Dreams fulfilled: West Virginia Aviation Wall of Valor recognizes actions of veterans

By MICHELLE JAMES | The (Beckley, W.Va.) Register-Herald | Published: August 4, 2019

BECKLEY, W.Va. (Tribune News Service) — It’s a short drive from the small Fayette County community of Garten to Beckley.

And though Joseph Turner’s and Larry Ernst’s paths never crossed as the two grew up, they shared a connection — a common dream, inspired by the same hero.

“I guess I was 8 or 9 years old and I saw newsreel at the Fayette Theater of Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager and it impressed me at a young age,” Turner recalled.

Ernst remembers looking to the skies as Yeager, the West Virginia native known for breaking the sound barrier, whizzed by.

“Chuck Yeager’s mom lived in Beckley and he buzzed the town a few times,” he says.

Turner never saw his hero in flight, but when he lived in Charleston as a teenager, he said he always knew when the pilot was near.

“I didn’t see him, but I heard the jet, so I knew he was coming,” he said. “He was kind of a daredevil pilot. Everybody knew he was coming.

“That impressed me.”

So both men aspired to take flight themselves one day. Both realized those long-ago dreams and more.

And Monday evening at Tamarack, their accomplishments will be recognized as they, along with the late Dayton Casto, are inducted into the West Virginia Aviation Wall of Valor.


'Everyone wanted to fly jets'

Larry Ernst joins close friend and fellow Woodrow Wilson High School Class of 1961 graduate Herbert Wheeler — who was inducted in 2018 — on the Wall of Valor.

As both dreamed of becoming pilots, and both were in need of money to pursue their education, the friends competed for the same NROTC scholarship.

Wheeler, who flew 187 missions for the Navy in Vietnam and retired in 2000 as the wing/base commander of the 130th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia National Guard, recalled the unspoken competition.

“When we went together to interview (for the scholarship), on our way back from Concord, I knew Larry had it because the Navy representative put Larry in the front seat of the car and talked to him the whole way,” he said. “There were four of us and he was up front and we were in the back.

“I was happy for him,” he continued with a laugh, “but he beat me.”

Ernst attended Ohio State University with his NROTC scholarship, majored in aeronautical engineering and obtained his private pilot license on the side.

Within a week of his graduation in 1966, the Navy ensign and his wife, Roberta, packed up their Volkswagen and their baby and headed to Pensacola, Fla., where he began flight training.

And when it was done, he was the “No. 1 guy,” which meant he got to choose what kind of plane he wanted to fly.

“Everyone wanted to fly jets,” he said.

After a total of 18 months training, which found him still at the top, he chose his ride and his new home.

“I wanted to fly the newest and hottest fighter we had, so I chose San Diego and the F-4 Phantom,” he said.

From San Diego, Ernst went to Vietnam, where he flew 136 combat missions over two deployments.

“They shot at me a lot,” Ernst says, explaining his career takeoffs equalled his landings. “Fortunately, they missed.”

Between deployments, the Navy sent Ernst to study at Navy Fighter Weapons School, or TOPGUN — the school made famous in the Tom Cruise movie — in Miramar, Calif.

He said the Navy had a 2-to-1 kill ratio when up against the Russian MiG aircraft before TOPGUN.

“We’re losing one of every two of theirs,” he explained. “So the Navy commissioned a study in 1965 or 1966 and came out and said the pilots were fighting the other guy and not optimizing his airplanes against their airplanes. Our airplanes could go fast and had strength, but their airplanes were small and nimble.”

TOPGUN, Ernst said, trained pilots to fight airplane against airplane, as opposed to pilot against pilot.

“After that, the kill ratio was 13-to-1 or 16-to-1, depending on whose ratio you were looking at,” he said. “TOPGUN changed the game, fundamentally. Believe it or not, it was the Navy and not the Air Force.”

After Ernst trained at TOPGUN, he returned to Vietnam and taught others what he learned. And then he was selected to become a test pilot for the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School — as featured in the movie “The Right Stuff” — and was then sent to serve as an instructor at the Empire Test Pilot School in England.

“I enjoyed that immensely,” he said. “I’m training pilots how to recover from spins in airplanes.”

Ernst’s Naval career includes time as TOPGUN executive officer, a tour at the Pentagon and as commanding officer of the USS Milwaukee and the USS Midway.

The father of two retired as a captain in 1993 after 27 years of service. He and Roberta reside in Phoenix.


Timely help from dad

Though Joseph Turner knew he wanted to fly, he said he almost didn’t.

After graduating from Charleston’s segregated Garnett High School in 1956, Turner went on to West Virginia State College (now University) where he majored in mathematics with a minor in physics and military studies.

He said he loved sciences and ROTC, in which he participated from the beginning. But after his sophomore year, he wasn’t chosen to continue in the final two years of advanced ROTC.

And though he wasn’t raised by his father — his parents divorced when he was young — his dad was there when his son needed him most.

