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Recollections

LCDR Samuel Robert Sherman, MC, USNR, Flight Surgeon on USS Franklin (CV-13) when it was heavily damaged by a Japanese bomber near the Japanese mainland on 19 March 1945.
Adapted from: “Flight Surgeon on the Spot: Aboard USS Franklin,
19 March 1945,” Navy Medicine 84, no. 4 (July-August 1993): 4-9.

 

I joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor. Actually, I had
been turned down twice before because I had never been in a ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] – located at many colleges to train students for officer commissions] reserve unit. Since I
had to work my way through college and medical school, I wasn’t
able to go to summer camp or the monthly week end drills.
Instead, I needed to work in order to earn the money to pay my
tuition. Therefore, I could never join a ROTC unit.

When most of my classmates were called up prior to Pearl Harbor,
I felt quite guilty, and I went to see if I could get into the
Army unit. They flunked me. Then I went to the Navy recruiting
office and they flunked me for two minor reasons. One was
because I had my nose broken a half dozen times while I was
boxing. The inside of my nose was so obstructed and the septum
was so crooked that the Navy didn’t think I could breathe well
enough. I also had a partial denture because I had lost some
front teeth also while boxing.

But the day after Pearl Harbor, I went back to the Navy and they
welcomed me with open arms. They told me I had 10 days to close
my office and get commissioned. At that time, I went to Treasure
Island, CA [naval station in San Francisco Bay], for
indoctrination. After that, I was sent to Alameda Naval Air
Station [east of San Francisco, near Oakland CA] where I was put
in charge of surgery and clinical services. One day the Team
Medical Officer burst into the operating room and said, “When
are you going to get through with this operation?” I answered,
“In about a half hour.” He said, “Well, you better hurry up
because I just got orders for you to go to Pensacola to get
flight surgeon’s training.”

Nothing could have been better because airplanes were the love
of my life. In fact, both my wife and I were private pilots and
I had my own little airfield and two planes. Since I wasn’t
allowed to be near the planes at Alameda, I had been after the
senior medical officer day and night to get me transferred to
flight surgeon’s training.

I went to [Naval Air Station] Pensacola [Florida] in April 1943
for my flight surgeon training and finished up in August.
Initially, I was told that I was going to be shipped out from
the East Coast. But the Navy changed its mind and sent me back
to the West Coast in late 1943 to wait for Air Group 5 at
Alameda Naval Air Station.

Air Group 5

Air Group 5 soon arrived, but it took about a year or so of
training to get up to snuff. Most of the people in it were
veterans from other carriers that went down. Three squadrons
formed the nucleus of this air group–a fighter, a bomber, and a
torpedo bomber squadron. Later, we were given two Marine
squadrons; the remnants of Pappy Boyington’s group.

Since the Marine pilots had been land-based, the toughest part
of the training was to get them carrier certified. We used the
old [USS] Ranger (CV-4) for take-off and landing training. We
took the Ranger up and down the coast from San Francisco to San
Diego and tried like hell to get these Marines to learn how to
make a landing. They had no problem taking off, but they had
problems with landings. Luckily, we were close enough to
airports so that if they couldn’t get on the ship they’d have a
place to land. That way, they wouldn’t have to go in the drink.
Anyhow, we eventually got them all certified. Some of our other
pilots trained at Fallon Air Station in Nevada and other West
Coast bases. By the time the [USS] Franklin [CV-13] came in, we
had a very well-trained group of people.

I had two Marine squadrons and three Navy squadrons to take care
of. The Marines claimed I was a Marine. The Navy guys claimed I
was a Navy man. I used to wear two uniforms. When I would go to
the Marine ready rooms [a ready room is a room where air crew
squadrons were briefed on upcoming missions and then stood by
“ready” to go to their aircraft. Each squadron had a ready
room.], I’d put on a Marine uniform and then I’d change quickly
and put on my Navy uniform and go to the other one. We had a lot
of fun with that. As their physician, I was everything. I had to
be a general practitioner with them, but I also was their
father, their mother, their spiritual guide, their social
director, their psychiatrist, the whole thing. Of course, I was
well trained in surgery so I could take care of the various
surgical problems. Every once in a while I had to do an
appendectomy. I also removed some pilonidal cysts and fixed a
few strangulated hernias. Of course, they occasionally got
fractures during their training exercises. I took care of
everything for them and they considered me their personal
physician, every one of them. I was called Dr. Sam and Dr. Sam
was their private doctor. No matter what was wrong, I took care
of it.

