The Indian Ocean fleet in action

It is probable that one hit was made with a torpedo on a ship lying at a jetty in the Northern Harbour, where a submarine and a supply ship had been reported by reconnaissance, and one merchant ship was sunk outside, also by torpedo. A second merchant ship was also sunk either by torpedo or bomb. In the bombing attack on the main harbour one probable hit was made on a large destroyer.

The aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, pictured later in the war.

The campaign in East Africa is often overlooked, and the Naval campaign that supported it probably even more so. A lack of photographic record leaves some of these dramatic events quite forgotten, despite their significance at the time. HMS Formidable was the sister ship to [permalink id=9889 text=”HMS Illustrious”] and would soon be replacing her in the Mediterranean.

On the morning of the 13th fourteen aircraft from H.M.S. Formidable attacked the harbour at Massawa. The attack was considerably hampered by fighter opposition. It is probable that one hit was made with a torpedo on a ship lying at a jetty in the Northern Harbour, where a submarine and a supply ship had been reported by reconnaissance, and one merchant ship was sunk outside, also by torpedo. A second merchant ship was also sunk either by torpedo or bomb. In the bombing attack on the main harbour one probable hit was made on a large destroyer. Two of our aircraft did not return one of which made a forced landing 20 miles from Massawa owing to engine trouble.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week.

US Recognition chart of the Illustrious Class.

 

Swordfish from Ark Royal attack Sardinia

H.M. Ships Renown, Malaya, Ark Royal and light forces operated off Sardinia on the 2nd February. Owing to unfavourable weather the original plans had to be modified, but at dawn 8 Swordfish made an attack on the Tirso Dam which holds the water for the hydro-electric station. Observation of results was impossible; but it is thought that 3 torpedoes hit the dam.

HMS Ark Royal and one of her Swordfish aircraft, operating in the Mediterranean during 1941.

H.M. Ships Renown, Malaya, Ark Royal and light forces operated off Sardinia on the 2nd February. Owing to unfavourable weather the original plans had to be modified, but at dawn 8 Swordfish made an attack on the Tirso Dam which holds the water for the hydro-electric station. Observation of results was impossible; but it is thought that 3 torpedoes hit the dam. Heavy A.A. fire was experienced and one aircraft failed to return. During this operation the Mediterranean Fleet demonstrated in the Eastern Mediterranean, but no enemy ships were encountered.

From the Naval Situation report for the week.

HMS Illustrious escapes Malta for Egypt

On the 24th the cruiser force was attacked when 130 miles north of Benghazi by about 30 enemy aircraft, the larger proportion being dive-bombers. Many near misses were obtained, but no damage was sustained by our ships. Four or five of the enemy aircraft were damaged. The enemy aircraft missed sighting the Illustrious.

HMS Illustrious, beside the crane, under attack in Malta Harbour.

HMS Illustrious, attacked by the Luftwaffe as she escorted a convoy to Malta on the 10th January had then become a prime target whilst she was in Malta harbour but just managed to avoid further serious damage.

H.M.S. Illustrious, escorted by four destroyers, sailed from Malta P.M. 23rd and arrived at Alexandria on the 25th. On the night before she sailed Malta was again raided, but no damage was caused or casualties suffered. A force of cruisers and destroyers, supported by battleships, covered her passage. On the 24th the cruiser force was attacked when 130 miles north of Benghazi by about 30 enemy aircraft, the larger proportion being dive-bombers. Many near misses were obtained, but no damage was sustained by our ships. Four or five of the enemy aircraft were damaged. The enemy aircraft missed sighting the Illustrious.

From the Naval Situation for the week, see TNA CAB 66/14/42

Ferocious Luftwaffe attack on HMS Illustrious

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.

HMS Illustrious under attack on the 10th January 1941. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.
HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by german bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 Ju-87's and Ju-88's, to make it to Malta. A bomb explodes on HMS ILLUSTRIOUS while another near miss lands next to her.
HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the Mediterranean off the italian island of Pantelleria. In the first action by German bombers in the Mediterranean , HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 Ju-87’s and Ju-88’s, to make it to Malta.
A bomb explodes on HMS ILLUSTRIOUS while another near miss lands next to her.

The Luftwaffe announced their arrival in the Mediterranean with a vengeance. The new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, whose planes had so successfully attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, was the subject of a sustained attack by Ju 87 dive-bombers as it escorted a convoy to Malta. MaritimeQuest has a series of images of the attack and the damage to the ship.

The main forces of the Mediterranean Fleet, consisting of H.M. Ships Warspite and Valiant with H.M.S. Illustrious and 7 destroyers, were operating in support in the Eastern Basin and covering the passage from Alexandria to Malta of a convoy which was escorted by H.M. Ships Perth, Orion, York and Ajax. On the 10th January the Fleet was attacked several times by various types of aircraft.

The first attack was by torpedo bombers on the Battle Fleet, in which torpedoes missed after avoiding action had been taken. The second, which occurred at about 1235, was carried out by 25 or more Ju 87 and 88 dive-bombers which attacked with great determination and skill, thus confirming the arrival in the Mediterranean of units of the German Air Force.

In this attack H.M.S Illustrious was severely damaged as a result of 6-direct bomb hits and several near misses, which caused fires and disabled her steering gear. Her casualties were 83 killed, 60 seriously and 40 slightly wounded, including several officers. H.M.S. Warspiie also sustained slight damage from a near miss. During this attack one Fulmar and one Swordfish were shot down, their crews being saved, and two enemy aircraft were shot down by gunfire.

At 1330 an unsuccessful attack was made on Illustrious by high level bombers and between 1600 and 1700 a second dive-bombing attack by about 30 aircraft was made on her and the Battle Fleet in which another hit was believed to have been made on Illustrious, and H.M.S. Valiant had one killed and 3 wounded from near misses.

During this attack Fulmars from Illustrious, which had refuelled at Malta, shot down 6 or 7 Ju 87 or 88’s and damaged several others. Heavy bombs of about 1,000 lb. were used in all these attacks. Illustrious, covered by the Battle Fleet, arrived at Malta at about 2100 after a final, but unsuccessful, attack had been made on her by torpedo bombers outside the entrance to Grand Harbour. Eleven of her Swordfish and 5 Fulmars were destroyed by fire.

From the weekly Naval Situation report see TNA CAB/66/14/33

Air Mechanic Rayburn was on board HMS Illustrious and somehow lived to tell his story:

My action station as with all maintenance crews, was in the hanger with the aircraft, which by the way were all heavily armed, and loaded with torpedoes ready for an attack on the Italian Fleet.

Illustrious was armed with 16 4.5 dual purpose guns, and 8 6 barrelled 2lb quick firing AA weapons.  The ship kept jumping and shaking.  Several large bombs hit the shop aft, and the after hanger was on fire.  The noise was indescribable.  In my baptism of fire, all that sticks in my mind are impressions. 
I was standing more or less in the centre of the hanger.  A chap came down from the flight deck; his rubber suit was full of holes with blood leaking from all of them.  I helped carry him down to the casualty station in the washroom flats.

