A Japanese bomber nearly sank USS Franklin in a March 1945 attack, but despite fires and explosions that killed a third of the seamen, its determined captain and crew kept the carrier afloat.
Off the coast of Japan on March 19, 1945, USS Franklin had finished launching its first wave of aircraft to attack shipping in Kobe Harbor when a single enemy dive bomber broke through the clouds and made a low-level bomb run, headed right for the carrier. Seconds later its 250- kilogram bomb struck, piercing the deck and exploding ordnance and aviation fuel. Engulfed by fire, listing heavily to starboard, and with more than a thousand casualties, the ship appeared doomed. Yet somehow heroic crewmen managed to extinguish the inferno, restart the engines, and survive an epic journey from Japan to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
By the end of 1943, the successful and versatile Essex-class aircraft carrier had established itself as the backbone of the American fleet. The United States would ultimately commission twenty-four of the carriers. Incredibly, shipyards at Norfolk, the New York Navy Yard, Philadelphia Navy Yard, and Bethlehem Quincy in Massachusetts would produce an average of one Essex-class carrier every month for the duration. Franklin was the eighth Essex-class carrier ordered and the fifth navy vessel named after Benjamin Franklin. Most ships have a nickname that, with few exceptions, reflects respect and affection. Franklin’s crew would simply call it Big Ben.
A carrier’s air group provides its true striking power. By 1943, a fleet carrier air group was composed of the standard three-squadron arrangement encompassing fighter, dive-bomber, and torpedo-bomber squadrons. The air group specifically created to serve aboard Franklin, designated Carrier Air Group 13 (CAG-13), was largely unproven. However, several veterans of Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal served within each squadron.
After a shakedown cruise, the carrier took part in operations in the Bonin Islands (including Iwo Jima), the Marianas (including Guam), the Palau Islands, and Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. There, on October 30, 1944, a Japanese suicide plane crashed through Franklin’s flight deck near the No. 3 elevator. Big Ben was the first fleet carrier to sustain a direct hit by the newly formed Kamikaze Special Attack Corps. Fifty-six crewmen were killed and thirty more wounded in the worst conflagration any American aircraft carrier had survived to that date.
Yet Big Ben’s most severe trial would come four and a half months later off Japan. In the interim, American attitudes, ship design, weaponry, carrier aviation, fleet tactics, and defensive strategy changed radically. Task Force 58 was assigned to eliminate the kamikaze threat before the invasion of Okinawa.
With each passing hour, Task Force 58 drew steadily closer to the mainland. The huge armada was hard not to notice. At about 2150 hours on March 17, at least seven Nakajima C6N1 “Myrt” reconnaissance aircraft boxed in the fleet and relayed location data back to Japanese airfields.
Search and fire control radars scanned the skies as radar technicians and fighter directors in the Combat Information Center (CIC) monitored dozens of bogies on their screens. Ordered to withhold fire for fear of revealing their position, nervous gun crews aboard Franklin watched in silence as enemy aircraft dropped illumination flares, resulting in an eerie scene of fluorescent whites, blues, yellows, and reds.
Meanwhile, American night fighters from the carriers Independence and Enterprise splashed one Japanese target after another, but without the usual cheering by those watching topside as the enemy aircraft, each trailing a bright orange plume of fire, plunged into the sea. If anyone doubted that Franklin was entering dangerous waters, all suspicions dissipated when gunners destroyed two mines floating nearby.
By early the next morning, March 18, Task Force 58 had reached launching positions approximately ninety miles southeast of Kyushu. Of the forty-five Japanese airfields marked for attack, Franklin’s air group was assigned the Izumi and Kagoshima airfields on southern Kyushu, both believed to be kamikaze staging areas.
Throughout the night, ordnance men loaded tons of ammunition, bombs, and rockets. By early morning, the flight deck had become a beehive of activity as crewmen manhandled scores of aircraft into designated positions. Then they topped off fuel tanks while conscientious navy plane captains and marine crew chiefs gave their planes a quick once-over before takeoff. For Franklin, it was the first combat action since October 1944, five months past and a world away.
George Black, radioman third class, K Division: The closer the fleet got to Japan, the faster the messages came. With each message we typed, the watch officer walked over to the typewriter and pulled the message out of the typewriter him self. Then he took the message in to the decoding room.
On Sunday night, March 17, the watch officer carried this one message into the decoding room, and shortly thereafter I saw [Rear] Admiral [Ralph E.] Davison running through the passage way. I commented to the others, “The admiral looks like he’s in a hell of a hurry.”
