John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Naval Years
"Bean-Bag Barney" - The TBF, SBD and SB2C, 1942~1946

"Bean-Bag Barney"
The TBF, SBD and SB2C

James W. Barnitz and I entered one another's lives when we were both in our early twenties and thousands of miles from our homes, his being Indiana and mine North Carolina.

Jim came to our unit, Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6), as a newly trained replacement pilot as the year turned from 1942 to 1943.

We were attached to the U.S.S. SARATOGA (CV-3) operating in the Southwest Pacific out of New Caledonia, the headquarters of Admiral Halsey's flag.

Though Jim likely little recognized it at the time, his home for nigh the next fifty years would be the U.S. Navy.

Normally VS-6 would have been an element of the airgroup of the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE (CV-6), but after the Battle of Midway squadrons had been pieced together as best could be.

Our Squadron had been re-organized under the command of Lt.Cdr. Norwood A. "Soupy" Campbell who had been the Landing Signals Officer (L.S.O.) on the U.S.S. YORKTOWN (CV-5); the sole U.S. carrier mortally disabled by various insults off Midway Island.

That summer our squadron had been assembled from remnants of the YORKTOWN and ENTERPRISE squadrons, filled out with some from cruiser seaplane attachments and some others arriving directly from the Training Command in the States.

As best I recall we sailed for the battle zone, such as it was, in the SARATOGA in the later summer of '42.

The first phase of the war with Japan was culminating, and for the moment hostilities were at somewhat a lull.

Behind us were the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway -- the first somewhat of a trade-off and the later costly for Uncle Sam but a catastrophe for the Emperor.

The Solomons campaign, centered on the occupation of Guadalcanal, was winding down, but not without fierce land fighting and duress to our naval forces.

In "The Slot," the straits between the islands of the Solomons chain, the Japanese had exacted fearsome toll on our surface forces.

In surrounding waters we had lost two carriers -- the HORNET (CV-8) in an air-sea action and the WASP (CV-4) to an enemy mine.

Our presenting naval assemblage had been reduced to two small task forces, ours around the SARATOGA and another around the much battered ENTERPRISE operating out of the New Hebrides.

The Japanese were operating out of Truk in the Caroline Islands.

All these places were hundreds of miles apart, but were relatively close neighbors considering the vast reaches of the Pacific.

At that juncture the main strategy of both adversaries seemed to be to hold one another at bay.

Large armadas, mainly in the way of ESSEX-class carriers and surface auxiliaries were under construction in the States, but had yet to reach the Pacific.

When the Japanese would foray from Truk, the SARATOGA and ENTERPRISE task forces would do likewise from their respective lairs, and the two fleets would, in a sense, confront one another, steaming back and forth out of flight range and continuing this "shadow-dance" until the enemy returned to its anchorage.

This went on for some months, with long weeks of inactivity interspersed with spates of frantic reaction, each face-off seeming to start with an emergency arousal in the depth of the night, and with the air group flying aboard at first light.

Occasionally air group pilots, for one reason or another, were being relieved and sent to other duty, mostly back to the States.

Over time the complement of our several squadrons would become a bit thin and we received small contingencies of replacements.

So came Jim Barnitz, newly hatched from the Training Command.

Even the newest pilots had operational training in the types of aircraft we were flying, to wit, in the scout-bombing squadrons the SDB or Douglas Dauntless.

The fighter squadrons were equipped with the Grumman F4F and the torpedo-bombing squadrons with the Grumman TBF.

These pilots all had become nominally "carrier qualified" by having made several arrested landings in their advanced training.

So they arrived, not exactly "green-hams," but definitely not seasoned and, more importantly, not having specifically passed muster with the ship's L.S.O.

Thus it was, circumstances permitting, that the next foray of the ship to sea was started by the new pilots, if there were such, with each making several practice approaches and landings before the air group came aboard.

I particularly remember the batch of pilots in which Jim Barnitz arrived because I became mixed up in their carrier landing checkouts.

Such exercises might include all comers -- replacements for one or all three types of planes.

On Jim's day at bat it entailed bomber and torpedo pilots.

Singularly enough in that group of torpedo pilots was Bill Davidson, a burly fellow from Plymouth, North Carolina with whom I had attended East Carolina Teachers College.

We had been friendly but not overly close -- his having come to school on a football scholarship, he hung out mostly with the athletes while I spent most of my time with the folk interested in dramatics and music.

I mention this as an aside just to illustrate how convoluted life can become.

