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.

Tell Them I Was on the Franklin

Tell Them I Was on the Franklin

By John Elliott Norman

April 29, 1996

The war started on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I can remember Milt Buss, my dad, my brother Ralph, and me standing in the yard where Ralph lives, when Milt was picking up cream to take to town, and wondering where Pearl Harbor was located. Well, I did see it and the damage the Japanese did to it and wondered why we didn’t lose the war right then.

After war was declared, it was only a matter of time until I would have to go in the service. The normal way would be to wait to be drafted and go in the Army and go wherever they sent me. But I did know that if I went into the Marine Corps I would go to the Pacific. I don’t know why but I always liked the idea of the Pacific. I also liked the blue dress uniform of the Marine Corps. So that is what I decided to do. Of course, I never did get a suit of Marine Blues.

Meanwhile Beth and I got married as we had planned, and enjoyed about two months
of married life on the farm. Finally my draft notice came. So I went up to Minneapolis to
enlist in the Marine Corps. I did have a problem with a fever, which seemed about to keep me from enlisting. But they retested me and it went down. I went into a room with about twenty or thirty guys to get sworn in. I really didn’t know what happened so I asked a guy and he said, “Now you are in the Marine Corps.”

Later that day we got on the train at the Milwaukee Depot [which is still there] and took off for San Diego. When we got to Omaha, the railroad hooked up a bunch of other cars coming from the East and South we had a whole trainload of Marine recruits.

I can remember going across the country to Salt Lake City, Texas, and coming up along the ocean at San Diego, pulling into the Depot, and getting out only to have drill instructor people yelling at us. We went out to the Recruit Depot, or Boot Camp, as it was called then and is called now.

Boot Camp was quite an experience. We only had eight weeks compared to twelve weeks now. Our platoon was made up of 60 guys and two drill instructors. The first thing we did was take all our clothes off and send them home. I didn’t wear civilian clothes again for three years. I still remember running around naked most of the day after sending our clothes home. We got our medical shots and stood in line for hours getting things done like our hair cut, new clothes, supplies, and such.

The idea of boot camp is to break the boots down and then build them up again the Marine way. I don’t think I had it any better or worse then anyone else. I thought our D.I. were fair and good. On the Rifle Range at Camp Matthew, I made sharpshooter, which is between expert and marksman–which satisfied me. But make no mistake about it, boot camp was just as rough as it was supposed to be. I am very proud that I made it through and became a Marine and once a Marine, always a Marine. But finally the big day
came and we all lined up on the parade area. So we graduated from boot camp.

Then we were told where to go on our assignments. A few went to Raiders, an elite
outfit, some went to Cooks and Bakers School, and some to Radio and Telegraph School which left me and all the rest of the platoons. We were ordered to go down to the Bay, got on long boats and went across to North Island. I was in Marine Aviation.

We bunked in hangers that they weren’t using. Shortly after arriving, we were given a physical for going overseas. In checking me over they found a hernia. They sent me back and forth between doctors and finally I was on my way to the San Diego Naval Hospital. I must have got the hernia in boot camp, as I was O.K. when they checked me in to the Marine Corps. I was in bed for nine days–nowadays they don’t keep you in long at all.

Beth came out while I was in rehabilitation. It was wonderful to see her again. I had rehabilitation at a place in Balboa Park and I was, able to get some liberty. Beth and I got a room and also to do a lot of sightseeing around San Diego. But after a while they sent me back to North Island. All the guys I knew before had gone overseas. I can remember doing some work details and very little training. Anyway we were getting ready to go overseas. On any of these deals it is always hurry up and wait. Sometimes we had to load ships, including ammunition ships.

Waiting to go aboard the USS Luraline (a former luxury liner) I decided to go back up town to see my wife one last time. Incidentally, I didn’t get permission to do this. When I left our sea bags were all piled up on the dock. When I got back, they were gone. I never did find it until we got to New Caledonia where the unclaimed ones were all piled on upper deck.

The ship had 5,000 Marines aboard and went overseas without any other ships along. We never sighted any land for close to three weeks. The weather got warm very quickly so we must have gone south and then west. We didn’t see any land until New Caledonia. I got seasick–like I always did–when I got on a ship. I would get over it and then get a dull ache in my stomach. I got ashore on New Caledonia so saw a little of the island on a work detail.

Our small group of replacements was headed to an old tub of a ship and went to New Hebrides. That only took a couple of days. I can remember a Sgt. coming down into the hold when we were and telling us that we were going to Guadalcanal. Everybody was excited but me. I wasn’t thrilled as it sounded like a good way to get killed. So we went on another old tub–even worse than the last–and headed for Guadalcanal. It was very hot in the ship then because we were in the tropics. We left California in the winter and now it was summer.

We pulled into Guadalcanal harbor and started to unload. There was more than one ship. All at once we were told to put out to open sea and scatter. I remember some doctor came aboard and wanted to know why he couldn’t bring his patients aboard as some were in bad shape. He demanded to see the Captain. This he did and I remember him coming back and accepting the fact that we were leaving. The reason we were pulling out was that the ship had received word that the Japanese were coming down to attack again.

So in about two or three days we were back in the harbor again unloading supplies, men and also loading up men who had been in combat. It has been over fifty years but I can still see those Marines coming aboard our ship. They were very sick looking, almost skeletons, with vacant stares and eyes that had seen everything. When they got into the boats to go on the ship, they didn’t look back to the ‘canal at all.

They put our little group of replacements ashore, but there was no one there to meet us. After a time we just started walking inland, didn’t know where we were going, but just walking. Finally a truck came by and a Marine yelled, “Are you guys are supposed to go to VMF 122? We said we were and he told us to jump in. He took us to a tent where an older Marine, a Gunnery Sgt., I think- talked to us” like a Dutch uncle and said things like that we had to take a crap, go out in the jungle, dig a hole with a shovel, and the cover it up and so on. We were moved around quite a bit on Guadalcanal, but mostly on Henderson Field. The first night I was there, there was an air raid. It was the first one I had ever been in on. First the air sirens went off-a very mournful sound. Then the ack-ack guns went off. They never seemed to hit anything, but they tried. We always had our air raids when the nights were clear. Just before I came home, they got night fighters. Before that they didn’t have any planes that could go up at night and do anything.

After the ack-ack, we heard a whistling sound which was the daisy cutter bombs coming down. They were anti-personal bombs to kill people. That first night they laid a string of bombs right along where my foxhole was and a guy was killed not very far from where I was. I can still hear people yelling, “Corpsman, corpsman”. This made a lasting impression on me. I stayed up all night discussing life and death with a Marine from Mississippi. We never did solve anything, but we were really scared.

I was a replacement so I did all the dirty jobs like cleaning up areas, mess duty, picking up supplies from the food supply place run by the Army. We sort of helped ourselves to some extra supplies. As it was our tent got plenty of canned pears and peaches, etc.

One time our tent got sugar, yeast, and raisins from the mess hall and we made some “pole climber” wine in a tin container. One night we decided to drink it. We kept everybody awake yelling around and singing. People would come over and politely
ask us to shut up because they had to work the next day. We asked them to come in and have a drink. Nobody would do it. I guess they were afraid they would get food poisoning.

The next morning we didn’t go to work and the Sgt. came around to see what was the matter. I don’t remember catching any hell or getting put in the brig. In fact there were no brigs on the island. They were only worried that we would get sick from the container. But we didn’t.

Guadalcanal was an island about thirty miles long and about five miles wide. Coming up on it from the sea, it was like a beautiful green emerald set in the ocean. The ocean itself was beautiful in the bay, but the island was a terribly hot, mosquito-filled jungle, full of wildlife and funny sounds. The rivers had crocodiles in them. There was malaria, dengue fever, ulcerated sores, elephantitus, yellow jaundice, jiggers and such.

There were natives on Guadalcanal who had red, fuzzy hair. They chewed betel nuts, which was some kind of drug. They were naked except for a loincloth or some such kind of clothing around their middle. They couldn’t speak English except some pigeon English and they liked our cigarettes. I didn’t see any of their women and heard that they moved them to another island when the Japanese and the Marines came ashore.

After several months of just cleaning up and mess duty, I got fed up and went to see the Master Sergeant who was head of Aviation Ordinance. He was a Southerner. He asked me what boot camp I had gone to. I was afraid he’d just say I was a Hollywood Marine (which is what they called those of us who went through boot camp in San Diego). Anyway I got put down on the line working on 50 caliber Machine guns on F4U fighter planes.

It was mostly sitting under the wings waiting for planes coming in or taking off. The work was cleaning guns and replacing ammunition. It was better that what I had been doing.

One time in late April I got a V-mail letter {which was not in sequence} but I
knew I had a son, John Jr. John Peterson from Austin, Minn. was a tent mate, and he also
finally got word that he had a son also born on April 19th. It was quite some time later before we got the Red Cross notification about John’s birth. Those notices were supposed to be delivered very quickly, but we sure found differently

Every so often when we went to mess hall, which was outside, there would be a couple of corpsman. They were parceling out Atabrine, which was a pill to prevent us from getting malaria. It had a very bitter taste. Gossip went around that it would make us sterile, so we didn’t want to take it. The corpsmen would make us put the pill in our mouths and take a drink of water. Some guys would try to hold it under their tongues and then spit it out.
Sometimes there was an officer watching us and would make them go through the line again. Incidentally, the Corpsmen were Navy who were assigned to the Marines.

Sometime in Mayor June VMF 122 {which we were in} was rotated back to Esprito Santos {New Hebrides}. We just got back there when the old Gunnery Sgt. lined up the squadron personnel and told us that they were going back to the States. But we replacements hadn’t been over long enough. We were transferred to VMF 124. Finally we were transferred to VMF 214, the Black Sheep Squadron. Nothing too exciting happened on Esprito except more “bull gang” work. Sometimes nobody cared if we worked or not.

One thing I remember is when some of guys complained about being over there so long without women companionship and wanted to go home. Pappy Boyington lined us all up, standing in the rain, and really chewed us out. He said he knew we had been over too long, but if necessary we would stay another two years. That shut everybody up and I heard no more complaining.

Major Pappy Boyington was a Marine Corps ace who shot down 26 Jap planes. Then he was taken prisoner of war until the end of the war. He was a character who was a hard drinker, but he also put together a squadron of misfits into one of the best groups in WWII. I think they shot down more planes than any other squadrons. I was very proud to be in his squadron. Pappy Boyington was the only prisoner captured that weighed more after he was released then before. He worked in a kitchen.

I did see two fellow Marines from Lake Crystal and Madelia– Lloyd Bowen and Bob Grimes. When you are along way from home, like half way around the world, anybody from near home is a neighbor.

We finally got word that we were going home. We were happy to hear it.

We boarded the Matsonia (a sister ship of the one we first sailed on). These ships were luxury ships that went back and forth between Hawaii and California before the war.

Nothing stands out in my memory about the journey home except that when we pulled into the dock at San Francisco there were some women workers on the dock. They were not real good lookers, but the ship exploded with shouts and yelling. They were the first white women we had seen in over a year. We were unloaded and herded to a train, which took us down to San Diego. Very shortly, I was on my way home to see my wife Beth, my new son and my folks and other family. It was like heaven. We had a 30-day furlough and it was over too soon. My orders were to report back to Goleta, California which is right out of Santa Barbara.

I had a wonderful furlough but finally, Beth, John Jr. and I got on a train and took off for Santa Barbara. We got to Los Angeles and took a bus up to Santa Barbara. We stayed at a house until we got a nice apartment. Santa Barbara was the best duty I had in the Marine Corp. VMF214 became a brand new squadron with a lot of ranks to be handed out. Anyway, I ended up being a staff sergeant, much higher rank than I thought I would ever get.

Santa Barbara was a beautiful city and still is whenever we have been out there. The base was located where the Santa Barbara airport is now. And the Santa Barbara College is where the barracks, mess hall, and so, located on the hill.

