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'We saved the ship': WWII vets gather, likely for last time

Terry Pickard / NBC News

Surviving sailors from the USS Franklin hold a reunion at Patriots Point in Charleston on Friday.

MT. PLEASANT, S.C. -- Two dozen surviving veterans from the World War II aircraft carrier USS Franklin gathered on Friday, probably for the last time, to honor and remember one of the most remarkable naval episodes of the war.

It was before dawn on a late winter morning in 1945 when a Japanese dive bomber dropped two 500 pound bombs on the Franklin. The year-old carrier nicknamed “Big Ben” was serving in the Pacific theater and, at that moment, had maneuvered closer to Japan than any other U.S.-flagged carrier during the war.

More than 800 sailors died in the catastrophic 1945 attack on the USS Franklin, leaving the ship listing in the water. The survivors kept the ship afloat, and made it back to port. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Sam ‘Dusty’ Rhodes was asleep in the ship’s bunk area when the bombs hit. Rhodes was a water tender 3rd class and was responsible for operating the ship’s massive boilers – and with debris from the massive explosions raining down on him, that is just what he did.

Rhodes said he and other crew members ran to the one of the unaffected firerooms and attempted to raise enough steam to light the remaining boiler. When the flame caught from Rhodes’ Zippo lighter, “that’s when the ship’s heart started to beat again,” he recalled.

Above on the flight deck, the scene was nothing short of catastrophic. The Franklin was dead in the water, listing to one side and cut off from communications as fires burned everywhere. More than 800 sailors died in the attack, with hundreds more wounded.

Terry Pickard / NBC News

Flags line the walkway to the USS Yorktown, where a '13' was painted to honor the number of the USS Franklin.

But the Franklin didn’t sink, and that is the legacy crew members like Rhodes like to remember. The Franklin would become the most heavily damaged aircraft carrier of the war to make it back to port.

“We saved the ship,” Rhodes said. “In the Navy, you save the ship. It’s your home.”

William Schauer was a Naval electrician and fireman 1st class, just out of high school when he reported for duty on the deck of the Franklin, three months before the attack. Looking back on that day 68 years later, he said he was certain he was going to go down with the ship that morning, and “that was the end.”

“But we were there for a purpose,” and despite suffering such heavy losses, Schauer says he still considers their mission – keeping the ship afloat – accomplished.

At the reunion on Friday, Medal of Honor recipient and retired Gen. James Livingston saluted the assembled veterans. He said their “refusal to allow her to sink” allowed the Franklin to limp back to port instead of ending up buried forever on the ocean floor. “That’s a testimony to what you are as men,” he said.

Terry Pickard / NBC News

The tattered battle flag from the USS Franklin hangs on display at the USS Yorktown.

In the belly of the USS Yorktown, another decommissioned carrier that saw battle in the Pacific and now survives as the centerpiece of the Patriots Point Naval Museum in this bucolic Charleston suburb, a tattered and smoke-tinged flag is mounted overhead. It was the original battle flag that flew on the mast of the Franklin’s flight deck the day of the attack -- the same flag that Rhodes remembers looking up and noticing through the haze of black smoke after the bombs hit. Seeing it meant they still had a chance, he remembered, “because we would strike the colors before abandoning ship.”   

“Big Ben” made it all the way back to New York for repairs, where it sat on V-J Day when the war finally ended. It never saw action again, and was sold for scrap in the 1960s. The flag, along with the bell and a gun turret also on display at the Yorktown, are all that remain of one of the most momentous spectacles of heroism and fortitude of World War II. And with what could be the final gathering of the men who saved the ship, it is up to a new generation to remember the Franklin.