I was actually more admixed with Bill's first landings than with Jim's, but I remember it as matter of the whole.

At that time our ship anchored in Noumea Harbor, this being the principal town on New Caledonia, while the air group always flew ashore and bivouacked at a temporary naval encampment which had been established at Tontouta Aerodrome, a French installation forty miles down the east coast of the islands.

Due to transfers Cdr. "Soupy" Campbell, our squadron skipper, had been rotated up to Air Group Commander (C.A.G.) and from then on flew a TBF rather than an SBD, the torpedo bombers being the only of our aircraft equipped with on-board radar.

At this time our torpedo squadron skipper had been relieved, and as luck would have it, his replacement reported to the ship in Noumea late in the day before we were to sail at dawn on one of our "shadow-dance" episodes with the Imperial Fleet coming out of Truk.

By chance there were no spare torpedo pilots ashore and there was an extra TBF that we needed to have aboard ship because, though we had fallen into the routine I have described, we never knew when we put to sea whether we would return to New Caledonia or be re-stationed elsewhere.

We could not afford to leave a plane behind on the chance we could retrieve it when next in port.

This left the C.A.G. with a problem.

However, there were some extra dive-bomber pilots ashore.

Half in jest the C.A.G. said to me, mainly because I was at hand when he thought of it, "J.D., do you think you could fly a TBF aboard?"

I had never flown one, nor had any of the other dive-bomber pilots then available.

I answered, somewhat irreverently, "Why not, 'Skipper,' you switched over with no trouble."

The decision was made, but time was of the essence for the Air Group was to deploy in the next hour.

So one of the torpedo pilots went out to the airfield and gave me a cockpit check out on how to operate the various systems.

It was planned that I would take-off as soon as possible and then make several "touch-and-go" landings on the field before setting out with the rest of the group for that ship.

Once the new torpedo pilots had each made their several landings, I would come down and land aboard.

This way, it was hoped, my first shipboard landing in a strange plane -- made without benefit of practice at field carrier landings -- would be less gruesome.

The L.S.O. was to be informed as to what was afoot.

Unfortunately, our reasoning did not account for the vagaries of the Wright Cyclone Engine, the power plant for both SBD's and TBF's.

These were very dependable engines, but tended to run rough compared to the Pratt & Whitney used on the fighter planes and which sounded like a sewing machine but would occasionally stop without warning.

The Wright tended to "foul-up" mainly when it had been idled for any length of time -- that is, small particles of red hot carbon which had not been fully combusted would become deposited on the cylinder wall and cause the gasoline-air mixture in the cylinder to fire-off before a spark plug gave timed ignition.

This resulted in a very rough engine, which was particularly troublesome on take-off because full power could not be obtained.

Most times, a full-throttle run-up with the mixture leaned with extra air for hotter combustion would "burn-off" these patches of carbon and would correct the situation.

As luck and perhaps some hesitancy on my part would have it, I started down the strip on my take-off run and the engine sounded like a washer-machine and obviously was not likely to become airborne.

So I throttled back and began to taxi back around the field to try again after running up the engine.

As I took the circuitous route back around the field I realized that the Air Group was beginning to take-off and I was now behind everyone else.

When my turn finally came I had to spend several minutes clearing my engine, and once I finally got airborne I saw the group joining up and disappearing seaward.

It then occurred to me that I had no navigational data nor knew exactly where the ships would be cruising and that I would need to tag along with the others.

Nor had there been no time for my planned touch-and-go circuits so I was on my way to landing a type of plane aboard a carrier which I would only have flown an hour or so and had never landed anywhere before -- hardly the prescribed orientation.

As the new torpedo pilots made their practice runs aboard the ship, I climbed up to about 5000 feet, put the flaps and wheels in landing configuration and practiced flying around at approach speed and in a nose-high landing attitude.

I was pleased to find the Avenger a very stable platform.

When I saw the practicing planes taxiing forward of the crash barrier after landing, I lowered my tail-hook and joined the landing circle, made a creditable approach and was brought aboard on my first pass.

On passing the Landing Signal Officer after receiving the "cut" signal, I noticed that his paddles fell to his sides and his jaw dropped -- it was evident that the first he knew of the arrangement for my unusual landing was when he recognized me sitting in the cockpit.

I made a satisfactory landing, but then discovered that I had overlooked being shown how to retract the landing hook.

I suffered the ignominy of having the deck crew cover the open hook so it wouldn't engage an arresting cable as I taxied forward.

