John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Naval Years
The Bent Pinkie - Operation Forager, Summer, 1944

The Bent Pinkie
"Operation Forager"
Summer 1944

The mastery of reading came to me in a cadence with those of my age and generation; but the real joy of reading came more slowly not taking root until I was a teen-ager.

I guess, from the standpoint of books, a set of Tarzan of the Apes that I received one Christmas set me off.

Also, these were the days of the literary magazine when most homes, at varying intervals, received The Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies Home Companion or what not. 

The American Magazine, now extinct, came to our house every month, containing some human-interest pieces, but also filled with short stories of fiction, always with great illustrations of the "Winslow Homer" type.

I always looked forward to the latest episode of "Dr. Dogbody's Leg."  Dr. Dogbody was a surgeon in the Royal Navy during Napoleonic times and he had a wooden leg.

Each installment sprang from Dr. Dogbody's being in a different tavern or pub in various and sundry ports, and answering with an imaginary account someone's query about how he lost his leg -- each time always different and always an adventure.

This seemed to me a great ploy for telling sea stories of the Navy from any era.  However, dreaming up plots was too much of a chore, and, in truth, the worst injury I received in my Naval experience was a bent pinky finger on my right hand.

Recently I was contemplating this odd looking digit and memories were stirred.

The web of one's thoughts doesn't have the regularity and order as do a spider's spinning.  It's amazing how often recollections about one person lead to those about another with whom the first has had but a transient and minimal nexus.

Into such reverie falls Rear Admiral William Keen Harrill -- undoubtedly now deceased -- whom I recall when often I think of my late good friend, Dr. Paul Maness.

Though Paul and I were fellow pediatricians in Piedmont North Carolina, over the years our paths would cross mostly in other pursuits. 

Paul practiced for most of his professional life in Burlington where, in his early eighties, he died soon after retirement.  I practiced nigh a quarter of a century in nearby High Point, but have been more peripatetic than was he.

Paul and I were both native Tar Heels.  He was born and lived most of his life in Alamance County, in the central part of the state, while I derived from Pitt County, far to the east, before ending up in Guilford County.

We first knew one another when we served together in Air Group 15 during WWII, he being our group Flight Surgeon and I an aviator in the bombing squadron.

In the formulation days of the unit, our squadron was stationed on Creed's Field.  He was with the staff of the Air Group Commander at Pungo Field.  Both were satellites of the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, located in the swampy country to the south, and, singularly enough, hard-by the north boundary of our native state of North Carolina.

One night I was trying to keep up with some of the more junior pilots --  that is rank rather than age -- who had received more intense physical conditioning than those of my class.  They had been through a pre-flight phase of training that lasted almost a year whereas we trained a year or so total before the war and before such "niceties" were dreamt up.

Pre-flight was heralded for the conditioning of pilots-to-be to withstand the rigors of survival in alien places in which they might be forced down, but most of us suspected it was just a repository for those selected to be student pilots -- where they could be gathered into the pipeline and kept out of trouble in the meantime.

Anyway, while playing pick-up basketball one night it seemed as if I had broken the fifth finger on my right hand -- at least it undeniably swelled to twice its normal size.  The next day I was sent over to Pungo to see the Flight Surgeon.

Dr. Paul Maness was one of those who ever looked younger than his age and was always a personable and winsome person.  He and I mutually recognized our southern accents and immediately struck up a friendship that would prevail for the next half a century. 

After our combat stint with Air Group 15 in central and western Pacific we were both assigned to the Training Command in the Jacksonville, Florida area, but were stationed at different bases.

We and our wives ran into each other one day in downtown Jacksonville and all were surprised to learn that Anne, Paul's wife, and Edie, my wife, had taught school together back North Carolina before the war. 

Paul had a brother -- whose Christian name I can no longer recall -- who was also a Naval aviator and was stationed in the Jacksonville area, too.

His brother was in charge of an aviation orientation program for recent Naval Academy graduates held each year in the Training Command.  He recruited me to lecture in this endeavor.

I started this in the summer of 1946 as the last active duty assignment in my career as a reservist line officer before returning to inactive duty to enter medical training at Duke University that fall. 

When I first met Paul, to undertake the study of medicine particularly at Duke, was, above all else, a burning ambition of mine.  This proved another coincidence that drew us together.

Paul had graduated from Duke Medical School before the war as a member of one of the school's very earliest classes.

During the war Paul transferred from the Naval Reserve to the Medical Corps of the regular Navy and stayed in several years after V-J day.

Later, while I was in medical school, Paul showed up again at Duke, having resigned from the service and having entered Pediatric training.  After finishing the residency program, he entered private practice in Burlington and there remained for the rest of his life.

