John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Naval Years
Finally in Mufti - Flight Surgeon, 1950~1954

Finally in Mufti
Flight Surgeon

After World War II, we had mostly years of transience -- three years in Durham while in medical school, then back in the Navy for a year in the Boston area for internship, two years of aviation medicine along with refresher flight training in Florida and Texas, and finally two years as a Flight Surgeon and aviator in Experimental Squadron III (VX-3) in southern New Jersey.    

Neighbors and friends whisked by so rapidly and with such turnover that they seem a blur in the memory.

In this last billet with VX-3 we had living quarters on base at the Naval Air Station at Pomona, New Jersey, outside of Atlantic City -- occupying the better part of one wing of the base's Dispensary.

Our neighbors were mostly members of the station medical staff -- doctors, nurses and corpsmen -- and the pilots of the squadron and their families. 

By this time Carl (b.1950) and Raymond (b.1952) had joined our happy household, and so for a couple of years we had a home full of small boys.

Edie wasn't lonely for the boys kept her busy while the nurses from the Dispensary -- and sometimes the junior medical officers -- were constantly in and out for coffee and conversation.

I was usually back in the Dispensary working or with the squadron, either flying or otherwise engaged.

Our quarters were spacious and the boys had each other with whom to spend time, but sometimes they would get together with the youngsters of the other officer families though most of their children were older and their quarters were remote from the Dispensary.

Jock (John, Jr.), however, had his problems with our not having more immediate neighbors.

He had just started school and would catch a bus at the main gate to attend first grade in nearby Pleasantville.

After several weeks at school the bus began to come home in the afternoon without Jock -- seems the teacher was keeping him after school each day.

This worked a hardship on Edie for she had to pack the other boys in the car, go into Pleasantville and then wait outside of the school for thirty to sixty minutes until Jock came out.

After a few days of this, she visited the teacher to find out what was the problem.  She was told that Jock was being kept after school because he would never settle down and do his work during school hours.

Edie and the teacher worked out a solution by having a note come home each day listing the work Jock was to do that night. 

I was appointed to talk this over with him and find out why he was being so unproductive during the school day.

I went in one night to talk with him after he was in bed. 

Propped up on his pillow with his hands behind his head and a foxy look on his face, he said, "Well, I'll tell you Daddy, if I do my work during the day I have to come home and I don't have anyone much to play with.  If I stay at school there are always some other kids there!"

He had found his way to deal with a scarcity of neighbors and his mother had found a way to deal with him.

The truth was that we had a large enough household and with the boys spending the bulk of their time at home neighbors didn't seem as crucial as they had in past circumstances.

The base itself was almost like a small village. 

The Chapel occupied the end of the Dispensary wing in which we lived.  I became part of the small choir made up of a few enlisted personnel and some of the officers and their wives.

Our squadron skipper, Cdr. Noel Gayler, came in from off the base to join us in the choir.   He was the epitome of a professional Naval officer, being smart, incisive, articulate and obviously in charge without being despotic or unfair.

He went on to larger things.

I last heard of him years later when I saw him on TV welcoming the prisoners-of-war home from Vietnam to Hawaii after their release from Hanoi -- now a four-star Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet.

We did exchange a couple of letters but never got together even though one of his daughters married a doctor I knew in Greensboro, North Carolina while I was living and practicing pediatrics in nearby High Point. 

It just shows how convoluted transient friendships can become and how -- even though we treasure neighbors -- it is difficult to stay in touch especially for those of us who have moved around frequently.

This wasn't a problem if one stayed in the service for as assignments were changed, after awhile, you moved between different groups of old friends and shipmates.

Here arises in the best tradition of our "Shaggy Dog" tales, adjunctive stories urgently insisting on being told.

Jock and another youngster of like age were constant playmates, and, weather permitting, they frequently gamboled in his friend's rather spacious backyard.

At some point, Jock came up with an imaginary horse, which became his inseparable companion. The genesis of all this is probably traceable to Hoot Gibson and his cowboy confreres in the frequent replays of the old westerns on TV.

Whenever we got into the car, Jock would need time to hitch his horse to the rear bumper.  When we returned home he had to untie his horse from the car and put him up in an imaginary stable next to the apartment entrance.

Several times Edie left a store after shopping only to have Jock break back and retrieve the horse he had forgotten, and then gallop back down the block.

We never found out the color of the horse nor his name -- Jock simply referred to it as "my horse."

Edie and I got to the point where the horse was almost as real to us as he was to Jock.

We were in the South Jersey area for about two years extending from 1952 through 1953 and into 1954.  With four young boys in the home, we had our own amusement most of the time.

Being on the extreme edge of coast near the shoreline at Atlantic City, we were in the tropical storm belt that, in the summer and fall months, was subject to hurricanes sweeping inland and moving up the seaboard.

Our air station was caught in one such hurricane warning and went through the exercise of battening down to minimize damage.  The maintenance department came around to dismantle our TV antenna and cover the windows with wooden shutters.

Carl, at that time, was little more than a toddler and he had an old cowboy hat in which he all but lived. 

I was working with the maintenance crew when suddenly over the edge of the roof, a good fifteen feet off the ground, appeared the battered cowboy hat as Carl worked himself up the ladder, now unable to either reach the roof or to climb back down.

I had to climb over and around him on the ladder, take him under my arm and work my way back down the ladder. 

Climbing down a ladder with one arm isn't easy, but that episode was typical of Carl at that age.  He would talk very little but was constantly into something over his head.

That night -- after a gray day without a true sunset -- we bedded the boys down in a somewhat gloomy house with the windows obscured by the storm shutters.

Sam asked his mother in the candid way of little folk, "Mommy, are we going to die in the storm?"