The surgeons were busy.  Blood washed from side to side with the sway of the ship. 
I returned to my action station in the hangar.  The ship continued to rock and sway.

I looked up with fear and apprehension.  Then there was an almighty flash as a 1,000 lb bomb pierced the 4 inch armoured deck and exploded.  I was only aware of a great wind, and bits of aircraft, debris, all blowing out to the forward lift shaft of 300 tons, which was also blown out. 
There were dead and wounded all around.  My overalls were blown off and I had small wounds to the back of my head and shoulder.
I was probably 10-15 feet away from the bomb when it exploded.  Luck I survived?  I prefer the thought of someone looking out for me. 
The hanger by then was burning all over.  The ships commander came and said, ‘come on lads close the armoured doors.’  The overhead sprays then flooded the hanger.

The ship started to sink by the stern, and everyone had to blow up lifebelts.  Then came a spot of humour in all that chaos.  Poor old Corporal Gater came through a side door white as a sheet saying ‘I wish I hadn’t bloody joined.’ 
The battering carried on for six to seven hours. 
There were many wounded piled up.  The aft surgeons station had been destroyed, and the forward station was unable to cope quickly with so many casualties. 
Captain Boyd finally steered with the engines into Malta.  The ship was quiet at last.

See Acepilots for his full story and much more on HMS Illustrious.

A hole in the armoured flight deck of HMS Illustrious where a 1,250 pound bomb penetrated. Courtesy MaritimeQuest.

Some repairs were carried out at Malta (where there were further air attacks) before HMS Illustrious returned to Alexandria. There she was sufficiently patched up to make the journey, via the Suez Canal and round Africa, to U.S. shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. She was out of the war for the remainder of the year.

POSTSCRIPT

In 2014 Andrew Wilson wrote to me:

During 2000, some friends of mine moved into a house in Epsom, Surrey, where the previous owners had left a desk. Tucked away in the desk was a letter from HMS Illustrious, a personal letter, with references to the Malta convoy.

Attempts have been made to try to trace the identities of the addressee and the writer, so far without much progress. It is almost certainly one Royal Navy officer writing to another. It would appear that the letter was addressed to an officer who had formerly served on HMS Illustrious and was anxious for news of the casualties sustained in January 1941. There can be little doubt that the letter is authentic and refers to this action and the aftermath.

This is a raw and powerful document that deserves to be seen more widely, a vivid memorial of what these men went through:

HMS Illustrious
3 March 1941

My dear old E.J.,

Your very kind letter of 16th January has just arrived. I knew how you would feel it and longed to be able to assure you that all the team you knew were still alive. I not only could not but dared not say anything until we left Malta and got to Alex as our expectation of life was not very high. But, as you know, we all survived and live to fight again.

How the buzz about Bill started I have no idea as he was more full of life than anyone! My chief sorrows were Lt. Gregory whom you may remember was very sweet to Elizabeth. He was hit on the spine by a bomb splinter and fell down saying ‘I think something has hit me.’ He then turned very grey and asked for morphia knowing he was dying. Keevil gave him a shot and then he had to be moved as a fierce fire was raging under the quarter deck where he was lying. A marine picked him up and his back was heard to break. He was, I think, already dead.

Luddington, ex England and Navy rugger and our Master at Arms, was blown to bits in the hanger where a bomb exploded. He was a golden man.

Clifford, a Lieut. and pilot who had done very well at Taranto, was wounded in the first attack and then devoted himself to the other wounded. After the third attack he was never seen again. Either he was blown overboard or he disintegrated. He was a pattern of gallantry and gentility and one of the best three-quarters we have had for a long time.

Our young marine Manisty, whom Les knew, was killed by a bomb which did not wound him but just blasted him. The other officer casualties you would not know unless you remember Mr Anstis our gunner. He was blown to bits by a bomb which hit the pompom just in front of the bridge. He and all the crew were in an awful mess but were clearly killed instantly. I ordered them to be thrown overboard as they were dreadful sights. Arms, legs, heads and trunks going over the side were awful to see but were better there than lying about the deck where they chilled the stomachs of others.

Analysing one’s feelings afterwards I felt no sorrow at the time as my feelings were that the dead had perhaps the easiest job. Nor was I afraid, it was all so terrific and one’s responsibility so great that I had no uncomfortable feelings other than intense sorrow for the ship as I never expected her to be of any use again. I was on the wing bridge watching the bombs come down and I saw both lifts fly into the air like leaves. An amazing sight.

Fear came later when I realised we must have more attacks before reaching Malta. I then felt utterly sick for a while and trembled from head to foot. I went down to my sea cabin, took a good hold of myself, offered up a prayer that I’d do my stuff and then went back and was waggling the engines to steer her for the next 8 hours and through 2 more attacks without any particular feeling other than an unsatisfied desire for food. From breakfast until 10 pm, when we secured I only had cocoa and a biscuit which Lloyd the Padre brought me.

Our real strain came with the repeat attacks at Malta. On one occasion I was ashore not 20 yards from a cave shelter and the ship was 100 yards away. On the warning I walked to the gangway saying to myself after all there is nothing I can do and when I got to the gangway I stopped, feeling utterly cowardly and bloody nearly ran for the shelter. However I climbed slowly and reluctantly up the gangway and then felt alright. The others were the same I think. I allowed no one on board (there were wonderful shelters) except the gun crews and supply parties. Some of them failed to turn up and we manned the guns with 4 commandos, 6 Lt Cdrs, 2 Paymasters Seamen and Westmacott , 4 Po’s and 6 first class able seamen.

Rosey Barker and I went to the air defence position on the top bridge where we directed the guns on to the targets until the attack developed and then we just watched. However if you have seen Bill you will have heard as stirring a yarn as ever was spun. I sent Bill home because we did learn a lot and I wanted the powers that be to know what we learnt. To say I was indifferent to the fact that Bella had had a baby would be a ruddy lie, but Bill must never know that I thought of that first! He was splendid and deserved a little thought of that kind.

I think my worst job was to see people suffering from strain. It was horrible and some got it badly. Tamplin the Chief, a fat cheerful self indulgent bachelor went ashore and just couldn’t come back so I sent him to hospital. Duckworth, who was badly blasted, cried at the least excuse and yet stuck at it and was always there though I think useless. Men I thought tough were no good at all in fact the only really good ones were the team and a few sailors and engineers of the quiet nice type. Martin whose funny little wife vamped old N.R. was the senior engineer and was the supreme man of the whole show. His guts and skill were quite remarkable and he was quite delighted when owing to the chief cracking he was left with the whole responsibility.

