Seventy years ago this week, a front-page picture presented Post-Gazette readers with proof that the world was truly off kilter. Even today, the image remains a shocking reminder of the apocalyptic nature of a war that, by 1945, had enveloped the globe for more than five years.
The picture shows the aircraft carrier USS Franklin burning on the open sea and listing dangerously to starboard. Will she overturn? Hundreds of crewmen crowd together on the ship’s port side. They appear as tiny and helpless as ants trying to balance a see-saw.
An accompanying story, however, details how these seemingly powerless men accomplished one of the war’s most amazing feats of grit and courage.
On March 19, 1945, the Franklin had steamed to within 50 miles of the Japanese coast and was preparing to launch an early morning attack. More than 30 bombers and fighters, loaded with fuel and ordinance, packed the ship’s flight and hangar decks.
It was just past 7 a.m. and seaman John Steffora was beginning a shift at one of the Franklin’s gun stations. Steffora was a Pittsburgher, the son of a steelworker from Carnegie. He strapped on his life vest and looked up at the overcast sky. Suddenly, a plane with square-tipped wings emerged from the clouds. Steffora recognized it instantly a Japanese bomber.
The plane went into a dive. Closer and closer it came, until Steffora could see the pilot’s face, twisted in concentration or perhaps fear.
Two 500-pound bombs penetrated the Franklin’s flight deck. The blast flung some sailors overboard, tore others to pieces and ignited fully loaded planes waiting to take off. The Franklin’s deck became an inferno.
Thick black smoke smothered Steffora’s his gun mount. He raced to another gun and prepared for torpedo planes he was certain would attack.
Soon, however, Steffora realized fire had became a serious threat to the ship’s survival, so he volunteered to help fight the flames. The ship’s chaplain grabbed a fire hose and shouted at Steffora, “Son, let’s go.”
“It was terrible,” Steffora told the Post-Gazette. “Exploding bombs and rockets from our own fully loaded planes began to plow through the bulkheads. Flames shot high as the gasoline sprayed out of broken pipes. The roar of the fire was like thunder, and on the flight deck and hangar decks were the dead who had been killed by the concussion.
“Pilots were burned in their planes as they struggled to free themselves from the cockpits where they were trapped. Others threw themselves into the sea to escape the heat.”
After one immense explosion, aircraft engines with propellers attached and pieces of bodies fell onto the deck like hail on a roof, according to one witness.
Sailors on nearby ships watched in horror. The burning, listing Franklin had lost power and was dead in the water. Surely the ship was doomed. Franklin’s commander was given permission to abandon ship. He refused.
Crewmen dumped hot bombs and shells overboard before they could explode and poured freezing water on fires engulfing the ship. Steffora slathered heavy grease on his hands to protect them from the cold.
The cruiser Sante Fe was positioned alongside the Franklin to take on the wounded and the USS Pittsburgh secured lines to tow the damaged carrier. Eventually the ship was able to steam along under its own power.
Steffora was one of those who stayed aboard as part of a skeleton crew that kept the ship afloat, removed bodies and debris and tossed wreckage overboard.
“It was like living in a haunted hotel with one man in each room,” Steffora said. We worked night and day to clean the ship. I went for five days without sleeping, and we were without lights, heat and water for washing and shaving for over a week.”
More than a month later, the Franklin steamed into Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs. She had lost more than 800 of her crew.
News of the ship’s plight reached newspaper readers May 18. Accompanying the ship’s story in the Post-Gazette was a picture of Steffora, his wife Antoinette and son Robert at the family’s Carnegie home.
After the war, the Stefforas had another son, Thomas, and moved from Carnegie to Scott Township. John Steffora worked at Superior Steel in Carnegie until the plant closed in the early 1960s, then was employed for a short time at the Emsworth Lock and Dam before joining the Scott Township Public Works Dept. He worked there until retirement.
Sons Thomas and Robert continue to live in Scott Township. Their homes are within a few blocks of each other. Thomas has yellowing newspaper clips that provide some details of his father’s story, but much of what John Steffora experienced is unknown. He rarely talked of his time on the Franklin. Thomas says the war had lingering effects on his father.
“He’d just wander off behind the house and be by himself,” Thomas recalls. “He was always very alone … It probably wasn’t until the later 60s when he came out to the front yard. He just didn’t want to see people.”
John Steffora died at age 83 in 2000. Antoinette died in 2003.
Thomas says that when the USS Franklin was scrapped, his father was asked if he wanted a small piece of the ship as a sort of momento. John Steffora’s response? “No thanks.”