John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Shadow-Boxing In The Coral Sea Scouting Squadron 6 (VB-13) 1942 - 1943

Shadow-Boxing In The Coral Sea
Scouting Squadron 6 (VB-13)
1942 - 1943

Everything in the world seems to be constantly reorganizing, particularly the affairs of man.

Wartime increases this mutation.  These changes are particularly evident among the units of the armed services right after a major campaign. 

Those of us from Bombing Squadron 5 who were on the USS YORKTOWN at Midway had mostly been along for the ride and not in the thick of the offensive action.

Now we were grouped together with some from other squadrons, some transferring from battleships and carrier seaplanes, and some recently transferred from the Training Command.

Our L.S.O. (Landing Signal Officer) from the YORKTOWN, Lt.Cdr. Norwood Axtel Campbell aka "Soupy" (every Campbell in the Navy was called "Soupy" just as every Rhodes was known as "Dusty") was given command of Scouting Squadron 6, formerly of the USS ENTERPRISE.

We were all assigned to the USS SARATOGA (VC-3) which was just returning to the Pacific after being repaired in Bremerton, Washington for damage sustained by a submarine torpedo while ferrying planes to Midway Island early in the war.

On the SARATOGA along with those of us in Scouting Squadron 6 were Bombing Squadron VB-3 also on the YORKTOWN at Midway, Fighting Squadron VF-3 left behind with VB-3 in Hawaii while the SARATOGA was being repaired, and Torpedo Squadron VT-3, which had stayed with the SARATOGA during repairs.

This polyglot collection was designated Air Group 3.

To show just how inter-related things became as time went by, VF-3 was commanded by the redoubtable Lt.Cdr. Jimmy Thach who had devised "The Thach Weave" which would become the prime fighter formation for the rest of the war.

The tactic of "island hopping" was put into practice after the Battle of Midway.

This strategy started in an area of the southwest Pacific more commonly known as the Coral Sea.

The Coral Sea was a magnificent place.

It took its name from the coral atolls scattered across its vast ocean stretches and the barrier islands surrounding the larger landmasses such as Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia plus the other smaller multitudinous islands of the area.

Each coral atoll grew in slow profusion from the ocean floor as an accretion from the small ocean creatures whose calcium skeletons comprised the raw material for each reef.

The ocean in this area was generally not a wild body of water while the sunrises and sunsets were some of the most beautiful seen anywhere, perhaps because the Pacific Rim is a circle of volcanic activity. 

I say this because later such displays I saw elsewhere following volcanic eruptions have lead me to believe these factors were related in the production of such beautiful displays as the sun starts and ends its daily hegira across the Pacific sky.

In the first few months after Midway, the fleet was gradually concentrated in the southwest Pacific.

This was a benighted area under its initial command but things changed when Admiral Halsey was assigned to the fleet and established his headquarters in Noumea, the principal city on New Caledonia.

New Caledonia was a large island originally named after the classical name for Scotland but was, by the time of World War II, a French possession. 

However, France was now under German control and Vichy France had little influence in this part of the world, which allowed the island to come under the control of the U.S. Navy.

After Midway our carrier fleet was gradually moved from Pearl Harbor to the southwest Pacific and Noumea provided a massive anchorage for the major elements of the fleet.

The fleet at first was comprised of task forces organized around three carriers -- the ENTERPRISE (CV-6), the first HORNET (CV-8) and the SARATOGA (CV-3).

These ships did not arrive in the area at the same time with the HORNET (CV-8) being sunk at the Battle of Santa Domingo off Guadalcanal before the SARATOGA even reached the area.

By the time we in AG-3 departed Pearl Harbor in the late summer of 1942, the Pacific Fleet was comprised of two task forces -- one around the ENTERPRISE operating out of the New Hebrides and the other around the SARATOGA operating out of New Caledonia.

The Japanese were operating out of Truk in the Marshall Islands, an anchorage that we viewed as an impregnable stronghold in confrontation to our meager forces.

Over the next year whenever the Japanese would sortie out of Truk, our forces would move out of the New Herbrides and New Caledonia to oppose them.

In between these sorties, the SARATOGA would seek port in Noumea while our air group would fly south to the Tontouta Aerodrome.

At the start of the war, when a carrier came to port and its air group was moved ashore, the air group would take all its ancillary support folks along i.e. the mechanics, electronic experts, ordinance-men, etc.

However, before too long, separate auxiliary groups were organized afloat and ashore.