Just then the watch officer walked in with the decoded message on his clipboard. He wasn’t supposed to tell us what it read, but he turned the clipboard around for us to read it. It was from [Vice] Admiral [Marc A.] Mitscher. The message read, “LAUNCH AGAINST JAPAN.”
John Vandergrift, first lieutenant, Marine Squadron VMF-214: We struck the airfield at Izumi, which was a Japanese air station northwest of Kagoshima. There were a lot of planes on the ground…and it was so much fun—it really was. We were loaded with five-inch rockets and two 500-pound bombs, and we knocked the absolute hell out of that place. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. I got very enthusiastic, shall I say, during my at tacks. We pounded the runway, and I shot up targets of opportunity. I was pretty low, because the lower the altitude, the harder the target I presented to the Japanese gunners.
After my run on the Japanese airplanes parked on the apron, I did a big wingover and lost my wingman. He couldn’t stick with me. I spun around to look for him, and when I did, I saw a train. So I lined up and popped the locomotive with my .50s. And I filmed all of this with my gun cameras. It was just…terrific.
Later that day my squadron commander called me into the back of the ready room. He said: “Man, I’ve been in CIC watching your gun camera films. They were fabulous! They should be good for a Cross.” Meaning a Navy Cross. Of course, I never had a chance to see the film myself. But what a difference a day makes.
On March 18, photoreconnaissance detected a concentration of high-value targets in Kobe Harbor and the Inland Sea, including aircraft carriers and the super battleship Yamato. Franklin’s first strike package, a fighter sweep, was slated for Itami airfield on Honshu. The second strike would be a maximum effort of twenty five Vought F4U Corsairs (most armed with a Tiny Tim rocket), fourteen Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, and fourteen Eastern Aircraft–built TBM Avenger bombers assigned to key targets at Kobe.
For the exhausted crew, the night of March 18 and morning of March 19 reprised the previous day. Radar plotting officers targeted more than a dozen bogies. These alerts sent the crewmen, who were already exhausted and on edge from lack of sleep, to battle stations twelve times in six hours. While friendly bogies triggered most of the alerts, each deprived the sailors of much-needed rest. By then, many of the crew—including department heads and commanders—had been without sleep for forty hours or more.
At 0535, Captain Leslie Gehres brought Franklin into the wind and increased its speed to twenty-four knots to launch the Itami airfield fighter sweep. At 0617, with radar screens clear, Gehres ordered a modified Condition Three Zebra, the minimum degree of readiness, set on all anti-aircraft batteries to allow crewmen a chance to relax, catch a nap, and eat a proper hot meal in the mess halls.
At 0645 the Combat Information Center reported a bogie thirty miles distant. One minute later, the CIC again reported a new bogie bearing 280, twenty-two miles away. It was believed that this bogie, a twin-engine aircraft flying in an orbiting circuit, was possibly a target coordinator, or at minimum acting to create a diversion for the attack. Whatever its mission, CIC records indicate that this target drew the attention of every radar operator in the fleet. At 0657—just as the deck crews began launching the second package of the morning—the CIC again reported a bogie bearing 290, twenty-four miles away and closing. Then suddenly the CIC reported a bogie on Franklin’s port beam, bearing 270 degrees, around twelve miles out and closing.
The aircraft was a Yokosuka D4Y3 Suisei (Comet), known among the Allies as a “Judy.” Its powerful radial engine made it the fastest dive bomber in the Pacific theater—Japanese or American. The Judy was just one among dozens launched from Kyushu’s fifty five airfields that morning to strike at the American fleet operating a short distance off the mainland. The pilot used the low clouds and the Judy’s speed—its most valuable asset—to his advantage.
At that moment, forty-five of Franklin’s planes were airborne and forming in their respective divisions and strike packages. Fifty-three others remained on board, thirty one of which were on the flight deck, gorged with high-octane fuel, their wings folded and engines running as crews completed last minute preflight routines.
Positioned near the number three elevator were five Helldiver dive bombers, each loaded with two internal 500-pound bombs and two 250-pound bombs on external racks. The fourteen Avenger torpedo bombers, each armed with four 500-pound bombs, were parked directly behind them. In the last two lines of aircraft on the fantail behind them were twelve Corsair fighter-bombers, each carrying a single Tiny Tim rocket.
