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Saving Big Ben: The USS Franklin and Father Joseph T. O'Callahan

Saving Big Ben: The USS Franklin and Father Joseph T. O’Callahan by John R. Satterfield. Naval Institute Press, 2011, 208 pp.

On 19 March 1945, hundreds of US naval vessels were arrayed in waters surrounding the Japanese home island of Okinawa. The final battles in preparation for the ultimate invasion of mainland Japan had begun. Desperate to protect the homeland, Japan resorted to suicide tactics in the hopes of inflicting unacceptable losses on US forces. In the dawn sky, a lone Japanese D4Y3 Suisei (Comet) dive-bomber acquired a target—the USS Franklin CV-13, an Essex-class carrier. The Comet dove out of the clouds, streaked across the carrier’s deck, and released two bombs that found their mark deep below deck before pursuing American fighters blasted it out of the sky.

The explosions instantly killed hundreds of the Franklin’s crew and crippled the ship just 60 miles from Japan. Ultimately, more than 800 sailors—approximately 25 percent of the crew—died in that attack. The dazed and wounded survivors now had a new battle—one to save the dying ship. Heroism was the order of the day, especially that of the Franklin’s chaplain, Fr. Joseph T. O’Callahan.

Father O’Callahan, a first-generation Irish-American, was well into life as a Jesuit priest, teaching math at Holy Cross College with war looming on the horizon. His sense of duty motivated him to petition his Order for permission to join the Navy as a chaplain. After receiving it, he moved through a series of land and sea assignments before joining the crew of the Franklin. In the fight to save the ship, Father O’Callahan stood out among the company of heroes, ministering to the dead, dying, and wounded, while simultaneously pitching in to save the ship during that harrowing day. Through the flames and smoke, the white cross on his helmet was visible from the Franklin’s bridge as he moved on the listing deck, seemingly unconcerned for his own safety. The Franklin’s commanding officer, Capt Leslie E. Gehres, not a religious man, was so impressed that he recommended Father O’Callahan for the Medal of Honor—one of only two awarded for actions on that day.

Saving Big Ben is the narrative of the ship, attack, and battle to save her, told within the story of the first Jesuit military chaplain who became the first Navy chaplain to receive the Medal of Honor. This well-written, entertaining volume is surprisingly comprehensive despite its brevity. Author John R. Satterfield adequately covers Father O’Callahan’s early life and priesthood, together with his assignments before and after the Franklin, including his service aboard the Ranger. He balances the tale of the ship with that of the man by including Franklin’s first cruise before Father O’Callahan joined her crew. He objectively details the controversy surrounding Father O’Callahan’s receipt of the Medal of Honor and provides a sad portrait of the postwar years leading up to his painful health problems and premature death.

The USS Franklin, the most damaged American carrier to survive the war, boasted the most decorated crew. Any student of American military history should know her story and that of the crew, especially the chaplain’s. They offer examples of dedication and courage born of crisis that will serve all readers well. I highly recommend Saving Big Ben: The USS Franklin and Father Joseph T. O’Callahan.

CSM James H. Clifford, USA, Retired

Robins AFB, Georgia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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