Down On The Suwannee
"Milt" and VF-15
Three score and some odd of my years passed before I knew for certain where ran the Suwannee River.
The lyrical verses of Stephen C. Fosters haunt my earliest memories, and then, when I was but a sprout, came the first talking movie, The Singing Fool, where I heard Al Jolson sing "Suwannee."
As a southerner I felt some affinity for this river for from these tunes I had learned that this obscure but celebrated stream was some where in Dixie.
Contrary to my wont for looking up topics about which I'm in doubt, I had never checked out the geography of the Suwannee.
Then along came Charles Baynard Milton, though nigh another half century would pass before I realized he would lead me "down by the Suwannee."
He was formally called by his middle name, but most of us knew him as "Milt."
He was from the small town of Jasper in northern Florida, and I came to know him during World War II when we were fellow Navy pilots in Air Group 15, flying from the U.S.S. ESSEX in the Central Pacific.
We had both had prior duty in some of the same places in the Southwest Pacific -- notably on and around Guadalcanal -- but had not been thrown together during those earlier tours.
A fleet-type aircraft carrier was like a modest-sized town, embracing a population of several thousand, but one was mainly familiar with those of the ship's company within one's own division.
Our division, of course, was the Air Group, and more specifically, the aviators and aircrew within it.
The Air Group embraced near a hundred and fifty pilots, with about half of them fighter pilots and smaller units of scout-bombers and torpedo-bombers.
A squadron was like one's family and generally therein were one's closest companions.
Contrary to usual alignments, "Milt" and some of us scout-bomber pilots became good friend though we were but cousins in the usual scheme.
Each squadron had a Ready Room, a large space in which each pilot had a reclining desk-seat with seat assignments somewhat patterned on the "pecking order" within the unit -- much like the habitual arrangement around the family board.
Otherwise the pilots were to be found in their "sacks" in their sea cabins or snacking or drinking coffee in the Ward Room, the mess space for the ship's commissioned officers.
Fraternization between members of different squadrons, such as the camaraderie some of us in the bomber squadron enjoyed with "Milt" usually took place in the Ward Room or as visitors to one another's cabins.
Despite our closeness during our cruise in the Central Pacific in 1944, after the Air Group was disbanded in the late fall of that year. I didn't see "Milt" again until the mid-1980's.
We had been thrown closely together for only about six months, but as this span involved almost constant combat, and encompassed such campaigns as the invasion of the Marianas and the Philippines, "The Marianas Turkey Shoot," and the Battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, the intensity of our experiences enhanced memories and the perception of the time involved -- at least for me and seemingly to my shipmates.
"Milt" was member of "The Fabled Fifteenth," which was to become a "storied" unit in a single six months of the war.
The pilots of VF-15 had been among the movers and shakers in "The Marianas Turkey Shoot" and boasted of many aces, among whom was "Milt" and our Group Commander, Captain David McCampbell.
McCampbell had started as our fighter skipper and became the leading ace in the Navy, having downed thirty-four planes in this brief span.
Most of us in the Air Group were well decorated with numerous Navy Crosses, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medals, but our C.A.G. wore the Congressional Medal of Honor.
"Milt" had apparently been involved in a sizeable number of sorties in the Solomons -- mainly strafing and bombing attacks - but, I believe, did not shoot down his first enemy plane until we were in the Central Pacific.
He did not rack-up his "kills" as rapidly as did some of those in his squadron, and so the night after he downed his fifth -- he being a particularly popular fellow -- there was a celebration among his air group cronies.
He never made a big thing out of being an ace, and as a matter of fact, until today takes a dim view of those who do.
At once, however, he is proud of having been a naval aviator, and in part, this accounts for his lingering closeness to those whose lives have actually only brushed together, such as ours.
After the war "Milt" attended Florida State University and then went to work for Union Carbide, spending his entire professional career there.
He married a W.A.V.E. whom he had met early in his training days and they had one son, an accountant now living in Chicago.
That both of us married W.A.V.E.'s, for me at least, augments our kindred feelings.