Twenty-two other aircraft were positioned throughout the hangar in varying stages of readiness. Since the first kamikaze attacks, it had become standard practice to disarm and remove fuel from all aircraft stored in the hangar. However, five Corsairs, each fueled and armed with a Tiny Tim, were parked near the number three elevator, awaiting transfer to the flight deck. Total heavy ordnance on the flight deck and hangar was sixty-six 500-pound bombs, ten 250-pound bombs, and seventeen 1,228-pound Tiny Tim rockets.
Meanwhile, maintenance crews on the hangar deck were using the after port gasoline filling station to top off three of the five Corsairs parked near the number three elevator. The forward refueling stations were purged with inert carbon dioxide gas.
Suddenly, at 0708, when most lookouts were looking to port, the Judy dropped from the clouds approximately a thousand yards ahead of Big Ben. Radio operators in the fleet heard an excited voice yell in Japanese, “Get in! Get in! Get in!” Hancock’s lookouts identified the bogie visually and quickly sent a final warning to Franklin: “BOGIE CLOSING YOU!”
Bob Frank, lieutenant junior grade: I was in V2 Division, but when we got off the coast of Japan, the air group commander asked me to stand behind the flight deck officer on the flight deck. The flight deck officer is the guy who told the pilot to rev up his engine, and then gave the pilot the signal to take off. The problem was that sometimes the magnetos, according to the pilot’s instruments, would check out. Then the pilot would give the flight deck officer the thumbs up, and he would give them the signal to take off. But then they would go right into the drink because they never had the horsepower.
So the air group commander told me to stand behind the flight deck officer to make sure the engine had the required power for takeoff. To accomplish this, I listened to the sound of the engine. If I believed the engine had the necessary power, I tapped the flight deck officer on the shoulder and he gave them the signal for takeoff. We never lost an airplane on takeoff after that.
I was standing behind the flight deck officer in the middle of the flight deck. I was engrossed in listening to the engine of an SB2C that was just taking off…when all of a sudden I heard an explosion. I looked up and saw sections of the wooden flight deck flying up in the air. I quickly moved beneath a wing of an airplane so I wouldn’t get hit with this stuff falling down. I didn’t know what had happened.
George Sippel, seaman second class, 4th Gunnery Division: I looked out across the deck, and the elevator was at a forty-five-degree angle. My first thought was that the elevator had been lowered by accident and a plane had gone down the shaft by mistake. I ran over there and looked down the shaft, and it was just a raging inferno down below. There was so much heat coming out of the hole that I had to back off.
Three of us pulled out a hose, but all we got out of it was steam. Then we tried another hose, but that was steam. Nothing worked. Evidently, the water lines were all shattered.
Byron Robinson, lieutenant junior grade, V2 Division, flight deck: There was a lot of smoke, but there wasn’t any fire among the aircraft at that point. So we quickly moved to the starboard catwalk and looked around to see what the hell was going on. We still didn’t know if it was a bomb or not.
I was standing by the exit that led to the gallery underneath the flight deck when a group of men came pouring out the hatch. I helped them as best as I could, but they were in bad shape. They were yelling that there was fire down below on the hangar deck.
Nick Mady, navy aviation machinist’s mate third class, V2, flight deck: A guy stumbled into my arms, and his eyebrows and hair were gone, and his shirt was still smoldering. I tried to help him, but he didn’t make it. His lungs were gone.
Bob Frank: People were scurrying all over the flight deck, and some of the pilots hadn’t shut down their engines. Since there was so much smoke, there were men running into the propellers. There was no fire among the planes at that point, so being familiar with the airplanes…I was on the port side and instantly started aft. I climbed up on a wing of an SB2C and shut off the engine. I knew there had to have been dozens of guys blown overboard, so I had the presence of mind to take the time to open up the life raft compartment, grab the life raft, and throw it over the side. I figured that someone would be able to use it. I worked my way aft, shutting down the engines on about a dozen aircraft and throwing the rafts overboard. Hopefully, if I had to go over the side, I would end up with one of them.
Al Bullock, photographer’s mate first class, USS Sante Fe: I was the official photographer for the cruiser Sante Fe. On the morning of March 19, I had three cameras with me: A Kodak Medalist and a brand-new 16mm Bell & Howell movie camera with a triple rotating turret lens offering a wide angle, medium, and telephoto lens. I also kept a Speed Graphic up on deck.
Several announcements were broadcast over the ship’s speaker system telling the crew there was a plane in the area, and we went to general quarters. I immediately grabbed my cameras and stood on the stern.
