In the early morning hours of March 19, 1945, the USS Franklin aircraft carrier cut through the water off the Japanese mainland. Nicknamed “Big Ben” the carrier was a part of Task Force 58, an operation meant to provide a screen against the transportation of Japanese supplies from the mainland to Okinawa, scheduled to be invaded on April 1.
Ninety feet above the water aft of the midships, Marine Private First Class LaRocque DuBose ’49 manned the #14 40mm quad gun mount. The #12 mount, his usual gun position, was malfunctioning. His gun captain, a Sergeant Wooten, told him to wear his life jacket. DuBose obliged, obstinately leaving the jacket ties undone in quiet rebellion.
Moments later, a sudden explosion rocked the ship, sending up a shower of debris and a curtain of heavy smoke. Realizing the Franklin had been hit, DuBose looked up and saw a Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” dive bomber come through the clouds. The land-based bomber then released two 500 pound bombs, one annihilating mount #12 and the second exploding into the hangar deck. Debris rained down from exploding planes on the flight deck and Wooten ordered the mounts abandoned. As the men raced to safety, DuBose’s path was blocked by Wooten, entangled in a telephone cable that ran from the phone fastened around his neck and plugged into the mount. With split-second thinking, DuBose stepped forward, took the cables in both hands, and snapped them in two, freeing Wooten and clearing a path.
“I just wanted to break that cable so that the sergeant could get out of my way!” DuBose says. “I think there was quite a bit of adrenalin flowing in me right about then.”
Making his way along the ship’s port side, DuBose crawled through a hatch to a catwalk below the flight deck. Looking for a line down to the water and not seeing one, DuBose returned to the outside catwalk, his back to the bulkhead, and said what he believed to be his final prayers.
“I am very proud to say that I did not pray for deliverance for myself,” DuBose says. “Instead, I prayed that my parents would be able to handle news of the death of their only child.”
In a last-ditch effort, DuBose entered the same hatch, this time finding a line descending to the water. DuBose would later call that line “God’s rope,” as he was convinced that “He put it there for me.” Stepping out onto the line, he was just finding his footing when a 20mm ammunition magazine exploded behind him, blowing him away from the ship and into the ocean.
As he fell, DuBose had the frame of mind to enter the water head-first, unlike more than 200 men who were later found with broken necks due to their helmet straps and gravity’s cruelty. Entering the water, he raised his left arm to deflect any floating debris. Seconds before making contact with the waves, DuBose suddenly thought, “I’m going to ruin my wristwatch!” Sure enough, the watch did stop. Until this day his wristwatch remains at 10:20 a.m., the exact time he plunged into the water.
An American F6F Hellcat buzzed him and directed him toward a balsa wood raft. During the next hours, he picked up two sailors, another Marine, and two pilots. They were all later rescued by the USS Hunt. Having spent more than five hours in the cold water and the raft, DuBose’s Marine dungarees had to be cut off him. He was given a sailor’s spare dungarees to get warm. Following this change of clothes a sailor came around asking the rescued their names. Not knowing the purpose of the exercise, DuBose gave the sailor his surname, and because of his borrowed navy dungarees, he was recorded as Seaman First Class DuBose instead of his true rank: Private First Class. An MIA telegram was sent to his parents in Cotulla, Texas. It would be three weeks before they learned he was alive and well.
Due to wounds sustained from shrapnel, DuBose was recommended for a Purple Heart. Yet, when the ship docked in Brooklyn, N.Y., too heavily damaged to be repaired on the West Coast, DuBose received orders to be transferred to the Marine guard detachment at Camp Peary, Va. He left the Franklin before he could be awarded his medal.
Almost 50 years later, DuBose was playing a round of golf near his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., when a member of his foursome asked him about service aboard the Franklin. The man informed him that he had been on a regimen destroyer off the Franklin’s port bow when it was hit. He then asked DuBose if he was attending the 50th anniversary of the ship’s attack. Shocked, DuBose had not known of any such reunion. Phone calls were made and it was discovered that he had never received his Purple Heart in 1945. DuBose asked if it could be given to him at the celebration and his request was granted. Fifty years after private first class LaRocque DuBose was thrown from the USS Franklin, he received his Purple Heart on the parade ground at Parris Island, S.C.
“It is an honor that I received a medal that was created by George Washington,” DuBose says. “I am proud of it. It is a precious item for me.”
After being discharged from the Marines, DuBose returned to Trinity University, where he had spent one semester in the spring of 1944. He graduated in 1949 with an English major and a speech minor. He entered graduate school at the University of Texas, occasionally returning to visit friends in San Antonio. It was on one of these visits that he went on a double date and met Estelle ’51-53, his wife of 65 years. Estelle studied French at Trinity for two years before transferring to UT Austin.
Over the course of his life, DuBose, 90, has served as an editor at the University of Texas Press and taught at the University of Texas, Indiana University, Montana State University, and Colorado Western University. After retiring from academia, he and Estelle bought a travel agency in Scottsdale which they ran for 20 years. For the past 10 years, DuBose has been the editor of The Seahorse, the official newsletter of the United States Seagoing Marine Association. He can be reached at email@example.com.