The senior gunner went to the hospital to see the wounded and collapsed staying there! Others in varying degrees were looking like death but they stuck it well. I think I saved them all from going really potty by abandoning ship for 3 days after the Sunday attacks. It was a ghastly thing to do but I had to do it and as usual got away with it as during those 3 days we were not attacked. Had I not done so half of us would have been loonies and in any case we would not have saved the ship. On the Thursday they all came back gladly and were able to produce the goods for an awful passage to Alex. I have often had to bear responsibility but never anything to equal this. To them the 3 days were a rest, to us they were just hell but I knew it was right.

I seem to have run on a bit but your very kind thoughts in your letter and various inspired me to tell you a little, added to Audrey’s they all help to make a picture of which we are all, not without justification, very proud.

I went to a ship’s company dance the other night and jawed with some of them. We were a happy family and I did not realise quite how much they hung on what I said and did.

God bless you both your T.6 (not clearly decipherable)

D.B. [but looks like D.W.]

I thought this was possibly written by the Captain – but there was confusion over whether it was signed D.B. or D.W. . This account by Malta at War Museum suggests that he was Denis Boyd – and this has been confirmed by Alistair Horn (see comments below).

A near miss. HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the Italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by German bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 ju-87's and ju-88's, to make it Malta.
A near miss. HMS Illustrious attacked by dive bombers. 10 January 1941, in the mediterranean off the Italian island of Pantelleria. in the first action by German bombers in the mediterranean, HMS Illustrious survived a ferocious attack including that of over 40 ju-87’s and ju-88’s, to make it Malta.

In November 2014 I was pleased to be able to add the following account by 92 year old Sydney Millen:

I remember that on the 9th January our escorts including “Warspite” did a practice air defensive exercise, and to all our eyes nothing could penetrate that barrage. How wrong could we be proved.

From first light the action started, HMS Gallant had her bows blown off after hitting a mine, and then towards noon action stations was sounded, and from then on all hell broke loose. I at the start was on duty in the after end of the hanger, but in what seemed a short space of time there was a terrific explosion for’ard and what I am sure was the forward lift was struck, luckily despite the debris etc I was unhurt and left the hanger.

After that the ship shudderred many times as she was hit and like many of my comrades I helped in the rescue of the many injured. One of the after gun turrets suffered a near direct hit and the carnage was awful. After a period owing to damage to our steering gear we were just going in circles, quite a target for the aircraft attacking, our escort had I presume decided to keep a fair distance as they were not conspicuous by their presence.

Anyway that’s as maybe , we eventually arrived at the entrance to Malta harbour, with what seemed to me crowds of people, cheering us in, I often wondered if they would have been so enthusiastic if they had realised that this day would have been the start of the terrible ordeal to which they would have to suffer in the coming years.

Anyway we eventually tied up and the following days were spent in the unenviable task of clearing up, not pleasant, the ship was in dock for I think several days, but as what was left of my sqdn. was ashore I left the ship and stayed at Hal Far aerodrome for I think several months doing what we could to defend Malta.

Not very specific I know, but a day I shall always remember, my first taste of action.

The view of the flight deck from the ship's bridge.
The view of the flight deck from the ship’s bridge.

EXTRA PICTURE ADDED March 2014

Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing. I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo "854 Squadton R.N. "Illustrious"aircraft carrier.
Patrick Doherty is the 3rd person from the left seated with his hands in his lap on the upper gantry in front of the wing.
I know no names associated with the rest of the men in the photo other the annotation in my fathers hand writing on the back of the photo
“854 Squadton R.N. “Illustrious”aircraft carrier. Courtesy James Doherty, see comments below.

British fleet sails into the Mediterranean

‘Operation Hats’ consisted of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious with the battle cruiser HMS Renown and the battleship HMS Valiant supported by three cruisers and seventeen destroyers. For the first time the fleet was defended by all round radar, based on four ships covering different sectors. Although the fleet was spotted by Italian aircraft, the Italian Navy did not attempt an engagement.

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes from No. 820 Squadron Fleet Air Arm.

The largest Royal Navy fleet yet assembled in the Mediterranean set out from Gibraltar on the 30th August 1940. Force H led by Admiral Somerville was attempting to provoke the Italian fleet into battle, whilst supporting the escort of a convoy to Malta.

‘Operation Hats’ consisted of the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious with the battle cruiser HMS Renown and the battleship HMS Valiant supported by three cruisers and seventeen destroyers. For the first time the fleet was defended by all round radar, based on four ships covering different sectors. Although the fleet was spotted by Italian aircraft, the Italian Navy did not attempt an engagement.

HMS Renown was a 15 inch gun battlecruiser built in 1916

After joint operations with HMS Ark Royal, in which Swordfish aircraft attacked the Italian airfield at Caglieri, HMS Illustrious and HMS Valiant left the force on 2nd September to join the Mediterranean fleet based at Alexandria.

HMS Illustrious, newly commissioned in August 1940, with her Swordfish aircraft.
The battleship HMS Valiant, built in 1914

HM Ships Glorious, Acasta and Ardent sunk

The escorting destroyer [HMS Ardent] on the port side of the battleships continued her torpedo attacks and tried, extremely skilfully, to avoid the effective defensive fire of the battleships’ medium armament by means of constant alterations of course. Finally this destroyer also opened fire on the battleships. She fought with outstanding resolution in a situation that was hopeless for her. The destroyer received numerous hits and finally went down, her bow armament firing to the last and her engines apparently in order and driving her at high speed. The final range was about 5 miles.

world war 2 aircraft carrier at sea - hms glorious
HMS Glorious, seen pre war, a carrier converted from a cruiser

The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was returning to Scapa Flow from Norway separately from the other ships in the British Force, accompanied by only her destroyer escorts HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent. It was a fine clear day with light wind but HMS Glorious apparently did not have a lookout posted, did not have an aircraft on patrol – which would have given her all round visibility of approximately 40 miles, and did not have any of her aircraft on deck ready for immediate launch.

She was therefore surprised when spotted by the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst at about 1600. Although Acasta and Ardent attempted to lay a smoke screen and engaged the German ships, Glorious was first hit at 1638. The third salvo from the Scharnhorst reached Glorious from 24,175 meters (26,450 yards), possibly the longest gunfire hit on any enemy warship ever achieved. It hit her hangars and made it impossible to launch the aircraft that were on the point of readiness.

HMS Acasta at sea.
HMS Acasta at sea.

After the war Admiral Schubert, who had been First Officer on the Scharnhorst at the time of the battle, was interviewed by the Royal Navy and provided an account of the great fight put up by the two escorting destroyers, HMS Acasta and HMS Ardent:

The escorting destroyer [HMS Ardent] on the port side of the battleships continued her torpedo attacks and tried, extremely skilfully, to avoid the effective defensive fire of the battleships’ medium armament by means of constant alterations of course. Finally this destroyer also opened fire on the battleships. She fought with outstanding resolution in a situation that was hopeless for her. The destroyer received numerous hits and finally went down, her bow armament firing to the last and her engines apparently in order and driving her at high speed. The final range was about 5 miles.

