USS Franklin : The Ship That Wouldn’t Die—The Ordeal of USS Franklin (CV-13), 19 March 1945
Afire and listing after a Japanese air attack, off the coast of Japan, 19 March 1945. Note fire hoses and crewmen on her forward flight deck, and water streaming from her hangar deck. Photographed from her hangar deck. Photographed from USS SANTA FE (CL-60).
Catalog #: 80-G-273882
Copyright Owner: National Archives
The aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13), suffered the greatest damage and highest casualties of any U.S. ship that did not sink.
On the morning of 19 March 1945, the aircraft carrier Franklin (CV-13), operating 50 nautical miles off the Japanese coast, was in the process of launching a major strike against Japanese naval vessels in port Kure, Japan, when a Japanese dive-bomber dropped out of the overcast and scored two direct hits with bombs. The result was devastating as the fully fueled and armed Navy and Marine aircraft on the flight deck and hanger deck contributed to over 120 secondary explosions that turned Franklin into a raging inferno virtually from stem to stern. In probably the most heroic damage control effort in the history of the United States Navy (there are other contenders but not on this scale), Franklin’s crew saved her despite catastrophic damage. It was the worst fire that any U.S. warship ever survived. Over 800 of Franklin’s crew were killed and over 400 wounded. No ship in the history of the U.S. Navy had suffered more casualties and survived. In fact, when combined with three previous hits by bombs and a kamikaze, Franklin suffered more dead than any other U.S. ship except Arizona (BB-39) at Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, by the next day, Franklin was once again under her own power and returned to the United States for repair.
For their valor is saving their ship, the crew of Franklin and personnel of Air Group FIVE were awarded two Medals of Honor, 19 Navy Crosses, 22 Silver Stars, 116 Bronze Stars, and 235 Letters of Commendation, along with 808 posthumous Purple Hearts and an additional 347 Purple Hearts to survivors. One of the Medals of Honor was awarded to Franklin’s Catholic chaplain, Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan, for not only ministering to the dying, but for organizing and leading damage control parties in fighting fires, jettisoning live ordnance, and preventing a magazine explosion. O’Callahan was the first Catholic chaplain in any service to receive a Medal of Honor, and the first chaplain in the U.S. Navy to be so distinguished (during the Vietnam conflict, Lieutenant Vincent Capodanno was the second in the Navy). The other Medal of Honor was awarded to Lieutenant (j.g.) Donald Gary, a 30-year prior-enlisted Sailor in the engineering department, for finding an escape route and then organizing and leading over 300 men trapped below to comparative safety. Navy Crosses were awarded to the commanding officer, Captain Leslie Gehres (the first prior-enlisted “mustang” to rise to command of a carrier), along with the executive officer and the navigator among others.
Task Force 58 (TF 58), under the command of Vice Admiral Marc “Pete” Mitscher, made its third attack on the Japanese home islands on 18 March 1945. This time, the Japanese weren’t caught by surprise.
TF 58 departed Ulithi on 14 March 1945, and commenced a high-speed run toward Japan on 16 March, arriving at a launch position 90 nautical miles southwest of Kyushu at sunrise on 18 March. The extensive attempts at deception that had preceded the 16–17 February strikes in the Tokyo area (see H-Gram 042) and again on 25 February were apparently less effective. The morning strikes had to content themselves with bombing hangars and barracks because there were few Japanese planes on the ground. Most of them were airborne already looking for the U.S. carriers. The morning searches did locate several major Japanese warships, including super-battleship Yamato, in the vicinity of Kobe and Kure on the Inland Sea.
Over 50 Japanese aircraft were lost while trying to find and attack the U.S. carriers on 18 March. Task Group 58.4, under the command of Rear Admiral Arthur Radford (future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) bore the brunt of the attacks while operating 75 nautical miles south of the Home Island of Shikoku. At 0725, a Japanese plane hit carrier Enterprise (CV-6) with a dud bomb. A G4M Betty twin-engine bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire while attempting a kamikaze strike on carrier Intrepid (CV-11), narrowly missing, although burning fragments started a fire on the hangar deck that killed two and wounded 43 men. Just after 1300, three D4Y Judy dive-bombers attacked carrier Yorktown (CV-10). One of the Judys hit Yorktown’s signal bridge with a bomb that passed through one deck and blew two large holes in the ship’s side, killing five and wounding 26 men. During the night, there were numerous alerts as Japanese planes snooped the force. On carrier Franklin (in TG 58.2), her crew was called to battle stations 12 times over a six-hour period.
