Radioman 3rd Class Petty Officer Louis Dodaro celebrated his twentieth birthday on March 18th, 1945. I hope he got to celebrate a little before he had to report for the late shift as radio operator on board the USS Benjamin Franklin (aka Big Ben). Perhaps that was the reason he either forgot or lost his cap. Either way, he reported to duty in the Combat Information Center of the aircraft carrier without it. He knew that being without his cap meant being out of uniform. So when he came off duty, just before dawn on the 19th of March, he took the lesser-traveled passageways to the kitchen for breakfast. Normally, he would have been on the “chow” line with his buddies in the cafeteria, but not wanting to be caught without his cap, instead, he ate breakfast in the kitchen. He had no way of knowing that these insignificant series of events would save his life.
He hadn’t seen his family since the USS Franklin had left the Brooklyn Navy Yard for training exercises on the newly christened aircraft carrier in June of 1944. Perhaps while having breakfast on the ship that morning, he thought back to his childhood and remembered seeing his cousin, Phil Rizzuto, running through the streets of Ridgewood in 1937. Louie had called out to him and Phil had responded, “I can’t stop right now. I’ve got to get home and talk to my parents. I just got signed by a farm team of the New York Yankees!” He was proud of his cousin, who by 1945, had already made a name for himself in the big leagues, but during the war, like others, Phil had to take a short break and instead was playing on the Navy baseball team.
At home, Louie had left his mother (Teresa from “A Girl and Her Wolf”), his father, his younger brother, Frank, and his little sister, Gloria. Both of Louie’s older brothers were also serving their country. Del in North Africa, where he survived contracting Malaria, and Marty who had survived The Battle of the Bulge as part of a Destroyer Tank battalion. Now as the war in the Pacific continued on, Louie was about to live through one of the most amazing survival stories of the war.
Just before dawn on the 19th of March in 1945, a lone Japanese plane pierced the cloud covered sky and dropped two 550 lb. bombs on to the Franklin’s deck. At the time of the attack,”Big Ben” was under the command of Captain Leslie E. Gehres. The first bomb penetrated the hangar deck and ignited fires on the 2nd and 3rd decks, while also destroying the ship’s Combat Information Center. The second bomb hit the hangar deck and caused a succession of additional explosions. The planes on the aircraft carrier were full of fuel and when the fuel ignited into flames, it also caused the rockets and ammunition that were loaded onto the planes to explode.
As fire erupted in the kitchen, Louie made his way through the passageways and eventually, followed others up a ladder to a porthole that led to the compartment above. But just as the man ahead of him went through the porthole, another man in an asbestos suit who was already in the above compartment, pushed Louie back down into the lower compartment of the ship and locked the porthole. With that avenue of escape cut off, Louie continued on, traversing the lower deck, trying to find another way out.
When he finally reached the hangar deck, he heard someone yell the order to “jump ship.” Other ships were pulling up along side the Franklin and he saw some of his friends jump into the sea, but he chose to stay on board. He joined the other men who were trying to put out the fires and tend to the wounded. This was made extremely difficult because the ship was now tilting at a 13 degree starboard list. The USS Santa Fe pulled up next to the Franklin and it took on the wounded and the men who had jumped into the sea. By the time the fires were extinguished, only 106 officers and 604 enlisted men still remained on board. 724 soldiers had been killed and 265 had been wounded in this single attack.
Louie found out later that the radioman who had taken over for him after his shift ended, had been decapitated by the bomb. Louie said the guy had to be identified by his dog tags. His buddies, who he should have been standing with on-line in the cafeteria, all died. He said their bodies were plastered all over the ceiling from the impact. The man in the asbestos suit who had pushed Louie back down from the porthole and blocked him from the above compartment, had saved Louie’s life. There were poisonous gases in that compartment that had been released by the fire. The men who went through that porthole in front of him, all died. Louie lost his best friend, Peter Fiesel from Yonkers, New York in that attack.
The Franklin was reported as “sunk” by the Japanese radio station. But in spite of that report, the Franklin was towed by the heavy cruiser, U.S.S. Pittsburg, for a short distance until it raised enough steam to reach 14 knots. Then it continued its journey, stopping once at Ulithi Atoll for emergency repairs. Big Ben limped all the way back to Pearl Harbor, under its own power. On the long trip to Hawaii, a controversy simmered on board the carrier. There was a discrepancy as to whether or not the order to abandon ship had ever been given. If it hadn’t been given, then those men who jumped into the sea would be considered deserters. Once in Pearl Harbor, essential repairs were made. The men were given a 24-hour leave to go celebrate their surviving the attack and accomplishing the task of bringing their ship back to American waters. Louie said that after a night of drinking, one of the men, while walking on the plank that led back to the ship, fell off the plank and drowned in the harbor.
The repairs at Pearl Harbor allowed the Franklin to continue on its journey through the Panama Canal and back to New York. Big Ben pulled into the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 28th, 1945, forty days after the ship had been attacked. Once docked safely in New York, Captain Gehres accused the men who had jumped into the sea of abandoning the ship without an order to do so. Gehres proclained 704 members of the crew as members of “The Big Ben 704 Club” because they had stayed with the heavily damaged carrier until they reached Hawaii. But later investigations uncovered that only about 400 men were actually on-board the Franklin on the entire journey back to Pearl Harbor. Some had been brought back on other ships. After further investigation, all of the charges against the crew members who had jumped ship were quietly dropped.
After surviving the attack and the entire voyage back to New York, one more crew member died before reaching home that day. He fell from the subway platform and onto the tracks below where he was killed by a train.
Louie ran through the streets and hitched a ride on a trolley. He arrived safely at his family’s home and opened the door to their astonishment. They hadn’t even been notified that his ship had been heavily damaged and that many of the men had lost their lives. Shortly after Louie’s return, he and his family were devastated to receive the news that his cousin, twenty-one year old Army Private Joseph Guarascio, had lost his life on April 15th, 1945 in Kia. Like their cousin, Phil Rizzuto, Joseph was a great baseball player, but WWII had ended that dream for him.
In the years that followed, Louie became a New York City Police Officer and Detective. He married and had a son and two daughters. Louie passed away on August 9th, 2013, while surrounded by his loving family.
He is their hero.
http://www.theresadodaro.com Author of The Tin Box Trilogy