After the battleships had penetrated the smoke screen, the “Glorious” was sighted again at a great range. The main armament opened frontal fire and the carrier very quickly received further hits. The range rapidly decreased, but still remained relatively great. The carrier developed a list to port, and burned until she finally capsized. Only a few aircraft were left on deck.

The destroyer with the carrier [HMS Acasta] turned to the attack on the battleships, who took avoiding action. At this stage of the fight, at about the time of the capsizing of the carrier, The ‘Scharnhorst’ received a torpedo hit on the starboard side level with the after main turret. As was ascertained later, the hole torn in the ships side was of considerable dimensions. The hit immediately affected the main turret magazines, the turret starting to burn. The starboard engine went out of action; the starboard propeller-shaft together with the bearings was torn away from the hull. A great deal of water entered the ship; her position became difficult the more so as the midships engine-room was gradually filling with water.

The ship however continued the fight with the now very severely damaged destroyer. The latter fought on in a hopeless situation with her far inferior armament against the battleships. She achieved, so far as I can remember, one light hit against the centre barrel of No.2 main turret.

The carrier had in the meantime capsized, and the place where she went down lay far astern of the ship. When the destroyer ceased firing on her armament being put out of action, the battleships did so too. The heavily damaged condition of the “Scharnhorst” made it imperative to see to the return of the damaged ship to the nearest Norwegian harbour, and to put the measures necessary for this in hand immediately.

TNA ADM 205/49

The actions of the two destroyers who both went down fighting against vastly superior battleships were no less valiant than that of the destroyer HMS Glowworm, which had taken on the Admiral Hipper on April 9th. There was even a measure of success here, since the Scharnhorst had been torpedoed. But there were no medals for this action, which was a disaster that the Royal Navy would have no wish to advertise, either now or after the war.

HMS Ardent at a buoy on completion. Pennant No H41
HMS Ardent at a buoy on completion. Pennant No H41

At the end of the action Gneisenau and Scharnhorst made off without stopping to look for survivors. At the time the Germans were uncertain whether the Scharnhorst had been torpedoed by a submarine that might remain in the area.

To compound the disaster HMS Glorious had been using the wrong radio channel. Her radio broadcast announcing the engagement was only indistinctly picked up by HMS Devonshire but she was in a state of radio silence as she was carrying the Norwegian Royal family to safety, and the message was never re-broadcast. For unknown reasons neither Acasta nor Ardent made radio signals about the engagement. There were at least 900 men in the water or on floats from the three abandoned ships, including some of the pilots from 46 Squadron who had flown the Hurricanes on board the previous day. But the Royal Navy was unaware of the battle and no immediate rescue plan was put into action.

It was nearly three days later when the first of only 45 survivors were pulled from the sea by a Norwegian boats. Among them was Squadron Leader Cross of 46 Squadron (see [permalink id=6351 text=’7th June’]). In total 1,515 men died. The Glorious, Ardent and Acasta Association has many more details and casualty lists.

Detailed analysis is at scharnhorst-class and warship.org

Hundreds killed as USS Franklin hit by sneak bomber

Countless deeds of heroism and superb seamanship saved the carrier and about two-thirds of the ship’s complement if more than 2,500. The tenacity of the Franklin’s skipper, Captain L. E. Gehres, who refused to abandon the ship and accept the aid of protecting ships and planes, virtually snatched the carrier from Japanese waters to be repaired so that she can fight again.

Aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) attacked during World War II, March 19, 1945.
Aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) attacked during World War II, March 19, 1945. Photographed by PHC Albert Bullock from the cruiser USS Santa Fe (CL-60), which was alongside assisting with firefighting and rescue work. Photo #: 80-G-273880, Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. The carrier is afire and listing after she was hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the coast of Japan – the crew is clearly seen on flight deck. After the attack the vessel lay dead in the water, took a 13° starboard list, lost all radio communications, and broiled under the heat from enveloping fires. Many of the crewmen were blown overboard, driven off by fire, killed or wounded, but the hundreds of officers and enlisted who voluntarily remained saved their ship through sheer tenacity. The casualties totaled 724 killed and 265 wounded, and would have far exceeded this number if it were not for the exemplary work of many survivors.

On the 19th March 1945 the carrier USS Franklin was 50 miles off the coast of Japan, participating in air strikes against the main island of Honshu by Task Force 58. On deck were 31 armed and fueled aircraft about to be launched, with more armed and fuelled aircraft were in the hangar deck below. Suddenly a Japanese bomber emerged from the clouds and dropped two 250kg bombs.

The first bomb penetrated into the hangar deck, setting off a devastating series of aviation fuel and ammunition explosions. The force of these explosions erupted onto the flight deck setting off further fires and explosions amongst the waiting aircraft. The ship soon began to list and for a time it seemed that the Franklin was doomed.

Pacific War Correspondent Alvin S. McCoy sent this account, which subsequently appeared in War Illustrated in Britain:

I was the only war correspondent aboard, a dazed survivor of the holocaust only because I was below decks at breakfast in the unhit area. The rescue of the crippled carrier, towed flaming and smoking from the very shores of Japan, and the saving of more than 800 men fished from the sea by protecting cruisers and destroyers, will be an epic of naval warfare.

Heads bobbed in the water for miles behind the carrier. Men floated on rafts or swam about in the bitterly cold water to seize lifelines from the rescue ships and be hauled aboard. The official loss of life will be announced by the Navy Department in Washington. Unofficial figures at the time showed 949 dead, more than 221 wounded.

Scenes of indescribable horror swept the ship. Men were blown off the flight deck into the sea. Some were burned to cinders in the searing white-hot flash of flame that swept the hangar deck. Others were trapped in the compartments below and suffocated by smoke. Scores were drowned, and others torn by exploding shells and bombs.

Countless deeds of heroism and superb seamanship saved the carrier and about two-thirds of the ship’s complement if more than 2,500. The tenacity of the Franklin’s skipper, Captain L. E. Gehres, who refused to abandon the ship and accept the aid of protecting ships and planes, virtually snatched the carrier from Japanese waters to be repaired so that she can fight again.

Fire and damage control parties who stuck with the ship performed valiantly. The carrier was all but abandoned, although the “abandon ship” order was never given. An air group and about 1,500 of the crew were sent to the U.S.S. Sante Fé. A skeleton crew of some 690 remained aboard to try to save the ship as it listed nearly twenty degrees. The Franklin’s aircraft which were airborne landed safely on other carriers.

The official casualty figures were 724 killed and 265 wounded but subsequent research, taking into the number of men first shown as missing, has placed the figure at between 807 and 924 killed.