In any event, I enjoyed a brief spate of local regard for the feat.

As noted by my friend and squadron mate, Christian Fink -- considered tops among our pilots, "Well, J.D., we shouldn't have to listen any more to the 'torpedoes' tell us how hard it is to land a TBF."

Of course, all this is an aside, but ne'er the less reminds me of the first time Jim Barnitz and Bill Davidson landed aboard the SARATOGA.

Meanwhile, back to our business with The Empire.

The arm's length confrontations in the Coral Sea were interrupted in April 1943 when a contingent from our air group spent several weeks attacking the upper Solomons while land-based on Guadalcanal.  Jim and I both were in this group.

In the fall of the year we were relieved from the SARATOGA and sent back to the States.

The British carrier, H.M.S. VICTORIOUS, had been cruising with us for several months, and as she returned to England we were sent aboard for our homeward trip, first to Pearl Harbor and then to San Diego.

When we went through Pearl the U.S.S. ESSEX was in port, the first of her class to reach the fleet, and a ship, which -- unbeknownst to us --  would figure largely in our future.

Our Air Group was then disbanded in San Diego, the pilots and crewmen going to various other outfits, some to the Training Command and others to new air groups forming on both coasts.

Jim and I were among those sent to VB-15, then stationed at Creed's Field in the swamps of Virginia, below Norfolk, and already assigned to the U.S.S. HORNET, the second Essex-class carrier to be built and the second carrier of that name.

The HORNET was being fitted out at nearby Newport News Naval Shipyards and we would go aboard her in early 1944.

We shared the airspace around Creed's Field with waterfowl of the Atlantic flyaway and the land with practically no one -- it was a desolate and lonely place despite being adjacent to one of the areas in North America first settled by white men and my ancestors.

We arrived in a squadron largely made up of "fresh-caught" ensigns and a few ex-primary flight instructors with a smattering of those of us who had flown operationally in the fleet.

The instructor pilots actually had more total flight time than did we who considered ourselves "fleet" pilots -- and were, indeed, good aviators though short on experience with the tactics and practices in which we would be involved.

However, returning from overseas, that's what we were expected to bring to the table.

They were still flying SBD's, as we had flown I the Pacific, but shortly thereafter we were issued Curtiss Helldiver SB2C's; which many viewed as technologically regressed from the Dauntless, though the Helldiver could carry a larger bomb load, had more power and a bit more speed.

The SB2C did not handle as well in the air as the SBD, and particularly weren't as stable in a dive-bombing run.

Some scout-bomber squadrons had opted to keep the slower SBD -- and some of our pilots felt the same -- but the laws of procurement prevailed and we were stuck, for better or worse, with the aircraft which both seriously and in jest its pilots called "The Beast."

However, it was a relief to more briskly take-off from the carrier's bow rather than to "fall into flight" as many felt we ever did in the SBD.

Being the pilot designated as Engineering Officer for the squadron, I was to come to know well the mechanical intricacies of "The Beast," and particularly appreciated the aphorism that the SB2C had "three less engines and one more hydraulic fitting than the B-17," the latter then being the largest flying machine then in Uncle Sam's armament.

Come Christmas and I took off for nearby eastern Carolina to spend the holidays with my family, as did others of us whose homes and families were along the east coast.

Those left behind at Creed's were caught up in an alert caused by increased German submarine activity along the offshore shipping lanes.

On the big day itself, the bachelor pilots had agreed to stand watch while the married officers took Christmas dinners with their spouses and kids.

They were caught by surprise when the alarm sounded in that this possibility had not curtailed the Christmas Eve celebration by those remaining on the base.

On a cold and blustery Christmas morning those on hand were ordered to warm-up their engines and man their planes -- depth charges arrived -- in preparation for immediate take-off if the word came down.

Jim Barnitz was the senior officer present and it fell his lot to let Norfolk know of VB-15's state of readiness.

His message was terse and to the point, "The planes are ready and the pilots are loaded."

The boded accurately Barney's priorities as to the exigencies of war and his seriousness of purpose as a naval officer -- first and last he was ever the laissez-faire party man.

Early in the New Year we left Norfolk in the new HORNET and sailed down the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal.

The Navigation Officer for the ship did his part to make our Panama experience memorable by painting a large map of the isthmus on the landing-deck side of the ship's island, and tracing our progress through the waterway.

The beams of U.S. warships were then designed to be no more than the width of the locks, and it was breath taking to see our catwalks scrape by with but inches to spare.

