When Don Clapsaddle found himself alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1945 he started praying.
“Dear God, please don’t let me drown out here at 21,” Clapsaddle said. “I still have a lot of things I want to do.”
On March 19, 1945, Clapsaddle was blown off the hanger deck of the USS Franklin and was one of two people on that deck to survive.
The Franklin was badly damaged by a Japanese air attack, losing more than 800 of her crew, becoming the most heavily damaged United States carrier to survive the war.
Clapsaddle, who had been in the Navy for a couple of years, was a second class petty officer who floated between repair jobs on the ship. Without much instruction, he concocted the first batch of napalm for the newly-commissioned ship.
A little after 7 a.m. that morning, Clapsaddle said he remembered two bombs being dropped on the ship, killing hundreds of deck workers.
Clapsaddle said the explosion blew him aside about 30 feet and he found himself on a sponson, or a porch-like structure, on the side of the ship.
He said he couldn’t walk and he felt his lungs were collapsed, but they were actually scorched from the explosion.
Due to the explosion, everything, including the aircraft and their bomb loads, was on fire.
“I knew if I could get away from the fire I’d be okay,” Clapsaddle said.
He crawled something like 90 feet across the ship to the signal station and crawled in. That is when he had to make a tough decision.
“I thought, you’re either going to get burned up, or blown up, or drowned,” Clapsaddle said. “Which do you want to do?”
Clapsaddle jumped 90 feet into the water and subsequently watched the Franklin sail, in a cloud of smoke and fire, into the distance.
“I’m out there, by myself, and there wasn’t another ship in sight,” he said. “By afternoon, you can imagine how desperate I was.”
Eventually Clapsaddle spotted something in the distance and started swimming in that direction. With the help of a strong current, he came upon a raft, capsized, that had six or more people clinging to the sides. One of his sailors was perched on top with a life vest on.
When he asked the sailor to relinquish his vest, the sailor said, “You go ahead and drown you son of a bitch, I’m not taking this off,” Clapsaddle remembered.
Clinging to the side of the raft, Clapsaddle said, none of them knew how they would get rescued.
But soon enough, a destroyer, the USS Marshall, came along and picked them up.
George Lawson, an Oak Harbor resident and author of “Veterans Voices: Remarkable Stories of Heroism, Sacrifices and Honor,” said that the men that served in World War II are a different breed. The tragedy, Lawson said, is that the country is losing these people at a rate of 1,000 a day.
“The era that they served in is a totally differnt America,” said Lawson who served 20 years in the US Navy himself. “When you look at the heart of service back then, everyone stepped up to the plate. It was about serving your fellow man.”
Clapsaddle spent 5 months in a Chicago hospital for rehabilitation and was discharged from service, going on to work in explosives and horse ranching, and married the love of his life, Carmen, in 1955. He will be honored in the Memorial Day parade starting at 11 a.m. Saturday in Coupeville.