Contemporary newsreel of the incident, without sound but has graphic footage of other Japanese planes, probably kamikazes, being shot down:

One man’s lucky escape as kamikazes hit Ticonderoga

I remember they used our compartment as part of Sick Bay that night so we slept wherever we could. The next day the hospital ship took the wounded and we had burials at sea all afternoon. I have never had any doubt that I was saved by divine intervention. If I had been where I was supposed to be, I would surely have been killed. If we started two minutes later we would have been caught on the hangar deck where all the casualties of the first plne were. If we had gone sooner we might have been back to my plaane and I would have been killed then.

USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) afire off Formosa, January 21, 1945, just after her initial kamikaze hit on the forward flight deck. Photographed from USS Miami (CL-89). A Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplane is on the cruiser's starboard catapult, in the foreground.
USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) afire off Formosa, January 21, 1945, just after her initial kamikaze hit on the forward flight deck. Photographed from USS Miami (CL-89). A Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplane is on the cruiser’s starboard catapult, in the foreground.
Fighting fire from flight deck showing smoke from #1 elevator.
Fighting fire from flight deck showing smoke from #1 elevator.

The Japanese military aim in attacking Pearl Harbor had been to neutralise the major components of the US Navy, enabling to them to win swift territorial victories relatively unopposed. In December 1941 they had failed to sink all the carriers they had hoped to hit. But just three year later they were facing an incomparably greater American Naval force, far stronger than the force that they had hoped to knock out.

The extraordinary expansion of the US Fleet now not only enabled them to deploy huge numbers of ships for their amphibious attacks on Japanese held territories – but also to deploy the roving Fast Carrier Task Force. Within this were four Task Groups each based on four aircraft carriers, defended by numerous support ships – each Task Group had up 24 destroyers screening it.

Operation Gratitude had begun with the conventional support of the landings on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. But the carriers had then moved into the South China Sea and their planes had successfully attacked a wide range of Japanese targets in French Indo-China (now Vietnam), crippling the Japanese mercantile fleet. Now they moved back for an attack on Formosa (Taiwan). The weather was good for flying – which meant it was also good for kamikazes.

Edgar Newlin was part of the aircraft maintenance crew on the USS Ticonderoga:

As I remember, it was a nice calm day, which influenced a later decision. I was a plane captain. For anyone that doesn’t know what that is. I took care of an airplane, a fighter to be exact. I was suppose to keep it fueled, tied down, cleaned etc. We were suppose to stay with the plane anytime we were at flight quarters if it wasn’t tied down.

At this time we were at flight quarters, but for some reason the lunch had been delayed so my plane was just sitting there. I would have been the third plane launched, one on each catapult, and then mine.

It was past noon and we hadn’t had chow when another plane captain came along and talked me into going. Remember, we were not suppose to leave our plane in that condition, but we did and it probably saved my life. We had just reached the mess hall when the fantail 40s started firing, maybe three or four rounds. Then they started General Quarters, maybe two or three boings, when a suicide plane hit and blew up on the hangar deck. It sounded like a bucket with rocks in it;more of a rattle than an explosion.

I dropped my tray and started back up the flight deck, but by then smoke was everywhere and some of the hatches had been closed so I had an awful time getting back to my battle station, which was my plane, and when I got there it was gone! Thats was where the jap had hit. He must have aimed for my plane; it went through the flight deck and blew up on the hangar deck. That was what I heard when I was in the mess hall.

I didn’t have a battle station so I just wandered around kind of in a daze. I had no idea what to do. I tried to help others, but I seemed to be in the road. I don’t know how much later it was, it seemed like hours but was probably not over 30 minutes, when I found myself standing on the flight deck, forward of the five-inch guns, watching a second Jap plane heading straight for the island. I just stood there watching because I was sure he would go down. I could see the tracer shells, going through the plane and the pilot.

It soon became clear that he was going to hit us. About then I realized where I was standing. I looked around;all I could do was jump down to the catwalk and head for the port side under the flight deck. When I was about halfway across I heard the plane hit the island.

From then on I remembered only flashes of what happened. I remember wandering around, trying to find where I was needed but I don’t recall doing anything specific. I still feel the hopeless feeling of not being able to do anything for my friends. I don’t remember many names – Selbe walking around holding a big wad of cotton on what was left of his arm. blown off just above his elbow. He died about 2:00 the next morning – shock they said. There was a little boy named Menard, blown in half. He always wore his dog tags on his belt loop, so we could identify him from that. I don’t think he was much over fifteen at the time.

I remember they used our compartment as part of Sick Bay that night so we slept wherever we could. The next day the hospital ship took the wounded and we had burials at sea all afternoon. I have never had any doubt that I was saved by divine intervention. If I had been where I was supposed to be, I would surely have been killed. If we started two minutes later we would have been caught on the hangar deck where all the casualties of the first plne were. If we had gone sooner we might have been back to my plaane and I would have been killed then.

Read Edgar Newlin’s account and those of others aboard the USS Ticonderoga on that fateful day at CV-14

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) lists to port in the aftermath of a kamikaze attack in which four suicide planes hit the ship, 21 January 1945. Note her camouflage scheme measure 33/10A and the Fletcher-class destroyer in the background.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) lists to port in the aftermath of a kamikaze attack in which four suicide planes hit the ship, 21 January 1945. Note her camouflage scheme measure 33/10A and the Fletcher-class destroyer in the background.
It was also a hard day on the USS Hancock. The scene moments after bombs fell off an Avenger and exploded, killing 62 men.
It was also a hard day on the USS Hancock. The scene moments after bombs fell off an Avenger and exploded, killing 62 men.

From the Deck Log of the USS Hancock, 21 January 1945:

1328: VT 124, Bu #23539 [a General Motors TBM-3 Avenger], pilot, LT(JG) C.R. Dean, 298954, and crewmen F.J. Blake, ARM3c, and D.E. Zima, AOM2c, made a normal landing and taxied forward. As the plane reached a point abreast the island a violent explosion occurred, believed to have been caused by the detonation of two (2) 500 lb. bombs adrift in the plane’s bomb bay. The immediate results of the explosion were: casualties: killed – 62; critically injured – 46; seriously injured – 25; slightly injured – 20. A 10×16 foot hole in the flight deck, gallery deck area in the vicinity demolished, inboard side signal bridge wrecked. Three airplanes demolished. Numerous shrapnel holes throughout the island structure. Fires broke out on the flight, gallery, and hangar decks. Hauled clear of the formation and commenced maneuvering at various courses and speeds in an attempt to control the winds over the deck, and with high speed turns, to wash flooding water out of the hangar deck.

