BLACK HISTORY 1: ‘I was first-class in my own mind’

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here are three stories in WestVirginiaVille’s Black History Month coverage:

BLACK HISTORY 1: ‘I was first-class in my own mind”: How a kid named Joe Turner from West Virginia coal mine country got jazzed by legendary ace pilot Chuck Yeager and a boyhood friend who went on to become a war hero —and find his own way by heading into the sky. A reprint of a 2019 “100 Days in Appalachia” story on Turner’s induction into the WV Aviation Hall of Fame, followed by an excerpt from Joe’s memoir of growing up in West Virginia.

BLACK HISTORY 2: ‘Rosa Parks’ feet did not hurt:’ Rosa Parks was neither tired, frail, nor old when she she helped crack open a new chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement, by refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Sassa Wilkes, who painted the icon’s face for her “100 Badass Women” portrait series, rains fire on the deliberate misreading of an activist who knew exactly what she was doing.

BLACK HISTORY 3: Name Change: View our 2020 mini-doc, “WHAT’S IN A NAME: A West Virginia Community Confronts a Confederate Legacy,” which delves into America’s deeply embedded, institutional racism and the effort to strip Confederate general Stonewall Jackson’s name from a school in a mostly Black neighborhood in West Virginia’s capital city. The mini-documentary has been added to the 2021 Phoenix Film Fest in Toronto.

‘I was first-class in my own mind’

Joe Turner stands in front of a plaque (lower right) to mark his inclusion in the West Virginia University ROTC Hall of Fame, at a ceremony on the Institute WV campus of in September 2016. | Douglas John Imbrogno filtered photograph

By Douglas John Imbrogno | 100 Days in Appalachia | Aug. 21, 2019

The jet dropped like a silvery stone out of the sky overtop West Virginia’s capital city. It evened out over the Kanawha River and roared down its length, water flashing in the jet’s wake. Crazily, the pilot charged toward a bridge over the river. Was he going to pull up?

Joseph Ellis Turner, age 11, heard about this story later— how Yeager’s jet dashed under the bridge, not over it. Immediately, the jet leapt skyward like a firework. It rolled once in the sky.

And was gone. 

The year was 1950. Turner, now age 79, recalled his reaction as a kid to learning there was such a daredevil aviator out of West Virginia.

“I want to be like that guy,” he said

Turner would indeed follow Yeager up into the sky. The Charleston native’s career as a front-line pilot in Vietnam, as the first African-American Brigadier General in the South, and as a long-haul Delta Airlines pilot would be an esteemed one. So esteemed that on August 5, 2019, Turner was inducted into the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame. 

He joins the likes of famed Tuskegee Airman George “Spanky” Roberts, West Virginia’s first African-American military pilot, and Katherine Johnson, famous for her math genius that helped NASA put humans into space and on the moon.

Don’t call Turner a hero, though. He’ll turn down the offer.

“I’m just a guy out here trying to survive.”

Survive, he did. And thrive. He grew up in a segregated neighborhood in West Virginia capital city of Charleston, and later faced the segregation of the U.S. Army’s flight training program. He’ll eventually get around to telling you, in his happy-go-lucky and self-effacing way, how even segregated cafeterias helped his Hall of Fame career.

“Everything I’ve done I’ve enjoyed,” Turner said.“I don’t know how I fell into all this. I think I’ve been blessed by God because I’m not the smartest individual in the world, believe me. But it’s always worked out for me.” 

LISTEN UP: A short WVPB interview

Role Model Closer to Home

The badass white guy in the jet was surely a lifelong inspiration. “He inspired the devil out of me,” Turner said. He never got to meet the legendary Yeager, who died at age 97 on Dec. 7, 2020  But there was a legendary black military man who was an equal, if not greater, inspiration to Turner. That is perhaps because he knew Charles Rogers personally. He grew up with Rogers after Turner’s parents split up and he moved to Fayette County to live on his grandparents’ farm for some years.

Turner tended the pigs and horses as his grandfather trooped off daily to slip underground into a coal mine. He soon took notice of the older kid, 10 years his senior, who lived nearby. “I lived right around the hill from him. I won’t say around the block,” he said, chuckling, given their upbringing amid the receding hills and deep hollers of southern West Virginia. 

Rogers was an All-American before the term was ever bandied about. He was a star in multiple sports and a straight-A student. He had a lifelong laser focus on God and church life who graduated in 1951 from West Virginia State College (now University) in Institute. Rogers was part of a book-worthy crop of African-American officers who trained in the small college’s ROTC program, and who would serve with distinction in the Vietnam War and beyond.