On the morning of 19 March 1945, waves of TF 58 aircraft (about 240) attacked Japanese ships in and near Kure, damaging over 16 warships, including the battleships Yamato, Haruna, and Hyuga (which all lacked fuel), carriers Amagi and Katsuragi (which lacked aircraft), carrier Ikoma (under construction), the old carrier Hosho (Japan’s first carrier), light carrier Ryuho, escort carrier Kaiyo, heavy cruiser Tone, light cruiser Oyodo, destroyer escort Kaki, and submarines I-400 and RO-67. However, none of them were sunk. Submarine I-205, under construction, was damaged in a dry dock.
Shortly after sunrise on 19 March 1945, TG 58.2, under the command of Rear Admiral Ralph E. Davison, was attacked by Japanese aircraft. A Japanese plane attacked by surprise out of the overcast and made a direct hit on carrier Wasp (CV-18). Two thirds of Wasp’s aircraft were away attacking Japanese ships in ports and the carrier had just secured from general quarters. The bomb passed through the flight deck, hangar deck, and crews’ quarters on the second deck before exploding in the galley as cooks and mess attendants were about to serve breakfast, causing horrific casualties. Six water mains were ruptured, and aviation gasoline flowed into lower decks, contributing to fires on five decks at the same time. Nevertheless, damage control teams had the fires out in 15 minutes. Wasp was recovering aircraft by 0800 and continued operations for several days despite the loss of 101 crewmen killed and 269 wounded.
At 0657, the carrier Franklin, flagship of Rear Admiral Ralph E. Davison (TG 58.2), began launching Corsair fighter-bombers for a strike on Kure, while Helldivers armed with new Tiny Tim anti-ship rockets warmed up. At 0705, carrier Hancock (CV-19) radioed a warning that a hostile aircraft was inbound. At 0706, Franklin’s radar detected Japanese aircraft circling at about 12 miles, but the planes couldn’t be seen in the overcast, nor could they be tracked due to the clutter of other TF 58 carriers launching planes. Like Wasp, Franklin had just secured from general quarters after a night of false alarms, even though she was only about 50 nautical miles off the Japanese coast. Much of her crew was lined up in breakfast chow lines.
At 0708, a Japanese dive-bomber surprised Franklin. Although Franklin’s forward 5-inch and 40-mm guns opened fire almost immediately as the plane dropped out of the overcast close aboard, the Japanese dive-bomber scored two direct hits with 550-pound semi–armor piercing bombs, right as “Big Ben” was still launching her second round of strikes of the day. On Franklin’s flight deck were 31 fully fueled and armed aircraft, propellers turning for launch. In her hanger bay were 16 fueled aircraft and five armed aircraft. The result was catastrophic. The plane, probably a D4Y Judy, was shot down by a Franklin Corsair after dropping the bombs (not all accounts agree on this).
This was the fourth time Franklin had been hit during the war, and she had already survived what was considered to that point to be the most serious fire aboard a carrier that did not result in the loss of the ship. This hit would be far worse.
Franklin, a new Essex-class carrier, had been commissioned on 31 January 1944 (sponsored by Lieutenant Commander Mildred A. McAfee, Director of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service [WAVES]) and had flown her first combat strikes on 30 June 1944 against the Japanese Bonin Islands. The first hit on Franklin came on the late afternoon of 13 October 1944, while participating in Task Force 38 strikes against Formosa prior to the Leyte landings.
Franklin was attacked by four G4M Betty twin-engine torpedo bombers; all were hit by anti-aircraft fire and downed, although two got off torpedoes that Franklin dodged. One crippled Betty attempted to hit Franklin, but the flaming bomber slid across the flight deck, causing little more damage than gouged wood, but killed one Sailor and wounded ten. On the next day, 14 October, Franklin was attacked by four Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar fighters armed with bombs, two of which missed well short while one was a near miss. The fourth bomb hit the port corner of the deck-edge elevator, which caused minor damage, but killed two Franklin Sailors and one air group pilot.
