American Heritage interviews the officer who commanded "the ship that wouldn't die"
At dawn of March 19, 1945, the U.S.S. Franklin was steaming toward the home islands of Japan with Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’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 the 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 until well 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 her flight deck. On the bridge was the ship’s commander, Captain Leslie E. Gehres, forty-seven 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 as his 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 I 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 that 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 ammunition. Her Captain was beside himself. “I was king on that ship,” he recalls. “There were bombs exploding all over the place, and I was so damn mad at what they were doing to my ship!”
Gehres’ first reaction was to maneuver his ship so that the wind would carry the smoke and flames away from the planes revving up aft. It was at this point that tie learned of the second bomb, which had 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.
One of the worst hazards, from where I was on the bridge, was the Tiny Tim rockets. These tilings were ten feet long, with a warhead capable of penetrating a battleship. There was a supply of Tiny Tims on the fantail and also loaded on five Corsairs, and as the fires spread, the rockets torched oil and came straight up the (light deck. Men were trying to dig foxholes in the deck with their noses. The Tiny Tims took oil in all directions, shot out all over. Those on the hangar deck cut our power and made us dead in the water. They knocked out the forward boilers. One went down to the third deck and stuck in a bulkhead, rocking back and forth. I gave an order: “Leave it alone, don’t touch it.”
Gehres ordered the ship’s ammunition magazines flooded. The valves were opened, but the lines had been severed by explosions and none of the magazines was actually flooded. The ship’s inter-communiciilions system had also been wrecked. The damage-control reports had Io be delivered orally to the bridge: the situation was bleak. Only the water main on the flight (let k was still operating; wounded and dying were everywhere; the Franklin’ s list was approaching fifteen degrees; and she was losing headway every minute. By 10 A.M. she had become a drifting, smoking target, a mere fifty-two miles from the Japanese coast .
Some time during the morning, I’m not quite sure of the time, when the worst of the explosions seemed to have subsided, the Admiral [Davison] came up on the bridge, along with his chief of stall and some other stall officers, and asked if I could get a destroyer alongside to take them off, so he could transfer his flag to the Hancock . The Admiral said he was sorry to leave me under such conditions, but he had to get along with his part in the war. We called in a destroyer and rigged a highline and started sending them off.
Just before he left, the Admiral said he thought it was about time that I abandon ship, and his chief of staff, who had been with me in another command, said to me, “I suggest you abandon her over the starboard bow.” Well, I didn’t think this was any of their damned business, really, because I was in command of the ship. It didn’t seem to me it was necessary at that point to even think of abandoning the ship. She wasn’t sinking, and we were still trying to put the fires out, so I told the Admiral that if he would see to it that we had antisubmarine protection and a combat air patrol, that we’d get the ship out of this as soon as he got off the ship and we could go back to work.
Furthermore, I knew that if we abandoned the ship, the next thing the destroyers with us would be ordered to sock her with torpedoes and sink her. And it was always in my mind what had happened, or was reported to have happened, on the Yorktown , that there were some men down below, trapped in compartments way down in the ship and in communication actually when they hit her with a torpedo to sink her.∗
∗ This version of the sinking of the Yorktown at Midway circulated in the U.S. fleet during World War II, probably for security reasons. Later it was revealed that a Japanese submarine had slipped past the abandoned carrier’s protective screen of destroyers on June 6, 1942, and fired two torpedoes into her already crippled hull. A third torpedo sank the destroyer Hammann , which was alongside supplying power to the salvage party that had rcboarded the ship in an attempt to save her. As a result, the Yorktown was abandoned a second time and sixteen hours later rolled over and sank.
I knew we had a great number of men clown in the spaces below that we hadn’t been able to get out yet, and I was just not about to have them all sent to the bottom with the ship when we still had what seemed a reasonable chance of getting her out of there.
It was still a pretty desperate situation. The Japanese could have gotten us at most any time. My principal concern was to get the wounded off, then get the fires out, and get the remainder of the men up from below and taken care of, and get organized and sec if we couldn’t get out of there.