I looked up and actually saw the plane dive on Franklin. Then everything started to explode. It was incredible. I immediately began shooting the scene with my cameras because I knew…even at that time…this was historic.
Rear Admiral G.F. Bogan, Admiral Davison, and his chief of staff, Captain James S. Russell, were on the flag bridge watching the launch when they heard Hancock announce over the tactical radio that a “bandit” was diving on Franklin. Suddenly the ship lurched and a sheet of flame erupted out of the hangar opening below them on the starboard side. The intensity of the blast was such, Russell later reported, that it set fire to the outboard tires of the Le Tourneau aircraft-recovering crane parked on the flight deck for ward of the No. 1 twin five-inch gun turret.
Having dropped his ordnance, the Judy pilot flew off Franklin’s port quarter—straight for Japan. Hundreds of fleet gunners tracked the enemy bomber, bracketing it with black bursts of splintered steel and tracers.
First Lieutenant Ken Linder of VMF-214, the Marine “Black Sheep” squadron now assigned to the carrier, had just lifted off from Franklin’s flight deck and was cruising off the carrier’s stern when he was somewhat startled to see a Judy flying low on the water and, in Linder’s words, “screaming wide-open for Japan.” Linder admitted the Judy was moving fast, but his Corsair was faster. At five hundred yards, he fired a burst and observed strikes around the Judy’s greenhouse and wing root.
A second Corsair flown by Commander E.B. Parker, skipper of Franklin’s Air Group 5, also fired a burst at the Judy. The Japanese dive bomber pulled into the clouds, stalled, and fell smoking into the blue waters of the Pacific.
Tom Leo, seaman first class, 6th Gunnery Division: I was blown out of my bunk. I grabbed my helmet and life jacket and started to go up the ladder that led back to my gun. It was just a few feet away, but the fire coming down the ladder from the hangar deck looked like a blowtorch. It was a startling thing to see. So I started aft and found a ladder heading down to the hospital. I went into the T-shaped corridor and walked into the operating recovery room. There was a young kid lying there [who had] had his appendix removed that very morning, and Doctor [Lieutenant Commander George W.] Fox wouldn’t leave him. I found ten or twelve more guys hunched up against the bulkhead. I sat there with the others for a while, and listened to the large explosions on the hangar deck. I counted about fourteen that seemed to lift Franklin right out of the water.
I sat in the hospital for a while, and finally I thought, “What the hell” and pushed open a hatch that led to another open bay. I didn’t see any smoke or bodies, but there were several fires—but I thought I could make it. Only one other guy came with me. We both crawled forward on our hands and knees until we reached a bulk head next to the deck edge elevator on the port side.
There was a ladder that led to the hangar deck above us. At the top of that hatch was another round hatch…but it was so hot that you couldn’t touch the wheel. Believe me…it was hot. So I found a steel pipe and started pounding on the hatch, hoping that someone on the hangar deck would hear. What I didn’t know was that the guys on the hangar deck were all dead.
Don Conard, fireman second class, B Division: I was coming up from the number two Fire Room hatchway, walking past the bottom end of a double ladder that led up to the second deck, when the first one lit off. It hit just forward of me, maybe a hundred feet or so away, and blasted through the lightweight sheet metal partitions. Since I was on the ladder, my head was at second deck level, so the right side of my head caught the concussion. It felt like someone [had] clobbered me.
It was an unimaginable situation. Men were running in every direction looking for their life vests. I didn’t see any fire, but everything forward of me was immediately engulfed in heat and smoke. Naturally, I took off in the opposite direction.
While still on the third deck, I went to the port side, into the passageway and along back aft toward the fantail. My intentions were to find a way up to the hangar deck, but I couldn’t go any farther aft so I stayed in a berthing area just forward of the deck edge elevator.
By that time, there were several heavy duty blasts on the hangar deck. The fires were cooking off our own bombs. With every blast…the noise was tremendous. They really rattled things since we were only separated by the steel of the hangar deck.
The bombs were one thing, but my real concern was that the fresh air blowers sucked the smoke into the lower levels very quickly. I had a three-cell flashlight, and I had just put fresh batteries in it the day before. It shined into the smoke about fifteen inches or so. I knew I had to do something to breathe. Since we were kids in grade school your teacher always said, “If you’re in a fire, get a wet cloth and breathe through it.” What was I going to use? I took my T-shirt, and since there was no water, I had to use what I had to work with. And it worked.
