- Historic Sites
Captain Of The Franklin
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
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.