Captain Of The Franklin
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
At dawn of March 19, 1945, the U.S.S. Franklin was steaming toward the home islands of Japan with Vice Admiral Marc Milsclier’s powerfull Task Force 58. The, mission of the vast armada, spread fifty miles across the sea, was to batter the enemy’s home airfields and the remnants of the Imperial Navy in preparation for tlie invasion of Okinawa. Specifically, the attackers hoped to surprise large numbers of Japan’s latest weapon, the kamikaze, on the ground and destroy them. These suicide planes, introduced about five months before during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, had already damaged several United States carriers, including the Franklin.
Task Force 58 had been under air attack most of the previous day. The new Yorktown, the Enterprise, and the Intrepid had all sustained hits but had made repairs and continued combat operations. Not utitil iuell after dark had the exhausted crews of the task force been released from general battle stations. Sunrise brought little relief from the tension and fatigue.
At 6:55 A.M. the Franklin turned into the wind some sixty miles off the Japanese coast and commenced launching a heavy air strike; fully armed and fuelled aircraft jammed lier flight deck. On the bridge was the ship’s commander, Captain Leslie E. Gehres, fortyseven years old and the first “mustang” (former enlisted man) to become a carrier skipper. One deck below, in the flag plot, was the task group commander, Rear Admiral Ralph Davison, who had chosen the Franklin fl.v Ins flagship. His only complaint about Gehres’ crew—composed for the most part of young, untested city boys—was that they cursed with unusual intensity. Part of this high-spirited crew was at mess for their first hot meal in two days. On the fantail a burial party was solemnly committing to the sea the body of a sailor who had died from drinking denatured alcohol.
At 7:03 the Franklin received a message from her sister carrier, the Hancock. “Enemy plane closing on you from ahead.” In a recent interview, Captain Gehres reconstructed what happened next, a chain of events that became an epic of the United States Navy:
I called my own combat information center and asked them if they had a bogie on their radar screen. They told me Negative. So I called the Flag Plot and asked them if they had any bogies, and they said Negative. So then I called Lookout Control Forward and gave them the information I had and told the officer in charge up there to alert all his lookouts to watch very carefully the lower edges of the clouds in the forward quarters. And then T called the Sky Control officer and gave him the information and told him to open fire without further orders on any unidentified aircraft coming in.
I was bending over just then, speaking into the intercom talker box, when there was a tremendous whoomp, an explosion, and I was knocked to the deck. As I got up, I asked my navigator, I said to him, “What hit us?” And he said, “A bomb, it just went by the bridge.”
In fact, two 550-pound bombs were dropped by the enemy plane tliat swooped suddenly out of a cloud bank at 7:08. In seconds the 8800-foot-long Franklin was a floating inferno .
The first bomb hit up forward and blew a hole fifteen feet square, opening up the whole interior of the ship. The second bomb struck amidships. The force of the two explosions lifted the ship in the water, bounced planes up on the flight deck and then knocked them down, and the propellers chopped up other planes. The blasts ignited about seventeen thousand gallons of aviation gasoline, and this gas ran out of the planes at port side and into the hangar. There it exploded and lifted the forward elevator up … anil then it fell down, opening up the whole area, and planes on the flight deck blew up and dropped through to the hangar deck. Holes opened up in the ship to the third deck.
The men working below in the hangar were killed instantly in a fire storm. The flames leaped through an open hatch to destroy two hundred more sailors waiting in line for breakfast. Columns of thick, black smoke poured from the forward elevator, enveloping the bridge. A total of thirty-two major explosions wracked the huge carrier as the Japanese bombs detonated sixty-four of the Franklin’ s 1850 tons of ammiiiution. Her CfIf)ItIiIi was beside liiinself. “I was king on that ship,” he recalls. “There were bombs exploding all over tlie place, and I was so dauiti mad at what they were doing to my ship!”
Gehres’ first reaction WHS to maneuver liis ship so that tlie. wind would carry the smoke and flainrs away from the planes revving up aft. It was at this point that tie learned of the second bomb, which liad converted the stern section of his ship into a fiery deathtrap. He. reversed course and slowed to two-thirds speed. “Big Ben,” as she was called by the crew, was no longer fighting Japan; she was fighting for her life.