Elmhurst resident David Baruch has spent a lifetime making sense out of his near-death experience aboard the USS Franklin, the most decorated air-craft carrier in naval history. (See You Tube video link here)
A retired Clinical Director of Chicago’s Laredo Hospital, Baruch worked in social services and in mental health facilities his entire professional career.
He is a longtime member of the Elmhurst College Holocaust Education Committee, and is a District 205 mentor and tutor.
But sharing his experiences as an 18-year-old seaman in the Navy aboard the USS Franklin air-craft carrier to middle schoolers at Bryan and Sandburg schools and to groups at the Elmhurst Library and the Elmhurst Historical Society has helped Baruch gain some perspective on what happened that fateful spring day.
“Why did somebody die and I didn’t?” asks Baruch. “There were about 800 people killed on the ship that day.”
According to Baruch, on March 19, 1945, just before a lone Japanese Kamikaze pilot dropped two bombs on the USS Franklin who had maneuvered closer to the Japanese mainland than any other carrier. He was standing near the flight deck gazing at the Japanese horizon.
“We were part of a task force assigned to the duty of preparing for the invasion of the Japanese mainland,” says Baruch. “We were sent in to neutralize as much of the airfield and harbors as we could.”
According to Baruch, he had been thinking to himself how close they were to the mainland and how odd it was that the Japanese had not made a strike.
“It was a very eerie, uncomfortable feeling,” says Baruch.
But then, according to Baruch, the bombs seemed to come out of nowhere.
One bomb struck the flight deck centerline, penetrating to the hangar deck, effecting destruction and igniting fires through the second and third decks, and knocking out the combat information center. The second bomb hit aft, tearing through two decks and fanning fires, which triggered ammunition, bombs and rockets.
“In very short order I was enveloped in fumes and smoke and fire,” Baruch said.
Throughout all of the explosions, Baruch says there were no announcements made over the loudspeaker on the air-craft carrier so there was no way for him to know what was going on.
“Because of where I was standing at the time, I was in the midst of all the fires and explosions and was having difficulty breathing because of all the acrid smoke.”
Baruch says that because he was cut off from all communication he was left to his own devices.
“I came to the realization that I should get off the ship because it seemed like it would blow up or sink,” Baruch says.
He had left his life-jacket in his quarters that morning, and spent a few minutes groping around on the smoke filled deck trying to find one. But ultimately, Baruch decided that he would have to prepare himself to jump off the ship into the ocean which was about four stories below.
“I realized I had to jump in such a way as to sustain the least damage to myself,” Baruch says. “The ocean is very hard water; if you don’t fall properly you can cause serious damage yourself.”
According to Baruch, in order to make such a jump into ocean water he had to hold himself in a very rigid, locked position so that his arms and legs did not flay out.
“It’s important to make a clean hit into the water like a knife,” says Baruch. “I did take my helmet off because if I hit the water with my helmet on it would have snapped my neck.”
Baruch said he was scared. Scared of jumping, then once in the water, scared he was going to be caught by the Japanese.
“Looking back at the Franklin it looked like it was hit by a nuclear bomb,” says Baruch.
Once he was in the water his field of vision was very limited but he knew that there were other ships in the area and that they would be looking for survivors.
“So I swam and treaded water until I heard someone shouting,” Baruch says.
According to Baruch, the shouting was coming from an injured pilot who had been blown off the carrier while he was waiting on one of the elevators for his plane to be brought up to the flight deck.
“One of the explosions blew the elevator off and the pilot with it,” says Baruch. “But fortunately he had his Mae West on. We were both glad to see each other.” (A Mae West is a flotation device commonly worn by airmen.)
Baruch says he hung on to the pilot because he did not have a floatation device and the pilot hung onto him because his legs had been damaged in the explosion and he could not navigate through the water.
“So I grabbed him by the collar of his Mae West and swam, pulling him along,” says Baruch.
They were eventually rescued by the USS Marshall but Baruch was so weak by that time that he could not lift himself up onto the floatation device. He had to be pulled from the water.
“We were eventually taken to Pearl Harbor,” Baruch says. “But for some miraculous reason the Franklin did not sink. The fire continued for many hours until there was nothing left to burn.”
Baruch says that the USS Franklin was the most severely damaged ship in naval history that did not sink. He says it was a miracle. That the fire had spread through so much of the ship and that it killed everybody that stood on the hanger deck.
A movie was made about the USS Franklin, says Baruch called “The Ship That Would Not Die.” (You Tube link to movie here)
According to Baruch, the experience on the USS Franklin changed the course of his life.
“There was no way I could have gone on in the same fashion,” says Baruch. “[Before] I was interested in mechanics, I liked working on cars and went to a technical high school. But [after], I knew that wasn’t going to do it for me. My questions about life and survival changed and I eventually found my way moving towards the whole field of human behavior.”
Baruch has a Masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago.