Veterans Day: Bob Turcotte's lessons at war
Bob Turcotte, a World War II soldier in his early 20s, waited along with other GIs for gear to be unloaded from a U.S. Navy ship to a smaller craft. That craft would carry the soldiers' personal effects to them at a harbor near Naples, Italy. Aft...
Bob Turcotte, a World War II soldier in his early 20s, waited along with other GIs for gear to be unloaded from a U.S. Navy ship to a smaller craft. That craft would carry the soldiers’ personal effects to them at a harbor near Naples, Italy. After training in the U.S. and in Africa, it was the soldiers’ first day in war-torn Europe.
Turcotte’s World War II service began with a splash. The north Brainerd resident recalled a big hoist was used to unload the equipment and news spread quickly among the soldiers that one duffel bag had landed in the water. Call it fate or Murphy’s Law, the young Brainerd soldier soon learned the doused duffel bag was his. For Turcotte, that was the ill-fated start of his role in the liberation of Italy from Germany’s Third Reich. He had already experienced scorching temperatures in Africa, where the Allied soldiers’ training had to be conducted at night. During his time in Italy he would experience enemy fire, numbing cold and severe illness, but upon arrival his first challenge was to lift the already-heavy duffel bag, which was now soaking wet and twice as cumbersome.
“No dry blankets,” Turcotte said. “No dry clothes.”
He relied on his buddies for dry clothes. The help he received from fellow soldiers, not just in that instance but throughout the war, is what he credits for his ability to make it through the hard times of World War II. One GI friend, he recalled, was a veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who “knew the ropes” and had acquired skills that were useful to a soldier. During basic training a sergeant was impressed Turcotte was the only soldier who had followed through on his instruction to get a short haircut. Turcotte was singled out for his ability to follow simple directions.
“He took me under his wing,” Turcotte said. “I became his gunner corporal.”
The United States, Turcotte said, was slow to enter World War II. Hitler’s forces invaded Poland in September of 1939. The U.S. didn’t declare war until shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.
“Hitler could have won this war,” he said.
“Hitler could have won this war.” - Bob Turcotte
Just as nearly everyone past a certain age now remembers where they were when they heard of the 9/11 attacks, Turcotte has vivid memories of when he learned of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. He was a college student at Hamline University.
“I was in the day room,” he said. “All the women started screaming.”
His plans to come home and help run the family grocery store – a Fairway store located where Shep’s on Sixth is now located – were postponed when he was drafted in the fall of 1942, a few months after he graduated from Hamline.
He wanted to go to war, he said. Most of his peers also wanted to do what they could to fight the Axis. It was a thrilling feeling to board the ship that was headed for Africa and then Italy in the early years of U.S. involvement, he said. But a sinking feeling started to set in as soldiers watched the U.S. shoreline slowly fade away and the realization hit them they wouldn’t see their homeland for years.
During basic training Turcotte grew from 138 pounds to 160 pounds and as he recalled, “it was all muscle.” Trained to serve in the artillery for the 91st Infantry Division, Turcotte saw fighting up close, but mostly recalled the hardships and deprivations soldiers suffered during everyday life as well as the odd coincidences that took place during war.
While training in Africa the troops arrived before their food supply and two men would share a serving of canned corn beef as their daily ration.
When his division was spear-heading an offensive in Italy, the soldiers once again found themselves ahead of their food trucks and someone had to search for the missing trucks. A lieutenant said, “I volunteer myself and Turcotte,” and off they went in a Jeep that would soon draw fire from enemy machine guns.
During a freezing winter in Italy, one soldier rigged up a furnace for the main tent. Gas that was necessary for the furnace was siphoned out of Army trucks so the soldiers could get some warmth. When spring came the siphoned gas tanks were noticed by the Army brass.
“We got chewed out something terrible,” Turcotte said.
Despite his part in those transgressions, Turcotte went on to earn a Bronze Star for meritorious service and be promoted to first sergeant.
After being hospitalized with yellow jaundice, Turcotte was sent back to his division in a freezing cold boxcar because the trucks headed to his artillery comrades had already left. At a certain point he had to resort to hitchhiking until his supply sergeant, Loren Croone, saw him and gave him a ride. Turcotte said he still keeps in touch with Croone. He lives in Stillwater and they check on each other every other week. Turcotte was hospitalized for a second time and his Jeep driver got lost on his way back to his division. While in the hospital Turcotte had not been able to write home and his parents were writing every Brainerd soldier they knew in order to find out his whereabouts. As Turcotte and his driver were trying to find their way, Turcotte ran into Clarence Holden, another Brainerd soldier. Holden told Turcotte his parents were trying to reach him.
The U.S. soldiers were used to a nighttime pass by a German aircraft that dropped bombs nearby, usually not causing any damage. They nicknamed the aviator “Bed-check Charlie” On Christmas Eve, Turcotte said, the aviator flew over and tipped his wings instead of dropping any bombs.
By November of 1945 the war was over and he was back in Brainerd. It was time to begin his post-World War II life.
“My dad took me to the Elks (club) and bought me a Tom and Jerry,” he said of his homecoming.
As Turcotte approached another Veterans Day, this one 70 years removed from the end of World War II, he spoke of being at military concerts where songs representing different branches were played and veterans were asked to stand when their song was played. He said he was always proud to stand up.
After years in the grocery business Turcotte joined the Brainerd Dispatch advertising department in 1959. He was an advertising representative and was eventually named advertising manager, a post he served in until 1985. He continued to work in the advertising department and also compiled the ‘This Was Brainerd’ feature for the paper until 2008.
He was happy to be home after the war but the transition wasn’t without adjustments. He admitted to feeling a little apprehensive about taking on the responsibilities of helping run the family grocery business so soon after returning from war. He said he was “not in the groove for a long time.”
His eventual adjustment to civilian life was made easier after he married his wife, Joyce and they started a family. They’ve been married 64 years.
Among the lessons the war taught him was sympathy for the suffering of other people. He and a buddy received a three-day pass to Rome where they were advised to stay with an Italian family that shared what it had with the soldiers. Turcotte wouldn’t allow the family to use their valuable meat rations so the meals consisted of green peppers and onions.
“We were embarrassed to take that because that’s all they had,” Turcotte said.
Another lesson of war he learned stuck with him all of these years.
“Mainly, life can be short,” he said. “It made you appreciate life.”
MIKE O’ROURKE is a former reporter, city editor and associate editor, who worked at the Brainerd Dispatch for nearly 37 years.