USS Franklin (CV-13) was one of 24 Essex class aircraft carriers United states Navy fielded during the World War 2. It was a very successful design, this was supported by the fact that neither of them was lost to the enemy actions, despite some of them, like Franklin, suffering major damage.
Franklin, nicknamed Big Ben, was named after Benjamin Franklin. The ship’s keel was laid on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack, a very symbolic date for the US Navy. This magnificent sea vessel was commissioned in 1944 and was immediately put into action with task group TG 58.2. Its first battle assignment was supporting Mariana Islands assault. Franklin’s aircraft conducted numerous missions against the Japanese air and naval forces in the region with a high degree of success. In the next period, it conducted strikes against Guam and Rota island, as well as against Palau Islands.
In September 1944, Franklin was covering Leyte landings. The ship was hit with a bomb on September 15th, which killed three crewmen and damaged one of the hangar elevators. In the aftermath of the Battle of Leyte, USS Franklin was steaming some 100 miles off Samar, when three kamikaze planes discovered her. The first one missed and ended in the sea, but the second one managed to strike the flight deck. The third one hit nearby USS Belleau Wood.
Kamikaze plane broke through the flight deck and exploded in the gallery deck, killing 56 men and wounding 60. Both carriers managed to reach Ulithi Atoll under their own power. After some temporary repairs, Franklin was sent to Puget Sound Navy Yard. It was undergoing repairs when her commanding officer was relieved of duty, and a new skipper was appointed, His name was Captain Leslie E. Gehres. His reputation as a strict disciplinarian preceded him, but nobody onboard Franklin was expecting what happened during the change-of-command ceremony. Gehres took the liberty to admonish the crew and former skipper by saying “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!” Needless to say, the men didn’t take it lightly that he decided to upbraid them on the event he knew nothing about and which saw 56 of your mates killed, with 60 wounded. That speech set the tone for the relationship Gehres had with the crew for the rest of his tour.
Just how devastating his words were, was shown in the first port USS Franklin visited under the new skipper, Bremerton. Some 300 sailors skipped ship, trying to get away from Gehres and his toxic leadership.
But the real disaster happened when Franklin returned to action. In March 1945, she was a part of TG 58.2. In support of Okinawa landings, Fraklin was launching strikes against Japanese shipping and bases in the Home Islands. On March 19th, after a very busy night when the crew has been called to battle stations twelve times within six hours, Captain Gehres decided to give them a brief respite, so they could get something to eat. He ignored an early warning about a bogey in the area, issued by the ship’s Combat Information Center at 06:45. At 0708 bogey was identified as a Judy, a Japanese dive bomber and USS Hancock signaled Franklin “Bogey closing you.” Gehres ignored the warning and never ordered USS Franklin to battle stations, which meant that flight deck and hangar weren’t cleared, damage control stations weren’t maned and gas lines weren’t emptied of highly explosive aviation fuel.
The first bomb hit Franklin at flight deck centerline and penetrated to the hangar deck. The second hit aft went through two decks. At that moment, USS Franklin had 31 fully fueled and armed planes on the flight deck and further 16 fueled in the hangar. All that fuel and ordinance went into flames, destroying hangar, and the flight deck. Many crew members were thrown overboard by the explosion, and only two of the hangar crew survived.
Cruiser Santa Fe rushed to help and conducted a controlled crash, allowing the evacuation of the wounded personnel. Gehres issued an order that all non-essential crew members leave the ship, a decision that had far-reaching consequences. He later claimed that all those men deserted and tried to have them court marshaled. Fortunately, Navy decided against that course of action.
Despite all his flaws, Gehres wasn’t punished. In fact, he was promoted to rear admiral and was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in saving USS Franklin. Yet, one can’t but wonder would Franklin need saving in the first place if Gehres did his job.