Stevie O’brien’s presentation on Father Joseph O’Callahan for National History Day

Stevie OBrien, a 12 year old student in Massachusetts recently participated in a National History Day contest where the theme is “Leadership and Legacy”.  For his project he selected Father Joseph O‘Callahan of the USS Franklin.  Stevie came in second in his category of junior historical exhibit at the Massachusetts state competition and he also received the National Archives award in his category for best use of primary sources and the first place junior division award from the National Maritime historical Society.  With a donation from the USS Franklin Museum Association, Stevie competed in the national finals at the University of Maryland in June.  He sent the presentation below to share his trip with the readers of ussfranklin.org.

 

 

Stevie Obrien 1 Stevie Obrien 2 Stevie Obrien 3 Stevie Obrien 4 Stevie Obrien 5 Stevie Obrien 6 Stevie Obrien 7 Stevie Obrien 8

Memorial Service, Sunday Morning 25 March 1945

70 Years ago, on Sunday Morning 25 March 1945, in the aftermath of the USS Franklin Bombing, Protestant Chaplain G. Weldon Gatlin delivered the sermon below at a memorial service for the fallen crew aboard the USS Franklin.

Franklin Memorial Service Page 1

Franklin Memorial Service Page 1

Please click the image above to access the 4 page document. The PDF Document is approximately 5MB so it may take a minute to download.

November 1964 All Hands Magazine article “The Ship That Wouldnt Be Sunk”

All Hands Magazine Nov 1964 (734x1024)
I would like to thank  Mr. John Simonetti, AMS3, V6 Division, ’61-62.  Mr. Simonetti served on the USS Intrepid (CV, CVA, CVS-11) and forwarded me the article found in the November 1964 All Hands magazine published by the Navy.  The article is posted on the Navys website here: http://www.navy.mil/ah_online/archpdf/ah196411.pdf
The pdf file is a little bit large at 25MB so It may take a bit to download.  The account of the Franklin bombing begins on page 54.  
Mr. Simonetti has published a website “in honor and in memory of my home-away-from-home and my fellow shipmates of the USS Intrepid (CV, CVA, CVS-11)”
His website can be found here: http://cv11texfcm.wix.com/intrepid-remembered.

Saving Seaman Stuart

Saving Seaman Stuart

Preface

There are many reasons for the writing of SAVING SEAMAN STUART. First, this tribute to Jim Stuart must be done to preserve history both for his family and the Stuart family overall. So, this will also become a key part of the Stuart Family Book to be stored in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the Ohio Genealogy Society Library in Mansfield and the Genealogy Library in Coshocton, Ohio. Second, the act of danger and heroism in itself is worthy of this effort. And, finally no one else in the recorded history of Stuart Ancestry has been subjected to combat conditions to compare with the South Pacific experiences of Jim Stuart. Jim was a part of the “Greatest Generation” as defined by Tom Brokaw in his book by that name.

Jim has carefully collected and saved documents, pictures, newspaper articles and personal memorabilia since 1945 and graciously shared them to prepare this book. That collection spans 53 years. This portfolio was used to prepare SAVING SEAMAN STUART, along with an article by Walter E. Smith and the book called, THE FRANKLIN COMES HOME, by A. A. Hoehling.

This is a story of what World War II was about, and every effort should be made to chronicle events so that maybe someday war will be totally out of the question. Seven hundred and twenty four men died on that day of disaster aboard the USS Franklin, CV -13, that was sent to the South Pacific to protect our USA Homeland from Japanese Warlords. Their total casualties for those weeks of combat were nine hundred and twenty one dead. The Franklin’s crew remains to this day, some fifty three years later, the most decorated crew in the history of the United States Navy. The ship was nicknamed BIG BEN by those who were closest to her–the crew.

It gives me a great deal of gratification to organize, interpret and prepare this book, SAVING SEAMAN STUART, as a tribute to my older brother for his service to our Country.

-Curtiss N. Stuart
August 21, 1998

Chapter 3

Assignment To The USS Franklin Warship
Before I get going on the USS Franklin legend, I must say that the fastest days of my life happened on that seven day leave at home in Dayton, Ohio, but I did get around to see everyone possible before leaving for ship duty and war.

I think it’s best now to describe my ship, nicknamed Big Ben by the crew in honor of Benjamin Franklin, so that you can better relate to rest of my story. The Franklin’s legend began on December 7, 1942, which is the first anniversary of the dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese warlords. Big Ben’s’ keel was laid in a graving dock of the Newport News Shipbuilding Company on Virginia’s Atlantic Coast, representing President Roosevelt’s commitment of one year earlier, when he said, “No matter how long it may take us, America, in its righteous might, will overcome and win through to absolute victory.” Big Ben was the fifth ship of the Essex class to be constructed and before the War ended, nineteen more Essex class carriers would be built and put in service. That’s an average of six ships constructed per year by the American industrial complex.

Newport News shipbuilders completed the Franklin in just fifteen months, which is an amazing feat, considering the size and complexity of its design. She had an overall length of 970 feet, with an 880 feet long flight deck that was 150 feet wide and stood 60 feet above the sea. Her fuel tanks held 231,00 gallons of gasoline for the airplanes, along with 7,000 tons of oil for her own boilers. She had eight boilers that could fire up enough steam to power four turbines that delivered 150,000 horsepower to the four driving
propellers. I estimated our forward speed then at fifty miles an hour, which is not a nautical term, but just imagine this ship moving down a highway at freeway speeds with the rest of the cars. It was faster than many destroyers and battle cruisers of that day and time. During combat flight operations, while steering into the wind for takeoffs, Big Ben would move at forty knots,
which is much faster than all the ships in the Battle. Group 58.3. So, we literally ran away from our buddies. I know from experience that you could easily get blown off the forward flight deck at those speeds and it was
necessary to hold a line or rail up there.

So, this was my home in the war along with 2,500 other enlisted men and officers, not to mention another 1,000 men of the air group.

Big Ben held a complement of 103 airplanes made up of bombers, fighters and torpedo planes. The names I remember were the SBD Helldivers, F4F Wildcat, F4U Corsair, the F6F Hellcat and the TBM Avenger.

As a young and inexperienced recruit with just seven to eight weeks in bell-bottoms, I boarded Big Ben with wonderment and pride in December, 1944 at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard, west of Seattle, Washington.

My regular duty station was in the Chaplin’s Office and the Education office, which included the crew’s library. I assisted with arrangements and setups for Chaplin Harkin’s, Chaplin Joseph O’Callahan’s and the Jewish Sabbath services, and did the clerical work for the three faiths on board.

My daily shipboard watches were spent on the Bridge, which is the ship’s command post. The responsibility of the duty frightened me at first, but I was fascinated at seeing the “Brain” of the ship and being a part of that. I was completely determined to learn that job and do my very best.

My battle station, where I was called for torpedo defense or General Quarters, was on the hangar deck on the starboard side of the ship, which was also frightening and a learning experience. I was located at the Battle Dressing Station, amidship, where I reported battle injuries and battle conditions to the Command Post on the Bridge. The hangar deck was just below the main flight deck where the planes were launched.

By February 21, 1944, Big Ben was ready to be thrust into the battles of the war that were designed to push the Japanese warlords back to their mainland, island by island and cave by cave. The ship was to be a big part of that effort and the crew knew that. The sun shown brightly as the tugs eased Big Ben into Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay. The ship was so large and noticeable that it was impossible to sneak out, but the behemoth was soon gone and out of sight of land. The bon voyage ceremonies were somber and very military and there was no time for looking back now.

I often recall the shock that this navy ship-board service was “for real” and it called for the absolute requirement to mature quickly, and to realize the
seriousness of the times. During those December and January shake-down and training exercises, my mates and I watched in horror as some planes, leaving the deck on take-off, would falter and fall into the ocean. Some crashed into the ship’s island structure or into the flight deck while attempting landings. We saw death and serious injury to pilots or crew members.

Being connected with the Chaplain’s Office, I participated in the early burials at sea. In fact, during early March, 1944, fourteen men died on one day and
were sea entombed. The first time I saw a flag-draped body in a sewed-up sea bag, weighted with a shell casing, and as the body was angled to the sea and the flag became limp, I had to choke down strong emotions. Captain James Shoemaker and the crew could not ever imagine that this beautiful, lumbering, yet quick, powerful war machine would falter. They had the very
same feelings, I’m sure, as did the crew and passengers of the RMS Titanic as they left England on the ship’s ill- fated maiden voyage to New York. The crew truly believed Big Ben was invincible and had enough escort and firepower to subdue any enemy. The best ship, officers, aircraft and crew were now put together for war. It was comforting for them to keep thinking and repeating that message.

Chapter 4

Weeks of Combat and the Disaster

On October 30, 1944, just before I was stationed on the USS Franklin, She was hit by Japanese Kamikaze** aircraft and sent back to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard for repairs. There, Captain Shoemaker was relieved by Captain Leslie E. Gehres and Air Group 5 replaced Air Group 13. As stated before, I also joined Big Ben’s crew there in Bremerton in December, 1944. After repairs were completed, we were ordered to rejoin the “Fast Carrier Task Force” operating off the coast of the Japanese Mainland.

So, here we are at the very door step of the enemy, with orders to attack everything we could find and shoot at, as well as bomb Japan. From mid-January until March, 1945, Big Ben operated in war zones in the Central and North Western Pacific. We participated in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa with supporting air strikes. We made air attacks near Guam. In early March, Big Ben was bombing the Japanese Mainland, including the Kobe Naval and Air Base, Kyushu Military Air Installations and Tokyo proper. We participated in the fire- bombing of Tokyo as a part of Task Force 58.3. Admiral Spruance was on board as Big Ben was the Flag of the largest task force ever assembled by the United States Navy.

After weeks of intense combat in this location, the Japanese Warlords became desperate as they couldn’t drive us away, and again called on their Kamikaze** pilots for the suicide type of warfare. ** Kamikaze means “divine wind” in their language. These pilots were treated to a ceremonial send-off with a toast of rice wine, then given just enough fuel to reach the
target with their overload of bombs. Their only option was to fly into our ships. Some of them flew upside down to die in style while trying to hit us at the water line. Others dove in with wings vertical and some came straight down from overhead in their suicidal attacks. Our guns were blazing away during most of the daylight hours and we were exhausted, hungry and bone tired fending off these constant air attacks. It didn’t seem like there was ever enough time to eat or rest.

The day before our disaster, Franklin’s air squadrons joined raids on Kagoshima and Izumi. All night, the crew answered general quarters alarms–a dozen calls to battle stations.

Early the next day, which was the fateful date of March 19, 1945, our air scouts reported seeing the battleship Yamamoto, the largest warship in the world, and the carrier Amagi in Kobe Harbor. Some Corsairs were hurriedly outfitted with armor-busting Tiny Tim rockets to attack the Yamamoto and the Amagi. As the flights lifted off, there was time at last for chow. The breakfast queue of weary crew snaked from the galley up a ladder to the open door at the hanger deck, just under the flight deck. It wound around and among the battle-primed aircraft, waiting ordnance and refueling lines. Messmen slapped powdered eggs, toast, apples, tomato juice and coffee on the steel trays for the exhausted crew.

On the flight deck, just below on the hanger deck, waited scores of our fighters, bombers and torpedo planes armed with bombs, rockets and bullets, and fat with high-octane aviation fuel.

Suddenly, a single Japanese Judy dive bomber screamed out of a low winter cloud and sped for our ship. The Judy, as we called this Japanese aircraft, had shaken one of our Hellcats that tried to stop her-though our pilot had shot his machine guns empty trying to knock the Judy down. Too late, then our 40 millimeter anti-aircraft guns on the carriers bow began throwing flack at the intruder. The Judy reached its release point and dropped one 500 pound bomb on the flight deck of the Franklin, then returned a second time dropping another near the first. The flagship of Task Force 58 became the anteroom of Hell! The Judy intruder had been spotted by Franklin’s Combat Information Center orbiting on port beam about twelve miles out from the
ship, but lost the attacker in the clutter of launching our own planes.

The first bomb struck the flight deck on the centerline at 7:06 am, and ripped below, igniting gasoline and ordnance in a flash of flame and concussion. It incinerated some men where they stood in chow line and blasted others out the hanger doors into the sea. The thirty-two ton forward aircraft elevator blew into the air and fell back onto the holocaust. The blast drove the 21,000 ton ship out of the water and whipped her to the right. She began to settle into a thirteen degree starboard list. Steel floors and bulkheads buckled, crushing men between them. Steel pipes burst, spilling most of the ship’s 230,000 gallons of high-octane fuel and 7,000 more gallons of boiler fuel oil. Falling cascades of burning fuel angled over the sides into the ocean. Fires erupted on the second and third decks down from flight deck. Explosions wiped out the Combat Information Center and the Airplot function.

The second bomb hit aft among thirty-one SBD Helldivers, F4U Corsairs and TBM Avengers warming up for takeoff. The impact ripped through the flight deck planking, setting fires two decks down and detonating more bombs, rockets and fuel. Pilots died strapped in their cockpits. Fleeing crewmen ran into spinning propeller blades. Others were cut down by scythes of metal and chunks of airframes flying off exploding planes. Rockets and the powerful Tiny Tims launched themselves across the listing flight deck.

One of Franklin’s pilots aloft, Lt. Linder, didn’t know his ship had been hit, but swinging his F4U downwind, he picked up the fleeing Judy and, “Fired on him pretty good!” “I picked him up again and we went together into a little cloud, flying side by side, like I was flying wing on him. Both of us were inverted over on our backs. Then, I saw the Judy fall out of the cloud and dive right into the water.”

The attack killed 724 men and wounded 265 more, which is about a third of the number lost in the dastardly raid on Pearl Harbor. In a matter of minutes,
the Franklin was more heavily damaged than any other American carrier to stay afloat. What was left of the 3,500 men complement of the Franklin crew set to work saving themselves and their ship.

