Posted on March 18th, 2017 by:

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By Sgt. Larry McManus

YANK Staff Correspondent

PEARL HARBOR—When the battered Big Ben, listed in official Navy records as the 27,000-ton Essex-class carrier USS FRANKLIN, nosed her great bulk into this harbor with a bravado that tightened the throats of the few spectators, her band piped her into her berth with the gay strains of “The Old Gray Mare”.

Three musicians in the band had been forced to leap from the shop when it was swept by flames, and the piano player had been killed. The band’s instruments were gone, but it barrowed and improvised and came up with substitutes that would have shamed Spike Jones and his City Slickers. The musicians played and then sang:

“Oh, the Old Big Ben,

She ain’t what she used to be…”

Their choice of tune was a musical understatement. The Big Ben’s highest mast leaned drunkenly at a 45-degree angle and a jagged stump was all that remained of her foremast. Her metal plates were brown, torn and buckled and the wood of her broad light deck was so much charcoal. She had suffered 1,102 casualties—832 men dead or missing and 270 wounded.

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The USS Franklin operating in the Marianas in August 1944.

Twenty days earlier the Big Ben had been drifting, crippled, under the pall of her own smoke only 38 miles from Japan. The Tokyo radio had announced that she was sunk. As a matter of fact several survivors who had been blown off her decks—there were 484 picked up by destroyers alone—reported later that they had left the ship just before she went to the bottom.

The Big Ben was hit only seven minutes after the 0700 start of the March 19 strike against the Imperial Navy in the Inland Sea of Japan. Without warning, a single Japanese plane, a new-type, radial-engined Jill, swooped down from a low-hanging cloud a few hundred yards in front of the Franklin and levelled out at flight deck height. The Jill flew over her deck from bow to stern, so low that the men on the island found themselves looking down at the plane as it zoomed by. It dropped two 500-pound bombs.

nakajima B6N torpedo bomber

Nakajima B6N Tenzan Torpedo bombers of the 752nd Kōkūtai. The plane was codenamed “Jill” by the Allies

The first one hit the center of the flight deck forward of the island, tore through the gallery and exploded in the hangar deck. The second one landed father aft in the front row of the dozens of planes that were lined up waiting for the take-off. The planes were loaded with 12,000 gallons of volatile gasoline, several score 500- and 250- pound bombs, plenty of large caliber rockets and thousands of rounds of .50 caliber and 20-mm ammunition.

When the Japanese bombs landed at 0707, Gilbert P. Abbott QM2c, owner of the Binghamton-Ithaca Express Inc., a New York trucking company, was sitting on his sack, reaching for his shoes. He was scheduled to go on watch at 0730. Realizing that the explosion had been up forward, Abbott headed in the opposite direction down a corridor, without his shoes. Soon he found himself trapped in the third-deck mess hall with 300 other men. All the companionways and ladders were blocked and the smoke was getting thicker by the minute. Explosions sent waves of concussions through the crowded room.

“It was terrible,” said Abbott. “The men who weren’t beating their gums were beating their heads against the bulkheads.”

Up topside damage-control work was already underway. The skipper, Capt. L.E. Gehres of Coronado, Calif., a Navy enlisted man in the First World War, had been knocked to his knees by the blast. He recovered in time to see the forward elevator crash through to the hanger deck and flames shoot from the starboard side forward to back across gun positions lining the catwalk.

Instinctively he ordered the ship swung to starboard to put the wind abaft the port beam and keep the flames from spreading. But even before the maneuver was completed he glanced astern and saw that the fire spreading through the parked planes held more threat to the Franklin than the blaze forward. He turned the ship toward Japan again to bring the wind off the port bow.

As the fire spread, bombs from the Big Ben’s planes were exploding, tearing gaping holes in the flight deck. The chatter of machine-gun and 20-mm ammunition often was drowned out by the terrifying whoosh of a rocket screaming the length of the 880-foot flight deck. In the unpredictable manner of high explosives, some bombs rolled back and forth through the flames without exploding, while pilots and plane-handlers scampered for the catwalks below deck level.

In the mess hall on the third deck the 300-odd men trapped in the pitch-black, smoke-filled room were near panic when the ship’s assistant surgeon, Lt. Comdr. James L. Fuelling of Indianapolis, Ind., made his voice heard.