Around the first of the year, we were getting reports that we were running out of islands to put marine bases on, so the Marine Corps were putting air squadrons on aircraft carriers.

On November 18, 1944, my second son Tom was born in Cottage Hospital at Santa Barbara while I was on guard duty.

Finally, our orders came down in January of 1945 that a part of our squadron was going on an aircraft carrier. So a bunch of us guys took off for Santa Rosa to get the planes ready to go into combat.

Beth and the two kids, of course, followed me up to Santa Rosa. We were up there less than a month. We then were taken by bus to get aboard the U.S.S. Franklin. Some of the single guys had already boarded at Bremington, Washington. The ship came down to Oakland, California, where the rest of us got on.

On February 7th we left the states at 4 p.m. for Pearl Harbor. February 14th, we arrived at Pearl Harbor to unload planes. We went out to sea again on the 15th on a shakedown cruise. Our planes went to Barbera’s Point for engine checks and bore sighting guns. Three guys went with them. Joe Titus was one of them.

On February 16, we lost two Lieutenants when they collided in midair. We never did find a trace of them.

We came back to Pearl Harbor on Feb. 20 and had liberty in Honolulu and Waikiki from Feb. 21 to Feb. 23. Then we pulled out from Pearl Harbor on another shake down cruise.

On February 27, Lt. Husted came in for a landing and his belly tank dropped as he hit the flight deck and caught fire. He burned to death. I will forever remember attending my first burial at sea.

On Feb. 28, we passed the island of Malakia where they had a leper colony on the northern tip of the island. We passed a floating mine. I also saw a whale that day for the first time. We arrived at Pearl Harbor approximately at 4 p.m., had, mail call and enjoyed some liberty. I saw a hula dance performed by the USO on the beach near the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the only hotel on Waikiki Beach.

We left Pearl Harbor at 7:45 a.m. and had quite a fleet with us. On March 6 we crossed the International Date Line.

On March 13, we arrived at Ulithe to refuel. We left Ulithi on March 14 with the third fleet, which was known as the fathom fleet. There were ships as far as the eye could see. We were in task force 58.02.

On March 15, our planes flew the combat air patrol. They were watching out for enemy planes and ships.

On Sunday, March 17, we passed floating mine which missed our ship by 200 yards. I went to church on the deck. I worked late that night getting ready for our first air strike at Japan. I had to get up at midnight to start work on the first strike. We worked on 100-pound bombs and 5-inch rockets. The first strike began at 6 a.m. and I immediately went on the next one with no break.

On March 18, in the midst of preparing for the next strike, we had a GQ (general quarters, the highest alert meaning we had to be prepared for enemy attack) at 3 a.m., which we had worked right through. We kept right on working hard all day and the following night. The 100-pound bombs were supposed to be for personnel and airplanes. The island to be struck was Kyushu, the southern most islands off of the mainland of Japan. Our planes destroyed 40 planes on the ground and about 15 in the air, besides doing tremendous damage to ground installations. At dusk, we were 58 miles off the coast of Japan. During the day, Japanese planes had been trying suicide dives and bombings on other carriers.

We ate at 11:30 p.m. and started working again at 12:00 without any sleep at all. I was doing assembly of rockets and sending them up on the elevator. During the night, we had been steaming north to attack the main Japanese fleet. Our planes were to strike Kobe, about 50 miles from Tokyo.

At about 6 a.m. on March 19, the first flight took off with Major Bailey. The bombers were to take off later and were loaded with 180 rockets and 18 Tiny Tim bombs on the hanger and flight deck. Down in the third decks, we were getting ready for the next strike. Some of us were going to chow.

At 7:15 a.m., I was just proceeding to do another task when a tremendous explosion occurred. My first thought was that somewhere a fuse had been carelessly set off. But the noise was immediately followed by smoke. Men started running everywhere. I grabbed my helmet and gas mask and followed a crowd that went to a compartment on the port side, second deck. We first tried to go forward, then aft, but both were on fire. By this time, the fire had spread on the hanger deck setting off gas, rockets, Tiny Tims, bombs, and ammunition. Explosions started slow and proceeded so violently that I thought sure the ship would blow up. The explosions were right above our heads on the hanger deck. The lights went out and smoke poured in more all the time. I had put on my gas mask. The heat was terrific from the fire above. At some point in this time I ran into Ken Thompson and stayed with him all during the attack. Ken did a lot in helping people staying alive. Some of the men around us suffocated from the smoke, but I didn’t realize it at the time. They wanted to open a hatch right above us, but some men kept that
from happening because the explosions were happening right above us.

During this time, we were led in saying the Lord’s prayer several times by some fellow who said: “There’s only one guy that will get us out of here, so let’s start saying it.” And all the time, I also prayed the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd …, by myself (a prayer that Beth and I have often said together). For even then, I had a deep-set feeling that God had led me to safety.

After about two hours of this, the explosions above had subdued to a point that we felt we were safe. Finally, we heard that someone had opened a hatch above for us to get out. We filed out slowly, letting the worst sufferers out first. We had been down there two hours. The sight which greeted our eyes on the hanger deck was too horrible to mention. Although the fire and smoke were still there, we could see enough. Everything was burnt. I looked up to the gallery deck and saw a dead body hanging down burnt to a crisp. Ken Thompson wanted to jump off as soon as we got up to the flight deck but I didn’t because I couldn’t swim. Later Ken was glad we didn’t.

I proceeded from there to the front of the ship. The chaplain met us with a bottle of whiskey. Then a Catholic chaplain named Father O’Callahan (the bravest man I ever knew) came down from the flight deck and asked for men to fight fire I above us, so I went up and helped the best I could even though I was afraid of explosions near the fire. K.K. Thompson and I ran into Joe Titus up on the flight deck. He was glad to see us because he thought all the ordnance men were killed. He was really shook up because he couldn’t swim. About this time the cruiser, the Santa Fe, pulled right alongside-smashing her sides up pretty bad. The order came for the Air Wing to abandon ship. I went across on a rope to that ship.

They gave us coffee and cigarettes. At this time we were close to 37 miles from the mainland of Japan. Other destroyers and cruisers were picking up survivors in the water-those that jumped or were blown overboard. I cannot say too much for the men and officers of the Santa Fe for they treated us like kings. Everything they had was ours–clothes, money, smokes, bunks, food, etc. It was very crowded but the five-day trip to Ulithie was pleasure. One thought which is uppermost in my mind now is when we first came aboard; all the men left from the two Marine Squadrons went and sat around a big table. We were discussing what had happened and yet trying to forget. I had not yet got over the shock of losing ordinance buddies, I made the statement that I knew them and their wives and how my wife and I had visited with them so often. One of the other fellows with a grief-stricken voice said: “Quit talking about it, will you.”

About this time the Japanese came over again in an attempt to sink the Franklin. As the Santa Fe was on GQ all the time, our first warning was the firing of guns. We all hit the deck clawing the steel. One of the men said calmly to the other: “Must be a bogie up there.” We then learned that men on the cruisers in a task force with carriers and battleships feel as safe as a babe in arms as the enemy always strike at the bigger ships.

The first night the Franklin was towed by the Pittsburgh. We learned the next day that they had difficulty getting it started for it was dead in the water and the screws and rudder were all fouled up. In fact it floated to a distance of 37 miles from the mainland. But they got it started up to 2 knots an hour and increased it r until she was proceeding 21 knots under her own power. An amazing engineering feat.

One of our men -Bob Dixon- didn’t get the word to abandon ship. He was fighting fire at the time. He stayed on until we got to Ulithi. Dixon was on a big gun passing ammunition on the hangar deck. He got the Bronze Star for Bravery. During the bombing run of a Japanese plane, he helped man a 20mm gun which helped throw off the plane’s aim and dropped its bomb beside the ship. For that he is supposed to get a citation of some kind. He was also aboard when they threw over some of our men’s bodies. Most of them were only identified by their dog tags. Most of them on the hanger deck were cremated so badly they were scooped up in GI cans and thrown over. I thank God that I was spared the necessity of that job.

At Ulithi, we were put on a receiving ship, the General Scott. We were only on it that day and then were put on the Onita. During this time we had no clothes except the ones we had on. We were dirty and filthy with sweat. On the Onita they let four of our men go over on a Higgens Boat and get most of our sea bags. Ken Thompson got my sea bag with my winter clothes, ID card, sunglasses. I lost most of my clothes, spelling lessons, stationery, farm bulletins and many other minor items. But considering everything, I got by lucky. They say my locker was pretty well destroyed.

On the Onita, we proceeded to Guam where we were put on the island for two days. This was relief after being at sea so long. And it’s no secret that if I wanted to go to sea, I would have joined the Navy. We saw VMTB131, Perry Schwartz’s old outfit. MAG21 and VMF225. I went over and tried to join VMF225, but no dice so the day before Easter, we were on the USS Barnes, a carrier headed for Pearl Harbor. We all went to church on Easter and heard a very good sermon. After that the rest of the week we just laid in our sacks and ate. The best chow in a long time. When we got aboard the Barnes we were having chow when they started blasting in the harbor. We hit the deck and scattered our mess gear and it clattered on the deck. People laughed at us.

We got to Pearl Harbor on April 9th and in a few hours got the good word that we were headed back to the good old U.S.A. I never want to leave these states again. Our second day at Pearl Harbor, we were to leave at 4:00 p.m. so I sneaked over to the mainland to see Evan Morris. He had heard about the Franklin and was headed down to see it because the Franklin was already there when we arrived. But it left the next day. He was very pleased to see me. So I asked if he’d write my folks a letter telling them their eldest was safe. A little amusing item along that line. We got a big mail call at Pearl, almost a month’s mail. One fellow, Petrie, got a letter from an aunt who said that as long as he was on a carrier, he was pretty safe. And he said: “Here I just about get my head blowed off and nobody worries about it.” So we surmised that our wives were already spending that $10,000 life insurance money and celebrating single life again!

My wife was just as vague in her letters about danger to yours truly. I began to wonder if I had overestimated the whole thing. About as we had docked, two public relations men of the Marine Corps came aboard and began interviewing us. It will go in all the papers and Leatherneck. Of course, the fellows began snowing the hell out of them and they copied it all down. I couldn’t force my way through the crowd to tell my story so I listened to the other fellows. As Schwarz says, “A snow job is what they want.”

The personnel of VMF 214 amounted to 59 men, of which 26 were killed on the 19th day of March 1945. Some bodies couldn’t be identified due to the fact that they were burned so badly. Many others were cremated completely. Others were drowned when they were either blown overboard or jumped over the side. At the time the bomb hit, the planes were turning up on the flight deck and it was said that many fellows ran into the turning blades and were badly mangled.

A reporter asked the nickname of our squadron and we told him: “The Black Sheep”. He said, “Oh, Boyington’s old outfit. They’ll eat that up in the states.”

Several of our men will get the Bronze Star and dozens will get the Purple Heart. I didn’t get any awards, but my own life. That is all I want.

So on April 10, 1945 we are headed back to the states for a 30-day furlough.

After coming back from overseas, we landed at San Francisco. We got on a train again to go to Miramar base at San Diego.

We went through Santa Barbara at night and arrived at Miramar in the morning. They really didn’t know what to do with us. We had only been gone a few months and we didn’t have clothes, ID cards, etc. Pretty soon we got a telegram from Admiral Nimitz himself telling us that we would get a 30-day furlough. So then things started happening. Soon we were on our way to El Centro in an old cattle car–an open bus used on bases for transportation.

The rest of the squadron had been moved from Santa Barbara to El Centro. When we got to the base, we were lined up waiting when some guy came by that knew some of the group. He wanted to know where his brother was. We had to tell him he was dead. This sure was hard on all of us.

We got new clothes, sea bags, toilet articles, and all the rest. This time I waited and got an airplane ride to Grand Island, Nebraska, and hitched a ride on a livestock truck to Omaha. Then I got a seat on a civilian airplane to Minneapolis. From there I took a bus to Mankato.

