Modeling War Damage – USS Franklin (CV-13)

It should come as no surprise that this post has been a long time coming.  What’s it been…thirteen months since I blogged in earnest?  Sorry about that interval, but hopefully you’re already part of the community on The Museum Modeler Facebook page and YouTube channel, and thus are aware that I am nowhere near dead.

I’ve worked on several projects this year, but one of them overwhelmingly consumed my time and attention: a long-planned 1:700 vignette depicting USS Franklin (CV-13) and USS Santa Fe (CL-60) on the morning of March 19, 1945.  Specifically, as depicted in this scene:

USS Franklin (CV-13) viewed from USS Santa Fe (CL-60) on March 19, 1945.  NARA Identifier 520656

In the end, going to this from a pair of stock kits required more patience, creativity, and troubleshooting than I’d ever thought I’d need to call on in the pursuit of this hobby.  Writing this now, however – one year later – I can finally tell you how it went down, phase by phase.

Spoiler: The completed USS Franklin and USS Santa Fe.

Let me tell you a story.

The Narrative

On March 19, 1945, the Essex-class carrier USS Franklin was struck by two bombs dropped by a Japanese D4Y “Judy” bomber.  This action occurred while the ship was preparing to launch a strike against Honshū, and thus had numerous armed and fueled aircraft on both the flight and hanger decks.  The rearmost bomb landed among these aircraft, setting off multiple explosions on Franklin’s hanger deck which ultimately cascaded into a massive fuel vapor explosion.  This detonation filled the length of the ship’s hanger deck and resulted the deaths of hundreds of sailors, airmen, and Marines.  It also caused the spun-up aircraft on the flight deck above to jostle into one another, leading to an immediate chaotic dance of whirling propellers and demolished airframes.  As these aircraft exploded, so too did their ordinance.  Within minutes, Franklin had been transformed from a normally-operating aircraft carrier to a garish hellscape of flame and debris.

Franklin ablaze.  National Museum of Naval Aviation Identifier: 1996.488.246.009

The surviving crew battled on and, with the assistance of some of her escorting destroyers and cruisers, Franklin was saved.  By the time the ordeal was over and the carrier had returned to New York under her own power, history would record Franklin as having survived the most grievous damage – and the highest casualty count – of any American warship to have done so and not sunk.  With more than 1200 crew having been killed or wounded it was a particularly dark day for the US Navy.  The heroics of the survivors and those rendering aid is a credit to the fleet, however, as is their ultimate action of having saved the ship.

Now then…how to model this?  As noted in an earlier post, US Navy War Damage Reports can be immensely helpful in reconstructing battle damage.  Given the scope of Franklin‘s damage her report proved invaluable in researching this project.  This document is available from many sources, though I’m here linking to the version posted by the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Though the dozens of photographs and narrative pages were all of the utmost usefulness during this project, the summary plates stand out immediately as reference materials:

War Damage 1

Profile and Flight Deck damage. US Navy War Damage Report 56, September 15, 1946. Plate II.

War Damage 2

Gallery and Hanger Deck damage. US Navy War Damage Report 56, September 15, 1946. Plate III.

More than half of Franklin‘s flight and hanger decks were wrecked during that day’s ordeal; her gallery deck (suspended below the flight deck and above the hanger deck) was all but obliterated.  To practice some of the techniques that I would use to replicate this, I first engaged in a trial build of USS San Francisco (CA-38) depicting the ship on the morning after the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal:

The results of the San Francisco experiment. I surprised even myself with how effective certain painting and chipping techniques could represent realistic battle damage.

Some time ago, I’d purchased Five Star Models’ “Late War Essex” photoetch detail set (which I reviewed here) with the intention of using it on this project.  This set replaces the entire flight deck found on Trumpeter’s 1:700 USS Franklin kit while also adding significant gallery deck, island, and catwalk details.  To get Franklin‘s flight deck convincingly wrecked, I was going to need this brass material to create the effect of an underlying deck that was revealed as the ship’s wood-planked deck burned away.