Eventually, the Franklin arrived in early 1945. It had been in
Bremerton [Washington] being repaired after it was damaged by a
Kamikaze off Leyte [in the Philippine Islands] in October 1944.
In mid-February 1945 we left the West Coast and went to [Naval
Base] Pearl [Harbor, Hawaii] first and then to Ulithi [in the
Caroline Islands, west Pacific Ocean. It was captured by the US
in Sept. 1944 and developed into a major advance fleet base.].
By the first week in March, the fleet was ready to sail. It took
us about 5 or 6 days to reach the coast of Japan where we began
launching aerial attacks on the airbases, ports, and other such
targets.

The Attack

Just before dawn on 19 March 1945, 38 of our bombers took off,
escorted by about 9 of our fighter planes. The crew of the
Franklin was getting ready for another strike, so more planes
were on the flight deck. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a
Japanese plane slipped through the fighter screen and popped up
just in front of the ship. My battle station was right in the
middle of the flight deck because I was the flight surgeon and
was supposed to take care of anything that might happen during
flight operations. I saw the Japanese plane coming in, but there
was nothing I could do but stay there and take it. The plane
just flew right in and dropped two bombs on our flight deck.

I was blown about 15 feet into the air and tossed against the
steel bulkhead of the island. I got up groggily and saw an
enormous fire. All those planes that were lined up to take off
were fully armed and fueled. The dive bombers were equipped with
this new “Tiny Tim” heavy rocket and they immediately began to
explode. Some of the rockets’ motors ignited and took off across
the flight deck on their own. A lot of us were just ducking
those things. It was pandemonium and chaos for hours and hours.
We had 126 separate explosions on that ship; and each explosion
would pick the ship up and rock it and then turn it around a
little bit. Of course, the ship suffered horrendous casualties
from the first moment. I lost my glasses and my shoes. I was
wearing a kind of moccasin shoes. I didn’t have time that
morning to put on my flight deck shoes and they just went right
off immediately. Regardless, there were hundreds and hundreds of
crewmen who needed my attention.

Medical Equipment

Fortunately, I was well prepared from a medical equipment
standpoint. From the time we left San Francisco and then stopped
at Pearl and then to Ulithi and so forth, I had done what we
call disaster planning. Because I had worked in emergency
hospital service and trauma centers, I knew what was needed.
Therefore, I had a number of big metal containers, approximately
the size of garbage cans, bolted down on the flight deck and the
hangar deck. These were full of everything that I
needed–splints, burn dressings, sterile dressings of all sorts,
sterile surgical instruments, medications, plasma, and
intravenous solutions other than plasma. The most important
supplies were those used for the treatment of burns and
fractures, lacerations, and bleeding. In those days the Navy had
a special burn dressing which was very effective. It was a gauze
impregnated with Vaseline and some chemicals that were almost
like local anesthetics. In addition to treating burns, I also
had to deal with numerous casualties suffering from severe
bleeding; I even performed some amputations.

Furthermore, I had a specially equipped coat that was similar to
those used by duck hunters, with all the little pouches. In
addition to the coat, I had a couple of extra-sized money belts
which could hold things. In these I carried my morphine syrettes
and other small medical items. Due to careful planning I had no
problem whatsoever with supplies.

I immediately looked around to see if I had any corpsmen
[Hospital Corpsman is an enlisted rating for medical orderlies]
left. Most of them were already wounded, dead, or had been blown
overboard. Some, I was later told, got panicky and jumped
overboard. Therefore, I couldn’t find any corpsmen, but
fortunately I found some of the members of the musical band whom
I had trained in first aid. I had also given first-aid training
to my air group pilots and some of the crew. The first guy I
latched onto was LCDR MacGregor Kilpatrick, the skipper of the
fighter squadron. He was an Annapolis graduate and a veteran of
the [USS] Lexington (CV-2) and the [USS] Yorktown (CV-5) with
three Navy Crosses. He stayed with me, helping me take care of
the wounded.

I couldn’t find any doctors. There were three ship’s doctors
assigned to the Franklin, CDR Francis (Kurt) Smith, LCDR James
Fuelling, and LCDR George Fox. I found out later that LCDR Fox
was killed in the sick bay by the fires and suffocating smoke.
CDR Smith and LCDR Fuelling were trapped below in the warrant
officer’s wardroom, and it took 12 or 13 hours to get them out.
That’s where LT Donald Gary got his Medal of Honor for finding
an escape route for them and 300 men trapped below. Mean while,
I had very little medical help.

