The bombing, torching, and ultimate salvation of the aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV 13) and her crew is one of the great survival sagas of World War II and was an inspiration to millions of Americans.
Not as well known are the roots, life and times of Father Joseph T. O’Callahan, one of the heroes aboard “Big Ben” – an Essex-class carrier with 3,500 men and 100 aircraft – when she was smashed and set ablaze by two Japanese bombs 52 miles off the coast of Kobe, Japan on March 19, 1945.
O’Callahan was a symbol of the city of Boston after it was transformed by wave after wave of arriving Irish Catholics. Saving Big Ben is partly a biography of O’Callahan, partly a character-driven narrative of an aircraft carrier battling to stay afloat, and incidentally a look at the early 20th century immigrant culture that produced “Father Joe.”
O’Callahan looked and talked like his Irish forebears. He was a teaching priest, a math and physics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Five-ten, “a gentle man,” author John R. Satterfield writes, he believed in the discipline of the Jesuit order which never before in American history had allowed one of its own to be inducted into the U.S. armed forces.
Though he was the antithesis of the warrior, O’Callahan felt an obligation to serve. He entered the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade and chaplain in August 1940, more than a year before the Pearl Harbor attack brought the United States into the war – the first Jesuit chaplain in U.S. history. He pulled ship and shore duty including service aboard the carrier USS Ranger (CV 4) during the North Africa invasion in November 1942.
Satterfield’s strong, well-documented narrative follows O’Callahan through the war until we see Father Joe reporting aboard the Franklin on March 2, 1945, just 17 days before she was bombed.
The invasion of Okinawa was less than a month away, an invasion of Japan’s home islands was expected to follow, and the U.S. Navy was operating close to Japanese shores. At 7:08 a.m. on March 19, a dive-bomber emerged from low clouds and dropped two 551-pound (250-kilogram) semi-armor piercing bombs that ripped through Franklin‘s Douglas fir flight deck, exploded underneath, destroyed airplanes, and ignited ordnance and fuel.
“In seconds, the entire volume of the hangar deck resembled the core of a blast furnace,” Satterfield writes. “No human being or anything that humans had fabricated could withstand the unleashed, immeasurable power.” An image from motion picture film, apparently never before published as a still, shows fire engulfing the ship with raw flames rising more than 200 feet above the flight deck. Casualties included more than 800 killed and about 500 wounded.
“The conflagration was the most severe [suffered] by any U.S. warship during World War II.” read the official war damage report, quoted by Satterfield.
The Saga of the Franklin, the inspiring motion picture about how the Franklin was saved – seen in theaters by this reviewer as a child – touched the hearts of many but ignored controversies that arose after “Big Ben” traversed the Pacific, went through the Panama Canal, and steamed painfully but proudly into New York harbor.
One of the controversies is the conduct of CV 13′s divisive skipper, Capt. Leslie E. Gehres, who was unliked even in better times and who wanted to court-martial some sailors for abandoning ship. The temperature was bitter cold in the wintry North Pacific. Many sailors escaped fire by scrambling out on catwalks attired in underwear or lightly dressed. Junior officers went to their staterooms, got uniforms and threw them over the enlisted men so they wouldn’t freeze. Some of the sailors were then forced overboard by the heat. Watching from a distance, Gehres wrongly believed officers were milling about, panicking, and in some cases scrambling overboard.
A strong section of the book covers the dispute over an award for O’Callahan, who repeatedly and selflessly exposed himself to great risk while helping others. Debate raged within the Navy as to whether a man of the cloth could receive the nation’s highest award for valor. Gehres was among those who fought hard for O’Callahan to receive not the Navy Cross that was initially recommended but the Medal of Honor that was ultimately bestowed to O’Callahan and one other crewmember.
In the citation that makes note of O’Callahan’s “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” his actions are described vividly:
“O’Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets, and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever-increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led firefighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts, despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them. Serving with courage, fortitude, and deep spiritual strength, Lt. Cmdr. O’Callahan inspired the gallant officers and men of the Franklin to fight heroically and with profound faith in the face of almost certain death and to return their stricken ship to port.”
The ship and the chaplain survived, but “Big Ben” never put to sea again and O’Callahan returned to Holy Cross ravaged by his war experience and his chronic hypertension. His book I Was Chaplain on the Franklin was published in 1956. He died in 1964 at age fifty-eight. The USS O’Callahan (DE 1051), a destroyer escort later reclassified as a frigate, was named for the heroic priest.
Author Satterfield is a retired Naval Reserve officer and former public affairs official in the aerospace industry. He is the author of an earlier title We Band of Brothers: The Sullivans and World War II about the five sailor siblings who died together in Pacific fighting.