So, when we were operating out of Tontouta, we lived in a tent camp operated by Carrier Aircraft Service Unit 6 (CASU 6) who also gave us flight line support.

This was obviously a much more efficient way to move air groups around, but at Tontouta there was one flagrant shortcoming -- the food.

The Navy believed that while with CASU we should draw our rations from the Army since we were now a land-based unit.

The Army, on the other hand, felt that we should draw upon Fleet supplies since we were Navy personnel.

Subsequently, we got little in the way of food from either the Navy or the Army and were forced to subside mainly on canned Spam, dried eggs and dehydrated potatoes.

Our menu featured Spam and eggs, Spam sandwiches, "breaded" Spam cutlets and roast leg-of-Spam -- Spam in most any way one can imagine.

Those remaining onboard the SARATOGA up in Noumea continued to eat in their usual regal style while we in the Air Group complained noisily.

So noisily, in fact, that the SARATOGA's skipper came down to Tontouta and shared a meal with us.

Of course, on that occasion, were served steak and baked potatoes with all the fixings and naturally the Captain couldn't understand what all the carping was about.

Our only other respite came at Christmas when someone "bagged" a deer and we were served a venison stew that I can remember to this day.

Every so often the Japs would come forth from Truk in the middle of the night and we would be aroused to pack up and prepare to fly back to the ship for a sortie at dawn.

We would form our Task Force out of New Caledonia while the ships off the New Herbrides would sally forth around the ENTERPRISE.

Sometimes the two groups would rendezvous as a single task force and sometimes we would sail as separate forces.

Since neither the Japs nor we were strong enough to dare an all-out confrontation, we would merely steam back and forth at a safe distance of about 400 miles -- "shadow-boxing."

When the Japs would return to Truk, we would return respectively to either New Caledonia or the New Hebrides, or both.

As events unwound through the spring and summer of 1943, it was decided that our group should fly over to Guadalcanal, spend a night, make a raid in the Solomons and then fly back to the carrier.

Though we had been offered few opportunities to prove it, Scouting Squadron 6 was perhaps the best carrier outfit with which I flew during the war.

We had spent most of our time "shadow-boxing" and welcomed the opportunity to get a taste of combat over at Guadalcanal.

By then, Guadalcanal had been largely secured but there was evidence that the Japs were building a new airstrip on Colombangara, an island in the upper part of "The Slot" -- as the passage up through the Solomons was known.

When we flew into "Cactus" -- code-name for Henderson Field -- the field was host to a veritable stew of available aircraft.

The Army, excepting Marine and Navy Air Forces, had by that time relieved the Marines. 

They were mostly flying Marine Corsairs supplemented by a squadron of Army Air Force P-38's

There were also "Black Cats" -- PBY Patrol Bombers painted black for night missions. 

These patrol bombers flew mostly out of Tulagi, an island north across the channel from Guadalcanal, and proved infinitely useful for the rescue of downed pilots.

After our initial overnight sortie, we were asked to return to Guadalcanal for nearly a month's service.

On our next sortie, we flew from Tontouta to Henderson by way of an overnight layover at Esperita Santos in the New Herbrides.

There followed a wild night of partying with old shipmates from the ENTERPRISE air group.

The next morning we were awakened by an angry Commander Everett Burroughs -- our Air Group Commander -- who had found us hung-over in our bunks rather less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Never the less we were rounded up and continued our trek across the Coral Sea to spend the next night at "Cactus."

Over the next month, our air group would regularly raid Munda Point on the island of New Georgia, or Colombangara, just across a narrow strait from us.

These weren't world-shaking military events and eventually they became more-or-less a "milk run."

Typically, we would encounter much anti-aircraft fire but no fighter opposition.

Never-the-less, Hank Kramer and his gunner were brought down in the water.

They spent a few days with a coconut plantation "coast-watcher" before being rescued by a "Black Cat."

Lieut. Bob Barnes was also shot-up but he and his gunner were able to return to Henderson Field -- unharmed but with a large hole through their wing.

I guess its doubtful that either Hank and Bob remember these flights as just a "milk-run."

This was in the days before radar assumed a significant role in tracking planes and ships or had become useful for aiming guns -- either ship-bound or land-based.

Our anti-aircraft guns were aimed and ranged mainly by focusing sound detectors on the incoming planes.

Each night the Japanese would send a series of land-based medium bombers down from the upper Solomons to attack Henderson Field.