On 30 October 1944, while tied down operating east of Luzon providing support to the bogged-down Leyte campaign, Franklin had just launched 12 Hellcat fighters at 1405, when she was attacked by a mix of six D4Y Judy dive-bombers and A6M Zeke fighters armed with bombs. The first Judy’s bomb just missed Franklin, but one the Zekes put a bomb through the flight deck inboard of the Number 5 and Number 7 5-inch gun mounts, resulting in a large explosion. A third plane near-missed with a bomb and then barely missed Franklin in a suicide attempt. It then crashed into the light carrier Belleau Wood (CVL-24), seriously damaging her. Two more kamikaze missed Franklin, while another that was heading for Enterprise (CV-6) was shot down by Franklin gunners. After about 20 minutes of fighting the fire, more severe fires broke out and the ship was in potential serious danger. Nevertheless, by 1530, the fires had been put out by superb damage control efforts at a cost of 56 men killed and 60 wounded. The damage was severe enough that Franklin had to return to the West Coast for repairs. At the time, this was considered the worst fire that a ship had survived.
Franklin returned to the Western Pacific in time for the March strikes on Japan, with a new air group (CAG FIVE) that included a mix of Hellcat fighters, Navy and Marine Corsair fighter-bombers, and Helldiver dive-bombers and Avenger torpedo bombers. The Marine squadron embarked was VMF-214 (the “Black Sheep” formerly led by Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington). Eleven of the 12 VMF-214 aviators gathered in their ready-room were killed when the bombs hit on 19 March.
During the 19 March attack, the first bomb penetrated the flight deck on the centerline and detonated in the forward hangar deck, blowing the forward elevator upward, starting raging fires, and knocking out the combat information center (CIC). The second bomb was even worse, hitting the flight deck amongst the densely packed aircraft ready for launch, detonating above the hangar deck, and knocking out the after elevator. The after aviation fuel system was still in operation, filled with fuel instead of inert gas, and the resulting vapor explosion blew through the hangar deck, killing all but two crewmen in the hangar. In seconds, almost the entire flight deck and hanger decks were engulfed in flames, followed quickly by numerous secondary explosion as bombs and 12 “Tiny Tim” rockets cooked off among the burning aircraft. The solid-fueled air-to-surface anti-ship rockets (with 148-pound warheads) shot in various directions, including a number straight up the flight deck. Ready ammunition in lockers, gun mounts, and turrets aft all began igniting. All told, there were 126 secondary explosions of various kinds. Witnesses on other ships were aghast at the horrifying pyrotechnic inferno overtaking Franklin.
Franklin’s skipper, Captain Leslie H. Gehres, was thrown to the deck by the first bomb’s explosion. Upon seeing the fires on the forward starboard side he ordered right full rudder to put the wind on the port side in order to keep flames away from the planes on the after flight deck. This actually had the opposite effect. The navigator, Commander Steve Jurika (who had been the intelligence officer on Hornet [CV-8] for the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway), recommended a turn in the opposite direction, which Gehres did when he could see that the after flight deck was already engulfed in flames. Gehres also ordered the carrier’s magazines to be flooded, but this could not be done because the appropriate fire mains had been ruptured. So, the risk of a catastrophic magazine explosion remained as the surviving crewmen fought to save the ship (after the fires were out it was discovered that the primary magazine was not flooded, and had the fires penetrated further down the magazine probably would have blown).
The destroyer Miller (DD-535), commanded by Lieutenant Commander (later Rear Admiral) Dwight L. Johnson, came alongside to bring aboard Rear Admiral Davison and his staff (and Rear Admiral Gerald F. Bogan, on board as an observer) via breeches buoy for transfer to the carrier Hancock (CV-19). Johnson would be awarded a Navy Cross. Davison advised Gehres to give the order to “prepare to abandon ship,” but Gehres replied that he still intended to try to save Franklin (some accounts indicate he didn’t say anything, but did not issue such an order). Vice Admiral Mitscher, on board Bunker Hill, signaled permission for Gehres to abandon ship. As this was going on, light cruiser Santa Fe (CL-60) and destroyers were picking up hundreds of Franklin sailors who had been blown off or forced to jump off the ship by the explosions and flames.
