A Brief History
On March 19, 1945, the Essex class aircraft carrier USS Franklin while on station off the coast of Japan, was struck by a Japanese dive bomber flying a virtually suicidal mission through intense defenses, causing massive damage, but not sinking the ship. Still, an incredibly high fatality count had been inflicted upon the crew of the stricken ship, with at least 740 men killed and perhaps more.
Is the Franklin the ship that suffered the highest death toll in a single battle that did not sink of damage inflicted in that battle? While we could not find a ship that could top the death toll on Franklin, we will list a few other notable cases of ships being horribly damaged in battle and suffering a large number of casualties without sinking. If you know of a ship that lost more men in a battle without sinking than the Franklin, please let us know.
USS Franklin, 1945.
The Essex class of aircraft carriers built by the United States during World War II was one of if not the greatest class of warships ever built. A total of 24 of the big flattops were built, and 4 survive today as museum ships. Originally built 820 feet in length with a beam of 93 feet, the ships were later converted to “angle deck” configuration and modernized, growing to over 880 feet long and 147 feet at the beam. Capable of over 32 knots and with a 20,000 mile range (more with at sea refueling), the ships carried a crew of about 3000 officers and men, and a complement of 90 to 100 aircraft. Originally armed with 12 X 5 inch guns and as many as 76 X 40 mm autocannon and 72 X 20 mm autocannon, these carriers were well equipped to defend against attack by enemy aircraft. No Essex class carrier was lost during World War II. Although heavily armed and carrying an enormous big fist in aircraft, the Essex class and the Franklin were lightly armored for such large warships. Designers traded heavy armor for a lighter ship that could travel at higher speed and could carry more aircraft than a more heavily armored vessel. The flight deck boasted armor of only 2.5 inches. Thus, although equipped with excellent damage control equipment and crews, the Franklin was vulnerable to attack from the air if an enemy airplane could get past the escorting ships, the defensive air patrol, and the hail of anti-aircraft fire put up by her crew. The Franklin had previously been hit by a Japanese “Kamikaze” suicide plane in 1944 off the island of Leyte, but suffered far less damage than the later attack. When the determined Japanese dive bomber made its attack with no real chance of survival and managed to elude all that considerable defensive firepower, the Franklin was susceptible to heavy damage. Witnesses disagree whether the fateful attack was by a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bomber or an Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber, but in either case the plane was carrying 2 large bombs and was flown right down the middle of Franklin’s flight deck, one bomb hitting the center of the flight deck penetrating the armor and exploding in the hangar deck and the other bomb hitting aft. The 16 fueled and 5 fueled and armed planes on the hangar deck were all engulfed in flame and exploded, killing almost everyone in the area and causing the 31 fueled aircraft on the flight deck to go up in flames. Heroic efforts saved the ship and hundreds of crewmen that had been trapped below. Saving the ship took heroic and mind boggling efforts of skill and daring. Initial reports were that 724 men had been killed and 265 had been wounded, but later assessments indicate the casualty count was probably about 807 killed and 487+ wounded. Franklin was taken under tow to Ulithi Atoll for emergency repair, then to Pearl Harbor for more repairs, then back to the US to Brooklyn for refitting. Despite repair to seaworthy status, Franklin was kept in reserve and never went on patrol again. The great ship was scrapped in 1966.
USS Bunker Hill, 1945.
Another American Essex class carrier, Bunker Hill was supporting the campaign at Okinawa when she was attacked by Japanese suicide “Kamikaze” planes, with 2 of the bomb laden A6M Zero aircraft getting through to hit the ship. At least 390 men were killed and another 43 missing, while about 264 were wounded, a terrible loss but far less than that on the Franklin. Bunker Hill was sent to Ulithi for emergency repair, then Pearl Harbor, then finally Bremerton, Washington for refitting for duty. While missing out on the rest of World War II, Bunker Hill served as a cruise liner to return American military men home after the war ended. She was decommissioned in 1947, remaining in storage and reserve until sold for scrap in 1973.
