How Bad Leadership Cost the U.S. Navy One of Its Most Deadly Warships
Captain Leslie E. Gehres marred the USS Franklin’s human component.
Here's What You Need to Know: A ship is more than a hunk of steel.
Seldom does your humble scribe come away incensed from reading history. The saga of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) constitutes an exception. We normally think of Franklin’s history as a parable about the importance of shipboard firefighting and damage control. It’s about materiel and methods, in other words. And these things are important without a doubt. Fighting ships are metal boxes packed with explosives and flammables. Suppressing fire represents a crucial function, which is why the first thing a new sailor does after reporting aboard is qualify in rudimentary damage control.
But a ship is more than a hunk of steel. The hunk of steel plus the crew that lives on board it comprises the ship. Bad leadership marred Franklin’s human component. In the end, then, this is a story with mixed lessons. It is not merely about the material dimension of naval warfare.
USS Franklin lived a short but eventful life, joining the Pacific Fleet in mid-1944. Franklin was the first fleet carrier to absorb a direct strike from a Japanese kamikaze, in the aftermath of the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. But the flattop was to endure its worst trial in March 1945, while operating with Task Force 58 off the Japanese seacoast. On the morning of March 19 a “Judy” dive bomber eluded the fleet’s air defenses, dumping two bombs on a Franklin whose decks were crowded with fully armed, fully fueled aircraft preparing to raid sites on Kyushu.
Armor plating shielded the carrier’s innards—in particular the engineering plant—from destruction. The crew eventually managed to restart propulsion, and Franklin made the fleet anchorage at Ulithi Atoll under her own power. In the interim, however, dozens of secondary explosions spanning five hours transformed the flight and hangar decks into something out of Dante. It was a charnel house. The blasts killed the damage-control team while disabling fire fighting equipment on the hangar deck. Ammunition “cooked off,” amplifying the destruction. Aircraft fuselages melted. Rivers of burning fuel sluiced into the hangar deck and beneath from fractured pipes. Over 800 perished out of a crew of around 3,400 sailors and aviators.
Recovery operations were fitful under these circumstances. The crew managed to start a diesel-powered fire pump and organize makeshift fire parties. Cruiser USS Santa Fe came alongside and executed a controlled crash with the flat top so seamen could pass across supplies, render such firefighting aid as they could, and take aboard Franklin crewmen. The carrier survived, returning to New York via the Panama Canal.
This is a Pacific War story rich in insights for practitioners of sea power. For instance, it reveals much about the strategic and operational environment in Eurasian waters today. To wit: a foe with no navy of consequence can still exert influence at sea. It can deploy shore-based implements of sea power to punish a hostile navy cruising off its shores. The Imperial Japanese Navy met its doom at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. It could do little despite a flashy last-ditch effort or two to stem the American advance. But airfields in the home islands could act as unsinkable if stationary aircraft carriers once U.S. Navy task forces came within reach. Japan fielded an array of tactical aircraft along with munitions to arm them and pilots to fly them or, in the case of the kamikaze, crash them into American vessels. Tokyo waged an “anti-access” strategy long before the term was invented.
Franklin’s ordeal also yielded hard-won lessons about naval architecture and shipboard practices, and about firefighting and damage control in particular. These are the standard lessons of the affair. To oversimplify, the chief lesson was: equip ships with more of everything. Assigning more people to a damage-control organization would give it a better chance of withstanding damage. Installing more and longer fire hoses would bolster fire parties’ capacity to get at blazes in remote recesses of the ship. Furnishing more portable pumps would let firefighters do their work should fireplugs fail. More high-capacity foam systems would help control and extinguish flaming fuel. Mounting quick-access “scuttles” on armored hatches would allow crewmen to escape compartments should hatches become jammed or too hot to handle. And on and on.
These are all valuable insights. To me, though, the tale of USS Franklin represents a cautionary tale about the scourge of “toxic leadership.” When I reported at the Surface Warfare Officers’ School a few brief years ago, my check-in interview with the skipper amounted to this: leave the place better than you found it. Toxic leaders leave the place worse than they found it. They put themselves ahead of the institution, and they deploy leadership and management tactics that advance their personal interests—even at the expense of colleagues or subordinates.