To thwart the aim of our A-A guns, the "attacking" aircraft would de-synchronize their two engines, creating a pulsating sound difficult to find range on.

This led to our naming these nocturnal raiders as "Washing- Machine Charlie."

"Charlie" would wake us up and run us into air-raid shelters most every night, but would do little real damage.

His bombs -- if they hit anything -- usually landed on the runway.

That damage was usually repaired by the time our first flights took off slightly after dawn -- the holes being refilled and covered with new sections of "Maxton Mat," a perforated steel covering perfected for airfield runways.

Our activities on the SARATOGA were being covered for the Luce publications with a writer from Time Magazine and a photographer from Life Magazine joining us.

They were sent along with us to Guadalcanal.

Surely they too were less than inspired by the Fleet's "shadow-boxing" and the overall lack of combat to report.

On our first overnight trip, we were standing at the flight line when "Charlie" came over at dawn.

We were on one end of the runway while the bombs were dropping on the opposite end.

Even at a distance the exploding bombs seemed close enough for concern and everyone jumped into a large sandbagged foxhole near the Operations Tent.

The Life photographer being the last one in and landing atop the squadron members packed beneath him in the revetment.

This "falling" cameraman was a stout fellow of nearly 300 pounds and, though we were well missed by the bombs, several of us suffered bruises and painful backs.

The following April 12, 1943 issues of TIME and LIFE -- in both the stateside and the miniature "battlefield" editions -- featured accounts of our raid.

Since communications began, mankind has dealt in perception and not just strictly in facts, a substitution aggravated by publicity.

This is true of wartime coverage, particularly on a "slow" news day.

For our visiting journalists, this was the only story in town thus it was that our "milk-run" raid received notoriety far beyond its importance to the conduct of the war. 

At the end of the war, among, I was probably best remembered by the folks at home for having my picture in LIFE than for the considerable and significant combat action I saw later in the war.

For me, my memories of Guadalcanal are mainly of being fallen on by an overweight photographer and the food, which was even worse than what we had been getting back in New Caledonia.

Throughout the war, the food product manufacturers back in the States were constantly working to improve the foodstuffs they provided the armed forces.

One such attempt I encountered during this period was called "canned butter" -- supposedly formulated to withstand melting in the fierce heat of the tropics.

It looked like the real thing.

When a gallon container was put before us in the mess tent in Guadalcanal we all tucked into it.

The trouble was that it had a wax base and when a generous layer was slathered on a piece of toast it simply coated the hard palate with an immovable layer of wax.

No one ever explained to me how, if it didn't melt in the tropical heat of over 105 degrees, it was expected to liquefy at normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees.

Perhaps the fellows feeble from malaria and fever made out better with this butter than we.

Anyway, I did momentarily forgot my problems with Spam while struggling to free the roof of my mouth of this so-called "butter."

By the end of the month, it was a real relief to get back on ship to good food and, even better, to hot showers -- our having had to bath in the river that ran past Henderson Field.

Sometime during this campaign the H.M.S. VICTORIOUS, a Royal Navy carrier, joined our task force.

It seems supply in the British Navy was set up for short cruises, as for instance, from the home isles down through Gibraltar to bases in the Mediterranean.

Contrary to the logistics followed by the U.S. fleet, they carried a limited food supply -- so it was that they gave out of rations.

On the request of the Brits, we loaded up a torpedo plane with dehydrated white potatoes and flew them over to the "Vic."

A couple of days later a follow-up dispatch came requesting another planeload of dehydrated spuds along with a cook.

When the chef returned -- a term rarely applied to sea-cooks -- we learned that the British mess people had been unable to get the dehydrated potatoes to swell to their minimal consistency save by boiling them in a solution of Epsom salts. 

This, of course, greatly discommoded the officers and men of the VICTORIOUS.

After several months the VICTORIOUS sailed for home and we pilots of Air Group 3 went with her.

The enlisted men of our group started for home at the same time aboard a Dutch freighter.

Alas, this latter vessel suffered engine failure while only a few hundred miles out of New Caledonia and would wallow at sea, unattended for almost a week.

We got back to Pearl Harbor after about a month at sea where we found the USS ESSEX -- the first of the new and larger "Essex" carrier class and one of the first of a plethora of larger ships that would facilitate the Navy's later foray into the central Pacific.

Little did we realize the big part the ESSEX would later play in the war and in some of our own lives.

We sailed on to San Diego from Hawaii and from there were dealt out to other squadrons, the Training Command and various other activities.