Just after 0930, Santa Fe, commanded by Captain Harold C. “Hal” Fitz, came right alongside, literally skin to skin—a daring feat given what had happened to Birmingham (CL-62), which had lost 244 crewmen when Princeton (CVL-23) exploded alongside during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Fitz would later be awarded a Navy Cross. Using engines to hold alongside, Santa Fe fought fires on Franklin while bringing aboard 103 wounded men, as well as others deemed non-essential (or non-expendable depending on point of view), mostly personnel of Air Group FIVE, via ladders and boards connecting the two ships. Santa Fe took on 826 men in 30 minutes and remained alongside for three hours. Destroyers Hickox (DD-673) and Miller assisted in fighting fires on Franklin despite the extreme danger of being close aboard and continued to pick up survivors from the water. There were about 106 officers and 604 enlisted remaining aboard Franklin to fight the fires.
The fight to save Franklin was probably the most epic feat of damage control in the history of the U.S. Navy, and the valor of the crew in saving their ship was truly extraordinary. Members of Franklin’s ship’s company and air group would ultimately be awarded two Medals of Honor, 19 Navy Crosses, 22 Silver Stars, 116 Bronze Stars, and 235 Letters of Commendation. Additional Navy Crosses and Silver Stars were awarded to some of the officers and crews of the Santa Fe and Miller. One Silver Star was even awarded to a civilian Corsair technician (yes, there were “tech reps” back then, too).
One Medal of Honor was awarded to Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan, Franklin’s Catholic (Jesuit) chaplain, and one of two chaplains on board. O’Callahan had only been aboard the carrier for 17 days, having previously served as the chaplain on Ranger (CV-4) in the Atlantic. He would be the first chaplain in the U.S. Navy to receive the Medal of Honor (the first chaplain in any service since the Civil War and the first Catholic chaplain in any service to be awarded the Medal of Honor). Callahan was initially below decks and was wounded by secondary explosions after the bombs hit. His award citation follows:
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Commander (Chaplain) Joseph Timothy O’Callahan, United States Naval Reserve, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Chaplain aboard the USS FRANKLIN when that vessel was fiercely attacked by enemy Japanese aircraft during offensive operations near Kobe, Japan on 19 March 1945. A valiant and forceful leader, calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lieutenant Commander O’Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever-increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led firefighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing flight deck, continuing his efforts despite searing suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them. Serving with courage, fortitude and deep spiritual strength, Lieutenant Commander Callahan inspired the gallant officers and men of FRANKLIN to fight heroically and with profound faith in the face of almost certain death and to return their stricken ship to port.
Many survivors of Franklin reported being inspired by the white cross on O’Callahan’s helmet, which seemed to be everywhere on the ship. Of note, a famous wartime photo shows O’Callahan administering last rites to a wounded Sailor, Robert C. Blanchard. Blanchard actually survived and lived to be 90. Also of note, O’Callahan was initially awarded the Navy Cross, but publically declined to accept it (the only person during the war to do so) in the belief that he was just doing his duty as a chaplain (leading damage control parties and pitching live ammunition over the side?). When President Harry Truman learned of O’Callahan’s actions, he personally intervened to have the award upgraded to the Medal of Honor and personally presented it to O’Callahan, whether he wanted it or not. The destroyer escort (later frigate) O’Callahan (DE-/FF-1051) was named in his honor and served in commission from 1968 to 1988.
Another Medal of Honor was awarded to Lieutenant (j.g.) Donald Gary, a 30-year, former enlisted veteran. As an officer in the engineering department knew the ship inside and out. Initially trapped below with about 300 other men, he used an oxygen breathing apparatus (OBA) with a very limited supply to find a way out through 600 feet of mangled ducting and uptakes. Having saved himself, he found another OBA and went back three times to lead ever-larger groups of men from below. His Medal of Honor citation follows:
The President of the United States, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Donald Arthur Gary, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as an Engineering Officer attached to the USS FRANKLIN when that vessel was fiercely attacked by enemy aircraft during operations against the Japanese home islands near Kobe, Japan, 19 March 1945. Stationed on the third deck when the ship was rocked by a series of violent explosions set off in her own ready bombs, rockets and ammunition by the hostile attack, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Gary unhesitatingly risked his life to save several hundred men trapped in a messing compartment filled with smoke, and with no apparent egress. As the imperiled men below decks became increasingly panic-stricken under the raging fury of incessant explosions, he confidently assured them he would find a means of effecting their release and groping through the dark, debris-filled corridors, ultimately discovered an escape way. Staunchly determined, he struggled back to the messing compartment three times despite menacing flames, flooding water, and the ominous threat of additional explosions, on each time calmly leading his men through the blanketing pall of smoke until the last had been saved. Selfless in concern for his ship and his fellows, he constantly rallied others around him, repeatedly organized and led fire parties into the blazing inferno on the flight deck and when firerooms 1 and 2 were found to be inoperable, entered the No. 3 fireroom and directed the raising of steam in one boiler in the face of extreme difficulty and hazard. An inspiring and courageous leader, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Gary rendered self-sacrificing service under the most perilous conditions and by his heroic initiative and fortitude and valor was responsible for the saving of hundreds of lives. His conduct throughout reflects the highest credit upon himself and upon the U.S. Naval Service.
