On this day in 1945, USS Franklin is attacked by a Japanese dive bomber. Her crew thought she’d surely capsize—but she didn’t. Amazingly, Franklin even managed to limp back home to Pearl Harbor.
It was the second time that Franklin had survived such an attack. Mere months earlier, she’d barely survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but now she was back in operation. Her new task? Help neutralize the Japanese kamikaze threat before the planned invasion of Okinawa.
Franklin was perhaps starting at a bit of a disadvantage. Much of her old crew had left during repairs, at least in part because no one liked the new captain, Leslie E. Gehres.
Actually, crew members had used every possible excuse to get off the ship. The remaining crew was thus younger and less experienced, overall, than it used to be.
“[Gehres] was positively brutal,” one radioman later explained, “and as far as I could tell he completely terrified the crew, including the officers. . . . He degraded and screamed at my commanding officer in front of his own men. It was one of the most shocking displays I’ve ever seen.”
Nevertheless, Franklin departed with Task Force 58, arriving near Japan by the night of March 17-18. Initial attacks that night were largely successful. “But what a difference a day makes,” one pilot concluded.
The next morning would not go as well.
Franklin launched its first flight group at 5:35 a.m. Low-lying clouds created some visibility problems, and the carrier was sitting uncomfortably close to Japan. The radar was clear at 6:17 a.m., however, and Gehres ordered a modified Condition Three (Zebra).
In other words, the crew could relax and eat.
“[W]e were surprised to hear the order,” S2/c Ray Bailey said, “because we all knew the Japanese liked to attack at sunrise or at sunset . . . . Still he placed us under Condition Three when we were just fifty miles off the Empire of Japan.”
There are conflicting reports about what happened next.
Gehres’s after-action report and Franklin’s damage report both indicate that the radar remained clear. Yet the TBS (talk between ships) transcript indicates that someone saw a bogie at 6:54. The bogie disappeared—then reappeared—several times during the next few minutes. At 7:05, USS Hancock reported sighting a “twin engine plane. No bearing or distance.”
By this point, Gehres had instructed his fire control officer to shoot at any unidentified aircraft, without further orders. Why didn’t he call his crew to battle stations at this point? No one really knows.
All hell broke loose at 7:08. A Japanese Judy dive bomber dropped out of the clouds, mere yards in front of Franklin. “BOGIE CLOSING YOU!” Hancock warned, but it was too late.
The Judy dropped two semi-armor piercing bombs, which ripped through Franklin’s flight deck. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Dozens of planes were still sitting on Franklin’s flight deck or in the hangar below.
Many were fully gassed and armed, ready for their own strikes on Japan. Now they were simply fuel for the firestorm that would rip through Franklin.
“Direct damage resulting from detonation of the enemy bombs was extensive in itself,” Franklin’s damage report concluded, “but appears minor compared with the immense damage caused by subsequent fires, explosions of bombs and rockets, and water used in firefighting.”
Fires would rage out of control for hours, but all was not lost. To the contrary, the rescue operation that followed has been called “one of the most successful of the war.”
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
A Brief History of Aircraft Carriers: USS Franklin (CV 13) (U.S. Navy website)
James Holmes, How the Aircraft Carrier USS Franklin Sank (Real Clear Defense; Aug. 15, 2017)
Joseph A. Springer, Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of USS Franklin in World War II (2007)
Spencer Tucker, World War II at Sea: An Encyclopedia (2012)
USS Franklin CV-13 War Damage Report No. 56 (available HERE)