“Somehow everyone seemed to listen to him,” Abbott said. “The screaming stopped and the room got quiet. He told us to relax, stop talking and rest until a way out could be found.  The smoke was getting worse all the time, I mopped my sweater and T-shirt in the water on the deck and breathed through the wet cloth.”

The rear admirals of the task force and their staffs were aboard the Franklin at the time of the attack. Their primary duty was to direct one of the carrier forces in the strike against the Inland Sea, and they had many other warships under their command which were dependent on them for orders. At 0745 a gutty little destroyer, braving the constant threat of exploding ammunition, pulled alongside and took the admirals and their staffs aboard by breeches buoy.

Lt. Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callaghan, a Jesuit chaplain from Cambridge, Mass., who used to teach at Boston College and Holy Cross, had been in the wardroom when the first bomb hit. The Padre, whom the skipper later described as “the bravest man I’ve ever seen,” made his way to the flight deck and in the absence of doctors—one had been killed and Fuelling was trapped in the mess hall—set up an aid station.

“When doctors arrived to take over,” Capt. Gehres said, “I saw Father O’Callaghan round up a half-dozen men, grab a fire hose and disappear with them into the smoke and flames covering the stern. Periodically he would reappear, check the casualties, give them last rites where needed, round up more men and another hose and plunge again into the smoke aft.

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Father Joseph O’Callahan, performs last rites for Robert Blanchard on the deck of the USS Franklin

“Once he came up on the bridge and asked if there was anything he could do. My bullhorn was out and I had shouted myself hoarse, so I pointed out where flames were licking around the sides of a ready ammunition locker at the base of the island. I asked if he could possibly send some men down there with a hose. He got the men all right, but he went on down with them himself.”

By this time there was no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. A message came over from the flag authorizing the skipper to abandon ship.

“We were too busy,” said Capt. Gehres. “We were afloat and all right—anyhow we were too close to Japan.”

The smoke became worse. Explosions continued and at 0800 a tremendous blast indicated that the flames had reached the bomb-laden TBFs.

Down below in the engine room the blowers had failed. The officer in charge described the intolerable situation there to the bridge—relaying the message through steering aft—and asked permission to secure the abandon stations. The request was granted and the black gang groped its way topside, leaving the engines in operation unattended. They continued to run for more than an hour, pushing Big Ben closer to Japan. She could not go in any other directions because the position of her fires made it necessary to keep the wind off the port side.

All radio communication was gone and the signal halyards were burned. The skipper, by semaphore, requested a cruiser be sent alongside to take off casualties and a destroyer to follow in the Franklin’s wake and pick up men forced to jump from the burning after-decks.

The cruiser Santa Fe pulled up parallel and asked if the carrier’s magazines were flooded. If the magazines were overrun by flames, the resulting explosion might well send the Big Ben and other nearby ships to the bottom. Capt. Gehres was forced to reply that he had ordered the flooding but had no way of knowing if it had been accomplished. That highly ambiguous information, however, seemed to satisfy the Santa Fe’s skipper, Capt. H.C. Fitz. He throttled his ship down to the Franklin’s eight knits and brought it alongside to starboard. A trolley was rigged between the ships to carry stretcher cases, while the walking wounded balanced their way across the carrier’s horizontal antenna masts and dropped to the cruiser’s deck.

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The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) pictured burning in the waters off Japan after being hit during an air attack on 19 March 1945. The light cruiser USS Santa Fe (CL-60) is alongside. The photo was taken by planes from the USS Essex (CV-9) returning from a strike on Kobe, Japan.

The starboard list the Franklin was carrying began to increase as her engines finally stopped at about 1000 hours.

“Someone phoned me,” Capt. Gehres remembers, “and said he had 13,000 gallons of oil and water that he could somehow transfer from starboard to port. I told him to go ahead and do it. I’ve searched the ship since then for that man but I’ve never found him and doubt if I ever will. He must have been killed later.”

The transfer of ballast may have saved the ship, for the starboard list, although not yet serious, had been increasing rapidly just before the phone call from the unknown sailor. The shift of weight checked it at 14 degrees.