“My father came into my life when I was in school,” he said. “He was a military guy at Fort Knox, Ky., and he came down and talked to them (ROTC program) in support of me.

“Had he not made that move in support of me, I would probably not be in the military, probably not be a pilot. It was a big thing my dad did for me.”

Of the 30 years his dad spent in the military, Turner said, 12 of those were working with the ROTC on the campus of WVSC.

“(Some of those years) To make sure I stayed in the program,” he said, laughing.

And he did stay in the program.

After graduating, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and reported to Fort Rucker, Ala., where he completed flight school and was assigned to the twin-engine turbo de Havilland Canada Army Caribou (CV-2B).

“It was the largest aircraft the Army had at that period of time,” he said, explaining the plane could fly very slowly, “almost like a helicopter.”

Turner served two deployments in Vietnam, amassing 2,100 flight hours.

He left the Army in 1970, joining the Reserves, moving to Atlanta and taking a job as a pilot for Delta Airlines.

And he balanced his two jobs well, flying C-130 cargo planes and then jumbo jets across the country for Delta, while moving up the ranks in the Army. In 1992, he was named the vice director of the Information Systems for Command, Control, Communications and Computers in the Pentagon, a position that was the second-highest in the Army Signal Corps in the Defense Department.

But it was his promotion to brigadier general that was perhaps the most significant.

“There weren’t too many black military generals in the Army at all, and in the South, there weren’t any,” he said of becoming the first U.S. Army Reserve general in the South. “I think there were only maybe four or five anywhere in the reserves.”

Turner, who resides in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., will turn 80 in September. He retired in 1999 as a major general, with 38 years in the military and 29 years with Delta.

Fortunately, I had two jobs I loved doing,” he said. “I’m really thankful to my wife (Norma) because I had two jobs that kept me away from home a lot. She had to raise the (three) kids. And she did an outstanding job.”

He said it was his family — those he left behind in Fayette County and his mother and father — as well as West Virginia State, which has produced 15 generals — who are responsible for who he is today.

“I am a product of my mother and father,” he said, “taught by my family.”


Flew on D-Day

It was Beckley resident Roy H. Casto who nominated his late uncle, Dayton Casto, for the Wall of Valor.

Roy Casto explained his father, Harold, was best friends with his first cousin Dayton — known to the family as Junior — growing up in a small town in Cabell County.

“My father didn’t go the military route,” Casto said, explaining his family moved to Charleston, where his father went to work at a chemical plant, while Dayton Casto, a few years younger, went to war.

Harold Casto, however, was poisoned by the chemicals and passed away at just 29.

Because of his father’s close relationship with Dayton Casto, Roy Casto said he always felt a special connection to him as well.

And when he learned of the Wall of Valor, he decided to nominate Dayton.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

Roy submitted a package of more than 30 pages in nominating his cousin, who passed away in 1995 at 78.

Dayton Casto graduated from Huntington High School and Marshall University and completed two years at Case Western Reserve Law School before enlisting in the Army in 1941.

He became a pilot instructor and was sent to England in November 1943 as flight commander of a fighter squadron.

During World War II, he flew the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-51 Mustang, accumulating more than 3,100 hours in the air.

He flew 9 hours and 20 minutes over the beaches of Normandy in two separate missions on D-Day.

After he was released from active duty, Dayton finished his law degree at WVU and worked as an attorney for the Civil Aeronautics Board in Washington before he was recalled to serve in the Korean War.

Dayton’s career also included time as the advisor to the Royal Iranian Air Force, a post in Korea with the United Nations Command and time as a congressional liaison at the Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon.

He retired as a colonel in 1968 after 31 years of service.

Roy Casto said he’s proud of his cousin and believes his father, who passed away while Dayton Casto was at war, would be, too.

“They were hardly more than boys, themselves,” he said. “I know my father would have been proud of him. He would have been thrilled. No doubt about that.”

Dayton Casto is survived by his son, Nick, a retired physician.


'Pioneers and heroes'

Monday’s event also will include inductions into the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame as Charles A. “Chuck” Koukoulis, from Clarksburg, and the late Col. John Ross Morgan, from Minnie in Wetzel County, are honored.

This is the second year for the West Virginia Aviation Wall of Valor and sixth year for the Aviation Hall of Fame, whose selections are voted on by members of the West Virginia Airport Managers Association.

Event organizer Kim Lewis said the ceremony is something she looks forward to each year.

“I have been privileged to meet some of the most delightful and interesting people who are aviation pioneers and heroes, along with their family members and friends,” she said. “I am both awed and very grateful to be a part of the annual induction ceremony.”

It’s a sentiment shared by both Ernst and Turner.

“It’s awfully nice to be recognized at this age and at this place in your life,” said Ernst.

Turner looks back at the road he traveled to get to where he is today and reflects on his heroes.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “I‘m proud to come from that little small community, to have a dream and have the dream come true.”

©2019 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)
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