The 19 Navy Crosses awarded to Franklin’s crew included the commanding officer, Captain Leslie Gehres; the executive officer, Commander Joseph Taylor; and the navigator, Commander Stephen Jurika. A number of accounts credit Jurika with exercising decisive leadership during the initial shock of the explosions and convincing the skipper that the ship could be saved. (Gehres would later come under considerable criticism for his decision to secure from general quarters just before the attack, for failing to sound battle stations at the first warning, and for later wanting to press charges against many of the crew who went over the side, accusing them of “desertion.” These accusations resulted in public controversy, and all such charges were later dropped by the Navy. Gehres never received another command, but he did receive a promotion to Rear Admiral. His leadership style has been described as “toxic,” which was partially true, but he was also one of the first “mustangs”—former enlisted—who gained a reserve commission during World War I and was the first to command a carrier. As such, he was viewed with suspicion by the Navy hierarchy, almost all of whom were Annapolis graduates.)
USS Franklin (CV-13): View on the flight deck, looking forward, while the carrier was in New York Harbor, circa 28 April 1945. She had just returned from the Pacific for repair of battle damage received off Japan on 19 March 1945. Note damage to her flight deck, large U.S. ensign flying from her island, and the Manhattan skyline in the background (80-K-4760).
After the initial explosions, many of the ship’s hospital corpsmen were killed or trapped below, as were all three of the ship’s medical officers, one of whom was killed. Only the air group flight surgeon, Lieutenant Commander Samuel Sherman, was on the flight deck to deal with the carnage there. Sherman created casualty assistance parties on the spot, and was greatly aided by the skipper of VF-5, Lieutenant Commander MacGregor Kilpatrick (himself a veteran of the loss of Lexington and Yorktown) in ministering to casualties. Many survivors owed their lives to the actions of Sherman and Kilpatrick, and to the massive amounts of medical supplies stowed all over the ship for such an eventuality (everything except blood plasma was pre-positioned in large quantities). Sherman refused orders to leave the ship when the air group personnel were ordered on to the Santa Fe despite threats of being charged with disobeying an order. Both Sherman and Kilpatrick war awarded the Navy Cross. Their citations follow:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Commander (MC) Samuel Robert Sherman, United States Naval Reserve, for distinguished service in the line of his profession, extraordinary courage, and disregard for personal danger while serving as Flight Surgeon of the Air Group aboard the Aircraft Carrier USS FRANKLIN (CV-13), which was striking the Japanese home islands in the vicinity of Kobe, Japan on 19 March 1945. Stationed on the flight deck and exposed to innumerable explosions of bombs and rockets as well as continuing enemy air attack, Lieutenant Commander Sherman coolly, courageously and successfully cared for numerous wounded. While still subject to enemy air attack, he set up an emergency sick bay and dressing station where he gave treatment to injured personnel. Later, when the opportunity became available he calmly superintended the transfer of casualties to a ship alongside. Though directed to leave with his Air Group he insisted on remaining aboard the crippled carrier to carry on with his valiant efforts, which resulted in saving numerous lives. During the following days and while his ship was still being subject to enemy attack he continued to display the same personal courage and professional ability. His conduct throughout was keeping in the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Commander MacGregor Kilpatrick, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Fighter Plane in Fighting Squadron FIVE (VF-5), and as Squadron Officer on board the Aircraft Carrier USS FRANKLIN (CV-13), during a Japanese aerial attack which seriously damaged that vessel as she prepared to strike the Japanese mainland in the vicinity of Kobe, on 19 March 1945. When his ship was damaged by enemy aircraft and suffered subsequent internal explosions of ready bombs, rockets and ammunition, Lieutenant Commander Kilpatrick led parties of men in continuous valiant firefighting, jettisoning shells in enclosed mounts and flooding ready service magazines until forced to leave the ship by a superior officer with his squadron. His gallantry and devotion to duty contributed materially to the saving of the ship and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
By 1000, the smoke and heat in Franklin’s engineering spaces made them untenable, reaching 200 degrees in some before the gauges cracked. Numerous personnel in the engine rooms and firerooms passed out from heat exhaustion before being ordered out. Franklin subsequently went dead in the water, only 50 miles from Japan. By noon, however, the remaining crew had brought most of the fires under control and had stabilized the list at 13 degrees. The heavy cruiser Pittsburgh (CA-72), soon to lose her bow in a typhoon, took Franklin in tow. Luckily, the sea was relatively calm, but it was still a difficult maneuver given the wind direction. Combat air patrol from other carriers kept additional Japanese aircraft mostly at bay. However, at 1254 another Judy dive-bomber attacked. An assortment of amateur gunners on Franklin brought some of the guns to bear and downed the Judy, but not before it released its bomb, which fortunately missed by 200 yards. (Most of the regular gun crews had been killed, blown overboard, or jumped overboard to escape the inferno on the flight deck.)
