HANGING ON TO FAITH ALONE
George Fain Black
Having scarcely been more than ﬁfty miles from home in my life, I had decided on my 18th birthday to join the Navy. I rode a bus for 90 miles to Lubbock, Texas, where as a selective volunteer, I was sent to Naval Boot Training at Camp Wallace near Galveston. After “boots,” I traveled on a troop train to radio school at Naval Armory in Indianapolis, and graduated as a radioman striker in December 1944. I arrived at a receiving ship near San Jose, California, and in less than 2 weeks, was on a bus in search of my ship. I clearly remember the bus turning a corner at dockside at Alameda, and there loomed the most awesome thing I had ever seen in my life—the attack aircraft carrier named USS Franklin. The sea detail had already been set, and lines were attached to the gangway to pull it aboard just minutes after our party had boarded. I had never before seen a ship, or the sea.
While awaiting billeting assignment, my group was allowed to witness our departure under the Golden Gate, and saw it ﬁnally disappear into the haze. I had difﬁculty in acclimating to shipboard life, as I was in a group of 10 who did not even have a bunk, locker, or compartment assigned; we had to live, even off duty, in the mess hall, and sleep in our hammocks, as best as we’ could, when it did not conﬂict with mess meals or the early rising Airedales. After we let Ulithi atoll, the mess hall was used as a bomb assembly area when not used for mess. I usually swung my hammock near the bomb elevator, and on one occasion, was roused out of my hammock from a deep exhaustive sleep only to straddle a 500-pound bomb parked directly under me. My watch was important. I was on what was called “Jump Fox,” which was NSS Pearl Harbor and CINCPAC. Should the main operator miss reception of the Morse-coded messages, then, as the “back up,” I was expected to receive it. As the “ﬂag” was aboard, anything that came for “Big Ben” was important.
Recalling, the communications K division went into battle conditions on March 15, we shifted to two battle watches: starboard and port, and we stayed at our radio positions for 8 hours. My ﬁrst test as an operator receiver came on the 16th, with our call sign direct from Admiral Nimitz H.Q. It was a long coded message; both the operator and I got it okay. A few hours later, after decoding and delivery, I Was shown the message copy and it said, “Lucky Day March 17.” We guessed that our sealed orders authorized our attack to commence on that date, and we turned out to be correct. Before we could be relieved from watch, we went into battle stations; so we remained on watch all through the 17th and into the l8th. Several attempts were made to relieve us for mess and rest, but each time was thwarted by battle conditions with bogeys on the screen. I recall going through the night of the l8th-l9th still at watch on the radios… very hungry, and tired. We had plenty of java and that was it. Suddenly, one of the communications officers, an Ensign, burst into the radio shack and announced our relief was just behind. We were to go on the double before chow call and eat ahead of everyone else; we had to get mess over within 5 minutes and report to Radio 2 on the fantail. Tired and hungry, I jumped and handed the earphones to my relief (I never saw him again as he was killed there), and followed my watch leader, First Class R/M Walter Bigusiak, down the ladders to mess.
The ﬁrst bomb exploded, just as l seated and started scooping in chow. The blast ﬂung me clear across the compartment into a corner. I struck a stack of sea bags and hammocks, one being my own, which cushioned the impact. Others seated at the same mess table were not so lucky. Managing to get to my feet as a few others were doing the same, I noticed everyone’s face was sooty black from the burnt powder of the blast. Some hurried to go aft, some forward. Later, I learned that hardly anyone made it out. We had been ordered to Radio 2 on the starboard fantail, and tried to go that way. We were following Bigusiak, so we went port to a ladder that led up to the hanger deck. Thirteen men got into a small crew compartment under the hangar deck, just before the lights went out. A few minutes later, the telephone went out. The heat from above was becoming intolerable. I grabbed a towel from a bunk, wet it in a scuttlebutt, and tied the wet towel over my face to breathe, and then crawled into a bunk. The explosions came closer and knocked down anyone standing. A cook grabbed the hatch wheel atop the ladder, and burned his hands. After what seemed an eternity and another close explosion, salt water started pouring in from above, cooling off the hatch, and the cook was able to turn the wheel. By this time, we were out of air and in a starboard list. A burned out plane slid away from over the hatch and we now had a way to climb out onto the hangar deck. A rocket had blown a leak in a salt water line, and the pouring water put out the ﬁre just over us.
By my own count, 11 preceded me up the ladder. A man wearing a gas mask grabbed me as number 12 and pushed me ahead of him. Had he not done this, I would not have made it, as I was now strangling. He was last out and number 13. We were nearly overcome with smoke and lack of oxygen.
The hangar deck was an unbelievable mass of wreckage and ﬁre. A burning ﬁghter plane’s wing guns spit bullets just above our heads, and then a blast spun it around in another direction. The deck was full of bomb holes, and we followed our only light to starboard. There was carnage everywhere. We met not a living soul on the hangar deck. Reaching a gun mount, we saw no way out in any direction but the sea. No rats, no ﬂoats, no life buoys, no life jackets among any of us; just steel helmets. Burning aviation gasoline started pouring over the side and making its way aft toward us. The decision was go or stay; an individual choice. Bigusiak a non-swimmer, was the only one to stay. We jumped overboard in groups of three, all 12 of us. I didn’t know the other two who jumped with me, but for a while we managed to stay together. Until they drowned, I tried to hold the other two up. Both were wounded, and just gave up. A “can” went by at full speed and threw a life preserver to us, but I was too exhausted to swim to it. I was managing to stay aﬂoat by trapping air in my shirt. After 55 years of wondering, I still have not clearly established the time frame. It must have been hours.
I could tell the light was getting dim when a ﬁghter roared over me just above the water. I thought perhaps I was going to get strafed, but it turned out to be one of ours, and he was leading a “can” to me. Some guy actually roped me ﬁrst-try with a loop, and I was pulled into a cargo net. I had noticed I had drifted into land swells, and I was having difﬁculty keeping aﬂoat. I suppose not much time was left for me. Just in time, the USS Hunt had saved me. Hours later, when I awoke, and days later, when I could walk, I looked all over the ship for those 12 guys from the Franklin who took to the sea with me, but none were aboard. Later I learned that Bigusiak, who had apparently stayed with the ship to his end, was listed as M.I.A.
Going from bunk to bunk and looking at all the faces, and asking around on the Hunt, I realized that of the my group of Franklin crewmen, 13 in all, one had died on the hangar deck, and of the 12 men who had gone into the sea together, I alone, was rescued.
It is a short journey of the sweet innocence of a youth, who in nine short months sailed into harm’s way to be a part of the carnage.
It is real FAITH when that is all you have to hang onto.
When thou passest through the waters, 1 will be with
thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.
When thou walkest through the rivers, thou shalt not be
burned; neither shall the ﬂame kindle upon thee.