An unassuming hero

NAVY OFFICER Donald Gary is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (above) by President Harry Truman in this 1946 photo, awarded to him for the bravery he showed in rescuing 300 men aboard the USS Franklin during World War II. Gary grew up in Findlay and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1919 at the age of 16, enjoying a stellar military career before retiring as a commander in 1950.  (Photo provided to The Courier)

NAVY OFFICER Donald Gary is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor (above) by President Harry Truman in this 1946 photo, awarded to him for the bravery he showed in rescuing 300 men aboard the USS Franklin during World War II. Gary grew up in Findlay and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1919 at the age of 16, enjoying a stellar military career before retiring as a commander in 1950. (Photo provided to The Courier)

By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
STAFF WRITER

The USS Gary, a guided-missile frigate commissioned in honor of Findlay native Donald A. Gary who won the Medal of Honor for bravery during World War II, still sails the seas.

The warship was commissioned in 1984 and continues to serve the U.S. Navy well.

The ship was deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003. More recently, it was deployed in support of counter-illicit drug trafficking in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

And just this summer, the USS Gary along with other ships, submarines, aircraft and personnel from 22 nations, participated in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) where she demonstrated her proficiency in gunnery, helicopter operations, small boat operations, navigations, communication and ship handling.

Commander Steven McDowell, Gary’s commanding officer, said the exercise has provided invaluable training for his ship and crew.

“RIMPAC offers a unique opportunity to meet and work with our international counterparts in an effort that unifies our collective force and enables it to respond more effectively when a crisis arises,” he said in an email.

Commander Gary’s Medal of Honor is displayed on board the ship in the officers’ wardroom. A career Navy man, Gary received the honor for helping to save the lives of 300 men trapped aboard the aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin, when it was bombed late in World War II.

Joy Bennett, curator for the Hancock Historical Museum, said many people are surprised to learn about Gary.

The museum has a permanent exhibit devoted to his heroism.

“I don’t think a lot of people know about him,” she said. “But then you don’t exactly expect to go to a museum in Findlay and find out, ‘Oh, hey, there’s a major war hero,'” she said.

Part of the problem may be that Gary spent so little time here after persuading his parents to let him enlist in the Navy as a teenager, said Ron Ammons, local military historian.

“He left town in 1919. He was a 16-year-old boy,” Ammons said. “He left town, joined the Navy and really never came back.”

Gary was born July 23, 1903, at his family’s home at 608 W. Front St. He was the youngest of nine children born to Henry Edward and Katherine Gary, who came to Findlay from Belmont County, Ohio about 1890.

According to information at the museum, Gary attended Crawford and Adams schools and completed his freshman year at Washington School, which then housed some of the freshmen classes because of overcrowding at Findlay High School.

A relative had served in World War I, and Gary was intrigued by those stories.

He enlisted Dec. 10, 1919, in Lima. Within a year, he was shoveling coal into the boilers of a gunboat protecting American interests on the Yangtze River in China.

He also served as a fireman and watertender on several warships before World War II, moving up in the enlisted ranks to chief petty officer.

In 1943, he was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade, and a year later was assigned to the USS Franklin.

“He made the Navy his career,” said Ammons, who included Gary’s story in his 2004 book, “Heroes by Necessity: Stories of Hancock County Veterans of World War II.”

“Gary was not a young man in World War II,” he said. “This action happened in 1945. He was an older guy and probably one of those real stable personalities. You’ve got these 17 and 18-year-old guys running around after these explosions, and he probably was a calm influence.”

Gary was below decks in the mess hall with about 300 men on March 19, 1945, when a Japanese dive-bomber dropped two 500-pound bombs on the Franklin as it offered air support to the invasion of Okinawa.

Gary would later write that “It seemed as though the ship had rammed into a mountain!”

“The ship shook and shuddered while the sound of the explosion hit — resounded and hit again like the heavens were crashing in a violent thunderstorm directly over our heads,” he wrote.

Ammons said the attack came early in the morning.

“Guys are lined up for breakfast in the morning. They’re still not sure if it was a kamikaze or a plane that dropped a couple of bombs, but they were totally unprepared,” he said.

“It was hit, a big explosion,” said Ammons. “Several hundred guys were killed right off the bat. The ship’s on fire. Ammunition is going off. The lights go out. These guys are all trapped. They were not at war stations. They were just getting ready for the day.”

“The lower decks were blocked off and there were a lot of men trapped below,” Bennett said.

Because he was an engineering officer, Gary knew the ship’s layout in detail. He grabbed a gas mask and found a way out, then went back for everyone else, she said.

He shouted to the men, “I think I know a way out, and if I can make it, I’ll be back to get you.”

He stumbled along dark passages and compartments, finally coming to the ship’s uptakes where the smokestacks led up from the boilers. The ladder rungs were almost too hot to touch, but he climbed five decks up to an opening on the side of the carrier.

As promised, he went back three times and led the men out in groups. All were saved except for one man who had died of injuries in the mess hall.

“I thank God for Lt. Gary for having the courage … to get us out. I have daughters and grandchildren that would not be if not for him,” one of the rescued sailors would later say.

Later that day, Gary went through burning compartments to locate a small group of men who were still trapped in a machinery room, enabling them to be rescued. He and two of his men also went into the engine room and were able to fire up some of the boilers so the stricken carrier could steam on her own. The Franklin had been dead in the water, drifting dangerously close to the Japanese shore until she was taken in tow by a heavy cruiser.

Ammons said the USS Pittsburgh towed the Franklin until it got back under its own power.

More than 900 died that day. Both Gary and the ship’s chaplain, the Rev. Joseph T. O’Callahan, were presented Medals of Honor from President Harry S. Truman in 1946.

Gary retired with the rank of commander in 1950. He and his wife, Dorothy, made their home in Garden Grove, California, where he died of lung cancer in 1977. He was buried with full military honors at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Ammons said Gary was humble about his experiences after the war.

“At one point 15 years ago, I got hold of Gary’s former neighbors in California … but they didn’t find out until years after they lived by him that he was a Medal of Honor recipient. He was so humble, he didn’t tell anybody,” Ammons said. “But I’ve heard that’s how he was. He was a very unassuming guy, a humble hero. Just the kind of man you can really feel good about.”

In 1984, a guided missile frigate was commissioned and named in honor of Gary. His wife and a niece helped launch the ship, and his wife gave his Medal of Honor back to the Navy so it could be displayed aboard the ship.

Ammons later found mention of the attack on the Franklin while doing research for his book.

“People in Findlay knew the story. Something appeared in the newspaper in 1945, a small blurb about it. But this guy is a huge hero,” he said. “Saving 300 lives, you can’t find anybody in our history bigger than that.”

Because Gary didn’t return to Findlay to live after his service, many people probably forgot about the city’s heroic son, Ammons said. He brought Gary to the attention of Paulette Weiser, who was then curator at the museum. In 2001, an exhibit honoring Gary’s heroism opened. A ceremony marking the dedication was attended by 17 Franklin survivors and more than 20 members of the Gary family.

The Findlay Rotary Club honored Gary posthumously that year with the Fort Findlay Award. The award is given in recognition to citizens who once lived here who have gone on to achieve distinguished careers elsewhere.

“The way his story reads, he didn’t think he was doing anything at all,” said Bennett, who hopes to eventually update the museum’s exhibit on Gary.

“He was just doing his duty. And I don’t know that just anybody would do what he did,” she said.

Wolf: 419-427-8419
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