for the Wings.

A handsome, yet quiet lad, Turner had explosive reflexes in the net that grabbed the attention of the Red Wings’ brass in 1940. He played for the Detroit Holzbaugh Fords, a senior amateur team that like the Red Wings, called Olympia Stadium home. It was there that GM Jack Adams first saw, and later signed, the budding star.

Four years after he signed an NHL contract, U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Joseph Turner was killed on a frozen, blood-soaked battlefield while leading a platoon through a snowy German forest.

Sadly, like his NHL career, Turner’s combat tour only lasted one day.

This Sunday is Veterans Day in the U.S., while in Canada, Remembrance Day will be observed. The day is for honoring and remembering the great sacrifices made by millions of the countries’ veterans of all wars.

Turner is among a handful of athletes killed in combat, like Hobey Baker, who was killed while serving in World War I, and NFL star Pat Tillman, who turned down a multi-million dollar contract to join the Army Rangers. He was killed by friendly-fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

In 1946, the International Hockey League paid tribute to Turner, naming its championship trophy in his honor. The league disbanded in 2001, and the Turner Cup now resides at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

From the time he was 14-years-old, Joe Turner was a hot prospect, who led goaltending categories in every league he ever played in. In 1937-38, his 2.36 goals-against average with the Stratford Midgets was tops in the Ontario Hockey Association. The following season, his two shutouts with the Guelph Indians was best in the league.

Not much has been written about Turner’s abilities on the ice. However, many believe – if not for his desire to fight Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime – he likely would have played himself into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

By the time Turner was 20-years-old, he was playing in the Red Wings’ backyard, starring for the Holzbaugh Fords, coached by former Wings defenseman Stu Evans, in the Michigan-Ontario Hockey Association.

The Wings signed Turner and eventually sent him to the team’s top farm club for the 1941-42 season. In the minors, he became an instant hit with his Indianapolis Capitals teammates, eventually leading the American Hockey League with 34 wins and the Capitals to the ’42 Calder Cup championship.

“Sure, I remember Joe Turner, he was the whole team in Indianapolis,” Les Douglas told the National Post in a story published in 1998. “We could attack all we wanted; we knew Joe was back there for us.”

A center on that Capitals’ title team, Douglas said he remembered Turner as a quiet sort, who was concerned about his weight. “He might take one or two beers, but only on occasion,” Douglas said. “He was a very quiet-living man. You couldn't help but like him.”

The Red Wings’ brass definitely admired Turner, however, they had 25-year-old Johnny Mowers in a regular role. Plus, Mowers had tied for second in the NHL with a 2.01 GAA in 1940-41.

“I knew Jack Adams thought the world of him,” Wings great Sid Abel told the National Post of Turner. “As a player, I took it for granted that he would be our netminder. Then, the next thing we knew, he was gone to the Army. And then he was really gone.”

Though hall of fame winger Harry Watson never played with Turner, he told the Canadian newspaper that their paths crossed on occasion, saying, “I saw him at (a Red Wings) training camp. Once, he was there on leave and we were having a group photo taken. He was there in uniform, I remember.”

Turner’s only chance at the NHL came on Feb. 5, 1942, when he was called up to play for Mowers, who was injured. If Turner was nervous in his debut, it surely wasn’t evident, as he held the Toronto Maple Leafs to one goal in each of the three periods. Fortunately, defenseman Eddie Bush scored the equalizer for the Red Wings with 2:21 left in regulation. After a 10-minute overtime session, the game ended in a 3-3 tie before a sparse wartime crowd of 8,054 at Olympia Stadium.

Two days later, Mowers returned to the Wings’ lineup, and Turner was sent back to the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, where he led the Capitals on a march to the league championship over the Hershey Bears in five games in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Shortly after winning the AHL title, it’s believed that Turner returned to Detroit where he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and later married an Indianapolis girl in April 1943.

