John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Naval Years
An Old House - The Battle of the Philippine Sea

An Old House
The Battle of the Philippine Sea


I had often wondered about the old house -- who had built it and when.

It had been my first home and we had lived there until I was six years old.

It had belonged to my grandparents, and I had never heard of their living elsewhere.

They had been married in 1885, and my mother and her siblings had been born and raised there, so apparently it had been built before the turn of the century.

It was on a corner toward the southern end of one of the main streets of Greenville, North Carolina and obviously had been on the edge of town when new.

Thus, were the questions I had long held about the home of David Jordan and Henrietta Sutton Whichard, and which have been partially answered in only the past year.

My closest friend during my school years in Greenville was Jonathan White Foley, Jr.

Jack and I were in the same elementary classes throughout and fairly inseparable in our salad years when we took many high school courses together.

We went to football games up-state, double-dated often -- particularly for dances -- hung out at nights at the homes of various girls, and even briefly worked together at the Imperial Tobacco Company.

Jack's father was the superintendent of the plant and we both worked for him.

Our paths forked when we went to college and we never were much together thereafter, but have stayed occasionally in touch and very much in mind over the years.

Jack continued to live in our hometown area while I have wandered the country in various pursuits.

We both left home to serve as Naval Aviators during World War II.

We never were together in our war years, but as we later compared notes we found that we had several mutual friends -- Charlie "Tex" Conatser and Eddie Outlaw being two notable examples.

Both of those gentlemen were ahead of us in the Naval pecking order.

"Tex" was a chance acquaintance with whom we both served and was my particularly staunch friend when we flew together in the Pacific in the earlier part of the war.

Eddie was a fellow East Carolinian known much better by Jack than by me.

He had been born in Greenville, was mostly raised in nearby Goldsboro, was graduated from the Naval Academy and became an aviator several years before Pearl Harbor.

Jack and Eddie served together in Corpus Christi, Texas when Jack was a primary flight instructor and the Outlaws had entertained him in their home.

In truth Eddie Outlaw and I had only met face-to-face once, but my family mentioned him from time-to-time and I felt their interest seemed rather specific.

When Jack and I were recently together in a rare rendezvous he gave me a news-clipping reporting that Eddie Outlaw had recently died.

Sometime before I had read --  I believe in a publication from East Carolina University -- that in retirement as Rear Admiral Eddie Outlaw had turned over his papers to the genealogical archives of the University library.

Though his name was far from a household one in Greenville he was well known in Naval circles, and had served out a distinguished career in combat and command.

The thing which Jack Foley shared with me was that Eddie Outlaw had once told him that he had been born in "The Old Whichard House" on Evans Street in Greenville.

This would explain why my family spoke so knowingly of him, though they never mentioned this coincidence.

Now, in some ways the figures don't seem to jive -- Eddie seemed younger than those of my mother's generation, but all with whom I can now check this out are gone.

Suffice it that the possibility of discrepancies has crossed my mind, but I have followed my dictum:

  "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story!"

All this brought back several incidents to me.

The only time I ran into Eddie Outlaw face-to-face was when I was in primary flight training in 1941 in Pensacola, Florida, a few months before the war started.

A cadet's first three months were spent in Ground School, and the first several weeks of this were spent in orientation aimed at setting civilian college students on the path toward becoming commissioned Naval officers in a few weeks.

As do many from eastern North Carolina I have ever spoken with a drawl more reminiscent of the deep South.  In those days it was thick enough to be sliced with a knife.

One day Lieut. Outlaw was lecturing to us on Naval customs and traditions.

As he finished he asked for questions which were legion.

I had a question about Pearl Harbor and in best Southern voice referred to "Honno-loo'-loo'".

The class roared, but Eddie Outlaw held up his hands, asked for quiet and responded:  "Go ahead, Bridgers -- I can understand you".

This brought another uproar and for the rest of my months in Pensacola I was frequently greeted:  "Go ahead, Bridgers -- we can understand you".

I was always sorry I didn't get to know Eddie Outlaw better -- Jack Foley always spoke highly of their friendship.

Many months later I was flying off the U.S.S. ESSEX in the central Pacific.

"The Fast Carrier Task Force" of the Pacific fleet, under Vice-Admiral Marc Mitscher, was made up of four task groups, each built around two fleet carriers and two light carriers.

This differed vastly from the two small task forces we had in the southwest Pacific a year before, one formed around the U.S.S. SARATOGA and the other around the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE, the only two carriers we then had in operation opposing the Japanese.

In June of 1944 we were about the business of softening up the Japanese defenses and invading the Mariana Islands.

Unrealized at the outset was that we were in the early throes of a major fleet engagement, which in history would be known as "The Battle of the Philippine Sea".

It had been determined that the Imperial Fleet had sortied from the home islands and were moving to challenge us.

