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The BIG BEN 704 CLUB - USS Franklin March 19, 1945


KASTAUFFER
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On March 19, 1945, The USS Franklin was hit by Japanese bomber aircraft off the coast of Japan. A Japanese dive-bomber broke from the clouds at 2,000 feet about 1,000 yards off the Franklin's bow. On the bridge the navigator, Commander Stephen Jurika, heard the ship's forward 5-inch antiaircraft guns fire, and saw two bombs hurtling from the sky. With terrible precision, the two 550-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs plunged through the Franklin's deck. The first struck next to the island on the starboard side of the ship. The second landed aft, among the collected planes loaded for war. Planes toppled over one another; propellers cut wings, cut tails. Everything was on fire. The Frankin was fighting for her life.

 

In the ensuing action 798 men were killed aboard the ship, or died shortly thereafter of their wounds, and another 474 had been wounded—the most casualties at that time of any ship in U.S. naval history except the Arizona at Pearl Harbor. Although the exact toll took time to tabulate, its scale was painfully obvious to the men who remained aboard ship.

 

A final blow still awaited some of Big Ben's survivors, delivered, ironically, by the captain of the ship himself. En route to Ulithi, Gehres had requested that the USS Santa Fe return about 100 men—men in positions he deemed necessary to running the ship. These men had jumped from the USS Franklin to the USS Santa Fe to escape the carnage. When the men rejoined the Franklin in Ulithi, Joe Taylor met them on deck and handed them a curtly worded letter from Gehres demanding a written explanation for why "you able bodied and uninjured left this vessel while she was in action and seriously damaged when no order had been issued to abandon ship," as Joseph Springer recounts in Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II. Men who were blown out of their gun tubs or had jumped off the fantail with fire at their backs were furious. Gehres worsened the blow later in the journey when he handed out cards reading "Big Ben 704 Club." The cards went only to the men who were aboard throughout the entire ordeal. Gehres promised charges and courts-martial for the other "deserters." Many of these men had jumped from the ship into the water to escape the flames and certain death. Many were blown off the decks and from the hanger below. Navy brass never processed the charges; that decision was made, according to one legend, after a litigator floated the idea of accusing Admiral Davison, on Gehres's logic, of desertion too.

 

The Franklin men stood divided on Gehres—a strong-willed captain or a career-obsessed egomaniac—until the end. The navy brass were not so conflicted. Captain Leslie E. Gehres was awarded the Navy Cross along with 18 other men, including the executive officer, Commander Joe Taylor, and the navigator, Commander Stephen Jurika. Silver Stars went to 22 men, 115 earned Bronze Stars, and 234 received Letters of Commendation. Two men, Father Joseph O'Callahan and Lieutenant (junior grade) Donald Gary, received the Medal of Honor.

 

The men who were not in the 704 Club didn't receive so much as a handshake. Many lingered in limbo in Hawaii only to be redeployed to combat ships, never to see Big Ben again. The carrier itself was finished. By the time the Franklin was repaired, the war had ended, and in 1947 the ship was mothballed at Bayonne, New Jersey. The most damaged American warship ever to make its way home under its own steam at long last arrived at the end of its journey in 1966, when Big Ben was sold for scrap to the Portsmouth Salvage Company in Chesapeake, Virginia.

 

 

The BIG BEN 704 CLUB remains a point of contention even today among the survivors. I have talked to men who were on the Franklin, and they don't like to talk about the cards. Some threw them away because they felt some of their shipmates were unfairly treated by Gehres.

 

These cards are extremely scarce as only 704 were issued and not many survived. I have been looking for an example for years and finally found one. Its not in perfect shape, but sometimes it doesn't matter. If you look in google images, there are not even any to be seen online ( until now) This example is to a survivor who was wounded in the attack and earned a Purple Heart.

 

Big Ben1.jpg

 

 

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I thought I had posted, but it's gone.

I've not heard of this "club" before, and I agree with you Kurt, not too many of these cards are around anymore. This fits right into your collection.

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I thought I had posted, but it's gone.

I've not heard of this "club" before, and I agree with you Kurt, not too many of these cards are around anymore. This fits right into your collection.

Thanks Robin! Ever since I did a display at a reunion in Seattle, I've been looking for one of the cards. I never dreamed it would be so hard to find one.

 

Kurt

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Very interesting read and even better to see the card. I bet countless numbers of these were tossed by families as I have seen done with papers before. Glad you got one!

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That is a thing to see. I talked to a sailor that was in a gun tub on the island and saw the first explosion. He told me they could not see a thing except smoke and fire. Lost communications the rest of the ship so the gun captian ordered them over the side.

I did not know the full history of this event, shame on me, so I did not ask about his feelings in regards to the 704 club.

 

Mike

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  • 3 months later...

If I am not mistaken Fr. O'Callahan's war related items are in the Holy Cross archives (He taught there after the war). He is also buried on campus. I doubt he trashed anything....

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  • 1 year later...
  • 5 years later...

Back up in memory of the 75th anniversary of the attack on the USS Franklin March 19,1945.

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Amazing story attached to such a small piece of paper. Your posts are always interesting and eye opening Kurt. Thank you so much for taking the time to share the history with us.

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  • 4 weeks later...
illinigander

I worked with one of the sailors who "brought her back" His family has a piece of the wreckage, Will have to see if they have a 704 card.

Illinigander

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