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The badly damaged and listing USS Franklin photographed on March 19,1945 by PHC Albert Bullock from the cruiser USS Santa Fe

Down in the mess hall Doc Fuelling’s kind but authoritative manner still held a lid on the hysteria. Lt. (jg) Don A. Gary of Oakland, Calif., who had been commissioned in 1943 after 24 years’ service as an enlisted man, managed to find a breather—a mask which would filter out the worst of the smoke. Gary also had a light. He told the men he would search for a way out and return if he found one. He discovered a devious, roundabout series of passageways and ladders leading topside, made his way back to the mess hall and led a group of men out along that route.

“He came back at least three times,” Abbott said, “and finally brought us all out.

“When I saw the skipper on the bridge I knew we weren’t going to abandon ship,” he added. “I was cold and wanted to warm up so I grabbed a hose with four other men and fought a fire in a 40-mm gun position until it exploded a half-hour later. The explosion put that fire out, but there were plenty others still burning. Then I reported in my station on the bridge. Most of the time up there I was on the phone to the five guys in steering aft. It seemed to  help them to talk to one of us on the bridge.”

Abbott decided to try to make his way down to steering aft. Someone gave him a pair of rubber boots and he climbed around the island and down the flight deck, accompanied by Lt. (jg) Robert Wassman of New Rochelle, N.Y. Dodging flames and making their way across fused metal and steaming wreckage they reached the after end of the deck. The port side of the fantail—a small, open deck which protrudes from the stern on a level with the hangar deck—was ablaze, but the pair clambered down the starboard ladder and entered a hatch leading to the hanger deck, which Abbott describes as “a pile of junk.”

“We heard a howl,” he said, “and traced it down to the after utility cabin over starboard. The hatch was sprung but Mr. Wassman got a line on it and I put my back against it until it opened. There was a land who was badly hurt. I carried him out to the fantail and inflated a life belt for a pillow. Mr. Wassman went on inside to try to find a way to steering aft.”

A fresh explosion spread the flames and Abbott feared that their single access ladder to the flight deck might soon be burned out. He scrambled up to the flight deck and recruited two others to help him bring the wounded man up the ladder. He had considerable difficulty convincing them that it was even possible to reach the fantail, much less make the round trip.

By the time they arrived there they found Wassman, who had been driven from the hangar deck by the smoke. They put the injured man in a blanket and carried him topside. As they bore him across the holed, debris-covered flight deck, he smiled, and sang in a faint voice, “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

It was nearly noon, and the Big Ben had drifted 38 miles off Shikoku. Her navigator was preparing to take bearings on the mountain peaks of the Japanese homeland. The cruiser USS Pittsburgh was ordered to take the carrier in town. Before she could be towed, though, the carrier’s rudder had to be moved to dead center from the hard turn it had been in when the power failed. This was a job for men in steering aft.

Manually, the two men on each of the two cranks connected with the steering mechanism, they brought the rudder into line with the keel, their exertion using up much of the diminishing air supply in their sealed chamber. The Pittsburgh’s screws churned, and in two hours the cruiser was pulling the Franklin away from Japan at what turned out to be the maximum towing speed—three knots. A single Japanese plane attacked the slowly moving ships, but AA fire from the escorting warships and the pitifully few manually operated guns aboard the Big Ben force the Jap to drop his bomb astern and flee. Later in the day two other planes were driven off.

The heavier explosions had stopped at noon when the after 5-inch magazine went off and spattered the Santa Fe with fragments. At 1500 there were still explosions and the fires still raged. The Pittsburgh and a destroyer had near misses from the carrier’s rockets. Men fighting fires on decked dropped at each explosion. Some didn’t rise again.

“Bullets were buzzing like bees.” A gunner’s mate said. “Got so nobody paid attention to anything less than a magazine explosion.”

Abbott continued to alternate between attempts to reach the men in steering aft and talking to them by phone. Twice more he and Wassman were driven back by smoke, and once when Abbott tried it alone he was forced to retreat to the open air.

“You could go in as far as you could hold your breath,” he said. “The smoke was getting thicker and by then there was a lot of water in every compartment. Sometimes it was waist deep.”

The Big Ben flagged a destroyer to send over a pair of breather masks and Abbott settled down again to the telephone to wait for them to arrive. Doc Fuelling told him the men in steering aft could live for 24 hours on the amount of air in that room if they didn’t get excited and move around too much.