US Navy battle group under attack from Kamikaze

Jap planes were coming at us from all directions. Before the attack started we did not know that they were suicide planes, with no intention of returning to their base. They had one thing in mind and that was to crash into our ships, bombs and all. You have to blow them up, to damage them doesn’t mean much. Right off the bat a Jap plane made a suicide dive at the cruiser St. Louis, there was a big explosion and flames were seen shortly from the stern.

This photo provided by former Kamikaze pilot Toshio Yoshitake
This photo provided by former Kamikaze pilot Toshio Yoshitake, shows Yoshitake, right, and his fellow pilots, from left, Tetsuya Ueno, Koshiro Hayashi, Naoki Okagami and Takao Oi, as they pose together in front of a Zero fighter plane before taking off from the Imperial Army airstrip in Choshi, just east of Tokyo, on November 8, 1944. None of the 17 other pilots and flight instructors who flew with Yoshitake on that day survived. Yoshitake only survived because an American warplane shot him out of the air, he crash-landed and was rescued by Japanese soldiers. (AP Photo)
A Japanese torpedo bomber goes down in flames after a direct hit by 5-inch shells from the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, on October 25, 1944. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)
A Japanese torpedo bomber goes down in flames after a direct hit by 5-inch shells from the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, on October 25, 1944. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)
A Japanese kamikaze pilot in a damaged single-engine bomber, moments before striking the U.S. Aircraft Carrier USS Essex, off the Philippine Islands, on November 25, 1944. (U.S. Navy)
A Japanese kamikaze pilot in a damaged single-engine bomber, moments before striking the U.S. Aircraft Carrier USS Essex, off the Philippine Islands, on November 25, 1944. (U.S. Navy)
A closer view of the Japanese kamikaze aircraft, smoking from antiaircraft hits and veering slightly to left moments before slamming into the USS Essex on November 25, 1944. (U.S. Navy)
A closer view of the Japanese kamikaze aircraft, smoking from antiaircraft hits and veering slightly to left moments before slamming into the USS Essex on November 25, 1944. (U.S. Navy)

As the US landings on the Philippines were consolidated the Japanese Navy became more desperate to halt the American advance across the Pacific. The organised use of Kamikaze suicide planes now became more frequent. Dramatic pictures of the engagement on the 25th November were to publicise the new danger. Two days later another battle group arriving off the Philippines came under a similar attack.

James J. Fahey was serving on the USS Montpelier, one of the busiest ships in the Pacific War, ending the war with 13 battle stars. He kept his diary throughout, written on loose sheets of paper kept in a tin. It was never intended for publication – but won wide acclaim when ‘discovered’ and then published in 1963. Much of the diary is worth reading simply because he covers so much of the routine life on board ship – but on the 27th the Montpelier was in the thick of a desperate fight against Japanese kamikaze planes:

27 November 1944

At 10.50 A.M. this morning General Quarters sounded, all hands went to their battle stations. At the same time a battleship and a destroyer were alongside the tanker getting fuel.

Out of the clouds I saw a big Jap bomber come crashing down into the water. It was not smoking and looked in good condition. It felt like I was in it as it hit the water not too far from the tanker, and the 2 ships that were refueling. One of our P-38 fighters hit it. He must have got the pilot.

At first I thought it was one of our bombers that had engine trouble. It was not long after that when a force of about 30 Jap planes attacked us. Dive bombers and torpedo planes. Our two ships were busy getting away from the tanker because one bomb-hit on the tanker and it would be all over for the 3 ships.

The 2 ships finally got away from the tanker and joined the circle. I think the destroyers were on the outside of the circle. It looked funny to see the tanker all by itself in the center of the ships as we circled it, with our guns blazing away as the planes tried to break through. It was quite a sight, better than the movies…

Jap planes were coming at us from all directions. Before the attack started we did not know that they were suicide planes, with no intention of returning to their base. They had one thing in mind and that was to crash into our ships, bombs and all. You have to blow them up, to damage them doesn’t mean much. Right off the bat a Jap plane made a suicide dive at the cruiser St. Louis, there was a big explosion and flames were seen shortly from the stern.

Another one tried to do the same thing but he was shot down. A Jap plane came in on a battleship with its guns blazing away. Other Jap planes came in strafing one ship, dropping their bombs on another and crashing into another ship. The Jap planes were falling all around us, the air was full of Jap machine gun bullets. Jap planes and bombs were hitting all around us. Some of our ships were being hit by suicide planes, bombs and machine gun fire…

While all this was taking place our ship had its hands full with Jap planes. We knocked our share of planes down but we also got hit by 3 suicide planes, but lucky for us they dropped their bombs before they crashed into us.

In the meantime exploding planes overhead were showering us with their parts. It looked like it was raining plane parts. They were falling all over the ship. Quite a few of the men were hit by big pieces of Jap planes.

We were supposed to have air coverage but all we had was 4 P-38 fighters, and when we opened up on the Jap planes they got out of the range of our exploding shells. They must have had a ring side seat of the show. The men on my mount were also showered with parts of Jap planes.

One suicide dive bomber was heading right for us while we were firing at other attacking planes and if the 40 mm. mount behind us on the port side did not blow the Jap wing off it would have killed all of us. When the wing was blown off it, the plane turned some and bounced off into the water and the bombs blew part of the plane onto our ship.

Another suicide plane crashed into one of the 5 inch mounts, pushing the side of the mount in and injuring some of the men inside. A lot of 5 inch shells were damaged. It was a miracle they did not explode. If that happened the powder and shells would have blown up the ship.

Our 40 mm mount is not too far away. The men threw the 5 inch shells over the side. They expected them to go off at any time. A Jap dive bomber crashed into one of the 40 mm mounts but lucky for them it dropped its bombs on another ship before crashing. Parts of the plane flew everywhere when it crashed into the mount.

Part of the motor hit Tomlinson, he had chunks of it all over him, his stomach, back, legs etc. The rest of the crew were wounded, most of them were sprayed with gasoline from the plane. Tomlinson was thrown a great distance and at first they thought he was knocked over the side. They finally found him in a corner in bad shape.

One of the mt. Captains had the wires cut on his phones and kept talking into the phone, because he did not know they were cut by shrapnel until one of the fellows told him. The explosions were terrific as the suicide planes exploded in the water not too far away from our ship. The water was covered with black smoke that rose high into the air. The water looked like it was on fire. It would have been curtains for us if they had crashed into us.

See James J Fahey: Pacific War Diary, 1942-1945: The Secret Diary of an American Sailor

Detail of the USS Montpelier in the US for a refit in October 1944, with some parts of the construction highlighted.
Detail of the USS Montpelier in the US for a refit in October 1944, with some parts of the construction highlighted.
The USS Montpelier off Mare Island after a refit in October 1944.
The USS Montpelier off Mare Island after a refit in October 1944.
The charred dent in the bulkhead of mount 54's handling room is from a Kamikaze that was splashed 100 yards from the ship while in Leyte Gulf on 27 November 1944. When the plane hit the water it skipped like a stone and impacted the ship. Fortunately it had no bomb. During this engagement, Montpelier was credited with shooting down 4 planes in 2 minutes. From the collection of crewman John Dietz.
The charred dent in the bulkhead of mount 54’s handling room is from a Kamikaze that was splashed 100 yards from the ship while in Leyte Gulf on 27 November 1944. When the plane hit the water it skipped like a stone and impacted the ship. Fortunately it had no bomb. During this engagement, Montpelier was credited with shooting down 4 planes in 2 minutes.
From the collection of crewman John Dietz.

USS Princeton lost in massive explosion

I had to get out from under that shower of hot steel. When I glanced down I saw that my right knee was mangled, so I thought I would get up on my left leg and hop to the overhanging No. 4 turret. But my left leg would not support me because it was broken. I tried to crawl on my belly, but the pea-sized, gravel-like bits of Princeton on the deck painfully burned my hands and forearms as well as the nape of my neck. All I could do was roll around on the deck, trying to escape the searing pain.

Smoke rises after a massive explosion in Princeton's hangar deck, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on 24 October 1944. A destroyer is visible at right.
Smoke rises after a massive explosion in Princeton’s hangar deck, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines on 24 October 1944. A destroyer is visible at right.
Smoke rises from an explosion in Princeton's hangar deck at 1000.5 hrs. on 24 October 1944, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).
Smoke rises from an explosion in Princeton’s hangar deck at 1000.5 hrs. on 24 October 1944, shortly after she was hit by a Japanese bomb while operating off the Philippines. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).
USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning, but still underway, about twenty minutes after she was hit by a Japanese air attack, 24 October 1944. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).
USS Princeton (CVL-23) burning, but still underway, about twenty minutes after she was hit by a Japanese air attack, 24 October 1944. Photographed from USS South Dakota (BB-57).

In what some regard as the largest Naval engagement in history, certainly in World War II, the US 3rd and 7th Fleets clashed with the Imperial Japanese Navy off the Philippines between 23rd and 26th October in the Battle of the Leyte Gulf. The US Navy was there to provide support for the invasion of the Philippines.

Leyte Gulf consisted of a series of engagements, each one of which would be considered a significant naval battle. The 24th October saw the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, during which US planes bombed and sunk the Musashi, one of the largest battleships ever built.

US carrier based planes were largely successful in preventing the Japanese planes getting through to their own ships. However, it would only took one plane to get through the screen to cause serious damage.

Henry Popham was on the USS Birmingham and had a full view of events after he had completed his shift in the engine room:

October 24 dawned with broken clouds and occasional squalls, but there was good visibility, allowing continuing airstrikes in support of land operations on the island of Leyte. The day began before sunrise, with general quarters sounded for all the ships in Task Force 38.

To start the day, Princeton contributed 20 fighter planes to the air battle over Leyte Gulf. The first wave of 40 to 50 Japanese planes was intercepted and their attack broken up with many enemy losses. A second group of about 30 enemy aircraft quickly took to the air.

Out of the two waves, Princeton’s planes alone shot down 34 enemy aircraft with a loss of only one. Pilots became aces in a matter of minutes. The planes returned to the carrier for refueling and arming in preparation for an airstrike against a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers and 13 destroyers southeast of the island of Mindoro.

At 9:12 a.m., USS Essex reported a possible bandit plus a friendly aircraft about six miles away. No other unidentifieds were within a radius of 25 miles.

At 9:38 a.m., a single Judy was sighted by Princeton’s lookouts, diving on their vessel from out of the low cloud cover ahead of the ship. The plane immediately came under fire from the forward 20mm and 40mm batteries, and the helm was put over to port in an evasion attempt. The Judy dropped two bombs. One missed Princeton and fell harmlessly into the sea. The other 550-pound bomb fell almost in the center of Princeton’s deck, causing jarring on the bridge and a dull thud in central station. Black smoke issued from the hole in the flight deck, the forward elevator and every access trunk to the hangar aft of the island. Ed Butler, a radarman, said, “I saw him [the Japanese pilot] high-tailing it away from our stern, trailing smoke.”

Pete Callan, one of the crew who had refueled and armed the torpedo planes, says he heard machine-gun fire at a more rapid rate than any of the guns aboard Princeton were capable of. He heard bullets striking the wooden planking of the flight deck.

Fifty years later, Pete told me, “The Japanese pilot utilized the striking bullets to guide his aim by stitching the deck and the surrounding water, then making the appropriate corrections to his bombing run.” The bomb passed through the flight deck, leaving a small jagged hole about 15 inches in diameter, continuing downward and severing the main gasoline line used to fuel the planes. The bomb then passed through an auxiliary drop tank under one wing of Lieutenant Tom Mooney’s torpedo plane parked in the hangar. The bomb continued on its path, piercing the hangar deck and detonating in the crew’s galley on the second deck. The bomb blew a hole through the second deck into the third, above the after engine room.

Structural damage was relatively minor, but a raging gasoline fire flared up in the wreckage of Mooney’s plane and spread rapidly to the other five planes parked there. The quantity of gasoline dumped onto the hangar deck from the severed gasoline main is unknown, but those six fully fueled planes had held more than 2,500 gallons of high-test aviation gasoline. The bomb had created a 5-foot indentation around the small 15-inch hole, which acted as a funnel for the gasoline spilling onto the hangar deck, directing it into the lower decks where the fire raged. Within seconds of the explosion there were fires on the third deck over the after engine room, on the second deck, and in the hangar. Billowing black smoke from burning gasoline poured from every opening in the lower decks.

Less than 10 minutes after the bomb was dropped, the firefighting sprinkler system was completely disabled. Within the same short timespan, the main engines lost almost all power, which first slowed Princeton, then brought her to a halt and turned her into a drifting, burning hulk.

Nearly 90 minutes after the bomb hit, Birmingham was ordered to fall out of formation and assume command of the firefighting operations.

Princeton's port forward area, as seen from USS Birmingham (CL-62) during attempts to control her fires during the afternoon of 24 October. She had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note damage to Princeton's 40mm gun position and catwalk, caused by Birmingham's Number Two 6"/47 gun turret as the two ships grind together. Also note flight deck tractor partially hung up on Princeton's deck edge, F6F and TBM airplanes parked forward, floater nets and life rafts on Birmingham's gun turret.
Princeton’s port forward area, as seen from USS Birmingham (CL-62) during attempts to control her fires during the afternoon of 24 October. She had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note damage to Princeton’s 40mm gun position and catwalk, caused by Birmingham’s Number Two 6″/47 gun turret as the two ships grind together. Also note flight deck tractor partially hung up on Princeton’s deck edge, F6F and TBM airplanes parked forward, floater nets and life rafts on Birmingham’s gun turret.

