This Haunting WWII Photo Sums Up Our Veterans’ Perseverance And Sacrifice

The historic image and the story behind it are powerful reminders of the unique fighting spirit held by the bravest and most selfless among us.

byTyler Rogoway|
Japan photo


Veterans Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on just how amazing those who have served our country in uniform are and the critical tasks, both small and large, they have done and continue to do so that we can sleep soundly at night. It's also a day on which we can focus a bit more on trying to comprehend and reconcile the heroic, but often horrific sacrifices the best of us have made in the defense of our nation. The photo above, one of my favorites from World War II, captures all of this in a single, almost surreal frame.

The image depicts services being conducted in the bombed-out and fire-charred hangar bay of the USS Franklin (CV-13). From what I have been able to tell, there are two accounts as to when this photo was taken. Some sources state that the badly damaged aircraft carrier was very close to finally arriving in Brooklyn to begin the process of rebuilding the ship when it was snapped. The war-ravaged Franklin had to travel from the Pacific through the Panama Canal and on to New York to receive repairs because Pearl Harbor and the west coast shipyards were overwhelmed with the construction of new ships and repairs of battle-damaged one. 

But historic reels state that it was taken shortly after the attack, as soon as the area could be cleared and a remembrance of the those who were lost could be held. Regardless, it is an incredibly moving image that speaks to the sacrifice and dedication of America's servicepeople. Even after so many were lost and so much was destroyed, the drive to push on with what remains while also remembering those who could not, was a top priority.  

A badly damaged USS Franklin pulling in to New York in April of 1945. , USN
A badly damaged USS Franklin pulling in to New York in April of 1945. , USN

The attack on the Essex class carrier USS Franklin (CV-13), also known as "Big Ben," represents one of the most tragic, but heroic stories of World War II. On Mar. 19, 1945, the ship was operating less than 100 miles off of Japan—closer than any carrier during the war. Within just six hours, her crew were called to battle stations a dozen times. That evening, Captain Leslie Gehres downgraded the alert status for much of the crew, giving them some time to rest. A lone Japanese dive bomber evaded combat air patrols and emerged from the clouds, making an attack run at the ship. It dropped two 550-pound armor-piercing bombs. One stuck dead center on the flight deck. The bomb burrowed into the hangar bay before exploded. The effect was like putting a firecracker in a tin, fuel-laden can. It ripped the carrier apart and sparked a horrific blaze. The other bomb hit towards the rear of the ship, ripping into two decks.

When the attack occurred, 31 planes were fully armed on Franklin's deck, and half as many were fueled and armed in her hangar bay. This set off an unimaginable chain reaction, starting with what amounts to a massive fuel-air burst followed by a crescendo of secondary explosions of ordnance and other combustibles. Aircraft were blasted into each other around the deck like tiny pieces of shrapnel. It was unthinkable mayhem and carnage that began in an instant and lasted over six hours.

 USS Santa Fe (CL-60) assisting with the firefighting and rescue efforts., USN

To get the best idea of what actually happened that day, the videos below tell the story in great detail, but in very different ways. The first is an official vintage reel giving an overview on the attack on Franklin and what came after. If you notice, in it you will see film shot of the service shown in the photo above. The other is an amazing firsthand account from a survivor who was actually there. They work wonderfully together and are a must-watch.

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In the end, the Navy figured that 724 sailors were killed and hundreds were wounded in the attack and assessments have since elevated that total to potentially over 800 killed and even more wounded. Suffice it to say it was one of the most horrific single incidents of the entire war for the United States. It's mind-boggling that the crew saved the ship and then sailed it back to the east coast of the United States for repairs. Those who stuck it out were designated by the captain as being part of the "Big Ben 704 Club," as in 704 crewmen, although the actual number of how many sailors really stuck with the ship remains in question.

Regardless, the story of the Franklin attack and the solemn moment in time captured on camera showing the battle-weary crew paying their respects to those they lost among the torn rubble that was their mighty ship's hangar bay, exemplifies the unique spirit and courageous attitude of those who have served.

To all those who were on the Franklin on that terrible day and to anyone who has worn the uniform, thank you.

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