Many of us had misgivings about the admiral who commanded our task group, his seeming a rather indecisive sort.

We didn't know then that those above felt the same.

For these and other reasons, the other three task groups were dispatched to the west aiming at an early interception of whatever forces might be coming our way, while our task group was left in place to protect our forces in the vicinity of the Marianas, and to provide air support to our invading troops.

It was learned in the late afternoon that the enemy position was at extreme range.

So it came to pass, that to strike first, attack planes from our three detached Task Groups were sent out near the limit of their fuel range late in the day.

The strike was an offensive success, sinking one carrier and leaving two others in flames, but it was a harrowing experience.

Many of the airmen manning the bomber and torpedo planes found themselves returning to their carriers in the dark and low on fuel -- they were beginning to have to "ditch" in the sea at night.

This eventuated in one of the amazing circumstances of the war.

Admiral Mitscher, realizing the plight of his planes, had his ships turn on their search lights to lead his pilots in -- this despite the peril of enemy detection by submarines or planes.

There were tragedies, losses and many close calls, though all save 49 of the 209 aircrews which had participated either made it back or were plucked from the ocean, a gruesome toll but remarkable considering the circumstances.

This episode went down in Naval annals as "The Night the Fleet Turned on its Lights" -- unparalleled risk by a compassionate and brave commander to save the lives of brave men.

The second memorable occurred when the Japanese planes did launch and attempted to reach our surface forces.

It was accomplished largely by the fighter pilots in our task group who had been left behind, were in good position and up to the chore.

The American fighter cover downed over 300 aircraft with many fewer losses of their own and successfully sheltered their charges.

Our fighter squadron, VF-15, it was estimated downed over 100 of these.

David McCampbell, our group Commander and his wingman, Roy Rushing, bagged 15 on one flight.

This day's work came to be known as "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" and was the second notable circumstance of national importance.

With the planes he bagged, Cdr. McCampbell later became America's leading ace with 34 "kills" and after our return to the States he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Warren Parrish, a great friend with whom I was raised in Greenville and with whom I now flew in VB-15, later asked Cdr. McCampbell what was the greatest thrill in his life, and he said:  "When I represented the Naval Academy on the Olympic diving team".
We all basked in the Group Commander's fame, but equally satisfying to me was that my friend, Baynard Milton of Jasper, Florida also became an ace during "The Turkey Shoot".

While these epochal events were in train, our squadron was involved in the more mundane business -- as air warfare went -- of striking targets on the islands.

When a task group launched deck-load strikes, planes from all four carriers participated.

The senior aviator in the air acted as target coordinator, in essence controlling the planes over the target and at times assigning specific objectives.

On one occasion our squadron launched two six-plane divisions which I led and which included Warren Parrish in the formation.

We were vectored to proceed to Orote Peninsula in Guam to await assignment to targets of opportunity.

The target coordination was the Commander of the Air Group from one of our light carriers, as I recall the U.S.S. COWPENS.

Our land forces were working up the Peninsula, and were stymied by fire from enemy guns on a small wooded island just adjacent to the shore, so we were ordered to bomb it, the emplacements themselves -- invisible among the palms.

The island appeared to be ¼ to ½ mile in diameter and was an ideal target -- too big to miss and too small to offer any appreciable dispersal of the offending gun sites.

There was no discernable anti-aircraft fire, so I elected that we glide-bomb rather than dive in order to release our bombs closer to the ground.

All our bombs fell on the island, not exactly requiring pinpoint accuracy, but very impressive to those being shelled.

The air-ground controller was immediately on the radio, told the target coordinator that all the guns had been silenced, and so everyone seemed quite pleased with our efforts -- except perhaps the gun-crews on whom we had unloaded.

Later, when we were back aboard ship our skipper, Cdr. Jim Mini, showed us a copy of a dispatch the target coordinator had sent to the captain of the ESSEX commending the flight for its performance.

It was signed: Edward Outlaw, Cdr., U.S.N.

This was, as I have inferred, no deed requiring great skill or prowess, but it's an ironic fact of life that events become magnified in the glare of publicity.

After we were relieved on the ESSEX the ship's company published a yearbook of sorts extolling the ship's accomplishments during the cruises of its first two air groups -- AG9 and AG15.

This episode was featured, though in truth, it was pretty small potatoes compared to some of the epic events of that time.

The uncanny facet of this story to me is that two men of essentially different generations both spent their infancies in the same old house in a small town in eastern North Carolina, only marginally knew one another, were then enjoined on the cutting edge of convulsive national exertion, half-a-world and half-a-life removed from their beginnings.

I'm sorry I never had the chance to say:  "Thank you, Eddie Outlaw -- I understand you, too!"

The skeins of lives and events can indeed be wound into a very tight ball.


May 13, 1996

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