It was wonderful to be home again. The spring season was on so I helped in the fields and enjoyed that. A real bad note was that Beth had a phone call from a wife of a fellow killed on the Franklin, wondering why she hadn’t heard anything for so long, and I had to tell her they were all gone. It was a month before it came out in the papers that a carrier had been hit.

After the furlough, we went back to El Centro. We went further up in the mountains to a little town called Jacumba. We were 40 miles from the base, but it wasn’t as hot as in El Centro. We did meet Dale and Maxine Skow, as he was a navy corpsman with the Marines. They had a cottage very near us and we became good friends.

I spent a lot of time in the Marine Corps just killing time. There would be other times we would really be busy – no happy medium.

We heard about some high-powered bomb that was being dropped. There were false reports of Japan surrendering. Finally, one evening as I was doing guard duty, we heard President Truman announce that Japan had surrendered. You can imagine how happy everyone was. As long as I live I will always be grateful to President Truman for making the decision to drop the A-Bomb.

A little later, the point system came out and since I had two kids, been overseas twice, in combat, I made the 90 points required to get a discharge. So I was sent in the first draft back to Miramar to get a discharge. But we got there and nobody knew what to do with us. Same old story. Finally, a really nice officer took charge. He said he was going to stay in but we wanted to get out and he got us out. Thank God almighty. I went back to Jacumba and then back to El Centro one time as a civilian but still in uniform. I can remember coming out the gate and telling the guards, “I am a civilian!”

Beth, two kids and I got on the train at Jacumba and went all the way across the country to home.

Beth’s Story

We were married in June of 1942. In August John went in the service. His Grandma Upson had just had a cataract operation and needed help so I moved in with her. In those days a person was really laid up with a cataract operation, and not allowed to do anything for quite some time.

After boot camp, John landed in the Naval Hospital in San Diego, so I went to California. I had never been far from home before–so here I was, alone, in San Diego. I had never been alone in a big city before either. The USO had a booth near the bus station to help “lost souls” like me. They got me a room [no cooking] and told me how to get to the Naval Hospital and their visiting hours.

In a few days John was released from the hospital and had a lot of free time for a little while, though he had to spend his nights at camp.

I got a job working in an insurance agency in the Speckles Building, a large office building near the center of town. It as the same type of work I had done before our marriage at the insurance office in Madelia. On weekends and free time we rode the streetcars a lot. We bought weekly passes and could ride allover. We also spent a lot of time at a USO room in a Methodist Church that was also near downtown.

Christmas of 1942 was very lonely. We’d never been away from our homes and family before. Furthermore, we knew he would be going overseas right away. The one bright spot I remember was a very tall poinsettia plant that grew beside the house where we stayed and this beautiful big plant [as large as a dinner plate] looked in our window and was beautiful.

Speaking of Christmas–the next year I was home, John Jr. was a baby, and I hadn’t heard from John for quite some time. The third Christmas of our married life was almost a repeat of the first as we were in California and he was about to go overseas again. In later years, when I looked around at our family all together and having fun, I often thought of those first three Christmases.

I came home by train after John left for overseas, and he was gone just over a year the first time.

John came home from the Pacific for a month’s leave. We packed up for California again and went to Santa Barbara. First we got a room with a family [Bill and Molly Hicks] where I helped care for their two kids and did some housework for our room.

After a couple of months we got an apartment at the back of a house at 1305 1/2 Bath Street. It was pretty nice and we had a good time there. Marce and Johnny Peterson of Austin, Minnesota had a place about a block away. We were together a lot. They had a son, Tom, born on the same day as John Jr. and two other sons. We girls used to take the kids to the beach. We also got acquainted with the other wives of the fellows in John’s squadron– Nita Granaman was a good friend, also Betty McDonald. Almost all of the VMF 214 wives lost their husbands on the Franklin.

Tom was born in Santa Barbara. John came home and said he had guard duty and wondered if he should try to get it changed. Since I wasn’t due for 10 days, we decided he’d be better off to get it over with. The middle of the night I woke up with labor pains. I went over to Marce and Johnny’s. Marce called a taxi and went to the hospital with me. Johnny got John Jr. and took him to their home. I don’t know which one, but one of them called the base. When John’s duty shift was over at 8:00 in the morning, he was given the message to go to the hospital.

The almost a year we spent in Santa Barbara was very nice. We had a nice, furnished apartment, and a lot of friends. The guys went to work every day, and then came home almost as if it were a civilian job. Since the guys all had the same hours, we girls got together a lot and did fun things. My sister, Eleanor, came out to visit us. We had a
wonderful time, all in all.

The squadron got ready to go overseas on the carrier right after Christmas. Some of the fellows, the single ones, went ahead to Bremerton, Washington. The married ones were sent to Oakland, Calif. The master sergeant’s wife had a good size car and she crowded in as many as possible. So, I, with 2 babies, went up north for about 3 weeks. We got a room with a family there and John came home almost every night. I was mostly with Nita Granamin then and she helped me a lot with the little boys.

When the ship sailed, we drove back to Santa Barbara, packed up and I boarded the train again. I went back to Kansas City with Nita and my mother came there, met me and helped me the rest of the way home. Both boys had bad colds and were very, very fussy.

After about 4 months, I got letters quite regularly. A letter came Beth and the boys in California saying that “I hope you aren’t worried because I’m okay.” and something about
knowing I also wrote to Granaman, Marlow, Hill, Shropshire’s wives, so I knew something was wrong for them. All mail was censored so you couldn’t write details or they’d be cut out. Nita G. called me and said she hadn’t heard for a long time. I said I got a letter but he didn’t say much. A few days later, John called that he was stateside and coming home on survivor leave. The day after he got home, the phone rang. It was Marlow’s wife. I simply handed the phone to John and he had to say he was one of the squadron who came home. The War Dept. didn’t notify them until a couple of weeks later.

We packed the trusty old trunk again and headed for El Centro, Cal. There was no air conditioning then, so we got rooms in Jacumba, a tiny town up in the mountains. There were a row of resort cottages, rather crude, all rented by service personnel. Dale and Maxine Skow were in another cottage and we became friends.

Dale bought a little roadster with a rumble seat. Several times he took us to a movie at Acampo, about 25 miles away.

When the war was over, after about 3 months living there, John was in the first bunch mustered out. Then we parked the trunk again, loaded up the kids, and boarded a train for Minnesota.

My Experiences as an Aircrewman

My Experiences as an Aircrewman

By Jack Hensel

VT-5

I was inducted into the Navy on June 22, 1943. I received my high school diploma on June 23, 1943. So you see they didn’t give me much time after my high school graduation. They wanted us bad.
My first duty was at Sampson NY Naval Station for boot camp. Here I went through marching, swimming, discipline, calisthenics, medical physicals, shots, aptitude test, and interviews. It was here I volunteered to fly as an aircrewman. I was given a flight physical and passed.

I remember going to the chapel one week before graduation from boot camp. Here they announced that all leaves were canceled. Usually we got a week’s leave after boot camp. I saw men coming out of the chapel crying, thinking there was a big sea draft coming. It sure was upsetting. We did get our leaves after an extra week’s training.

I was sent to aviation ordnance school at Memphis, Tenn. I graduated in January 1944 and went to airborne radar operators school at the same base. The school lasted about two weeks. I could have stayed on as an instructor but did not want to. Our instructor wanted to give it up at that time and had to look for someone to take his place.

I finished radar school and was sent to Hollywood, Florida, for aerial gunnery school, where we learned all about the 50-caliber machine gun, trap shooting for learning how to lead the targets and operating the gun with the ball turret firing at range targets and targets being towed by planes.

After about six weeks of aerial gunnery school I was sent to what they called operational training at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is where I started flying in TBF Avenger torpedo bombers and a lot of interesting things started happening. They took us to a TBF that had crashed into the Everglades. The plane didn’t burn but was sunk in the mud nose first up to the wings–scary.

At this point I was assigned to a crew–a pilot, Ensign Fuller from Boston, Mass., a radioman Robert Jensen from Salt Lake City, Ut., and myself a turret gunner. We would supposedly stay together through combat.

The first time in the plane (TBF) at my position in the turret I could observe the tail section very well. They started the engine and smoke poured down the side of the plane from the exhaust. The engine ran very rough on starting and I could see the tail section shake and vibrate because of the engine running uneven. I wondered what did I get myself into. Once the engine warmed up, it ran smooth. We took off and it was excitingly pleasant.
We had many interesting flights practicing torpedo runs, gunnery firing at slicks in the sea and at targets being towed by another plane, navigation flights and glide bombing. Glide bombing was quite exciting. We would rise to about 10,000 feet. The plane would nose over and, so help me, we would dive at a vertical angle, 90° to the sea for quite a length of time and pull out of the glide at about 1,000 feet. We practiced this quite often.
In one of the torpedo run flights I asked the pilot for permission to operate the turret. The ball turret. I was just able to get into it. It’s like sitting inside of a large ball. With the turret down and the 50-cal. machine gun pointing to the rear of the plane, I could easily get out of it by letting down an armor plate and dropping down into the radioman’s compartment. I turned on the turret and it malfunctioned and the gun pointed straight up into the air perpendicular to the body of the plane and it wouldn’t come down with the control. Here I was in the ball turret on my back, no way to get out. Only possibly through the side panel. I reported to the pilot Fuller and he asked if I wanted to go back to the base. I said no, go on with the flight. After about one and a half hours we landed back at Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station. The ground crew observed us landing with me in this position and came right out to the plane. They took off the side panel of the turret and were able to wiggle me out of the turret in that position. At my age then (19) it did not bother me. My radioman Robert Jensen said, “Jack, if this [illegible] and something happens to the plane don’t expect me to ride the plane down with you. I’m jumping.” Whew. I could never do this today. I couldn’t even fit into the turret. I don’t even know if I could fit into the side opening of the plane into the radioman’s compartment. I would get into the turret from the radioman’s compartment.

On returning to the airfield and entering the landing circle there is a point where the pilot puts down the retractable wheels and lowers the flaps to lower the speed and get additional lift. These are operated hydraulically.

We had an exciting experience returning from a night flight. On entering the landing circle my pilot, Ensign Fuller, tried to lower the landing gear and flaps. There was a hydraulic leak. The wheels appeared to come partially down and one of the flaps came partially down. The flap acted as an aileron causing the plane to lurch to the side. My pilot was able to adjust with the regular ailerons. He stated later that he never takes his hands off the flap-operating lever until they are completely down. Feeling the jolt of the plane he quickly returned the lever to the flaps up position and the plane resumed normal flight. If he hadn’t done this, the plane would have banked, lost speed, and dove in the ground. At this point I remember flying over the Fort Lauderdale water tower. You are that low when in the landing circle.

There was hydraulic fluid all over the plane. The pilot was instructed to gain altitude and dive the plane and try to snap down the landing gear. He also had a hand pump in the cockpit to force the wheels down. He did this and he made some low passes over the Fort Lauderdale control tower. They observed and instructed him to make a flaps-up landing, which meant landing at a higher speed. We held our breath, made the landing safe as we passed the rescue squad on the runway waiting for us. This was exciting, especially at night.

We graduated from operational training toward the end of May 1944. At graduation the crewmen proudly accepted their aircrewman wings. Our crew was assigned to Torpedo Squadron 5 (VT-5), a part of Air Group 5, and were given delayed orders for San Diego, Calif., which meant we had about 30 days at home. During this time the pilots were sent to the Great Lakes to practice carrier landings on a small carrier there. I arrived home for my leave on D-Day, the beginning of June, the day of the invasion of Europe.

After my leave I proceeded to San Diego, Calif., meeting several crewmen of our squadron on the train.

At San Diego I met several other crewmen, including my radioman Bob Jensen. We stayed at San Diego Naval Air Station for one or two nights, then received our orders to go to Alameda, Calif., Naval Air Station and joined our pilots and the rest of VT-5 Torpedo Squadron.

