He was a small man, wiry, and energetic. A big teaser, that’s how I remember Uncle Lewis, who was not my uncle at all but a long-time family friend. My mother babysat their daughters in the 1950s. She still remembers the day, in 1942, when he came by the house in his dress whites and squatted down to say goodbye to his then six-year-old friend.
John Lewis “Baby” Askew was on his way to war as a fighter pilot in the Vought F-4U Corsair. He served on the Essex Class Aircraft Carrier, USS Benjamin Franklin, the only US carrier to maneuver within 50 miles of the Japanese mainland during the war. And for that maneuver, she would pay a terrible price.
I knew none of that growing up. I just knew that Uncle Lewis was a “card,” as we used to say, who always had a twinkle in his eye and a stick of gum in his pocket. We were always welcome in him and Aunt Jessie’s home. No more so than the last time I saw him in 2003 when he opened up about his war for the first and only time.
“The Corsair had six fifty-caliber guns in the wings, and the two closest to the fuselage were bore-sighted down the centerline of the plane. They were the most accurate,” he explained.
“So, you used those first, right?” I asked.
“No! You saved those till you were returning to the ship and low on fuel when every shot had to count.”
I could have talked about the plane all day, but I remembered something about the Franklin that made me pause. “Were you on her when she was hit?”
A faraway look came into his eyes, and he said, “Yes. We were preparing to launch, and I’d forgotten my side-arm. I went down to my quarters to get it and came back on deck when the bombs hit. My quarters were destroyed.”
Uncle Lewis could not describe what happened next on 19 March 1945, but Wikipedia reports:
“Just before dawn, a single Japanese aircraft approached Franklin without being detected by American forces. As Franklin was about halfway through launching a second wave of strike aircraft, the Japanese bomber pierced the cloud cover and dropped two 550 lb. semi-armor-piercing bombs before the ship’s anti-aircraft gunners could fire.
One bomb struck the flight deck centerline, penetrating to the hangar deck, causing destruction and igniting fires through the second and third decks, and knocking out the combat Information Center and air plot. The second hit aft, tearing through two decks. When she was struck, Franklin had 31 armed and fueled aircraft warming up on her flight deck, and these planes caught fire almost immediately. The 13 to 16 tons of high explosives aboard these planes soon began detonating progressively. The hangar deck contained planes, of which 16 were fueled, and five were armed. The forward gasoline system had been secured, but the aft system was operating. The explosion on the hangar deck ignited the fuel tanks on the aircraft, and a gasoline vapor explosion devastated the deck. The twelve “Tiny Tim” rockets aboard these planes ricocheted around the hangar deck until their 500 lb (230 kg) warheads detonated. Only two crewmen survived the fire.”
“I was evacuated with other surviving pilots to a destroyer that came alongside to assist, then took up station astern,” he said. “The Franklin crew saved the ship, just barely. But they ran out of body bags and had to start throwing the dead overboard. Seven hundred fifty shipmates (later records put it over 800). Watching those bodies float by was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
We sat quietly for a minute, and I finally said, “Thank you doesn’t seem like enough. But thank you.”
He just smiled and said, “Hey, do you know anything about Weedeaters? I’ve got one out in the shed that you can have if you can get it running.”
We lost Uncle Lewis in 2004. I wore that Weedeater out over the next ten years, and every time I cranked it, I thought about Uncle Lewis and the USS Benjamin Franklin.
Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13.