Surviving WWII still amazes Shawnee veteran
Glenn Davis stood on the port-side catwalk of the USS Franklin, red-hot flames just underfoot, trapped by explosions on all sides.
He knew he couldn't last much longer before he would be forced to jump from the side of the aircraft carrier, 60 feet down to the 60-degree water below. He looked around one last time.
"This was war at its worst, a living hell as flames were licking at my feet, live ammunition for the guns stored nearby ready to explode," he later wrote in his memoirs. "The hangar deck was a solid mass of flames; the flight deck above was full of exploding and burning planes. The catwalk aft of me was blazing with the remains of a plane, and I had nowhere to go to escape its fury. I turned to God and yelled 'I'm in your hands now.'"
More than 60 years since that day, March 19, 1945, the Shawnee resident is still astonished at the small miracles that allowed him to survive the attack on the Franklin in the Pacific just 60 miles off the Japanese coast, one that killed nearly 800 of his shipmates.
On Memorial Day Monday, Davis certainly will remember them and others lost during World War II aboard the Franklin, "The ship that wouldn't die." Davis himself had several close calls.
"I joined the Navy so I wouldn't have to dodge bullets," he jokes today. "I thought it'd be safer than the Army."
First battle experience
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Davis joined the Navy on Jan. 20, 1943, because his draft date was coming up. He wanted to join the Naval Air Corps, but he flunked the hearing test.
He became a petty officer machinist second class, which he says was basically a mechanic, and was assigned to the maiden voyage of the Franklin, an ESSIX-class carrier, 878 feet long - about three football fields - with up to 3,400 personnel on board.
Davis was one of the original crew of the Franklin assigned to the arresting gear crew, working on the flight deck.
"Our job was to operate the machinery to stop the planes when they landed," he wrote. "If they missed the wires spaced every 20 feet across the deck, we stopped the planes by barrier wires raised five feet above the deck, which usually caused the plane's propeller to grab the barrier wires and crash, nose down."
He said that the crew had about 100 barrier crashes out of 10,000 landings.
The Franklin was in the war zone for four months before it was directly engaged by the enemy. It participated in several operations, strikes against Iwo Jima, Guam and other islands.
The Franklin's first battle experience occurred Oct. 13, 1944, when the ship was attacked by a strafing Japanese suicide plane and three twin torpedo planes. About 5 p.m., alarms sounded, Davis ran to flight deck to get to station quarters.
"I was a lone figure running on the flight deck, when I got about even with the ship's island, I saw one of the torpedo bombers coming across the deck," he wrote.
The machine gunner was shooting along deck, and to avoid the bullets, Davis dived behind a Jeep used to position planes for takeoff. The plane hit the deck, skidding across and into the sea. Davis was unharmed, but his friend, Harold Stancel, was killed by shrapnel from that plane.
The ship survived several more attacks over next two weeks. Then, Oct. 30, a small group of Japanese planes attacked the Franklin and three other nearby carriers. One kamikaze aimed for the Franklin but missed, and the next came crashing down into the flight deck in the middle of the carrier with a large explosion.
Davis was with a few others in his station, the arresting gear room 30 feet away from the crash. The lights went out and smoke came pouring into the compartment, almost suffocating them, but they ran out.
Because of the kamikaze attack, 54 men died, and the Franklin was forced to Puget Sound for repairs.
The Franklin's worst hit, an attack that killed 798 of its crewmen, was five months after the kamikaze attack.
The mission was to strike Kyushu in southern Japan and knock out its airfields and shipping in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa. The day before the ship was hit, the Franklin had 500 planes in the air at all times striking Japan.
Davis remembers March 19 as cold, chilly, "The kind of weather that puts chills in your spine even through you are wearing plenty of warm clothes."
Davis and his buddies, Ray Evans and David Perry, went to their arresting gear compartment on the gallery deck to wait until the strike was launched, waiting to go to chow. Davis had taken his lifejacket off and hung it on a bulkhead.
A flight patrol had launched that morning, but there were 54 planes still on flight deck and hangar deck, armed with ammunition, rockets and bombs, tanks topped with fuel, some taking off. The gas lines, capable of handling 1,200 gallons per minute, were in "on" positions to fill planes on hanger deck.
