It was just after 7 a.m. on March 19, 1945. George Sippel, Jr., a few months shy of his 19th birthday, found himself a long way from his home along the Saugus River. It had been two years since Sippel left school early with a few of his neighborhood friends to enlist in the Navy. With his country at the center of the second World War, there was little thought of doing anything else.
For Sippel, enemy number one were the Japanese, who four years earlier killed nearly 2,500 Americans when their Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor. The young gunner had dedicated himself to defending his country against the Japanese, and on this particular morning, he had gotten his wish.
Stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin, or “Big Ben” as it was nicknamed, he found himself 40 miles off the coast of Japan - and 90 feet above the ship’s deck - on the lookout for enemy attack.
There were enemy warcraft in the area, and Sippel knew it. The last report he received from the ship’s captain indicated a boat may be threatening directly to his left, which is where his focus was attended when a Japanese fighter jet swooped in behind him and bombed the ship’s deck, detonating over 50 of the onboard bombs, and launching a helpless Sippel through the air and into the icy water below.
“All I heard was a huge explosion, I thought a plane had gone down or something; we had no idea what was going on. The next thing I knew I was flying like a bird. Then I was in the water,” said Sippel.
Now a month away from his 86th birthday, Sippel, who has lived in Peabody for 50 years, knows that he was part of one of the most infamous attacks of World War II, and although it has been 67 years - a lifetime for many - since that violent day, he can still remember nearly every moment of the disastrous attack.
“It’s quite a feeling floating through the air like that. I have no idea how high up I went, but consider I was already about 90 feet up when the bomb hit,” he said. “And, boy, did it hit. We had no idea it was coming. It was a beautiful piece of bombing, really, it was just too bad it had to happen to us.
“It was really just a lousy way to start your day. It was about 7 a.m., a lot of us had just woken up and gone about our assignments. A lot of the guys were lined up eating down below - and that was right where the bomb hit - must have wiped out hundreds of them right there and they had no idea what hit them. It sure was just a lousy start to a day,” he said.
Sippel recalls being calm enough in the air to remind his comrade floating next to him to unbuckle his helmet so his neck wouldn’t break when they hit the water. He remembers trying to catch a wave to stay afloat. He remembers watching countless seaman die of hypothermia in the freezing water.
“As soon as one of them would think the weather was getting nicer - warmer - you knew they were at the end. They were about to go and they didn’t even know it,” he recalled.
Perhaps the most vivid memory Sippel has is hitting the water and the surprisingly calm struggle to get to the surface and stay afloat.
“People always think, you know, ‘swim to the top,’ well, you don’t really know where the top is,” he said. “And you’ve got all the engine parts and gears in there and they are spinning around and spinning you around and you just have to swim to where you think the top is and hope you made the right decision.
“The worst part is, you know, you can never get on top of a wave. They’ll always break before you can get on top of them. And that water, that water was freezing cold - except for the parts where the oil was burning on the surface. You just kind of try to stay afloat and hope someone comes to rescue you. Time just meant nothing.”
Eventually Sippel, along with about 1,000 others from the massive vessel were rescued and moved to camps somewhere on the islands of Southeast Asia. It was here that the men learned that the boat’s captain had survived the attack and then accused the rescued men of abandoning ship.
Casualty numbers from the attack are ever-changing as new information is discovered, but new figures indicate over 900 men died in the bombing and subsequent fight. However, hundreds of officers and seamen who remained on the ship managed to save the vessel, leaving the Navy to consider them heroes while Sippel and his group were shamed.
“She was one of the most decorated ships, but that skipper was one of the worst skippers they ever had in the Navy,” he said. “He accused us of abandoning ship. We were less than 50 miles off the coast of Japan, I have no idea where he thought we were going to go. But that was him. He screwed up the oil, he screwed up that final communication. We were 50 miles from the enemy and he treated it like we were in waters 50 miles off California. But, anything to save his own neck is what it was. And that meant saying we abandoned ship.”
Sippel said they were treated like prisoners at the camp, so much so that survivors of the Franklin took to lying about where they were from to avoid the false stigma. Even after he was discharged, just a month shy of his 20th birthday, Sippel says dealing with the lies about abandoning the ship - while so many others from that day were decorated and celebrated - was difficult to deal with internally.
“They all really thought we were deserters because that’s what the captain said we were,” he said. “Even after I was discharged I didn’t want to tell people I was on the Franklin because of that. I had to live with that a long time.”
Although Sippel uses humor to recall may of the details of the attack, the visual horror he witnessed and the shame he felt afterward were enough to keep his memories suppressed for decades. First, Sippel began to record his thoughts and feelings about the day in to a journal, something he still reads back through on occasion. But it wasn’t until a reunion of the ship’s surviving members in 2004 that he began to open up a bit about the past to others.
Following that reunion, Sippel was invited to participate in two projects that would eventually vindicate he and his fellow ‘deserters’ from that famous day.
Sippel granted interviews for the book “Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin” by Joseph A. Springer and the documentary “USS Franklin: Honor Restored,” both of which took a deeper look in to the events of that day and shared the true stories of men like Sippel who were falsely accused of abandoning ship. The documentary was released in 2011.
“Well the first thing was that reunion, I had no idea about it, but they managed to get a hold of my wife on (the computer) and I figured ‘Oh, well, I’ll go,' and then a bit after that I spent about four hours on the phone with the man from Illinois (Springer) writing the book there,” he said.
“When the book came out the family of the skipper was talking all about suing the author, because they were trying to make him some kind of hero in California where he was from. The guy told them to go ahead. He had all different men from all over the country who didn’t know each other and told the real story about what happened to us, they can all be witnesses in court and talk about what that man did," said Sippel.
“The title of that documentary: Honor Restored, that truly is what it is. I am thankful for that book and that documentary having come out because now we can have everything squared away about what really happened,” he said.
Sippel recently celebrated the release of the documentary at the , where he has taught model ship building twice a week for the past 19 years. He said seeing the footage in the film made him as “silent and somber as everyone else there.”
“After the documentary, people would ask ‘Why did you never tell us this’ and the answer is because I was trying to forget,” he said. “I can laugh about it now, but it sure wasn’t funny then. I was discharged before I was 20 years old. That is pretty scary for a 17- to 18-year-old kid from Saugus - never been anywhere. I just tried to block it out.”
When Sippel isn’t building ship models these days - he has hundreds of completed works, including a replica of the USS Constitution slated to be moved to a Wenham museum soon - he spends time with his wife of 60 years and visiting with his children and grandchildren. Now that his story is out, he is not afraid to share the details of that infamous day, no matter how painful some of them can be.
“That was probably the worst day of my entire life,” he says. “But, like I said, I’m glad to see the real story is out now. It kind of makes you feel good. Now people do know the truth."