A Marine’s Tragic Experience of World War II
By Cara Baker
World Civ 2
April 12, 2000
Q: Cara Baker
A: Michael Sansone
Can you imagine joining the United States Marines at age 17 and being drafted two years later to fight in World War II? That was my grandfather, Michael Sansone. He was drafted on to the USS Franklin Carrier trying to engage Japan and the Nazis. After time at sea, on March 19, 1945, Japan bombed the ship and about 2000 men’s lives were put on the line. Luckily, my grandfather survived this catastrophe and is able to share his experience with me.
Q: Did you choose to become a Marine? If so, why?
A: I chose to become a Marine in 1943 because a good high school friend of mine, a year older than I was, was due to be drafted. I accompanied him down to the Marine recruiting depot as a bystander and while there I became interested in joining the Marines. I would become available just about a year later. However, I did enlist and I was called up a few months after my 17th birthday.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard you would have an affect on WWII?
A: Immediately, I didn’t realize that I would have an effect on WWII. However, I did know that I was in a prestigious branch of the armed forces and felt that we would be a very important part in defeating Japan as well as the Nazis.
Q: What was the name of your ship? Did the name have any significance?
A: The name of the ship that I was on was the USS Franklin SSS Carrier. It was named after the battle of Franklin, Tennessee in the Civil War.
Q: How old were you when you were on the ship?
A: At the time when I went aboard the Aircraft Carrier Franklin I was 19 years old. I was about two or three days past my 19th birthday.
Q: Why were you on the ship in the first place? (What were you to do for the war?)
A: I was aboard the ship with VMF 214, a Marine Fighter Squadron. Our pilots were to fly off the carrier and engage the enemy. My specific duty was a radioman in support of the pilots. I was mainly on the flight deck, but never got the chance to fly.
Q: What happened to your ship?
A: Our ship was hit for the second time in WWII, March 19, 1945. A single Japanese fighter-bomber escaped through the patrol and made a bombing run on our ship. He set off the fuel and ammunition and totally devastated the ship.
Q: What did the Marines do when the ship got bombed?
A: The Marines consisted of the pilots and about half of those pilots were airborne, maybe 15, and the remaining 15 pilots were preparing to take off on a subsequent air strike against the enemy. As far as the ground personnel, which included myself, we were strictly performing our support duties. I myself being in the radio department, tended to the radios that were installed in the airplanes. The rest of the Marines, like mechanics attended to the maintenance of the airplanes. The ordinance crew that ordered the bombs continued their duties.
Additional to the flight Marines, the 90 Marines that were permanently attached to the ship were there loading the guns to serve as protection for the captain.
Q: What were you thinking when the catastrophe happened?
A: I was paying attention to the fact to do my duties, as I was supposed to do, But when the bombs started exploding and everything was going off we really didn’t have much time to think off anything but to seek shelter and survive the initial attack.
Q: When during the war, did the bombing happen?
A: Well, as I said before, the bombing happened on March 19, 1945.
Q: Where, in the world, was the ship located when it got bombed?
A: The ship had sailed from Ulysses, two days prior. Ulysses is about 1000 miles south of the southernmost island of Japan. At the time the Japanese Aircraft bombed our ship, we were about 50 miles east of Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. The reason we were in that location was because the pilots were seeking out the remnants of the Japanese fleet, which was possibly held up in the Inland Sea, on the western side of Kyushu. This was prior to the Okinawa invasion, which was to occur on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.
Q: Was the ship near its destination when the bombing happened?
A: The ship was exactly where it was supposed to be, we were part of Task Force 58.2. And I would estimate that at least 1000 ships participated in the engagement. The cast force consisted of aircraft carriers, cruisers, battle ships, destroyers, submarines, and other supporting supply ships.
Q: How did this overall affect World War II?
A: This particular bombing of the Franklin was more of a propaganda tool, showing the enemy how we could survive because I’m sure the enemy thought they had sunk the ship. (They even reported they had sunk the ship) Even though the ship was in danger of capsizing many times and survived many subsequent attacks from the Japanese while it was being hauled back to a safer area, we survived. I feel that even though the ship didn’t contribute any serious damage to the enemy, other than what the pilots themselves shot down. This showed the Japanese the American’s determination to carry on despite how heavy the damaging odds.
Q: Did this disaster change anything in your life?
A: I think this disaster gave me a greater appreciation of life and a greater appreciation of my God. At the very first moment of the bombing, my immediate attention was to look up to the sky and ask the Lord, “Please Lord not now, let me survive.”
Q: Did you have any regrets for joining the Marines?
A: I had no regrets for joining the Marines. If I had to do it tomorrow, I would be first in line. In fact I would go before I would ask my sons to defend their country.
Q: How close were you, to death, if at all?
A: At the time of the bombing and subsequently for the next four hours, I was very close to being injured and possibly dying. My immediate thoughts were to jump overboard into the sea, however not being a swimmer; I took my chances with the explosion, the fire, and the flying debris.
Q: Did anyone on the ship die?
A: There were several that died on the ship. I would estimate that there were at least 800 that died. There have been varying reports from anywhere from the high 700s to the low 800s that were killed.
