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Las Vegas WWII vet kept joking until his death from COVID-19

Updated April 8, 2020 - 12:20 pm

From the confines of his intensive care unit at Summerlin Hospital Medical Center, Edward Turken serenaded his son over the phone with tunes like “Stayin’ Alive” and “California Dreamin’.”

That wasn’t surprising, said the son, Todd, given that the World War II veteran’s “irreverent” sense of humor was always on display, even in the days before his death Sunday from COVID-19 complications.

The elder Turken, 96, who joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1942 in Detroit, had a lot of life left in him when he contracted the disease, Todd Turken said from his home in California.

Edward Turken moved to Sun City Summerlin from California with his late wife, Eva, in 1997. The couple thrived in Southern Nevada, his boys say.

He became commander of the local Jewish War Veterans chapter and president of the Jewish Friendship Club. He joined his synagogue’s choir and raised money to house homeless veterans. He worked out in the pool and visited Mount Charleston. He went to Golden Knights games.

In early March, he started feeling worn down and then began experiencing flu-like symptoms. He went to an urgent care center, where he was told he didn’t have the new coronavirus and was given a sinus inhalant.

Before that, Turken was healthy, his sons say. He was still driving, giving elderly neighbors rides to the store, among other things.

Turken was well known in the veteran community in the Las Vegas Valley and was profiled by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2013, when he was among the local veterans chosen for an Honor Flight to Washington. His deep, infectious laugh became better known around the valley in February, when he shared his story on KSNV-TV, Channel 3.

His other son, Jack, who lived with him, said his father had quarantined himself when he became weak and told him to stay away.

Then, on March 16, his health cratered. He fell to the floor, his body shaking. He had a fever of 104 degrees.

‘The laughing veteran’

When the paramedics came, they recognized Edward Turken from the news.

“That’s the laughing veteran!” they said.

Almost two weeks later, he tested positive for the coronavirus.

Throughout his life, Turken tried to make people laugh. When he was training to be a fighter pilot, he cracked jokes in the front seat. He didn’t pass the course, partly because he was probably “too happy to go to war,” and became a gunner on a B-24 Liberator instead, Todd Turken said.

He was proud of his veteran status, often wearing his World War II veteran hat on his excursions. People would frequently say, “Thank you,” to which he’d jokingly respond, “You don’t know what side I was on.”

When he was set to visit Washington, D.C., in 2013 with his fellow veterans, a congressional budget impasse had shut down the government, including the National World War II Memorial.

But Turken indicated he intended to take a look anyway.

“I’d go to jail,” he said at the time. “If I’m going that far, and it’s just a couple hundred feet from looking at it, why shouldn’t I be able to go in?”

A brief visit, separated by glass

After Turken got sick, he was placed in isolation in the ICU.

Jack Turken was able to visit him only once after he was admitted — for just a few minutes and separated from his father by a glass partition. His dad was eating then. He was up and down, even though he had come down with pneumonia.

They exchanged “I love you” hand signals. Jack put his hand on his heart. “He put on a really valiant fight. At one point the nurse thought he was going to leave the hospital,” he said.

But the cascade came soon after. Edward’s lungs began filling with fluid, an effect of acute respiratory distress syndrome. His oxygen tank was pushed to its highest setting.

One day, he asked a nurse to scratch his back. He looked up at the nurse and said, “We’re all Vegas strong here, aren’t we?”

But on Sunday, his condition started deteriorating. A nurse helped dial Todd’s number and put the phone to his ear.

“We said how much we love each other. I told him I’m always with him, no matter what,” Todd said of that last conversation. “The last thing I heard him say was ‘Thank you’ to the nurse.”

Edward Turken’s plot is at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, which has ceased Honor Guard services at this time because of the virus.

He will be buried April 16 without a service, next to his wife of 64 years. He’s survived by his two sons and a 16-year-old granddaughter, Emma. A larger celebration of life is planned when the crisis is over.

Todd Turken said the ongoing outbreak in the state was fueling his father’s determination to win his battle with the coronavirus.

“He said he couldn’t die in the hospital, because they couldn’t have a big funeral yet because of the virus, that he had to wait a couple months. But he didn’t make it,” he said.

“When they bury him, no one will be there.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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