Up on the Franklin’s forecastle, Chaplain O’Callahan and his party were away from the major damage area, so O’Callahan detoured to his own room
for a life jacket, his helmet, and a vial containing holy water to administer last rites. Then he went to the aviator’s bunk room to care for thirty badly burned men. Chaplain Gatlin was already there, so 0’Callahan, after assisting with the most seriously wounded men, left to find others in stress. O’Callahan found the ship’s doctor, Sam Sherman on the forward flight deck, tending to a large number of wounded, and the Chaplain ordered seaman below to bring mattresses. In one of the five-inch gun turrets, O’Callahan helped pass hot shells outside so they could be dumped in the sea.

He stayed until the last shell was heaved overboard. After finishing there, he went through smoky passageways and helped clear hot bombs from the
gallery deck.

Chaplain O’Callahan was a hero and earned a Medal of Honor for his actions. See Chapter 6 for his Citation of Bravery. One very famous ship photograph shows O’Callahan giving last rites to Robert Blanchard, who
later miraculously recovered from his wounds, went on to live a long life, then later attended the fiftieth Memorial Reunion of the disaster on March 19, 1995. Another determined officer was Lt.jg Donald Gary, a thirty year veteran and former enlisted man. When the bombs hit, Gary grabbed an oxygen breathing apparatus, with a sixty minute air supply and searched
for trapped shipmates. He found plenty–three hundred of them, including Dr. Fuelling, another ship’s doctor. Gary went four, five and six decks below looking for trapped men, with only limited air supply. At one point, he led ten men, six hundred feet through air uptakes, six decks above where they were trapped, and returned to pull fifty more men, then returned again to get two hundred more. After all that, Gary headed below to see about his engines. Lt. Gary was a hero and earned a Medal of Honor for his actions. See Chapter 6 for his Citation of Bravery.

Rear Admiral Ralph Davison transferred his flag from the Franklin to the Cruiser Santa Fe, and as he left, he recommended to Captain Leslie Gehres to give the order to abandon ship. Gehres said afterward, “That was none of his damn business!” “I had no intention of abandoning the ship.”

The Cruiser Santa Fe came along the starboard side, pushed her bow against the Franklin’s hull and took off survivors. The destroyer, Hikox nosed in under the stern and took off more. Gehres evacuated 883 non-
essential and wounded crew members. The remaining 106 officers and 604 enlisted men put out the fires and garnered a tow from the cruiser, Pittsburgh at about noon. The bow winches used for towing were destroyed so a party led by Seaman Joe Taylor, equipped themselves with cutting torches and set about cutting off the ship’s anchor. The idea was to dump the anchor overboard and use the 540 foot chain as a towline.

It worked! That tow was vital as the Franklin continued to drift closer to Japan. The tow started at only three knots, but was increased to four when the Franklin crew got limited power restored, and later the tow reached nine knots.

That evening when enough steam supply had been restored to make fourteen knots of speed, the tow as jettisoned and the Franklin made its own way to the Port of Ulithi Atoll to secure temporary repairs, food and medical supplies. She arrived at Ulithi on Sunday, March 25, 1945. Father O’Callahan led memorial services for the dead, while battle hardened sailors
openly wept. Almost one-fourth of their shipmates were buried in the open waters of the South Pacific Ocean.

On the following morning, the Franklin sailed under her own power for Pearl Harbor, and upon arrival there, it was determined that the repairs would have to be done at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. So, the Franklin left Pearl Harbor on April 9, on its way through the Panama Canal. She passed the Statue of Liberty on April 30, with all hands on deck standing at salute. Upon arrival at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Franklin mustered its remaining band members, who played the song–“Don’t Fence Me In” for the waiting visitors on the dock. The 12,000 mile journey ended for the most
heavily damaged warship in the history of the Navy to ever make it back to port under her own power.

The Franklin was completely repaired over the next year, and after repairs, she was reported to be in the best condition of any Essex Class carrier. But, in April, 1946, the Navy announced that the Franklin would placed in mothball storage, and she was officially retired on February 17,1947. Twenty years later, in 1966, after a group of Franklin survivors failed to have the ship declared a monument in New York, she was destroyed by cutter’s torches, much to the consternation of many crew members. Her steel was sold to the former enemy that tried to destroy her.

Here is the ship’s log of data for her service–

Keel laid December 7, 1942
Launched October 14, 1943
Commissioned January 31, 1944
Enemy Aircraft destroyed 628
Ships sunk or damaged 158
Island invasions Four
Medals earned 660
Retired February 17, 1947
In the early 1990’s, a spouse of one of those ill- fated pilots caught in their planes during the attack, called me. She related that her husband’s plane was
blown off the ship into the sea, upside down with the wings torn off. He survived the day, but never recovered from the injuries, dying some eighteen
months later.

Chapter 5

Saving Seaman Stuart

So, that’s what happened to my beloved ship. Now let’s recount what happened to me personally starting with daylight on March 19, 1945. At 6:15, when the latest General Quarters(immediate call to combat) was secured, I went below to the Chaplain’s office. I was just too exhausted to have breakfast, even though I had not eaten for a day or more. That could have saved my life as many were lost in the breakfast chow line when the
bombs struck.

For quite some time, I stretched out on two chairs. There were several other men in the Office reading, resting and meditating with their own private thoughts. There was a frightening explosion at 7:08 am, and the ship began a slow list to starboard, then secondary explosions began, one after another. I was thrown across the room against the bulkhead and lay crumpled on the deck for a moment. I could hear no ship’s communication. Then, someone came by and said we were hit by Japanese planes and there were terrible fires on the topside decks. We all headed for our battle stations, but I do not recall hearing the call to General Quarters until much later. On the way out, I grabbed a towel and soaked it in the water cooler, then urged the others to get something wet.

We rushed out, but could not get far because of the intense heat and thick, black smoke in the passageway. There were about twenty-five of us groping in the smoke filled hallway, and I was the tenth man in line. We descended one or two decks trying to find a safe topside opening to escape the smoke, heat and explosions. We were unable to do much or travel very far until about 8:20 am, when we finally worked our way aft and onto the fantail deck at the stern. The conditions here were unbelievably horrible. Smoke
and fire were everywhere. Forty millimeter ammunition was exploding just above us on a gun mount and the oil-soaked tub winches were blazing away in fire. We couldsee the deadly events that had happened, and were still
happening, right before our eyes. Men were on fire, others had limbs torn or shredded, and ghastly things like faces were gone or heads blown off. We crouched or stretched out in gun mounts or behind other gear heavy enough to protect us from the flying shrapnel and smaller explosions. An explosion ripped off one side of my life preserver and something creased my battle
helmet and burned the right side of my face. A small piece of metal hit my hand.

We got a few reports from those men who had worked their way aft telling us of the horrifying, deadly conditions on the flight deck and the hanger deck, and the atmosphere of terror in the different crew quarters. The dead and wounded were all around us. Most of the wounded died in place, or later in the sea, and I remember one badly wounded man, who soon perished, asking the Chief for a smoke. We saw men caught in the oil-fed flames in the sea, while others struggled to reach debris, and others just slipped from sight. Scores died in our view.

The Chief held us together as a unit with his leadership and experience at sea. To this day, he seems to be ten feet tall in my thoughts, outwardly oblivious to the horror going on around us. By mid-morning, there were eighteen of us remaining on the burning fantail deck, but men were leaving the ship from our group after each explosion or flame up of fire, or when
the smoke became unbearable for them.

We watched the Cruiser Santa Fe come alongside and our men scramble to leave. Lines were attempted between us and the Pittsburgh, the Santa Fe and the Alaska as they came in close to assist, but the explosions were too intense and the decks of the ships didn’t fit. We knew of our ship’s demise and we heard that orders were given to abandon ship.

The ship began settling, followed by a deathly shuddering and a serious starboard listing (later determined to be thirteen degrees), then secondary
explosions slapped us again. Black smoke enveloped the fantail deck we were occupying. It was time to leave! By now, there were only six men left alive in our location. Three of us left the ship at 10:45 am by climbing down a rope and falling the remaining forty feet into the burning, turbulent ocean.

The three sounds I remember at this time were the Japanese planes buzzing around eager to join in the finale, the plopping and splashing of shells and bullets in the sea, and the roar of gunfire. No one thought that we, or the ship, would survive the fall of night. Being saved was all I could think of now, but the odds of that were not good in the middle of the fracas out here.

So, now I had chosen between the dubious security that the ship offered and those perils that awaited in the burning-oil encrusted Pacific Ocean. The ship was clearly more hazardous than leaping into the water, but it was too late now as I flew through the smoke filled air. Looking back at the circumstances, the right decision was made because there was no other realistic option.

When I hit the water from that distance, my torn life preserver tangled in the battle helmet and was choking me. I nearly drowned right where I jumped.
Underwater, I removed the steel helmet, kicked off my shoes and followed the torn preserver to the surface for a desperate breath. In a few moments, I was able to see my new dilemma. At that frightening moment, the ship was floating rapidly away, listing ominously and trailing smoke. It was like seeing my companion and my security moving quickly away. I wanted to reach out
and pull her back to me like a toy sailboat.

Several of our ships, who seemed to be firing at everything and nothing at the same time, were trying to save the Franklin from sinking. Shells and shrapnel were splashing like hail in a thunderstorm, and my helmet protection was gone. I fully expected to see the Franklin turn over and go to the bottom.

After about two hours in the water, my state of fatigue was becoming overwhelming, and my morale was low as different ships, destroyers and the heavy cruisers–Pittsburgh and Santa Fe passed me by without rescue attempts. The end seemed to be quite possible now as time passed and the fatigue factor worsened. The thought crossed my brain that maybe I should have stayed with the ship and taken those chances. Then, I started to worry about myself not making it instead of trying my best to fight the circumstances. Again, I made myself some promises to keep if survival was to be my destiny today.

I remember, while partially floating and moving around in the water early on, helping a badly burned sailor over to some wooden wreckage and making sure he was reasonably secure there. Later on in the morning, when I was more scared and tired, and my judgement was focusing only on my own survival, a man in the water with nothing, started wildly grabbing at me and my ripped life preserver. We both would have gone down, so I told him to move away, which seemed to bring him to his senses, because he quickly
drifted by and then grabbed some cork or wood life equipment floating in this “junk yard like” littered sea. He made it safely, but, often I have agonized over my selfish action. My thoughts later were that my father, mother and brothers wouldn’t be too proud of their Navy Boy.

Being in the sea, with ships passing by, oil fires blazing, bodies and body parts floating and debris of everything imaginable bobbing up and down, was absolutely frightening to me, even though I believed I’d make it through somehow. There were planes above, raucous, on-going gun fire, mixed in with the thundering of big guns. I knew we were within a few miles from the coast of Japan and thoughts of being picked up by an enemy boat, leading to my imprisonment or death, spanned the gamut of my chilling thoughts. I remembered an incident with a Japanese flyer, who was being pulled up to safety on one of our ships, suddenly pulling a knife and slashing an American sailor, which then brought on the flyer’s hasty demise by being shot several times at point blank range by our sailors.

Then, as if a dream could come true, the destroyer USS Hickox, DD673, steamed over into our area, her guns blazing away, as she fished our small group from the water. I tried to wave my presence to her, but could not muster the strength. It wasn’t necessary, as her crew had spotted me and threw things to latch onto. Those men in the water, who didn’t have the physical strength for rescue, just slipped quietly away at the last minute. I was pulled aboard the Hickox at 12:35 pm, but was no help to my rescuers because there was no physical strength left. I could not have survived another thirty minutes in the water.

The Hickox made only one rescue pass then steamed back to its battle position and resumed the raucous firing of its cannons and rapid-fire anti-
aircraft guns. The noise on this small ship was deafening, but she was my new home and I loved her for the relative security she offered my worn out body. I felt so safe and was so very grateful for being saved by
the brave crew.

The remainder of that day was hellish for these men. I have to mention again the roaring of the planes’ engines diving to attack, mixed in with the booming of the five inch guns and the staccato banging of the thirty and forty millimeter quads, firing incessantly. The Hickox zigged and zagged, but she took several cannon hits and smaller weapons fire, and would shudder ominously. The Hickox crew members were, in every sense, brave and performed amazing feats worthy of any proud fighting ship. I learned later that she rescued 400 members of the Franklin crew.

So, the Hickox was hit several times before darkness fell, but I had already thrown in my lot with her and would stay aboard no matter what. I felt very
old for my short eighteen years of life. The bunk, the coffee, the stale sandwich and the dry blanket were all I needed for that night.

My morale was high again with the better prospects of surviving this day. I was wounded in the arm and hand with shrapnel and burned on the side of the face, but right now that did not seem to matter much. I had been saved! I want to take this opportunity to thank them again, each and all, for saving me and tending to my urgent needs.

Several days later the remaining survivors of the disaster of the Franklin, including myself, were regrouped at Ulithi Atoll located halfway between Guam and the Philippine Islands. There, we were loaded onto a converted LST troop ship, already over-crowded by marines just returning from the Iwo lima and Saipan invasions. Then the long, slow journey back to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii began on this ship, which I called a scow, rather than a ship. It was obvious that we were still in the war zone, as we encountered three enemy submarine alerts and had almost no fire power to resist. Once, we were dead in the water for quite some time when the engines stopped. Another time, the scow suffered a cracked main beam member in the hull, and we were again dead in the open sea for hours. The feeling of just sitting out there with no power or guns is terrifying helplessness.

So often rare coincidences occur at such times in war zones. At Ulithi Atoll and on board the LST scow, I met up with three Daytonians. As the journey began back to Pearl Harbor, on the very first day, I saw Jack Creegar, a Fairmont High School classmate, who had joined the Navy before graduating. Jack’s job on Big Ben was in the forward S-inch pod’s magazine doing shell handling. Then, I met Vern Wilken, several years my senior. Vern was very popular, yet serious minded, Activities Petty Officer. Later, I met Bennett Coy, Marines Ship Company, on the Franklin, who also joined our “exclusive Dayton Club”. After pulling into Pearl, we stayed together during our thirty day furlough, then all shipped out to different assignments in Hawaii, and finally on to the Mainland USA. Ben, Jack and Vern all passed on during the 1980’s.

