WW II Photo Spotlights Local Vet’s Drama at Sea

By J. ANTHONY HARNESS | Nov 06, 2019
Photo by: Albert Bullock, U.S. Navy Yeoman 2nd Class Robert Blanchard receives last rites from Catholic chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan on the burning deck of USS Franklin on March 19,1945.

Four months from this Veterans Day the family of the late Barnegat veteran Robert Charles Blanchard will observe the 75th anniversary of the World War II attack on the USS Franklin off the coast of Japan in 1945. On that day, Yonkers, N.Y., native Bob Blanchard received the Catholic sacrament of extreme unction for the first time.

The 22-year-old sailor had been in the Navy for just over two years, mostly at the Norfolk Naval Air Station. Before joining up he’d worked for GM in New York as a shipping clerk. His assignment as a replacement in early 1945 on “Big Ben,” as the USS Franklin was known, came as she lay at Bremerton, Wash., for repairs due to battle damage.

Since June 1944 the carrier had been engaged in combat across the Pacific during her first war cruise. She’d taken part in the fighting in the Bonin and Mariana islands, in a reconnaissance of Iwo Jima, struck enemy forces on Guam, took part in the amphibious invasion of Peleliu, and saw service in the seas around the Philippines. She’d been hit by enemy planes crashing into her decks twice during that time (a forewarning of the Japanese kamikaze tactic that would come later). In late October, off Samar, during the second incident, 56 crewmen were killed and 60 wounded, and her damage was extensive enough to require a voyage to a stateside shipyard.

By the beginning of February 1945 she was back at sea, Bob Blanchard serving as a yeoman in the gunnery office. After a short cruise to Pearl Harbor for re-training, she steamed for Japan. Her assignment was to strike the Japanese home islands in support of the Okinawa landings.

On March 19, 1945, out of an overcast sky, one Japanese dive bomber made an attack run on Big Ben. His two bombs hit the flight deck, one forward and one aft. The bombs blasted into the hanger deck below. In the wake of the two massive explosions the ship was engulfed in fire and smoke.

Young Bob was below decks near his work space when the bombs burst, and he headed with other crewmen through the smoke-darkened passageways to the air vents located on the mess deck. They made it to the galley and dining areas, but even there the air grew worse as the minutes passed. He was one of hundreds of men trapped below by fires and smoke.

That was when Lt.j.g. Donald A. Gary, one of those most familiar with the ship’s layout, went down to help after hearing of men cut off below. He quickly organized their escape. He kept them calm and disciplined, and moved them in small groups to safety above. Gary led Bob and the other desperate sailors past burning spaces and smoke-filled work areas, and through tight, obscure passageways to a secured ladder that led topside. He had the choking men break down the ladder’s barrier of metal screening, and supervised their climb up to the safety of the flight deck. Then Gary returned to the mess decks for another group. He did it over and over until he’d gotten 300 men out.

Bob literally hit the flight deck when the fresh air smacked him; the smoke had done him in. He fought for breath; his wounded lungs couldn’t pull in the air they needed. Corpsmen and other sailors rushed to his aid. He looked bad. They lay Bob in soft parachute silk and comforted him. They thought he was dying. His wracking coughs caught the attention of a Catholic chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Joseph T. O’Callahan, who was nearby fighting the flight deck fires alongside the crew. The priest recognized the stricken sailor as one of his altar boys at Mass, and went to him. He immediately gave the young yeoman the Roman Catholic sacrament of extreme unction, also known as last rites.

The moment was captured for posterity by Albert Bullock, a Navy photographer’s mate from the cruiser USS Santa Fe, which had come alongside to help fight the fires aboard the Franklin and rescue her wounded. Then O’Callahan was away, to organize working parties to fight the flames and remove ammunition from magazines that were in danger of exploding from the heat.

Bob Blanchard, who had somehow survived, was evacuated to the Santa Fe but returned to the Franklin when the fires were extinguished. At first the vessel was towed out of the combat area by the cruiser USS Pittsburgh. Big Ben’s crew repaired her enough to make Ulithi Atoll and then Pearl Harbor under her own steam for further repairs. Official Navy records of the March 19, 1945, action total 724 killed and 265 wounded officers and crew.

From Hawaii, the severely damaged ship sailed across the Pacific to the Panama Canal, and then made her way north through the Atlantic to the Brooklyn Naval Yard. On May 18, 1945, the veil of secrecy over the attack was lifted as Big Ben had arrived in New York, and Bullock’s photo was released to the nation. Lt.j.g. Gary and Lt. Cmdr. O’Callahan received the Medal of Honor, and 26 other crew members received the Silver Star for their bravery aboard USS Franklin.

Several of Bob and his wife, Violetta Blanchard’s, children live in Ocean County. Violetta Kelly, Tom Blanchard and Marion Humphries reside in Little Egg Harbor. Donna Glidden and Pat Dangler are in Toms River. Barbara Ann Mason has just moved from Little Egg Harbor to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Also, Bill Blanchard lives in Atlantic City, Robert Blanchard is in Margaretville, N.Y., and Michaelle Gaul calls Williamsburg, Va., home.

Joseph Harness is a member of the Tuckerton Historical Society and a veteran who lives in Parkertown.





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