John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Naval Years
Midway, June 4, 1942

June 4, 1943

NOTE:  The following are rough drafts and false starts of various vignettes describing the Battle of Midway.  The original handwritten copies of these stories in their rough form were neither edited nor connected into a single story.  Though some were paraphrased in later stories.  Here they are left essentially as written.  Together with On The Traveling Squad, Big Foot and Big Feet and Weak Eyes they give a full view of Jigs' experiences on June 4, 1943.

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When vast enterprises are in train and many folk are involved there are as many stories to be told as there are people.

More, in fact, for some perish and their tales are never heard.

This vignette is about what befell me at the Battle of Midway.  There was little I did that could be considered heroic save that I was there, was willing and did save my self to contribute more meaningfully to the war at a later date.

Many books and accounts about Midway have been written, and the only thing that recommends this account is that it happened to me -- different experiences form those of others.

I was more fortunate than many and for that I am thankful.

All this came back to mind in the past year or so when the National Geographic published a book, featured in the magazine and produced a TV documentary on the work of oceanographer Robert Ballard.

Some several years ago Ballard had located the wreckage of the TITANTIC on the seafloor of the Atlantic.

This time he repeated the feet by locating the remains of the U.S.S. YORKTOWN and filming her at rest on the bottom of the sea.

I was given a copy of the book as a Christmas present by my daughter who wondered if this brought back memories and I allowed that it did.

I wondered if Pollock had found a pair of large, barnacle-encrusted oxfords alongside the ship.

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The past few days had been hectic.

We had been hustled out of Pearl Harbor to we knew not where.

The U.S.S. YORKTOWN -- from which I was assigned to fly dive-bombers and our home at sea -- had been rushed back from the Battle of the Coral Sea, grievously damaged and allegedly needing to be in dry-dock for several months for proper repair.

However, she was patched up in a few days and sent back out.

We took station just north of Midway Island -- along with the aircraft carriers ENTERPRISE and HORNET.  When we arrived on station we were told the Japanese Imperial Fleet was planning to attack Midway with an eye to capturing the island as a base in the mid-Pacific.

The powers that be undoubtedly knew how desperate was the situation but most of us didn't realize how badly outnumbered we were in planes, ships and men, nor did we fully appreciate that the Japanese Naval Flying service was the finest such in the world.  

This despite the over-whelming victory the enemy had scored in attacking Pearl Harbor just six months before.

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The following day, the eve of hostilities, I well remember for several reasons.

Firstly, we learned what promised to be in the offing at Midway.

In the second place, this was my first day as a full-fledged participant as a carrier pilot.  En route to and from the Doolittle Raid, I had mostly just been along for the ride.

I was in and out of planes throughout each day, but all I did was to taxi the squadron skipper's plane up the flight deck so planes I the air could be landed.

As noted in the vignette about that raid, I got to fly once but this was to qualify for carrier landings in the SBD Dauntless aircraft.

On this day at hand, I was sent out on an 150-mile search along with one of the senior squadron pilots -- I was actually involved in operations.

This was not so long or lonely as the single plane search flight s that would be common later in the war, but was an erstwhile start.

We sighted nothing, but the mission was memorable in several ways.

We flew a triangular track, a 150-mile leg out from the task force, 25 miles across and then back to the ship.

Such flights took about four hours though we did not spend that long in search per se, but these flights were co-ordinated with the combat air patrols, antisubmarine flights closer aboard that required that time cycle.

So at times when aloft you spent as much time circling the disposition as on your primary mission.

Most of the flights the training command or in drill with one's operational squadron were of about one hour's duration. This was the longest flight in which I had ever been.

I had no idea how uncomfortable a long flight could become.

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The sun rose on June 4, 1942 and we in Bombing Squadron FIVE were in our aircraft on the flight deck with the engines awhirl having climbed in while it was still dark.

Our sister squadron, Scouting Squadron FIVE, took off to find the Japanese fleet and attack, hopefully before the enemy learned that American carrier forces were even in the vicinity.

Halfway through the launch we were told to kill our engines and report back to the Ready Room. 

When assembled there we learned that planes from our other carriers had found and sunk three Japanese carriers, but there was another about that had not been found.

Eight of our pilots then took off to search for that flattop and the remaining planes in our flight were to be held back as an attack force.

Our planes were lowered down to the hanger deck so that the pre-down combat air patrol and anti-submarine patrol could be brought aboard.