So, we finally got the scow to Pearl Harbor in one piece and celebrated the aura of being safe again in the lap of Uncle Sam and savoring a few luxuries missing for a number of months. After a thirty day rest and relaxation respite on Hawaii’s beaches, I was reassigned to Barber’s Point Naval Air Station there as a Yeoman in the Education office, and remained there until the war ended. I earned two promotions while there and was “striking” for Petty Officer, 2nd Class as the next jump. Station. My morale has improved considerably by this time.

I, then received a thirty day survivors leave and headed home to the United States mainland. The final stage of my naval service included a stint back at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago in the Discharge Unit as a Petty Officer, 2nd Class.

Many times, I was asked to sign up for more service time, and perhaps I should have done that. Private industry does not offer the high points of honor, glory and the rewards of military service dedicated to the protection of our country and our people.

I do remain determined to follow the glory of the Franklin disaster, and to do my best to maintain her memory and legacy. Now, some fifty-three years later, I serve as Trustee of the Franklin Memorial Association, and I attend all the functions related to the honor of the crew and my ship. My wife, Beth and my sons, James and William have each taken part in the memorial celebrations and the plaque dedications held over the past years.

Chapter 6

Recognition and Historical Events

In May, 1945, the Navy released information to the public about the catastrophe, and bold headlines blared the story of the crew’s fight against the raging fires to stay afloat and to reach safe port. Surviving crew members became heroes. On May 21, the largest mass award ceremony in naval history took place on the Franklin’s damaged flight deck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The decorations presented for personal gallantry and valor included two Medals of Honor, nineteen Navy Crosses, twenty-two Silver Stars, one hundred and ten Bronze Stars, five Gold Stars, eight hundred and sixty posthumous Purple Hearts, two hundred and fifty Purple Hearts for wounds and two hundred and thirty- three Letters of Commendation. The Franklin’s crew remains to this day, the most decorated crew in the history of the United States Navy.

Chaplain Joseph 0′ Callahan became the only Navy chaplain in the war to win his nation’s highest decoration–the Congressional Medal of Honor. In part, his citation said–” A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lieutenant Commander 0’Callahan groped his way through smoke filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led fire fighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts,
despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them.”

Chaplain 0′ Callahan formed the “704 CLUB” made up of the 704 men left out of 3,200, who brought the ship back to port.

Lieutenant JG Donald Gary was the second recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to his Citation– “Gary unhesitatingly risked his life to assist several hundred men trapped in a messing compartment filled with smoke, and with no apparent egress. As the imperiled men below decks became increasingly panic stricken under the raging fury of incessant explosions, he confidently assured them he would find a means of effecting their release and, groping through the dark, debris filled corridors, ultimately discovered an escape way. Staunchly determined, he struggled back to the messing compartment three times despite menacing flames, flooding water and the ominous threat of sudden additional explosions, on each occasion calmly leading his men through the blanketing pall of smoke until the last one had been saved. Selfless in his concern for his men and his fellows, he constantly rallied others about him, repeatedly organized and led fire-fighting parties into the blazing inferno on the flight deck and, when firerooms one and two were found to be inoperable, entered the number three fireroom and directed the raising of steam in one boiler in the face of extreme difficulty and hazard.” Lt. Gary was also a resident of Ohio, being from the Findlay vicinity.

The battle flag flying on the USS Franklin on the date of March 19, 1945 was rescued and is on display in it’s own compartment in the Franklin Room on the USS Yorktown at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. It remains to this day an honored rallying point for those crew members who survive some fifty four years after the disaster.

Two Franklin related ships emerged on the scene in the years after World War II–the Frigate 0′ Callahan and the Guided Missile Frigate Gary. Both ships were named for the Medal of Honor winners and heroes of the
Franklin tragedy.

On March 11, 1987, President Ronald Reagan, on the eve of the ship’s annual reunion, sent this letter to those gathered for the celebration–

“I am proud to send greetings to the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13), “The Ship That Wouldn’t Die”, as you gather in reunion. No one who knows the history of our beloved country and the price paid by those who have sacrificed for our liberty–no one who reveres names like the Alamo, or Old Ironsides, or Concord Bridge– will ever forget you men of the FRANKLIN and the valor that was yours. Suffering repeated attacks and grievous casualties in the crucible that was the Pacific Theater in World War II, you made duty and courage your way of life as you contributed greatly to our victory.

Your chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Joseph 0′ Callahan, SJ, USNR, and Lieutenant JG Donald Gary received medals of honor for their valor; and, as the number of decorations the rest of you won indicates, they were by no means alone in heroism. Among those decorations were 808** Purple Hearts awarded posthumously. I take a moment with you to honor your shipmates who can no longer report for muster. They, and you, will be remembered by the generations of your countrymen. God bless you, and God bless America.”
(** On July, 1994, the Navy revised this to 925
Purple Hearts.)

(Signed) Ronald Reagan

In October, 1987, I, and my family–Beth, son James and son William were among the two hundred and forty crew members, friends and family who gathered for a memorial plaque dedication aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown moored at Charleston, South Carolina. These were called the Arlington Exhibit Memorial Plaques. The Franklin has more names in memorial there than any of the other 104 ships represented there in the Exhibit. Survivors were asked to pen their memories and reactions to the disaster, which have now become a part of that permanent memorial. A major Franklin Plaque Dedication was held on March 19, 1993 in Garden Grove, California at the Commander Donald A. Gary Bi -Centennial Mall. The dedication was sponsored by THE USS FRANKLIN CV -13 MUSEUM ASSOCIATION, INC. The names of the 913 men who lost their lives on the Franklin along with two Medal of Honor recipients are etched in the granitestone markers located there.

On September 22, 1995, the United States Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base unveiled the Franklin Memorial stonework and double plaque in memory of those who lost their lives and those who survived. This was the first ever naval combat unit to be honored and positioned at the Museum which is located in Dayton, Ohio. I was pleased to take part in the dedication as a Memorial Dedication Leader, and I called the attending shipmates to step forward and observe the unveiling.

March 19, 1995, was the fiftieth anniversary of the Franklin disaster. This important reunion held at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, started the evening of March 17 and continued throughout the weekend. Most wives have been to reunions like this before and they have become part of the ship’s family. Grand children present lent a beautiful innocence to the occasion, marveling once again at the stories they have heard so many times.

Story groups split off in their rooms and flurries of signs dotted the hotel lobby. No one tires in the telling or hearing the tales of that fateful day in 1945, especially when there were new listeners present at this gathering.

It was a grand day at Patriots Point–warm and sunny, as we and other Franklin crewmen walked down the long pier toward the Yorktown, who is an Essex class sister ship to the Franklin. For this occasion the Yorktown’s island structure displayed the markings CV- 13 in honor of Franklin’s numbers. It was very emotional, like seeing a ghost of the Franklin and several were sobbing at seeing CV-13 on the tower. It was hard for me to speak for a moment. The Museum had arranged for interviews, videos and television coverage all day on Saturday. We were invited to follow the full length of Lieutenant Donald Gary’s escape route as he had led three hundred men from below decks through an air vent way to safety. On Saturday, everyone met at the Arlington Exhibit on the Yorktown for the personal, but public, interview sessions of survivors and family members of those who did not survive the tragedy. Nearby the Arlington Plaques is a scale model of the Franklin, blackened and modified to show the battle damage. What really mattered on this day was not the Franklin’s well known history, but the people and their personal stories. This event may well be the last reunion for many a Franklin shipmate.

The reunion also brought proud visits to the Franklin Room, which is a special display area with prized exhibits located several decks below the Yorktown’s hangar deck. Located there, along with many, many other treasures, are Franklin’s battle flag, Father 0′ Callahan’s helmet and rosary, and Lieutenant Gary’s uniform. The Franklin Room and the Arlington Exhibit are the two main rallying points for crew members to reminisce and exchange their tales. I heard some discussion about placing everyone’s name on the Plaques, but that conversation got lost somewhere in the crowd’s enthusiasm. Curator Steve Ewing manages to find amazing additions to the Franklin Room year after year.

By late afternoon on Saturday, everyone had traipsed back to the hotel for the annual meeting. It was a traditional sort of gathering, with laughter and
teasing to and from the podium intermingled with tedious administrative announcements. By now, the crew–some in wheelchairs, or leaning on canes, and others seemingly well fit–were sporting “Franklin 50th” hats and shirts. It was bedlam of the finest kind and soon the reunion business was completed in time to dress for dinner. The Patriot Point staff members wanted to meet with families of those killed in action, and a large gathering began to form in one corner of the auditorium. Franklin families gathered the next morning on Sunday on Yorktown’s hangar deck for final remarks by Chigger Tidwell and Patriots Point Rear Admiral Jim Flatley. This was indeed a big day for all. The reunion ended with a Memorial Service.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, the State of Ohio House of Representatives and the Senate of Ohio both issued proclamations honoring the crew members of the Franklin.

The Ohio House of Representatives issued a
commendation to me–

REPRESENTATIVE RAYMOND E. SINES
HOUSE DISTRICT # 61

“On behalf of the members of the House of, Representatives of the 119th General Assembly of Ohio, we are pleased to recognize- JAMES M. STUART, YN 2/C K-DIV. as a surviving crew member of the USS Franklin, CV -13. You are, indeed, a remarkable individual for you have demonstrated determination and courage in meeting life’s challenges. A member of the crew of the USS Franklin during World War II, you survived the Japanese attack which left seven hundred forty-three crew members dead and caused massive damage to your ship. The exemplary spirit and strength of character which you displayed in the face of such a disaster earned you well deserved respect and admiration.

America has maintained its strength through the dedicated efforts of individuals such as you who have demonstrated allegiance to the ideals of democracy and unwavering love of country. The heroic traditions of our armed forces are an important part of American history, and you can be proud of the role you have played in sustaining the United States’ strength and freedom. Thus, with great pride, we commend you for your outstanding record of personal achievement and, in so doing, salute you as one of Ohio’s finest citizens.”
Signed-Raymond Sines
(Representative)

Signed-Vern Riffe
( Speaker of House)

There was just one more thing on the occasion of Franklin’s 50th anniversary reunion. In the waters off the coast of Japan, thousands of miles away from Patriots Point, the cruiser Bunker Hill was steaming to the exact map coordinates of the Franklin disaster. At very nearly the same time that ceremonies were concluding at Patriots Point, Bunker Hill stopped its engines and drifted at the same latitude and longitude where the Franklin met her disaster. Bunker Hill’s commanding officer, Captain Schnurrpusch led his
crew in a memorial service in the honor of the 802 men who lost their lives there. He remarked– “What they did was excel courageously in the face of incredible peril. What they are, are our forefathers and our colleagues in
this profession of arms. Please join me in a moment of memorial and remembrance to the men of Franklin, and to the ultimate sacrifices that many of them gave for us all–on this spot, at this time, 50 years ago.”

By coincidence, Captain Schnurrpusch had just a few years ago commanded the frigate 0’Callahan and the guided missile frigate Gary. Both ships were named after the two Congressional Medal of Honor winners from the Franklin.

On October 31, 1997, the Great Lakes Naval Museum in Great Lakes, Illinois held its grand opening celebration. At that time, a dedication of name plaques of the USS Franklin crew was held and the plaques became an important part of the new museums holdings.

Conclusion

In late 1969, some twenty four years after the combat disaster, I learned while working in Washington, DC, at the White House, that the USS Franklin was in the Newport News/Portsmouth, Virginia area awaiting scrapping and demolition. So, shortly afterward, our family began searching for Big Ben in earnest. We found her, or what was left of her, in a meandering ship channel near Portsmouth, Virginia. My sons-Jim and Bill were fascinated with the sighting, even though it had to be at some distance. I had mixed emotions in that it was great to find the ship again and get a last look, but again, sad at the fate of what had been a large source of pride for so many crew members.

Over the years, our family journeyed, and usually stopped at various Revolutionary War sites, Civil War sites and other significant military memorials and museums. Our sons were always exposed to important national holidays and their meanings along with the sacrifices that were made for our country’s freedom and its people. While we were at Patriots Point participating in the Franklin Memorial celebration aboard the sister ship, the Yorktown, I walked them through my battle experiences on Big Ben. The walk-through left a deep, sobering impression on each son. As a result, Jim and Bill have always been very interested, and have demonstrated a deep respect for our military and its role for America. I believe it’s crucial that all our young citizens, not just my family, take an interest and investigate the military history of our country with the true perspective of the protection of our country and our people, and not just accept what the TV and newspapers show daily about the world scene.

Over the years, I have routinely appeared before classrooms with students of all ages and grade levels presenting the aspects of my navy war days, then
answering their questions. I guide and encourage school tours of important sites like the US Air Force Museum and others. For the past five years, I have been co-chairman of the BOYSTATE WEEKS at Bowling Green State University, where my American Legion Post 598, Kettering, Ohio awards four scholarships to local high schools. Also, our Post annually awards up to eight $1,000.00 scholarships from four South Dayton area high schools-Alter, Centerville, Fairmont and Oakwood. We interact with students as much as possible providing tours of our Post.

For more than twenty years, I served as a Trustee and Executive Committee member of the two Dayton Boys and Girls Clubs, following in the footsteps of my Dad. Often I was called on to speak before Career, Crafts and Development classes regarding Americanism, World War II history and Military career possibilities. Son Jim, representing the third generation of Jim Stuarts, is following me at the Boys and Girls Clubs. He is currently first vice-president.

Even as I finalize my thoughts for this book, my son Bill has arranged for me to speak about the story of the USS Franklin at his Centerville, Ohio Kiwanis Club during the month of May, 1999. I am pleased and honored to be asked to do that.