But I get ahead of myself: before tearing down the flight deck, I had to build up everything else, first.

The Hull

Photographs of Franklin show the ship as having acquired a thirteen-degree list by the time that Santa Fe pulled away from the stricken carrier.  Amazingly, the carrier’s watertight integrity was unharmed by her topside damage; the list was the result of fire-fighting water cascading down into the hanger deck and thence deeper into the ship by way of open and undogged hatches.

Franklin‘s list is readily apparent in this view taken from aboard USS Santa Fe. National Museum of Naval Aviation Identifier: 1996.488.246.012

To replicate this, I attached the Franklin kit’s lower hull to the upper, as portions of the undersea hull became visible as the ship’s port side rose our of the water.  Using a razor saw, I carefully cut through the ship’s hull at the 13-degree mark I’d established with a protractor.  Another hour of sanding the new hull bottom against a sheet of 400-grit paper evened out any irregularities and let me put this initial modification behind me.


Gallery and Hanger Decks

The ruins of Franklin‘s Hanger Deck after the fires were extinguished.  US Navy War Damage Report 56, September 15, 1946, Photo 27.

Enlarged version of Franklin‘s Hanger Deck damage chart.

Franklin’s War Damage Report provides a clear, clinical description of the tremendous damage inflicted upon Franklin’s Gallery and Hanger Decks:

“Detonation of the enemy bombs in the hangar ruptured aircraft fuel tanks causing fires to spread rapidly on both the flight and hangar decks. A tremendous gasoline vapor explosion followed the initial detonations by a few seconds. Blast and flames filled the entire hangar and shot up elevator wells and out the sides of the hangar. Dense black smoke filled the hangar and enveloped large portions of the flight deck and bridge. Planes on the flight deck, which had been turning up were thrown together with their propellers cutting into one another. The severity of the initial detonations and vapor explosion can be appreciated by the fact that there are only two known survivors from the hangar.(United States Navy, War Damage Report 56: USS Franklin (CV-13).  September 15, 1946. Section 3-32).

To warp Franklin‘s hanger deck as per her War Damage charts, I went with an old standby: heat.  After marking out what should be deformed, what should show penetration, and how far each bit of damage should go, I spent several brief rounds holding the hull over open flame.  After a few seconds, the plastic in question softened, and I was able to press into and through the hanger deck with a dowel as needed.

Marking intended areas of Hanger Deck damage.

Hanger Deck following the procedure.

After building up the rest of the hanger deck sides, adding details with stock styrene, and drilling out shrapnel holes as indicated by reference photos, it was time to paint the sucker.  I started with a full-ship base coat of my trusty Mr. Surfacer 1200 Black before adding in scraps of aluminum foil and thin wire to replicate the shredded nature of the collapsed gallery deck.  This was then painted and weathered per the technique described in this earlier post.

Black based.

Steel has been laid down.

Final weathering effects.

While this was going on, I decided to scratchbuild those portions of the gallery deck that the ship’s damage report indicated were only partially destroyed.  I measured and cut lengths of textured and strip styrene into a form that was both accurate and capable of suspension beneath the photoetch flight deck.  Hanging metal sheets were replicated using the same foil-and-wire technique as mentioned above:

Note that the Gallery Deck is inverted in this photograph.  Those loose metal sheets hang down in the finished product.

When put together, the Hanger and Gallery deck create an appropriate atmosphere of destruction.  While much of this is dark and difficult to see in the finished model, the hints of debris that show through speak volumes toward the havoc that was unleashed aboard Franklin that day.

My model Franklin’s weathered and scarred port side.

This same area on the actual Franklin.  Naval History and Heritage Command Identifier: 80-G-K-4778

One last touch before closing up the Hanger Deck for good was to add several torrents of water cascading out of Franklin‘s starboard side.  This water, which was the cause of Franklin‘s list, was the result of the afore-mentioned firefighting water which had come aboard ship.  To create this effect, I used my old standby of Liquitex Gloss Gel Medium (this is my standard material for creating water effects, for which a complete , 2-part tutorial can be viewed here and here).  Essentially, I built a flow of water out from each relevant point on the hull over several coats and several hours, adding and shaping each stream as the area preceding it cured.

