USS Franklin survivor recalls Gary’s heroics

By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Staff Writer
Ben Ricks, 88, of Santee, California, received an email from a friend with a link to The Courier’s Aug. 7 story on Findlay native Donald A. Gary’s heroic actions aboard the USS Franklin during World War II.
Ricks, who contacted the newspaper Tuesday, had more than just a passing interest in the article, as he is one of the ship’s survivors who credits Gary with saving his life. His memories shed a little more light on Gary’s story and why he was so worthy of the honor of having a ship, the USS Gary, named in his honor.
Ricks, a native of Ashland, Oregon, was 18 when the ship was bombed on March 19, 1945. He was one of about 300 men who were trapped below deck in the mess hall. He said the hall was plunged into darkness and the men could hear explosions above them.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I was brand new,” said Ricks, who was a Seaman 1st Class with a gunner’s mate designation at the time and had just joined the crew three months earlier.
The area was crowded, he recalled. There were some battle lanterns so there was a little light. The collapsible tables and benches were piled in a corner, and the men sat on the deck, shoulder to shoulder, said Ricks.
“I wasn’t scared,” he said. “But we were doing a little praying I think.”
A lieutenant who was also a medical doctor kept the men quiet so as to conserve oxygen. Five more explosions followed the initial explosion when a Japanese divebomber dropped two 500-pound bombs on the ship.
The explosions and resulting fires trapped the men and blocked passageways.
Gary, who was a lieutenant and an engineering officer at the time, knew the ship’s layout in detail. He and Bob White, a boatswain’s mate, went off in search of a way out.
Ricks said he spent two or three hours in the mess hall waiting.
“They went out three or four times and couldn’t find a way out,” he said.
Gary and White were each wearing a breathing apparatus with air canisters attached. Ricks said Gary ran out of air. White was able to find some more canisters for them to use; each contained about 20 minutes of air.
Gary finally found a way out and led the men out in groups. Ricks recalled having to join hands on the way out. They also had to hold their breath part of the way because of the fires.
Ricks came out on deck about 10 or 11 a.m. He said he spent the rest of the day on the flight deck fighting fires and carrying bodies. He was tired, he said, because he hadn’t slept much the night before; the ship was preparing to offer air support to the invasion of Okinawa. There were 10 to 12 false alarms, so he and his crew stayed by their gun mount where they kept a 40 mm, four-barrel anti-aircraft gun in operation.
After a day helping on deck, the men found themselves lined up to board the USS Santa Fe when a division officer ordered them up to another gun mount above the bridge of the USS Franklin. He was one of about a dozen men who spent three days and nights there.
The ship was attacked again on March 20, and Ricks and his fellow crewmen were able to prevent the bomb from hitting the ship. He received a Bronze Star Medal for his actions. He spent 20 years in the Navy, retiring in 1964, achieving the rank of senior fire control technician.
Ricks was one of 17 Franklin survivors who attended the Hancock Historical Museum’s ceremony when an exhibit honoring Gary opened in 2001.
Wolf: 419-427-8419 Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf

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