Turner, who followed Rogers a decade later into the battle zones of Southeast Asia, knows Rogers’ story by heart. In 1968, Rogers’ battalion was overrun by North Vietnamese on a march south along Ho Chi Minh Trail, heading to Saigon. With bombs exploding and bullets flying, Rogers’ 300 troops faced down about 3,000 North Vietnamese. He was shot in the face, leg and arm, but Rogers survived two days of hand-to-hand combat.  He was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “dauntless courage and heroism” that day. He finished his career as a two-star general. He died in 1990.

A bronze bust of Rogers is now displayed at West Virginia State University, framed by a wall of plaques honoring the notable black soldiers and commanders produced by the school. Among the bronze plaques on the “Wall of Stars” behind the Rogers bust is one honoring another two-star African-American general from the Mountain State: Joe Turner.

Turner was inducted into the school’s ROTC Hall of Fame in 2016, along with several other generals and ROTC graduate soldiers who went on to distinguished careers. The bronze plaques at the school laud 15 of the school’s ROTC members who achieved the rank of one-star brigadier general, two-star major general and three-star lieutenant general.

Just like his boyhood hero, Charles Rogers, Turner would achieve the same high rank by the end of his own impressive career.

It didn’t bother me …’

After graduating from West Virginia State College’s ROTC program, Turner (at left) would go on to become a front lines pilot in Vietnam. | Provided photo.

Humid air enveloped a rural Alabama airport. The summer day was quiet. From a distance, came a buzz like a swarm of locusts. It was indeed a swarm, not of insects but of de Havilland Caribou jets, made in Canada. In 1962, the Caribou were a new thing the U.S. Army was testing. The STOL—Short Takeoff and Landing—planes could be put down and lifted off from a strip no longer than a few football fields.

As the squadron of Caribou touched down, most of the flight crews that got out to refuel and eat were white guys. But Joe Turner was there , too, and one other black pilot who had survived the rigorous initial training.  As this was the Deep South in the early 1960s, the airport cafeteria was off-limits to a black man.

Not spending time in segregated cafeterias meant he left sooner. He got more flight time in.

Turner shrugged it off. He’d brought a sack lunch. He refueled. He took off with his mates. “It didn’t bother me,” he recalled more than a half-century later. That’s the way it was and we accepted it. You couldn’t do anything about it.”

Not spending time in segregated cafeterias meant he left sooner. He got more flight time in. So, Turner finished the Caribou training before many of his classmates—certainly one of the few historical benefits from segregation’s long, painful history.

“It was great because when it came time to graduate we were finished about two months ahead of everybody else. Because we were flying all the time!”

It wasn’t as if Turner wasn’t already intimately familiar with segregation. Growing up in Charleston, WV, he wasn’t welcome to eat downtown at local landmarks. It didn’t bug him. He says he was never really upset by it.

But his mother was. Early on, Turner learned useful life lessons from her. She drove a mail truck at the state Capitol, an unusual job at the time for a black woman. He ended up working around the Capitol, too. Then, he followed his mother into the privileged homes of the well-to-do in the South Hills neighborhood where she cleaned houses. She taught him how to do a job right the first time, he said, and how to get along with people no matter their skin color.

“It never bothered me being a second-class citizen. I mean, I was first class in my own mind, as far as I’m concerned. That’s the big thing.”

Line of Sight 

Flying Caribous around America in the early ‘60s as part of his training was a lot of fun, Turner recalls. They would keep the trainees flying huge distances, topping up the plane’s gas and oil tanks mid-flight from tanks in the cargo hold.  “We didn’t know why we were doing it,” he said. “We’d just take off and go up and down the coasts. Turn around in Massachusetts, come back down the coast. Fly to Florida. Go down to Puerto Rico and land.”

It turned out there was a method to such flights, which could last up to 15 hours, he said. “They were getting us ready to go to Vietnam. They wanted these aircraft to be over in Vietnam.”

He began his military career as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In 1965, he got a call while on leave in Institute, just outside of Charleston, to pack up. He was bound for war. Turner had a wife and two kids by then. His family didn’t want him to go. “But I had an obligation. I’m an officer in the Army. I’m ready to do my job.”

Turner is shown here later in his career, wearing an Iraq War, Desert Storm-era uniform. | Provided photo.

All the other black pilots in his training group had washed out or quit Caribou training by the time he got orders to get to Vietnam. So, Turner was the only black pilot among those who hopscotched a squadron of the planes across continental America. And then on to Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and into Vietnam.

The 16 Caribou planes and crews were sent to the country’s central highlands where the war raged on its front lines. The planes provided support to the First Air Cavalry Division. (The division’s story was told in the movie “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson.)

Turner’s first mission was to fly a Caribou to snatch back the remains of a helicopter pilot shot down weeks before. The body bag was piled into the back of his plane. “The smell was terrible,” he said. He wondered if he might have more such missions. “Luckily, I didn’t.”

