On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese air forces attacked the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor. The attack killed 2,335 and wounded another 1,178. Four battleships and two other vessels were sunk to the bottom. Thirteen other ships were damaged or destroyed. 188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged, most while still on the ground. All eight battleships then in harbor were damaged.
Four torpedoes slammed into USS Oklahoma, capsizing the Nevada-class battleship and trapping hundreds within the overturned hull. Frantic around-the-clock rescue efforts delivered 32. Bulkhead markings later revealed that at least some of the sailors aboard the doomed battleship lived another seventeen days. Seventeen days alone in that black, upside down hell, they died waiting for the rescue that came too late. The last mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve, 1941.
Harvard-educated Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the unwilling architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, writing home to a correspondent “I wonder if our politicians [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war] have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices”. Yamamoto well understood the consequences of the actions taken by his government, confiding to his diary. “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”
For Imperial Japan, Yamamoto’s worst nightmare would prove correct. In terms of GDP, the Tokyo government had attacked an adversary, nearly six times its own size. The Japanese economy reached its high point in 1942 and declined steadily throughout the war years, while that of the United States exploded at a rate unseen in human history.
1942 started out grimly in the Pacific, with Americans and their Filipino allies besieged in Bataan and Corregidor, and Commonwealth forces hurled from the Malayan peninsula. The Kriegsmarine celebrated the “Second Happy Time”, as German submarine commanders called it the “American shooting season”. Yet, at the home front, 1942 saw massive industrial mobilization.
The backbone of American naval power during this period was the Essex-class aircraft carrier, remaining so until the supercarriers of the 60s and 70s. Twenty-four Essex class carriers were completed during WW2, including USS Franklin, her hull laid down seventy-five years ago, today, one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1942.
“Big Ben” was launched ten months later at Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia, and commissioned on January 31, 1944.
For the remainder of 1944, Franklin’s engagements read like a timeline of the war, South of the Japanese home islands. The Bonin archipelago. Mariana Islands. Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Haha Jima, Leyte, Guam and the Palau Islands.
By late 1944, a series of defeats had left the Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and groundcrew necessary to keep them aloft.
On October 14, USS Reno was hit by the deliberate crash of a Japanese airplane. The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers, against a carrier task force including USS Franklin. Arima was killed and part of a plane hit Franklin.
It’s not clear that this was a suicide attack, but Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example. Official Japanese accounts bear little resemblance to the actual event, but Arima was officially given credit for the first kamikaze attack, of World War II.
By war’s end, this “divine wind” tactic would end the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 naval personnel.
On October 30, Franklin was attacked by a three-plane squadron of enemy bombers, bent on a suicide mission. One plummeted off her starboard side while a second hit the flight deck, crashing through to the gallery deck, killing 56 and wounding 60. The third discharged it’s bombs nearly missing Franklin, before diving into the flight deck of the nearby Belleau Wood. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Both carriers withdrew to Ulithi Atoll for temporary repairs of battle damage, and Franklin proceeded to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, for more permanent repairs.
Early in the following spring, Franklin rendezvoused with Task Force 58, joining in strikes against the Japanese home islands.
On the morning of March 19, 1945, Franklin turned into the early dawn wind preparing to launch aircraft, while up on the bridge, Commander Stephen Jurika was writing in his log. On the hangar deck, chow lines snaked their way between 12″ wide “Tiny Tim” rockets on ordnance carts, while Messmen plopped the morning’s breakfast onto steel trays.
At 7:05, Commander Jurika heard a message from the carrier Hancock. “Enemy plane closing on you…one coming toward you!” Franklin’s Combat Information Center (CIC) picked up the enemy bomber at a range of twelve miles, but lost it in the clutter of Task Force 58’s morning launch.
At 7:07, Commander Jurika saw the Japanese dive bomber sweep over his head, dropping two 500-pound bombs on Franklin. The first ripped through 3-inch armor to the hangar deck, as the second exploded two decks below. Great sheets of flame enveloped the flight deck, as the 32-ton forward elevator literally rose into the air. 5 bombers, 14 torpedo bombers and 12 fighters were engulfed in the inferno, between them carrying 36,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 30 tons of bombs and rockets.
From the other ships of TF 58, Franklin appeared to be engulfed in flames. With firefighters working fore and aft and Franklin making 24 knots, an aft gas line ruptured, igniting bombs, rockets, and a 40mm ready-service magazine. This second explosion literally lifted Franklin and spun her to starboard, as a 400′ sheet of flame towered over the carrier. Franklin was listing at 13°, with radar and CIC, gone. The flight deck was ruptured in a dozen places. In ready room #51, eleven of twelve aviators of the famed “Black Sheep Squadron”, were dead.
12′ Tiny Tim rockets flew screaming across the decks in every direction, as entire aircraft engines, propellers attached, flew through the air. Each time firefighters dropped to the deck, and then went back at it.
Commander Jurika felt as if the carrier was a rat, being shaken by an angry cat.
The destroyers Miller and Hickox moved within several hundred feet, aiming their hoses at the damaged ship. A Mitsubishi Zero fighter was reported diving on the carrier at 7:41, but determined flak batteries, brought it down.
Six minutes later, the light cruiser Santa Fe moved up, hurling life jackets and floater nets into the water to help swimmers. Task Group 58.2 commander Rear Admiral Ralph Davison departed Franklin for the destroyer Miller, telling Captain Leslie Gehres, “Captain, I think there’s no hope. I think you should consider abandoning ship — those fires seem to be out of control”.
Ensign William Hayler later said “I was not sure whether I was entering Dante’s Inferno or crossing the River Styx”
A mile-high column of thick, greasy smoke rose from the carrier, as signalmen blinkered a message to Santa Fe: “We have lost steering control. Can you send fire hoses? Can you send for sea tugs?” Santa Fe blinkered back, asking if Franklin’s magazines were flooded. “We believe the magazines are flooded, Big Ben replied. “Am not sure”. No one knew at the time, that the water valves were on, but the pipes had split. Hundreds of tons of explosives stored in the aft magazines, were dry.
Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan, a Jesuit priest from Boston and former Holy Cross track star was a Chaplain aboard the Franklin. O’Callahan was everywhere, hurling bombs overboard and administering last rites, shouting encouragement and fighting fires. Father O’Callahan would be the only Chaplain of WW2, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
At 10am, Santa Fe signaled the carrier Bunker Hill: “Franklin now dead in water. Fires causing explosions. Have got a few men off. Fires still blazing badly…whether Franklin can be saved or not is still doubtful”. Boards and ladders stretched between the cruiser and the carrier, evacuating the wounded. Gehres ordered 800 off Franklin onto Santa Fe, as thirty sailors hacked at the starboard anchor with files, steel cutters and acetylene torches, dumping the anchor and using the 540′ chain as a towline, to the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser, USS Pittsburgh. Others passed hot shells hand to hand, and dumping them overboard.
Another dive bomber attacked at 12:40, dropping its 500-pounder close enough to shake the carrier, while a motley crew of laundrymen and ship’s buglers manning the last operational 40mm AA guns, dropped the “Judy” into the water.
By 15:45, Franklin was under tow at 7 knots. That night she was able to make way under her own power. No lights shone that night, but for the faint red glow of still burning fires. The few Franklin crew remaining would continue to fight off additional dive bombers and put out fires, through the 31st.
832 were dead and another 300 wounded, one-third of the crew. Commander Joe Taylor found a typewriter and wrote the plan of the day, to which he added this headline, “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken”. No ship in history had taken such a beating, and survived.