IJN Mogami, 1942.
Although the aerial attack by US Navy dive bombers at the Battle of Midway “only” killed 81 of her crew, the fact that this Japanese heavy cruiser survived 6 direct hits from 1000 pound armor piercing bombs is incredible. Taking on water and on fire, the Captain ordered all torpedoes to be jettisoned, thus saving the ship. It is unlikely any ship other than a battleship could survive 6 hits from 1000 pound aerial bombs. Mogami was later sunk at the Battle of Surigao Strait in 1944. Prior to the bombing, Mogami had accidentally rammed another Japanese cruiser, the Mikuma, which was subsequently sunk in the same aerial attack that so grievously damaged Mogami.
USS Nevada, 1941.
A great battleship we have previously written about, the Nevada was present at the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Hit by a torpedo, she managed to get under weigh only to be attacked by many dive bombers. Hitting the big, tough ship with as many as 10 bombs, she survived the attack and ended up surviving the entire war, only to be used for nuclear bomb target practice after World War II ended. Nevada survived that, too! She was later finally sunk with conventional weapons after enduring a pounding unlike any ship had ever taken. Nevada had survived the Pearl Harbor attack for 3 main reasons, including the Japanese dive bombers were armed with only 550 pound bombs, Nevada’s main gun (14 inch) shells and powder charges had been removed from the ship for later replacement, and the skillful and heroic damage control by her crew. Casualties from the Pearl Harbor attack amounted to 60 dead and 109 wounded, an incredibly light tally considering the pounding the ship took.
USS New Orleans, 1942.
During the Battle of Tassafaronga the heavy cruiser New Orleans was forced to take evasive action to avoid the stricken USS Minneapolis, putting New Orleans directly into the path of a Japanese torpedo. The torpedo hit the front of the hapless cruiser and completely blew off the front 25% of the big ship, including the forward triple 8 inch turret. Despite the horrific looking damage and the loss of 183 men, the ship remained afloat and actually was able to travel (only backwards) under her own power! She was sent for repair first to Tulagi and then to Australia, was repaired and returned to combat, 1800 tons of ship replaced, an incredible feat of naval repair. It is worth noting that the USS Minneapolis was also a New Orleans class cruiser, and also had her bow blown off by the torpedo strike! Minneapolis also survived and was repaired and returned to duty, proving the toughness of the New Orleans class cruisers. The New Orleans class cruisers were built in the 1930’s with a length of 588 feet and a beam of almost 62 feet, displacing 12,663 tons loaded and armed with a main battery of 9 X 8 inch guns in 3 triple turrets and a secondary battery of 8 X 5 inch guns, as well as a host of smaller anti-aircraft guns. These fighting ships had a crew of 708 officers and men. Of the 7 New Orleans class cruisers built, 3 were sunk during World War II, all 3 at the Battle of Savo Island in 1942.
Note: Other warships have had their bow or stern blown off and remained afloat, even repaired and put back into service. An example was the HMS Nubian, a British destroyer torpedoed by a U-boat during World War I. Her bow was replaced by the bow from another British destroyer, the HMS Zulu. While only 2 men aboard Nubian were killed in the torpedo attack and another 13 were wounded, the incident is worth mentioning if only for the renaming of the cobbled together ship as the HMS Zubian! The Zulu had lost its stern to a naval mine, so why not join the 2 half ships together and make a new ship?
USS Laffey, 1945.