At the chow hall I had my tray and food. I proceeded to a table and upon sitting I looked across the table and here getting ready to sit opposite me was an old family friend and a good friend of my brother, Pete. We caught each other’s eye and hands came across the table. It was Alfred Cambellack and he said, “Jackie Hensel, what are you doing here?” I told him and he seemed sorry to hear that I was an aircrewman and would eventually be on an aircraft carrier. He had just come off the carrier U.S.S. Intrepid, which was torpedoed by the enemy in the South Pacific.

I went out that night with Al and a friend of mine, Drew Hontz. We had a few beers and talked about home and returned to base in fairly good condition.

The squadron VT5 stayed at Alameda for a short period of time and was sent to Monterey Naval Air Station to begin our training as a group. When there was no fog, we would do a lot of flying. We stayed here for several weeks and then transferred to Santa Rosa Naval Air Station, where we remained for our duration before boarding the carrier. We did go off to different bases– Eureka Calif. for rocket training and Modesto Calif. for night flying. We flew many navigator flights out to sea. At one time we though we saw the image of a submarine below the surface of the sea. I’m sure my pilot reported this and it was investigated by surface craft. Another time we were far out to sea on a navigation flight and we spotted a freighter headed toward San Francisco. My pilot posted over it and we didn’t have our IFF (which was a signal identifying you as a friend or foe). There were a couple of tracer shells fired in front of us as a warning. They probably had a chuckle or may have been jumpy just coming from a combat zone. The squadron did a lot of flying out of Santa Rosa practicing night flying, air group hops, navigation flights, etc.

Ensign Fuller, my assigned pilot, developed knee problems and was transferred out of the squadron for other duty.

While waiting for my new pilot, I mad a few flights with some new pilots that their crewmen had not yet arrived. In one of these flights we were the last to land softly with this particular plane. We landed in the morning and there was a flight scheduled with this plane in the afternoon with another crew. When they returned to the airfield and got into the landing circle the plane suddenly dove from this low altitude and crashed between two homes and burnt, killing the crew. The aircrew names were Klingman and Allman. The report says it was mechanical trouble. It occurred at the point you would put the wheels and flaps down. I felt it could as well be that there was a hydraulic leak, as one of the flaps didn’t function and acted as an aileron causing the plane to flop on its side and lose speed and dive into the ground.

I think of this frequently as a similar incident happened with me in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Lt. (jg) Gibson, my new pilot arrived and I began flying steady with him, also a new radioman, Louis Lyndenmeyer was assigned.
We had a lot of thrilling flights with him hedge hopping at treetop level, flying along the sea wall. I remember looking up at it and flying low over San Francisco Bay, seeing a man in a fishing boat standing up looking at us. We were that low. Some farmers called in complaining about the hedge hopping. We were disturbing their cows.

On one occasion we took off and gained just a few feet of altitude and the engine started skipping and we skimmed over the top of a chicken farm. I remember the chickens fluttering on the side of their coops. We were able to make an auxiliary airfield not far from the main field. It was found the gasoline tank was partially filled with water because of condensation. It was cleared and we flew back to the main base.

We went to Modesto, Calif., for night flying training, practicing group flights on imaginary targets. The pilots practiced night touch and go landings, less the aircrew. On one warm night we were standing as a group in front of the barracks and we heard a sound of a crash. We rushed to the runway and watched the plane burn, the pilot being killed. This left a terrifying impression on our minds. When we went to Modesto we did realize that night flying was quite dangerous.

Soon after we were ordered to Eureka, Calif., for firing 5-inch rockets from the plane. We were there about two weeks and returned to Santa Rosa.

We realized the time was approaching when we would be assigned to an aircraft carrier. In December 1944 we received a week’s leave just before Christmas. I did not have enough time to go home. My squadron yeoman friend invited me to come home with him. I had a fine time meeting his family and girl friend. His name was Gerald Nold, his home was in Arkansas City, Kansas. He was later killed at his station in the pilot’s ready room when we were hit by Japanese bombs March 19th 1945. To get to Arkansas City and return we rode the trains and hitchhiked getting rides with truckers.

I spent New Years Eve and New Years Day in San Francisco with another friend, Elmer Lowry from Covington, Kentucky. He was also killed on March 19th 1945. We spent New Years Eve having dinner visiting nightclubs on Market Street there. New Years Day we went to the East-West Shriner football game at Kesan Stadium in San Francisco. It was quite a sight with the crowd and the excitement of the game. I remember the street cars and people hanging onto the side and back of them to get to and from the game.

We spent most of January getting ready to go overseas, getting new planes, and other necessary gear. We went aboard an old carrier, the U.S.S. Bangor, out of San Francisco, traveled out to sea, getting used to carrier operations and life aboard a carrier.
We returned to Santa Rosa continuing air group flights and getting ready to board an aircraft carrier. We boarded the U.S.S Franklin the first week of February 1945 at Alameda, Calif. I remember the feeling pulling away from the dock and feeling the waving of the ship on the bay. We proceeded under the Golden Gate Bridge and a sailor’s girl friend tossing part of her clothing to land on the flight deck of the carrier. On leaving the Golden Gate bay there are swells in the ocean and causing sea sickness to many sailors until you get used to it. I remember myself having to lay on my bunk for a time on the bow end of the ship. Lying down seemed to help the sickish feeling.

We got to Hawaii and docked at Ford Island and could see the hull of the sunken U.S.S. Arizona, sunk because of the Japanese Dec 7th 1941 attack.

We went to Kaneohe Naval Air Station for continued training while the U.S.S. Franklin was being fitted for combat.

We had several flights over the islands and the pilots practiced touch and go landings. This was also a Seabee base and we had tremendous meals, spent time playing volleyball and softball and entertaining ourselves.

We boarded the U.S.S. Franklin around the first of March with a full complement of Air Group 5. The fighter squadron, F4U Corsair fighter planes, and some Marine squadrons–one was reminiscent of Poppy Boynton’s Black Sheep group. The bomber squadron VB5 was made up of Sb2C Helldivers and my squadron VT5, the torpedo bomber squadron TB5 Avengers.

We performed many air group training missions and navigation flights on the way to Ulithi, an anchorage where task groups assembled.

We arrived at Ulithi early in March, the morning after a suicide plane struck a carrier, either the U.S.S. Randolph or the U.S.S. Hancock.

We stayed at Ulithi one night, and as far as you could see there were ships of all categories: troop ships, supply ships, tankers, battleships, carriers, destroyers, etc.

We left Ulithi with carrier group 58.2 on our way to Japan to raid the main islands. We were the first ship to carry the new rocket called the “Tiny Tim.” They were equivalent to the shell of a 16″ gun fired from a battleship.

One of the first times I took off from the Franklin was by being catapulted. Our crew was not given any prewarning. We were ordered from the ready room to report for a flight with our pilot and to be catapulted. There was no time to think about it. We boarded the plane and proceeded to the catapult position. Here were crewmen from the old VT5 squadron. These were men who had already been in combat duty. They were there to give us instructions on how to hold our heads at the moment of takeoff. It was such a sudden jolt your head would jar if you didn’t hold it in a special position. The pilot had to hold his head back against the head rest as he was looking forward. The radioman, also looking forward, had to put his head down between his legs. I, the turret gunner, who was riding backwards, had to hold his head and bend forward under the gunsight.

The pilot would rev up the engine to flying speed and all of a sudden you would go from 0 mph to 85 mph in about a hundred feet. You would gain altitude quickly, and I would be looking down at the end of the flight deck.

Landing on the carrier was quite an experience. We had a dive bomber (SB2C) miss the arresting gear and go off the side into the sea and the radioman gunner was killed. The pilot survived. We had a torpedo bomber (TBM) go into the sea attempting to land. The pilot survived; there were no crewmen aboard.

I had some exciting landings. One time we landed and were off at an angle but the landing hook caught the arresting cable and stopped us just before going into the sea. I looked to my right out of the turret and could see some members of my squadron on the catwalk holding their heads and could look down and see the water.

Another time we landed straight but very hard. The hook caught the arresting gear cable, the plane bounced high and came down hard, blowing a landing gear tire. My head jarred and my nose hit the gunsight, cutting it slightly.

On landing I could look over my right shoulder and see the direction of our flight toward the carrier. We would be flying directly over the churned wake of the Franklin about 100 feet above the ocean. As we approached the rear of the flight deck, you could see the landing signal officer giving my pilot instructions by the way he waved his flags. Signaling whether you were going too low, too fast, too high, bear left or right and the timing with the up and down movement of the flight deck. If all indications were not right, you would get a wave off. The landing signal officer had a net off the side of his position on the flight deck. He could jump into the net if a plane got misdirected, coming too close to him.

On one attempt at landing we took six wave offs for various reasons. I remember going alongside of the carrier after one of the wave offs, looking up at the signal officer with his hands on his hips seeing if we would go into the ocean. So you see, there were all kinds of risks even before combat.

The planes are spotted very close together on the flight deck before a mission takes place. On one occasion I was late in getting to the plane, one of the surprise flights. I was in the middle of the flight deck on my way to our plane, and they announced for the pilots to start their engines. Here I was just a few feet from spinning propellers. One of the plane captains spotted me and expertly guided me to our plane.

While on our way to Japan we still were training with air group and navigation flights. On one occasion our crew was out on an antisubmarine flight and had an escort of one of the F4U fighter planes. We flew very close formation. I felt I could almost reach out and touch the fighter plane wing tip. I showed signs of amazement of the fighter being so close, the fighter pilot laughing. We waved and showed gestures to one another.
In the nighttime as we neared Japan, there was a lot of suspense with General Quarters signals and orders coming over the loudspeakers and lights going on and off as hatches were opened and closed. The enemy were dropping flares to silhouette against the sky so they could find us and attack. The night fighters must have taken care of them, as we were not attacked at this point.
Our first bombing raid was on March 17th 1945. Our crew was not assigned to this mission. I remember the pilots singing Happy Birthday to Lt. Carr, our executive officer. He was the leader of this first flight.

The next morning, March 18, 1945, my 20th birthday, our crew was assigned to this day’s mission. Many of the other crewmen sang Happy Birthday to me. We took off and had to fly through heavy thick clouds. When we finally got above the clouds, the 3-plane group we were with were miles behind the main air group. We caught up to them just about the time Japan came into sight. We were at 2500 ft and on oxygen. We were raiding an airfield at Kagoshima, Izumi, the southernmost island of the mainland of Japan. We flew across the middle of the island at 2500 ft. on oxygen. I could see cities to the north and south of us. We started our glide bombing run. I could feel the ice on the inside of my oxygen mask. I could feel the change in temperature as we dove. My radioman was dropping reflective confetti as well as the plane in front of us to detun [illegible] their radar ganbatled [illegible] antiaircraft guns as we dove.. I would see clumps of this confetti from other planes. Soon I observed tracer and explosive shells off our port wingtip. I reported this to my pilot. As we drew closer to the ground, he fired his wing machine guns. Looking over my right shoulder I could see where we were headed. He dropped the bombs and they appeared to hit an airfield hangar. I saw much derlves [illegible] like clipboards and parts of the building exploding into the air along with the flames and the smoke.

We pulled out of our dive and we were only about 150 ft above the Japanese airfield. We came out over the China Sea and there was one of our submarines a few hundred yards offshore surfaced, moving and ready to pick up any survivors from planes that were hit and had to ditch into the ocean.

We regrouped and started back just south of Kyushu island. I observed many Japanese freighters sinking and on fire. Fighter planes were strafing the many ships at this point. The splashes from the guns of the diving fighters completely hid some of the smaller ships.

We got back to our carrier and my pilot made a perfect smooth landing– no wave offs.

We got out of our planes after they were spotted and headed for our ready room. We were instructed over the loudspeaker to hurry off the flight deck as there were enemy planes in the area. We got back to our ready room. Then you realized the stress of the flight, the anxiety and nervousness and the relief of getting back safe. I remember describing our mission and getting a shot of whiskey.