In my time back in the Navy, and afterwards in pediatric training, teaching and practice, we would only see each other from time-to-time, but both considered ourselves old and close friends despite our infrequent contact.

A fellow named Bill Vickney lived in Burlington.  He and I had corresponded in connection with a book he was writing to be called Men of Midway. At the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of WWII, he sent me a feature from the Burlington newspaper that included Paul's story.

I last saw Paul in the fall of 1995 at a Duke University Medical School reunion in Durham.  He, Anne and I were able to spend some time visiting and reminiscing.

It was shortly thereafter that Warren Parrish (a boyhood friend also a member of Air Group 15) sent me a clipping from The News and Observer telling of Paul's passing.

In condolence correspondence with Anne, I learned how much that last meeting had meant to Paul, and it certainly did to me.

Now about Rear Admiral Harrill. 

After a generation of peace, rising to the higher ranks in the armed services -- with the possible exception of the Marine Corps -- seemed to be an ascent that promoted those with the least blemished records or who had refrained from "rocking the boat."

At the time I enlisted very, very few made it to those rarified levels if they weren't graduates of the service academies -- again, perhaps with the exception of the Marines.

It seemed that these "Academy" officers were always among the most intelligent available.  By their "flag" days, those who were misfits were usually winnowed out by their passage through the ranks.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with this situation for it was to produce "professional" officers that the service academies existed in the first place and, by-and-large, the better officers did derive from there. 

However, when open conflict overtook us, our armed services were under the guidance of those who had proven their political skills rather than those experienced and skilled at managing a war.  At least, this was the way it seemed to me in the opening days of the war.

Apparently, we needed to be at the business of war for a while before a new group of officers could work their way to the top that were versed in the true business of war and who disported aggressiveness rather than being agreeable to the system. 

In WW II -- and particularly the Pacific campaign -- this involved having aviators, or "carrier admirals," replace the "big gun admirals" much as carriers had replaced surface elements as the capital ships of the Navy.

By the time of the central and western Pacific campaigns, the Navy by-and-large had worked its way through this transition though occasionally a "throw back" turned up.

So it was with Rear Adm. William "Keen" Harrill, a man whom I never admired but who likely minimized "harms way" for me personally and those with whom I flew in Bombing Squadron 15.

In the summer of 1944 we were embarked on OPERATION FORAGER, the conquest of the Marianas -- occupying the islands of Guam, Rota, Tinian and Saipan.

Though on my level we were not privy to the argument, there had been discussion between Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations of the Navy, and General Douglas MacArthur, Army commander in the Pacific Theater, as to the proper route to Japan.

General MacArthur, who was fighting in New Guinea, wished to pursue this route back to the Philippines, and hence on to the Japanese home island.  He supposedly envisioned himself as the supreme commander of the Pacific, an ambition not shared by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, and truly abhorred by the rank and file of the Navy.

General "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Force, apparently tipped the scales in this controversy.  He wanted bases from which to launch his attacks against the Japanese home islands.  His very new B-36 bomber pilots were then flying from bases in China, considered an unsatisfactory accommodation.  Appropriate airfields in the Marianas would provide an easy reach to Tokyo.

It was known that the Marianas were considered within the inner circle of the defense of the home islands, and it was felt that action there might also provoke the Imperial Fleet into the open, their not having returned to the area in over a year.

OPERATION FORAGER was planned to penetrate the inner Japanese perimeter of defense, to be a move back toward the Philippines, to provide B-36 launching sites and to, hopefully, tempt their Navy into open battle.

So in May 1944 we were embarked on OPERATION FORAGER, the conquest of the Marianas.  Air Group Fifteen was assigned to the U.S.S. ESSEX, in turn assigned to Task Group 58.4 as part of the Fifth Fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance.

Rear Admiral Harrill was in command of our task group, TG 58.4, made up of the Fleet Carrier Task Forces under Admiral Mark Mitchner and organized around fleet-type flat tops.

Each task group operated to some extent in its own part of the ocean and each was generally organized around two large carriers, such as the ESSEX, and two light carriers (CVL's) which were smaller vessels laid down on cruiser hulls.

TG 58.4, however, had only the ESSEX and the light carriers, COWPENS and LANGLEY; along with four cruisers and a coterie of more than a dozen destroyers.  And at times we had a battleship along, detached from the Battle Division.

Most armed service personnel probably went through their stints with never having had a face-to-face encounter with a general or an admiral.  The same probably holds true for many, if not most, junior officers.

Things were somewhat different for flying officers in both the Navy or Army because they belonged to the smaller commissioned units of squadrons, and were themselves in a hierarchy within a hierarchy.

For instance, in World War II, I rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and was considered a "senior officer" in the squadrons in which I served once I reached Lieutenant, but in the overall scheme of things I was never considered more than a junior officer in the Navy as a whole.

But I did have a few dealings vis-à-vis with generals and admirals -- very few, but perhaps more than most of us who were more-or-less in "for the duration" of the war.

My first such contact was with Admiral Harrill whose flagship was the ESSEX during OPERATION FORAGER.

Without being told as much, we had the feeling that somehow a confrontation with the Imperial Fleet was expected, though much of our time had been spent attacking the Marianas in support of the landings.

The Fifth Fleet had taken its station to the west of the island chain, interposed between the Marianas and the bases that such a fleet would be marshalling.

Our planes had intercepted a convoy of Japanese merchant ships several days before, which had in part been sunk, in part dispersed with remnants retiring to the west.  A maximum search effort was launched to look for both these ships and the Japanese fleet.

Each SB2C was rigged with an extra gas tank in its bomb bay and was sent out with a one-plane fighter escort to search out to a distance of 350 miles, this being a hundred or more miles beyond our usual range.

Before take-off all of the search plane pilots were summoned to the Ward Room where a Flag Lieutenant instructed us in the art of "snooping."

"Snooping" was much as the word suggests, a system for keeping tabs on enemy ships without giving away the direction from whence you had come.

The idea was, that on sighting any unidentified surface units, you would drop back down below the horizon, fly to a point way around the disposition and pop-up for another look then do this repeatedly around the periphery of your prey until finally taking departure in a direction away from one's own forces before heading home.

For some reason, our planes also had a 250-pound general-purpose bomb under each wing.  I say "for some reason" because in our briefing it was emphasized that we were not to attack, but simply to locate, track and report any contacts we made.

We were breaking new ground in testing the range of the SB2C, and did not welcome the extra drag of the exterior bombs.

The fighter pilots assigned as escorts were sent to our Ready Room so we could work out our navigation together. Unlike the scout-bombers and torpedo-bombers, they were not accustomed to navigating for by that time they were being vectored about through radar and the Fighter Director at the Combat Information Center (C.I.C.).

Lieutenant "Bud" Plant was assigned as my fighter escort.  "Bud" was a very robust, affable fellow.  He was liked by all, but not considered cerebral by most.  It was not that "Bud" couldn't learn for he had to have had some intellectual ability to have reached his station in life but learning seemed a pursuit in which he found little need.

He had the build of a "tight-end"  -- tall, say nigh six-and-a-half feet, broad shouldered and muscular, but he was not at all a bully as are some large men.  His size alone made him intimidating enough that he never had to exert physical prowess to prove a point or have his way. 

In contradistinction, he was of good disposition and rather gentle, as another ilk of large men frequently are, it seeming that an aggressive nature was superfluous. 

When I finished my navigation, I noticed his chart board was unsullied by any diagrams or calculations.  I turned to him and said, "OK, Bud, let's compare our figures."

He replied, "Don't give me that 'B.S.', Jig.  Just show me your numbers."  I gave him a list of times and a corresponding list of headings which, should we become separated, would get him back within the range of the C.I.C.

We were soon on our way, flying a "pie-shaped" sector, to extend out 350 miles, across 30 ~ 40 miles, and then back to our ships.

The ocean was empty until we were inward bound -- I can't remember how far -- and we spotted a collection of transport vessels.

It seemed likely to me that here was the remnant of the convoy, which had been previously found and attacked a day or so before.

We immediately began to "snoop" in the manner prescribed for us, popping up and down to take a look until I was sure we had a fix on their numbers, course and speed. 

We then took a vicarious route around and away so as to mask the exact direction of our departure.

We sent out a position report as we proceeded home, not knowing if it were being picked up on the VHS channel, but in hopes some other plane might pick it up and relay it.

The Very High Frequency system, which the VHS was, yielded a "line of sight" broadcast which defied direction fixing but covered a limited range.

We had settled down with "Bud" flying slightly askew and a thousand or more feet above me.

Suddenly "Bud" swooped down beside me and pointed to a line transport vessel he had spotted which neither of us had seen 'til we were all but on top of it.

"Snooping" was out the window so we attacked.  "Bud" was strafing and I dropped my two bombs in successive gliding attacks.  I'm ashamed to say, both missed the target.

However, my second bomb did land just behind the ship and under its stern.  The ship went into a tight circle that it maintained 'til we were out of sight. 

