Low key celebration for 100-year-old Florida veteran

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Sarasota Marine who was in the first wave of the Bougainville invasion turns 100 today.

SARASOTA — Every November 10, there’s a military tradition celebrating the formation, in 1775, of the Continental Marines, the precursor to the modern Marine Corps. In a ceremony called “mess night,” the oldest and the youngest leathernecks at the gathering come forward to cut a birthday cake with a sword.

For the past 15 years or so, that ritual has been unfolding locally at Marina Jacks. And for 10 years running, the oldest-Marine honors have gone to a feisty former captain named Ralph Franklin.

Not all that long ago, according to Vietnam veteran and event booster Tom McElheny, the World War II survivor had a fair amount of peers beside him. And on one memorable occasion, 11 Marines who had stormed Iwo Jima were joined by a Navy demolitions frogman, who had helped clear a path for their beachhead.

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They took emotional turns at the microphone, recalling the transcendent moment when they looked up to see the Stars and Stripes going up over Mount Suribachi. Says McElheny, “I wish we had recorded it.”

The Iwo Jima veterans are gone now; there may be three or four WWII guys left. So lately, the honored local rookie who rolls out of basic training these days and encounters the oldest Marine standing at mess night has the same reaction, McElheny says. “They’re awestruck.”

“It’s his bearing, his energy, the square jaw, the shoulders, his bulldog approach to everything — but he’s always got a smile. He has a real presence.”

Today, Ralph Franklin will take a rare (these days) excursion away from his residence at The Glenridge on Palmer Ranch to celebrate his 100th birthday. The coronavirus scuttled plans for a sizable crowd of well-wishers, so it will be a low-key rendezvous. He’ll have lunch with son Bruce, a Sarasota developer, as well as his granddaughter and great granddaughter. And, if precedent holds, there will be little if any discussion about what he did in the war.

“Here’s the price of admission” for an interview, Franklin declares to a reporter. “The price of admission is, you guys belong to the AP, right? Put more national and international news in your newspaper …”

Unable to reach an accord, Franklin adjusts. He presses ahead with his own talking points. He says to forget about the economics degrees he earned at the University of Cincinnati and Columbia University.

“I learned more in the Marine Corps than I did from getting my college degrees. It did wonders for me and everybody else,” he insists. “It built character, discipline, honor, all those things you’ve heard about, and they were lessons I tried to carry with me throughout my life.”

Both Tom McElheny, a board member of Sarasota Military Academy, and Franklin’s son Bruce, agree they rarely hear the old Leatherneck discuss the war. But it’s not because he’s forgotten about it; in fact, Franklin’s command of details is formidable. He doubts anyone who wasn’t there can understand.

“You’ll probably get it all wrong,” Franklin warns a reporter over the phone. He’s seen what happens. He remembers how, some years back, another journalist interviewed a fellow survivor of the Bougainville campaign and “got everything wrong.” He laments how so many Americans don’t know their own history.

So here’s the big picture: In the spring of 1942, Japan invaded Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia, with designs on moving against the Aussies. Imperial troops built airfields on Bougainville in hopes of using air power to destroy Allied lifelines to the continent.

The United States counterattacked in August 1942, beginning with the amphibious invasion of Guadalcanal, a bloody struggle that lasted four months and included seven naval battles. But the U.S. was ultimately targeting Rabaul, headquarters of Japan’s South Pacific operations, nearly 700 miles of island-rippled ocean to the northwest, off New Guinea. The road to Rabaul led through Bougainville.

What Franklin will tell you is that he enlisted in the USMC while a senior in college, then attended officer school at Quantico following graduation. By January 1943, he was a second lieutenant with the Marine 3rd Division, 3rd Tank Battalion, Company E, shipping out to New Zealand.

Major battlefield operations in Guadalcanal were over by time he arrived there in June ’43, but Japanese stragglers who refused to surrender continued to drop mortar rounds on Henderson Field, which had been converted into a critical air base. Franklin led a recon platoon to rout the battered remnants of the defenders.

“A lot of them escaped to the other side of the island, hoping their submarines would come and get them out of there. And a lot of them did,” Franklin recalls. “But 12,000 starved to death. And because they had treated the natives so badly, many of the natives were very friendly to us, and they told us where (the Japanese) were.”

Occupied Bougainville was Franklin’s next stop. He says the plan wasn’t to conquer the entire island, but to build and defend air strips to accommodate fighters and light bombers capable of supporting long-range bombing raids on Rabaul. By attacking the island’s midsection and splitting Japan’s ground forces, American troops could hang back and wait for their isolated adversaries to exhaust their resources.

Franklin’s 3rd Marines were in the first wave of invaders that waded ashore on Nov. 1, 1943. Since American warplanes had been pummeling Japan’s main bases in far-off Rabaul, the island’s air cover had been largely stripped away, and Franklin’s unit sloshed in unopposed, at least at first.

“That’s because we landed in a swamp,” he says. “But they attacked us at night, when we were pretty much alone. It was pitch black and the Japanese came out of the jungle screaming and hollering. I can still hear that. Fortunately, we had a lot of good men.”

Fighting raged for the next month. Franklin says “they put up a fierce resistance everywhere,” but his story doesn’t linger in the blow-by-blow. He will say only that while Japanese armies may have steamrolled indigenous troops from China to Indonesia, “they never experienced anything like American Marines before.”

According to the books, some 400 members of the 3rd Marines died on Bougainville. Franklin’s unit rotated back to Guadalcanal in December; clashes between Japanese and Allied troops, however, would continue on Bougainville until Tokyo surrendered in 1945.

Franklin was transferred to battalion headquarters on Guam in 1944, where he was promoted to captain and was assigned an adjutant’s post. But in February that year, acute appendicitis accomplished what hostile fire could not — it put him out of action. For good.

Seventy-five years later, Franklin remembers being “upset” at missing the fabled invasion of Iwo Jima, where elements of the 3rd Division were bloodied in February 1945. His brother Marvin hit the volcanic sands with the 4th Marines and took a round near the heart, but he survived.

Franklin arrived back in the States, San Francisco, on May 8, 1945, the day Germany replaced the swastika with the white flag.

“It was in the papers, but there were no celebrations, no parties, no nothing,” he recalls. “San Francisco was far removed from Europe, and we were still fighting Japan.”

Franklin was steeling himself for yet another go at the enemy in August 1945 when atomic bombs vaporized two cities and Japan gave up. He was guarding a Navy ammunition depot in Crane, Indiana, as the news broke. He says he was relieved it was over, but things never got crazy in Crane, not like they did in Times Square. Which begs the question: What about that Unconditional Surrender statue at Sarasota’s Bayfront park?

“I have no feeling one way or another,” he says. “I think it’s kind of ridiculous, but I don’t know. Just say I have no opinion.”

Ralph Franklin went on to enjoy a globe-trotting business career with the U.S. Rubber Company, which took him from Singapore to Hong Kong to Manila to New York to Brazil. He transitioned to sales for the new medium of television, became vice president for MCA Inc., and ended up with the nonprofit International Executive Service Corps, founded by Chief Executive of the Chase Manhattan Corporation, David Rockefeller.

So that’s about it.

This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network – Florida.

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