Q: Did anyone affect your survival?
A: Well no particular person themselves affected my survival. Other than the fact Father O’Callahan, the Catholic chaplain aboard the ship, was very instrumental in organizing various crews to combat the fires and explosion. If it hadn’t been for his leadership, I’m sure that the panic that existed could have gotten out of hand and the ship eventually could have been left. But through Father O’Callahan’s leadership, he calmed everyone down and got everyone to perform their duties in their best manners that they had been trained to do.
Q: Did you help save anyone’s life?
A: I directly did not help save anyone’s life, per say, but I did participate in being part of the hose crews. I manned the hoses to fight the fire and also through ammunition over the side that was in danger of exploding.
Q: How did your ship get help after the bombing?
A: Our ship was very fortunate that it was helped after the bombing because of the courageous action of the captain of the Cruiser Santa Fe and by the heroic action of the Cruiser Pittsburgh. The Cruiser Pittsburgh was instrumental in taking survivors off the stern of the ship. And also was able to get a tow line over to the Franklin to tow it back to Ulysses and out of danger of the Japanese airplane which was coming at us from Kyushu. The Cruiser Santa Fe, despite the danger of being blown up by being so close to us actually came along side and hooked on to us to assist in getting the injured off the ship. And subsequently, those like myself who were not injured, but were ordered to abandon the ship, so that the remaining permanent Navy personnel could man their duties to help get the Franklin back to a safe port.
Q: Do you think this major event in your life has affected any other men that want to become Marines?
A: Yes I definitely do feel that this event of the Franklin was instrumental in influencing other young men to join the Marines because it just wasn’t many instances of heroics and persistence of our Marines. It is like those that participated in Guarder Canal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa and some of our recent wars or engagements, such as Desert Storm.
Q: Do you believe this bombing stunned the world?
A: I do believe this bombing stunned the world because, like I mentioned before, the news was published about 30 days after the hit on March 19. It just listed mentioned the number of people that were killed and the number of people that were wounded. The combination of the two totaled over 1102. This incident came at the tail end of the war because the Nazi’s gave up some time in May, and I think that the Japanese defeat that came subsequently in August came about because this particular incident of the Franklin showed the enemy our determination that we would come after them regardless of anything they did to us.
Q: When you thought about joining the Marines, did you think you would ever be in danger?
A: When I joined the Marines at the age of 17, I didn’t think too much about being in danger because I just felt that at that age I was indestructible, like so many other 17 year olds, even those of today. You try to tell one of them that they’re in danger of death in any particular incident they’ll just kind of shrug about and say. “My gosh, I’m only 17 years old, I should be here for a long time.”
Q: After the disaster, how many more years were you in the Marines?
A: After the Franklin disaster, I served approximately 13 more months until April of 1946 when I was discharged on the frank basis that the government had established to disband our armed forces.
Q: Do you ever think about this disaster on a constant basis?
A: I don’t think about this disaster on a constant basis because when it first happened, those of us that were aboard the carrier, or injured, or transferred to I’ different units were mostly in shock and it was this when understating amongst our veterans, you just more or less forgot about these bad things, like other veterans have done over the years. But I would say that after about 50 years or when the veterans are in their late 60s or early 70s, they have the tendency to start recalling or going to reunions, or I would say since the beginning of the attendance at the reunion, that even though it is not a daily deal, it is probably a weekly recall because we are hearing so much from our former ship mates about incidents that happened in the past because these incidents are refreshed at the reunions.
Q: How did you acquire all the newspapers, and new reels, and any other information you have about your ship and the bombing?
A: Most of the papers and information I have in my current scrapbook, I immediately began assembling them right after the news of the Carrier came out to public knowledge. Over the years various people that knew about my service aboard the carrier, have sent me various articles and newspaper clippings. I do have a newsreel film of the Franklin incident that I nearly obtained right after the incident. And then Father O’Callahan published a book. And just recently, as of March 19, 2000, the 55th anniversary, a newspaper article appeared in the Portland, Oregonian about the father of the reporter that works for the Oregonian. I would estimate that there will be a continuing flow of articles from here to the time where all of us leave the world because there is such a continuing interest amongst the survivors of the Franklin, their sons and daughters, and now even
their grandchildren who have been attending the reunions. These people are constantly on the look out for various articles about the Franklin incident that occurred on March 19, 1945.
Q: Did you get any special awards or recognition for being a part of this incident?
A: I personally did not get any reward other than my own tide with a save with the blessing of the good Lord.
Q: If you had to speak to a group of young boys thinking about joining the Marines, would you discourage or encourage them to join based on your personal experience?
A: Based on my personal experience, I would always encourage young boys to join a branch of the service, but particularly the United States Marines. Joining the United States Marines it helps them to develop a comradeship that they can’t help but do their best not only for themselves, their God, and their country, but for their comrades. The Marines have a special saying that; “We never leave our dead in the battle field.” We are the only branch of the service that never leave our dead in the battlefield, to me that’s a tremendous endorsement for anybody that wants to serve in the service, to join the Marines. And even when the Marines die, they always make it a point to have a Marine Color guard subject to the availability of the Marine special prayer too.