Not long after midnight, Franklin regained power and was capable of making two knots, and, by the early morning, regained steering control. By 1100, she was capable of making 15 knots. At 1235 on 20 March, Pittsburgh dropped the tow and Franklin proceeded under her own power to Ulithi Atoll for emergency repairs, and thence to Pearl Harbor and New York City, arriving on 26 April (she went to New York because all the West Coast shipyards were full repairing ships damaged by kamikaze attacks). On 24 March, Commander Fifth Fleet, Admiral Raymond Spruance, sent a signal that the “ability, fortitude, and sheer guts of the skipper and crew in saving their ship were in the highest degree praiseworthy.” Vice Admiral Aubrey Fitch (who had been in tactical control of the U.S. carriers at the Battle of Coral Sea in May 1942) declared, “only by the outstanding skill, stamina and heroism of the officers and crew” could this have been done; that there was no precedent in the annals of sea warfare for a capital ship returning to port after such severe damage.
Franklin was by far the most heavily damaged carrier in the war to survive (although Bunker Hill would suffer almost as badly due to a kamikaze hit in May 1945). Franklin was in many respects in worse shape than Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) when they sank at Coral Sea and Midway respectively, and suffered far more casualties than either. Unlike the other lost fleet carriers—Lexington, Yorktown, Wasp (CV-7), and Hornet (CV-8)—Franklin suffered no torpedo hits, which made all the difference in the world (to the extent that there was flooding on Franklin, it was mostly self-inflicted—necessarily so—by firefighting water).
The casualty count for Franklin varies from source to source, some of which don’t include air group personnel or don’t include Marines, or passengers who were in transit, or a journalist, or don’t account for those who died from their wounds much later. In his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Samuel Eliot Morison gives figures of 724 killed or missing and 265 wounded. Some sources who were aboard Franklin give figures between 824 and 832 for those who were lost or buried at sea. Given the sheer carnage, it’s also possible that different unrecognizable parts of the same body received separate burials. Ultimately, the Navy awarded 808 posthumous Purple Hearts and an additional 347 Purple Hearts to survivors. More recent research gives a number of 807 killed and 487 wounded. If the deaths on 19 March are combined with those of 30 October 1944, then Franklin lost upward of 924 crewmen, the highest of any U.S. ship in World War II except the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor. “Lucky 13” she was not.
