Las Vegas veteran plans to visit war memorials despite closures

World War II veteran Ed Turken doesn’t care whether he will be violating any laws when he crosses the National Park Service barricade Saturday to visit the Washington, D.C., memorial that was built to honor his generation of veterans.

“I’d go to jail,” the spry, 90-year-old B-24 Liberator gunner said, anticipating the long-awaited Honor Flight Southern Nevada trip that starts today for him and 34 other World War II veterans.

“What about Martin Luther King? Did he care?” Turken asked, reflecting on the civil rights leader who led 250,000 people in the historic march on the National Mall 50 years ago.

“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? It is the country’s monument,” he said Monday in his northwest Las Vegas home.

The National World War II Memorial opened in 2004 and remained open until a congressional budget impasse shut down the government last week. The memorial’s 56 pillars, victory arches and fountain were built mostly with some $197 million raised by veterans groups over a decade. The federal government chipped in $16 million.

Because of the shutdown, Honor Flight Southern Nevada Director Belinda Morse wondered whether the nonprofit group would have to postpone its plans. Then a few days ago, she secured a permit that ensures the veterans from the Las Vegas Valley, Pahrump, Pioche and Mesquite will get to visit the World War II memorial, but they must walk or roll through it in wheelchairs single file and can’t linger. Restrooms are expected to be closed.

The group was scheduled to fly from McCarran International Airport early today. They will stay in a Maryland hotel, have a banquet dinner, then get up early for a busy day Saturday visiting war memorials on the National Mall. While they have a permit for the World War II memorial, the Vietnam War and Korean War memorials are supposed to be closed, but the vets can venture to see them at their own risk.

Later, they will head for Arlington, Va., to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at the national cemetery and then, hopefully, see the iconic Iwo Jima statue at the Marine Corps Memorial.

Morse said the road to the statue has been blocked, but they will try to get as close to the lawn area as they can.

“We have too many on the flight that were there,” she said about the Iwo Jima battle, noting they just don’t want to miss the statue.

Last week, sister organization Honor Flight Nevada brought about 40 veterans from the Reno area to the closed World War II memorial.

Turken joined the Army in December 1942 in Detroit. After training as an armorer-gunner, he was assigned to a B-24 Liberator to man a pair of .50-caliber machine guns in the ball turret on the belly of the fuselage. The plane left Mitchell Field, N.Y., in December 1943 for the United Kingdom after gathering with other bombers from the U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force in Greenland.

“When we left Greenland, the whole wing — many squadrons of B-24s — you’d look outside and you see 24s up and all over the place. You realize the whole might of the United States of America is going to Europe. It was very inspiring,” Turken said.

His B-24 crew was assigned to fly missions over Norway and the North Sea for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. The ball turret was removed, and the port was used to drop OSS packages containing everything from goods for prisoner of war camps to money and propaganda for allied operations.

He recalls hearing Gen. Hap Arnold’s Victory-Europe speech over speakers at his base in England in May 1945.

“The whole country got together with no problem whatsoever, and we won a war against probably the greatest military machine put together, the German army.”

Turken was in Utah preparing to head for the Pacific when the war ended a few months later with Japan’s surrender.

“We won the war,” he said. “Now the guys we put into office for crying out loud aren’t doing their jobs. Their job is to help us, govern us, and they’re closing everything that we worked for.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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