It was then to Hawaii, where to our chagrin, we were relieved from the HORNET in favor of another air group with longer preparation than had we.

We were disappointed, not only because we were anxious to get on with it, but also because we knew this would prolong our absence from the States.

We did not have the prescience to appreciate this as the lucky break it turned out to be, nor did we realize the worm had turned in the Pacific war.

Just as when some of us had come through Pearl Harbor on the way home six months before, so was the ESSEX in port again too.

This time, however, rather than being newly arrived from the shipyard of its origin, it was newly arrived from the first American attack on Truk, the Japanese bastion in the Coral Sea we had once considered well nigh impregnable.

The strike was also marked the declination of the campaign in southwestern waters and the beginning of the advance across the Central Pacific toward Japan.

When our group was replaced on the HORNET we were temporarily stationed at the Puunene Naval Air Station on Maui.

When we had left the HORNET we had also surrendered our contingent of aircraft to our replacements.

We had labored long to modify those SB2C's in many ways to make them more fit for combat.

Our time on Maui was largely spent in trying to bring another set of planes up to the same standard of airworthiness.

Also while on Maui we learned that we would be assigned to the ESSEX, and her landing signal officer, Charles Ianobino, came over from Oahu to drill us in field carrier landings.

The field at Puunene was situated between two large volcanic mountains, quiescent at the moment, and the valley between was like a venturi through which the wind blew constantly.

This made for treacherous and turbulent air in which we had to practice low and slow flight carried out at near stall conditions.

In other ways, though, the sojourn was pleasant for a group of boisterous young pilots who looked forward to evenings of relaxation and recreation at the end of busy days.

Our time in Maui was limited and the Navy has scarcely left a trace.  Those who have visited the isle in recent years report that its green vistas are now dominated by high-rise resort hotels, that the Puunene airfield is now an expanse of sugar cane beneath ruffled yet turbulent air and criss-crossed by concrete strips.

In a nonce we were aboard the ESSEX, sailing through the central Pacific 'twixt peaceful atolls where ships were re-supplied and we would rest between visits to other atolls controlled by the Empire, which were not so peaceable, at least while we were around.

Compared to earlier days, U.S. forces were now streaming into the Pacific and we became a part of The Fast Carrier Task Forces.

When the organization of the Pacific Fleet came to fruition these particular carrier forces would be comprise of four Task Groups.

Each built around two fleet carriers and one or two light carriers laid down on cruiser hulls.

Our task group, in addition to the ESSEX, included her sister ship, the new LEXINGTON, and the INDEPENDENCE and SAN JACINTO, our C.V.L.'s.

It's interesting to reflect that each of these task groups was larger and more powerful than had been the whole of the Naval forces we had at our disposal less than a year before in the southwest Pacific.

In this company our odyssey carried us on many raids, some being brief strikes and others fairly prolonged campaigns to Marcus Island, the Palaus, the Marianas, the Philippines, the Bonins and Formosa, the later of which was to become the new Chinese republic of Taiwan after the war.

More about these days is recounted in other vignettes.

Technologically we had certainly moved along.

War, as an enterprise, tends to accelerate change, but ever faithful to Navy practices, we had kept one foot in the days of the sailing ship.

When I had first come to the fleet just two years earlier, each plane had been equipped with a single regular-frequency-band radio whose switches were safety-wired in the "off" position so we could use it only in abject emergencies.

The broadcast waves from such a set -- known as "long-wave" -- bounced back and forth between the earth's surface and the ionosphere, and transmissions from such equipment could be detected "over the horizon," with listeners able to detect and plot the direction of the senders, even at great distances.

It almost seemed that those who set policies were more concerned about what we might reveal than what we could learn from our vantage point over the horizon -- so much for being "the eyes of the fleet."

In order for airborne pilots to safely communicate with the ship each plane was equipped with several "bean-bags" -- that is, with weighted cloth containers in which a note could be placed and dropped to the deck of the carrier as the pilot slowly flew over in a landing configuration.

Suddenly we were short on "bean-bags" and the skipper told Jim, or  "Barney" as we called him, to provide replacements.

He had these made in the sail locker by the parachute riggers and had a large duffle bag of them placed in the back of our Ready Room.

Instead of having the deck crew distribute these to the planes, Jim announced one morning, as we prepared to strike at some place, that each pilot was to take his own "bean-bags" to his plane.

This seems somewhat mundane when told today, but in the stress of combat it seemed ludicrous, and from then on Jim was known as "Bean-Bag Barney," an appellation of both affection and derision.