Bob Blanchard, yeoman first class, F Division: You could hear the explosions, one right after the other. It seemed endless. Then all of a sudden I realized I might not get out of there. It was a stark reality when I realized that this might be it. A lot of things went through my head while lying there on that steel deck. I was from a close family, and all I kept thinking about was my poor mother. She was so worried about me going into the service, and I thought, “Oh, God…I hope my mom don’t hear about this.” I felt sorry for her not knowing what had happened to me, or if I died, just how I died.
We knew we were in trouble, yet there was always someone around encouraging us, “Just hold tight” or “Just hold on and we’re going to make it out of here.” Most of the men in the room were calm, but from time to time you’d hear someone go berserk. They’d start screaming, “There’s no way out!” and things like that. Then a chief petty officer piped in with: “Shut up! You’re wasting our air.” The chiefs and boatswain’s mates kept everyone calm…or tried to. You had to concentrate to keep your wits about you in that sort of situation. And quite honestly…I can understand why some of them went berserk. It would have been very easy to go off the deep end, and quick, too. I had to concentrate to keep calm, because the panic was contagious. So it was a terrible situation. Since I was kind of religious, I started praying.
Charlie Botts, seaman second class, 8th Gunnery Division: It took quite awhile to get to the fantail, but I finally made it. I looked out over the water, and there were heads as far as you see.
I was standing there, trying to figure out what to do, when a pilot said, “It’s way too hot up there for me!” He had just come down from the flight deck. We both stood there for a moment, and then he said: “Kid? You’d better get off of here. I think she’s doing down.” He went over the side, climbing down his monkey line. But I didn’t follow him.
Just then I noticed an eight-man life raft down below me. The thing even had rations. I thought, “Hell, I won’t even get wet,” and started down the pilot’s monkey line. Just as I got on the line, the ship’s screws wrapped the rope around my leg in nothing flat and pulled my leg up in front of my face. I was hanging upside down and couldn’t get loose. Just then another guy came down the line, right on top of my head, and he went on down and got into my life raft. We were all issued a knife, so I cut the line and I fell about forty feet into the water.
I no sooner came up for air than this guy tried to stand on my head. He was in a state of complete and total panic. Another guy near me, a big Swede—his arms were bigger than my legs—pulled him off me. He told the guy: “Don’t fight me! Don’t fight me!” and he grabbed this guy underneath his chin and took off. I’d have drowned if the Swede hadn’t been there. That’s the last time I saw either one of them.
I paddled over to a pilot’s life raft and held on. There were five or six of us hanging onto this dingy, including the pilot who was with me on the stern. One of the men holding on to the side, a real muscular type, tried to get in the dingy. The others yelled, “Oh…no you’re not, buddy!” and “You had better not get in that damned raft!” Those guys would have drowned him out there, and he knew it.
I wasn’t worried about the sharks, but some guys did. There was one guy slashing in the water with his knife. He wasn’t taking any chances.
It is doubtful whether anyone who wasn’t there can fully appreciate the horrors experienced by those aboard Franklin. Rivers of burning gasoline poured from the flight deck into the catwalks to each side and quickly turned everything aft of the island into a raging firestorm. Crewmen caught in the holocaust along the gallery deck, fantail, and island—for the sake of survival and without much choice—simply jumped overboard to take their chances of being sucked under by the screws and surviving the cold waters of the northern Pacific.
Enormous bomb blasts methodically ripped the flight deck and hangar apart. A few bombs exploded harmlessly in low-order detonations, their cases fragmenting into two or three sections and throwing TNT filler into the flames. Some failed to explode, even though the fire had consumed the explosive filler. But as thousands of Task Force 58 crewmen watched mesmerized, most bombs exploded with nerve-shattering noise and violence. Over the next five hours, as many as fifty of the sixty-six 500-pounders and seven or eight of the 250-pounders exploded, sending huge sections of the deck, catwalk, guns, aircraft, engines, debris, and men thousands of feet into the air.
Witnesses reported bombs flying high in the air and exploding alongside the ship. At least two detonated upon impact with the flight deck, near the island. Dozens of crewmen were blown overboard, their strapped helmets breaking their necks upon impact with the sea. Countless others who had been knocked unconscious by the blast simply drowned.
Meanwhile, fires in the gallery deck had worked their way up through the aft part of the island structure, gutting the secondary con, radar repair, aerological office and lab—and every compartment aft of the smokestacks. Dozens of men were trapped behind jammed, watertight, and armored hatchways in the island.
