By Michael T. Naya, Jr. – Young Historians
As time continues to pass few men and women who served as Hellcat pilots remain today. Many of you reading may remember that in January I featured Lt. (j.g) Raymond Owen who served aboard the USS Wasp in squadron VF-81. Ray is one of two surviving veterans from that unit alive today, at ninety-seven Commander Robert Turnell is the only other survivor of VF-81 who served during WWII.
Upon questioning Robert proclaimed, “I knew at some point that I would need and want to serve in the war, so I joined the Navy in 1942 at the age of eighteen. I had two older brothers who were already in the Navy and I knew that the Navy had a good flight program for guys who wanted to become pilots. Since it was a dream of mine to fly, I signed up!”
After enlisting he was sent to train in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and later was sent to Schweitzer’s Flying Service in Yakima, Washington. As he bounced around the West Coast, he was sent East and joined VF-81 on March 1, 1944 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. During the war he completed strikes in Saigon, Cam Ranh Bay, Luzon, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canton, Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Okinawa and Tokyo. Upon reflecting of his service in World War II,
“I truly enjoyed my job as a naval aviator. It is what I wanted to do more than anything else. I felt that I made the absolute best choice for me. Not only did I learn a lot about how to be a good aviator, but I also learned a great deal about becoming a good leader, a gentleman, and an officer. In the six months of duty aboard the WASP, CV-18 (between 1944 – 1945), I flew a total of thirty-eight missions which included Combat Air Patrol and actual strikes. The rest of the time on the carrier, I flew for many other reasons, such as familiarization, practice, tactical, ferrying aircraft, training, scouting and mapping.
I don’t recall being frightened or scared throughout those missions. I felt very confident in my training and abilities at the time. I was (we all were) so busy. I had a job to do, and I didn’t really have time to think about being scared. I think that the day I signed up to go into the Navy was the most exciting day of all. I was going to fly planes! Almost instantly my nickname became “The Kid.” I was the second youngest aviator during the war in the Pacific Theater; George H.W. Bush was only two months younger than I.”
After the war Robert Turnell married his wife Jeannie in April 1946. Together they raised a family while he remained in the reserves and attended the University of Washington. After earning his degree in business administration, he worked for Boeing, Seattle, Washington. As Bob grows older, we must remember his sacrifice as well as that of so many others,
“Although it was a terrible time for so many Americans and our Allies, the one thing that will always stand out to me is that American’s really pulled together and became united in their effort to win the war.”
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