It seemed but a few minutes later that the planes from the fourth Japanese carrier found us and disabled the YORKTOWN with several bomb hits.

One bomb hit the flight deck just above where my plane was parked on the hanger deck, blew away my canvas-covered control surfaces and spelled the end for any combat flight for me that day. 

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The Ready Room was equipped with cushioned desk chairs, one assigned to each pilot and usually 36 in each room.  Here the aviators could rest and, at once, snack or do their paperwork and navigation as they prepared for a flight.

It was also the place for "hanging out," playing cards, acey-ducey, etc.

One was usually located at the bottom deck of the island, and the other three were chambers suspended below the flight deck and above the hanger deck.

This arrangement allowed the aviators to know their planes status and required little walking along the 800 feet of flight deck.

It helps to have an idea of this in-board architecture to appreciate the narrative coming up.

When the ship was at "General Quarters" -- that is when each member of the crew as at battle stations -- the water-tight doors between compartments were tightly secured, and each functional closed compartment was connected by "phone-line" to the bridge or other appropriate command station.

The phone set was equipped with hand-phones and a mouthpiece that fit over the operator's head.

The compartment operator was a seaman and he was known as the "talker" for that station.

He relayed various messages to those working or stationed in a given compartment.

This was, in essence, a "fail-safe" system for ship-wide announcements also came over a loudspeaker system.

It seemed but a short while after the search group had taken off 'til our …

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In those days every "closed-space" on the ship was connected with hand-phones and mouthpiece transmitter to a station, either on the bridge or to some other command location.

The seaman manning this apparatus was called a "talker," and it was his job to relay messages to those in the space, in our case the aviators.

During the Battle of the Coral Sea the "talker" had been by himself in the Ready Room when an armor-piercing bomb came through the flight deck, penetrated roof and deck of the Bombing Squadron FIVE Ready Room and exploded several decks below.

It was likely that missile that so badly damaged the YORKTOWN that it was estimated she would require extensive repairs.

The "talker" present at the time called his command center and said, "A bomb just came through here -- may I secure my station and leave."

This became an often-told tale around the fleet.

I remember not whether this was the same fellow who manned our phones at Midway or whether a predecessor told this story.

The dry-dock had covered the hole in the deck with a steel plate.

Someone in our group suggested we each put a foot on the plate doubting that the Japs could  "strike the same place twice."

Then suddenly someone else asked, "Do the Japs know that?"

The huddled dispersed and we all took our seats until the "all clear" sounded after the bombs struck.

We were then allowed back on the flight deck.

The ship was smoking and we were dead in the water.

There was a tarp covering what was taken to be a pile of bodies on the flight deck as evidenced by the blood running across the deck from under the tarp.

That might have been a vulnerable area on the ship for in this instance a bomb had struck just behind our Ready Room again.

The Ready Room was a space suspended below the flight deck, which was the roof of the hangar deck.

My plane was parked directly below where the bomb had exploded on the flight deck and the blast had blown off the canvas control surfaces on the tail and wings of my craft -- this essentially dispelled any possibility of my taking part in the fighting.

The only damage I did was to survive to take a more active part in things to come in the months ahead.

There was little for an unbound pilot to do but become a sightseer.  The flight deck was again patched up and we took aboard some of the planes from earlier flights and other carriers.

I've over since seen a photo taken from another ship near-by showing the flight deck crowded with people and I have thought that among them was likely me.

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However, the Damage Control parties soon had the flight deck patched with steel sheets, repaired the damage to the engine room and had our ship back underway.

Some of our planes in the air were able to be brought aboard.

It wasn't long, though, before the torpedo planes from the surviving Japanese carrier also found us and attacked.

I had been in the flight deck, but when the attack started I went into the flight control space in the adjacent island.

As the anti-aircraft guns started and shook the ship, those of us in the small space lay flat on the deck for we had seen seaman hurt in the bombing attack from being thrown against obstacles because they were standing upright.

When the first torpedo struck it felt as if I was thrown several feet into the air, and when the shock had passed we all realized the ship was listing notably to the port.

As the commotion died down most of us topside went out on the flight deck.

The ship was dead in the water and the list seemed to be increasing.  In short order we were told to abandon ship.

I climbed hand-over-hand down a large knotted rope into the water.  Before leaving the catwalk around the flight deck I had spotted a destroyer, which seemed just off the portside of the ship.

