Dave Bridges, a Los Altos resident for 60 years, witnessed an event as a U.S. Naval Reserve officer that kept him wondering for nearly 70 years.
The night of Oct. 30, 1944, Bridges was third officer on a Pan Am B-314 Clipper flying boat traveling from Honolulu to San Francisco. At approximately 9 p.m., the flight radio officer received a warning of a disaster at sea. Another Pan Am flying boat, PB2Y3, saw the lights of a ship and noticed a white wake in the water heading to it.
“PB2Y3 radioed the position and circled back to see the ship blow up and fall apart,” Bridges said. “It was torpedoed. When the PB2Y3 let down to get a better look, the plane was machine-gunned by a submarine.”
Bridges’ plane received the PB2Y3’s message and changed course to the emergency site, flying all night to reach it. As dawn broke, the captain told Bridges, who was piloting, to descend to 1,000 feet to reconnoiter the area. They saw nothing. The captain told Bridges to continue timed turns in expanding squares.
“We flew on the new heading for a minute when someone reported a lifeboat with people in it,” Bridges said. “I circled and let down to 500 feet. The plane could not land and assist on sea, due to the probable debris from the wreckage that could puncture the hull. The captain instructed our purser to fill a rubber bag with a Gibson Girl (an emergency radio transmitter), blankets, water and food. Then, he instructed me to fly out, do a 180 turn and come back. When he judged the right moment, he gave the signal and they dropped the bag through a baggage hatch.”
Bridges flew out and circled around to watch the lifeboat’s occupants take possession of the supplies.
“The engineer said that was all the fuel we could spare,” he said. “Just as we pulled back up, the radio officer said he could hear the Gibson Girl transmitting SOS in Morse code.”
Bridges’ plane landed in San Francisco Bay, docking in the lagoon beside the U.S. Coast Guard station at Mills Field (now San Francisco International Airport). Bridges said he and the crew were met by “a plethora” of military and ordered to not say a word about the incident.
Because of its classified nature, he wasn’t able to learn the aftermath.
After moving from the city to raise his family in the sunshine of Los Altos, Bridges often wondered about the fate of the survivors. He even searched the Marine Hall of Records.
Answers to long-held questions
Last summer, Bridges mentioned the story to an old friend, who forwarded the email to the author of several books related to World War II navy ships.
The author forwarded Bridges’ note to a navy researcher who knew exactly what happened.
The navy researcher identified the ship as the S.S. John A. Johnson, the only Liberty ship torpedoed between California and Hawaii.
Using this information, Bridges located statements by survivors in the National Archives.
The Johnson was en route to Honolulu carrying ammunition, explosives and 70 people, including merchant marines and other military personnel. Three different crew members detailed the torpedoing of the vessel, the quick action taken to abandon ship, the Japanese submarine that fired on the men in the lifeboats and the crew’s eventual rescue by the U.S.S. Argus.
Bridges’ Clipper plane’s dropping of supplies and the emergency radio transmitter was also mentioned and credited with enabling the survivors to signal for help. The written accounts state that due to explosions, the crew couldn’t transmit the emergency ashore before abandoning ship. It sank within two minutes, and 60 survivors managed to escape into the water, some in lifeboats and some in a raft.
Bridges said he is satisfied to have learned the final outcome of the tragedy and happy to have contributed to the rescue. He piloted with Pan Am for 37 years, retiring as a captain in 1981.
He recalls watching Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and the German Graf Zeppelin flying over his home in Alameda as a child. His grandson continues the family tradition of aviation – he recently graduated from Los Altos High and is studying aeronautical engineering.