Rivers of fire-fighting water can be seen cascading out of Franklin in this shot taken as Santa Fe pulls away. Naval Heritage and History Command Identifier: 80-G-273882

Forming initial water streams on the model. These would be left in this incomplete state until Franklin was attached to her water base and the lower parts of each stream could be built up to join the upper portions coming out of the ship.

The Island

The most distinctive element of any carrier (besides the wide expanse of flight deck, of course) is the island.  In Franklin‘s case, the damage sustained to the island was most severe internally than externally.

Enlargement of island profile damage taken from Franklin‘s War Damage Report.

Enlargement of island deck level damage taken from Franklin‘s War Damage Report.

In fact, the most severe damage to the island that needs to be modeled is identifed by the ship’s wrecked and tilting radar mast.  To quote again from the ship’s damage report:

“The mast support for the SC-3 radar antenna fractured and in falling smashed both the SC-3 and SM antennae. The foremast which supports antennae for the YE homing beacon, SG and BK radars and VHF radio gear was fractured at the radar platform level. This mast tilted inboard but was prevented from hanging down by its starboard wire stay .” (Section 3-42)

This damage is clearly visible in a series of photographs taken from aboard USS Santa Fe :

Franklin’s radar mast careens to port as a bomb detonates on the ship’s flight deck. US Navy War Damage Report 56, September 15, 1946,  Photo 14.

Franklin‘s mast viewed from Santa Fe as the cruiser approaches on the carrier’s starboard side.  David Buell, courtesy of NavSource

Yes, that photoetch work was as nerve-wracking as it looks.

To achieve this effect, I had to rely almost exclusively on Five Star’s photoetch set (plus a few lengths of brass rod).  Really, though, it was just a matter of matching the build’s mast angles to the photo references.  A little bit of glue in the right places, and I had a convincing effect:

The masochism inherent in 1:700 modeling.

Flight Deck

Ah yes, the Flight Deck.  Hands down, this is the most characteristic visual element of the Franklin disaster.  This is what draws the eye; this is what people remember.

This is how the US Navy remembered it:

“Within a short period of time, variously reported as from one to four minutes after the initial detonation, the first of a five-hour long series of heavy explosions of aircraft bombs occurred. During this period it is estimated that about 60 of the 66 500-pound bombs and about 7 or 8 of the 10 250-pound bombs which were loaded on planes on the flight deck detonated. … Most of the bombs on the flight deck exploded on that deck, but some fell through holes and exploded in the hangar spaces. All of the 12 Tiny Tims (11.75-inch rockets) on the flight deck went off. Some were observed to leave the ship by the force of the motors, but it is believed that a majority of the rocket heads detonated on the ship.  …Small caliber, 20mm, 40mm and 5-inch ammunition exploded singly (low order) throughout the period of the heavy explosions and for several hours following. This ammunition was located in planes, clipping rooms, ready service boxes and upper handling rooms. No lower magazine spaces were involved. Fires, fed by gasoline and aggravated by the continuing explosions, raged unabated during the first few hours on the flight deck and in the island, gallery, forecastle, hangar and a few second deck spaces. (Section 3-33)

In most photographs taken of Franklin that day, her flight deck after of the island is completely obscured by smoke and flame.  It’s only in images taken in the weeks following the attack – and with the guiding hand of the War Damage Report – that we get an accurate sense of the destruction that was wrought.

Franklin approaching New York on April 26, 1945.  US Naval History and Heritage Command Identifier: 80-G-274014

Damage to Franklin‘s flight deck is evident in this photo taken from the island’s aft range-finder platform.  Naval History and Heritage Command Identifier: 80-G-K-4762

I relied heavily on Five Star’s photoetch components to recreate this mechanical trauma in miniature.  Trumpeter’s stock flight deck has too thick a cross-section to realistically represent the thin steel of Franklin‘s  flight deck, and the molded quality of the deck’s planks and tie-down strips would ave required significant sanding with no guarantee of success.