A destroyer of the Allen M. Sumner class, Laffey was no laughing matter! The previous US destroyer to bear her name was sunk in 1942, and this time the new Laffey was commissioned in 1944, in time to see intense combat in the murderous final battles of the Pacific War during World War II when the Japanese were desperate to stop the American (and Allied) onslaught. Using mass aerial attacks against American shipping, including the dreaded Kamikaze suicide tactics, Laffey and other American ships were under relentless attack by Japanese planes at Okinawa in April of 1945. Attacked over a couple of days by dozens of Japanese dive bombers and fighter planes, Laffey’s gunners took a heavy toll of the Japanese airmen, as did the protective screen of American fighters. Still, many of the determined Japanese pilots managed to get through to strafe and bomb the valiant US ship, managing to cause some damage and injuries with near misses from bombs. Other planes were even more successful in attacks on Laffey, hitting the ship with 4 bombs and crashing 6 Japanese airplanes into the seemingly indestructible ship! Even an American F4U Corsair fighter hit the ship, and incredibly that pilot lived. Uncountable machine gun bullets and 20mm cannon shells from strafing attacks also covered the Laffey. In all 32 men were killed and another 71 wounded, and although that might sound like a small number, consider that the entire crew only numbered 336 officers and men, meaning about 1/3 of the entire crew was killed or wounded! Surviving this incessant attack earned the Laffey the title “The Ship That Would Not Die.” Laffey was decommissioned in 1947, recommissioned in 1951, and decommissioned a last time in 1975, one of the greatest ships in US Navy history. She now serves as a museum ship at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
USS Saratoga, 1945.
An American aircraft carrier of the Lexington class, on February 21, 1945, while supporting the US invasion of Iwo Jima in the Pacific, the USS Saratoga (CV-3) was struck by 3 Japanese suicide planes known as Kamikaze. Not only did Saratoga survive those devastating hits, she was also hit by 5 aerial bombs, and suffered extensive damage, 123 men dead and 192 wounded. Thirty-six of her 70 aircraft were destroyed, and the battle was not yet over! She was again attacked by Japanese planes, again hit, and again did not sink! Returned to Bremerton, Washington for repairs, she missed the rest of the war and ended her career as a training ship and a transport for Americans returning to the United States from the Pacific after the end of World War II. She met an inglorious end by being used as a target ship during atomic bomb tests after the war, though she did survive the first such test of an aerial atomic blast, and was finally done in by a second test of a nuclear attack by a subsurface blast.
USS Liberty, 1967.
Another American ship that lost a high percentage of its crew without being sunk was the USS Liberty, a Victory class cargo ship built during World War II that replaced the “Liberty Ships” that had preceded the newer, slightly larger cargo ships. Displacing about 7800 tons, the 456 foot long ship was acquired by the US Navy and refitted as an intelligence gathering ship, and put into service in 1964. Manned by a crew of 358 officers and men, the ship had only a very light armament of 4 X .50 caliber machine guns. While patrolling well off the coast of Israel in international waters during the 6 Day War between Israel and her Arab enemies (Egypt, Syria and Jordan) the clearly marked American ship was attacked by Israeli surface vessels and aircraft. Repeatedly raked with cannon fire and machine gun fire from both jet aircraft and the torpedo boats, Liberty was also struck by a torpedo, but did not sink. Israeli jets even dropped napalm bombs on the American ship during the hellish attack that lasted just under 1 hour. A total of 34 of the Liberty’s crew had been killed, one of which was a civilian. Another 171 men were wounded, well over half of the entire complement had been killed or wounded. During wartime, mistakes happen. Incidents known as “friendly fire” occur when friendly troops are accidentally killed or innocent people are mistakenly attacked. Despite Israeli protests that the Liberty incident was a tragic case of misidentifying the ship, many in the US believe the attack was a deliberate attempt to deny the US knowledge of what exactly was taking place in the ongoing war. Which theory do you believe?
Question for students (and subscribers): What ship in naval history do you consider the “toughest?” Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Springer, Joseph. Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II. Zenith Press, 2007.
Wukovits, John. Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II’s Greatest Kamikaze Attack. Da Capo Press, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by PHC Albert Bullock of Franklin listing, with crew on deck, 19 March 1945, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 520656. This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.