In the steering compartment aft, far below the water line, five enlisted men had stayed at their posts to steer the ship manually and keep open the sound-powered line to the bridge. They were soon trapped by burning debris. They were finally rescued after .seventeen hours by an assistant navigation officer, Lieutenant (j.g.) Robert Wassman, who spent five hours probing the smoke and fire and flood to find a way to the isolated compartment.
On the third deck, three hundred men had sought a cramped refuge in the crew’s mess, which was surrounded by stores of shells and air bombs. The one source of air was an overboard discharge—an opening in the skin of the ship about the size of a baseball. They were advised to do their praying in silence in order to conserve oxygen.
Two hours later they were rescued by Lieutenant (j.g.) Donald A. Gary, an assistant engineering officer who, as a member of the ship’s commissioning crew, had a detailed knowledge of her interior. He found an escape route through labyrinthine passages and up a fifty-foot air duct to safety. Behind him in the choking darkness wound a line of survivors, each clutching blindly to the belt of the man ahead. Three times Gary retraced his life-saving steps, until all of the trapped men had been brought out.
For his exploit, Gary received the Medal of Honor, one of two that were won aboard the Franklin that day. The other went to Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan, a forty-year-old Roman Catholic priest and the first Navy chaplain to earn the nation’s highest honor .
Father O’Callahan was very popular in the ship. Everybody knew him and he seemed to know everybody. On this day, I could identify him down there around the deck because he had a big white cross painted on the front of his helmet. We had a dressing station up forward, where they were gathering the wounded, and he was up there assisting, and then I would see him come back down the middle of the deck, and men were being brought out. There would be a big explosion and they’d retreat. And then they would cluster around the Chaplain, and they’d walk right back in with him. They seemed to think he had a charmed life, and I began to think so, too. I never saw a man so completely disregard the danger of being killed.
But the thing that made me recommend him for the Medal of Honor had to do with the high gun turret just below the bridge. I could see heat fumes and wisps of smoke coming out, and I thought to myself, that thing’s going to blow any minute, and if it does it will take the bridge and everybody up here with it. A minute later the Chaplain showed up and I called down to him, “I want to get some officers and men to take that wash-deck hose into the turret and cool down that ammunition before it blows up.” So he came back with two officers and some men, and they disappeared into the turret with the hose.
And then, the next instant, the Chaplain followed them down in there. He had no business going in there, but he followed them down in. They formed a line and passed out this five-inch ammunition from the hatch and threw it over the side. This undoubtedly saved the ship. If that had blown, it would have blown the bridge, it would have blown me and the senior officers up there. I think that under those conditions the crew would have figured it’s time to go.
I remember saying to somebody, “That’s about the bravest man I’ve ever seen.” This was so clearly above and beyond the call of duty, and at the risk of his life, and certainly in the face of the enemy, that he fulfilled every requirement for a Medal of Honor.
Innumerable feats of heroism were being enacted all over the Franklin during her ordeal. Most of her 3,400-member crew were new to combat, but they performed like veterans. When it was all over, she became the most-decorated ship with the most-decorated crew in Navy history .
And not all of the courage was officially recorded. I remember one moment, when the ship’s list was at its worst, some enlisted man below got word to me that he could transfer thirteen thousand gallons of oil and water to correct the list. I said, “Do it, for God’s sake,” and he did and the list straightened out. Otherwise we might have gone down. But I’ve never been able to find out to this day who that man was.
Gehres’ refusal to give up his ship applied only to key personnel. Once internal communication had been restored, the Captain passed the word for those crew members who were not needed for damage control or ship operations to leave the vessel. Some of these men were forced into the water and were retrieved by nearby destroyers. The rest helped transfer the wounded to the cruiser Santa Fe, which, in a daring feat of seamanship by Captain Harold C. Fitz, was rammed into the Franklin’ s outboard catwalks. This locked the two ships together. Ignoring the dangerous explosions aboard the carrier, Fitz kept his ship alongside for three hours and in the process successfully removed 826 of Big Ben’s crew .
As the crippled carrier lay dead in the water, squadrons of Japanese bombers swarmed from bases minutes away to finish her off. But the combat air patrol from the task force blocked the approach, splashing all but five of the fifty attackers. By noon the Franklin reported her fires almost under control, her list steady at thirteen degrees, and her wounded all evacuated .
