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Sunday, March 19, 2006

USS Franklin Attacked, March 19, 1945

Today in 1945, the USS Franklin was attacked off the coast of Japan. The damage she sustained was severe, so much so that no other aircraft carrier has ever been that hard-hit and remained afloat. The story of her survival is legendary among naval historians.

The Franklin was an Essex-class carrier commissioned in January, 1944. As with all new US ships built during the Second World War, her shakedown cruise was brief. By June of that year, she was in the Pacific as part of a task force sent to lend air support to the Marianas assault. From there, she sailed to Iwo Jima, Guam, and the Palau group.

In early October, 1944, the Franklin was given orders to strike at Leyte, the site of an upcoming invasion for the reclaiming of the Philippines from the Japanese. On the 13th, an enemy plane crashed into her flight deck and slid across the ship into the ocean. She was attacked again on the 16th, this time with more deadly results. A bomb took out one of the ship’s elevators, killing 3 sailors and wounding 22. The Franklin remained in the area for the next two weeks, but after a kamikaze attack crashed through the flight deck, killing 56 crewman and injuring 60, she was sent to Puget Sound Navy Yard for battle damage repairs.

It was the middle of March before the Franklin was back in action. She was assigned to Task Force 58, a group of ships with a dangerous mission: attack targets on Kyushu, one of the Japanese home islands. While the war was going badly for the Japanese by this point, their homeland defense forces were still highly potent.

Before the sun rose on March 19th, 1945, the Franklin was a mere 50 miles from the Japanese coast. This put her closer to the enemy mainland than any carrier had dared go thus far in the war. She launched a fighter sweep against Honshu and a shipping strike against Kobe Harbor. After her aircraft were launched, a single enemy aircraft dived through the cloud cover and successfully dropped two semi armor-piercing bombs. The first impact was in the center of the flight deck. The bomb dropped into the hangar deck and exploded, igniting fires there and on the second and third decks. This knocked out the combat information center.

The second bomb hit closer to the stern of the carrier, going through two decks and causing fires which eventually spread to areas housing ammunition, bombs and rockets. The ship lost all propulsion and radio communications. She began to list, rolling over 13 degrees before stopping. Fires raged out of control. Although the exact number is hard to confirm, only 704 crew members remained on board the stricken ship out of a total of nearly 2,600 officers and men. Some of the remainder were dead, while others were in the water surrounding the ship. The USS Franklin was in her darkest hour.

The ship would not have survived were it not for the courage and sacrifice of those who remained on board. Some of their stories are lost to history; the fog of battle has led other survivors to forget details of the struggle. Some stories from that day stand out, but none more so than that of Lieutenant Commander Joseph T. O’Callahan, the ship’s chaplain.
O’Callahan was a Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit order. When the bombs fell, Fr. O’Callahan went to the slanting flight deck to administer last rites to the dying. He then took charge of a group of officers and men who were throwing hot ammunition overboard so it would not explode. At some time during the morning, O’Callahan was wounded but refused aid. Learning that the flames were near an ammunition magazine below, he led a damage control party to the scene and wet down the area to keep it from exploding. He then went into the bowels of the ship to search for survivors. For his actions that day, Father O’Callahan was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As the remaining crew began to win their battle against the flames, the Franklin was taken in tow by the heavy cruiser USS Pittsburgh. She was eventually able to get underway by herself and proceeded to Pearl Harbor at her new top speed, 14 knots. After some rudimentary repairs, she sailed for Brooklyn, New York, where she arrived on April 28th. The war was over for her. In all, 724 sailors and officers died on board the Franklin; 265 were wounded.

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