To add to the horrors raging on Big Ben, the Tiny Tims loaded on the Corsairs parked at the fantail ignited mere seconds after becoming engulfed in flames. Designed to propel a five-hundred-pound warhead at more than eight hundred feet per second, they screamed forward and over the heads of those on the forward flight deck. At least one, flying on a straight trajectory, was seen to ricochet off the waves for several hundred yards and bounce over a destroyer.
While most of the bombs exploded on the flight deck, an unknown number of planes melted and fell through large craters to the hangar deck below. Bombs attached to bomb rack shackles roasted in the fires. Ultimately, most of them exploded, adding to the carnage.
The first hours aboard Franklin after the attack inspire memories of death, fear, courage, monumental confusion, fast improvisation, and bold initiative. Without direction or orders, small groups of resolute men, sometimes working in pairs or even alone, summoned the required fortitude and began taking back the ship. In most cases, their actions were more heroic than they themselves could explain afterward.
As uncontrolled fires burned throughout the ship, water meant survival. Without orders, an unknown engineer went forward to start the two diesel fire pumps located in the forward bottom part of the bow (some accounts indicate a single pump). These two pumps were the only source of water pressure for the fire hoses. One pump operated continuously for fourteen straight hours.
With water in the fire hoses, intrepid crewmen—many without any training in firefighting—grabbed a hose and ran headlong into the fires raging amidships. If crewmen were swallowed up in a heavy blast or bowled over by bomb fragments, others quickly replaced them. “Their heroism was the greatest thing I have ever seen,” Commander Joe Taylor, Franklin’s executive officer, would later write. “They simply would not leave their hoses in spite of what appeared to be almost certain death and disaster.”
At about 0725, Captain Gehres, seeing his ship blowing apart before his eyes, ordered the main magazines flooded to reduce fire hazards, or worse, a magazine detonation. But unknown to anyone on the bridge, the attempt was unsuccessful because the water mains aft of the island had been shattered.
Admiral Davison, following navy command and control protocol, asked Taylor to signal the nearest destroyer to come alongside so that he could transfer his flag to the carrier Hancock. Before leaving, he told Gehres to consider “pass[ing] the word to abandon ship.” Gehres, who knew hundreds of men were trapped belowdecks, did not want to give that order.
Among those trapped below was Lieutenant Donald Gary. An engineering officer, he knew the ship well and began to think of a way to escape the messing compartment. Using a rescue breather, Gary made his way through six hundred feet of smoke-filled compartments and passageways down to Deck 4, climbed up through uptakes and air shafts, and made it to the flight deck and fresh air. He retraced that route three times, leading more than three hundred men to safety.
At 0930 Davison, coordinating rescue efforts and still in overall command of the task group, ordered the cruiser Santa Fe to assist with removing Big Ben’s wounded. Captain Harold C. “Hal” Fritz slowly approached the carrier’s starboard beam and settled his cruiser approximately a hundred feet off the bow. Suddenly, without warning, the No. 7 twin five-inch mount aft of the bridge, breached by a Tiny Tim blast, burst into flames.
Crewmen on Santa Fe, realizing the threat of a magazine explosion, turned their fire hoses on the immediate threat. They rigged two trolley lines to transfer the seriously wounded from the flight deck, and firefighters aboard Santa Fe directed thousands of tons of water onto Big Ben’s fires.
By 0945, Franklin had lost all steering control, and its list was steadily increasing, now averaging one more degree every ten minutes. The water level in the fireboxes rose to six feet, enough to extinguish the fires. By 1015, Big Ben had lost all headway and started to swing starboard due to lateral drift. Given the carrier’s ten-degree list, many aboard believed the huge ship was about to capsize.
The situation could hardly have looked bleaker. Completely without power or steam, Franklin drifted toward the shores of Japan, some fifty miles distant. Hundreds of crewmen began to muster on the forecastle—the only area not affected by the blasts, smoke, and fires. Huddled together in a chilling wind, shivering in wet clothes, some were lucky enough to find blankets. A few officers, with good intentions, raided lockers and distributed officers’ uniforms to the soaked and freezing enlisted men, adding further confusion to an already chaotic situation.
With Franklin dead in the water, Captain Fritz on Santa Fe again closed on its starboard side. At 1050, thirty-five minutes after first pulling away from the burning carrier, Fritz—in a bold and daring display of seamanship—slammed Santa Fe into actual contact with Big Ben as the burning carrier drifted.