The seventh plane was getting ready to take off when a Japanese plane came in low out of a cloud and dropped two 500-pound bombs from about 50 feet above the flight deck. The bombs penetrated the flight deck; the first skipped on the hangar deck and exploded a couple hundred feet in front of Davis's compartment. The second exploded in the air above the deck just behind Davis's compartment.
The bomb blasts set the fuel and armed planes on fire, causing another explosion and setting the whole hangar deck on fire, a blaze that lasted 10 hours and was said to be the most severe fire survived by any U.S. warship during WWII.
"All personnel on the hangar deck except two were killed in this blast," Davis wrote "All personnel on the gallery deck: with few exceptions were killed, as the gallery deck took the full brunt of the explosions occurring on the hanger deck. I am one of those exceptions."
Like during the kamikaze attack, Davis was saved because his arresting gear compartment was next to the ammunition storage area, which had armor-plated walls, floor and ceiling.
"The explosion lifted us a foot off the deck, and the lights went out at the same time," Davis wrote. ": I was closest to the hatch so I opened it the minute I got to my feet, but the flames from the hanger deck were already licking at the hatch."
They ran through the smoke and flames to the same catwalk they had escaped to previously. Trying to find fresh air, Davis ran toward the back of the ship, stopping at a 40 mm gun mount. He could see the hanger deck below burning and exploding. Evans and Perry went forward but had to jump before going very far.
Davis realized didn't have his lifejacket and started to go back for it, but another bomb exploded and he was hurled back on catwalk. He got up and tripped over a lifejacket that miraculously appeared on catwalk.
"God must have been looking out for me that day," he wrote.
About 10 others had escaped to the catwalk, and they saw destruction everywhere.
"We watched in amazement as planes were exploding and rolling into each other," he wrote. "The hangar deck was a mass of orange fire with burning gas running over the side of the ship."
Davis tried to get to flight deck, but another explosion blew him back to catwalk. He and the others heard over the PA system "over the side," and thought it meant to abandon ship. It was actually part of order to throw rockets over the side. They saw five men across the ship run and jump off, but he and the 10 stayed as long as could, about 20 minutes after first bomb.
"It was getting so hot and the explosions were getting worse, so we knew we had to go over to save our own necks," he wrote.
Just after Davis made his plea to God, a man on the flight deck yelled to let loose a life net hanging from the gun mount, so Davis balanced on lower rail to get to the net and release it, pushing it so hard that it took him with it.
Other men forced to abandon ship with no life vests were able to cling to the net in the cold water. For four hours, they floated and watched U.S. planes engage Japanese planes in dogfights in the skies overhead.
Three hours after it was first hit, heard another huge explosion from the Franklin, but it never sank. Davis saw destroyers in the distance, picking up survivors. The USS Marshall pulled Davis and 212 others aboard.
In all, 850 men survived the attack; 490 had remained on the ship. The USS Santa Fe fought fires on Franklin, which was able to be towed by 2 p.m., and six hours later, when the Franklin's engines worked again, it steered back to port on its own power.
There was an attempt to court-martial some of the survivors later for abandoning ship, but the attempt was denied.
Carrying the flag
Davis left the service in February 1946, went home and went to college on GI Bill. He worked as a facilities engineer with General Motors for several years and then with Bendix for 24 years. He and his wife had three children.
Davis titled his memoirs "My Last Day Aboard 'Big Ben,' The USS Franklin CV-13, The Ship That Wouldn't Die." The memoirs were used extensively in a book published last year called "Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II," by Joseph Springer.
Davis wrote the original notes for his memoirs right after he got out of the war, then finally got around to refining them after Sept. 11. The dedication is to his family, including seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, written Sept. 20, 2001.
"It took almost 50 years before I could talk about this part of my life without getting flustered," he wrote. ": The world has changed with these hideous outbursts of hate and destruction. Today Americans are rallying to the flag and showing patriotism I haven't seen since Word War II. It is you, the young, who must carry the flag now."