At that point I asked the Fleet Commander to send me a fleet tug. But instead, the [cruiser] Pittsburgh came up to take us in tow. Well, getting that towline aboard, under the circumstances, was quite a feat. We had no power, nothing, nothing to turn the capstans or winches. My executive officer, Commander Joseph Taylor, was down on the fo’c’sle, and he had a crew down there that was made up mostly of steward’s mates, who were Negro mess attendants. They latched on to the messenger line from the cruiser and they heaved that heavy steel towline in by hand. It was unbelievable. I was told later that instead of singing an old-style sea chantey of the old sailing days, they worked to the beat of some Negro spiritual.
By nightfall, the Pittsburgh was pulling the Franklin south at the vulnerable rate of six knots .
All that long day, from the time the bomb hit us in the morning, always within arm’s reach and sometimes in the way was one of my Marine orderlies, a nineteenyear-old private first class named Wallace Klimkiewicz. He was always there. He made me put on my helmet, because he said that had been the Captain’s orders. He made me put on my lifebelt, because that had been the Captain’s orders. And every time I turned around, he was always right there with me, all through the whole time.
That night bombers came out from the Japanese homeland, and there was quite a Fourth of July show going on. The full moon was out. Suddenly the whole flight deck burst into flames again, and the same instant a great big flare went off overhead, and I thought, now we’re really going to catch it. Instinctively I pulled a cigarette out of my pocket and lighted it. Suddenly I heard a gruff voice behind me say, “Dowse that butt!” I turned around and said, “Who the hell is that?” And it was Klimkiewicz. I don’t know who was more shocked.
By 3 A.M. the next day, the Franklin had begun to move again under her own power. Survivors of the Black Gang, returning to their posts in the fire and engine rooms, had managed to improvise steam lines and electrical circuits, restoring lights, radar, pumps, ventilators, and communications. At 12:35 P.M. tne carrier had built up enough speed to cast off the tow. “Down by the tail but reins up!” a triumphant Gehres reported to his superiors .
The survivors now gathered below on the hangar deck, which was torn open to the sky, to pray for the dead, each man alone in his grief and his gratitude. The casualty list was awesome: 724 dead, another 265 wounded. No U.S. Navy ship had ever suffered such a loss and returned to base. The trip back was, in the Captain’s words, “a terrible, terrible experience.”
There were so many dead and so badly burned. We had no time to go through a formal burial service for each man. The two chaplains took their posts on the starboard side, and they would remove the dogtags, because most of the bodies couldn’t be identified any other way, and the Catholic chaplain would say the proper services for the Catholics and the Protestant chaplain the words for the Protestants. Father O’Callahan also knew the Hebrew words, and he would recite those, too. Then the bodies … sometimes there were just parts of bodies, went over the side. We had to do it, because we were getting back into hot weather and the ship was full of death and … it was terrible.
Father O’Callahan later wrote a book about the Franklin in which he stated that I was not a very religious man. Well, I never made any great show about being religious, but neither was I irreligious. At times like we went through in the Franklin , I guess everybody has to have something to lean on or perhaps revert to.
At one point, during the worst of it, with the bombs going off, hell breaking loose all around me … this is something I have never told anybody before except my wife. In the midst of all that, I suddenly heard a voice inside my head repeating the twenty-third Psalm … “The Lord is my shepherd” … which I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid in Sunday school. But there I heard it repeated perfectly, word for word. And I knew that everything would be all right.
By the time the ships returned to Ulithi, the advanced anchorage in the Carolines, the Franklin, to the astonishment of the fleet, had regained her place in line .
At first they came to look at us. They couldn’t believe we were still afloat. But then they started to strip us. They took everything they could lug off our ship and use on some other ship. They were taking away so much equipment that I began to get concerned, because I had to get the Franklin somewhere out of Ulithi. So I put a stop to that, and four days later we left. But first I asked the port captain, I told him I wanted some cutting torches and oxygen. I wanted to start cutting away the wreckage. They wouldn’t give me any. They said they needed that equipment in Ulithi. But they made a bad mistake. They left a barge alongside overnight and that barge contained the gas and cutting torches. My impression is that some of the chiefs, and a fellow named Red Morgan, made a midnight requisition, because when we sailed the next day, all that stuff was aboard our ship.