Surely today's high performance jets, laden down with all sorts of electronic black boxes have no use for "bean-bags," but the "Top Guns" will never know the attention a lone plane got from one and all on the flight deck as it soared by for a message drop.

Jim and I made it through our part of the Central Pacific campaign, each seeing considerable flying time.

He had more close calls than did I, having his plane shot-up a couple of times, and once having to ditch in the ocean near a ship in our surface screen.

However, we were both unhurt, and in late 1944 our air group was relieved and several from our squadron were sent to training command, Jim and I among them.

Specifically, we went to the Operational Training Command, joining the scout-bombing training squadron stationed at Cecil Field, just outside of Jacksonville, Florida.

This was the third unit we had shared.

As a matter of fact, at Cecil Field we had adjacent rooms in Bachelor Officers' Quarters and spent much time together.

There was no Officers' Club on the station, but this need was served by a small bar in the corner of the B.O.Q. lobby, which was open from late afternoon until midnight each day.

We were both loyal members of an unofficial and informal group known as "The 7:29 Club," this being a group of variable composition which stayed in the bar each night 'til the last moment which allowed us to get into the Officers' Mess across the lobby just before they stopped serving supper at 7:30 p.m.

At Cecil Field, Jim's primary duty was as a flight instructor while I served as Chief Flight Instructor for the unit.

Jim also suffered through my courtship with Edie who was a W.A.V.E. and the station's Assistant Communications Officer.

The old gang from VB-15 figures largely in our wedding:  Roulon-Miller was best man, where Jim along with Dick Mills and Dick Glass were ushers.

Elmer Maul was also an usher, but his was a friendship that mainly developed at Cecil Field even though we had known each other from Air Group 5 and the YORKTOWN at the time of the Battle of Midway.

As the war wound down so then did Jim and my paths diverge.

The atom bombs were dropped, V.J. Day came and hostilities ceased -- the folk of Cecil Field and the V3B unit began to drift toward peacetime pursuits.

Jim decided for the regular Navy and remained on active duty.

I worked toward medical school at Duke University but elected to stay on active duty until 1946 and the start of the fall term.

My final billet was as lecturer to the most recent Naval Academy graduates whose first duty after commissioning was to spend a month or so of orientation in the Aviation Training Command.

"Barney" transferred to the Instructor School and became the public relations advance man for the newly formed Blue Angels stunt team.

Some of us enjoined him to re-consider questioning whether this was a wise move for one who wished to make the Navy a career, but Jim knew what he wanted.

He said, "It's a perfect job. I fly in several days before the team in a nice safe SNJ (the basic training plane of the day).  The folks sponsoring the air show set me up with women, provide wining and dining, and I don't have to fly on my back at fifty feet."

Shortly thereafter we parted company to see each other only once again when we were reunited in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1951 where Jim was serving as Public Relations Officer and I was a Flight Surgeon in refresher flight training.

He was still a bachelor and invited Edie and me out to share a deliciously grilled steak.

This was the first time I realized that cooking, gourmet-style, was one of the delights of Jim's life.

This was brought home when Warren Parrish, a life-long friend as well as shipmate, showed me a tape made at the Barnitz home by Dick Gray, erstwhile A.G.15 historian.

His wife, Hazel, said, "I married him to get a cook."

Jim replied with both modesty and pride, "If the truth be known I'm a much better cook than I ever was a pilot."

To him that may have been so, but despite his deprecations over the years Jim Barnitz was an able and courageous aviator.

As folk were chased down for the VB-15's fiftieth reunion in Pensacola several years back we found Jim and Hazel living in Holme Beach, Florida whence they had moved from their first retirement home in Ocean Pines, Maryland in 1970.

He had served in a tactical air control squadron in Korea.

He was unable to come to our get-together due to family commitments.

I wrote him soon after and he answered with his usual aplomb, "I have colon caner and the doctors tell me there's nothing more they can do -- I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."

In late 1995 I received a copy of his obituary clipped from the Sarasota newspaper.

I wrote Hazel sharing with her some of the things said here --- she replied that Jim had told her most of this and had promised to write his "memoirs," but never did.

In his obituary a friend from Holme Beach commented on his modesty, even temper and place in the hearts of those who knew him.

I never recall having heard Jim speak despairingly of anyone.

He most always wore a wide grin.

Like the Cheshire cat in Alice's Wonderland, he is outlived by his smile.


April, 1999

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