I have been on a World War II history kick lately. This kick continues with my most recent read – Joseph A. Springer’s Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II. It is an oral history that follows the USS Franklin(a fleet aircraft carrier) from the laying of its keel in Newport News, Virginia to its battles during World War II.
I normally do not like oral histories because many times they are choppy – the first-hand accounts are not normally interwoven with the narrative very well. However, this book is the rare exception. Springer provides an excellent framework of the ship’s history in the narrative. He then fills in the personal details with the oral history. Springer’s writing style is light and easy to read.
The most gripping parts of the book are the accounts of the crew’s fight for the Franklin’s survival in one instance (the ship was hit by a kamikaze on October 30, 1944 that caused enough damage to require repairs in the mainland U.S.) and fighting to contain damage in another (it was hit again on March 18, 1945 by one bomb that caused cataclysmic damage). The stories are interesting and engaging. For example, many of the survivors describe where they were when the bomb hit the ship and how they either left the ship or fought to control the fires raging below the decks.
In addition to the survivors’ stories from the March 18 attack, Springer includes the accounts of other sailors on neighboring ships. These accounts include the heroic efforts of several ship captains (particularly that of Captain Fritz of the USS Santa Fe) to help the stricken Franklin and the hundreds of Franklin sailors that were in the water. Fritz’s seamanship allowed hundreds of sailors to transfer from the Franklin to the Santa Fe without touching the water (thus avoiding the perils of floating in freezing water).
Springer also discusses a black episode after the March 18 disaster – Captain Gehres’ (captain of the Franklin) claims of dereliction of duty against the hundreds of officers and sailors who abandoned ship during the fire that raged in the ship. Many of these men had no other choice but to abandon ship or be killed. Others, in the confusion, thought they were ordered to abandon ship. Springer describes how this accusation from Gehres scarred the consciences of hundreds of brave men who fought for their country, but were ostracized for their “supposed” cowardly act.
Finally, Springer’s descriptions and first-hand accounts of the daily operations on a World War II aircraft carrier are fascinating. The little details of how an aircraft carrier operated are fascinating. For example, Springer talks about how the pilots landed on the carrier. Many times their arresting hooks did not catch a wire and a barrier net was needed to catch the aircraft. Although this saved the pilot and the plane, it also cost a lot of aircraft engines because they were ruined when the props hit the net.
This book is an excellent oral history describing one of the U.S. Navy’s finest hours in saving one of its ships.