Finally, a couple of corpsmen who were down below in the hangar
deck came up once they recovered from their concussions and
shock. Little by little a few of them came up. Originally, the
band was my medical help and what pilots I had around.

Evacuation Efforts

I had hundreds and hundreds of patients, obviously more than I
could possibly treat. Therefore, the most important thing for me
to do was triage. In other words, separate the serious wounded
from the not so serious wounded. We’d arranged for evacuation of
the serious ones to the cruiser [USS] Santa Fe (CL-60) which had
a very well-equipped sick bay and was standing by alongside.

LCDR Kilpatrick was instrumental in the evacuations. He helped
me organize all of this and we got people to carry the really
badly wounded. Some of them had their hips blown off and arms
blown off and other sorts of tremendous damage. All together, I
think we evacuated some 800 people to the Santa Fe. Most of them were wounded and the rest were the air group personnel who were on board.

The orders came that all air group personnel had to go on the
Santa Fe because they were considered nonexpendable. They had to live to fight again in their airplanes. The ship’s company air
officer of the Franklin came up to LCDR Kilpatrick and myself as
we were supervising the evacuation between fighting fires,
taking care of the wounded, and so forth.

He said, “You two people get your asses over to the Santa Fe as
fast as you can.” LCDR Kilpatrick, being an [US Naval Academy
at] Annapolis [Maryland] graduate, knew he had to obey the
order, but he argued and argued and argued. But this guy
wouldn’t take his arguments.

He said, “Get over there. You know better.” Then he said to me,
“You get over there too.”

I said, “Who’s going to take care of these people?”

He replied, “We’ll manage.”

I said, “Nope. All my life I’ve been trained never to abandon a
sick or wounded person. I can’t find any doctors and I don’t
know where they are and I only have a few corpsmen and I can’t
leave these people.”

He said, “You better go because a military order is a military
order.”

I said, “Well what could happen to me if I don’t go?”

He answered, “I could shoot you or I could bring court-martial
charges against you.”

I said, “Well, take your choice.” And I went back to work.

As MacGregor Kilpatrick left he told me, “Sam, you’re crazy!”

Getting Franklin Under Way

After the Air Group evacuated, I looked at the ship, I looked at
the fires, and I felt the explosions. I thought, well, I better
say good-bye right now to my family because I never believed
that the ship was going to survive. We were just 50 miles off
the coast of Japan (about 15 minutes flying time) and dead in
the water. The cruiser [USS] Pittsburgh (CA-72) was trying to
get a tow line to us, but it was a difficult job and took hours
to accomplish.

Meanwhile, our engineering officers were trying to get the
boilers lit off in the engine room. The smoke was so bad that we
had to get the Santa Fe to give us a whole batch of gas masks.
But the masks didn’t cover the engineers’ eyes. Their eyes
became so inflamed from the smoke that they couldn’t see to do
their work. So, the XO [Executive Officer, the ship’s
second-in-command] came down and said to me, “Do you know where
there are any anesthetic eye drops to put in their eyes so they
can tolerate the smoke?”

I said, “Yes, I know where they are.” I knew there was a whole
stash of them down in the sick bay because I used to have to
take foreign bodies out of the eyes of my pilots and some of the
crew.

He asked, “Could you go down there (that’s about four or five
decks below), get it and give it to the engineering officer?”

I replied, “Sure, give me a flash light and a guide because I
may not be able to see my way down there although I used to go
down three or four times a day.”

I went down and got a whole batch of them. They were in
eyedropper bottles and we gave them to these guys. They put them in their eyes and immediately they could tolerate the smoke.
That enabled them to get the boilers going.

Aftermath

It was almost 12 or 13 hours before the doctors who were trapped
below were rescued. By that time, I had the majority of the
wounded taken care of. However, there still were trapped and
injured people in various parts of the ship, like the hangar
deck, that hadn’t been discovered. We spent the next 7 days
trying to find them all.

I also helped the chaplains take care of the dead. The burial of
the dead was terrible. They were all over the ship. The ships’
medical officers put the burial functions on my shoulders. I had
to declare them dead, take off their identification, remove,
along with the chaplains’ help, whatever possessions that hadn’t
been destroyed on them, and then slide them overboard because we had no way of keeping them. A lot of them were my own Air Group people, pilots and aircrew, and I recognized them even tough the bodies were busted up and charred. I think we buried about 832 people in the next 7 days. That was terrible, really terrible to bury that many people.

