Gunner’s mate David Baruch stood at the rear of the aircraft carrier Franklin with two choices.
Either stay and be engulfed in an inferno of burning aviation gas coming his way or leap blindly into the sea.
“I was gasping for breath because of the fumes,” he said of the fire that was racing across the hangar bay behind him. “I don’t know how much longer I could continue breathing,” he said. “So I jumped.”
His troubles weren’t over.
“When you’re jumping off from four stories high, you go down awfully far,” he said of his leap.
“I was afraid I’d be caught by the screws of the ship and be sucked in,” he added, “and that it would tear me to pieces.”
Baruch, of the Chicago area, survived, but more than 800 of his shipmates did not.
In the last planned reunion of the most heavily damaged aircraft carrier to survive World War II, Baruch, 86, and about two dozen shipmates from “the Big Ben,” gathered Friday aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point.
All the men are in their 80s. Most moved slowly, either with canes, in wheelchairs or leaning on the arms of family members. Some wept as they traveled decades back in time to relive the early morning of March 19, 1945.
But most seemed willing to tell their stories.
With the Pacific war in near total Allied control, the men of the Franklin said they were confident that day, even as their ship was only 50 miles from the Japanese islands, the closest that a U.S. carrier had ever moved toward the mainland.
All seemed normal onboard, they said, as breakfast was being cleared and the Franklin’s planes were away on their missions.
That was when a single Japanese plane snuck through.
Just before dawn, two armor-piercing bombs struck the fast-moving Franklin, crashing deep into the heart of the ship, immediately igniting planes, fuel and piles of ammunition, rockets and bombs.
Most of the survivors said Friday that they never saw the plane that came in, the bombs it released or the hits it tallied.
“We were thrown all over,” said fireman Bill Schauer, 86, who was deep below on the third deck that morning and found himself thrown into bulkheads.
Schauer survived because he was below the worst of the fire that was now consuming the hanger deck above him. But it also meant he was stuck in the ship’s bowels with seemingly no way to get out.
After three hours in the mess hall, Schauer escaped by climbing through air vents and moving gopher-style, pulling his way upward through tunnels even as the ship was rolling on a hard 13-degree starboard list.
Friday’s event was another showcase opportunity for Patriots Point, which has catered to hosting a variety of reunions aboard the Yorktown. One added feature for the Franklin reunion was that Patriots Point work crews had repainted the Yorktown’s ship number, going from the usual white 10 to the Franklin’s number 13.
Meanwhile, the damage to the Franklin that day was severe. Hundreds of men had been killed outright or were blown overboard by the power of the two bombs and the subsequent secondary explosions. Hundreds more sailors were trapped below, and towering black clouds of rolling smoke could be seen for miles.
Eventually the situation was brought under control. It took hours, but the fire was extinguished and the ship was taken in tow, later regaining engine speed and making it to Pearl Harbor and later to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The ship never returned to combat.
The final count said as many as 800 men were killed and 500 were wounded. The Franklin remains the most decorated ship in Navy history, with her crew members awarded two Medals of Honor, 19 Navy crosses, 22 Silver Stars, and 1,100 Purple Hearts.
One of the survivors was torpedo bomber machine-gunner John Hensel, 88, of Utica, N.Y. He didn’t fly that day but thinks his flight clothing partially saved his life, because the material had trapped air bubbles when he was thrown overboard. It helped him float to the surface.
Hensel went into the water early in the disaster after twice being engulfed by blasts of flame that rolled over the catwalk where he was standing.
He remembers being in a daze and trying to climb onto a life raft with three others. He was weak and looked down at a bloody cut on his hand.
“I thought of sharks,” he said.
“I think that gave me the strength to get up on the raft.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.