Among the dead on Franklin was a passenger, Captain Arnold J. Isbell, who was on his way to take command of Yorktown (CV-10) following his highly successful tour as commander of the USS Card (CVE-11) hunter-killer task group in the Atlantic. He had been awarded a Distinguished Service Medal and the task group a Presidential Unit Citation for sinking eight German U-boats. The destroyer Arnold J. Isbell (DD-869) was named in his honor and served in commission from 1946 to 1974. Also among the dead was one of the ship’s doctors, Lieutenant Commander George W. Fox, who was killed by smoke inhalation while tending mass casualties; he would be awarded a posthumous Navy Cross. Since no ship was ever named in his honor, I’ve included his award citation:
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Lieutenant Commander (MC) George William Fox, for distinguished service in the line of his profession, extraordinary courage and disregard of personal danger while serving as a Medical Officer aboard the Aircraft Carrier USS FRANKLIN (CV-13) following an attack by enemy aircraft while striking the Japanese home islands in the vicinity of Kobe, Japan on 19 March 1945. When his ship was turned into an inferno by an enemy air attack which started violent explosions and raging fires on board, Lieutenant Commander Fox unhesitatingly remained at his battle station in the below decks sick bay and despite the penetration of terrific blasts and fumes, steadfastly continued to protect his patients and minister to casualties until he himself succumbed to the dense suffocating smoke. Lieutenant Commander Fox’s valiant and self-sacrificing efforts on behalf of others , his superb courage and unfaltering devotion to duty in the face of grave peril were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Navy. He gallantly gave his life for his country. [Note, in a posthumous award, the President takes “pride” not “pleasure.”]
Essex-class carriers like Franklin, although built during the war, were actually designed before the outbreak of war. Therefore, the design was based on a best pre-war estimate of wartime requirements rather than lessons learned as a result of the war. Nevertheless, much was learned from the loss of fleet carriers early in the war, which resulted in improved firefighting techniques and equipment that helped carriers late in the war survive damage that earlier would have resulted in their loss. One big improvement was the realization that the entire crew needed to be trained in firefighting, not just specialized damage control teams. (This hard-won lesson was lost after the war and had to be re-learned the hard way during the Oriskany [CVA-34] and Forrestal [CVA-59] fires off Vietnam in 1966 and 1967.)
As an example, a Naval Reserve officer, Lieutenant Harold J. Burke, who was also the deputy chief of the New York City Fire Department, succeeded in convincing Rear Admiral Edward L. Cochrane, chief of the Bureau of Ships, of the value of the new fog nozzle, which was demonstrated to fight fire better than a solid stream. Burke and Lieutenant Thomas A. Kilduff, USNR, of the Boston Fire Department, subsequently trained over 260 officer instructors and established schools with mock-up ships at every naval base in the United States and on several islands in the Pacific. These trained Sailors in realistic damage control and firefighting. Their operative philosophy was to “get the fear of fire out of the sailor,” by demonstrating that if properly equipped with fire mask and helmet, all-purpose nozzle and applicator, firefighting teams could advance to the source, extinguish the blaze, and live to tell about it.
Based on wartime experience, additional equipment was added to ships. For example, the Essex-class carriers were designed with 14 fire mains to provide redundanc. However, all were dependent on ship’s power. Based on wartime experience, two more fire mains were added operated by individual gasoline engines. One such fire main on Franklin generated fog spray for eight hours when all the others were incapacitated by power failure. As a result of early-war experience, all ships were equipped with 160-pound handy-billies, and destroyers and larger warships were equipped with added 500-pound mobile pumps, each operated by its own gasoline engine. Other changes quickly incorporated into new ships were hoses and couplings that were made standard throughout the entire Navy (which hadn’t been the case before the war). Other equipment was added, such as portable oxyacetylene steel-cutting devices, along with the development and wider use of rescue breathing apparatus. Aircraft carriers had a Foamite system installed for every hundred feet of flight deck. Salvage vessels (ARS) were equipped to fight fires in addition to towing capability. It was rapidly implemented innovations such as these, along with extensive training, that enabled U.S. ships toward the end of the war to survive far greater damage than ships sunk earlier in the conflict.
Franklin was rapidly repaired, but never returned to active service. Of 24 Essex-class carriers built during the war (or completed just afterward), only Franklin and Bunker Hill never saw further service. Franklin was decommissioned in 1947, stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in 1959, and was unceremoniously scrapped in 1966.
Sources include: NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS), USS Franklin (CV-13); “USS FRANKLIN CV-13 War Damage Report No. 56”; Oral Histories—Attacks on Japan 1945, Recollections of LCDR Samuel Robert Sherman, MC, USNR, Flight Surgeon on USS FRANKLIN (CV-13); “USS Franklin: Struck by a Japanese Dive Bomber during World War II,” historynet.com, by David H. Lippman from World War II Magazine (March 1995); History of United States Naval Operations in World War Two, Vol. XIV: Victory in the Pacific, by Samuel Eliot Morison (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1960).
USS Franklin : The Ship That Wouldn’t Die—The Ordeal of USS Franklin (CV-13), 19 March 1945 Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox