John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Naval Years
The Plane That Grand-Dad Flew - A Brief History of Naval Aviation

The Plane That Grand-Dad Flew
A Brief History of Naval Aviation

The gradual fading of a vivid experience is frequently missed until seen through the eyes of another; and then, in a twinkling, memory has become history.

Just when do one's personal experiences and recollections turn the corner from cherished stories into history?

Where comes the insight that the events of one's own life are now history to others?

When one's experiences share a memorable public context at what time do they pass from personal story to history?

The growing remoteness of memories is a sneaky business less apparent to a narrator than to listeners.

A young listener can bring the insight to what seems to be "just yesterday" to the narrator but that has, in fact, become lore. 

It did for me.

In the bicentennial summer of 1976, our granddaughter, Kathy, was visiting from Arizona, she being just out of the first grade. 

Edie and I along with our teen-age daughter, Holly, and Kathy rendezvoused in Washington, D.C. with our son, Carl, home after having completed his graduate studies in architecture at the University of Oregon.

It was an exciting time to be in our nation's capital.

We spent one morning in the then new Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. 

At the Navy exhibit, suspended in mid-air and in mint condition, was a familiar sight, the SBD Douglas Dauntless -- one type of scout-bomber that I had flown in the Pacific during World War II.

Here was the aircraft that in a few short minutes at the Battle of Midway turned the tide of the war with Japan and started the dissolution of the Axis alliance.

I stood there lost in thought, a pediatrician in the downhill years of middle-age, perusing old memories through the mind's eye of the twenty-year-old pilot I had been some three decades earlier.

A man and a near-grown youth joined me at the rail.

As they looked at the Dauntless the youngster said, "Say, Dad, isn't that the plane that Granddad flew?"

In that moment I realized my youthful experiences had become a part of history.

The years of my own youth had been spent under the clouds of "The Great Depression." 

These clouds never broke but were eventually replaced by the war clouds gathering in the late thirties. 

Toward the end of my high school days a local minister presented a chapel program on pacifism.  We enthusiastically applauded. 

The insanity of war seemed obvious enough.  Yet, soon the advent of madmen attracting dedicated followings made the choice of peace at any price seem a greater folly.

Idealism faded as Hitler marched across Europe.  Pacifism had little currency through my college years.

The news of trouble in Europe and Asia pushed aside the headlines of economic and domestic misfortune.  

President Roosevelt talked of a "two-ocean" Navy.

This seemed a needed if rhetorical concept, but it was real enough. 

Little did I appreciate that it would culminate in a few short years in one of history's great sea battles -- in all likelihood the world's last great naval encounter -- and there was anticipation that I would find myself centrally involved.   

At Christmas 1979, just over thirty-five years after that battle, my oldest son, John, Jr. or Jock, brought home two copies of The Battle of Leyte Gulf by Edwin R. Hoyt.

Jock, an Army helicopter pilot, reads copiously of air warfare.  He recently had found my name mentioned in Hoyt's book and my wife, Edie, suggested that we get copies of the book for each of our children.

As I read Hoyt's account of the battle, reminiscing over both mentioned and unmentioned names and events and enjoying his overview of the complex events, I thought of the different personal stories any of us involved could tell.

Though those in a particular family might be intrigued by a war history containing the family name, it also seemed that reading of the real experiences of a forebear in such epic events might be more meaningful.

For me, in my own search of our family annals, I had treasured the merest tidbits of such information when found.

Further, in the fullness of time, World War II may prove to have been the halcyon days of the aircraft carrier, and the carrier might capture future interest and imagination just as fully as the sailing ships of yore intrigue us today.

A record of an every-day participant's "garden-variety" insights would seem to have adjunctive value to the more "formal" historical accounts.

In those days carrier aviation was different, and I believe more personal, than it is today amid the technology of high-performance aircraft, electronic guidance systems and nuclear-powered ships.

It's natural that such recollections turn back to Norfolk, Virginia where centered many of my own days in the Navy.

The gateposts of the Chesapeake Bay are Cape Charles to the north and Cape Henry to the south.

The southern shore of the Chesapeake runs westward from Cape Henry punctuated by the mounts of Lynnhaven Bay and Little Creek, to end in a hooked finger of land called Willoughby Spit.

This spit juts into Hampton Roads, the estuary of the James River. 

It's often said that Hampton Roads "is large enough to anchor all the world's Navies at one time."

The size, accessibility and defensibility of this anchorage, in large part, accounts for the maritime fortunes of the Norfolk area.

Willoughby Spit encloses a cove of water surrounding the tip of a peninsula above Norfolk on which is situated the Naval Air Station.

When I flew in that area our formations of planes would headed along Willoughby Spit then break up and singly enter the air station's landing pattern.

This was an area where the English first established a toehold in America; and here was the demographic hearth from whence my own family, in several streams, spread into North Carolina.

The raising of tobacco and the harvesting of turpentine and lumber from the lush pine forests for shipbuilding purposes gave economic permanence to settlement along the James River.

The trade in naval stores declined with the advent of iron steamships, but the raising, marketing and processing of tobacco is still a mainstay in the economy of the coastal plain region of Virginia and the Carolinas.

I grew up in Greenville, one of the dozen or so "tobacco towns" in eastern North Carolina.

As a child, it took only subliminal exposure for things aeronautical to capture my attention.

Pilots were the idols of my boy-hood. 

Lindberg's crossing of the Atlantic had been the premier personal epic of that era.

I had spent many youthful hours building model airplanes, all of which crashed, but one of which managed to stay airborne for a half-block before diving to its demise.

The highlight of my life had been a flight with a touring "barn-stormer" that my father had reluctantly agreed to after endless pleading.

Our family had visited the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk, N.C. shortly after its dedication in 1932.

Knowing that our state was "the birthplace of aviation" gave me, and I believe many North Carolinians, a proprietary feeling about flying.

Oddly enough, considering that the world in those days saw Greenville more as a backwater than mainstream, our town had been sensitized to naval aviation.

A native son several years my senior, Charles King, had become a pilot in the Navy sometime in the late thirties.

His antecedents, like my own, were deeply rooted in Pitt County history, and the King family constituted a considerable and well-thought-of clan thereabouts.

Charlie flew a carrier-based scout-bomber and, at the time, was stationed aboard the U.S.S. RANGER with homeport in Norfolk.

Every once-in-a-while Charlie would fly down from Norfolk and put on a show for the people in his hometown.

Sometimes others accompanied him.

I recall one such sortie that involved several planes, alternately stunting individually and then wheeling about in formation.

It was all grand and most impressive.

In Greenville in those days one often heard the comment that "Charlie King is the second-best pilot in the Navy."

I never found how the local pundits arrived at this rating, nor did I learn who was considered the best.

In any event, though in awe of Charlie King's exploits, his homefolk were scarcely aware of the grand plan of which he was a part.

Naval aviation had been born less than a decade after the Wright brothers had first flown at Kitty Hawk.

The Navy had kept an eye on the experiments of another bicycle manufacturer, Glenn Curtiss, then a California plane-maker.

In 1910 in Chesapeake Bay, a Curtiss pilot, Eugene Ely, flew a four-cylinder biplane from a wooden platform built over the bow of the cruiser U.S.S. BIRMINGHAM.

Two months later in San Francisco Bay (taking off from what is now the Tanforam Shopping Center), Ely flew a Curtiss biplane from shore and landed it on a similar platform over the after-deck of the battleship U.S.S. PENNSYLVANIA.

In that same year of 1911, Curtiss landed his "hydroplane" in San Diego Bay alongside the PENNSYLVANIA, was hoisted aboard and then lowered back to the water from whence he took off and flew back to his North Island base.

These were convincing demonstrations and in 1912 the Navy ordered two planes from Curtiss and one from the Wrights.

Lieutenant T. G. Ellyson took flight instruction under Curtiss and was designated Naval Aviator No. 1.

In 1913, Acting Secretary of Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a Board of Aeronautics, and the next year the Board established the Naval Aviation Training Station at Pensacola, Florida.

Aviation, however, remained a minor naval service for its first few years and, when the United States entered the European conflict in 1917, the Navy had only 38 pilots and 54 airplanes. 

By the end of World War I, with a wealth of combat and operational experience gained, Navy and Marine aviation had grown to over 2000 planes and 3000 officers.

The next few years saw great strides in the development of carrier planes, scout seaplanes for cruisers and battle-wagons, and flying-boat patrol-bombers.

Lighter-than-air craft moved from inflatable blimps to giant rigid airships.

In 1921, Congress established the Bureau of Aeronautics in the Navy Department.

Ely's feats of taking off the BIRMINGHAM and landing on the PENNSYLVANIA undoubtedly introduced the carrier principle.

However, it was the British who first moved this concept forward, and by the end of World War I, the Royal Navy had a flush-deck carrier with a complement of 40 planes.

In 1922, the U.S.S. LANGLEY, a converted fleet collier, put to sea as our first carrier.

On her deck, naval aviation operations grew and flourished, and soon the LANGLEY was operating as a ship-of-the-line in fleet maneuvers.

The post-war peace accord arrested the construction of two large U.S. battle cruisers.  These were converted on the "ways" into carriers and were launched in 1927 as the U.S.S. SARATOGA and the U.S.S. LEXINGTON.

These ships displaced 33,000 tons, carried a complement of 80 planes, and were to be the most formidable carriers afloat for the next decade and a half.

But all had not been progress.

The uproar following General "Billy" Mitchell's demonstration of the vulnerability of surface ships to aerial bombardment prompted an investigation in 1925 which revealed only 351 useful planes in the Navy.

The total was tripled over the following few years.

The U.S.S. RANGER was launched in 1934 -- much smaller than the "Saratoga" class ships and the first U.S. carrier designed from the keel up for that purpose.

That same year, construction of the U.S.S. YORKTOWN and the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE was authorized.

In 1938, the U.S.S. WASP was on the "ways," to be launched in two years.  The U.S.S. HORNET was on the drawing boards and would join the fleet in 1941.

At the time an additional 3000 plans were authorized.

In these early years, Navy flyers generally were commissioned officers, mostly Academy graduates designated as Naval Aviators after formal flight training.

A few enlisted men were being graduated from flight school as Naval Air Pilots.

Flight fundamentals were taught at Pensacola with final training provided by operational fleet units.

The obvious limitations of this approach in the face of naval expansion resulted in Congress passing the Aviation Cadet Act of 1935.

The Navy called this the V-5 program and it made flight-officer training available to single men, 20 - 28 years of age, with two years of college.

The intent of the V-5 program was to build up a corps of pilots who would be retained on active duty 4 ~ 7 years, and who afterward would comprise a ready supply of "trained" pilots in the Naval Reserve.

This was the program that Charlie King had entered and that was being promoted in the late 1930's by the slogan:  "Earn Your Navy Wings of Gold."

I knew little of this background at the time, but the appealing prospects of the V-5 program were detailed in a brochure I received after answering the aforementioned Navy advertisement.

Flight training took about one year, mostly to be spent as an Aviation Cadet earning about $105.00 per month -- more than I could make teaching school to say nothing of being provided with clothing, lodging and food.

The successful graduate would be commissioned an Ensign in the Naval Reserve with a monthly salary of $150.00, pus an extra 50% as hazard pay for flying, an initial allowance for buying uniforms and a monthly subsistence allowance.

Being unmarried, and agreeing to remain so for two years, the newly commissioned Ensigns would live in Bachelor Officers' Quarters (B.O.Q.).

To one who had spent his adolescence amid economic wreckage, this seemed largesse of the highest order.

In addition, because the Reservist would be delaying his formative years in a permanent career, an annual bonus of $1000.00 would accrue to one's credit for each year of active duty.

Quite a nest egg for those times, especially for one interested in attending medical school and feeling that his teachers' college diploma and porous financial statement were poor armament for storming professional bastions.

Finally, during my senior year in college, the National Guard was called up, and many classmates and friends around eastern North Carolina were drafted.

I was too young for selective service, then limited to 21 ~ 34 years of age, and though I figured medical students would be deferred I saw little likelihood of my attaining this status before reaching draft age.

All these circumstances and yearnings were leaven for my thoughts and plans.

A mainstay in my family was mealtime and conversation, particularly about family matters, was an important side dish at each repast.

We ate together three times daily even during my college years.

These years were drawing to a close when one night at supper we talked about the probability of war.

My father pointed out that his father had been a foot-soldier in the Civil War and that he had been the same in World War I and that, if another generation faced military service, it was time someone from the family served as an officer.

This conversation came to mind while I was toying with the idea of joining the V-5 program.

I thought my father would be pleased that I was considering something that would lead to a commission.

However, when I told him I was thinking of trying for naval flight training, he shook his head and replied, "My Lord, Boy, you'd be better off being drafted than getting into something like that!"

My father's reservations notwithstanding, in the fall of 1940, I applied to become a Naval Aviation Cadet.

To my surprise I had little trouble with the much-feared flight physical examination and was ordered to report for active duty in February 1941 to the U.S. Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Miami, Florida.

My parents drove me to Raleigh for induction.  I saw a fascinating world ahead, one that would prove big in some ways and small in others. 

Over the years, I would feel at home in many places and enjoy sundry sites and circumstances, but it would be many years later before I could truly appreciate the sense of "genetic" belonging I had felt in the world I left behind that day.



Circa 1980


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