PALM HARBOR — Even before he set foot in Nagasaki, Japan, where the last atomic bomb was dropped on a human population, David Turner thought he had seen the worst of war.
The young Naval corpsman had served on Guadalcanal, the longest campaign of World War II in the Pacific. He had crawled through bug-infested jungles and tried to keep wounded soldiers from dying. On ship, only fate spared him from kamikaze attacks.
Nothing prepared him, however, for the day he spent in the remains of Nagasaki, an industrial city whose factories churned out military equipment used by Japan.
Mr. Turner would suffer radiation exposure from his 12 hours in the seaport. He would go on to a distinguished 34-year career in the Navy, retiring as a commander. He would devote the rest of his life to musical and theatrical performances, playing the ukulele and volunteering for a wide variety of services and organizations.
He spoke little about his most grueling experiences in the military.
Neighbors in his Highland Lakes subdivision knew him as a poll worker, a past president of the men's club and frequent performer in a theater group with a spot-on imitation of Al Jolson.
Mr. Turner, one of a dwindling number of Americans who witnessed the effects of nuclear destruction firsthand, died Dec. 1 in hospice care after a lingering illness. He was 90.
He was a 23-year-old pharmacist's mate on Aug. 13, 1945, the day a Navy doctor asked him to go ashore on Nagasaki. Four days earlier, a 9,000-lb. "Fat Man" atomic bomb had turned 2.6 square miles white, killing more than 73,800 and wounding slightly more. The blast, which killed fewer but was considered more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb dropped three days earlier, had melted roofing tiles 6,500 feet away and snapped large trees in half.
Mr. Turner told his sons about stepping into a ghost town.
"The (Japanese) surrender had not occurred," said Daniel Turner, 59. "But he said there was no resistance. Nobody was even around."
Mr. Turner recalled checking the forehead of a survivor for fever, only to have the skin of the man's forehead come off in his hand.
Having seen countless American soldiers die at the hands of the Japanese, he had mixed feelings.
"He said he knew it was necessary, but the devastation he saw he just couldn't comprehend," said Kay Turner, his wife.
David Harrison Turner was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio. He enlisted in the Navy in 1940, completed training in the Navy's hospital corps and was assigned to the First Marine Division. He served on Guadalcanal and other battles in the Solomon Islands before going ashore in Nagasaki.
He went on to serve during the Korean and Vietnam wars. He retired as a commander in 1974. The VA granted disability benefits due to his radiation exposure and other service-related issues, including malaria, his family said.
A life of performing and volunteerism began. He played the baritone ukulele with a group of retirees before Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and Barbara Bush, as well as children and other groups. Mr. Turner and his wife moved to Palm Harbor in 1989, where he again jumped into civic activities.
In 2004 he and his wife accompanied a group of veterans to the World War II Memorial. They strolled by memorials to the fallen in battles in Europe and the Pacific. In front of a Guadalcanal memorial he broke down and wept, his wife said.
"I think at that point everything came back to him."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.