It is the responsibility of the military and our younger citizens to come together and bridge the gaps that may exist today. I try to do that and will continue to do so.
-Seaman Jim Stuart

My Memories of the Navy

My Memories of the Navy

Y2 JAMES M. STUART JR. – USNR

I was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV -13) in the Sea of Japan, when on 19 March 1945, a Jap “”Judy” dive-bomber screamed out of a low winter cloud, dropped a 500 pound bomb on the flight deck and returned a second time to drop another. The first bomb ripped below, igniting gasoline and ordnance in a flash of flame and concussion, blowing the 32-ton aircraft elevator into the air. It fell back into the holocaust. Sailors were incinerated where they stood in the chow line, while others were blown out of the hanger doors into the sea. The two blasts drove the 29,000-ton ship out of the water and whipped her to the right. She then settled into a 13-degree starboard list.

That morning, I was too exhausted to have breakfast though I had not eaten in two days. That saved my life, as many of my buddies were lost in the chow line. I was stretched out
on chairs in the library trying to rest when the ship shuddered; explosions threw me across the room against the bulkhead. We all jumped up and headed for our battle stations. I got a towel and soaked it in the water cooler.

We didn’t get far because of heart and smoke. There were 25 of us groping in the smoke-filled hallway. We descended two decks trying to find a way out and finally worked our way onto the fantail.

Conditions there were horrible; smoke and fire everywhere, 40mm ammunition exploding on a gun mount, and our own rockets from burning planes were soaring up and down the deck. Men were on fire; others had limbs torn and faces gone. An explosion ripped off one side of my life preserver, shrapnel
creased my battle helmet and burned the right side of my face. A piece of metal imbedded in my hand.

The ship began settling and listing, then secondary explosions slapped us down again. By now. there were only six men alive in my location. Three of us left by climbing down a rope, then falling the remaining 40 feet into the sea. There were Jap planes buzzing around, plopping and slashing shells and bullets along with the roar of gunfire. I did not believe either we, or the ship would survive.

When I hit the water, the torn life preserver tangled in the battle helmet and was choking me. I nearly drowned. Underwater, I pushed off the helmet and my shoes, and followed my torn life preserver to the surface. I watched the
ship float rapidly away; listing ominously and trailing smoke. There were fires blazing; bodies, parts and everything imaginable floating. It was frightening, with, with ships passing me by. I waved desperately to the Pittsburgh (CA- 72) and Santa Fe (CL-60), knowing I was only 60 miles off the coast of Japan, and could be picked up by the enemy.

Finally the destroyer Hickox (DD-673) steamed into our area. I tried to wave my presence but had no strength: I could have not survived many more minutes in the sea. The Hickox made only one pass, picked me up, then steamed back to her battle position and resumed firing her cannons and antiaircraft guns. The noise on this ship was deafening, but I loved her for the security she offered my worn-out body.

In all, the Hickox rescued 400 sailors from the Franklin.

A Passage at Arms

A Passage at Arms

Eugene “Rocky” Staples
2LT VMF-452
Sky Raiders

I was a young USMC second lieutenant in VMF 452 flying off the Franklin on March 19, 1945 when she was hit by a Japanese dive bomber and blew up spectacularly and at great cost in human life – and yet never sank. Here are two excerpts from my recently published memoir, Old Gods, New Nations: A Memoir of War, Peace, and Nation Building . The first describes my training as a naval aviator. The second recounts what happened to me and some of my squadron mates on that chilly gray day in March 1945 off the coast of Japan .

 

Excerpt from Chapter 3, “A Passage at Arms”

 

III

A Passage at Arms

 

Finally, in the winter of 1944, the news we had awaited for so long came. Major Pat Weiland, the commanding officer, called us to the squadron ready room to announce our immediate assignment to the Naval Air Station at Santa Rosa , north of San Francisco on the Pacific coast, for carrier training and qualification. That completed, we were to board the aircraft carrier “ Franklin ” to join the Pacific fleet. The Franklin , we were told, had been seriously damaged in the fall of 1944 by a Japanese suicide attack in the battle of Leyte off the Philippines and had just finished repairs in the Navy shipyard at Bremerton , Washington .

As the power equation tilted slowly and inevitably against them, the Japanese tide in the Pacific was draining away. But they still held Okinawa and much of China . The Japanese home islands were widely believed to be a formidable, if not impregnable, redoubt. The Japanese had earned a reputation for suicidal courage as they fought to hold island after island. In Europe, where virtually no Marines were assigned, the Allies had landed in Normandy and were fighting their way eastward towards Berlin .

In its pattern of naval fighting and island assaults, the Pacific war was very different from that in Europe . John Gregory Dunne, writing in the New York Review of Books to review three Pacific war memoirs and history, remarked that in addition to these dissimilar strategic challenges the Pacific war was characterized by “the uncompromising hatred between the Japanese military and the forces – American, British and Australian – arrayed against them…Some of it was undoubtedly racial.” In the Pacific, soldiers on both sides routinely hacked body parts – heads, sex organs, fingers, gold teeth – off the dead bodies of enemy soldiers to be used as souvenirs. To be taken prisoner in Europe was bad but survivable. To be captured in the Pacific fighting was unlikely, since battle casualties were so high. If it happened, it was considered a fate possibly worse than death. The Marines were not unfamiliar with what Americans regarded as the lesser races: one of their famous marching song contains the rousing stanza “Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga,” recalling the Marines fighting the Muslim rebels against American colonial rule in the Philippines in the early twentieth century.

We said good-bye to the drafty barracks and sunny, windy desert days of Mojave and went up to the fogs, rain and mists of Northern California to fly endless carrier landing practice patterns around the Santa Rosa air station. These “bounce” drills taught the pilot how to fly at slow speeds and low altitudes while he came into the final legs of the landing pattern and picked up the fluorescent paddles of the Landing Signal Officer (LSO), himself a qualified naval pilot, who then employed a simple set of arm and body signals to help the pilot fly the airplane onto the deck.

When the LSO leaned his body and paddles in one direction, the pilot tilted the airplane to respond. When the LSO brought the two paddles rapidly together in a gathering motion, indicating the plane was coming in too slowly and might stall and crash, the pilot pushed on more throttle adding power and speed. When the LSO cut the right-hand paddle across his chest, the pilot cut his throttle, dropped the nose for a second, then pulled the stick back and landed in a full stall. When the LSO waved and crossed his paddles arms vigorously in front of his head, either because the approach was unsatisfactory or the flight deck or runway wasn’t clear, that constituted the famous “wave off”, and the pilot had to go around the entire landing pattern again. In contemporary carrier flying, the LSO has disappeared and this is all done with mirrors and lights, which old timers find sad. Good LSOs and their brilliantly clad deck crews were the dance-masters of a unique technological ballet: the interplay between the signal officer and the pilot, the never-still sea, the looming massive deck of the ship, the final, always shocking moment of the touchdown — or slam down if the deck was dropping away in the swell, the plane catching its landing hook in the restraining cable which slowed and stopped it within a second or so after hitting the deck, rolling backwards for another brief second to disengage the tail-hook from the cable, and then charging forward to clear the momentarily lowered crash barrier at mid-deck.

The flight deck of a carrier looks impossibly small from the air but in two important aspects landing at sea is easier than landing on a land runway, unless the sea is really boisterous and the swells running high and rough. That is because the carrier turns precisely into the wind both to launch and receive aircraft. Planes, like birds, land into the wind. The pilot at sea thus enjoys the advantage of both the speed of the prevailing wind plus the speed of the carrier itself – WW II carriers could steam at up to thirty-plus knots – to deduct from the airspeed at stall out and touchdown. As far as speed is concerned, a carrier landing is therefore both more manageable and safer. On land, the pilot must deal with cross winds or no wind and much higher relative touchdown speeds. The first touchdown on land after a long spell at sea is always tricky.

During two chilly, foggy days off the California coast, we went through this rite of passage on an old battle and accident-scarred carrier, the USS Ranger. Most of us managed the eight required landings without serious problems. But we lost one Navy pilot whose fighter skidded on the oil-soaked wooden deck of the old Ranger and went over the side into the ocean. I found parking on the deck, following the hand and arm signals of the flight deck crew, dressed in an array of brilliant colors like courtiers at a Renaissance court and leaning into the thirty-knot wind, more alarming than the landing itself. I followed the deck crewman’s hand and head signals to park right up at the very edge of the deck with my plane’s wings folded, staring straight down at the ocean fifty feet below while the huge ship rolled and tossed under us.

On February seven, VMF 452, the “Sky Raiders” as we had chosen to call ourselves, boarded the USS Franklin at the Alameda naval air base in San Francisco bay. The Franklin was a monster: 27,000 tons, 872 feet long, 150,000 horsepower. It could steam at thirty-three knots carrying a crew of 3,400 men. The ship was fresh from the navy yards at Bremerton , Washington , where large hunks of its flight and hangar decks, blown up in Japanese suicide attacks off the Philippines in October 1944, had been repaired and replaced. It was, everyone noted, CV-13, which meant simply that it was the thirteenth big attack carrier listed in the Navy arsenal. We steamed out under the Golden Gate Bridge , taking a last look at the fabulous city and plunged into the mighty Pacific swell. Our first stop was Honolulu to carry out night landing drills, beginning with night bounce practice sessions around the Marine Corps field at Barbers Point.

VMF 452 was to fly off the Franklin as a Marine Corps squadron as part of Navy Air Group Five, which consisted of two fighter squadrons, each of thirty-six aircraft, plus a twelve-plane torpedo squadron and a dive bomber squadron of twelve aircraft. It was not an easy relationship. We were there in a Navy-run and staffed operation because of our presumed competence with the Corsair, which was proving increasingly valuable in the air war with Japan . But our Commanding Officer, who was a gentle man, had to report to the Navy Air Group Commander, who of course outranked him and was a Naval Academy graduate as well while our Major Weiland came into the Marine Corps out of South Dakota and civilian pilot training at the University of Miami. We made some friends among the Navy pilots but generally we stuck to each other.

In Hawaii , we became creatures of the sea and the air. By night, we flew landing patterns, dragging slowly at dangerously low altitudes around the Barbers Point MCAS field, picking up the fluorescent paddles of the LSO and dropping down hard onto the asphalt runway, then hitting full throttle and going around again to repeat. In the free time in the mornings, we took a couple of jeeps, loaded with beer, out to the northern beaches and swam and dozed in the sun. WW II Honolulu belonged to the Navy and Dole Pineapple. Its honky-tonk bars were crowded with sailors. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the only luxury hotel in all the islands.

I never did make a night carrier landing. Our departure was moved up before the night I was scheduled to fly aboard. When we left the dock to steam out to join the fleet in the western Pacific, the LSO we had trained with, who had been with the Franklin since its earlier Pacific actions in which it was severely damaged, was there, visibly intoxicated, to see us off. “I got off,” he shouted, laughing. “You should get off. Get off, get off! It’s an unlucky ship. Thirteen is unlucky. The ship is unlucky.”

We sailed west for what seemed forever towards the war, the great ship rising and falling slowly as it sliced through the Pacific swell. I discovered a catwalk hanging below the flight deck at the furthest forward point of the flight deck where one could sit or lie and watch the prow of the carrier scything through the water, flying fish exploding out of the sea below us and skittering along flashing in the sunlight. We flew occasional training drills as we went, including a formation south of our route to see if there was any aerial activity in the general direction of the island of Truk, where a tiny Japanese contingent was dying on the vine of a once huge Japanese redoubt, isolated and cut off from supplies as the war spun westward.

Our immediate destination was Ulithi. The Navy captured this extraordinary geological formation from the Japanese in September, 1944. The Ulithi atoll is an enormous, circular, coral reef-ringed, deep natural anchorage five hundred miles east by north from the eastern tip of the Philippines . Ulithi had become the principal forward marshalling point for the endgame with Japan . Navy engineers blasted entrance channels into the atoll for the huge capital ships of the fleet and reinforced a tiny island in the middle of the atoll and put a landing strip on it. We steamed silently into the anchorage just before sunset in early March 1945. In every direction, all the eye could see was American fighting ships: fifteen big carriers (our arrival made it sixteen), four battleships, eight heavy and light cruisers, sixty-plus destroyers and hundreds of transport and utility ships – oilers, munition carriers, freighters, and landing craft of all sizes and shapes. This was Task Force 58, alternately known as Task Force 38, the designation depending on its commanding officer. Two brilliant Admirals, Mark Mitscher (Task Force 58) and Bull Halsey (Task Force 38), took turns commanding this awesome machine, the greatest naval fighting force the world had ever known. I thought to myself: “I am glad I am not a Japanese.”

Outside Ulithi, coming into the harbor passage, we passed a long line of landing ships and smaller landing craft, heavily loaded and low in the water, heading north. We were close enough to wave down to the men on some of them. I found out much later that my brother, Murray, was on one of these landing craft with his Marine artillery unit, headed north for the Okinawa invasion, the blood-soaked semifinal chapter of the Pacific war before the anticipated final assault on mainland Japan . I had not seen Murray since the war started.

In Ulithi, we finally learned our specific assignment: to attack Japanese airfields and military bases to interdict Japanese movement of troops and aircraft from the main islands down to reinforce Okinawa . We loaded fuel, munitions including a brand new large aerial rocket called “Tiny Tim,” and additional crew. The Franklin was to be Task Force 58’s flagship with an admiral and his staff. In addition, a special photography crew had come aboard to shoot a propaganda film on “Tiny Tim.” The ship was jammed: we totaled some 3400 men. The junior officer quarters were so crowded that I begged a sleeping space on a luggage shelf built into the wall of a cabin occupied by two first lieutenants who were willing to put me up. The only really comfortable place was the squadron ready room, just below the flight deck with which it was connected by a short stairway, equipped with air conditioning and leather lounge chairs. It was there that pilots were briefed and debriefed and awaited the order over the public address system: “Pilots, man your planes!”

