The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions." --American Statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Saga of the "Unsinkable" Franklin, 69 years ago today

I was in elementary school in Germany in the 6th grade when I "discovered" the pacific war especially involving  carriers and several of them really held my fascination, the first one was the U.S.S. Enterprise CV-6(A Yorktown class carrier one of 3 build) and the U.S.S. Franklin CV-13 an Essex class carrier.  During this time I also read up in the battle of Midway where the outnumbered and out classed  Americans pulled a decisive victory against the vaunted Japanese naval aviation, whom until this time had a long string of victories against the British, Dutch and American forces in the battle of Java Island in the Philippines forcing the largest surrender of American forces in history, and the sinking of 2 British capital ships, the H.M.S Prince of Wales and H.M.S Repulse proving that the era of the Battleship was over and the Carriers would be supreme and the belief of sending ships without air cover died the same time both ships sank in Dec 10th in the south China sea headed to Singapore to bolster the garrison there.  Before Midway, the Japanese raised havoc since December 7th 1941.

After Midway, began the long slog back to the Philippines and to the Japanese Mainland.  The Pacific war is noted for its long distance which the new Essex Carriers excelled in and the no quarters given by either side, the savagery was only excelled by the Germans and Russians on the eastern front.
       On March 19, 1945 an American Carrier  The USS Franklin (CV/CVA/CVS-13, AVT-8), nicknamed "Big Ben," was one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during World War II for the United States Navy, and the fifth US Navy ship to bear the name. Commissioned in January 1944, she served in several campaigns in the Pacific Theater of Operations, earning four battle stars. She was badly damaged by a Japanese air attack in March 1945, with the loss of over 800 of her crew, becoming the most heavily damaged United States carrier to survive the war. Movie footage of the actual attack was included in the 1949 film Task Force starring Gary Cooper.

     Before dawn on 19 March 1945, Franklin, which had maneuvered to within 80 km (50 miles) of the Japanese mainland, closer than had any other U.S. carrier during the war, launched a fighter sweep against Honshū and later a strike against shipping in Kobe Harbor. Suddenly, a single aircraft – possibly a Yokosuka D4Y "Judy" dive bomber, though other accounts suggest an Aichi D3A "Val", also a dive bomber – pierced the cloud cover and made a low level run on the ship to drop two semi-armor-piercing bombs. The damage analysis came to the conclusion that the bombs were 550 lb (250 kg), though neither the "Val" nor "Judy" had the attachment points to carry two such weapons, nor did the Japanese single-engine torpedo bombers in horizontal bomber mode. (The accounts also differ as to whether the attacking aircraft escaped or was shot down.) However, the Aichi B7A "Grace" had this capability. One bomb struck the flight deck centerline, penetrating to the hangar deck, effecting destruction and igniting fires through the second and third decks, and knocking out the Combat Information Center and air plot. The second hit aft, tearing through two decks.

At the time she was struck, Franklin had 31 armed and fueled aircraft warming up on her flight deck. The hangar deck contained 22 additional planes, of which 16 were fueled and five were armed. The forward gasoline system had been secured, but the aft system was operating. The explosion on the hangar deck ignited the fuel tanks on the aircraft, and gasoline vapor explosion devastated the deck. Only two crewmen survived the fire on the hangar deck. The explosion also jumbled aircraft together on the flight deck above, causing further fires and explosions, including the detonation of 12 "Tiny Tim" air-to-surface rockets.
Franklin lay dead in the water, took a 13° starboard list, lost all radio communications, and broiled under the heat from enveloping fires. Many of the crew were blown overboard, driven off by fire, killed or wounded, but the hundreds of officers and enlisted who voluntarily remained saved their ship. Official Navy casualty figures for the 19 March 1945 fire totaled 724 killed and 265 wounded. Nevertheless, casualty numbers have been updated as new records are discovered. A recent count by Franklin historian and researcher Joseph A Springer (author of INFERNO: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II) brings total 19 March 1945 casualty figures to 807 killed and more than 487 wounded. When totaling casualty figures for both Franklin cruises numbers increase to 924 killed in action, the worst for any surviving U.S. warship and second only to that of battleship USSArizona. Certainly, the casualty figures would have far exceeded this number, but for the work of many survivors. Among these were the Medal of Honor recipients Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O'Callahan, the warship's Catholic chaplain, who administered the last rites

, organized and directed firefighting and rescue parties, and led men below to wet down magazines that threatened to explode; and also Lieutenant JG Donald A. Gary, who discovered 300 men trapped in a blackened mess compartment and, finding an exit, returned repeatedly to lead groups to safety. Gary later organized and led fire-fighting parties to battle fires on the hangar deck and entered the No. 3 fireroom to raise steam in one boiler. The Santa Fe rescued crewmen from the sea and approached Franklin to take off the numerous wounded and nonessential personnel.

Franklin, like many other wartime ships, had been modified with additional armament, requiring larger crews and substantial ammunition stocks. Aircraft were both more numerous and heavier than originally planned for, and thus the flight deck had been strengthened. The aircraft carrier, therefore, displaced more than originally planned, her freeboard was reduced, and her stability characteristics had been altered. The enormous quantities of water poured aboard her to fight the fires further reduced freeboard (exacerbated, on her starboard side, by the list), and her stability was seriously impaired, such that her survival was in jeopardy. Franklin had suffered the most severe damage experienced by any U.S. fleet carrier that survived World War II.


The Franklin approaching New York, 26 April 1945.

The USS Franklin, anchored in New York harbor, 28 April 1945.
Franklin was taken in tow by the heavy cruiser Pittsburgh until she was able to raise enough steam to reach a speed of 14 kts (26 km/h), and then she proceeded to Ulithi Atoll under her own power for emergency repairs. Next, she steamed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where repairs permitted her to steam to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, via the Panama Canal, where she arrived on 28 April 1945.

Upon Franklin's arrival, a long-brewing controversy over the ship's crew's conduct during her struggles finally came to a head. Captain Gehres had accused many of those who had left the ship on 19 March 1945 of desertion, despite that those who had jumped into the water to escape had done so to prevent a likely death by fire, or had been led to believe that "abandon ship" had been ordered. While en route from Ulithi Atoll to Hawaii, Gehres had proclaimed 704 members of the crew to be members of the "Big Ben 704 Club" for having stayed with the heavily damaged warship, but investigators in New York discovered that only about 400 were actually onboard Franklin continuously. The others had been brought back on board either before and during the stop at Ulithi. All of the charges against the men of her crew were quietly dropped.
Despite severe damage, Franklin was eventually restored to good condition. She had to steam to the East Coast of the United States for repairs in New York because all of the repair shipyards on the West Coast were heavily overloaded with American warships that had been damaged by Japanesekamikazes.
The story of this aircraft carrier's near-destruction and salvage was chronicled in a wartime documentary, the Saga of the Franklin and the 2011 documentary, USS Franklin: Honor Restored.

     I have been to the U.S.S Yorktown museum twice with my son's cub scout pack, I enjoyed the visit immensely and one of the artifacts there is the twin 40 MM bofors that came off the Franklin.  One of the barrels are warped from the heat.  Also you can see the ships bell next to it.  There is also a model of the Franklin that shows all the damage that she sustained.  I cannot locate that pictures from my stack of pics.  I know I have it......somewhere.   The story of the U.S.S. Franklin has intrigued me for many years.    I amaze people with the amount of naval history I know......For an Army guy.


  1. That was a hell of a day indeed. Thanks for reminding us.

  2. A war story I'd never heard. Don't know how I missed it until now. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great one, and sadly little known today... And that WAS an amazing save...