When I reached the water, however, the tin can seemed a mile or more away.

I inflated my "Mae West" life preserver and immediately found a shipmate floating in the water, held up by a kapok life preserver.

There was foam in his face and it was rising and falling slightly, so I thought he was probably still alive.

I knew not whether he'd been blown over board, had climbed down the lifeline or what.

In any event there was a large life raft a few yards away bearing up a coterie of mess stewards and a British Commander who had been an observer assigned to the YORKTOWN from the Royal Navy.

I managed to tow the stricken man over to the raft and those there hauled him aboard.

I never knew his fate.

Being a good swimmer and well-supported in my "Mae West" I decided to try for the nearest destroyer.

I soon tired from the excitement and exertion.

With great reluctance I removed my size 14-AA shoes and let them sink, wondering at the time where in the Pacific I would find another pair large enough.

After what seemed about an hour the destroyer seemed closer but, lo, before I could get there she pulled off elsewhere and I followed after.

After a while I was so spent that I rolled on my back to float and rest.

When my face turned upward I realized I was just off the bow of another destroyer, now towering above me.

An officer was in the bow, threw me a line and shouted down,  "Grab a line.  We've been chasing you for fifteen minutes."

I was so tired I could not pull myself up, but some crewmembers were able to pull me aboard.

I was shoe-less and my uniform was oil-soaked and blackened.

I cannot recall the name of the destroyer, though it was such a welcome harbor at that time that I should never forget her.

Shortly after coming aboard a tall junior officer -- with feet as long and narrow as mine -- was kind enough to give me a pair of leather moccasins which served me well until I was able to buy a pair of hi-topped "Jodhpur" boots which did me well for the next year in which I was in the Pacific.

The aviators favored such footwear.

I slept well that night on a sofa in the Officer's Ward Room.

It had been a busy and action-packed day.

The following day we were transferred to the U.S.S. FULTON, a seaplane tender that had been dispatched to the battle area to accommodate those of us who had survived the loss of the YORKTOWN.

When we had abandoned ship toward the late afternoon of the day before, it seemed clear that our ship was not sinking -- though she remained a list the slant of her deck had not worsened after we went over the side.

Word reached us in the late afternoon that the decision had been made to put a prize-crew aboard the YORKTOWN and take her under tow with an eye to hauling her back to Pearl Harbor.

The destroyer, U.S.S. HAMMOND, was sent around the disposition to pick up those survivors most suitable for the prize-crew, and in this the destroyer tied up alongside our ship and put …

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Truth was, I was not the only one who had felt the battle escape that day.

There were others of my group of pilots who didn't get into the air for one reason or another and who had roughly the same experiences.

We all had been there, were willing, and as far as I know, would have preferred to have been flying. 

In addition, there were the scout-bomber squadrons out of the HORNET -- Scouting and Bombing EIGHT. 

As best I have come to understand it the ENTERPRISE Air Group (Bombing THREE originally from the SARATOGA; Bombing SIX; Torpedo SIX; Fighter SIX), along with Scouting FIVE, Torpedo FIVE and fighters from the YORKTOWN, and Torpedo EIGHT from the HORNET were actually the squadrons that first attacked the Japanese fleet.

The torpedo squadrons were all but decimated, but they played their certain part -- they were the first spotted by the Japanese combat air patrol and attracted all their fighters down to the wave-top level.

The torpedo planes from the carriers -- very slow TBD Douglas types were practically all shot down during their low-level approaches, but in drawing the fighters down they opened the way unopposed for the dive-bombers coming down from above -- that is, save those from the HORNET who took the wrong route toward the Japanese carriers, and missed out on the action.

Torpedo EIGHT rode into U.S. Naval legend by all being shot down and Ensign George Gay being the only survivor -- he picked up by a patrol seaplane as he sequestered himself under his life raft.

He and I had started Eliminator Base training together at the Naval Reserve Air Base in Miami in February 1941.

All this supported a long-held diction of mine -- and I suppose many others -- that nobody ever won a battle rather somebody lost from a combination of happenstance, mismanagement and/or hard luck.

When the HORNET had returned form the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, Torpedo EIGHT had been a divided squadron.

The squadron was officially outfitted with the TBD Douglas "Devastator" planes, as were the other torpedo-bomber squadrons equipped.

However, they were also in the throes of being switched over to new TBF Grumman torpedo planes just off the assembly line.