Edie told him to worry not, "The Lord will look after us."

The next morning dawned clear and bright with the sunshine bleeding through the cracks in the shutters. 

Sam awoke first and called over to his brother, "Wake up, Jock, wake up!  The Lord saved us!" 

It has occurred to me since what a pity it is that once our thoughts have been locked into logic and warped by cynicism that we can no longer find the freedom for such leaps of faith. 

I am confident that this ability was undoubtedly what Jesus referred to when he said to be saved we must all come to the Lord as little children. 

But now, let's get back to our story.

My duties at Pomona were several fold and on the whole not critical.  As Flight Surgeon for my squadron, this mainly involved looking to the medical needs of a group of healthy men. 

VX-3 existed as an experimental unit to take new planes once they were accepted out of the flight-test process and to develop individual and squadron tactics in which the fleet units could then be indoctrinated.

At that particular time our main concern was developing procedures for the delivery of nuclear bombs by carrier aircraft.  Much of this was theoretical and fortunately no one ever learned how these things worked with an actual nuclear device.

That's not to signify that we actually carried such armament for we didn't.  As a matter of fact, we never even carried dummy nuclear warheads, but instead concentrated on long-distance, low-altitude approaches to targets in order to remain undetected by radar. 

I made a few of these flights just to understand the stress of flying a single engine aircraft 7 to 8 hours at treetop level.

The actual bombing techniques were being developed by another VX squadron, which VX-3 would then refine. 

The technique for a propeller-driven attack bomber called for a high-speed final approach with a sharp pull-up over the designated spot prior to reading the target during which the missile was released so as to fly upward and out ahead of the plane.  The pilot then did a split-S dive back towards the ground and retreated at high speed.

The jets had a similar mission but would dive down beneath radar cover late in the flight then pull straight up directly over the target to release their bombs which would subsequently fly thousands of feet upward before free-falling back onto the target.

The bomb was thus in transit a long enough time for the plane to move out of range before the bomb reached the ground and exploded.

My flying tasks, however, were not tactical but rather meant to maintain my proficiency as a pilot and, theoretically, to bring a cockpit viewpoint to the medical needs of pilots flying high-performance aircraft.

Every several months we went on a short one or two week cruise with a fleet squadron in the Atlantic off the New Jersey coast in order to see if the tactics our pilots had devised were applicable and teachable to an operational squadron.

This all took place during the Korean War but was really a part of "The Cold War," which in my mind stretched from the end of WW II until the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980's and included both the actions in Korea and Vietnam.

Another part of my job was helping to care for the personnel on the base serving as one of the four or five medical officers for the greater air station.

In this task we essentially were general practitioners for the men, the WAVES, and the dependent wives and children.

Recently I've thought about an incident, which happened back then that to me shows how much more appropriately the Navy handled gender problems in those days, just doing what seemed right, than in today's world where these issues have become institutionalized.

One morning when we opened the Dispensary one of the medical officers revealed that during the previous night a WAVE in active labor had been sent to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital where she had delivered a healthy infant.

The mystery was how could she have been so far along with no one being aware of her condition for her health record had no entries which reflected she had been seen or had been accorded pre-natal care. 

The putative father of this infant was a Marine then on duty in Korea.  It seems that things had been temporized hoping he could be brought back to marry the young woman -- an outcome that both parties allegedly favored.

Apparently a separate set of medical records had been kept unofficially  with the intent that they be incorporated into her "official" health record once this event had occurred. 

The only hitch was that she went into labor sooner than expected.

When the situation came to a head, the commanding officer of the hospital contacted the commanding general of the wayward Marine and the father was flown home for a wedding at the hospital before mother and child were discharged.

Thus the mother was separated from the service as a married woman and the child's birth certificate bore the legitimate name of the father. 

This, was when single-parent homes were still thought an anathema and birth out-of-wedlock was not seen as commonplace.

It seemed like a neat solution at the time and much to preferred to what would probably happen today.

The final event, which sticks in my mind from our time at Pomona N.A.S., was the arrival of our first daughter, Barbara, just before I was returned to inactive duty in 1954 and entered pediatric training at Children's Hospital.

When Edie went into labor I was out flying, and our nurse friends attended to her until I could be located and brought to the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia.

Her prior labor with Raymond had been such a protracted affair that I felt little need for haste in getting back. 

To shows the clinical unreliability of a physician in the family per se, Edie brought forth Barbara just minutes after we checked her into the hospital.

Shortly thereafter the Korean War ended, we removed ourselves to Lansdowne, Pennsylvania and I started my residency in pediatrics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

While at Pomona I had mainly looked after children at the Dispensary.

I had been taught at Duke that if one took a good medical history and carried out a complete physical examination then good medicine would ensue.  I found this easier to do with children than adults when under clinical time constraints

Thus, I entered specialty training with the advantage of this experience and an awareness of what and how much more I needed to know.

I was young enough on leaving the Navy to enjoy the exhilaration of a new experience, especially the thrill and honor of more medical training at another top-notch venue, which was a reputation that Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) certainly enjoyed.

However, it was with sorrow that I left the Navy. 

I somehow knew that this was the end of the service phase of my life and sensed my flying days were over. 

I had realized that with the limitations imposed by age and less day-to-day flying plus the advent of high performance aircraft I had crossed the line and flying was becoming more fearful than thrilling.

Also, the presence of a wife and five little children made the risk something I could no longer selfishly broach. 

Still, I knew I would miss being in the cockpit and the freedom of flying. 

And so it was that we moved to the outskirts of Philadelphia and I exchanged my Naval aviator's uniform for a white coat knowing that mufti would be the apparel of my future.


Edited May 2002


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