I was scheduled to fly a combat mission the next morning, March 19th 1945. I was awakened at 3:00 AM for an early breakfast. Reported to our ready room to get briefed and ready for the 6:00-7:00 AM flight. I was all ready to fly. I had on 2 or 3 pairs of pants, 2 or 3 layers of shirts, my flight jacket of leather, heavy shoes, and my “Mae West” life jacket. Just before boarding the plane our crew was cancelled because they needed a radioman with electronic radar interference experience. Here I was all dressed to fly and had had breakfast. I decided to go out to the flight deck catwalk and watch the planes take off. The torpedo planes were behind the bombers and were the last to take off. It was cold, the carrier going into the wind at top speed for takeoff operations. I was thinking of going into a coffee station we had in our ready room, warm up, and come back out in time to see the torpedo bombers take off. I waited and watched a couple of bombers take off. I just started leaving the catwalk to head under the flight deck to our ready room and there was a terrific blast. I put my hands to my face as this sudden blast and flames came and then the dense smoke. I could not see my hands in front of me. I backed off. I felt myself passing out from the heat of the flames, the concussion from the explosions, and unable to breathe because of the dense smoke. Then there was a split second when the air cleared and I caught my breath. Then there was another explosion again. I was enveloped in flames and the dense smoke and the awful concussion. I went to the top cable guard of the catwalk. Then there was a series of explosions with no letup of the smoke. I had my stomach up against the top cable and as another explosion came I rolled over the cable and dropped into the ocean 90 feet below. I must have been knocked out, and as I came to, I must have been deep in the ocean as I could see nothing but darkness. I looked up and could see the glitter on the surface of the ocean. I thought afterwards the carrier going at top speed, and with me dropping close to the hull of the carrier, the ship’s propellers could have drowned me so deep into the sea.

This all happened without any warning. We were not yet General Quarters. I did hear some gunfire a second before the initial explosion. I did not get an explanation until I was on the destroyer, of the Jap plane, a Judy bomber, coming in low out of the low-hanging clouds, too low for radar to pick up. It dropped two 500 lb bombs on us. This acted as a fuse to ignite the gasoline lines that were lying on the decks, the remaining planes that were loaded with gasoline, bombs, and rockets. The Judy was shot down by our air group commander, Commander Parker, who was aloft and flying an F4U fighter plane.

After coming to in the ocean, I kicked and swam to the surface, and here I was with all of this clothing on–heavy shoes and my steel helmet strapped under my chin. My first thought was that I was alive and survived. I immediately thought of my nephew, Peter John Hensel, who was born January 28, 1945, whom I had never seen. This seemed to put some survival fight into me. I struggled and stayed afloat. I remember seeing the burning carrier going away from me. I remember several sailors popping to the surface with me. They had a strange stare with no expression, and in my struggle they just seemed to disappear. I thought afterwards they must have been killed. For a few moments I felt all alone in the wide ocean and scared.
The ocean was very rough that morning. I remember seeing the bows of ships coming completely out of the water. I reached the peak of a wave and there about a hundred feet from me was a raft. It must have been blown off from the explosions. As I got near the raft I recognized a sailor from the bomber squadron (VB5) whose name was Monte. Then a ways off the raft was my pilot Lt. j.g. Gibson. He was on his back and appeared to be semiconscious with some blood from his mouth. I observed as [illegible] Monte dive off the raft and pull Gibson to the raft. I got to the raft about the same time as they did and helped Monte get Gibson onto the raft. About this time the bow of a battleship appeared #55 (North Carolina). It was so close someone from the bow dropped more life preservers for us.

Monte had hollered to me to pull the cord to inflate my “Mae West” and to throw off my steel helmet as it was coming down over my eyes. This ended my struggle to stay afloat. He hollered before I had gotten to the raft.

The wake the battleship made made it difficult to hang onto the raft. It finally settled down. Then I noticed the burns on my hands. The shock of the event must have dulled the pain of the burns. I saw a small amount of blood coming from the back of my hands. I then thought of sharks. This gave me the strength to push up onto the raft.

I visited the battleship BB55 that is on display at Wilmington, North Carolina, and in their trophy compartment there was a picture and a note of how there were in the same group on 3/19/45 as the Franklin. Thank God someone observed us, enabling him to give this order.

After I had gotten in to the raft, Gibson, semiconscious, was on the edge of the donut-shaped raft. He slipped into the center and disappeared under the water. We were able to grab him and bring him back on the raft donut. In the center of this donut-shaped raft was a rope net that hung below it. I wonder what would have happened if Gibson got tangled up in it, but this might have kept him from going under.

In the meantime another survivor got on the raft, making four of us. I did not know him.

Soon I saw the bow of a destroyer, U.S.S. Hickox (DD673) heading toward us. The bow was coming completely out of the water. I remember saying if I see the bottom of that bow, I’m jumping, feeling the bottom of the bow would come over the raft and take it under the ocean. As the destroyer approached us the captain must have ordered the ship into reverse as this held the bow down as it hit the raft. The 4th man on the raft fell off and was picked up. A line was thrown and I caught it. The ship must have been proceeding forward as I hung onto the line and pulled the raft along with the ship. The sailor on the other end of the line kept letting line out and we ended up aways from the ship as it stopped. We were pulled up to the port side of the destroyer where there was a cargo net and sailors aided in pulling us off the raft onto the destroyer. (See the Hickox’s log of the day.)
They took us to a central compartment on the main deck and there was a doctor on board: Lt. R. K. Williams. A sailor from the destroyer dove into the ocean and pulled in a survivor that was severely burnt. The doctor was working on him and directing corpsmen that were working on Monte and myself. Gibson must have been taken to another compartment.

They took off our wet clothes and put us in clothes from some of the ship’s company or what they called small stores.

They cut off my high school ring. We started to shake either from coming out of the shock or from the cold. I remember holding my hands down and the fluid that kept coming out of them. I could not stop from shaking.

They sprinkled sulphur powder on my hands and face. They bandaged my hands with vasoline gauze and had several patches on my face.

I don’t remember any pain until after I stopped shaking and being bandaged. It must have been because of the trauma and shock of the incident. It was noticed my eyelashes and eyebrow hairs were all burnt off. There were other blisters and crusty areas to my face besides the deep burns.

After a while they sent Monte and myself to an officer’s compartment to recover from the shock.

The man the doctor was working on died the next day and was buried at sea.

The Hickox pulled up to the fantail of the Franklin. there were many sailors trapped on the fantail from the fire and explosions. The sea was still rough and as the bow of the destroyer rose up near the fantail, the men trapped there were jumping off onto the bow of the Hickox. One missed the bow and fell into the sea and was rescued. While this was taking place, there were still explosions and rockets taking off from the Franklin.

The cruiser Santa Fe pulled along the starboard side of the Franklin, and I understood they took on the remainder of Air Group 5 and personnel that were wounded.

I observed the cruiser Pittsburgh take the Franklin in tow. The Hickox was firing at Japanese planes that were trying to finish off the Franklin. I was disappointed when I woke up the morning of 3/20/45 and found that we had not proceeded very far, as the Franklin was almost dead in the water. The Hickox just circled the Franklin all night.

After many hours of continuous duty the officers wanted their compartments for sleep, so we were assigned bunks in a compartment in the bow of the ship. I could stretch my arms and touch both bulkheads. The sea was still rough and the greatest movement is at the bow end of the ship, and–so help me–with the vast up and down movement I would lift up off the bunk as the bow dropped. I had to balance myself with my elbows as my hands were bandaged.

If I had not gone to early breakfast I might have been in the chow line where all were killed.

If I had gotten back into our ready room for coffee I would have been there when the first bomb dropped. There was only one that escaped alive from there. I am glad I did not go when I first thought of doing it.

The Franklin along with the destroyer group arrived at Ulithi anchorage on 3/24/45. I was put over the side of the Hickox in a basket to a motor launch and transferred to the U.S.S. Belief, a hospital ship. It was either Palm Sunday or Easter, as I remember going to a church service. I spent one night on the U.S.S. Belief and was transferred to the U.S.S. Bountiful, another hospital ship. The U.S.S. Belief was ordered to proceed to Iwo Jima to care for the wounded there as the island was just secured.
It was a great feeling to get aboard the hospital ship. On the Bountiful I met 2 friends from my squadron: Drew Hontz from Scranton Pa., and Knudson from Philadelphia Pa. Knudson had eardrums injured from the concussions of the explosions. Drew Hontz had an odd bone broken under his collar bone and was transferred after 2 days stay. I remember Drew Hontz going over the side of the hospital ship in a basket. I can still see his smile and the wave he gave me. The great feeling of survival.
Knudson said he would give me a shower but would not clean my crotch, as if I would let him. I held my bandaged hands over my head, and he soaped about 90% of my body and rinsed myself. It sure felt good to get the shower. Knudson also wrote a letter dictated to him for my parents explaining my wounds and that I was safe. The tip of some fingers extended through the bandages and I was able to put a mark on the letter.

The U.S.S. Bountiful was anchored close to the Franklin. I could see the blackened area and massive hole on the port side about where I was standing.

Our air group flight surgeon examined me, leaving me aboard the hospital ship as the rest of the air group went on. He informed us of the many that were killed from our squadron. I lost two [apparently missing text] at Ford Island for a while. He let me go but warned me to get back in a short time as his watch would be ending and the next officer of the deck would not recognize me.
We left Pearl Harbor and proceeded to San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. What a welcome sight it was! We docked at Treasure Island in the bay. I was immediately transferred to the Alameda Naval Air Station.

I originally wanted to get back to my squadron but my orders came through for a 30-day survivors leave, then to NATTC Norman Oklahoma for a refresher course. I received completely new clothing and my back pay. I was happy and looking forward to my trip back home.

While at Alameda I met a former member of our squadron who was transferred months before to go to Rhode Island to train for night fighter duty with radar. He was on his way overseas. He spotted me and I gave him the details of my experience, giving him the names of the men that I knew at that time who were killed. His name was Smith, a radioman. He was quite heavy.
After my leave I arrived at Norman Okla. in June 1945. I asked and received a weekend leave and was able to visit the family and friends of my friend Gerald Mold in Arkansas City, Kansas. This wasn’t too far from Norman.

I was accepted for pilot training but the atomic bomb was dropped and the war ended. I elected to leave flight school as we had just begun the refresher course. I was transferred to several bases ending up at Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn and was discharged from [illegible] Beach Long Island in April 1946.
Here is a list of the men killed from my squadron VT5 whose faces I’ll always remember:

Ens. Glenn Drulinger
LCDR Allan Edmands
Ens. Patrick Lacey
Lt. George Watkins
Ens. Charles McAllister
Ens. Julius Watson
LtJG David Evans
Ens. Wilmon Wheeler
ARM1c Lloyd Fairbrother
ARM2c Ardell Leitzke
AOM3c Elmer Lowry
ARM3c Roy Hute
ARM3c Robert Wakefield
ARM1c Theodore Dorak
PR1c Gene Smith
ACMM Gordon Lyons
Y1c Donald Kenfield
AOM1c John Natysyn
Y3c Gerald Nold
ACRT Raymond Pagel
ACRM Charles Jenkins
ARM3c Robert Baucum
AOM1c James Hobbs
AOM1c Howard Stone (Little Beaver, I think his name was)
AOM3c David Macleod

Being wounded and getting split up from the remaining squadron I regret now that I put this experience in the back of my mind and didn’t express this experience throughout the years. And not keeping in contact with these men. I also regret not maintaining contact with Gerald Nold’s family and friends. After being discharged and returning home, this experience was set into the back of my mind, socializing with my family and friends, but never forgotten.

Here are some afterthoughts. Ardell Leitzke broke his leg and was in a cast. He broke it playing softball sliding into second base. I was the one who threw the ball to try to get him out. He begged the doctor to let him stay with the squadron. The doctor did, against his better judgment. He went into the ocean and was unable to stay afloat and drowned. The doctor stated when he examined me that this was something he would regret doing the rest of his life.