A DAY OF SACRIFICE

Joe Turner and those who knew him only know his reasoning for going into the U.S. Army, instead of the Canadian Forces. Other than a natural affiliation with the United States, Turner’s decision to fight with the Americans wasn’t unusual for Canadians. A graduate of Patterson Collegiate High School in downtown Windsor, he spent plenty of time playing hockey in Michigan. Plus, his father, James, made a living as an electrician in Detroit.

Shortly after enlisting at Detroit’s Federal Building on West Fort Street, Turner was assigned to a group that included medical detachments and dental personnel, the rear echelon units that would provide a sense of security for athletes and celebrities. But by the end of 1942, he transferred to Camp Buckner in North Carolina, where he was joined by other college-aged recruits to train as battlefield replacements with Company K, 311th Regiment, 78th Infantry Division.

Many G.I.s in the 78th Division were youngsters drafted from college campuses, mostly from Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts. However, Turner didn’t want to play it safe, and quickly rose to the rank of 2nd lieutenant and became a platoon leader.

Pvt. William Gaynor, of Philadelphia, was in Turner’s platoon. And though Gaynor, who turns 88 next month, doesn’t remember his platoon leader, it doesn’t come as a surprise, he said recently.

“Turner? Nope, can’t say I remember him,” said Gaynor, who returned from the war and became a pathologist. “Somebody once asked me, ‘Do you ever get in touch with any of your buddies from your particular company?’ Buddies? We didn’t have any buddies over there. They got killed too soon. … They came and went.”

Thought to be the last living member of Company K, Gaynor says that 68-years has washed away a lot of his experiences in the German forest, including Turner.

“I just don’t remember a Joe Turner,” said Gaynor, who now lives alone in Charleston, S.C. “But I don’t remember a lot about the Army.”

By Oct. 1944, the 78th Division boarded the HMS Carnarvon Castle in New York City and shipped out for southern England where they finished preparing as battlefield replacements.

Combat training was difficult, even for pro athletes like Turner. Tactical warfare, weapons training, bayonet training, and hand-to-hand combat where all a part of the Doughboys’ daily routine. And each week culminated with field maneuvers, setting up pup tents, breaking down camp in the middle of the night and moving out, and night attacks. Maneuvers ended with a 26-mile forced march with full field packs and weapons. These adventures were meant to give everyone the confidence to carry out forthcoming combat assignments against the enemy.

But nothing that Turner trained for could prepare him for the murderous hell he would encounter as they struck along the Siegfried Line in the Hürtgen Forest, east of the Belgium-Germany border. Rows of steel-reinforced, concrete dragons’ teeth stretched in an unbroken chain as far as the eye could see. Concealed pillboxes guarded every square yard and the ground surrounding these 16-foot thick monsters was sown with deadly anti-tank mines. Intricate networks of ground entrenchments afforded the Germans movement and cover for forward firing positions. It was a diabolical system completed by artillery and mortar units that could lay down a ferocious barrage on any threatened point.

The U.S. began forward operations in the forest in Sept. 1944. By December, the battle of Hürtgen Forest became one of the most costly and controversial American operations of the entire European war, claimed nearly 30,000 troops in kills, wounded, captured or missing in action.

As the men of the 78th – known as the Lightning Division – was preparing its main offensive in the Hürtgen Forest, the 311th Infantry Regiment moved into position to conduct a diversionary mission, while also spelling the 13th Infantry Regiment, which had suffered numerous casualties in the frigid weather conditions and blinding snowstorms.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 13, Lt. Turner’s assault team from 2nd Platoon received orders to seize a pillbox, which was a German machine gun enclosure. The forest was a horrible setting for offensive warfare with every tree a possible hiding place and every brush pile possibly camouflaging a Nazi machine gun nest.

The conditions were abysmal for the G.I.s and their morale. When it wasn’t snowing with bitter cold wind-chill temperatures, it was raining through the darkness, seeped into foxholes and soaked through the Doughboys’ winter clothing and mud-covered boots. Medical supplies were insufficient to care for men with crude leg wounds, with hemorrhaging chests, missing fingers, and blood- and rain-soaked bandages. Making matters psychologically worse for the men, the sound of shelling echoed through the forest as German mortars exploded in tree tops showering jagged fragments for yards around, leaving broken tree limbs and broken men on the forest floor. Machine gun fire ripped through the dense green sea and rifles crackled from lurking enemies who had defended the forest along the Siegfried Line for months.

