Wednesday, March 19, 2008

March 19 a date to remember

Five years ago on this date, the U.S. invasion of Iraq started. My only child was a part of that force and I have to say that date will forever be imbedded in my memory -- the start of holy terror for me as I watched the next few days and weeks unfold. Fortunately, he came home safely after that initial invasion and is no longer in the service.

But also on that date 63 years ago, during the height of World War II, my daddy was on the USS Franklin aircraft carrier when it was attacked and almost sent to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean by one lone Japanese bomber. That was before I was born, but my sister was 3 months old. She and my mother were at my grandparents' home in Alabama and had no idea that Daddy was in such immiment danger until several weeks later.

Daddy was a bomber pilot with the Navy and was sitting in his plane on the flight deck with the engine running ready for takeoff with 31 other planes when the Japanese bomber dropped two bombs on the ship. The seas had been calm that morning where the 27,000-ton ship sat 53 miles off the Japanese coast.

At 7:05 a.m. on March 19, as the pilots waited for their signal to take off, an urgent message came across the TBS (talk between ships) radio from the Hancock, a nearby carrier: “Enemy plane closing on you … one coming toward you!” The first bomb ripped through 3-inch armor to the hangar deck just below the flight deck, tossing the planes waiting to be lifted to the flight deck like toys a foot or more above the deck. The second bomb detonated two decks below that, near the chief petty officers’ quarters. The bombs set off a chain reaction of multiple explosions and fires, knocking out the combat information center.

Airplanes disintegrated as bombs, rockets and bullets exploded all around the ship and rivers of burning gasoline streaked across the decks setting off more explosions. Hot bombs from the burning planes rolled about the flight deck and every few seconds, the leaping flames would find another bomb or rocket. Many of the still whirling propellers of the waiting planes on the flight deck cut into other aircraft and people scurrying around looking for cover. The 36,000 gallons of gas and 30 tons of bombs and rockets on those 31 planes between them became a raging inferno. The entire ship was consumed by smoke, making it almost impossible to breathe or see.

Many of the pilots and crew on deck who weren’t killed instantly were either blown overboard or jumped into the churning, icy water seeing no other escape as their planes exploded around them. Daddy and his two-man crew jumped. Their backpack parachutes kept them buoyant once they slammed into the water. Daddy lost sight of his crewmen and feared they had drowned or were killed on impact. But he was determined he was not going to die that day.

After at least two hours in the ocean, nearby destroyers coming to help fight the raging fires on the Franklin picked up most of the men out of the water. Daddy was relieved to find his two crewmen were among those rescued. The official Navy count for casualties that day totaled 724 killed and 265 wounded, calling it the most tragic casualty list ever sustained by a U.S. Navy ship.

Although Daddy died long before the war in Iraq started, I'm sure if he had been here, he would have been reliving his own horror of March 19, 1945, all over while watching our troops heading into combat on the other side of the world.

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