Water still filled the compartments above theirs and it was several inches deep on the deck of steering aft. Abbott told them to lie down on the high side of their room, keep quiet and wait.

“We’re not going to abandon ship,” he told them. “And if we do have to abandon later, we’ll get you out first. If we can’t do that—we’ll go down with you.

“That seemed to make them feel a little better,” he explained later.

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View of the USS Franklin’s after 5″/38 twin gun mount on fire after the attack.

When a destroyer sent over the breathers it was nearly sunset—1813 in that latitude. Wassman, Abbott and another quartermaster climbed back down to the fantail. Probably feeling that Abbott already had made too many trips below, Wassman took the other man with him and disappeared into the wreckage of the hangar deck. Abbott was sitting on the fantail when they emerged, the canisters in their masks having been used up, but they reported they had found a way to their objective.

While they changed canisters, Abbott returned to the bridge and phoned the five men to stand by for rescue. He warned them to leave their life belts behind, for there was barely enough room for a man to crawl through the jammed passageways and to stand aside when the hatch was opened.

The water level in the compartment had fallen considerably, but there remained enough to flood steering aft two feet deep when the hatch was opened in response to Wassman’s tapping. Three of the men were only semi-conscious when they arrived on the flight deck, but all went up to the bridge to report to the skipper. A medical officer had sent some brandy to Capt. Gehres. He gave each of the five men a stiff drink.

Realizing that the Big Ben’s three-knot speed wasn’t taking them out of dangerous waters rapidly enough, Lt. Gary—the same officer who had led the 300 men from the mess hall—and two others, donned the breathers and went down to the engine room. Gary was the assistant engineering officer, and he was hoping that the water and oil, undoubtedly sloshing around the deck, hadn’t reached the engines, which were mounted some four feet above deck level.

It hadn’t. Despite heavy smoke, a 140-degree temperature, ruptured pipes, steam leaks and oil mixed with water, he managed to get a fire started under one boiler and then under another. By 2400 Big Ben’s engines were giving enough help to the Pittsburgh to increase their towing speed to six knots.

Nobody had eaten for more than 24 hours when Father O’Callaghan found a locker containing tins of pork sausages. A destroyer sent over a sack of bread and the meager meal was distributed to all hands. Later in the day they found lockers containing spam and Vienna sausages.

At 1000 hours the day after the attack the Franklin sent a dignified thanks to the Pittsburgh and cast off the towline. Four boilers were fired and the Big Gen was able to do 15 knots on her own. She was five feet down at the stern and still carrying a 14-degree list.

That day began the gruesome task of digging bodies from the wreckage. About 300 men had been killed by concussion on the hangar deck alone. Some men were found in their bunks.

Next morning the crew had its first hot food since the bombing—coffee and soup prepared in the officer’s mess and served in the wardroom. In the afternoon Capt. Gehres left the bridge for the first time and went below to see the hangar deck. The captain told the men the worst was over, that there would be no more air raids and they were heading home. He returned to the bridge, took a bath in a half-bucket of water and dressed in his one remaining set of clean khakis.

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The USS Franklin (CV-13) approaches New York City, while en route to the New York Naval Shipyard for repairs, 26 April 1945,

By the 23d—four days after the original attack—band leader Saxy Dowell, music composer of “The Three Little Fishes,” led his men with their tubs, jugs and borrowed instruments to the bridge and held an audition for the skipper, playing and singing parodies—many of them unprintable—having to do with the experiences of the Franklin. The tryout was an unqualified success and the band began giving concerts.

Four days after the bomb shattered her flight deck, the Plan of the Day—a daily schedule published aboard all large ships—again was printed. It bore a new motto, “A ship that won’t be sunk, can’t be sunk.”

Bodies were still being found below decks 20 days after the attack.

After the ship arrived at Pearl Harbor, Abbott glanced won the length of the hangar deck. Hundreds of dripping garments salvaged from small stores hung from lines stretched across it.

“Something bigger than we are got us out of this,” he said.

A bandaged sailor standing nearby heard and nodded agreement.

For More About the USS Franklin Check Out:

Saving Big Ben: The USS Franklin and Father Joseph T. O’Callahan

Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II

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