In mid-March, the fleet lifted anchor and steamed out. At sea, in battle formation, the fleet was even more awesome than at anchor. The task force divided into four carrier divisions of four carriers each, each division with its own cast of supporting cruisers and destroyers. The four divisions changed course frequently day and night in maneuvers designed to avoid submarine attacks, although by early 1945 most of the Japanese submarine fleet lay at the bottom of the ocean. The entire task force covered a thousand square-mile area of water, steaming day and night at speeds of up to thirty-three knots. It was a marvel of American military planning and training and a triumph of military technology. Most of the men running and manning the ships and aircraft, like me, had probably never set foot on a ship before the war or dreamed of flying an airplane.

As we bore north towards Japan , the sunny skies and blue seas of the equatorial Pacific disappeared. Low-lying gray clouds covered the sky. The sea turned gray-black. The air grew chilly. Our moods turned pensive. Those of us — the great majority — who had never been in combat were nervous, although trying not to show it. Along with many others, I thought it wouldn’t hurt and might even help and went to a chapel service. Our commanders told us that if we were hit by Japanese fire or had engine trouble over Japan we should try to reach the Chinese mainland where, with luck, we would be picked up by the Chinese Nationalists rather than by the Japanese.

As we pressed towards the main islands combat air patrols found no significant Japanese contacts. The first heavy fighting was expected to start March 18 with attacks to destroy airfields, harbor facilities and Japanese aircraft on the island of Kyushu , the southernmost of the major Japanese islands, and Honshu . I was assigned to fly as the two-plane section leader in a flight of four Corsairs covering two Navy Hellcat photo aircraft to take aerial photographs of Nagasaki . The division leader was Major John Stack, a decorated veteran of the Guadalcanal fighting who had shot down three Japanese fighters in that earlier campaign. Stack was a short, muscular reddish-haired man with a bushy mustache, not much one for talking but respected as a purposeful, hard driving flier. Flying on Stack’s wing was Tom Pace. On my wing was a first lieutenant named Bo Little, a gentle, small town boy from Oklahoma who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and went to Los Angeles on liberty to see movies.

We launched shortly after daybreak, climbed up through the cloud cover to 20,000 feet, donning our oxygen masks as we gained altitude, and picked up the two Navy Hellcat photo planes. It was bitterly cold. We had no gun heaters, which had failed to arrive in time to be installed, and had been told our fifty-caliber wing-mounted machineguns would freeze up if we didn’t clear them occasionally by firing a few rounds. The jumpiness I felt was compounded by watching lines of tracer bullets zip past below me or off to one side from other groups as pilots cleared their guns in the larger formation heading for Kyushu .

At launching, we were only fifty miles off the coast of Japan , closer than any major American ship had ever gone in the war. Within less than half an hour, the clouds began to break up as we approached the coast. As we came into Japanese air space, Tom Pace radioed Major Stack that he was having both engine and radio problems and must return to the ship. Stack asked if Pace was sure he could make it back. Pace said he could, and peeled off to head back. Stack motioned to me to join up in formation on his wing.

Unrolling below us as we flew northward above the two Hellcat photo planes were the wooded green hills, ocean bays, coastal towns, rice paddies and industrial plants of Japan. We kept a constant scan of the skies around us for Japanese fighter planes, flying an interconnected side-to-side weave of slow turns from right to left and back to cover the whole sky with our vision and protect against attack from the rear. (This maneuver was known as the “Thach” weave after the navy pilot who invented it.)

We made two passes over Nagasaki at the northwest tip of Kyushu island. The photo planes headed south back towards the Franklin . Flying south down the island we suddenly heard a pilot shouting excitedly on the radio that he was under attack by Japanese planes above a “smoking mountain.” That “smoking mountain” had to be the active volcano in the hills above the bay at Kagoshima , a big industrial and port city at the southern tip of Kyushu . Major Stack waved good-bye to the photo planes. Our three-man formation headed for Kagoshima .

Within minutes, flying on Stack’s right wing, out of the corner of my right eye I saw a Japanese Zero curving in toward us. He was heading slightly below us and Stack immediately turned hard right and then left to drop in behind him. Stack fired several rounds, then pulled off above. I slid in for a few seconds behind the Zero and fired two machine gun bursts at him before the Zero suddenly rolled over and in an abrupt dive disappeared straight down. For a minute or so the sky around us was a great ball of Corsairs and an occasional Japanese fighter. At least one Japanese plane was on fire spiraling steeply down to the ground. A couple of Japanese parachutes were floating further down to the paddy fields. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. No Japanese planes, no Major Stack, no wingman Bo Little. I began a slow circular turn to see what was going on. Within a minute or so, four Corsairs joined up to fly formation on my lead. I was low on gas so I headed back for the fleet with my newly acquired formation of pilots, even more confused than I was, following me. By the time I found the Franklin with my flock I had five minutes of fuel left.

The ready room was full of exhilarated pilots. A number of Japanese planes had been shot down. Stack was convinced he had killed the Japanese we had been after. I thought I had hit the same plane with my firing. We were never to know. The sobering question came up immediately: Where was Tom Pace? Stack explained the circumstances under which Pace decided to return to the ship. Standing orders were that planes in trouble must be accompanied back to base. But Stack had issued no such order. Pace had not landed on the Franklin . 1st Lieutenant Pete Schaefer, a close friend of Tom’s and mine, indignantly challenged Stack’s failure to act. At first it was thought possible that Tom had landed on another carrier, or that he ditched in the sea and had been picked up by a destroyer. We eventually found out that he had been shot down and killed that same morning by anti-aircraft fire from a US destroyer whose crew mistook him for an incoming Japanese plane when he failed to identify himself.

The next day, March 19, not scheduled to fly an early mission, I was half-asleep on my luggage rack bunk shortly after seven a.m., listening to the racket of a dive-bomber flight taking off immediately above my head on the flight deck. I heard a loud explosion and then for a minute nothing. I thought immediately that a dive-bomber must have crashed over the bow on takeoff and exploded in the water. Then two huge explosions shook the ship along with a fierce rattle and pounding of what I thought were the ship’s antiaircraft guns. I jumped out of my bunk in my shorts and went out into the narrow corridor. The rattling and explosions were growing in their intensity. I thought we were under attack and firing at enemy planes. A ship officer whom I knew slightly came running up the corridor from amid-ship. I asked him what was going on. “We’ve been hit by a bomb and we’re blowing up,” he shouted at me. “That’s our own ammunition blowing up.”

I ducked back into my room and hurriedly dressed as the banging and rattling and explosions continued. When I came back to the corridor officers and men were milling around in all directions. Up along the narrow corridor from the hangar deck, stygian figures of men burned black were staggering forward towards the focsle deck area. Black smoke was pouring in from the rear. Huge explosions, reverberating in the steel walls and ceilings, rocked the ship. Another ship officer shouted that we should all head as far forward as possible and get out into the open focsle deck at the prow just below the flight deck. Within minutes about a hundred men, some so badly burned they were barely conscious, shivering in the cold, moist wind, had assembled on the open deck. The ship was losing speed and beginning to list. As the explosions continued, a ship’s officer shouted at us to assume a pushup position on the deck using our fingers and toes to avoid ankle and leg fracture because of the pounding, hammering action of the deck under our feet.

After about an hour, the explosions abated momentarily. I followed a ship’s officer up a catwalk to the flight deck to help fight the fires consuming the entire rear half of the ship behind the multi-story island where the ship’s command post was located. As we went back to lend a hand with the fire hoses, a horrifyingly loud explosion blew the outboard elevator, which carried planes up and down to and from the flight and hanger decks, several hundred feet into the air. All over the forward portion of the deck wounded men were limping and being carried forward from the fires and explosions towards the stern. I came across a friend and squadron-mate, Lt. Jim Ormond, lying on the flight deck in pain, his leg shattered at various points from the concussions. I got an arm around him and we limped forward as far as we could get.

By mid-morning, the Franklin was dead and low in the water, listing increasingly to starboard. Explosions and fire raged through its entire rear half. The tilting deck was slippery with fire fighting foam. A Navy light cruiser, the USS Santa Fe, slid into formation with us off the starboard side and slowly crept in towards the listing flight deck. It became apparent the Santa Fe intended to take off survivors. Within a half hour, directed by the ship’s crew, the remnants of the air crews and sailors on the flight deck were able to rig a makeshift breaches buoy system to transfer wounded men across the narrow gulf separating the two ships, which were pounding up and down dangerously in a fifteen foot swell. Finally, the Santa Fe threw caution to the winds and headed in even closer to tie up directly alongside the Franklin .

Shortly after noon , an order was passed around orally – the public address system was an early casualty of the day – that all hands except the permanently designated salvage crew should abandon ship. Jim Ormond had been hauled over to the Santa Fe an hour earlier. I decided it was time to go myself. I judged the rise and fall of the Santa Fe in the swell, waited for the exact moment when the top of the Santa Fe’s left gun turret came level for a second or two on the rise of the swell with the right edge of the Franklin’s slippery flight deck, and took a running jump across the six foot gap. I landed on my feet just below the cruiser’s command post, stumbled for a second, and then they pulled me up. “I’m glad to be aboard, sir,” I said. It was corny but I never spoke truer words.

 

**********

 

The memoir as a whole deals not only with my wartime experiences but my postwar career as a journalist, a career foreign service officer serving in Latin America, Russia and Asia, and a private foundation executive working in Russia and Asia . It is available online through Amazon.com; Barnes & Noble.com, and numbers of other internet sites, as well as through some Barnes & Noble stores.

 

Training A Seahawk

Training A Seahawk

Eugene “Rocky” Staples
2LT VMF-452
Sky Raiders

I was a young USMC second lieutenant in VMF 452 flying off the Franklin on March 19, 1945 when she was hit by a Japanese dive bomber and blew up spectacularly and at great cost in human life – and yet never sank. Here are two excerpts from my recently published memoir, Old Gods, New Nations: A Memoir of War, Peace, and Nation Building . The first describes my training as a naval aviator. The second recounts what happened to me and some of my squadron mates on that chilly gray day in March 1945 off the coast of Japan .

 

Excerpt from Chapter 2, “Training a Sea Hawk”

 

II

Training a Sea Hawk

 

Young men went off to the gathering storm of the war, as doubtless they always have, out of patriotism (or tribal loyalties), compulsion, the opportunity to break a dissatisfying routine, a spirit of adventure and mass psychology. Everyone is going. Why not me? And if I don’t go voluntarily, they will make me go anyway.
In my own case, I was not to be outdone by my brother, who in the first months of the war left a promising job as a junior chemist working for the government to enlist as an officer candidate in the Marine Corps, having completed the requisite college degree a year earlier. It took the Marines, well skilled in the arts of killing, just ninety days to turn him into a second lieutenant, teach him how to haul and shoot field artillery guns and command an artillery unit (which in those days still included knowing how to ride a horse), and ship him off to the already bleeding islands of the Pacific, from which he returned three long years later with bad malaria and a head wound.

When my brother left home, I decided I must continue the just-established family tradition and also become a Marine Corps officer. But I wanted to fly. It was far more dashing than slogging through mud. I had seen enough movies about World War I to know that aviators in their Spads and Fokkers were much sexier than the tired-looking, helmeted foot soldiers typified by Lew Ayres in “What Price Glory”. Aviators even earned extra flight pay for doing what one would think everyone would want to do anyway.

The way to become a Marine Corps flyer was to enlist in the Navy Aviation Cadet training program. In July, 1942, which symbolically seemed the appropriate month for such an historic occasion, I went to the Navy recruiting office in downtown Kansas City and enlisted as a Naval Aviation Cadet. I had finished two years at the junior college, and thanks to my YMCA training I was muscled and fit. Given the fact that my brother had just gone off to war, my parents wanted me to wait to see if in fact I would be drafted. I was not to be held back. A week later, after passing some relatively easy written tests and a tough physical examination (my brother, who had been a virtuoso model airplane builder, paradoxically became a military pilot only after World War II), I took the oath of service and was ready to go off and learn how to be a hero. That, it turned out, was going to take a while.

In the early months of the war, the Navy recruited a lot of young men to train as pilots. But its training capacities were still being built up. There weren’t enough trained Navy pilots to serve as instructors, nor for that matter enough flight base facilities. In addition, the Navy had decided to create a new network of pre-flight schools for its cadets at a number of American universities to eliminate flab and sharpen up practical math and physics for aerial navigation and related flight tasks. I could not even be immediately scheduled for an active duty call to one of these schools.

In the meantime, however, I could start flight training at government expense as a civilian under an already existing program subsidized by the Commerce Department, operated by aviation academies in various parts of the United States . A small private flight school at the Kansas City Municipal Airport across a bend of the Missouri river from the stockyards was eligible for the CPT (civilian pilot training) program and there, in the bright and beautiful days of the late summer of 1942 above the ripening corn fields of the river bottom lands, I began a love affair with flying. My first master was a young, relaxed flyer named Ray Baker who, like many pilots in those romantic days, wore a leather jacket and a white silk scarf.

Flying, particularly in the tiny airplanes I began with, is in its sense of feel and tactile rewards sort of like making love with the air, the winds, the clouds and the sky. One can always tell a fine flying airplane and a good pilot (even flying as a passenger in a 747) – the way the pilot gently holds off coming in for a landing, pulling back, holding, feeling for, and finally touching the ground. We frequently flew out of grass strips and farm fields. You can land like silk on grass. Like a bird, in a light plane you must master the air and the wind and soar in its updrafts and spiral like a hawk. Pilots are poets of touch. It has nothing to do with the physical appearance of coordination in walking or sports, although coordination is the essence of good flying. One of the best wingmen who ever flew with me, unshakable in any maneuver, could hardly climb a stairway without stumbling, and spluttered when he talked. With the mastery of touch comes the ability to be hard and firm when the moment demands violent maneuver – pushing over into a bombing run, or steadily pulling the controls back but not stalling out in an impossibly tight, gravity-multiplying turn in a dogfight; and emergency landings if you must thrust the plane down hard on a short runway or a pitching deck in a rough sea.