I was assigned to Bombing Squadron 15 and sent to Norfolk to join the new "Essex-class" U.S.S. HORNET (CV-15) after its shakedown cruise.

Bombing Squadron 6 which was re-designated VB-13 before we left the SARATOGA had many memorable characters.

The aforementioned "Soupy" Campbell left us early due to health reasons and would eventually become skipper of a "jeep" carrier during the Korean conflict.

Our next skipper was John Thompson ("Jigger") Lowe, an easy going North Carolinian, who would lead an SB2C squadron in the later part of the war and ended his Navy days as Commanding Officer of the Glenco Naval Air Station in Brunswick, Georgia.

Last year, I was able to visit "Jigger" and his wife, Betty, at their retirement home in Sea Island Georgia shortly before Betty's death.

I flew wing on Charlie "Tex" Conatser, who taught me more than anyone else about carrier flying and who would become a close and lasting companion.

He was a helicopter carrier skipper during the Vietnamese conflict but had to give up that command when his wife became terminally ill. 

"Tex" died some five years ago.

After "Tex" left the group, I flew wing on Lieut. Robert Stuart -- an Academy graduate of 1939 from Bluefield, West Virginia and one of the most charming gentlemen, northern or southern, I ever had the pleasure to know. 

I spoke with Bob several months ago and unfortunately he had recently had a stroke and is now partially disabled.

After the war, he found himself unhappy with his career assignments and left the Navy to manage a chain of bakeries owned by his wife's family.

The business prospered under his tutelage. 

His wife was a real beauty as was apparently their daughter who went on to star for many years on one of the daytime soap operas whose name I do not know that being an area of entertainment with which I am completely unfamiliar.

There were many good pilots in our squadron but the best of them was probably "Chris" Fink of Wyoming who would go on to became one of the Navy's first helicopter pilots.  He died two years ago.

His best friend in the squadron was Ben Petrie with whom I'm still in contact from time-to-time.

After the war he became a nuclear physicist finishing his Navy career in this capacity and is now retired from the Naval Reserve.

Bill Behr died last year.  He flew opposite me on "Tex" Conaster's other wing and was known for his near-faultless carrier landings.

Hank Kramer went on to become a fighter pilot and was shot down and lost later in the war.

Jim Barnitz, or "Bean-Bag Barney," and I were both assigned to VB-15 and, afterwards, The Training Command.  Jim remained in the Navy retiring at the rank of Commander.  He died last year.

There were many other real characters, great guys and good pilots -- Bill Gregg and Charlie Hubbell among them. 

We still get in touch from them from time-to-time.

One of them was my rear-seat gunner and radioman -- Don Hoff.

Don flew in four combat flights against the Jap Fleet at the Battle of Midway. 

When we returned to the states from the Pacific, he visited my family in Greenville and apparently disappointed my sister Elizabeth by falling to sleep on our couch and missing their date at a local dance.

After the war Don became a deputy sheriff in Fresno, California where he and his wife, Ellie, still live.

In the last few years, Don has done more than anyone else to keep we surviving fellows from VS-6 (VB-13) in contact with each other.

Don and Ellie recently made the acquaintance of my son, Carl, and his daughter, Sophie, at a memorial service held on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Midway aboard the U.S.S. HORNET -- now berthed in Oakland, California. 

He and Ellie stay young by "calling" square dances all over California.  Carl recently saw them in "action" and reports that their energy and enthusiasm is remarkable.

Don shared with Carl and Sophie his own stories from Henderson Field including our squadron's role in the development of a "daisy-cutter" ordinance. 

Typically bombs would drop nose first and explode when impact with the ground would drive the bomb's fuse up into its explosive core. 

Someone came up with the idea that we might do more damage if the bomb exploded above ground level.

The CASU ordinance folks cut up sections of metal rod and welded them to the nose of our bombs. The rod was about 2 ~ 3' long and when it hit the ground the bomb would then detonate at an equal distance above the ground. 

We first tested these at New Caledonia where it was noticed they left a circular swath of destruction on the ground hence the name "daisy-cutter." 

I don't know how effective or widely used they were but they obviously made quite an impression on Don.

These are but a few of the incidents and folks that made my time in Scouting Squadron 6 so memorable and, as with most wartime adventures, their story alone could fill a book.

If we ever manage to get together again I doubt anyone will ask for Spam and most certainly not dehydrated spuds re-constituted with Epsom salts.


August, 2002


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