Going Home

It took us 6 days to reach Ulithi. Actually, by the time we got
to Ulithi, we were making 14 knots and had cast off the tow line
from the Pittsburgh. We had five destroyers assigned to us that
kept circling us all the time from the time we left the coast of
Japan until we got to Ulithi because we were under constant
attack by Japanese bombers. We also had support from two of the
new battle cruisers.

At Ulithi, I got word that a lot of my people in the Air Group
who were taken off or picked up in the water, were on a hospital
ship that was also in Ulithi. I visited them there and was told
that many of the dead in the Air Group were killed in their
ready rooms, waiting to take off when the bombs exploded. The
Marine squadrons were particularly hard hit, having few
survivors. I have a list of dead Marines which makes your heart
sink.

The survivors of the Air Group then regrouped on Guam. They
requested that I be sent back to them. I also wanted to go with
them, so I pleaded my case with the chaplain, the XO, and the
skipper [ship’s commanding officer]. Although the skipper felt I
had earned the right to be part of the ship’s company, he was
willing to send me where I wanted to go. Luckily, I rejoined my
Air Group just in time to keep the poor derelicts from getting
assigned to another carrier.

The Air Group Commander wanted to make captain so bad, that he
volunteered these boys for another carrier. Most of them were
veterans of the [USS] Yorktown and [USS] Lexington and had seen
quite a lot of action. A fair number of them had been blown into
the water and many were suffering from the shock of the
devastating ordeal. The skipper of the bombing squadron did not
think his men were psychologically or physically qualified to go
back into combat at that particular time. A hearing was held to
determine their combat availability and a flight surgeon was
needed to check them over. I assembled the pilots and checked
them out and I agreed with the bombing squadron skipper. These
men were just not ready to fight yet. Some of them even looked
like death warmed over.

The hearing was conducted by [Fleet] ADM [Chester W.] Nimitz
[Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas]. He
remembered me from Alameda because I pulled him out of the
wreckage of his plane when it crashed during a landing approach
in 1942. He simply said, “Unless I hear a medical opinion to the
contrary to CDR Sherman’s, I have to agree with CDR Sherman.” He
decided that the Air Group should be sent back to the States and
rehabilitated as much as possible.

In late April 1945, the Air Group went to Pearl where we briefly
reunited with the Franklin. They had to make repairs to the ship
so it could make the journey to Brooklyn. After a short stay, we
continued on to the Alameda. Then the Navy decided to break up
the Air Group, so everyone was sent on their individual way. I
was given what I wanted–senior medical officer of a
carrier–the [USS] Rendova (CVE-114), which was still outfitting
in Portland, OR. But the war ended shortly after we had
completed outfitting.

I stayed in the Navy until about Christmas time [1945]. I was
mustered out in San Francisco at the same place I was
commissioned. As far as the Air Group Officer, who said he would
either shoot me or court-martial me, well, he didn’t shoot me.
He talked about the court-martial a lot but everybody in higher
rank on the ship thought it was a really bad idea and made him
sound like a damned fool. He stopped making the threats.

3 thoughts on “Search

  1. I Live in Bremerton WA, where there is 4 Granite plaques mounted on the side of the Utilities building by our Boardwalk in honor of the USS Franklin. I do not see any reference to these plaques on your site. I will be repainting this building 2 shades of grey in honor of this plaque on the side and cleaning and restoring the plaques as well. I plan to get some nice lettering done above the plaque with the commissioning and decommissioning dates listed. If anyone would like to comment on this I can be reached at mick143fely@hotmail.com.

    Like

  2. Over 60 sailors assisted Retired Senior Chief Hersey in painting the Utilities building on the Boardwalk in Bremerton on Saturday the 8th of September.

    The building was originally painted white with green striping. It is now traditional Haze Grey with a Dark Grey railing, doors and accent stripes. When asked why these colors were chosen, Senior Chief Hersey replied

    ” This is in honor of the USS Franklin Memorial Plaques placed on the side of this building. The USS Franklin lost 913 men during WWII, and their names are etched in granite on 3 plaques that adorn the walls of this building, along with memorials of 2 Medal of Honor Recipients on their ship. We honor those men and their ship by painting this building to resemble an aircraft carrier island structure in these colors”

    A big thank you to Lowes of East Bremerton for furnishing the paint for this project, and crewmembers from the USS Ronald Reagan and Naval Hospital Bremerton for all their hard work in volunteering to help the city of Bremerton turn this building into a welcoming entrance on to our Boardwalk.

    Mick Hersey
    Historical Marker Preservationist

    Like

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