I soloed in a tiny Porterfield monoplane, powered by a fifty horsepower engine which barely got two people off the ground, cruised at seventy miles an hour and landed at a speed of maybe forty miles per hour. We learned how to fly perfect circles in which, having held your altitude constant as you come around through the 360 degrees point, you bump into your own prop-wash. We did lazy S-turns above a road to learn how to compensate for the effects of the wind, that giant tide moving around the earth, on your pattern over the ground. We learned spins – pull up slowly and steadily into the stall, feel the tremble, plunge and flutter down, spinning around and around, feel the powerless stick, count your turns, reverse the rudder at two-and-a-half turns, pop stick forward, come out into a dive and ease up slowly into normal flight.

When I finished my training at K.C. Municipal Airport , the Navy said I would not be called up for active duty training before the end of the year. But there was a two-month, secondary civilian flight program I might be interested in at the University of Wyoming at Laramie . This training would involve larger airplanes and acrobatics. It would be my first time living away from home. In 1942 Laramie , lying at the eastern end of the high western plain before the first ranges of the Rockies begin to rise, was a cow town. Its business was livestock, ranch connected businesses and in more recent years the state university. Our flight school was located outside the city and used its own grass strip fields. My two months there could hardly have been closer to heaven.

We flew open cockpit Waco bi-planes, the instructor sitting forward and the student aft. Our group of fifteen cadets had rooms assigned in a university dormitory. The status of our group was quite mysterious to most other members of the university community. We were neither students nor on active military duty. We did nothing to dispel the mystery, and in fact tried to increase it by designing makeshift uniforms of our own consisting of khaki trousers and shirts, leather jackets, and white silk scarves.

The Wacos were direct descendents of the classic fighters of World War I, although with much increased power. They were designed for acrobatic training, which also derived its maneuvers from the early days of flying. For two months above the plains and low ranges of eastern Wyoming we learned and practiced chandelles, that graceful climbing turn which owes its name to early French aviators, loops and the Immelman turn, an old maneuver invented by the German flier, Max Immelman, in the first World War, which is half-a-loop going up with a half-roll at the top to come out headed in the opposite direction. We would dive down and waggle our wings at the cowboys and sheepherders and, if none were in sight, chase cows and sheep across the fields. At our main practice field we gathered at the landing end and watched each other whistling in for landings on the worn-down grass strip, scarves flying in the wind, and say: “There goes Paul. Not bad,” or, “Boy, Jim really screwed that one up.” On weekend nights, wearing our self-designed flight outfits including appropriate leather jackets and white scarves, we hung out in the Laramie bars with cowhands and occasional university students. Some of the cowhands knew us from our flights over their ranches and said our acrobatics were a welcome break in their routine. By late October, even with our blanket-lined flying suits and leather helmets, it was freezing and becoming far too cold to fly open cockpit airplanes. We finished our course and prepared to head either back home or off to active duty. By then, counting both primary and secondary training, we had accumulated seventy-five hours or so of flight time and deemed ourselves ready to become aces.

The Navy ordered me to active duty as an Aviation Cadet in December, 1942, at the University of Iowa pre-flight school. This was one of four locations the Navy established when the war began to start sorting out who was bright and tough enough to become a Navy or Marine Corps pilot (the Marines being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Navy, a fact all Marines periodically try unsuccessfully to put out of their heads). To staff and run these schools, a major part of whose curriculum consisted of extremely demanding, incessant physical training, the Navy commissioned as officers a truly menacing collection of ex-college athletic coaches and athletes. The commanding officer of the physical training side of the Iowa pre-flight school, for example, was US Marine Corps Col. Bernie Bierman, a famous football coach at the University of Minnesota . Younger, more junior jocks presided in person over the three-hour daily physical training sessions. These USN pre-flight schools were an earthly paradise for ex-college coaches: for the first time in their lives, they had a captive audience of generally smart young men under military discipline who would do virtually anything to avoid flunking out of the Navy flight program. Flunking out meant you said goodbye to wings and officer status and started at the bottom as an enlisted man.

Doing anything was often required in the three-month immersion. Midwestern farm and city boys, many of whom could barely swim, floundered around slowly sinking in the huge university swimming pool, while officer/instructors dangled rescue poles just out of reach. Swimming was designed for survival, not style or speed. For years after the war, I could identify strange men of more or less my age in hotel swimming pools who had obviously been cadets at the Navy pre-flight schools by the way they swam the head-out-of-the-water, frog-kick breast stroke. Boxing and wrestling programs were designed so that competitions, rather than eliminating losers, allowed the winner of a couple of matches to stand aside: the more you lost the more you had to fight, and after a while in the losing bracket a room-mate was ready to kill his room-mate in desperation.

At six a.m. (0600 hours) a bosun’s whistle and a recorded voice came echoing through the loudspeaker “Hit the decks, cadets, it’s ten below zero”. We would muster outside in the ice and snow of the disheartening Iowa mid-winter landscape and then file in for breakfast. After eating, part of the cadet corps went off for military drill outside or for a forced march hike, trailed by an ambulance. The other half went to class: practical physics, math, navigation, meteorology, practice in aircraft identification using photographs flashed for split seconds on a wall screen, and Navy history and practices.

The Navy fed and clothed us well. We dressed in officer’s clothing – usually Navy green, although on ceremonial occasions we wore dress blues – without any emblem of rank. My favorite Navy article of clothing was the marvelous Navy North Atlantic storm coat (I still wear mine sixty years later). Since we were all burning calories like miniature stoves, the Navy fed us like prize animals being fattened for market (which in a way we were). We ate limitless quantities of bacon or ham and eggs, pancakes, steaks, ice cream and candy bars, which were provided free in containers in the dorms.

Cadets soon formed into small groups of friends. My best friend at Iowa , Billy Anderson, was a short, ruddy, quiet-spoken boy from a small town in Illinois , whose humor and steady philosophical approach to the indignities of cadet life helped keep my rebellious side under control. I thought some of the jock officers went way too far in their hazing. The chief swimming coach, a handsome blond fellow with the beautiful smooth musculature of a champion swimmer, was notorious. He liked to strut up and down the side of the pool yelling threats of expulsion at unfortunate cadets who thought they were drowning. “Now, now,” Billy would say. “Keep your mouth shut. Keep your eye on those wings.”

On graduation in early spring, I was ordered for primary flight training to the Hutchinson , Kansas , Naval Air Station. Hutchinson is a typical small farm town in the heart of the vast Kansas wheat plains. The Navy built an enormous circular asphalt landing field there – so that you could take off and land into the wind regardless of its direction – and set up a number of auxiliary grass strips and farmer fields for small field landing practice. I was elated at the prospect of starting flying again, although the first truth I learned from my first instructor on the first day at Hutchinson was that whatever I thought I had learned about flying in civilian pilot training in Kansas City and Laramie didn’t count as far as the Navy was concerned. There is only one way to fly: that is the Navy way. The Navy was different in one major respect: it demanded absolute precision in the small field procedures required for aircraft carrier landings and takeoffs and for flying out of invasion beach air strips.

Over the next six months, first at Hutchinson and later at the sprawling Naval Aviation complex at Corpus Christi , Texas , the Navy systematically turned us into military pilots. To the work in small field procedures and formation training, the Navy added navigation, gunnery and instrument flying. Primary cadets flew the open cockpit Stearman biplane, a thing of beauty, responsive in flight, lovely sweptback wings, a delicate tail and an alarming tendency to ground loop. At Corpus for advanced training, cadets graduated to the famous SNJ (the Army Air Force version was known as the AT-6), a low-wing, two-seater monoplane with a six hundred horsepower motor and retractable landing gear. They were a joy to fly – handsome, maneuverable and durable for the gunner and bombing training, formation flying and acrobatics that comprised the curriculum. The SNJ in silhouette bore a vague resemblance to the Japanese Zero fighter and for many years most of the Zeros depicted in movies about World War II were none other than the good old SNJ.

The flying domain of NAS Corpus Christi with its huge main field and numbers of auxiliaries spread out over thousands of acres of scrub brush, most of it the property of the enormous King Ranch, and waterfront land along the Gulf of Mexico. It was a fabulous location for pilot training: there wasn’t a hill for hundreds of miles. An occasional hurricane might roar in from the Gulf but typical flying weather was a hot, sunny day with a mild wind blowing in from the sea bearing white, fluffy cumulus clouds. It was a perfect playground for young pilots to roll and dive and chase each other’s tails around the cloud peaks and valleys in the sky.

Our instructors were Navy flight officers, in most cases only a few years older than the cadets, who had been unfortunate or fortunate enough, depending on one’s point of view, to be assigned to training rather than combat duties. I thought they had terrible assignments but managed not to say so. In spite of the fact that instructors weren’t much older than us, we were enormously respectful. After all they were commissioned pilots and our fate depended on them. And what tough jobs they had, particularly in primary training, condemned to sit in the front seat of the open cockpit Stearman biplanes while the planes, cadets handling the dual controls, staggered over field-bordering trees into and out of small fields or skidded perilously close to each other in formation training.

A half-century plus later, one of my few surviving squadron mates wrote me that the Navy was about to dispose of old flight training records that it had, rather unbelievably, retained in storage since World War II. Former cadets could write in and get their records. A mid-course comment July 25, 1943 , by Lt. (jg) U. E. Orvis, an instrument flying instructor at Corpus Christi , noted: “Cadet Staples has a quiet and even disposition. He has the industrious and persevering spirit which makes him capable at all times. He has been conscientious in handling all of his duties. He has demonstrated above average officer like qualities.” The final comment in the file dated September 1, 1943 , from Ensign R. James, just before I graduated: “Cadet Staples exercises sound judgment and is sensible and cool headed but is somewhat cocky and opinionated. I believe he will make a good officer.”

One day, Ensign James led a flight of six of us out to a tiny auxiliary strip in the middle nowhere in the scrub brush to practice landings. We parked our planes and sat under a wing to talk about flying. I looked around at these beautiful machines and my companions dressed in their khaki flight coveralls and helmets and thought we were the finest fellows in the world. We were absolutely, as Tolstoy as a youth said about his aristocratic coterie, “Comme il faut” – “all correct, as it should be.”

On weekends at Corpus, we cruised and drank in the bars and picked up local girls and an occasional WAVE (the Navy’s female component, in those days completely land-based). One night, after a long drinking and nude swimming party on a beach outside Corpus, I awakened on the sand, buck naked, with the sun boring into my eyes and a naked girl next to me. After a minute, I placed her as a WAVE left over from the night’s partying although I wasn’t sure of her name. We wandered back down the beach, found our clothes, hitched a ride into Corpus and never saw each other again.

Hard drinking on weekend leave became a routine for me and a good many other cadets as well. A favorite partner was Don Boyd, a husky, red-haired, bright-eyed and totally engaging cadet from Flint, Michigan, who decided I was someone he liked to party with. I was a willing recruit. Don’s other best friend, a tough Chicago boy named Joe Bohlen, had developed a morphine addiction while undergoing hospitalization for a serious operation, and was rumored to be an occasional drug user. Drugs were, of course, totally prohibited. The Navy tolerated alcohol use as a common weakness, although never on duty. Virtually everyone smoked tobacco. Marijuana was known but not widely used. Joe Bohlen decided one day that I was so fond of talking about my flying prowess I should be dubbed a “Hot Rock.” That metamorphosed into “The Rock” and then to “Rocky,” which has remained my nickname until today. One of my favorite ladies, my first wife’s cousin, dryly commented years later that she knew a number of men named Eugene . They all preferred their nicknames, she said.

Don and I, along with about ten percent of our entire class, were notified a few weeks before graduation that our requests to be commissioned as Marine Corps aviators, which meant in most cases flying either from small aircraft carriers or ground bases in support of Marine ground troops in invasions and land battles, had been granted. Thus on September 4, 1943 , I put on the Marine Corps working green officer’s uniform, with a single gold bar on each shoulder, and took the oath of office. I was twenty-one years old, beautifully trained and sure of myself in the air. Although I was less confident and certain than I tried to appear in my official and social life, I found that other young officers usually accepted me as someone who knew what direction to go and was therefore to be followed.

After a short detour in Jacksonville , Florida , flying torpedo planes, which I thought would get me into combat sooner, I reported to a Marine Corps fighter training unit in El Toro , California and was almost immediately assigned to join a new squadron, VMF 452 (the VMF stands for Fleet Marine Fighter squadron) at the Marine Corps Air Station in Mojave. Mojave was a road stop in the vast scrub bush and sand desert that starts east of the coastal hills in California and extends far past Las Vegas . It was the kind of town that actually had a greasy spoon restaurant called the Silver Dollar Café. The desert’s inhabitants were snakes, lizards, birds, wild cats and an occasional prospector pursuing his dream of finding gold in the middle of military bombing and gunnery ranges, which was what much of the desert had been turned into. The Marine Corps built a modern flying field and aircraft hangers at Mojave, erected some simple wooden barracks for officers and men, around and through which the wind howled day and night, burning hot in the summer and cold in the winter, two small but well stocked officer’s and non-commissioned officer’s clubs and the requisite mess halls, ordnance and equipment buildings.

One could fly at Mojave day and night virtually every day of the year, since it practically never rained. Huge open tracts of desert and mountain were marked off for gunnery and bombing training. An Army Air Corps field was located nearby at Muroc Dry Lake (now known as the Edwards Air Force base, famous in later years as the advanced flight test base where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier and then as the west coast landing strip for the space shuttle). The Army Air Corps trained B-24, heavy bomber pilots at Muroc.

Our squadron had been assigned the still relatively new Chance Vought Corsair, a sleek, powerful, inverted gull wing fighter that looked like an aerial torpedo with wings. It was the Marine Corps fighter of choice for invasion support, increasingly replacing some of the Navy Grumann Hellcat fighter squadrons aboard the big aircraft carriers. The Corsair was a hustling, heavy but sensitive machine, lovely to fly, and tricky to land (dozens of pilots were killed in the early version before engineers figured out how to prevent premature stalling and rolling on final landing approaches). It was faster than the Japanese Zero, although less maneuverable, tougher and more versatile.