I regret that I was only able to be overseas for just a short period. But when I look back, this incident of 3/19/45 was so traumatic that it gave me the feeling of contributing to the war effort.

 

Lt Cmdr “Ace” Edmands

Lt Cmdr “Ace” Edmands

Allan Christie Edmands, Jr

 

ALLAN CHRISTIE (“Ace”) EDMANDS, Sr., was born 10 June 1911 in Saugus, Massachusetts. He grew up in nearby Andover, graduating high school in 1929 and enlisting in the Navy. He soon became a candidate for officer’s training and was enrolled at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1935 and commissioned as an Ensign. In 1937, he married Mary Anna Hawes; they had three children: (Mary) Christine (1938), Allan Christie (1942), and Anna Jane (“Janna,” 1944). Allan earned his “wings” from flight school in Pensacola in 1940, making his nickname “Ace” even more appropriate.

 

Ace was stationed with his family at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, serving as a Lieutenant on the light cruiser Astoria. When the Japanese attacked, the Astoria was out at sea. His family was sent back to the mainland in April 1942, but Ace needed to stay on and fight the war. He flew missions in battles at the Coral Sea, Midway, Savo Island (where he was wounded and where the Astoria was sunk), and Tarawa. In one battle report, he confided to his captain that he wasn’t sure how he would react at the sight of blood and gore: “I found out before the night was over. . . . I was amazed I wasn’t more scared, but things happen so fast there isn’t time.”

 

In June 1944, as a Lieutenant Commander, Ace became skipper of Torpedo Squadron 5, and began training his men on TBM Avenger torpedo bombers. In January 1945, the squadron joined the aircraft carrier Franklin, which sailed as part of a huge task force for the final assault on the Japanese home islands, an assault expected to take up to a year and cost several hundred thousand American casualties. Missions against Kyushu targets began on 18 March, when the Franklin was within 60 miles of Japan.

 

On the morning of 19 March, Ace and his squadron were warming up their engines, preparing for a run on the strategic port of Kobe. A single Japanese bomber emerged from the clouds and dropped two 550-pound armor-piercing bombs on the Franklin. The two explosions were only the beginning; they ignited aviation fuel lines, bombs, rockets, and other ordnance aboard the ship, killing nearly a thousand men—Ace among them. Amazingly, the Franklin, the war’s most heavily damaged ship that did not sink, made a 12,000-mile trip home to Brooklyn with a skeleton crew of 710. (Other survivors had been forced off, or blown off, the ship by the raging conflagration, and they returned to the States on other vessels.)

 

I am ALLAN CHRISTIE EDMANDS, Jr., born 9 June 1942, a day before Ace’s 31st birthday, just after his flying missions in the Battle of Midway. I never knew my father. To me as a child, he was a ghost hero, without whom, I was convinced, we could not have won the war. I was told that he had not regarded himself as a hero, that he had always said he was just doing his job. What a job! He was a hero to me nonetheless, a hero killed in action just before the war’s end. It was obvious that he had been killed, but we never had a funeral, never saw a body, never had a gravestone—so how could we know for sure? Ace had sent a Valentine’s Day letter from Hawaii just before cruising into the war zone. My mother continued sending letters to his “fleet” address—VT5, c/o Fleet P.O., San Francisco, California—just as though he were residing in a pleasant American city. The letters would eventually be returned unopened and unread.

 

On 16 April, the Chief of Naval Personnel sent my mother an unwelcome telegram that her husband was “missing” and that she must not aid the enemy by divulging the name of his ship. The Navy Department appreciated her great anxiety, “BUT DETAILS NOT NOW AVAILABLE AND DELAY IN RECEIPT THEREOF MUST NECESSARILY BE EXPECTED.” Later that month she received a letter from the squadron’s exec officer stating that Ace had been forced over the side in the conflagrations and was “not seen after that.” He also stated that Ace’s ring (which he had not been able to remove from his finger) and his dog tags (which he never would have been without) had been retrieved “from his room” and would be sent to her as soon as possible (I have them now).

 

In October the Navy Department sent another telegram: “A CAREFUL REVIEW OF ALL FACTS AVAILABLE RELATING TO THE DISAPPEARANCE OF YOUR HUSBAND LIEUTENANT COMMANDER ALLAN CHRISTIE EDMANDS USN PREVIOUSLY REPORTED MISSING LEADS TO THE CONCLUSION THAT THERE IS NO HOPE FOR HIS SURVIVAL AND THAT HE LOST HIS LIFE AS RESULT OF ENEMY ACTION ON 19 MARCH 1945 WHILE IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY.” My mother fell apart with this news, sent with official “deep regret” and “sincerest sympathy.” She gave baby Janna away to her friend and fled home with Christine and me to her parents. I saw Janna only four brief times when we were children.

 

Though my mother later remarried a fine man, she told me about Ace, even nurturing the fantasy (acknowledged as a remote possibility) that he might still be alive. I fantasized that he had survived the explosions and been captured by the Japanese, that he would escape and return wearing his clean pressed Navy blues, not having aged a day. My sisters entertained similar fantasies. Meanwhile, I was groomed for Annapolis, to follow in Ace’s footsteps; I received an appointment in 1960, but unfortunately I lacked the required 20/20 vision.

 

Over the years, I’ve learned more about Ace. For example, my aunt told me about his mischievous sense of humor: At a family dinner she handed her plate to Ace and asked for another helping of mashed potatoes and gravy. “How much?” he asked. “Just a little bit,” she said. He very delicately put on her plate an eighth of a teaspoon of potatoes, topped it with a drop of gravy, and handed the plate back.

 

I now realize that Ace’s ring and dog tags must have been retrieved from his remains, which were then buried at sea. The squadron’s exec officer, claiming these items had been found “in his room,” had wanted to shield my mother from the gruesome details. After retiring from IBM in 2002, I located survivors of the Franklin, including men in Ace’s squadron. One had witnessed the explosion that blew Ace off the ship and killed him. Another told me of Ace in life: “If he didn’t have his uniform on, you’d swear he wasn’t an officer. He always talked to us like a regular guy.”

 

In June 2003, I attended a reunion of Franklin survivors and learned more details about Ace. I encourage other war orphans to attend such reunions; not only will you fill gaps in your understanding, you will likely help survivors with their long-enduring “survivor’s guilt.”

 

I Was Seventeen

I Was Seventeen
JOHN J. COX
S1/c (RM) SVV-6

The Japanese had bombed Pear Harbor in 1941 when I was 15 years old and most of my older friends had already enlisted in some branch of the military so I was left alone and pining to get into it. My two brothers had already responded to Uncle Sam’s ‘Greetings’ so when I turned seventeen, and was afraid the war would be over before I could get into it, I went on a six-month-long crusade to persuade my mother to give her consent to my enlisting in the Navy Reserve. She finally she agreed and gave her written consent so off I went to Newport, Rhode Island for ‘Boot Camp’ which entailed six weeks of training in seamanship and a regimen of physical training that was a breeze for me thanks to the many hours of gymnastics. For the first time in my life I enjoyed three square meals a day (with meat which was seen only on special occasions in our family) and piled on seventeen pounds of extra muscle. After ‘boots’ I was assigned to a Bainbridge, Maryland radio-operating school where I learned Morse code and the other skills of a radio operator. Then there was an interminable 5-day cross-country troop-train ride to California and eventual assignment to the U.S.S. Franklin (CV13) which was an Essex-Class aircraft carrier, built at Newport News in Virginia and launched on the 14th of October 1943. In recognition of the ship’s size and power the crew christened the ship ‘Big Ben’. It had a displacement of 27,000 tons, an overall length of 872 feet, and a beam of 93 feet. It carried around 70 aircraft of various types from ‘fighter planes’ to ‘torpedo planes’. It was armed with twelve 5-inch guns plus a number of dual 40mm anti-aircraft guns as well as a number of 20mm guns for close defense. It was the temporary home of between 2800 to 3000 enlisted men and officers.

 

I arrived aboard the ship on May 29 1944 and became a member of the radio crew that stood watch in the main radio shack where I would be spending much of my future time copying code that would direct the operations of the ship and to some extent the operations of the entire fleet. The main radio shack was located in the ships Island and was only about 15 feet from two twin-mounted five inch guns that came to an incredibly noisy life during enemy attacks making it necessary for the job of copying of code to become a special kind of art. We had to cover one of the earphones with one hand and hold it tight to one ear to try to drown out the noise of the guns while typing with the other hand. And when we were close to enemy-held islands the Japs would zero in on our radio frequency and transmit what became known as ‘bag-pipes’ which were loud noises that resembled Scottish bagpipes aimed at disrupting communications. So we spent a lot of time holding an earphone close to one ear with one hand and typing code with the other.

 

A short time after my arrival aboard ship in California we headed for Honolulu where we enjoyed a short ‘liberty’ and by the 4th of July 1944 both Big Ben and I had experienced our baptism of fire. With some discomfort I discovered that aircraft carriers were very popular with Japanese pilots and Ben was no exception. They aimed their bombs at him in preference to most other ships and some even tried to crash-dive on him. Some bombs landed and one plane crash dived on him but he was a tough nut to crack and no matter what they did they just couldn’t sink him. He always came back for more. It may sound strange to hear me call a ship a ‘him’ instead of a ‘her’ – sailors always attribute human qualities to their ship although they usually think of it as a ‘she’. But in my eyes Big Ben was too tough to be a ‘her’. I’ve never been a misogynist – I’ve love as many women as I could and as often as I could when I was young – but there was nothing feminine about Ben.

 

Our pilots were supermen We ranged all over the Pacific creating as much havoc as possible and they were like mad hornets stinging anything that was Japanese whether ships, planes, enemy airfields, or troops. The official record shows that we celebrated the 4th of July 1944 by taking part in strikes against targets in Guam, and followed this by visiting Iwo Jima, Haha Jima and Chichi Jima in the Bonin and Volcano Islands. Then we turned our attention to Rota and again to Guam in the Marianas Islands. A week later we hit Yap and Ulithi in the Palau Islands and on the 22nd of July we went back to Guam to support the invasion. In August our pilots attacked shipping in the Bonin and Volcano Islands. In October we hit Luzon in the north of Philippine Islands and Tainan on the Island of Formosa, followed by supporting the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines. Towards the end of October we hit targets in Manila Bay and joined in with the rest of the fleet in the Second Battle of the Philippine Sea. Whenever Japanese planes threatened the ship our pilots intervened and dealt out fierce punishment but when they went on a mission we were on our own. When the cats away the mice will play and as the task force ventured ever closer to the Japanese mainland our pilots were away more often. These were the times we were most vulnerable and Ben was hit hard a few times with bombs and kamikaze suicide crashes into the flight deck. Although he suffered some ‘bloody noses’ and had to undergo frequent repairs the Japanese pilots couldn’t land the big ‘knock out’ punch.

 

But on the morning of March 19, 1945 – when Captain Lewis Gehres brought Ben in so close to the Japanese mainland that we were less than 60 miles off Japan’s southern island of Kyushu – one enemy pilot got lucky. He sneaked past our radar and dropped two semi-armor piercing bombs that caught us with our pants down and Ben was in deep trouble. One bomb hit the flight deck dead center and tore through to the hanger deck where half of the ship’s aircraft were being re-fueled and re-armed for the next strike against enemy shipping in Kobe Harbor. It ignited huge fires throughout the entire hanger deck and the fire spread to the deck below detonating tons of stored ammunition. The second bomb hit a bit further aft, pierced through two decks, and triggered more explosions from bombs and rockets that were meant for the enemy. As water poured in from cracked steel plates below sea level the engine room flooded and the ship lay dead in the water. Ben took on a 13-degree starboard list and we were in deep trouble. Explosions came from all over the ship and some members of the crew were blown over the side while others had to jump or be burnt alive. According to the scuttlebutt (gleaned from eyewitness accounts) some crewmembers were jumping over the side to avoid the fires while others were chucking the heavy drums of 20-millimeter ammunition over the side. These drums hit some of the men already in the water killing them. War and chaos often go hand in hand.

