On this day in 1945, the aircraft carrier USS Franklin is miraculously saved. Just one day earlier, a Japanese Judy dive bomber had dropped two bombs on the American vessel.
Franklin then had dozens of planes, fully gassed and armed, sitting on her flight deck or in her hangar. Those planes became fuel for the firestorm that would rip through much of the ship. [See yesterday’s story.]
“It was like looking into hell,” AMM3/c Glenn Davis later described, “The flames were shooting up all around . . . . You wouldn’t believe just how fast a fire can spread when fed with aviation gas . . . .”
“The fire was alive,” S1/c Bob Carper agreed. “All the fire hoses were on the hangar deck and covered with flaming fuel.” Corporal Mike Sansone saw the firestorm and decided that the only thing to do was “pray, and I was doing a lot of praying.”
Explosions ripped through the ship for hours on end.
The ship’s captain, Leslie Gehres, was already disliked, but things got even worse as the crisis unfolded. “The captain was running around the bridge like a chicken with his head cut off,” RT3/c Bob Mallgraf described. “Then I saw him twice run into his sea cabin, grab his wife’s picture off the dresser, and hug it. It was [executive officer] Joe Taylor . . . he was the guy who took charge to save the ship.”
Fortunately, a few men found functional water hoses. They took turns fighting the fires, which allowed them reprieves from the smoke. “Their heroism was the greatest thing I have ever seen,” Taylor said. “They simply would not leave their hoses in spite of what appeared to be almost certain death and disaster.”
Other heroes emerged that day.
One was Father Joseph T. O'Callahan. He was on the flight deck, coordinating firefighting efforts and ministering to the wounded. Another was Lt. Donald Gary. He found a rescue breather and made three separate trips to lower decks, guiding hundreds of men to safety.
A third was captain of a light cruiser, USS Santa Fe. Captain Harold C. Fritz came alongside Franklin, despite the ongoing explosions. His crew evacuated the wounded and sprayed water on the fires. He slammed his own ship into Franklin using the cruiser’s engines to keep the carrier from drifting. Some of Santa Fe’s firefighting equipment was transferred to Franklin. The gangway between the two ships “was like a highway and it was very, very busy,” one eyewitness said.
In the end, Franklin survived. She had armor shielding that protected portions of her interior from the fires and explosions. The engineering room, in particular, was protected.
Amazingly, Franklin was cruising under her own power by the end of the day on March 20. Most fires aboard had been extinguished, with only small, occasional flare-ups. She would make it to the Ulithi atoll, then Hawaii, on her own.
It was an incredible feat, matched only by recovery operations in the Pacific.
The American ships that remained behind pulled a stunning 1,711 Franklin survivors from the water. Many of those men had been thrown from Franklin by explosions—or they’d jumped to evade the fire.
If only the story could have ended there. Instead, Gehres made things worse.
In the hours after Franklin was hit, he’d given a vague order for non-essential personnel to evacuate the ship. But who was “essential”? Some were unsure. Others never heard the order, but saw mass evacuations to Santa Fe and thought “abandon ship” had been ordered. Now, as Franklin returned home, Gehres charged these men with desertion and demanded courts-martial.
Sadly, those accusations came to overshadow the story of the many heroes who helped save Franklin.
It’s long past time to remember those heroes today.
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