To augment as best it could be done, six of these planes were flown from Pearl Harbor to Midway Island itself to be part of the land-based contingent of planes that were to oppose the attacking Japanese. 

Two of these aviators at Midway were fairly close friends of mine. 

Charlie Brannan was from Montgomery, Alabama and was in my flight training class in Advanced Training at Miami.

We were later together at Advanced Carrier Training Group at Norfolk during the very first weeks of the war.

Bert Earnest was a close VMI-classmate of Oscar West, another close friend of mine, and we three had been together in earlier training at Pensacola.

These new torpedo planes made out little better than did the old TBD's.

Bert's plane was badly shot-up and one of his crewmen was killed but he was able make it back to the airfield at Midway - one of only two torpedo planes to survive the battle.

Charlie never returned. 

Charlie had been a good-looking, tall, lean and easy-going Southern boy of whom I was very fond.

Unfortunately he fell in love with Nancy Dunn Harrington, a close friend of mine in college who was teaching school at Virginia Beach at the time Charlie and I were stationed at Norfolk.

Unfortunate because Nancy was married and very much in love with her husband, "Bunk" Harrison.

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That Lieut. Cdr. Donald Alexander Lovelace is remembered after all this time and so short an acquaintance, indeed, fits the shaggy dog pattern.

Four score years had passed since the Battle of Midway.

The world had pursued peace and experienced another war in Korea.

I had become a physician practicing pediatrics in the Piedmont furniture-manufacturing town of High Point, North Carolina.

I belonged to the local chapter of the American Business Clubs and one night I was supping with a friend of mine and a fellow club-member, Jim Lovelace, whose name was familiar

As we talked we got to one another's backgrounds and came to realize we both had been raised in Pitt County, North Carolina though Jim was some years younger than I.

When it came up that I had flown in the Navy in World War II, Jim explained that he had lost a brother in the same service who had died in the Battle of Midway and that the Navy had named a destroyer in his honor.

It all came together.

The week after the YORKTOWN made port from The Battle of the Coral Sea had been hectic. 

It was estimated that at least three months would be needed in dry dock for adequate repairs, but Admiral Nimitz, C-in-C for the Pacific Fleet decreed that the Pearl Harbor repair crews would have but four days to get the YORKTOWN back to sea.

After having been in several temporary duty slots since coming to the Pacific in February 1942, I was finally where I officially belonged -- a pilot in Bombing Squadron FIVE.

In some of those prior spots I had been thrown in with Lt. (j.g.) Charlie "Tex" Conatser.

"Tex" was to become my section and division leader in our next several squadrons as well as a close friend.

The YORKTOWN rendezvoused with the ENTERPRISE and HORNET north of Midway Island and we learned that a large Japanese Air and Battle Fleet was closing in with an eye to capturing Midway as a mid-Pacific base.

I had been a replacement pilot in Bombing Squadron THREE aboard the ENTERPRISE in search of my permanently assigned berth in Bombing Squadron FIVE on the YORKTOWN.

During my first night at sea in the YORKTOWN I was to come to know Lieut. Commander Lovelace through "Tex."

He was a memorable fellow though I was to know him only an hour or so.

"Tex, " knowing we were both "Tar Heels," brought his old shipmate to my cabin that night -- he being a senior pilot in Fighting Squadron FIVE.

Our potential relationship turned out to be closer than that.

Lieut. Cmdr. Lovelace, a Naval Academy graduate, was from Farmville, N.C., this being a small farming community in Pitt County near Greenville, the county seat and town where I had been raised.

I knew it not then, of course, that in time -- years later -- we would share other ties.  In any event, he was an affable fellow with whom I looked forward to a more lasting companionship.

We parted after an hour or so as we both were assigned the early flight the next morning.

He was to become one of the first pilot casualties in the events leading up to the Battle of Midway, dying in a tragic flight-deck collision.

I was still young enough to have failed to appreciate the capriciousness of fate, and especially as pertains to friendships during wartimes.

Jim seemed relieved to know that I had talked with his brother the night before he died. 

The world is round -- things come back around -- and it's both large and small.

So it was with my own memories of Lieut. Cdr. Donald Lovelace.

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Life weaves a tangled web and all of these stories have a twisted plot of their own -- such is the nature of my Shaggy Dog Chronicles

All of these characters save Bert Earnest -- who went on to become a Naval legend in his own time -- have now been called home to their Maker, as have most of the friends of my youth. 

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Edited June 4, 2002


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