NORFOLK, Va. (NNS) -- Families, friends and shipmates gathered under the 16-inch guns on board battleship USS Wisconsin (BB 64). Among the crowd were 11 men, noticeably older than everyone else in attendance and while their advanced age was apparent, they all bore the same youthful fire in their eyes.
It ignited and sparked when they reunited with each other, swapping sea stories and catching up on each other's lives since their last reunion. They heckled each other as they posed for a group photo, refusing to hold still for their families trying to get a photo of the unruly bunch.
The chatter soon faded though as everyone found their seats and Capt. James Denley, a United States Navy chaplain, took the podium behind a wreath of red and white carnations. The joyous mood soon became somber and the fire in the old men's eyes smoldered as they and those now deceased were honored for their service on board aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV 13) during World War II.
The 11 men were the remaining crew of Franklin. The families of the Franklin Sailors and the remaining crew attended the reunion July 17-20 to remember and honor the sacrifices they all made March 19, 1945.
"I know many things have changed for you throughout the years, it can't possibly have not changed," said Denley, addressing Franklin survivors. "You came together in the beginning when everyone was younger and with each year there are more that have passed. But as I look around I see your children, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren."
Bernard Groenewald, a former aviation metal smith, joined the Navy in May 1942 following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hi. Groenewald was present during the first attack on Franklin at Leyte Gulf and when Franklin came under fire just 50 miles off the Japanese coast, March 19, 1945.
"We knew the closer we got to Japan, the tougher it was going to be," said Groenewald. "They were doing their kamikaze thing and sinking a lot of ships."
Franklin was closer to the Japanese mainland than any other allied vessel had been during the entire war when an unidentified Japanese aircraft dropped two 550-pound bombs on the ship, the first striking the flight deck's centerline. Groenewald was on the hangar deck when the first bomb landed.
"Minutes after the attack, bombs that were dropping off the planes were burning holes in the flight deck and dropping bombs and gasoline to the hangar deck," said Groenewald. "They called the inferno a 'living hell'."
During the attack, Groenewald was thrown from the ship and into the sea as another bomb exploded in the ship. He treaded water until a raft full of pilots rescued him. As the displaced crew floated further away from the carnage aboard Franklin, they started to see ships approach on the horizon.
"We seen different ships pass by, but this one in particular got closer and closer," said Groenewald. "The fellas started waving but we said, 'Don't do that, let's see what flag they're flying first'."
As it approached, they saw it was the destroyer USS Hunt (DD 194). They were rescued from the water and returned to Anchorage, Alaska.
While Groenewald and hundreds others survived the attack, many more like Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Celido Mendoza, did not survive. Medoza's sister, Dora Morris, attended the reunion to honor her brother's memory. She was only 10 years old when her brother died during the assault on Franklin.
"They sent an uncle to pick me up from school and when I got home my mother told me he was dead," said Morris. "She never got over it. She never got over the fact that he was dead."
Morris said the loss of her brother shattered her family for years following the end of the war.
"Losing him changed my life," said Morris. "We weren't allowed to have Christmas or birthday parties or even listen to the radio. Anything that was joyous or happy times was forgotten."
Morris attended the reunion for the first time hoping to find someone who remembered serving with her brother.
"We came here to remember him and not let him be forgotten," said Morris. "I guess deep down, in the little girl's heart, I keep wishing he would come home so things would be different and be like they were before he died."
Many more of the surviving Franklin crew have passed since the end of World War II. The names of those who have passed since the previous reunion were read aloud and chimed off at the closing of the ceremony. A wreath laid in remembrance from the fantail of Wisconsin concluded the event.
Though the event on board Wisconsin was a somber one, the other events for the reunion celebrated the sacrifices the 11 men and their departed shipmates made nearly seven decades ago. Saturday, July 19, the veterans and their families held a dinner and dance with Rear Adm. Mark L. Tidd, Chief of Navy Chaplains, speaking at the event and the Glen Boswick Sound of Swing Orchestra performing.
As Tidd's last speaking engagement for his 31-year naval career, he spoke of the power of personal relationships, especially those formed in combat, and told the story of Rev. Joseph "Holy Joe" O'Callahan, a Navy chaplain that ministered to dead and dying Sailors aboard Franklin as well as aided in the damage control efforts when the ship was attacked.
"Anybody who has ever been through combat knows the importance of having somebody by your side, to your right, on your left and behind you," said Tidd. "Those relationships that are forged in the crucible of battle are relationships that last long beyond the event itself and on into later life."
Tidd said maintaining relationships, such as those held by the survivors and their families, are important parts of the healing process to recover from traumatic events.
"In the Gospel of John we're reminded, 'Greater love has no one than this, than the man that lays down his life for his friends,'" said Tidd. "At sea, we call them 'shipmates'."
As Tidd concluded his speech and the band picked up their instruments, the fires in the old men's eyes that had turned to deep, reflective embers the day before, were reignited as they talked loudly and ribbed each other the way they did when they were young Sailors. While only 11 of them were able to attend the reunion, it was apparent that their relationships had made this reunion, and the many to come, possible for these men and their families.
For more news from Navy Public Affairs Support Element, East, visit www.navy.mil/local/pacennorfolk/.