It's obvious "Milt" enjoyed a close family life -- not unlike the warmth he engendered among acquaintances, only more so -- and it's evident from his comments that this lady remains the light of his life though sadly she succumbed to cancer some years ago.
Though those are but tid-bits from his experiences, I know them well, because in his later years he has filled his days with writing the annals of his Navy experiences as well as vignettes about life in Hamilton County, in and around Jasper, first as a youngster and later as a senior.
After he retired from Union Carbide about twenty years ago he returned to his boyhood home and built a picturesque country house outside town high on the wooded bank of a river.
When I was inspecting hospitals for The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals and was traveling through the area, I spent a memorable afternoon with "Milt" in his riverfront home.
The river I learned was the Suwannee, so finally I knew.
Oddly enough, he told me nothing of his ventures in writing at that time.
In due time I shared the news of my reunion with "Milt" with my life-long friend, Warren Parrish, and the next time he and his wife, Evelyn, visited their son in Florida, they stopped by Jasper and visited with "Milt" -- a stop-over they've repeated almost annually since.
Warren and I not only had been raised together in eastern North Carolina, but had been together in VB-15 aboard the ESSEX, and had, indeed, shared a sea-cabin.
So he too had come to know "Milt" well, and he and Evelyn -- being a couple that enjoy the easy camaraderie of many Southerners -- had also kept up with "Milt."
We were all together at the fiftieth anniversary of AG-15 in 1994 in Pensacola, Florida.
Unfortunately "Milt" was unable to attend the same sort of shindig in Charleston, South Carolina this year for health reasons.
Due to these problems he has given up his retreat on the Suwannee and moved into Jasper to be nearer to medical services.
Within the past several years he has developed cataracts and when we last talked he was awaiting replacement.
This wasn't mentioned as a cause, but this disability may account for the recent dearth of writings since I've received none in well over a year.
The first of "Milt's" literary outputs that I read was called The Jab Jab Bird, a quasi-fictional account of life in a carrier fighter squadron, and a thinly veiled autobiography.
He borrowed the title from Lewis Carroll.
He then sent me a booklet of short articles about life in Hamilton County, Florida, both during his formative years and since he has moved back.
One of the things that has always figured in my friendship with special people is their ability and enjoyment in sharing stories -- both in hearing and telling.
"Milt" certainly matches this description and it's evident he has found much pleasure in setting these down.
Not everyone who is a good storyteller is skillful at translating these into the written word -- "Milt" is good at both.
I have found the same pleasure in my retirement, and though I have written off and on since adolescence, there's no denying that "Milt's" writing in no small degree influenced my taking up this pastime during retirement.
Reading hs accounts transcends our lack of ongoing face-to-face contact and the sharing of written stories has shaped and sharpened our camaraderie.
Aboard the ESSEX "Milt" and I shared many stories, and there's one that he told me, but has not appeared among his memoirs.
From this tale, I assumed his father ran an automobile agency or repair shop, but in his book, Come With Me to Hamilton County, we were told he was a blacksmith.
I know not whether this reflects a ubiquitous use of those with mechanical ability in a small rural community, or whether it's evidence of the penchant of the avowed storyteller to never let the truth stand in their way for a good yarn.
"Milt" told me this story about a school teacher, though in his writings he speaks warmly and highly of all those who contributed to his education.
Anyway, this lady brought her car into Mr. Milton's shop one day because it was running rough.
Milt's father listened, raised the hood, tapped lighting on the carburetor with a hammer and the engine began purring as it should.
After the first of the month she was back, perturbed about her bill for $5.00 which she thought was exorbitant for something that took less than five minutes to fix and involved only "hitting the engine with a hammer" -- she demanded an itemized bill.
He quickly wrote her a new invoice:
- $1.00 for striking carburetor with a hammer;
- $4.00 for being the only man in Jasper who knew where to hit.
Now when I hear the song about the Suwannee River I no longer think first of Stephen C. Foster or Al Jolson, but rather my old friend and shipmate, Charles Baynard Milton.
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