Training flights in America became the real thing in Vietnam’s skies. The only way for a commander to send orders to front-line troops was by line-of-sight— from headquarters to a bunch of radio antennas hanging out the backside of a Caribou. “The commander of the division could call through to my aircraft. And the aircraft would relay it back to whoever was fighting on the ground,” Turner said.

You could find the bullet holes in the airplane. The crew chief would find them and patch ‘em.”

He piloted the pan in looping figure-eights, 10,000 feet above the green hills of Vietnam. The flights sometimes lasted 10 hours. America had air superiority over the Vietnamese, “so nothing was going to fly and knock us out of the air,” he said.

Ground fire was a real hazard, however.

“My aircraft did get hit a few times. Small round ammunition. We didn’t have anyone killed. But you could find the bullet holes in the airplane. The crew chief would find them and patch ‘em.”

Turner once looked down and saw clouds of smoke billowing in the jungles below. “What the hell is that coming from?” he wondered aloud. “They really have a battle down there.”

But the battle was coming from above his head.

“The B-52s had been called in. And they’re flying over our heads and dropping those bombs,” he recalled. “Did they see us? I don’t know. That’s something that made me nervous.”

Six months later, Turner moved on to serve as a signal officer with the 17th Aviation Combat Group. His second tour of duty was as commander with the Headquarters Company of the 210th Combat Aviation Battalion. It took him off routine duty over the front lines.  

“Generals would come in and visiting Congressmen would come over. We would fly them to wherever the mission was. Which was pretty good duty.”

A Wasted War

In 1988, Turner became the first Black Army Brigadier General in the South with the 335th Signal Command out of Atlanta. He was later promoted to Major General of the unit, becoming a two-star general. Provided photo.

Turner retired from active duty in 1970. After two tours of duty the Army wanted to ship him back into the skies of Vietnam in what would likely have been his most perilous assignment. He’d had enough, though. “They were going to send me back a third time to Vietnam flying helicopters and I didn’t want to do that.”

Ask him today about what he thinks about the Vietnam War, and after a slight pause, his answer comes out in a tumble of words. “I thought it was a waste. We were getting a whole bunch of people killed for no damn reason. Because of politics is what it was.”

It wasn’t just American lives wasted, he said.

“Think of all the Vietnamese we killed. And that Agent Orange stuff we sprayed over there to defoliate the jungle, so they could see who they were shooting at? That stuff got into our system and killed a bunch of people.”

“We were getting a whole bunch of people killed for no damn reason.”

The toll from Agent Orange is personal for Turner. In Summer 2019, he attended an internment in Washington, D.C., for his dear friend, Lt. Colonel Ron McLeod, another distinguished graduate of the Yellow Jacket Battalion at West Virginia State College.

McLeod, who served in the infantry in Vietnam, died earlier this year. He battled for decades with cancers he traced from exposure to Agent Orange. “I really loved that guy,” said Turner. “We would talk two or three times a day.”

“It was a wasted war. Just no reason for it.” 

A Decorated Career

After retirement from active duty, Turner stuck with military life as a reserve officer. He split his reserve service with a long career as a pilot for Delta Airlines, carrying tourists from Los Angeles to Honolulu, among other routes.

His star continued to rise in the reserves. In 1988, he became the first African-American Army Brigadier General in the South with the 335th Signal Command out of Atlanta. The reserve unit had a forward-deployed active duty unit in Iraq, providing communications for the Third Army. He was later promoted to Major General of the unit, becoming a two-star general.

There was a time before the Tuskegee Airmen that people said “Black people couldn’t fly airplanes,” Turner said

After that, he became vice director of the Information Systems for Command, Control, Communications and Computers at the Pentagon. The position was the second highest in the Army Signal Corps in the Defense Department. He retired as a two-star general in 1998. 

Turner, a student of history, is pleased with the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame honor, which puts him in the same grouping as one of the great Tuskegee Airmen who paved the way for so many distinguished African-American soldiers.

There was a time before the Tuskegee Airmen that people said “Black people couldn’t fly airplanes,” Turner said. His 11 Air Medals, two Bronze Stars, Legion of Merit and other military accolades beg to differ, although Turner doesn’t bring them up in conversation. 

He is just glad to be included in such impressive company on the “Wall of Valor” of the Aviation Hall of Fame.

“I feel like I’m rubbing elbows with some great people. I’m happy to be joining them.”

Joe Turner: In His Own Words

Joe Turner. | Douglas John Imbrogno photograph, 2019

The story of my life began on September 2, 1939. I was born to Sergeant Joseph Turner and Annetta Ellis Turner of Charleston, West Virginia. My father was a career Army man, and my mother was a state employee, working as a mail clerk within the W Department of State Road Commission.  Unfortunately, they were young parents, which ultimately resulted in a hasty dissolution of their marriage, leaving me to be raised by a single mother at three months of age.
Needless to say, a young mother working full time to support both herself and her child was quite challenging.  We were very fortunate to have extended family that could and would step in to supply the necessary assistance to fill the void left by my absentee father.  Initially, I was separated from my mother due to the distance between my mother’s home and her parents, Carter and Catherine Ellis’ home, located nearly 75 miles away in the coal mining community of Fayetteville. 

