Why America's USS Franklin Aircraft Carrier Almost Didn't Survive World War II

By Unknown author - U.S. Navy photo 80-G-273882, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9777944

Why America's USS Franklin Aircraft Carrier Almost Didn't Survive World War II

The poor flat top took multiple beatings.

Key point: This carrier was nearly destroyed on more than one occasion. Yet the ship managed to make it out of the war if only barely.

The USS Franklin was not a lucky ship.

In March 1945, off the Japanese mainland, the Essex-class aircraft carrier was hit by two 550-pound bombs that struck her flight deck and penetrated into the hangar deck. Less than six months earlier, a kamikaze had hit her off Leyte in the Philippines, killing or wounding 120 members of her crew.

The second attack ignited the fuel tanks of 31 armed and fueled aircraft awaiting launch, as well as “Tiny Tim” air-to-surface rockets and other ordnance aboard the ship. Fires raged. Rockets whistled across the deck, and machine-gun ammunition clattered. In minutes, the Franklin was dead in the water with massive casualties, a 13-degree starboard list, and without any radio communications. Many of her damage control team members were dead and some of her water lines, needed to fight the fires, were severed. Flaming and wreathed in choking smoke, she was 52 miles from the Japanese mainland and drifting closer.

The Franklin Would Endure


“I saw guys flying through the air [and] saw men running around on fire, just flaming torches,” a seaman on a nearby destroyer reported. Like most of the men who could see the Franklin, he though she was doomed.

But the Franklin would survive.


Not only would she survive, but dubbed “the ship that wouldn’t die,” she would steam 12,000 miles under her own power first to the Caroline Islands, then across the Pacific to Pearl Harbor, and then through the Panama Canal to the Atlantic Ocean and then to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Her story is considered one of the greatest survival sagas of the war.

Four days before the 1945 attack, the Franklin had sailed from Ulithi in the Caroline Islands, part of the 120-ship Task Force 58 deployed to launch attacks against the Japanese homeland in support of the Okinawa landings set for April 1. It was the Franklin’s return to combat after undergoing repairs from the kamikaze attack suffered in the Philippines. Her captain was Leslie E. Gehres, who had taken command of the ship the previous November. A veteran of World War I and a naval aviator since 1927, he was the Navy’s first aviation commodore. Captain Gehres was known as a disciplinarian and was said to be disliked by most of his men, who had nicknamed him Custer (after General George Armstrong Custer) because of his perceived aggressiveness.

The keel of the Franklin, the fifth U.S. Navy ship so named, had been laid on December 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. She was launched in Virginia 10 months later on October 14, 1943, and by June 1944, she had been deployed to the South Pacific where she was involved in operations in the Marianas, the attacks on Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Haha Jima, and Peleliu. By September she had been named the flagship of Task Group 38.4 and had taken part in attacks in preparation for the assault on the island of Leyte in the Philippines.

Big Ben’s Brush With the Japanese

While there, the Franklin, by now known affectionately to her men as “Big Ben,” just barely escaped being struck by two torpedoes, and on September 13 a Japanese plane—apparently not a kamikaze—crashed onto her deck and then slid across and into the water. On October 27, three Japanese kamikaze planes attacked her, one hitting the flight deck and crashing through to the galley deck, killing 56 men and wounding another 60. She limped back to Ulithi Atoll for temporary repairs and then went on to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington, where more permanent repairs were made. She left Puget Sound on February 2, 1945, and joined a naval force gathering for strikes on the Japanese homeland. Now, a month later, she was off the Japanese coast.

Early on March 19, the battle group had begun attacks on the Japanese home islands aimed at knocking out enemy air power. The Franklin launched fighters to attack Kobe Harbor. By dawn on March 19, she was closer to the Japanese mainland than any other U.S. carrier had gotten during the war. The Japanese met the battle group’s attack with their own air power, and the Franklin’s crew had been called to battle stations 12 times in the six hours between midnight and dawn. By 7 am, however, things had quieted, and except for the gun crews the men were allowed to step down. On the galley deck, 200 men were standing in line for breakfast, their first hot meal in two days.

About 7:05 am, however, the aircraft carrier USS Hancock spotted an enemy aircraft approaching the group and broadcast the sighting to the task force. About four minutes later, the plane was seen lining up on the Franklin and another warning was broadcast. However, by that time the plane, possibly a Yokosuka D4Y Judy dive bomber or an Aichi D3A Val dive bomber, had broken the cloud cover and made a low-level run on the Franklin.

Some reports later claimed the plane had no markings and was not being fired on by the task force. Many had assumed it was friendly.

The Japanese plane dropped two 550-pound bombs toward the Franklin before a patrolling U.S. Vought F4U Corsair fighter shot it down.

Ripped and Torn With Flames

Back on the Franklin, however, one of the two bombs struck in the middle of the flight deck slightly forward of the island, blowing a 15-square foot hole in the deck and passing through to the hangar deck, where there were 22 planes, 16 of which were fueled and five armed. The force of the explosion sent the No. 1 elevator up and out its shaft like a rocket. The second 550-pounder had hit the rear of the ship among the 31 planes warming up for takeoff there and igniting their fuel tanks. A burst of flame erupted from the flight deck, and men on other ships in the task force later said they could feel their vessels rock from the force of the explosion. The Franklin’s ready room was immediately destroyed, killing 24 of the 28 men in it.

“The center deck slammed into the overhead and the ready room was ripped and torn with flames and smoke and bodies were all over,” said Marine Corps pilot John Vandergrif, one of the four survivors.

Casualties were also high on the flight and hangar decks, where many of the crew who were preparing to launch aircraft had never heard any of the warnings, which had been drowned out by the noise of the airplane engines. The explosions jumbled aircraft together on the two decks and set off the Tiny Tim rockets with 500-pound warheads that whistled across the decks. Ammunition began cooking off.

“Fifty-caliber ammunition in the planes on the deck set up a staccato chattering,” Commander Stephen Jurika, a navigator and flight deck officer on the Franklin, recalled.

“On the hangar deck,” a Time magazine reporter would later write, “now a roaring furnace, pilots blundered into still-whirling plane propellers, climbed frantically up the folded wings. Later some were found hanging like black, charred monkeys, caught in the overhead structure.”

Only two crewmen were able to escape the hangar deck carnage.

Medals of Honor Awarded

On the galley deck, many of the 200 men who had been waiting for breakfast were burned or crushed in place with still empty stomachs. Many of the ship’s men were blown over the side aft of the island or were faced with the choice of going overboard or being burned to death. Other crewmen tried to soak ammunition and missile supplies but found there was no water pressure, and still other men tried to toss live rounds over the side only to be blown over themselves.


The explosions severed many of the water lines that were needed for firefighting and killed or wounded a large number of the members of the damage control team. The heat melted electric wires, knocked out the ship’s communication network, and ruptured fuel lines that then sprayed gasoline on the fires. But in the chaos, many of the Franklin’s men rose to the challenge.

Lieutenant (j.g.) Donald A. Gray, one of two men to receive the Medal of Honor for their actions that day, discovered 300 men apparently trapped below deck. An engineer who knew the ship’s layout in detail, he groped his way through dark, debris-filled corridors until he discovered an escape route and made three trips back to the trapped men “despite menacing flames, flooding water and the ominous threat of sudden additional explosions, on each occasion calmly leading his men through the blanketing pall of smoke until the last one had been saved,” his Medal of Honor citation reads. He then organized and led work parties to battle fires on the hangar deck and eventually raise steam in one boiler.