”He seemed to be everywhere,” an eyewitness later recalled of the chaplain’s exploits, “handling hoses, jettisoning ammunition and doing everything he could to help save our ship.”
About 7:30 am, as efforts to battle the fires and sort out the chaos continued, Rear Admiral Ralph Davison, the commander of the Franklin’s task group, made it to the bridge and told Gehres he was transferring his flag to the Hancock. “Captain, I think there’s no hope,” he said. “I think you should consider abandoning ship—those fires seem to be out of control.”
Gehres was reported to have nodded but remained silent, and the admiral was transferred to the destroyer Miller, which came alongside to collect him while training four water jets on the Franklin’s fires before pulling away.
By 9:30 am, the light cruiser Santa Fe had approached along the starboard side of the stricken ship, spraying water on the carrier and beginning to take on the Franklin’s wounded and nonessential personnel. She was also able to rescue some of the men who had jumped or had been blown overboard. As that was taking place, the ammunition for the Franklin’s aft five-inch antiaircraft guns exploded.
724 Killed, 265 Wounded
“Whole aircraft engines with propellers attached, debris of all description, including pieces of human bodies, were flung high into the air and descended on the general area like hail on a roof,” Jurika later said.
At about 10 am, the men remaining in the engine and steering rooms gave in to the heat and fled their stations. The Franklin was dead in the water with a 13-degree starboard list. She was 52 miles from the shores of Japan and had suddenly become the most heavily damaged carrier of the war.
Official casualty figures calculated shortly after the attack set her losses at 724 men killed and 265 wounded. More recent tabulations have put those numbers at 807 killed and more than 487 wounded, figures that would have brought her wartime losses to 924 killed in action, the worst for any surviving U.S. warship and second only to that of battleship USS Arizona, which was sunk in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite the deaths and damage and Admiral Davison’s suggestion to abandon ship, Captain Gehres refused to give up the struggle to save the carrier. The heavy cruiser Pittsburgh arrived and was able to attach a tow line to the Franklin a little after 1 pm. The cruiser then worked the carrier around to the south and headed with her in tow toward Ulithi. By sunset the fires aboard the Franklin had been beaten back enough and the heat had abated to the point that men, including Tender 3rd Class Sam “Dusty” Rhodes, could get through to one of the ship’s boilers. By 10 pm, that boiler had been lit and was running.
“That’s when the ship’s heart started to beat again,” Rhodes later said.
The Franklin’s engines began slowly turning, and the tow speed increased to six knots. Additional boilers were brought into operation, and at 12:30 pm on March 20, the tow line was dropped. The Franklin was now progressing under her own power.
That afternoon, another Japanese dive bomber swooped in with the sun behind it and dropped a bomb toward the badly crippled carrier. Fortunately, the bomb fell some 100 feet short of the ship, doing little damage. During the night, the Franklin was able to increase her speed to 18 knots. Fires still burned on the gallery deck and in Captain Gehres’s own cabin, but the gyrocompasses, search radar, phones, and some of the carrier’s guns were working again. The Franklin was coming back.
As conditions aboard the ship began to slowly improve, the enlisted men and officers left aboard her were faced with the grisly task of disposing of the bodies of the dead that littered the decks. Most of the bodies were buried at sea with a minimum of ceremony, a task that took several days to complete.
When the Franklin finally arrived at Ulithi, she picked up a number of her crew members who had been thrown from or had jumped from the damaged carrier and had been pulled from the sea by other vessels. After emergency repairs at Ulithi, the carrier steamed to Pearl Harbor for more repairs and then headed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, arriving there on April 28, 1945.
Throughout the saga of the ship’s return, however, Gehres, the disciplinarian, complained loudly about those crewmen who had left the ship during the disaster either consciously or unconsciously, men who had been blown overboard or had jumped as the flames approached them. “No order was issued to abandon ship,” he said.
The captain also created what he called the 704 Club, consisting of those men who had stayed with the ship throughout the disaster. He refused to recommend anyone not in the club for a citation. It has been suggested, however, that Captain Gehres’s ardor was cooled when someone mentioned that perhaps Admiral Davison’s name should be included on the list of those who had failed to remain aboard the Franklin.
Besides the two Medals of Honor that were awarded, Captain Gehres and 18 other men were awarded the Navy Cross, including the executive officer, Commander Joe Taylor, and Commander Jurika. Twenty-two men earned Silver Stars, and 115 Bronze Stars. Two hundred and thirty-four men received letters of commendation, and 1,110 Purple Hearts were awarded. In the end, the Franklin’s men had become the most decorated crew in United States Naval history.
At the Brooklyn Navy, Yard, the carrier suffered a boiler room fire that resulted in no casualties, and in 1946 a leak of carbon dioxide fumes killed two men aboard the ship. She was made seaworthy again but never returned to action. She was decommissioned in 1947 and scrapped in 1966. During her scrapping in Virginia, human remains from the March 19 attack, those of the last casualty to be recovered, were found inside an air duct.
Workers in the navy yard also reported that they had heard sounds while aboard the carrier. They were unable to locate any source. The sounds, they said, were of “men talking, and laughing, or horsing around like guys do.”
Were these the final echoes of the USS Franklin?
Originally Published September 22, 2018.
This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.
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