When a flaming Japanese fighter plane struck the USS Belleau Wood only 30 feet from where Ray Franklin was standing in his "flight deck dungarees," he suffered second- and third-degree burns and lost most of his clothes - everything except his naval shorts.
He was lucky.
Ninety-two men died in the Kamikaze attack and resulting explosions aboard the aircraft carrier operating in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Several of his nearby friends perished, including one man who "got burnt and I watched him die," Franklin, 92, recalled in a pre-Memorial Day interview this week at his Crescent City home.
Right before the Japanese plane killed his crewmen, he had watched it drop bombs near a companion aircraft carrier of the task force that shared his name: the USS Franklin. American gunners from that ship had shot up the Japanese plane, so by the time it was barrelling toward the Belleau Wood it appeared as a giant fireball.
"Her antiaircraft batteries commenced firing but could not stop the Jap which crashed with an explosion of flame and smoke on the after-portion of the flight deck," according to "History of the U.S.S. Belleau Wood," written by a member of the ship's crew, Richard D. Fread. "After a battle with burning gasoline coupled with exploding ammunition and depth charges which lasted for hours, it was found that in addition to the heavy damage, 92 men were found dead or missing."
Franklin doesn't remember being transported by a hospital ship and seaplane, ultimately settling at a hospital base in the New Hebrides islands to recover for more than four months.
"When I got hurt, they had me morphined up so bad, I have very little memory of some things," Franklin said.
He has spotty recollection ofnurses taking care of him. Then, without knowing how he got there, he remembers being aboard the USS Independence, where he had the odd experience of watching the nearby USS Franklin get bombed again by Japanese planes.
The few months he spent on the Independence are hazy as well, lost in the morphine cloud of post-recovery, Franklin said. But his time aboard the USS Belleau Wood, including over a year ofbattles in the war's Asian Pacific Theater, and how he came to be stationed on its deck are clear and nostalgic.
Aboard the flight deck
Raised on a farm on the outskirts of Baltimore, and later in the heart of the city, Franklin was one of several children experiencing the Great Depression like the average American family.
Franklin started working to support the family at the age of 16 in a vegetable processing plant before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. Franklin and a group of local friends didn't want to dig trenches for the Army and had grown up with the sea as their backyard, so they signed up for the Navy.
In the seventh month of 1943, Franklin boarded the Belleau Wood, a vessel originally designed to be a light cruiser before the hull was converted to be a light aircraft carrier. The 622-foot vessel held more than 1,500 men, 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft gun mounts and over 45 aircraft.
Once the Belleau Wood traveled through the Panama Canal, its entire crew was soon thrust into the Asian Pacific theater.
As part of the flight deck crew, Franklin kept aircraft operations running smoothly: attaching wings, moving planes around, filling out pilots' log books, and tying down planes during typhoons, among other tasks.
In typhoons, Franklin said the ship could list violently, reaching 51 degrees during one storm.
"Ever heard of footprints on the wall?" he said, adding that several planes were ripped from the flight deck and tumbled overboard in one typhoon.
The Belleau Wood was part of a task force made up of several carriers, cruisers and destroyers.
During the Battle of Tarawa, a small South Pacific island of strategic importance, the Belleau Wood narrowly dodged a Japanese torpedo. Franklin watched the torpedo go across the ship's bow.
"It looked like a big shark at first, but when you saw the bubbles, you knew," he said.
A storied history
Franklin was aboard for American raids and assaults on many South Pacific islands held by Japan: Kwajalein, Truk, Saipan, Tinian, the Western Carolines, New Guinea, parts of the Philippines and the Mariana Islands chain.
"During the Marianas assault, the task force repulsed a major air attack by an enemy carrier force, with the combined efforts of the ship's anti-aircraft guns and the carrier planes, downing 360 Japanese planes," according to Fread's book.
One of the Belleau Wood's most celebrated achievements was sinking a Japanese aircraft carrier in that battle. Few carriers, especially a smaller one like the Belleau Wood, "have received full credit for sinking a major enemy warship," Fread wrote.
When the Japanese forces grew more desperate, Kamikaze attacks became more frequent, Franklin said. The planes would fly inlow on sunny days, making them hard to see.
"Sometimes they were right on us before they blew general quarters," the naval announcement to man battle stations, Franklin said.
"Too many young men were killed that shouldn't have been killed," Franklin said."I've seen a lot of planes and bullets flying; and bombs bursting in the air."
The October 1944 Kamikaze attack and explosions that burned Franklin also sent the Belleau Wood to San Francisco to be repaired and overhauled. The ship had logged 141,178 miles since being commissioned in August 1941.
Franklin was awarded the Purple Heart. For her Pacific war service, the Belleau Wood was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
"Daring and dependable in combat, the Belleau Wood with her gallant officers and men rendered loyal service in achieving the ultimate defeat of the Japanese Empire," reads an inscription fromSecretary of the Navy James F. Forrestal on the presidential citation.
After a shirt stint aboard the USS Independence, Franklin was on his way to Long Beach aboard a troop ship when the end of the war was announced.
"Everyone was jumping up and down and screaming just like as if they were on the streets in the States," he said.
Within a couple of days hitting shore in Long Beach, Franklin met a woman named Nadine, andwithin 10 days they tied the knot.On their wedding dayhe was supposed to take a train back to the East Coast. He told his military superior that he would be taking a different train; he had a woman to marry.
Franklin modestly describes owning andoperating a few auto body shops on the East Coast and in the L.A. area when he and Nadinemoved there to escape the humidity and be closer to her family after a few years in Baltimore. But his life's passion, integrally tied to his profession, was auto racing.
He built, worked on and raced cars throughout his life, rubbing elbows and becoming friends with famous names of the sport like Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones,Bud Moore, Buddy Baker, Marvin Porter, and Ron Hornaday
His daughter was once a trophy girl for the Indianapolis 500. His son owns a company based in Redwood City that builds parts for vintage race cars.
After years of coming to visit Del Norte County to fish for salmon in the Klamath River, Franklin and his wife decided to retire here in 1979.
They ran a charter fishing operation with the boat, Stinger. Ray and Nadine flipped a coin to see who would go through captain certification. She became skipper.
In the last six years, Franklin has restored a 1951 mercury that he bought from a friend in Washington, who was moving to Florida.He did all of the restoration work himself besides the engine.
He doesn't have any traditions for Memorial Day, or any plans to call any war buddies, prefering different memories.
"I like to remember people how they lived and not how they died," he said.
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com.