 

The official number of casualties on that day was 724 killed and 265 wounded and if it hadn’t been for Lt. Donald Gary – the man I owe my life to – the dead would have numbered 1024. Three hundred of us had been in the mess decks, below the hanger deck, eating breakfast when the bombs struck and I was one of them. Normal access to the flight deck was via the hanger deck and there were only two exit ladders from the mess deck to the hanger deck. One was forward and the other was aft of the mess deck. I was with a group that ran to the forward ladder but fierce fire was shooting down from this deck which was just below the hanger deck and this exit was blocked. We ran to the aft ladder but smoke and fire also blocked this exit. We didn’t know it at the time but the entire hanger deck was a death trap for anyone who went anywhere near it, and the deck below the hangar deck was almost as bad. The smoke was getting thicker every minute in the mess compartment that we were in so we all moved into the largest one. We ‘dogged down’ the hatch to try to keep smoke out while we picked each others brains to see if anyone knew of an unconventional route to get topside – no one did. During the first hour or so a few volunteers braved the smoke and fire to go on a scouting trip to find an escape path but only one man came back and he was bleeding so badly and so horribly burnt that he died within minutes of returning. We said a quick prayer for him and for the next two hours continued to pick each other’s brains but to no avail. The engines had shut down and with no electricity we were in darkness. There was a tiny air-vent about the size of a tennis ball high up on the starboard side of the compartment we were
in and it gave a bit of light and air but water began to slop in as Ben’s list worsened so things didn’t look good for us.

 

We were in that compartment for three hours and I went over the 19 years of my life a dozen times thinking about the good times but every now and then had to come back to reality which was a numb acceptance of fate and a prayer that the end would be quick. One man ‘lost it’ and started shouting something about drowning like rats in a trap but he was dealt a dizzying clop alongside his head and when he regained his senses he was quiet. I guess we all had consigned our souls to either our maker or the devil when Donald Gary came on the scene. Apparently he had been topside when the bombs hit and knew that the hanger deck was alight from stem to stern and was a no-go area. He assumed that there would be men trapped below in the mess deck who would be unable to escape via the normal exits so he started thinking outside the square. He climbed up the island to a point where he could kick in a metal screen located on the smokestack. Ben had been dead in the water for about 3 hours and the smokestack had cooled enough for him to use the metal rungs inside it to climb down to the engine room. He made his way through the engine room and along a catwalk to skirt the water that had filled it and worked his way up through various hatches – hatches that none of us even knew existed – to the mess deck where we were trapped.

 

The smoke was getting thicker, the heat was getting more intense and the explosions were coming closer and with more frequency so we knew we had to move quickly. Gary had a battle lamp with him to light his way as well as breathing gear for himself, but a line of 300 men holding on to each other’s belts and groping their way through thick smoke would be far too long. The men on the tail end of the line would not have survived breathing in the thick smoke for long periods so he divided us into three groups and made three trips. Despite the danger to himself he led each group down to the engine room and showed us the way into the smokestack. There we could climb up to the space where the metal screen had been, squeeze through it, and climb down the island to a point where we could jump down to the flight deck and join in the fight to save the ship. A few weeks later I returned to the compartment that we had been huddled in to revisit the scene. It was so twisted and distorted from the heat and the explosions that there’s no doubt in my mind; we all would have died in there had it not been for Donald Gary. There is a lesson to be learned from all this and it applies to the men of all naval forces – know your ship well because your life or the lives of you shipmates may depend on it.

 

The fight to save Big Ben was hard. Radio operators aboard warships were more or less specialists. We focused on communications and lived in our own little world. We hadn’t been trained to fight fires or perform any of the other duties that are part of the average seaman’s life. Instead we copied code for eight hours and rested our heads in order to get ready for the next mind-numbing shift. But when I reached the flight deck and saw the condition of the ship I realized that if Big Ben sunk then I – along with the other men left on board – would go down too. I took a crash course in fire-fighting and unloading hot ammunition and this is where my gymnastic background came in handy – it was an incredibly exhausting task and having a healthy, strong body helped. In the meantime we were being towed by the Heavy Cruiser Pittsburgh (CA 72) while the rest of the task force formed a protecting circle around us. They threw up a barrage of anti-aircraft fire that served to discourage a batch of newly arrived Japanese planes that were piloted by some very excited Japanese pilots who seemed determined to finish the job. Our engines were dead which meant that our guns were not working and we couldn’t fight back so all we could do was hit the deck and watch the action as enemy planes and bombs came so close that we wondered where they would hit. Thank heavens the gunners on our escort ships were good at their jobs. All the Japanese pilots that dived on us were shot down before they could finish us off.

 

In the next two days we managed to put out the fires on all decks and jettison all the hot ammo. The damage control crew worked furiously to pump the water out and make temporary repairs in the engine room. Finally Ben was able to get moving under his own steam and headed for safer waters. Then we started the grim task of collecting the dead from the many compartments of the ship. We formed a dozen two-man teams equipped with metal stretchers and worked non-stop until one by one they had all been found and carried to a part of the hanger deck that had been cleared for this purpose. The Chaplain collected their dog tags and their personal belongings, said a quick prayer over them, and had them dropped over the side. They had been dead for days and it was the only thing we could do to avoid disease. Other crewmembers went on a hunt for body parts and these were also given into the care of the Chaplain.

 

I was paired with another radio operator, Luke Burton, who in happier days had joined me for a few beers whenever we returned to civilization. I was still a very young-looking teenager and had trouble buying a beer in some places but we usually found a way around that. We may have broken the law but we felt that if a man can fight in a war he should be entitled to buy a few beers. Another one of my ‘liberty mates’ was Norman (Dizzy to his friends) Dizak. Dizzy didn’t make it to his twenty first birthday and the hardest thing that Luke and I ever had to do was to strap him on to our stretcher and bring him down to the hanger deck along with all the others for the Chaplain’s attention. Luke and I must have hauled fifty or more bodies of our shipmates from all over the ship down to the hanger deck but bringing Dizzy to the Chaplain hurt the most. He was such a ‘live wire’.

 

Everyone says that a dead body weighs more than a live one and I think it must be true. Big Ben had hundreds of watertight hatches that separated one compartment from another and they are not very big so Luke and I had to work closely together to maneuver the stretchers through them and up and down ladders on countless trips to the hanger deck. Dizek had been part of the midnight to 0800 watch in the main radio shack and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was killed. He had been a 20 year old from Chicago with lots of energy and a ‘life of the party’ nature. He was popular with the radio crew and when we went ashore he was completely at home with the ladies. It was hard to believe he was dead and all that energy was gone forever. Why must it cost us so much to learn that war is such a terrible waste of lives – lives that really haven’t had the chance to begin?

 

Another popular member of the radio gang was ‘Big John’ Basham who stood more than 6 feet tall with considerable bulk but didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Although he was a few years older than me he was like a big kid always dreaming up ways to break the monotony of long midnight to morning watches and bring a few laughs to the stultifying job of copying code day after day for the 8 hours of a radio operator’s shift. His latest effort to break the monotony and put a smile on our dials was a competition to see who could cultivate the biggest and bushiest mustache. He won that event and the admiration of the entire gang with a big ‘fu-man-shu’ job that no one could match. The irony was that although he survived all that the Japanese could throw at him including the bomb that killed ‘Dizzy’ and so many others, he was killed a few months later by a New York City subway train while on liberty. He, too, was in the wrong place at the wrong time and his death made all of us think twice about human nature and the capriciousness of the ‘fine fickle finger of fate’.

 

My mind must have gone walk-about for a while during the unpleasant job of collecting bodies. For a second I lost focus and footing. Luke – who had hold of the front end of the stretcher and was pulling it up the ladder while I pushed – growled a few obscenities as he was pulled off balance. Like the rest of us he was dead tired and running on adrenaline and his usual good nature abandoned him temporarily. He called me a careless “bastard” but I managed to hold on to my own ‘Irish’ temper and grunted out an apology. I tried to stay focused but my thoughts kept going back to Brooklyn, where I’d spent the first 17 and a half years of my life growing up and having fun.

 

As far as I was concerned ‘fun’ was the joy of going to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers play baseball and ‘willing’ them to win. It also involved spending most of my time with a group of other kids who shared my interest in gymnastics and ‘showing off’ our skills while dazzling onlookers at the local playground. The ten-cent subway fare was hard to come by for most of us so in summer we found ways (mostly illegal) to get to Coney Island where we could ‘tumble’ on the sand with other health nuts at Steeplechase Pier the home of the Brooklyn’s ‘muscle’ men. In winter we kept warm in the Brooklyn Museum by pretending to be either music-lovers who enjoyed the concerts of classical music that were performed every Sunday afternoon, or kids who were interested in ancient relics and artifacts. The concerts were performed for the benefit of the more sophisticated adult audiences and we noted with a cynical smile how some of the older members of the audience snoozed through the event. Did these ‘oldies’ go to these events because they felt the need to be part of a crowd? Were they just lonely people?

 

While the younger and more affluent older women showed off their luxurious fur coats and new hair-styles we were busy arranging ‘accidental’ meetings with some of the teen-aged local females that were in the process of becoming young women. When we were ‘in the money’ we spent our Friday and Saturday nights at Karp’s ice-cream parlor with the girl of our choice and listening to the jukebox as it played the music of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw. Frank Sinatra was becoming more popular than Bing Crosby despite his 4F status but both crooners set the stage for romance and I have them to thank for some of the warmer and more enjoyable romantic interludes with the female species.

 

Pearl Harbor had changed all that and I became one of the many Americans caught up in the nationalistic fervor that gripped the nation. Those who joined the U.S. Naval Reserve during war time committed themselves to serve for the duration of the war plus six months and I convinced myself that I had volunteered to serve in order to help Uncle Sam teach the Japanese a lesson they would never forget. After years of honest reflection I finally admitted to myself that the prospect of adventure was just as persuasive as the air of patriotism that the Jap ‘sneak attack’ had generated in most Americans. To a seventeen-year old boy the idea of taking part in a war is often seen as an exciting adventure. But harsh reality soon changes the sense of adventure to a realization that war is a deadly serious business and people – both combatants and non-combatants – are going to get hurt. Some will be crippled for life and some will die, and their death will usually be under very unpleasant circumstances. While the adventure of war can make the adrenaline run riot and enhance the feeling of being alive, it can also result in physical or psychological damage that can influence the course that young lives take and the damage can stay with them for many years – perhaps forever.

 

One can return from war crippled not only physically but mentally as well. I was one of the lucky ones that came out of the war with only a few scratches but I still have some memories I’d rather not have. And it was years before I could bring myself to eat fish because even today – in my mind’s eye – I can still see shipmates that had been committed to the sea floating on the surface after their bodies hit the water – men that were destined to be fish food. They had been dead for days and had begun to decompose so there was no time for the traditional burial ceremony or even to weigh them down. In fact the ‘floaters’ were so many that we were asked by our escort ships to wait until nightfall before dropping them over the side. The sight of so many bodies was considered bad for the morale of the crew of the escort ships. How ironic! We were concerned about disease while they were worried about crew morale – how quick we are to close our eyes to the nasty realities of war.

