|Died||15 May 1975|
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Leslie Edward Gehres joined the naval militia in New York, United States in 1914 and fought in WW1. In 1918, he was commissioned the rank of ensign in the United States Navy. In 1927, he became a naval aviator and became a stunt pilot while serving aboard carrier Langley. In 1932, he served with Fighting Squadron 5 aboard carrier Saratoga, followed immediately with a transfer to Fighting Squadron 6 aboard Lexington. After some time with Yorktown and Enterprise, he was commissioned a commander and became the air officer aboard carrier Ranger. In Nov 1941, he was named the commanding officer of Fleet Air Wing 4 which operated from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to northern California border. Between May 1942 and Sep 1944, he commanded aircraft of the Fleet Air Wing 4 against Japanese targets in the Aleutian Islands and the Kurile Islands. In Jul 1943, he was promoted to the rank of commodore. In Sep 1944, he was given the rank of captain and was given command of the carrier Franklin.
Gehres was a known disciplinarian, and many of his subordinates consider him someone who dished out harsh punishments too easily. Many veterans of Franklin thought his autocracy was counter-productive. Over time, the crew of Franklin grew to dislike him. Technical Sergeant Ray Larson, an United States Marine who served aboard Franklin, noted that Gehres kept the ship in top order, but "the guys hated the captain. They despised him. They didn't like Gehres at all." George Black, a radioman who served on the island, therefore close to Gehres, recalled incidents where Gehres "degraded and screamed at my commanding officer in front of his own men.... No man [should have] to take a cussing like that in front of his own men."
On 19 Mar 1945, Franklin was struck by one or two bombs by a Japanese aircraft, and it soon turned into one of the greatest naval disasters sustained by an US Navy vessel during the war. The first bomb hit the flight deck on the center line, penetrating into the hangar deck before detonating, killing many men immediately, and then detonated the many fully fueled and armed aircraft on the carrier. It became an inferno. Nick Turcic, who was at Franklin's bridge after the explosion out of circumstance, observed Gehres running around rather uselessly. "How dare those guys screw up my ship!" Turcic recalled Gehres screaming, but making only few useful orders to control the damage. "The captain was running around the bridge like a chicken with his head cut off", said Bob Mallgraf, who stood beside Turcic on the bridge. The two men's observations probably were at least slightly biased, however, for records show that by 0725 Gehres had already evaluated the situation and ordered the magazines flooded to reduce fire hazards. What he did not know, though, was that the water mains of Franklin were destroyed, and the flooding was never carried out. Soon after, Admiral Ralph Davison, whose flag was aboard Franklin, decided to transfer his flag to the nearby destroyer USS Miller, and suggested Gehres to abandon ship. Gehres, knowing there were still men belowdecks, refused, citing that he would not stand for the possibility that his men would be killed by torpedoes from an American ship. At 1200, about 6 hours after the attack, cruiser Santa Fe sent a message to Davison on behalf of Gehres:
Davison replied "[W]e will do whatever we can." Davison guarded the wounded carrier with all the escorts he could gather, while dispatching five Fletcher-class destroyers from Destroyer Division 104 to search for the over one thousand crewmen floating in the cold Pacific Ocean. When the damage was brought totally under control, instead of being glad that so many men were saved by the destroyers Davison had sent, Gehres immediately looked for scape goats. During the ordeal, many men were forced to jump ship, while others were simply blown overboard by the force of the explosions. Gehres accused them as cowards. "Disregarding one of the most superb and ongoing rescue actions in the history of the U.S. Navy, the gallant story of the Franklin was nearly tainted", said historian Joseph Springer. "How many captains would say something like that about his own crew... even if it was true?" Lamented Seaman 2nd Class George Sippel years later. To further add insult to injury, Gehres created the "704 Club", granting membership to the 704 who remained on board, and later, deny the honor of medals to those without membership.
Franklin eventually sailed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, United States for temporary repairs. Per Pearl Harbor procedures, a civilian harbor pilot came onboard to help navigate the carrier to the dock; Gehres, however, refused, and responded that he would "take her in" himself. He ended up moving the ship into the dock area too fast, crashing her into the dock, sending timber and concrete flying; embarrassed of the situation, he blamed the mooring details for the incident.
Leslie Gehres Timeline
|1 Jan 1898||Leslie Gehres was born.|
|15 May 1975||Leslie Gehres passed away.|
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