I’ve known toxic leaders. So have you if you’ve worn a military uniform. They appear from time to time, often as ship captains. Why them in particular? It’s been said a ship captain is the world’s last absolute monarch once underway. And like any absolute monarch, the skipper can be a tyrant if he rules in his selfish interest rather than the common good. He can abuse his authority in an effort to get ahead.
Enter Captain Leslie E. Gehres. Captain Gehres assumed command of Franklin at Ulithi on the heels of the October 1944 kamikaze strike. Historian Joseph Springer, the author of a gripping oral history of the carrier’s travails, recounts how the new skipper introduced himself to the crew. Gehres relieved Captain J. M. Shoemaker at Ulithi. At the change-of-command ceremony, according to one Franklin sailor, Gehres proclaimed: “‘It was your fault because you didn’t shoot [the kamikaze] down. You didn’t do your duty; you’re incompetent, lazy, and careless. Evidently you don’t know your jobs and I’m going to do my best to shape up this crew!’ We just stood there and couldn’t believe our ears. He sure got a lot of cheers for that.”
Imagine that. You’ve just been through hell. Dozens of your shipmates are dead, dozens more wounded. And the first thing your new commanding officer does is upbraid you and your shipmates while insulting his predecessor in his presence. That’s extreme toxicity. According to crew accounts relayed by Springer, as many as three hundred sailors jumped ship in Bremerton, Washington, when the carrier made port there for shipyard repairs. They did so in large part because they believed Franklin was jinxed following the suicide strike. In part, though, they fled to escape Captain Gehres and his noxious brand of leadership.
It gets worse. Japanese warplanes harried Task Force 58 relentlessly in the hours leading up to the March 19 attack. Franklin had gone to general quarters a dozen times in six hours, so Captain Gehres relaxed the ship’s posture to allow the crew to get a hot meal.
The captain’s after-action report and the official war damage report indicate that the skies were clear the morning of March 19. The deck log—the official record of a ship’s doings—says otherwise. At 0654 the ship’s Combat Information Center reported a “bogey,” or unidentified aircraft, thirty miles off. Two other sightings followed. The range was decreasing. At last, at 0708, lookouts on board USS Hancock positively identified the Judy. Hancock radioed Franklin: “Bogey closing you!” The dive bomber was twelve miles off at that point, and inbound fast. (The aircraft would cover that distance in under three minutes, scant reaction time for the best-trained crew.)
Yet Gehres never ordered Franklin to general quarters—meaning the bombs struck the flat top when it was less than fully ready for battle.
When Santa Fe came alongside he ordered the wounded evacuated and then, writes Springer, issued an order that “could not possibly have been more vague.” Gehres directed the air officer to evacuate anyone who “would not be needed to save the ship.” A mass exodus to the cruiser ensued as those who defined themselves as nonessential fled. Ship-wide communications were out, and in the confusion many crewmen believed “abandon ship” had been ordered. The skipper then stopped the evacuation. He later directed about one hundred sailors—including some blown overboard by bomb blasts—to return to Franklin, whereupon he demanded that they state in writing why they had “left this vessel while she was in action and seriously damaged when no order had been issued to abandon ship.” Springer opines that his action “nearly tainted” the carrier’s gallant struggle to survive.
Nearly tainted? Gehres announced that 215 Franklin crewmen would be charged with desertion, and insisted that ships carrying them treat them as prisoners. He founded the “Big Ben 704 Club” to honor the crewmen who had remained on board (and ostentatiously exclude everyone else), barred evacuees from attending the memorial service for fallen shipmates, made sure no evacuee received a medal, and laid the legal groundwork for courts-martial against officers and chief petty officers who took refuge in Santa Fe. (Thankfully the navy leadership ignored his legal maneuvering.) “The treatment of these Franklin crewmen,” concludes Springer, constituted “one of the greatest but least-known injustices involving the U.S. Navy in World War II.”