So we flew, and flew and trained, and flew. I always sought the early morning flights, rocketing off over the fragrant sage in the still relatively cool air before closing the cockpit bubble and climbing steadily into the fathomless blue sky. In addition to the daily training routine, a few of us would sign up for extra flying time in available aircraft and go off dog-fighting on our own over the mountains. A formal aerial dogfight started when the two fighters crossed courses on 180 degree opposing courses, one a thousand feet higher than the other (the height advantage was either agreed to or won by the toss of a coin). The goal was to get on your opponent’s tail where a fighter plane is unprotected (like a dog’s rear) and shoot him down (in these fights, of course, this act was recorded only with a triumphal whoop on the radio and occasionally a camera). The trick was to maneuver one’s plane with such a delicate touch in impossibly tight turns and at high G (gravity) forces so as not to stall out until finally sliding into the hawk’s position behind the enemy. My favorite opponent was an impassioned youngster named Hanson, who after the war became a philosophy professor at Yale University . He died in the 1960s flying his personally owned World War II fighter in a crash in a snowstorm.

The Corsair mounted six fifty -caliber machine guns and carried up to five hundred pounds of bombs or rockets. We flew gunnery runs over the mountains in four-plane formations thousands of feet above the white target sleeve pulled by a utility plane, rolling over to dive down for the kill and leading the target to compensate for the relative speeds and courses of target and shooter. It was bird hunting on a grand scale. The Muroc heavy bomber airfield, some fifty miles away, was an irresistible, off-limits magnet for the more venturesome of us, who would come flat-hatting in across the sagebrush to rocket down the camp streets ten feet above the ground, waggling our wings at startled Army Air Corps troops and fliers, or occasionally swoop down in mock gunnery runs on B-24 formations lumbering along in the desert sky. Most of the time we got away scot-free but my wingman and I finally got a sulfurous dressing down from the un-amused Mojave base commander and a ten-day confinement to quarters.

 

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Recollections

LCDR Samuel Robert Sherman, MC, USNR, Flight Surgeon on USS Franklin (CV-13) when it was heavily damaged by a Japanese bomber near the Japanese mainland on 19 March 1945.
Adapted from: “Flight Surgeon on the Spot: Aboard USS Franklin,
19 March 1945,” Navy Medicine 84, no. 4 (July-August 1993): 4-9.

 

I joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor. Actually, I had
been turned down twice before because I had never been in a ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] – located at many colleges to train students for officer commissions] reserve unit. Since I
had to work my way through college and medical school, I wasn’t
able to go to summer camp or the monthly week end drills.
Instead, I needed to work in order to earn the money to pay my
tuition. Therefore, I could never join a ROTC unit.

When most of my classmates were called up prior to Pearl Harbor,
I felt quite guilty, and I went to see if I could get into the
Army unit. They flunked me. Then I went to the Navy recruiting
office and they flunked me for two minor reasons. One was
because I had my nose broken a half dozen times while I was
boxing. The inside of my nose was so obstructed and the septum
was so crooked that the Navy didn’t think I could breathe well
enough. I also had a partial denture because I had lost some
front teeth also while boxing.

But the day after Pearl Harbor, I went back to the Navy and they
welcomed me with open arms. They told me I had 10 days to close
my office and get commissioned. At that time, I went to Treasure
Island, CA [naval station in San Francisco Bay], for
indoctrination. After that, I was sent to Alameda Naval Air
Station [east of San Francisco, near Oakland CA] where I was put
in charge of surgery and clinical services. One day the Team
Medical Officer burst into the operating room and said, “When
are you going to get through with this operation?” I answered,
“In about a half hour.” He said, “Well, you better hurry up
because I just got orders for you to go to Pensacola to get
flight surgeon’s training.”

Nothing could have been better because airplanes were the love
of my life. In fact, both my wife and I were private pilots and
I had my own little airfield and two planes. Since I wasn’t
allowed to be near the planes at Alameda, I had been after the
senior medical officer day and night to get me transferred to
flight surgeon’s training.

I went to [Naval Air Station] Pensacola [Florida] in April 1943
for my flight surgeon training and finished up in August.
Initially, I was told that I was going to be shipped out from
the East Coast. But the Navy changed its mind and sent me back
to the West Coast in late 1943 to wait for Air Group 5 at
Alameda Naval Air Station.

Air Group 5

Air Group 5 soon arrived, but it took about a year or so of
training to get up to snuff. Most of the people in it were
veterans from other carriers that went down. Three squadrons
formed the nucleus of this air group–a fighter, a bomber, and a
torpedo bomber squadron. Later, we were given two Marine
squadrons; the remnants of Pappy Boyington’s group.

Since the Marine pilots had been land-based, the toughest part
of the training was to get them carrier certified. We used the
old [USS] Ranger (CV-4) for take-off and landing training. We
took the Ranger up and down the coast from San Francisco to San
Diego and tried like hell to get these Marines to learn how to
make a landing. They had no problem taking off, but they had
problems with landings. Luckily, we were close enough to
airports so that if they couldn’t get on the ship they’d have a
place to land. That way, they wouldn’t have to go in the drink.
Anyhow, we eventually got them all certified. Some of our other
pilots trained at Fallon Air Station in Nevada and other West
Coast bases. By the time the [USS] Franklin [CV-13] came in, we
had a very well-trained group of people.

I had two Marine squadrons and three Navy squadrons to take care
of. The Marines claimed I was a Marine. The Navy guys claimed I
was a Navy man. I used to wear two uniforms. When I would go to
the Marine ready rooms [a ready room is a room where air crew
squadrons were briefed on upcoming missions and then stood by
“ready” to go to their aircraft. Each squadron had a ready
room.], I’d put on a Marine uniform and then I’d change quickly
and put on my Navy uniform and go to the other one. We had a lot
of fun with that. As their physician, I was everything. I had to
be a general practitioner with them, but I also was their
father, their mother, their spiritual guide, their social
director, their psychiatrist, the whole thing. Of course, I was
well trained in surgery so I could take care of the various
surgical problems. Every once in a while I had to do an
appendectomy. I also removed some pilonidal cysts and fixed a
few strangulated hernias. Of course, they occasionally got
fractures during their training exercises. I took care of
everything for them and they considered me their personal
physician, every one of them. I was called Dr. Sam and Dr. Sam
was their private doctor. No matter what was wrong, I took care
of it.

Eventually, the Franklin arrived in early 1945. It had been in
Bremerton [Washington] being repaired after it was damaged by a
Kamikaze off Leyte [in the Philippine Islands] in October 1944.
In mid-February 1945 we left the West Coast and went to [Naval
Base] Pearl [Harbor, Hawaii] first and then to Ulithi [in the
Caroline Islands, west Pacific Ocean. It was captured by the US
in Sept. 1944 and developed into a major advance fleet base.].
By the first week in March, the fleet was ready to sail. It took
us about 5 or 6 days to reach the coast of Japan where we began
launching aerial attacks on the airbases, ports, and other such
targets.

The Attack

Just before dawn on 19 March 1945, 38 of our bombers took off,
escorted by about 9 of our fighter planes. The crew of the
Franklin was getting ready for another strike, so more planes
were on the flight deck. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a
Japanese plane slipped through the fighter screen and popped up
just in front of the ship. My battle station was right in the
middle of the flight deck because I was the flight surgeon and
was supposed to take care of anything that might happen during
flight operations. I saw the Japanese plane coming in, but there
was nothing I could do but stay there and take it. The plane
just flew right in and dropped two bombs on our flight deck.

I was blown about 15 feet into the air and tossed against the
steel bulkhead of the island. I got up groggily and saw an
enormous fire. All those planes that were lined up to take off
were fully armed and fueled. The dive bombers were equipped with
this new “Tiny Tim” heavy rocket and they immediately began to
explode. Some of the rockets’ motors ignited and took off across
the flight deck on their own. A lot of us were just ducking
those things. It was pandemonium and chaos for hours and hours.
We had 126 separate explosions on that ship; and each explosion
would pick the ship up and rock it and then turn it around a
little bit. Of course, the ship suffered horrendous casualties
from the first moment. I lost my glasses and my shoes. I was
wearing a kind of moccasin shoes. I didn’t have time that
morning to put on my flight deck shoes and they just went right
off immediately. Regardless, there were hundreds and hundreds of
crewmen who needed my attention.

Medical Equipment

Fortunately, I was well prepared from a medical equipment
standpoint. From the time we left San Francisco and then stopped
at Pearl and then to Ulithi and so forth, I had done what we
call disaster planning. Because I had worked in emergency
hospital service and trauma centers, I knew what was needed.
Therefore, I had a number of big metal containers, approximately
the size of garbage cans, bolted down on the flight deck and the
hangar deck. These were full of everything that I
needed–splints, burn dressings, sterile dressings of all sorts,
sterile surgical instruments, medications, plasma, and
intravenous solutions other than plasma. The most important
supplies were those used for the treatment of burns and
fractures, lacerations, and bleeding. In those days the Navy had
a special burn dressing which was very effective. It was a gauze
impregnated with Vaseline and some chemicals that were almost
like local anesthetics. In addition to treating burns, I also
had to deal with numerous casualties suffering from severe
bleeding; I even performed some amputations.

Furthermore, I had a specially equipped coat that was similar to
those used by duck hunters, with all the little pouches. In
addition to the coat, I had a couple of extra-sized money belts
which could hold things. In these I carried my morphine syrettes
and other small medical items. Due to careful planning I had no
problem whatsoever with supplies.

I immediately looked around to see if I had any corpsmen
[Hospital Corpsman is an enlisted rating for medical orderlies]
left. Most of them were already wounded, dead, or had been blown
overboard. Some, I was later told, got panicky and jumped
overboard. Therefore, I couldn’t find any corpsmen, but
fortunately I found some of the members of the musical band whom
I had trained in first aid. I had also given first-aid training
to my air group pilots and some of the crew. The first guy I
latched onto was LCDR MacGregor Kilpatrick, the skipper of the
fighter squadron. He was an Annapolis graduate and a veteran of
the [USS] Lexington (CV-2) and the [USS] Yorktown (CV-5) with
three Navy Crosses. He stayed with me, helping me take care of
the wounded.

I couldn’t find any doctors. There were three ship’s doctors
assigned to the Franklin, CDR Francis (Kurt) Smith, LCDR James
Fuelling, and LCDR George Fox. I found out later that LCDR Fox
was killed in the sick bay by the fires and suffocating smoke.
CDR Smith and LCDR Fuelling were trapped below in the warrant
officer’s wardroom, and it took 12 or 13 hours to get them out.
That’s where LT Donald Gary got his Medal of Honor for finding
an escape route for them and 300 men trapped below. Mean while,
I had very little medical help.

Finally, a couple of corpsmen who were down below in the hangar
deck came up once they recovered from their concussions and
shock. Little by little a few of them came up. Originally, the
band was my medical help and what pilots I had around.

Evacuation Efforts

I had hundreds and hundreds of patients, obviously more than I
could possibly treat. Therefore, the most important thing for me
to do was triage. In other words, separate the serious wounded
from the not so serious wounded. We’d arranged for evacuation of
the serious ones to the cruiser [USS] Santa Fe (CL-60) which had
a very well-equipped sick bay and was standing by alongside.

LCDR Kilpatrick was instrumental in the evacuations. He helped
me organize all of this and we got people to carry the really
badly wounded. Some of them had their hips blown off and arms
blown off and other sorts of tremendous damage. All together, I
think we evacuated some 800 people to the Santa Fe. Most of them were wounded and the rest were the air group personnel who were on board.

The orders came that all air group personnel had to go on the
Santa Fe because they were considered nonexpendable. They had to live to fight again in their airplanes. The ship’s company air
officer of the Franklin came up to LCDR Kilpatrick and myself as
we were supervising the evacuation between fighting fires,
taking care of the wounded, and so forth.

He said, “You two people get your asses over to the Santa Fe as
fast as you can.” LCDR Kilpatrick, being an [US Naval Academy
at] Annapolis [Maryland] graduate, knew he had to obey the
order, but he argued and argued and argued. But this guy
wouldn’t take his arguments.

He said, “Get over there. You know better.” Then he said to me,
“You get over there too.”

I said, “Who’s going to take care of these people?”

He replied, “We’ll manage.”

I said, “Nope. All my life I’ve been trained never to abandon a
sick or wounded person. I can’t find any doctors and I don’t
know where they are and I only have a few corpsmen and I can’t
leave these people.”

He said, “You better go because a military order is a military
order.”

I said, “Well what could happen to me if I don’t go?”

He answered, “I could shoot you or I could bring court-martial
charges against you.”

I said, “Well, take your choice.” And I went back to work.

As MacGregor Kilpatrick left he told me, “Sam, you’re crazy!”

Getting Franklin Under Way

After the Air Group evacuated, I looked at the ship, I looked at
the fires, and I felt the explosions. I thought, well, I better
say good-bye right now to my family because I never believed
that the ship was going to survive. We were just 50 miles off
the coast of Japan (about 15 minutes flying time) and dead in
the water. The cruiser [USS] Pittsburgh (CA-72) was trying to
get a tow line to us, but it was a difficult job and took hours
to accomplish.

Meanwhile, our engineering officers were trying to get the
boilers lit off in the engine room. The smoke was so bad that we
had to get the Santa Fe to give us a whole batch of gas masks.
But the masks didn’t cover the engineers’ eyes. Their eyes
became so inflamed from the smoke that they couldn’t see to do
their work. So, the XO [Executive Officer, the ship’s
second-in-command] came down and said to me, “Do you know where
there are any anesthetic eye drops to put in their eyes so they
can tolerate the smoke?”

I said, “Yes, I know where they are.” I knew there was a whole
stash of them down in the sick bay because I used to have to
take foreign bodies out of the eyes of my pilots and some of the
crew.

He asked, “Could you go down there (that’s about four or five
decks below), get it and give it to the engineering officer?”

I replied, “Sure, give me a flash light and a guide because I
may not be able to see my way down there although I used to go
down three or four times a day.”

I went down and got a whole batch of them. They were in
eyedropper bottles and we gave them to these guys. They put them in their eyes and immediately they could tolerate the smoke.
That enabled them to get the boilers going.