This community was comprised of several coalmines—Kaymoor, Gatewood, Brooklyn, Minden and Claremont. My grandfather, Carter, worked as a miner in the Brooklyn Mine, and his eldest son, Bernard worked at the Kaymoor mine. 

My uncle, Bernard, was a great influence in my life, and later on I would realize that the work ethic of this singular man, would teach me to work hard and strive for excellence in whatever I may choose as my life’s goal. 
His wife Ardella, my aunt, would also play an important role in my growth.  We were close family, and their work ethic, combined with the love they showered upon me was unmatched.  My grandmother literally poured academia into me—reading, writing, and arithmetic—easily surpassing, even the lessons of industry instilled in me by my grandfather and uncle.   

At a young age I learned a lot about hard work, and being industrious.  Although these lessons would prove to be most valuable in the development of young men and women, I also understood that life choices and decision making could enhance the quality of life that you lived.  My Aunt Ardella was quite instrumental, imploring me to learn, be curious and educate myself, so that maybe I would have the chance to bypass such a hard path in life. 

I knew that I didn’t want to work the mines, so it was imperative that I work my mind.

I knew that I didn’t want to work the mines, so it was imperative that I work my mind.  The work was back breaking, literally.  My uncle Bernard was hospitalized for six months due to heavy slate falling on his back – these mines were hard work—but more importantly, this work was extremely dangerous. 

My grandfather had a career in the mines that extended more than thirty years.  Think about that for a moment. There are office personnel, civil employees, and even white-collar professionals, who don’t last thirty years at their jobs today.  We are talking about a man in the early nineteen hundreds who lasted 30 years working the coalmines. A young man grew to be an old man in one of the most dangerous jobs on this planet.  Remarkable. 

But let me also note that this man, who was the cornerstone of his family, the patriarch, and a leader in his community suffered and later succumbed to Black Lung Disease. 

My grandfather and uncle did what they needed to do to secure and provide for their families. Their examples were the foundation for my work ethic, and also the impetus for applying that ethic to a much safer path.  The accidents that they suffered were scary, and quite the deterrent to a young man ready to experience life and a lifestyle that held more promise.  Their experiences were eye opening, and I found nothing about the mines to be alluring. 

Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager was a United States Air Force officer, a flying ace, and record-setting test pilot who in 1947 became the first pilot in history confirmed to have exceeded the speed of sound in level flight.

However, I knew there was something for me, and with the guidance of my aunt, mother, grandmother, and others, I would find that something. In early 1947, I visited the Fayette Theater. There my eyes were peeled wide open. 

I saw a newsreel that featured Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager of the US Army Air Corps.  He was a pilot, a pilot who flew faster than any other individual in the world.  A pilot that traveled faster than the speed of sound, faster than any other individual at that time, and at such a speed he broke the “sound barrier.”  

This was a history-making event and it inspired me greatly.  It was so exciting to see, to hear, and even to “feel” in the theater where we were all gathered.  This man traveled faster than anyone ever before him, and he was a native West Virginian. It was then, that I knew I wanted to be a pilot. 

Fortunately, for me, I grew up in a community that bestowed a Medal of Honor Awards winner upon our nation as well. 

This was a history-making event and it inspired me greatly.

That’s right, in those small mining communities, more specifically Claremont, a young man tenyears my senior was raised in the very same environment, and became a real life hero.  His name was Charles “Jackie” Rogers, he would later be known as Major General Rogers, a true American Hero.  
He was a leader in church, loved by all, a straight “A” student, and a natural born leader.  He was certainly a precious jewel of the community, you might even say, “ a diamond” forged in the small coal miningcommunity from which he came. 

He graduated college top of his class in 1951, accepted a 2nd Lieutenant commission to active duty, and enjoyed thirty eight years of unmatched service, reaching the pinnacle of service – the Congressional Medal of Honor for Valor for Conspicuous Gallantry and Intrepidity at the Risk of His Own Life and Beyond the Call of Duty.  
I highlight these two men in my own story, because it is important that all kids have something to aspire to.  In my case, the inspiration came from these local heroes, and the community that supported me.  More importantly, I had a living, breathing example of who I could become, who lived where I lived, played where I played, attended schools I attended, that I interacted with directly, and most importantly – was a Black kid just like me.

Imagine that, without a father as a natural role model—but a Black kid, in my hometown I could follow around and emulate, that would enrich my life and help create the path I would, too, walk in life.

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:

Leave a Reply