The Terrifying Tale of How This U.S. Aircraft Carrier Nearly Sank (and It Was Not a Bomb or Torpedo)

August 14, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: NavyMilitaryWarHistoryShipVessel

The Terrifying Tale of How This U.S. Aircraft Carrier Nearly Sank (and It Was Not a Bomb or Torpedo)

A ship is more than a hunk of steel. Bad leadership marred the USS Franklin’s human component.

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.”