Survivor of Franklin Recites Graphic Tale By Mrs. H.L. Kimball and A.M. Learned
From the Oneonta Star
Cooperstown -- "Thank you Lord for giving me courage, but please take care of my wife and little daughter"
These were the prayers of Gilbert P. Abbott when trapped below decks in the burning aircraft carrier Franklin. For days he faced death, but in those three hours when trapped below, it grimly beckoned as minute ticked into minute, as men fought to rescue them, as they fought to save themselves.
Husband of the former Miss Winifred A. Pier of this village, Abbott, a quartermaster, second class has been recuperating here. Meanwhile the battered Franklin, an epic of the sea, is being repaired in Brooklyn Navy yard to avenge the death and destruction wrought by a lone Japanese bomber March 19.
Eleven hundred two men are dead, wounded or missing. Abbott was one of the skeleton crew that brought the 27,000 ton Franklin home, wracked s she was by explosions of her own octane gasoline and ammunition. Duty had been strenuous for several days before the tragedy just 66 miles off the coast of Japan. Everyone was tired. the radar screen said there were no "bogies" (enemy planes) within range. Abbott, on the bridge all night, was ordered below at 6 AM for breakfast. A buddy persuaded him to have a second cigarette as he rested momentarily in his bunk, fully clothed. He had just finished when the ship became a hellish inferno. The bomb set off blasts in fuel laden planes, and Abbott's' position below decks, it appeared as if the whole ship was afire.
Thrown against a bulkhead, he picked himself up, dazed and shaken. With 2,500 men aboard there were hundreds rushing to escape. The ship soon filled with smoke, and to avoid the mob of rushing men in the semidarkness Abbott made his way to a large mess hall, not yet darkened. Others rushing about him found all exits blocked by debris, fir or smoke. A higher ranking officer kept them in order by coolly calling the men to pray. Abbott, meanwhile, turned into a small galley where there was no fire, and little smoke. It seemed as safe a place to stay as any, and after he had calmed himself down with a cup of coffee he began to explore different avenues of escape. The quartermaster had just started up a 50 foot hatch when there was a terrific explosion, jagged bits of red-hot steel flew about, and dozens dropped, bleeding, killing or unconscious from the concussion.
Between two and three hundred crowded into a tiny room which had an air vent only about two and a half inches in diameter. A Naval doctor did much to prevent panic. He advised prayer, tying T-shirts over mouth and nose and perfect quiet and relaxation to make the air last as long as possible. Meanwhile, a "tiny Tim" (1,000 pound bomb) crashed through not 15 feet away with a terrific concussion and several more died instantly. Explosions finally stopped, an hour and a half later, and their long fearful wait, never knowing when death was to take them ended.
A rap on the hatch brought a Lt. (jg) Donald Gary, wearing a breathing mask, who was seeking trapped men. He worked his way forward and found a small air intake through which they could escape. Returning, he lined up the men, and took them ten at a time through the stygian blackness of a 100 foot passage to the escape hatch. When half had made the open deck, the air became better, and the remainder were able to through without a guide, Abbott was the third from the last to leave.
The Naval doctor, who had done so much to encourage them to pray, was the last to leave at 9:45 AM, two and 3-quarter hours after the first blast.
Few men were left on deck, Abbott helped man a fire hose to battle the raging fires which threatened still to engulf the ship. The only phone in use was between a small compartment in the seventh level where several were trapped when ten feet of water between them and topside. Abbott talked to them, tried to encourage them and then sought to find a passage that would lead down to the group. Knowing the size of the compartment, the ship's officer's were confident that the group had enough air to last 24 hours and the one link with the outside phone, was used to advise them to remain as quiet as possible and conserve air. Abbott and a lieutenant finally cleared a passage and by opening bulkheads and using the list of the ship to advantage the reduced the water to two feet over the trapped men. By phone, the group was advised to be ready to leave and that when the hatch was opened they would be showered but to hang on. Instructions were followed and Abbott and the lieutenant led them to safety.
It was for this deed that Abbott was recommended for the Silver Star.
During one of his trips to find an avenue of escape for the trapped group, Abbott found one victim horribly wounded and alone in a small utility closet. An airplane engine had to be removed to reach the victim, barely breathing from loss of blood.
Once the way was clear, Abbott crawled in and carried the wounded man out in a blanket. Plasma was given, and the victim survived.
The succeeding four or five days were the hardest. Finding one's buddies, recognizable only by their dogtags, under the wreckage and burying them at sea took many long hours. Abbott himself had fled without his identification tags, but found them two days later when he returned to his bunk. During the nearly three hours that he was trapped, when he thought any moment was to be his last, he said his constant thought was: "What will Georgia (his wife) think when I am reported missing." Abbott gives credit for his being alive to his buddy, Abraham Barbash of New York City, who suggested having another cigarette. Had he started up the 100 foot ladder to the bridge, he would have been caught exactly in the center of the first bomb blast. Son of Mr. and Mrs. Milton W. Abbott of Ellistown, before his marriage in 1942 Abbott was a partner in the Binghamton-Ithaca Motor Express Business. His daughter, Judith Lee, was born in Miami March 18, 1943, while he was an instructor in the Warner-Robbins Army Depot. Two months later he enlisted in the Navy.
Getting acquainted with his daughter has occupied much of his time since coming here, as this only their second meeting. While recuperating, he is staying with his wife's parents Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Pier, 200 Main St. His wife flew in from San Francisco to meet him.
With the Franklin since she was commissioned Jan 30, 1944 Abbott has served in the American and Asiatic theaters, and in six major engagements, including two in the Philippines. He was wounded in one of the latter.
Ninety-seven members of the crew were decorated yesterday aboard the carrier's torn and charred flight deck for gallantry in action. Twelve Navy Crosses, 16 Silver Stars, and 69 Bronze Stars were presented to some of the officers and men who battled the fire and explosion to keep the ship afloat.
"Only by outstanding skill, stamina and heroism of the officers and the crew could the Franklin, against what seemed insuperable odds, have traveled 12,000 miles from the scene of the disaster to her berth in the Brooklyn Navy yard"
Vice Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch USN, said in presenting the awards.