Aftermath

It was almost 12 or 13 hours before the doctors who were trapped
below were rescued. By that time, I had the majority of the
wounded taken care of. However, there still were trapped and
injured people in various parts of the ship, like the hangar
deck, that hadn’t been discovered. We spent the next 7 days
trying to find them all.

I also helped the chaplains take care of the dead. The burial of
the dead was terrible. They were all over the ship. The ships’
medical officers put the burial functions on my shoulders. I had
to declare them dead, take off their identification, remove,
along with the chaplains’ help, whatever possessions that hadn’t
been destroyed on them, and then slide them overboard because we had no way of keeping them. A lot of them were my own Air Group people, pilots and aircrew, and I recognized them even tough the bodies were busted up and charred. I think we buried about 832 people in the next 7 days. That was terrible, really terrible to bury that many people.

Going Home

It took us 6 days to reach Ulithi. Actually, by the time we got
to Ulithi, we were making 14 knots and had cast off the tow line
from the Pittsburgh. We had five destroyers assigned to us that
kept circling us all the time from the time we left the coast of
Japan until we got to Ulithi because we were under constant
attack by Japanese bombers. We also had support from two of the
new battle cruisers.

At Ulithi, I got word that a lot of my people in the Air Group
who were taken off or picked up in the water, were on a hospital
ship that was also in Ulithi. I visited them there and was told
that many of the dead in the Air Group were killed in their
ready rooms, waiting to take off when the bombs exploded. The
Marine squadrons were particularly hard hit, having few
survivors. I have a list of dead Marines which makes your heart
sink.

The survivors of the Air Group then regrouped on Guam. They
requested that I be sent back to them. I also wanted to go with
them, so I pleaded my case with the chaplain, the XO, and the
skipper [ship’s commanding officer]. Although the skipper felt I
had earned the right to be part of the ship’s company, he was
willing to send me where I wanted to go. Luckily, I rejoined my
Air Group just in time to keep the poor derelicts from getting
assigned to another carrier.

The Air Group Commander wanted to make captain so bad, that he
volunteered these boys for another carrier. Most of them were
veterans of the [USS] Yorktown and [USS] Lexington and had seen
quite a lot of action. A fair number of them had been blown into
the water and many were suffering from the shock of the
devastating ordeal. The skipper of the bombing squadron did not
think his men were psychologically or physically qualified to go
back into combat at that particular time. A hearing was held to
determine their combat availability and a flight surgeon was
needed to check them over. I assembled the pilots and checked
them out and I agreed with the bombing squadron skipper. These
men were just not ready to fight yet. Some of them even looked
like death warmed over.

The hearing was conducted by [Fleet] ADM [Chester W.] Nimitz
[Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas]. He
remembered me from Alameda because I pulled him out of the
wreckage of his plane when it crashed during a landing approach
in 1942. He simply said, “Unless I hear a medical opinion to the
contrary to CDR Sherman’s, I have to agree with CDR Sherman.” He
decided that the Air Group should be sent back to the States and
rehabilitated as much as possible.

In late April 1945, the Air Group went to Pearl where we briefly
reunited with the Franklin. They had to make repairs to the ship
so it could make the journey to Brooklyn. After a short stay, we
continued on to the Alameda. Then the Navy decided to break up
the Air Group, so everyone was sent on their individual way. I
was given what I wanted–senior medical officer of a
carrier–the [USS] Rendova (CVE-114), which was still outfitting
in Portland, OR. But the war ended shortly after we had
completed outfitting.

I stayed in the Navy until about Christmas time [1945]. I was
mustered out in San Francisco at the same place I was
commissioned. As far as the Air Group Officer, who said he would
either shoot me or court-martial me, well, he didn’t shoot me.
He talked about the court-martial a lot but everybody in higher
rank on the ship thought it was a really bad idea and made him
sound like a damned fool. He stopped making the threats.

A Marine’s Tragic Experience of World War II

 

A Marine’s Tragic Experience of World War II

By Cara Baker
World Civ 2
Honorbound
April 12, 2000
Q: Cara Baker
A: Michael Sansone

 

 

Intro:

Can you imagine joining the United States Marines at age 17 and being drafted two years later to fight in World War II? That was my grandfather, Michael Sansone. He was drafted on to the USS Franklin Carrier trying to engage Japan and the Nazis. After time at sea, on March 19, 1945, Japan bombed the ship and about 2000 men’s lives were put on the line. Luckily, my grandfather survived this catastrophe and is able to share his experience with me.
Q: Did you choose to become a Marine? If so, why?

A: I chose to become a Marine in 1943 because a good high school friend of mine, a year older than I was, was due to be drafted. I accompanied him down to the Marine recruiting depot as a bystander and while there I became interested in joining the Marines. I would become available just about a year later. However, I did enlist and I was called up a few months after my 17th birthday.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard you would have an affect on WWII?

A: Immediately, I didn’t realize that I would have an effect on WWII. However, I did know that I was in a prestigious branch of the armed forces and felt that we would be a very important part in defeating Japan as well as the Nazis.
Q: What was the name of your ship? Did the name have any significance?

A: The name of the ship that I was on was the USS Franklin SSS Carrier. It was named after the battle of Franklin, Tennessee in the Civil War.
Q: How old were you when you were on the ship?

A: At the time when I went aboard the Aircraft Carrier Franklin I was 19 years old. I was about two or three days past my 19th birthday.
Q: Why were you on the ship in the first place? (What were you to do for the war?)

A: I was aboard the ship with VMF 214, a Marine Fighter Squadron. Our pilots were to fly off the carrier and engage the enemy. My specific duty was a radioman in support of the pilots. I was mainly on the flight deck, but never got the chance to fly.
Q: What happened to your ship?

A: Our ship was hit for the second time in WWII, March 19, 1945. A single Japanese fighter-bomber escaped through the patrol and made a bombing run on our ship. He set off the fuel and ammunition and totally devastated the ship.
Q: What did the Marines do when the ship got bombed?

A: The Marines consisted of the pilots and about half of those pilots were airborne, maybe 15, and the remaining 15 pilots were preparing to take off on a subsequent air strike against the enemy. As far as the ground personnel, which included myself, we were strictly performing our support duties. I myself being in the radio department, tended to the radios that were installed in the airplanes. The rest of the Marines, like mechanics attended to the maintenance of the airplanes. The ordinance crew that ordered the bombs continued their duties.
Additional to the flight Marines, the 90 Marines that were permanently attached to the ship were there loading the guns to serve as protection for the captain.
Q: What were you thinking when the catastrophe happened?

A: I was paying attention to the fact to do my duties, as I was supposed to do, But when the bombs started exploding and everything was going off we really didn’t have much time to think off anything but to seek shelter and survive the initial attack.
Q: When during the war, did the bombing happen?

A: Well, as I said before, the bombing happened on March 19, 1945.
Q: Where, in the world, was the ship located when it got bombed?

A: The ship had sailed from Ulysses, two days prior. Ulysses is about 1000 miles south of the southernmost island of Japan. At the time the Japanese Aircraft bombed our ship, we were about 50 miles east of Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. The reason we were in that location was because the pilots were seeking out the remnants of the Japanese fleet, which was possibly held up in the Inland Sea, on the western side of Kyushu. This was prior to the Okinawa invasion, which was to occur on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.
Q: Was the ship near its destination when the bombing happened?

A: The ship was exactly where it was supposed to be, we were part of Task Force 58.2. And I would estimate that at least 1000 ships participated in the engagement. The cast force consisted of aircraft carriers, cruisers, battle ships, destroyers, submarines, and other supporting supply ships.
Q: How did this overall affect World War II?

A: This particular bombing of the Franklin was more of a propaganda tool, showing the enemy how we could survive because I’m sure the enemy thought they had sunk the ship. (They even reported they had sunk the ship) Even though the ship was in danger of capsizing many times and survived many subsequent attacks from the Japanese while it was being hauled back to a safer area, we survived. I feel that even though the ship didn’t contribute any serious damage to the enemy, other than what the pilots themselves shot down. This showed the Japanese the American’s determination to carry on despite how heavy the damaging odds.
Q: Did this disaster change anything in your life?

A: I think this disaster gave me a greater appreciation of life and a greater appreciation of my God. At the very first moment of the bombing, my immediate attention was to look up to the sky and ask the Lord, “Please Lord not now, let me survive.”
Q: Did you have any regrets for joining the Marines?

A: I had no regrets for joining the Marines. If I had to do it tomorrow, I would be first in line. In fact I would go before I would ask my sons to defend their country.
Q: How close were you, to death, if at all?

A: At the time of the bombing and subsequently for the next four hours, I was very close to being injured and possibly dying. My immediate thoughts were to jump overboard into the sea, however not being a swimmer; I took my chances with the explosion, the fire, and the flying debris.
Q: Did anyone on the ship die?

A: There were several that died on the ship. I would estimate that there were at least 800 that died. There have been varying reports from anywhere from the high 700s to the low 800s that were killed.
Q: Did anyone affect your survival?

A: Well no particular person themselves affected my survival. Other than the fact Father O’Callahan, the Catholic chaplain aboard the ship, was very instrumental in organizing various crews to combat the fires and explosion. If it hadn’t been for his leadership, I’m sure that the panic that existed could have gotten out of hand and the ship eventually could have been left. But through Father O’Callahan’s leadership, he calmed everyone down and got everyone to perform their duties in their best manners that they had been trained to do.
Q: Did you help save anyone’s life?

A: I directly did not help save anyone’s life, per say, but I did participate in being part of the hose crews. I manned the hoses to fight the fire and also through ammunition over the side that was in danger of exploding.
Q: How did your ship get help after the bombing?

A: Our ship was very fortunate that it was helped after the bombing because of the courageous action of the captain of the Cruiser Santa Fe and by the heroic action of the Cruiser Pittsburgh. The Cruiser Pittsburgh was instrumental in taking survivors off the stern of the ship. And also was able to get a tow line over to the Franklin to tow it back to Ulysses and out of danger of the Japanese airplane which was coming at us from Kyushu. The Cruiser Santa Fe, despite the danger of being blown up by being so close to us actually came along side and hooked on to us to assist in getting the injured off the ship. And subsequently, those like myself who were not injured, but were ordered to abandon the ship, so that the remaining permanent Navy personnel could man their duties to help get the Franklin back to a safe port.
Q: Do you think this major event in your life has affected any other men that want to become Marines?

A: Yes I definitely do feel that this event of the Franklin was instrumental in influencing other young men to join the Marines because it just wasn’t many instances of heroics and persistence of our Marines. It is like those that participated in Guarder Canal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa and some of our recent wars or engagements, such as Desert Storm.
Q: Do you believe this bombing stunned the world?

A: I do believe this bombing stunned the world because, like I mentioned before, the news was published about 30 days after the hit on March 19. It just listed mentioned the number of people that were killed and the number of people that were wounded. The combination of the two totaled over 1102. This incident came at the tail end of the war because the Nazi’s gave up some time in May, and I think that the Japanese defeat that came subsequently in August came about because this particular incident of the Franklin showed the enemy our determination that we would come after them regardless of anything they did to us.
Q: When you thought about joining the Marines, did you think you would ever be in danger?

A: When I joined the Marines at the age of 17, I didn’t think too much about being in danger because I just felt that at that age I was indestructible, like so many other 17 year olds, even those of today. You try to tell one of them that they’re in danger of death in any particular incident they’ll just kind of shrug about and say. “My gosh, I’m only 17 years old, I should be here for a long time.”
Q: After the disaster, how many more years were you in the Marines?

A: After the Franklin disaster, I served approximately 13 more months until April of 1946 when I was discharged on the frank basis that the government had established to disband our armed forces.
Q: Do you ever think about this disaster on a constant basis?

A: I don’t think about this disaster on a constant basis because when it first happened, those of us that were aboard the carrier, or injured, or transferred to I’ different units were mostly in shock and it was this when understating amongst our veterans, you just more or less forgot about these bad things, like other veterans have done over the years. But I would say that after about 50 years or when the veterans are in their late 60s or early 70s, they have the tendency to start recalling or going to reunions, or I would say since the beginning of the attendance at the reunion, that even though it is not a daily deal, it is probably a weekly recall because we are hearing so much from our former ship mates about incidents that happened in the past because these incidents are refreshed at the reunions.
Q: How did you acquire all the newspapers, and new reels, and any other information you have about your ship and the bombing?

A: Most of the papers and information I have in my current scrapbook, I immediately began assembling them right after the news of the Carrier came out to public knowledge. Over the years various people that knew about my service aboard the carrier, have sent me various articles and newspaper clippings. I do have a newsreel film of the Franklin incident that I nearly obtained right after the incident. And then Father O’Callahan published a book. And just recently, as of March 19, 2000, the 55th anniversary, a newspaper article appeared in the Portland, Oregonian about the father of the reporter that works for the Oregonian. I would estimate that there will be a continuing flow of articles from here to the time where all of us leave the world because there is such a continuing interest amongst the survivors of the Franklin, their sons and daughters, and now even
their grandchildren who have been attending the reunions. These people are constantly on the look out for various articles about the Franklin incident that occurred on March 19, 1945.
Q: Did you get any special awards or recognition for being a part of this incident?

A: I personally did not get any reward other than my own tide with a save with the blessing of the good Lord.
Q: If you had to speak to a group of young boys thinking about joining the Marines, would you discourage or encourage them to join based on your personal experience?
A: Based on my personal experience, I would always encourage young boys to join a branch of the service, but particularly the United States Marines. Joining the United States Marines it helps them to develop a comradeship that they can’t help but do their best not only for themselves, their God, and their country, but for their comrades. The Marines have a special saying that; “We never leave our dead in the battle field.” We are the only branch of the service that never leave our dead in the battlefield, to me that’s a tremendous endorsement for anybody that wants to serve in the service, to join the Marines. And even when the Marines die, they always make it a point to have a Marine Color guard subject to the availability of the Marine special prayer too.