 

While Luke and I went about our grisly task of collecting bodies my mind kept wandering. A self-defense mechanism? Perhaps it was. We had found Dizzy in a corridor near the main radio shack. He had died sitting up – in an almost fetal position – with his knees drawn close to his chest, his arms around his knees, and his head resting on them. There were no visible wounds and he wasn’t burned but there were a few trails of blood coming from his nose and ears so we assumed that concussion was probably the cause of his death. Rigor mortis had set in and he was so stiff and inflexible that we had to put him in the stretcher sideways, still in a fetal position. I remember thinking at the time that it was an undignified way to leave this world. Our later experiences with finding and collecting more of our dead shipmates brought home to me the fact that there is no dignity to be found in any violent death. In some cases we had to pry bodies loose from desperately sought refuge in unbelievable places. One poor soul had somehow managed to jam his head under a metal clothes locker which stood on a low platform that left a gap of only about 12 inches of space between the bottom of the locker and the steel deck. His arm was locked around a leg of the platform and I had to pull him out by his feet while Luke unlocked his arm from the locker leg. Another had been lying in water for two or three days and was either very water-bloated or had been a huge man who outweighed both Luke and I together. We had to get help from another team to get him to the hanger deck. On our way to the gathering point we had to pass through a part of the hanger deck that had not yet been cleared by other crews. It was filled with about two feet of ashes of an unknown nature amongst which there was the occasional head-less and leg-less burnt torso. Among other bits of human remains I saw a blackened shoe with a foot still inside it. I had to ask myself why these parts of the human body hadn’t been reduced to ashes when the heat of the fire had been so intense that airplane engine blocks had been welded to the steel hanger deck.

 

My next thought was that a few weeks ago I’d had my 19th birthday and the fates had belatedly given me the gift of life. Life becomes so much more precious when death is all around and such a gift is hard to top. I reckoned I had used up a lifetime of luck in one day so to look for more in later life would be foolish. Not long afterward another thought hit me. If I hadn’t been such a greedy-guts and decided to go to breakfast early on that morning (breakfast on a ship that had been at sea for long months is not hard to pass up) the chances are I would have been killed. As usual I would have been standing on the long queue that often extends from the hanger deck down to the mess deck and would surely have been on the hanger deck when the ‘big bang’ happened. The blast would have caught all of the crew that were working on refueling and re-arming of aircraft as well as those who had been standing in the chow line. The combined effects of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel bursting into flame and the
explosions of tons of ammunition would have killed them instantly.

 

When I – along with the rest of Lieutenant Gary’s ‘rescuees’ – reached the flight deck it was a hive of activity. There was a huge hole in the flight deck near the Island and thick plumes of smoke were coming out of it and darkening the sky. Explosions kept coming from the hanger deck below and threw debris up through the hole with tremendous force. Our giant radio antenna was down in the horizontal position to accommodate aircraft takeoffs and this made it hard for escort ships to get alongside and help with fighting the fires or evacuating the wounded. We tried to use a manual crank to get the antenna upright but it wouldn’t budge so a heavy cruiser tried to pry it loose. But the harder the cruiser pushed the faster we went around in counter-clockwise circles. We finally had to give up and placed a long wooden plank between Ben and a ship that came alongside to transfer the badly wounded to relative safety where they could be treated. We later heard that one man crossing over had lost his balance, fallen into the sea and had been crushed between the two keels.

 

A portable generator was going full blast on the flight deck and this made it possible for sea-water to be pumped up to the flight deck. I joined a crew of about ten men who were controlling and directing the hose while edging ever closer to the hole in the flight deck in order to try to cool down the fires on the hanger deck. It was like trying to control a giant powerful snake and with the wind shifting every few minutes we all had a blanket of heavy, choking smoke in our faces most of the time. The men who held the nozzle end of the hose lasted only a few minutes and had to be dragged out of the smoke before they lost consciousness and fell into the hole so we worked out a system of alternating positions. The nozzle man would hang in there for two or three minutes and then move out to the end of the line to clear his lungs and breathe fresh air while the next man moved up. This continued for a few hours until another crew took over and we were sent to search for and dump hot ammo.

 

Ammunition was stored in various compartments all over the ship and we found piles of five-inch shells that were very hot but could still be handled with protective gloves. We formed lines of men going from these stacks and up ladders to a point where the ammo could be jettisoned. A five-inch shell weighs about forty or fifty pounds and when it must be hand-carried along a sloping deck that is wet, and passed along a long line of men that winds across decks and up ladders it can be a tricky situation. Physical exhaustion and the possibility of someone slipping on the deck and dropping one of the shells was a worry because none of us knew what would happen if a hot shell was dropped onto the metal deck. The thought had no sooner crossed my mind when damned if it wasn’t me that slipped and dropped one that landed right on its nose. With my heart in my mouth I scooped it up and tossed it to the next man in line who caught it with a look of horror on his face. With a shout of ‘hot one’ he tossed it to the next man and I guess that shell reached topside in record time. Since it was polite enough not to explode we all felt a bit less anxious when the inevitable happened and more were dropped. .

 

With all fires out and hot ammo disposed of we took a short break for a much needed rest. At times like these it was usual for shipmates to exchange news and views if they can stay awake. During the gabfest there was general agreement that Big Ben was a great ship that was virtually unsinkable but unlucky. Ben had suffered battle damage four times in the last 10 months and each time the damage got worse and the number of casualties increased. Some of the crew thought that the huge number ‘13’ painted on the flight deck both fore and aft was an irresistible challenge to the fates and this was why Ben was so unlucky. I didn’t agree because I was one of the lucky 704-crew members left aboard the ship that he carried safely home.

 

After inspection by the top brass the ship was given some additional temporary repairs. With order restored out of chaos we headed for the island of Ulithi – previously held by the Japanese – for a few more temporary repairs and restocking of the food and other essentials. Then we were off to Pearl Harbor for inspection by the bigger brass and then on to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where the experts would decide if Ben could be repaired or was damaged beyond repair. Our arrival at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu was an event to be remembered. It was a naval tradition that when a damaged American warship arrived in port it was met with lots of attention. Top naval officials and community ‘big shots’ were part of our welcoming committee along with the military band of the naval station. The band of the Pearl Harbor Naval Station was magnificent. We were greeted with a booming version of ‘Anchor’s Aweigh’ that was played with professionalism and with a volume that made our ears ring. We were assembled on the flight deck to receive this honor and were impressed by the enthusiasm of the welcoming committee.

 

It was also traditional for the ship’s band to reply with its own version of ‘Anchor’s Aweigh’. It’s just a way for one friend to say ‘welcome home’ and for the other to say ‘thanks, glad to be back’. I don’t know if Ben had ever boasted a real ship’s band but we managed to assemble a rag-tag group of amateur musicians who may have had doubtful musical talent but were blessed with strong spirit. They had scrounged up a few brass instruments and a drum that had somehow survived the fires. We were proud of their enthusiasm but our response was so weak in comparison that it was either pitiful or laughable depending on the listeners’ viewpoint. It was like answering a 20-gun salute with a .22 caliber pistol and while some of the crowd may have felt pity, most of the crew thought it was great. We were all desperately in need of a laugh and many were the smiles that began to appear on worn and tired faces. It was just the tonic we needed and this is one of the nicer memories that have stayed with me for more than fifty years. We then headed for the Brooklyn Navy Yard and arrived on the 28th day of April
1945.

 

Brooklyn is one of the Boroughs of New York and my birthplace so I had family and friends there and was happy to see it again. We were met by hordes of dignitaries, high-ranking naval officers, reporters and photographers. Being a native son I shared a tiny bit of the interest that surrounded Big Ben and was amazed to find my photo in one of the local newspapers under the heading ‘Local Boy Returns’. When Mom saw her youngest son’s photo in the paper she was ‘tickled pink’ and promptly showed that she had a nose for a potential profit. Without asking my permission she made a deal with another local paper of the time – the Brooklyn Eagle – and promised them that she would deliver me for a personal interview. At first I was annoyed and refused but Mom was a very persuasive mother and she always managed to make me see her side of things. I finally agreed and it was typical of her that she would never tell me how much she had been paid for her bit of opportunism. Well, she’d had to scramble for a buck all her life to bring four kids up by herself so who could blame her? Certainly not me!

 

Ben was later opened for inspection to the curious public. The ship was given lots of attention by the news media, and its crew was awarded four battle stars along with a commendation ribbon. The Franklin had played an important part in the united effort to defeat Japan but after a war there is always ‘Monday-morning quarterbacking’ and many questions emerge regarding the course of events and the correctness of the decisions of those who were paid to make them. The main criticism surrounding Big Ben was the wisdom of bringing an aircraft carrier so close to the enemy mainland that it took only ten minutes of flying time for enemy pilots to find and attack it. Japan was in dire straits in March 1945 and Japanese pilots were desperate to stave off defeat so they crash-dived on every enemy ship they could find and aircraft carriers were prime targets. Bringing Big Ben in close to Japan’s mainland would have given our pilots an extra ten minutes over their targets but was the extra time worth the ultimate cost? Was Captain Gehres a hero when he risked the safety of the ship along with his own life and the lives of his crew by bringing his ship in so close to the enemy shores? Or was he an ambitious man who wanted to win approval from his superiors and enhance his reputation as a daredevil by being the only captains during war time to bring a major warship like an Aircraft Carrier to within fifty or sixty miles of Japan? Was he a hero or an ambitious fool?

 

He was not well loved by the crew. Many of us saw him as an arrogant man who in quiet times roped off half of the flight deck so that he could have a sun-bath while being safe from the eyes of the crew. He used his marine guards as ‘go-for’s’ to bring him drinks and refreshments from his cabin and the galley; and he never went anywhere on the ship without his personal marine bodyguards. Whenever the Captain of a major warship went ashore it was tradition for it to be announced over the P.A. System “Here this – the Captain has left the ship”. It was not unusual for this announcement to be met with a muted ‘hurray’ when Captain Gehres departed. Unfortunately his arrogance was contagious and many of the higher-ranking commissioned officers followed his lead so the relationship between the crew and their commissioned officers was not always a good one. One Lieutenant Commander who was in charge of the crews that manhandled the planes from one spot to another on the hanger and flight decks (we called these guys ‘airdales’) was famous for his verbal abuse of his crew. During an early morning GQ (General Quarters) when the crew ran to their battle stations (in the dark) he disappeared over the side. Luckily he had a life jacket on and was picked up later by a Destroyer Escort (DE). He reported that an unknown person had ‘bumped’ into him on the way to his battle station sending him into the drink. The scuttlebutt (gossip) was that it had not been an accident and in light of the fact that his behavior was much improved after his return to the ship the scuttlebutt was probably right.

 

Unburdened with an answer to the question of whether Captain Gehres was a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’, I was pleased to receive an honorable discharge from the Navy on December 7, 1945 four years to the day of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor – an odd coincidence. I decided that military life was not for me and said ‘thank you but no thank you’ to offers of a re-enlistment bonus and a promise of rapid promotion if I would stay on. Like many other young men who had been part of a shooting war I decided that war should be outlawed and diplomacy should be the way to settle differences between nations. As far as I’m concerned war is really a failure of diplomacy and/or an inability or unwillingness to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise. One of the tragedies of war is the fact that it’s the young men on both sides who pay for this failure of diplomacy with their lives and their limbs, while the ‘failed’ diplomats – physically, mentally, and psychologically untouched by war – continue to live and enjoy all the benefits that high political status brings. War costs millions of people, both
military and civilian on both sides, their lives and their limbs while those who profit from it, including manufacturers of munitions, laugh all the way to the bank. The three highest earning businesses in most advanced societies are oil, munitions, and drugs and this is a fact that so-called civilized people should be ashamed of. It has to change!

 

American veterans of World War II were not offered psychological counseling, as were the veterans of the Vietnam conflict. They were dumped back onto ‘civvy street’ with their bad memories intact, the forced indifference to, and acceptance of, death still a part of their psyche, and the calluses – that they needed to grow on their hearts if they were to be able to continue to function – still in place. I guess I went a bit wild in this ‘sink or swim’ environment that emerges when governments ignore the adverse
psychological effects that war has on relatively ‘normal’ people (whoever they are). I tried hard to make up for the lost years of young adulthood by becoming a leading exponent of the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ set. From the vantage point of an extra half-century of living I’ve concluded that when young people see, and become part of, such a terrible waste of human lives they often adopt a mental set that says ‘”life is short so let’s enjoy it to the full while we can.”