Using his engines, he held the huge carrier in place as the two big ships bumped, ground together, and ripped one another apart. Never – the less, they stayed locked bow to bow while Santa Fe’s crewmen played streams of water across the fires, manhandled the wounded on litters, and passed fire hoses, extra rescue breathers, food, and equipment over to the desperate crewmen aboard Franklin.
After the wounded were transferred, Captain Gehres ordered Franklin’s air officer, Commander Henry H. Hale, to evacuate all nonessential personnel or anyone who “would not be needed to save the ship.” Without integral communications and amid the mass confusion aboard both ships, scores of crewmen, frightened and well aware that their ship was dead in the water with an acute list to starboard, saw the mass exodus to Santa Fe and reasonably assumed “abandon ship” had been ordered. Many crewmen state unequivocally that they did receive the order to abandon ship from “an officer.” Most did not have to be told twice.
Infuriated that so many were leaving, Gehres ordered Hale to stop the transfer and requested that Fritz pull Santa Fe away as quickly as possible, before he lost any more of his crew. By 1230, more than 826 crewmen had been evacuated, including 103 wounded. Eventually all lines were cast off and Fritz gently pulled Santa Fe to starboard, clearing Franklin.
Meanwhile, survivors of the damage control department labored to keep the water mains up and running, and closed off ruptured branches. More fire hoses were brought into action, especially in the hangar. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Green, the engineering officer, shut off the forward mains and sprinkler system, to keep more pressure on the lines fighting the more dangerous fires aft of the hangar. This gave the firefighters new life.
Negotiating the smoldering piles of debris, the fire teams methodically worked aft, moving around the bodies of their shipmates, cooling down hatches along the way to free sailors trapped below. It was a difficult undertaking. Most of the hatches were jammed, wrecked, twisted, or warped from bomb blasts. Heat or molten metal had welded others shut. Scores of men were nevertheless freed, and they turned to fighting the fires.
Davison ordered a tow and selected the cruiser Pittsburgh and its skipper, Captain John Gingrich, whose crew had just pulled thirty-four Franklin sailors from the water. Approaching the carrier’s port side, Pittsburgh slid forward and stopped just to port, off Franklin’s bow. Joe Taylor elected to use Franklin’s starboard anchor chain for the tow. Using an acetylene torch, two sailors, a carpenter, and a ship fitter dropped Big Ben’s starboard anchor into the sea. Pittsburgh then passed an eight-inch manila messenger across, followed by a towing wire.
Without power on the winches or anchor windlasses, heaving the line by manpower alone was a difficult, exhausting, and tedious process—thus making the episode one of the most extraordinary towing operations on record. Ultimately, Taylor and his crew manhandled the massive anchor chain over to the centerline of the forecastle and shackled Pittsburgh’s towline to the chain.
By 1404, Pittsburgh had succeeded in getting way on the ship, and hauled the carrier around on a southerly course toward Ulithi at two knots. However, Franklin was huge and, moreover, extremely unstable. For the next several hours it was Franklin controlling Pittsburgh, as easterly winds swung the carrier—and Pittsburgh’s stern—from side to side. Using steering gear and tackle, Franklin’s sailors manually shifted the ship’s rudder to three degrees right. It worked. The two huge ships got a rhythm going, and Franklin finally stabilized and steadied fifty-five miles from Shikoku, Japan.
Throughout the afternoon and evening hours, dozens of engineers, sometimes working on their own initiative, made their way belowdecks to bring Big Ben back to life. A skeleton crew managed to light boiler No. 5, and by midnight the No. 3 turbo-generator was on line and engineers commenced warming up the main engines.
By dawn the next day, the two ships were eighty-five miles from Japan. Meanwhile, Thomas Green and his engineers continued to labor on Big Ben’s power plants. Exploiting the cross-connection system built into the carrier that enabled routing steam from one engine to another, engineers rerouted six hundred pounds of auxiliary steam from the after engine rooms to the forward engines. Eventually they managed to get shafts two and three turning. Coupled with Pittsburgh’s tow, Franklin’s engines now pushed the ship south at six knots.
By 0930, Franklin had regained rudder and steering control on its bridge and pilothouse. Speed gradually increased to the point where Gehres requested permission to cast off Pittsburgh’s towline, and the request was granted. By 1405, Big Ben was cruising under its own power at fifteen knots.
Meanwhile, department heads took a new muster. Of the thirty-four hundred crewmen aboard when Franklin sailed on March 13, only 491 noses were counted, including 105 officers. Of these, only about two hundred were in any condition to fully function or perform their duties.