Though the 78th Division for months had rehearsed combat maneuvers before shipping across the Atlantic, they were ill-suited to fight in an area, which many military historians, said was of little strategic significance to winning the war. The region was approximately 50 square miles of thick forest that severely minimized the American infantrymen, as well as their armored divisions and air supremacy. When paths were cleared through the fallen trees, U.S. tanks and supply trucks were rendered useless when they bogged down in muddy quagmires.

For days leading up to the main attack, fighting intensified around the clock, making the American advance a nightmare. The Germans set booby traps and trip flares throughout the forest. Unwary G.I.s set off the traps by stepping on wires buried under snow and tripping over those hung between trees, unleashing dynamite explosions and brilliantly-lit flares that warned the enemy of advancing troops.

Nearly 70 years later, Gaynor still shutters at the thought of what he remembers from the forest and the poor decision to engage the enemy there.

“We lost 98 percent of our platoon that day,” he said. “I wasn’t a happy warrior. I didn’t like the Army. I didn’t like what you call the chicken shit leadership, and whatnot.”

As Turner and his men waited for their pre-dawn instructions to move on the pillbox, the fresh-faced officer was likely unprepared for his cruel welcome to this hellish patch on earth, known as the “Death Factory” to those lucky enough to have survived it.

As dawn approached on that frozen Wednesday morning, Turner and his team carefully trudged down a very steep hill over looking the Kall River Valley. The objective: distract the enemy deep across the front lines, causing confusion in support of battlefield operations to the south.

It was here during the chaos – which was later described by Turner’s men in Army battle reports – that the Windsor native first experienced combat. It was also his last.

Diversionary tactics carried out by Turner’s attack team allowed other regiments from the 78th Division to launch main offensive actions as they pushed deeper into Germany. However, according to Turner’s men, the former Red Wings’ prospect never stood a chance as he and his troops veered off course and stumbled into a deadly minefield.

Immediately, the Germans opened up on Turner’s men, lobbing mortars and machine gun fire at the troops. Americans were killed outright, blown apart by mines and ripped by machine guns. Turner was wounded and forced to relinquish command of his platoon to Sergeant Don Walls, of Bloomington, Indiana.

Yet, amongst the commotion and carnage, a wounded Turner showed great bravery and courage when he and an unknown staff sergeant returned to the valley to help a wounded soldier.

Staff Sgt. Martin Pike was with Turner moments before he died on the battlefield and later chronicled the lieutenant’s heroism in a letter that he wrote 10 years ago. Assigned a 60-pound flame-thrower for the mission, Pike hadn’t reached the bottom of the hill when it was realized that their platoon miscalculated the location of the targeted pillbox.

The soldiers retraced their steps back up the hill before moving to the correct coordinates.

“As I started back up the hill, Staff Sgt. (Thomas) Rickel saw that I was having difficulty making it up under the weight of the flame-thrower,” Pike wrote. “Without a word he lifted it off my back and carried it up that steep hill.

“At the top I lay down alongside Lt. Turner and a staff sergeant whose name I don’t remember. … Hearing a distress cry, together they went back down the hill. Neither returned.”

Within the hour, a messenger, Pvt. Leland DeFord, delivered orders for an already-wounded Turner and his assault team to withdraw. On reaching a forest trail, Turner was killed by machine gun fire. DeFord was wounded in the attack and captured. He spent the last five months of the war as a German POW. Originally, Turner was declared missing in action. A month later, though, the Army issued a finding of death after questioning some of his men.

It took more than five years, but Turner returned home after his only sibling, Truda Kotkin, asked the U.S. government to repatriate her brother’s remains from a Belgian grave. On July 24, 1950, Turner was laid to rest next to his parents at Victoria Gardens Cemetery in Windsor.

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

Back to top ↑