Fifty Years Hence
1991 ~ 1996
'Tis the season, in these particular years, for gatherings among those of us from of my day and generation.
As should seem evident from these musings, the defining event of our lives, to me, was World War II -- now in the neighborhood of a half-century ago.
This was in the same era in which most of our generation finished school -- first high school and then college -- and the span of time in which most of us married, started families and entered into the world of work.
These cardinal events came about in different sequences for different people, but in any event, there have now come in a tumble over the last decade 50-year reunions and golden anniversaries.
Having been lucky enough to have lived this long, it is now great to be able to celebrate with those we've known, with whom we've either lived or have seen from time-to-time, and to hobnob with old friends we haven't seen for fifty years and still to meet others who've been drawn into these convocations.
Such is the nature of these golden gatherings.
The actual writing down of these recollections started with my son Sam's comments on Edie's and my Golden Wedding Anniversary, which for us has been the most notable of these events.
However, the initial impetus came one night in the early 1990's when I received a phone call from Kansas.
Sometimes a week goes by without my receiving a call from Kansas.
The call started with the question, "Are you 'the' John Bridgers who was from North Carolina, who was a Naval pilot in the Pacific War and who flew Douglas SDB Dauntless dive-bombers in Bombing Squadron 13 aboard the U.S.S. SARATOGA?"
When I answered all these queries in the affirmative, the caller introduced himself as Greg Morris.
Greg was a wheat farmer and cattle rancher who also dealt in farm machinery and its repair.
It was this later undertaking that set him up for the business of restoring antique aircraft and this was the basis of his interest in me.
He and several others were involved in rebuilding an SBD-4, the only plane of that particular model all of whose parts were still together.
Its fractured parts had been found in the jungle of a small island off Bougainvillea in the southwest Pacific.
At the time of its crash it had belonged to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, having been passed from our squadron -- VS-6/VB-13 -- after we were relieved from the U.S.S. SARATOGA late in 1943.
It then went to the U.S. Marines and finally on to the R.N.Z.A.F.
The wreck was found by a New Zealander who had it shipped home.
Somehow it came to the attention of Greg and friends who then purchased the parts and brought them back to Kansas from "down under."
By happenstance they had also found a full set of logbooks on the SBD squadrons stored in someone's garage in New Zealand.
They were able to recover the logbook for the Bureau number of the aircraft they had purchased to restore.
Therein were listed the names of all of us who had flown this particular plane with VS-6/VB-13 from aboard the SARATOGA.
With the help of a computerized national roster of names and phone numbers they began to chase down the pilots and air crewmen listed.
Among the folks contacted was Dan Hoff, my radioman-gunner during my time with VS-6/VB-13 in the southwest Pacific and one who had worked at keeping up with old shipmates and attending various gatherings.
He and his wife, Ellie, were now living in Fresno, California where he had retired as Deputy Sheriff a few years back.
They now spent their time calling "Square Dances" and traveling about the states.
Don sports a Distinguished Flying Cross for the four strikes in which he participated at Midway -- with VS-6 from the ENTERPRISE -- against major elements of the Japanese fleet.
He was then flying with an Ensign Decker, a new pilot whom he had never seen before or since they served together on those strikes.
After Midway, the VS-6 pilots went home whereas their gunners stayed in the Pacific, after which Don and I flew together until he was transferred back to the states a year later -- this included about a month flying bombing attacks out of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.
When Don and Ellie heard from Greg Morris, they hopped in their trusty van and set out for Kansas where they found grand plans in motion.
In 1992, as the semi-centennial of WWII approached, a campaign was underway to encourage communities to hold commemorative events for their veterans of this greatest of all wars.
One of the few places where this idea caught fire was in southwestern Kansas, centering on the neighboring towns of Liberal and Hugoton. The bank in Hugoton had taken the lead.
This was what Don Huff found underway when he visited Greg Morris.
Don had been hankering for a reunion of VS-6/VB-13 and this reunion became part of the plans for Greg's partially reassembled SBD.