Gehres requested the return of about a hundred select Franklin crewmen who were aboard other ships. The list included all officers, petty officers, and personnel from damage control, commissary, ordnance, engineering, and air departments, as well as steward’s mates
Disregarding one of the most superb rescue actions in the history of the U.S. Navy, and despite the continuing threat from Japanese air attack and a ship that was still burning, smoldering, and strewn with hundreds of dead, Gehres ordered that the officers and petty officers arriving back aboard Franklin be handed a one-page document immediately on their arrival:
From: The Commanding Officer
The Commanding Officer requires an immediate explanation in writing as to when, where and why, you able bodied and uninjured left this vessel while she was in action and seriously damaged when no order had been issued to abandon ship.
The recipients of the letter reacted with shock, anger, and utter bewilderment at the suggestion they had unnecessarily abandoned their ship without reason or cause. Furthermore, Franklin survivors who remained aboard the five destroyers and two cruisers were astonished to learn that Gehres had accused them of desertion. Sadly, for scores of these crewmen, many who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, Gehres’ accusation would cause life-long torment. In the end, Gehres dropped all charges.
At noon Gehres, with the help of Fritz on Santa Fe, sent a message to Davison, who had just boarded the carrier Hornet: “Captain of Franklin says fires practically under control. Skeleton crew aboard. List stabilized. If you save us from the Japanese, we will save the ship.” Davison responded, “We will do whatever we can.”
Around 1430 Sante Fe reported bogies on its radar screen. At 1452 a Judy attacked Franklin from out of the sun. Six of the ship’s 20mm guns opened up, and their accurate fire hit the Judy, causing the pilot to pull up at the moment of release. That errant maneuver caused his 250-kilogram bomb to sail through the air past the island, exploding two hundred feet off the port quarter. Corsairs splashed the wounded Judy a few miles away. It is doubtful the carrier could have survived another direct hit.
On the morning of March 21, two days after the carrier had been bombed, a Myrt spotted the fleet—and Big Ben—off the southeastern tip of Kyushu, 320 miles distant, bearing 145 degrees. The Japanese dispatched forty-eight aircraft to sink Franklin and the fleet, including for the first time eighteen Mitsubishi G4M2e “Betty” bombers configured with a strange new rocket slung beneath their bellies. The Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (cherry blossom) or, as it was known among the Allies, Baka (idiot) bomb, was a small, cheap, single-seat aircraft just large enough to carry three solid-fuel rocket motors, a suicide pilot, and a deadly 2,645-pound warhead.
Launched from the mother ship about fifty miles away from the fleet, the kamikaze pilot glided toward the target and, once in range, ignited the rocket motors, propelling the Ohka forward at more than five hundred knots. Before the launch, however, the rocket deprived the Betty of maneuverability and speed. Accordingly, thirty Mitsubishi A6M5 “Zeke” fighters flew as escorts.
Search radars picked them up at seventy miles, and Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighters from Belleau Wood and Hornet rose to intercept. As Belleau Wood’s Hellcats diverted the Zeke escorts, Hornet’s Hellcats systematically chopped the heavily Ohka-laden Betties to pieces. Franklin’s crew saw one Betty explode in a massive detonation more than eight miles away. For the loss of one Hellcat, all eighteen Ohka-configured Betties were downed, as were a dozen Zeke fighter escorts.
It was the last effort of the campaign to destroy Big Ben and the retiring American fleet. All Japanese air power—including the kamikazes—was subsequently reserved for the defense of Okinawa.
Meanwhile, engineers continued to improve Big Ben’s engine performance. By the afternoon of March 21, Gehres reported that he could maintain twenty knots indefinitely. Department heads compiled a new roster of crewmen aboard. Numbers continued to increase as trapped crewmen were rescued and firefighters, engineers, and shipfitters belowdecks finally could be counted. At last muster, the number of crewmen rose to 704 officers and men, although only about four hundred were fit for duty.
Official casualties for the March 19, 1945, attack numbered 798 killed in action and at minimum 487 wounded. The losses were the third worst the U.S. Navy ever incurred, behind the battleship Arizona (1,177) and the heavy cruiser Indianapolis, which would sink on July 30, 1945, with 880 of its crew. When casualty numbers are totaled from both of Franklin’s cruises, numbers increase to 917 killed in action, the worst for any U.S. ship to remain afloat, and second only to that of Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
This article is adapted from Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II. ©2007 MBI Publishing Co. Published by arrangement with MBI.
Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.