Whether this was an evasive maneuver or due to damage to its steering mechanism I couldn't say. 

I noted its position on my chart board, and again we headed home.

Soon we ran across a ship's lifeboat filled with men, making east toward the Marianas, and presumably in escape from an earlier sinking of a ship. 

We both attacked this with our guns, "Bud" with his six 50-caliber machine guns and me with my 20 mm cannons.

I saw large chunks of wood flying off the gunwales, but we didn't sink the boat, and left because time was running out and we were still some miles from home.

I've often since wondered why we struck out at these defenseless sailors.  One can only suppose that our "blood was up" and that they represented an enemy who could well survive to fight another day.

In any event, once beyond the heat of the moment, my conscience has never since been at ease with our ruthlessness.

In due time we intercepted one of own ships, having them appear directly and dead ahead. 

"Bud" couldn't believe our navigation could be that accurate.  As he later said:  "By gawd, there were our ships right in the middle of our windshields!"

I reported to John Sullivan, our squadron intelligence officer.  I was soon thereafter summoned to report to the Admiral on his bridge.

I had my chart-board with me and the Admiral himself plotted the position of these various sightings on his map.  He said to me, "Why didn't you attack the convoy?"

I was somewhat taken aback for, to my mind, we had precisely followed orders to "snoop," avoiding detection if possible.  I emphasized this to Admiral Harrill and he then said, "Why do you think we armed your plane with bombs?"

I thought better of stating my thoughts.  I, too, had wondered why they had hung bombs on our planes when we were searching at extreme range and were to strive to go undetected.

He then said, "Well, what did you do with your bomb?"

I explained about coming up unexpectedly on the line ship and that obviously we were well seen before we had seen them.

He dismissed me from the bridge and, as I left, I saw him shaking his head.  I felt like shaking my head, but knew better.

It was most disturbing to see one in the Admiral's position be so indecisive.  Apparently there was a groundswell of concern about his competence to manage a flotilla of our considerable size and power.  I had no idea how widespread until years later when reading accounts of the operation.

Meanwhile, the Fast Carrier Task Force ranged westward reaching toward a suspected enemy, which was eventually spotted by our submarines. 

Our task group was left behind to guard the landing forces for the Marianas because -- though we did not know at the time -- Admiral Mitchner, who was commanding the overall task force, did not trust Admiral Harrill's will to tangle with the Japanese forces.

It was when we were so disposed that the fighter planes of the fleet found themselves arraigned against Japanese planes from both the enemy carriers and their land bases in the Marianas. 

This was the famed "Marianas Turkey Shoot" which caused such egregious loss of Japanese planes and aircrews and established the reputation of David McCampbell and "The Fabled Fifteenth."

Eventually contact was made with the Imperial forces but this was accomplished late in the afternoon and at extreme range.

The decision was made to launch attacks from the other three task groups at a range which made the round trip somewhat problematic, and also meant the planes would be returning to their ships after dark.

Night carrier operations were feasible back then but were far from the efficient operations that were the daylight sorties.

The result was "The Battle of the Philippine Sea," and to my mind the most perilous and costly attack which American Naval airmen were called upon to make in the Pacific war.

The planes of the other task groups were able to make a single telling attack on the Japanese forces but paid a great price -- though the Japanese paid more. 

Three Japanese carriers were sunk and other ships were damaged and the enemy had again suffered egregious losses of planes and airmen.  In essence their air forces were dismantled and would not again be a telling influence in the war.

However, some of our planes and crews were lost in combat and many more were lost by having to make water landings at night both on the way home and around our ships.

Admiral Mitchner finally lit up his ships to guide the airmen but, with the planes all but out of fuel, the ensuing scramble to find a deck on which to land was a grim and undisciplined fiasco.

So it was that Admiral Harrill's temerity had spared our squadron participation in this confrontation that was to become known as "The Battle of the Philippine Sea."

After we were back at anchorage following this set-to, I was discussing my misgivings about the Admiral with Paul Maness.

Paul told me I need worry no further because the day before Admiral Harrill was diagnosed as possibly having acute appendicitis, had been promptly transferred to a hospital ship for surgery, and either now, or soon would be, on his way back to the States.

Paul said this somewhat "tongue-in-cheek," and I never knew whether the Admiral really had appendicitis or whether a propitious bellyache had been used to ease him out of an unfortunate assignment.

In any event, that's why at this late date, Paul Maness and Admiral Harrill are juxtaposed in my thoughts.  All this from contemplating a bent pinkie finger and now told to you in the manner of Dr. Dogbody -- though there will no further versions. 


Edited May 2002

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