Five Star solves this problem by providing a thick brass deck which includes substantial portions of the Gallery Deck.  As designed, this deck was intended to serve as a backing plate for a nicely-detailed photoetch flight deck.  I had other ideas, though.

To avoid bogging down in an excessive word count, I’ll let images and captions tell this part of the story:

The underside of Five Star’s Gallery Deck and Flight Deck backing plate. At this point, no Franklin-specific modifications have been made.

Five Star’s photoetch Gallery and Flight deck, positioned as designed. Note the fine tie-down details on the flight deck: these would come in handy later.

Marking our the rough damage as indicated in Franklin‘s War Damage Report.

Using photoetch shears, I cut and bent the rough sections that I had marked out earlier.

This was the revelation: after hitting a snag in my initial plans, I realized that aluminum foil could be cut and burnished over the flight deck backing to create a convincing steel deck that would show in the areas where Franklin‘s deck had burned away. I could also carefully shape it around the rough holes that had been cut into the photoetch, allowing for the nuanced destruction evident in photographs of the damage.

With the steel deck problem sorted out, I now cut an Artwox flight deck into the appropriate pattern to represent the dividing point between Franklin‘s intact and destroyed flight deck.

Photographs of Franklin‘s damage show that while her decking blackened and charred into ash, most of her tie-down strips remained intact. To replicate these, I took the plunge and sliced up the gorgeous photoetch flight deck that Five Star had provided, taking each strip and securing it to the foil-covered decking.

This photograph, of repairs to USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) in June 1945, show a close-up view of an Essex-class flight deck that has lost it’s planking.  Note the tie-down strips.  Official US Navy photo 2933-45

The combined result of backing metal, aluminum foil, brass tie-down strips, and Artwox wood decking. It was at this moment that I first realized that I might actually be able to pull this off.

Before continuing with the aft flight deck damage, I secured the Artwox deck and used 1:700 photoetch stencils to paint Franklin‘s hull number and various flight deck striping. I don’t believe in superstition, but the coincidence of that number is striking, isn’t it?

Using the same multi-layer paint technique as before, I began to spray paint onto the carrier’s rear flight deck.

Once the deck had been appropriately weathered, a scalpel helped me slice the remaining Artwox deck into appropriately-sized sections to fit between the tie-down strips. These were charred by painting them the same shade of the intact flight deck before being liberally coated in multiple applications of heavily-thinned black and brown oils.

The final result.  I won’t lie: I squealed with joy a little bit when I reached this point.

Putting it All Together

The sea base was created per my usual Liquitex technique. The tutorial for this can be found on The Museum Modeler YouTube page, and is linked in an earlier section of this blog post.

Another feature of this build that I was determined to add from the start is the nearly 1,100 crew aboard Franklin and Santa Fe. Where possible, these were placed in the same positions and poses as borne out in photographs of the scene.

And there it is.  Nine months from start to finish, and I couldn’t be happier.

So then, what’s next?  Not to worry, I have an idea about that…

USS Missouri (BB-63) and USS Buchanan (DD-484) on September 2, 1945. National Museum of the Pacific War Collection.

4 thoughts on “Modeling War Damage – USS Franklin (CV-13)

  1. Very well done!
    One comment as a archival researcher – the shipyard photo of the damaged flight deck caption is cited incorrectly. The photo number is for Puget Sound Naval Shipyard – each yard maintained their own, separate photographic division and collection with reference numbers. As far as I know, only a post-war Mare Island set was ever turned over “intact” to the national archives, the rest are incomplete sets left in other records and reports.

    So, while it is a US Navy photo, it is not “US Navy Photo # XXXX.” More accurate would be “Puget Sound Navy Yard photo XXXX.”


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