Vicksburg veteran says memorial for those who didn’t make it back’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 8, 2004

David Bridgers wears the 8th Air Force leather jacket he wore while flying missions as a pilot during World War II.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[5/29/04]David Bridgers was an 18-year-old student and football player at Ole Miss on Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor.

“I knew right then that I was going to get into the service,” he said. “I left school and went down and signed up for the Air Force.”

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Already trained as a pilot in a Piper Cub “I just liked to fly” Bridgers signed on in his hometown of Jackson and was shipped to Nashville.

“We knew we were going to be in the Air Force, but didn’t know what we were going to do,” Bridgers said of himself and the others at the center.

Bridgers was selected to fly the B-24 bomber, nicknamed “Liberator” by the British.

He went through about six months of Air Force pilot training in the States and earned his pilot’s wings. Next, he began assembling his crew in Lincoln, Neb., where he was sent to prepare for departure to the European theater.

In Lincoln, he spotted a Mississippian he had known at Ole Miss, Henry Hiter of Merigold.

“I told him, well, I was up here getting crewed up,” Bridgers said.

“And he said, Well, I am, too.’

“And I said, Well, what’s your crew number?’

“And he told me and I said, Well, if that’s your crew number, meet your pilot.'”

Hiter later developed ear problems and was grounded. His replacement as Bridgers’ co-pilot, though, also turned out to be a Mississippian. Charlie Walker of Magee, later a member of the same Ole Miss fraternity as Bridgers, was picked for the job.

Bridgers flew with a crew of 10 including a navigator, bombardiers and gunners from Attlebridge airfield, about five miles outside Norwich, England. Each bombing mission lasted six to seven hours, he said.

“Nobody on my crew got hurt,” said Bridgers, whose own father had a leg shot off as an Army infantryman in World War I. “Everybody got back.”

Bridgers and his crew were members of the Army’s 8th Air Force, which became known as the “Mighty Eighth.” By mid-1944, that force was more than 200,000 people. At peak strength, it could dispatch more than 2,000 four-engine bombers and more than 1,000 fighters on a single mission.

Bridgers’ missions were made during daylight hours, when officers of the Royal Air Force would not make them.

“The British bombed at night, and they said it’s impossible for us to bomb in the daytime,” Bridgers explained. Daylight bombing was too risky because it made it easier for German fighter pilots to shoot down U.S. bombers, Bridgers said the Brits contended.

The Air Force’s effectiveness, with daylight bombing a large contributor to it, was key to the Allied victory in the war, Bridgers said.

“We were effective,” he said. “In fact, I think we won the war, because we killed the German air force.

“You can find your targets better,” Bridgers said of daylight bombing. “We had bomb sights, and you can be more accurate with your bombs. We had good fighter protection: P-51s, P-47s. And they stayed with us and protected us from the German airmen, the Luftwaffe.”

U.S. Air Forces destroyed enemy warplanes both in the air and on the ground.

The 8th Air Force’s achievements, however, came at a high price. Half of the U.S. Army Air Force’s casualties in World War II, more than 47,000 with more than 26,000 dead, were suffered by the force, information from the force’s current headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., says.

“When a plane went down, 10 people went with it,” Bridgers said.

Bridgers said he had many friends who died in combat. He and his wife of 55 years, Dot, have returned since the war to a cemetery in southern England where many of those friends are buried.

“I found the graves of a number of my friends that were flying in the same group,” Bridgers said.

The Bridgerses also returned to the airfield where his plane had been based many years earlier.

“We went back and went out to the revetment where my plane was parked,” he said. “The revetment was there; the plane was gone.”

The Washington memorial that will be dedicated today is to honor all those who served in the armed forces and the millions who supported the war effort from home. Included among them are more than 400,000 members of the armed forces who died fighting for the Allied cause.

“I think it’s due,” Bridgers said when asked about the memorial that is being dedicated today on the National Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. “If anybody deserves a monument, it’s all those fellows who didn’t make it back. A lot of them didn’t make it back.”

After the war ended in Europe in May 1945, the 8th Air Force’s headquarters was moved to the Pacific theater of the war. Japan surrendered about three months later, however, and the 8th saw no action in the Pacific.

With such a large force remaining in Europe, the Air Force faced a challenge.

“The problem was, after the war ended, getting all those people back home and the airplanes back home,” Bridgers said.

Bridgers helped accomplish those tasks, remaining in the Air Force until 1946 and became an Air Force “airline pilot,” flying generals and others around the U.S. for the rest of his time in the service. In all, he has piloted three round-trips across the Atlantic Ocean, he said.

On his return from the war, Bridgers returned to Ole Miss and its football team. A 6-foot-3 center, he helped the team win the Southeastern Conference championship the next season, 1947.

Bridgers’ roommate and football teammate in his prewar time at the university, Hunter Gates, also served in the Air Force during the war, and Bridgers went looking for him after he had returned to the U.S.

“I picked up my plane and I wanted to fly down to the base where (Gates) was to see him,” Bridgers said. “I checked in at the squadron headquarters where he was supposed to be and they said, Well, we don’t have a Hunter Gates now.’

“And I said, What do you mean you don’t have a Hunter Gates?’

“And they said He was shot down two days ago. But some of his men parachuted out.’ And they were at that base; they’d gotten out and gotten home.

“So I went to talk to them and they said Hunter was in the nose of the plane.

“I said, Well, I guarantee you if he was in the nose of that plane, he got out. Maybe nobody else did, but he got out. And, sure enough, he got out and he was a prisoner of war for about six months and then the war ended and he was free. And we got back together after the war and went back to Ole Miss and both of us played football at Ole Miss.”

After graduating from college, Bridgers went to work in management for then-Mississippi Power & Light Company. He became Western Division manager for Vicksburg and the surrounding area.

He and his wife moved to Vicksburg with the company and reared their children.

Several of Bridgers’ crew members have died, and Hiter has been hospitalized, Bridgers said.

Gates and the four or so surviving members of his crew are among Bridgers’ friends from the war with whom he still keeps in touch, though.

“I had 10 men on my crew and I’ve been in touch with all of those all these years,” he said.