Honoring the Legacy of the Franklin and her Crew 70 years Later
Good evening, Shipmates, Marines and family members. I am deeply honored to be with you at the 70th anniversary of the commissioning of the great aircraft carrier USS Franklin, affectionately nicknamed “Big Ben” a ship whose story is well known to our Nation and our Navy and is interwoven into the history of the Navy Chaplain Corps.
Each year, for the past 70 years you’ve gathered to honor service to our Nation- your own service and that of your loved ones and comrades at such a critical time during World War II. But in particular, you’ve gathered as a crew and family to reflect on the courageous actions taken before daybreak, March 19, 1945, in the waters of Kobe Harbor.
It was a harrowing day where more than 800 lives were lost and nearly 300 wounded, and yet many survived as they fought to save each other and to save Big Ben herself.
There is something powerful behind this ritual of coming together for fellowship and camaraderie, to remember and reflect, to share stories (some of which may be true!) and ultimately to show support to your Shipmates these many years later. Just as you did yesterday during a Memorial Service held aboard the USS Wisconsin. This gathering together is a profound testament to the power of our relationships. Relationships that bring joy and meaning to our lives, but also sustainment in the years following the wrenching experience of combat. For it is these very bonds which bring healing, healing to the body and the mind and finally the heart.
These bonds of Shipmates, forged in harm’s way, are inevitably deepened by the magnitude and intensity of combat experience. Those inseparable bonds have endured time and distance. They are strengthened by your shared devotion to your country, to your ship and to your Shipmates.
This tradition of gathering together also speaks to the personal connection we feel to our ship, our home. It’s almost part of our identity as Sailors- it’s in our DNA. And what a rich and historic legacy of service Big Ben has having served in several campaigns in the Pacific, earning four battle stars with her 3,500 crewmen and 100 aircraft.
So I am pleased to see with us tonight, multiple generations of family members who continue to honor their own family members’ legacy of service during such a critical time in our history.
Among the crew members of FRANKLIN were the ship’s two chaplains, Chaplain Joseph T. O’Callahan, known as “Father Joe” and Chaplain Grimes W. Gatlin, the Protestant chaplain. Both of them held services on the hangar deck the day before the attack, and they were preparing for a burial at sea that morning.
Chaplain O’Callahan and Chaplain Gatlin were spiritual leaders trusted by their people. They’d always been engaged in the lives and welfare of the crew. In their own ways, they brought a message of hope and most importantly, they brought the presence of God—a presence desperately needed on the terrible morning of March 19.
In the course of the attack, the ship was engulfed in flames fed by the five bombers, 14 torpedo bombers and 12 fighters on the flight and hangar decks that were carrying 36,000 gallons of gas and 30 tons of bombs and rockets between them.
Throughout the chaos, the crew remained calm and never gave up the ship. Chaplain O’Callahan manned a fire hose and organized fire fighters to lay water on the bombs so they would not explode. He worked with crew members throwing hot ammunition overboard to prevent a potentially fatal explosion. He sought to comfort the wounded and to administer last rights to the dying, while Chaplain Gatlin ministered to those badly burned in the attacks.
One of those Sailors to whom Father Joe O’Callahan gave last rites was Robert C. Blanchard who had been overcome by smoke inhalation. Many of you know well the iconic WWII photograph of Father Joe bending over Robert. What was not publicly known until recently was the fact that Robert went on to live to be 90 and passed away this past April.
FRANKLIN’S CO, Captain Leslie E. Gehres, said this about Chaplain O’Callahan’s actions to save the ship and care for the crew: “His courage was sustained, tested by time, enduring, faithful to the end.” These words applied to countless others present that morning.
While sustaining catastrophic damage, heroic damage control measures saved the ship. Thanks to that courageous and incredibly resilient spirit, you were able to save Big Ben. As you well know, no ship in history had ever suffered such losses and remained afloat.
As the Plan of the Day for March 21st put it so well after the attack and recovery efforts: “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken.” Those words reflect the valor and tenacity demonstrated that fateful day, and it speaks to your generation of Sailors and Marines who answered the call to serve our great Nation. That’s something for which all family members present tonight have reason to be justifiably proud.
This tenacious and resilient spirit carried you not only through the attack, but also through the 5-week, 12,000 mile cruise back home to New York Harbor. Once safely docked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 234 men received Letters of Commendation, nearly 300 of the wounded crew members were presented with Purple Hearts. 115 men were recipients of the Bronze Star. Chaplain Grimes W. Gatlin was among 22 of Franklin’s men to be awarded the Silver Star.
The Navy Cross went to 19 of Franklin’s men, including the captain.
For actions above and beyond the call of duty that day, Lt.j.g. Donald A. Gary was awareded the Congressional Medal of Honor, as as Chaplain Joseph O’Callahan, the 1st military chaplain to receive that award. He remains one of only two Navy chaplains to receive this award.
On that fateful day, more than 800 of your fellow Sailors and Marines gave their lives and nearly 300 were wounded from the attack, together accounting for 1/3 of your Shipmates.
In the Christian scriptures, John 15:13 reminds us that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” his Shipmates.
Thank you for your invitation to join you here tonight as you gather to reflect on your service to our Nation, to our Navy, and to each other aboard the Franklin and to honor the tremendous sacrifices and legacy of your fellow crew members who perished that fateful day.
Regardless of the paths your lives have taken through the years since that day, you can always stand proud of your service to your ship and to your Shipmates.
May God continue to bless you and your families.