THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Monday, April 1, 1996 TAG: 9604010002 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Column SOURCE: Larry Maddry LENGTH: Long : 116 lines
YOU FIND exciting stories in unexpected places. This one popped up in the office of Reon G. Hillegass Jr., the head of Hillegass Lighting Corp. in Chesapeake.
Hillegass is a longtime civic leader in Hampton Roads. I dropped by to ask about his recent honor.
In June he will become the president-general of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. When he assumes office, it will be the first time a person from Hampton Roads has headed that patriotic organization since 1946, when A.H. Foreman - the man for whom Foreman Field at Old Dominion University is named - was president.
Hillegass is descended from one of Gen. George Washington's foot soldiers who served in the Philadelphia Company Infantry from 1778 to 1782.
When I asked Hillegass if he had ever served in his country's military, he replied that he had been a sailor.
He pointed to a heavy length of pipe with a screw top on the end that must have weighed 50 pounds, I guessed.
``That came,'' he said, ``from the USS Franklin.''
The end of metal pipe is one of the most interesting souvenirs to come out of World War II.
Hillegass told me how it had come to rest in his office. And how he happened to be a crew member on ``Big Ben,'' the most heavily damaged ship in the history of the U.S. Navy to return to port under its own power.
Raised in Norfolk, he had enlisted in the Navy when only 18 and was assigned to the Franklin, an aircraft carrier (CV-13), in December 1944.
``My duty station was a gun mount on the deck,'' he said. ``There were 13 men assigned to the mount, which had four 40mm guns. I was pretty wet behind the ears. Until I stepped aboard the Franklin, I had never been aboard a ship.''
On the morning of March 19, 1945, the Franklin was steaming in enemy-patrolled waters about 50 miles off the southeastern coast of the Japanese mainland.
At 6:55 a.m., Hillegass was at his gun mount when the gun captain asked him to report to the mess hall, where help was needed in preparing breakfast.
At 7:07 a.m., he was cooking in the mess hall three decks below the flight deck when a Japanese dive-bomber dropped two 500-pound bombs on the carrier deck, which was brimming with the carrier's planes, all loaded with bombs.
``I heard the loudest explosions I've ever heard,'' Hillegass said. ``They jolted the entire ship.''
He was trapped below with 300 men in a compartment that normally held 100. During the next couple of hours, more than 200,000 pounds of bombs exploded on the Franklin's flight deck. ``Our entire air group blew up,'' he said. ``Fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes.''
``Each explosion was horrific,'' he recalled. ``Whenever one of the bombs exploded, the entire ship seemed to be raised up out of the water before settling again.''
Dead bodies, smoke and debris littered the huge ship. Hillegass, trapped below, expected to die.
``We had 19-degree list,'' he remembered. ``There was lots of smoke, and we stood in water up to our ankles. All of us down there thought we were going to drown, that the ship would sink. I found an overboard discharge pipe in a bulkhead and unscrewed the cap. The pipe was the only source of good air in a compartment filling with smoke.''
The men were eventually rescued by a damage-control officer, Lt. Donald A. Gary, who was to win the Medal of Honor for his valor.
``Gary was the only one who could have saved us. He had a blueprint of the huge ship in his head,'' Hillegass recalled.
``We wet cloths and placed them over our faces to breathe through the smoke. It was so dark we couldn't see. Each man held the belt of the man in front of him as Gary led us away from the compartment.''
Gary led them down a long hatchway into a large exhaust duct, which extended like a long funnel from the ship's bottom to near the flight deck. The duct was fitted with ladder rungs, and they climbed upward to safety, emerging at a catwalk below the scorched and smoking flight deck littered with debris and carnage.
Among the dead were the 12 members of Hillegass' gun crew. He was the only survivor.
More than 800 men lost their lives on the Franklin that day. All were buried at sea, Hillegass recalled. A record number of decorations were awarded to crew members - the most ever given to a U.S. Navy ship for a single engagement.
The length of pipe from the Franklin that Hillegass displays in his office was given to him long after the vessel limped to Hawaii - and later the U.S. mainland - under its own power in 1945.
``The Franklin was scrapped at Jacobson Metal Company at Money Point in South Norfolk about 27 years ago,'' he recalled.
His friends there knew he had served aboard the Big Ben and would have given him any souvenir he wanted.
``I chose that piece of discharge pipe because it was the same one that saved our lives down there in the mess compartment,'' he said.
He often wonders, he said, why he was spared when so many died serving their country on that fateful morning. ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO COURTESY OF REON G. HILLEGASS JR.
ABOVE: The USS Benjamin Franklin was bombed off the coast of Japan
in March 1945, killing more than 800.
RIGHT: When the ship was scrapped, Reon Hillegass kept the pipe that
had saved him by providing breathable air.