It has been well over half a century since Japan surrendered and Turk Turner left the Japanese prison camp that was his home for 3 1/2 years.
He still wears the scars: across his back, from the beatings; and in his health, permanently damaged by malnutrition.
But for a reason no one knows, he never received a Purple Heart for his war injuries.
Until Jan. 2.
“If you think about what he had to endure, anyone in the prisoner of war camps, a Purple Heart does not really signify what they had to go through,” retired Rear Adm. Fred Metz said as he gave the medal to Turner at King’s Grant Baptist Church in Virginia Beach. “But it’s one way this country honors the people who lived through those perils.”
Turner, 92, grew up in Moultrie, Ga., as Marion McDaniel Turner. His high school friends dubbed him “Turkey” when he gobbled leftovers on a camping trip; the nickname later morphed into “Turk.”
When World War II began, he joined the Navy. He had second thoughts when the Navy served him beans and cornbread for breakfast in San Diego .
“I said, Lord God, what have I gotten myself into?” he joked. “Beans for breakfast?”
Turner was in the Pacific as an electrician on the submarine Perch when the crew was attacked and forced to scuttle the vessel. Japanese soldiers took them to a prison camp on the island of Celebes , in the Dutch East Indies, Turner said.
He was there 1,294 days.
The prisoners endured beatings, starvation and disease. They survived by ingenuity, Turner said, stealing anything they could find, from knives to food.
One time, they stole beer. On Christmas 1942, Turner volunteered to unload a ship. He figured working would keep him from missing his family. The goods turned out to be cases of Heineken.
“On the way, we’d kick a case off to the side, so we had a pretty good party that time,” he said. For years after the war ended, Turner celebrated Christmas with a six-pack of Heineken.
When Japan surrendered in 1945, Turner weighed 140 pounds, well under his usual 180 but still healthier than most of the prisoners. He was among the last to leave the island.
Later, Turner served in the Korean War and, after he retired from the Navy, at the Newport News shipyard. He often told war stories to his three children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, sometimes coming to speak at their schools.
“The only time I ever made an A in a history class was when we learned World War II,” said his granddaughter, Tara Traeger of Chesapeake.
But he never received that Purple Heart. In 1999, he wrote to the government to ask for his war medals, which included a Bronze Star. They arrived, but the Purple Heart was still missing, said his wife, Nell Turner.
This year, she tried to figure it out. Her search took her to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s secretary, to the other two survivors of the Perch and to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s office.
Turner received the medal Sunday, along with a Korean War Service Medal. The ceremony at the end of a church service was a surprise that everyone in his family knew about except him.
“He’s my hero,” Traeger said. “I think he’s everybody’s hero in this family.”