Don and Ellie did a yeoman's work in getting in touch with folks and enlisting a handful of other pilots and air crewmen to subscribe to the enterprise.
This included several VS-6 pilots and air crewmen from the Midway era and several of us who had flown together later in the southwest Pacific.
The hospitable folk of Kansas put on quite a shindig, including a parade in which the members of VS-6/VB-13 rode on a flatbed truck behind which was towed our former SBD-4, still in the throes of restoration.
A banquet was held that night at which spoke Joe Foss, a Marine fighter pilot hero of Guadalcanal and erstwhile post-war governor of South Dakota and pro-football entrepreneur.
It was a memorable occasion but, as it turned out, not the first of such gatherings.
While these plans were getting underway I received another phone call from Scott Matthews, an old shipmate on the U.S.S. ESSEX, about plans for a reunion of Air Group 15.
This was to be held in Pensacola, Florida sometime in November 1994 -- almost fifty years to the day after the unit had broken up.
Al Farlow, an ex-VB-15 air crewman, had started a newsletter for the squadron, and he along with his wife, Alyce, had spent much time visiting, calling and keeping up with as many of us as he could.
Scott, Warren Parrish and Dick Glass helped Al with this effort.
In addition to VB-15, a few VT people and many fighter pilots were there, along with a good representation of wives.
Though planning for this effort had started after those for the VS-6/VB-13 get-together in Kansas, it actually took place before.
These two events made 1994 a banner year for me with other celebrations now in the works.
To step back a few years, the first of all these gatherings had actually been the 50th reunion of my graduating class from Greenville High School. This took place in 1987 and has been followed by another since.
Over the past couple of years, I've been to alumni reunions at both East Carolina Teachers College (now East Carolina University) and Duke University Medical School reunion plus a couple of alumni gatherings for The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Interestingly enough, at one time I would've said my experiences in medicine were of prime importance to me, but I have since found that the get-togethers with my wartime comrades and their spouses are the most compelling.
They all, however, tend to show how widespread our webs have been spun.
It has been particularly interesting to learn of the many walks of life my war-time friends have followed in the years since -- most of us little beyond adolescence in those days.
Likewise, it was fascinating to find the many fields of medicine entered and the many locations chosen by those of us who attended Duke Medical School together just after the war, most of whom having also been in the armed services.
I can only scratch the surface of the many tales to be told, something I believe each of us should do for the edification of our posterity and perhaps for future historians who so delight in sprinkling their treatises with personal vignettes from various participants.
For me, there have also been other more personal get-togethers with family and hometown friends.
In addition to Edie's and my 50th wedding anniversary, my sister Elizabeth and her husband, Norman Wilkerson, were feted to a Golden Anniversary dinner by their children.
Edie had been their Maid of Honor and I an usher in their ceremony.
Dave Whichard who was more like a brother to me than a cousin and is now emeritus publisher of The Daily Reflector and was honored on the occasion of his 70th birthday by his wife, Judy, and his children.
The children of Warren Parrish -- my childhood friend and a fellow member of VB-15 -- and his wife, Evelyn, managed to secretly arrange a 70th birthday party for Evelyn and an early 75th celebration for Warren which coincided with the "Carolina Pig-Picking" Warren and Evelyn hold each year on their waterfront lawn in Bath, North Carolina.
Each year on Father's Day, Edie's family holds a big reunion in Boiling Springs, North Carolina for of all the members of the Hamrick clan that directly descend from her paternal grandparents, Elijah Bly and Galena Green Hamrick.
Last year, our sons, Carl and Raymond, along with Carl's daughter Sophie and Raymond's wife Jennifer joined Edie and me in Boiling Springs.
Afterwards we then drove across state to Greenville for a visit and dinner with some of my folks.
It's impossible to measure how much these gatherings have spurred my interest in kith and kin, revived my memories of all those now passed and given new meaning to these my twilight years.
Written circa 1997
Edited May 2002
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