The Franklin also reclaimed part of her crew at Ulithi, men who had gone overboard after the attack and were picked up by other ships. The next stop was Pearl Harbor, where more survivors of the battle came back aboard. For the long trip home, the carrier mustered only 704 men and officers. They dubbed themselves “The 104 Club” and went to work cleaning up their battered ship .
All that long voyage home, from the place where we were hit, to Ulithi, to Pearl Harbor, to Panama, to New York, I think that crew must have thought I was some kind of Simon Legree, because I worked the officers and men from sunup to sundown. As much as anything, the purpose was to keep those men busy. There weren’t many of them left. They had seen a great many of their shipmates die, or be burned, or blown over the side, and this was the second such experience for some of them, who had been through a kamikaze attack the previous October.
I knew if I didn’t keep them so busy that at night they would be dead tired and exhausted, that I would have a crew of mental cases by the time I got the ship home. At sundown they were just exhausted and they would drop off and go to sleep.
This accomplished two things. When the ship got to New York, she was in extraordinarily, unbelievably clean condition, and I didn’t have a single psycho case on that ship. I had probably the proudest, cockiest crew that any ship in any navy ever had. Their performance, I think, was one of the really great things in the history of the United States Navy. Seven hundred and four officers and men brought this ship home all the way from Japan to New York when most people felt we would never get away from Japan. They believed we were going to be sunk at any time.
On April 28,1945, the Franklin sailed into New York Harbor, with all hands mustered on the flight deck at “quarters for entering port.” Forty days before, she had been “dead in the water” off Japan. She had travelled 13,000 miles from the scene of the battle, the most heavily damaged carrier to make port under her own power in U.S. Navy history .
You take that crew I had on the Franklin . For the most part, they were youngsters of eighteen, nineteen, twenty, many of them at sea for the first time, many of them in combat for the first time. But the manner in which they performed, the way they supported each other, the way they fought that ship, was one of the really great things in the history of the U.S. Navy. A ship by itself is nothing but a lot of steel, a lot of machinery. It isn’t until you put people on board that she becomes a real thing. And then, when people live together and work together and train together and then finally fight together, and help save each other in bad times, and they go through all this together, then they become a community and a family, and the ship becomes a live thing.
The war was over by the time the Franklin was repaired. She never saw combat again. Eventually, the Navy put her in “mothballs,” and, in 1966, Big Ben came to the brutal end of many old sea warriors. The ship that had cost $57,000,000 to build was sold, with certain portions excepted, for $228,000 to a junkyard at Mill Dam Creek, Virginia. Section by section, she has been cut and shattered into scraps for the steel mills of Europe and her former enemy, Japan.
But “the ship that wouldn’t be sunk” has not died entirely. Her armor plating went to the Atomic Energy Commission, her guns were returned to the Navy, and her island superstructure was bequeathed to the city of Norfolk for a naval museum. Other precious “organs,” as in surgical transplants, have been grafted into sister carriers still sailing the seas: her reduction gear to the Hornet, her turbines to the Roosevelt, and a forward section of her flight deck to the Valley Forge to patch up collision damage .
Her captain left the Navy with the rank of rear admiral. Today, at the age of seventy, Gehres is far from retired. As an executive of the California Westgate Corporation, he commands a tuna fleet of fourteen vessels out of San Diego and is director of labor relations for five taxicab fleets on the west coast. For his role in saving the Franklin, he received the Navy Cross.
Before the Board of Decorations in Washington I was asked if I thought I should be awarded the Medal of Honor. I said No. It is the commanding officer’s primary duty to save his ship, and I had done nothing beyond and above the call of duty.
On April 6 at 10 P.M. (E.S.T.) NBC Television will present a special hour-long documentary entitled “The Ship That Wouldn’t Die—the U.S.S. Franklin .” Produced and directed by Robert L. Garthwaite and written by David Davidson, the show retells the incredible ordeal through interviews with the carrier’s survivors.