Turnbull and Ray Epitomized "Greatest Generation"

  • Published
  • By Capt. Wayde Minami
  • 175th Wing
When the 104th Observation Squadron mobilized for World War II, it included men from all walks of life. Among them were a 30-year-old lieutenant named Jack Turnbull and an 18-year-old private named Leonard Ray.

The two men led distinctly different lives until that point. One was an Olympic athlete who attended Maryland's most prestigious schools, the other a blue-collar worker raised on the family farm who had quit school to enlist.

John Iglehart "Jack" Turnbull was born June 30, 1910, in Baltimore. He attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he was class president his senior year. At Poly he was captain of the lacrosse team and played on the football and basketball teams. At the age of 18, he performed at the playoffs for the 1928 Olympic games. After high school he attended Johns Hopkins University, receiving a bachelor's degree in engineering after only three years.

He was captain of the U.S. Olympic lacrosse team during the 1932 summer games and remained active in sports as a member of the prestigious Mount Washington Club. Four years later, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic field hockey team at the 1936 Berlin games, during which he personally met Adolph Hitler. Years later, while fighting in Europe, Turnbull mused, "I could've reached over and strangled the sonovabitch then, and we wouldn't be here now!"

On June 24, 1940, Turnbull was commissioned as a second lieutenant and became a pilot with the Maryland National Guard's104th Observation Squadron.

Leonard John Ray's life story was markedly different. Ray was born Aug. 26, 1922, in Franklinville, Md. Three days after his 18th birthday, he dropped out of school and enlisted in the 104th. His initial hitch was to be for three years.

These plans changed when the United States found itself in World War II on Dec. 7, 1941. Turnbull and Ray, along with the rest of the 104th, were soon flying antisubmarine patrols from Atlantic City, N.J.

In October 1942, the 104th was inactivated and its personnel and aircraft transferred to the 517th Bombardment Squadron. The 517th was soon moved to Langley Field, Va., where it was redesignated as the 12th Antisubmarine Squadron and equipped with B-18, and later B-24 and B-25 bombers.

As men were transferred out and replaced, fewer and fewer of the original Guard cadre remained. By the time the 12th was relocated to California in 1943, only a handful of Maryland Guardsmen were left, Turnbull and Ray among them.

On Jan. 1, 1944, the 12th was redesignated as the 859th Bombardment Squadron and assigned to the 492nd Bombardment Group. The 492nd was soon sent to fight in Europe, where it became known as a "hard luck group" as a result of heavy losses. By then, Turnbull had risen to be group operations officer. According to 492nd historian Paul Arnett, Turnbull was considered "a great pilot and an excellent leader" who was "the heart and soul of the group."

Ray, now a technical sergeant, was soon reassigned to the group's 856th Bombardment Squadron, where he was flight engineer on the crew that Arnett called "the hard luck crew of the hard luck squadron of the hard luck group." Ray's crew was repeatedly battered, and on June 15, 1944, they were forced to bail out of a crippled B-24 over Normandy. Ray reached allied lines with the help of French civilians, but his good fortune was short-lived. On July 7 he flew his final mission: a raid on an aircraft manufacturing plant at Bernburg, Germany. Ray's B-24 was last seen dropping out of the formation after releasing its bombs. The aircraft was declared missing in action.

By August 1944, after only 89 days of combat, the 492nd had lost 52 aircraft to enemy action, with 588 men killed or missing. Rather than try to rebuild the shattered group, the surviving members were reassigned to other units in theater.

With the breakup of the 492nd, Turnbull, now a lieutenant colonel, was sent to the 44th Bombardment Group to serve as their operations officer. While returning from a mission on Oct. 18, 1944, his B-24 crashed after a mid-air collision in severe weather. Turnbull died of his injuries two days later and was buried near the crash site in Belgium. His body was brought home in 1947 and is now buried in Davidsonville, Md. In 1965 he was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Two lacrosse trophies are named in his honor: the Jack Turnbull Trophy and the Turnbull-Reynolds Trophy.

For decades, Ray and his crew remained missing in action, believed to have crashed at sea while trying to reach England. But in 2001 the actual crash site was located in farmland about 20 miles northwest of the target at Bernburg. Ray's remains were recovered and identified, and on Oct. 5, 2007, he was buried in Joppa, Md.

In many ways, these men exemplified the "Greatest Generation," in which Americans from across the socioeconomic spectrum united to defend the nation. Despite vastly different pre-war lives, Turnbull and Ray fought for the same goal and ultimately made the same sacrifice to achieve it.