To be effective, Birmingham had to stay in direct contact so firefighters could move from ship to ship. To stay in physical contact, Birmingham deliberately crowded Princeton. Princeton’s anti-torpedo blisters on both sides below her waterline amidships effectively limited the approach of any supporting ships to the bow or stern areas.

After an extended all-night shift belowdecks making repairs in the after engine room of Birmingham, I was relieved from duty. I went above with Vernon Trevethan and George Thompson. No longer serving under general quarters, we were off duty and sightseeing.

George, Vernon and I headed for the open bridge above the starboard flying bridge. We wanted to observe the firefighting efforts on Princeton but still stay out of the way. Clearly, Birmingham’s starboard side and Princeton’s port side were severely damaged by the grinding impacts that ensued during Birmingham’s attempt to maneuver to the advantage of the firefighters aboard both ships.

View from the foredeck on USS Birmingham (CL-62) as she stood alongside Princeton to help fight her fires, during the afternoon of 24 October. The carrier had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note fire hoses on Birmingham's deck and details of the underside of her Number Two 6"/47 gun turret.
View from the foredeck on USS Birmingham (CL-62) as she stood alongside Princeton to help fight her fires, during the afternoon of 24 October. The carrier had been hit by a Japanese air attack while operating off the Philippines. Note fire hoses on Birmingham’s deck and details of the underside of her Number Two 6″/47 gun turret.

Damaged by the constant collisions between the two vessels, a hatch door was ripped from Princeton’s hull, exposing the interior of what appeared to be a companionway. Today the memory of what I saw scares me. Then, however, I was only 23 and not easily intimidated by potential danger. What I saw was a row of bombs standing upright. If memory has not failed me, those bombs were in the neighborhood of 5 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter.

Firefighters on Birmingham were directing streams of water onto those bombs, causing them to sizzle like a hot frying pan when water is sprinkled onto its surface. This effort by Birmingham’s crew to cool down the bombs with fire hoses was desperately hampered because of the narrow quarters and the constant rolling of the ships. The bombs were hissing and generating clouds of steam. My buddies and I watched this activity from our vantage point less than 20 feet away from the nearest bomb. Birmingham’s skipper, Captain Thomas Inglis, was just below us on the flying bridge, directing the entire operation. The grim expression on his face indicated his deep concern at the stress of the situation.

At around 1:32 p.m., Birmingham sounded general quarters as she pulled clear of Princeton due to threats of air and submarine attacks.

About 90 minutes later, general quarters ended with the all clear. Again Birmingham moved alongside Princeton. My little group reconvened. Now we perched on the after mushroom ventilator, between the No. 3 and No. 4 turrets, intently watching the activities on Princeton. Birmingham prepared to rig for towing.

From an estimated distance of 50 to 75 yards, absolutely no smoke or fires were observed, only patches of foglike vapors coming from the numerous openings in Princeton’s flight deck. Princeton appeared to be serenely drifting with the current. It appeared as if the fires had gone out on their own. Our little group on Birmingham figured the excitement was all over. The fires aboard Princeton had been extinguished.

The ships were still separated by about 50 feet when sailors shot their messenger lines across in order to secure a spring line between the two ships. George, on my right, suddenly exclaimed, “Look at that flame!” We saw a single tongue of flame shoot out from the area of the after elevator, followed by an enormous puff of white smoke like a billowy cumulus cloud. To our horror, a slender column of pale orange-colored smoke shot several hundred feet straight up. All hell broke loose with an enormous eruption. One hundred and thirty feet of Princeton’s stern blew off, as well as 180 feet of her flight deck.

As a high-speed shock wave headed my way, my reflexes took over. I threw myself backward before the concussion could hit me head on. This reflex action undoubtedly saved my life. Still, the force of the shock wave tumbled me backward 30 or 40 feet and about 10 feet into the air before dropping me on the deck. The shock wave hit me a split second before the thunder of the explosion reached my ears.

Heavy explosion aft on USS Princeton (CVL-23), with USS Birmingham (CL-62) alongside, 24 October 1944.
Heavy explosion aft on USS Princeton (CVL-23), with USS Birmingham (CL-62) alongside, 24 October 1944.
USS Birmingham (CL-62), at left, and a destroyer pull away from USS Princeton (CVL-23) following the big explosion that destroyed the carrier's stern at about 1523 hrs. on 24 October 1944. This blast killed over two hundred men aboard Birmingham, which was alongside Princeton fighting fires. Note the light smoke over Birmingham's midships and stern areas. Princeton's stern, and a good deal of her after superstructure, has been blown off.
USS Birmingham (CL-62), at left, and a destroyer pull away from USS Princeton (CVL-23) following the big explosion that destroyed the carrier’s stern at about 1523 hrs. on 24 October 1944. This blast killed over two hundred men aboard Birmingham, which was alongside Princeton fighting fires. Note the light smoke over Birmingham’s midships and stern areas. Princeton’s stern, and a good deal of her after superstructure, has been blown off.

While I was tumbling, I was aware that Vernon, my best friend, was also somersaulting. I saw him land on his feet andrun around the barbett of No. 3 turret to disappear from my sight. Some time later, I learned he had dropped dead on the other side of the turret.

I was stunned momentarily, yet at the same time my senses were heightened. When the roar of the explosion abated, I became aware of an ear-splitting silence that seemed to last for an eternity and was almost painful to my ears. The deafening hush was finally brought to an end by the sound of burning hot shrapnel raining down all around me. The shrapnel was burning through my clothes in what seemed to be hundreds of places.

I had to get out from under that shower of hot steel. When I glanced down I saw that my right knee was mangled, so I thought I would get up on my left leg and hop to the overhanging No. 4 turret. But my left leg would not support me because it was broken. I tried to crawl on my belly, but the pea-sized, gravel-like bits of Princeton on the deck painfully burned my hands and forearms as well as the nape of my neck. All I could do was roll around on the deck, trying to escape the searing pain.

Finally, the shrapnel stopped falling and the pieces of steel cooled. I collected myself enough to look around at hundreds of dead or unconscious bodies. Out of maybe 300 crew members on the after starboard deck of Birmingham, there was only one person other than myself who was conscious. There was no moaning, only an eerie quiet.

108 men died on the Princeton but casualties were ben heavier on the Birmingham, 233 dead and 426 wounded. Read the whole account at History Net

Contemporary British newsreel of the battle including footage of the plane that bombed the USS Princeton being shot down:

USS Princeton (CVL-23) blows up after being torpedoed by USS Reno (CL-96) on 24 October 1944. Princeton had been fatally damaged by Japanese air attack earlier in the day, and was scuttled by torpedoing to permit U.S. forces to clear the area.
USS Princeton (CVL-23) blows up after being torpedoed by USS Reno (CL-96) on 24 October 1944. Princeton had been fatally damaged by Japanese air attack earlier in the day, and was scuttled by torpedoing to permit U.S. forces to clear the area.