Students at Russell High School often sat on the edge of their seats as Paul Franz talked about his days as a young boy in Russell, as well as his service during World War II aboard the USS Louisville when it sustained damage from four kamikaze attacks during one of the greatest naval battles in military history.
When asked if he was ever afraid, Franz paused briefly before responding, “Yes. You were scared, but you had a job to do.”
Franz, 87, said he was born in West Russell in 1925 and spent his childhood years inventing games and toys along with other local children during the Great Depression. A favorite pastime was counting and identifying cars traveling along U.S. 23, he said, adding “sometimes we had five or six pass within 15 minutes.” Young people in those days often hitched rides with slow-moving cars by hooking their sleds to the rear bumper and enjoying the ride into downtown Russell. Movies were also popular, he said, recalling a 10-cent admission fee for serial films that always had viewers theorizing about what would happen next.
“You know where the old school is downtown? There was a movie place right across from it,” he said to the attentive audience of Air Force JROTC cadets.
“Going to Ashland, now that was a big day,” he said, adding all the children in his family cried when tough economic conditions forced them to sell the family’s Model T Ford for $5.
After enlisting to serve in the Navy, Franz said he traveled for five nights by train under blackout conditions because of fears of Japanese bombing. He was eventually assigned to serve aboard the USS Louisville, he said, often referring to a black-and-white photo of the ship to explain how things happened during battle, as well as when dealing with typhoon conditions. The heavy cruiser was built in 1931, he said, adding he was present for the ship’s decommissioning in Florida many years later.
Bringing a few smiles to his audience, Franz said Navy personnel had their own words for many common things, such as “head” for toilet, “scuttlebutt” for rumors, “mud” for coffee and “Pogey bait” for candy. Franz said he never did learn the meaning of “Pogey bait.”
While his service time had plenty of opportunities to have fun, Franz said he relied upon his training to get him through a series of kamikaze attacks and other assaults during the Battle of Leyte, generally considered to be the largest naval battle of World War II and, by some measures, the largest naval battle in world history.
Incoming aircraft weren’t especially difficult for the ship’s guns at first, he said, although the kamikaze attacks were a different situation entirely.
“At first it was ‘Spot ’em and shoot ’em down.’ Then there was the kamikazes. They would come in the morning flying out of the sun and you could not see them,” he said, adding the suicide attackers used a similar tactic to get close to ships without being detected at sunset, flying in at low altitude to elude spotters and early radar systems. The sailor said the sight of a Japanese airplane heading straight toward a ship “with guns blazing” was a sight he is not likely to forget.
During one typhoon, Franz said the USS Louisville was hit so hard it listed 37 degrees to one side, prompting Lt. Col. Terry Maggard to suggest his students reproduce the angle with their arms and try to imagine the tilt aboard a ship twice as long as a football field.
Franz said food aboard ship was nearly always in dehydrated form or K-rations, causing green vegetables to become so valuable they had to be kept under guard when it was available.
“Nobody missed a meal on Saturday morning because you got baked beans and corn bread,” he said. “You would crave green vegetables. We usually got cabbage once every six months and when they did have it they had to guard it. Something green like that ... you just craved it.”
Franz said he came home and enjoyed a career on the railroad, shortly after he heard rumors about “some type of big bomb” certain to bring the war to an end.
In response to a cadet’s question, Franz said he prayed while his ship was under kamikaze attack although he was confident he never felt panic during combat. “When you’re under attack, you have a job to do and you’re busy,” he explained, moments before Maggard pointed out Franz was aboard the USS Louisville during 10 of its 13 combat situations.
Franz said he couldn’t resist correcting a cadet who asked him about being aboard a boat.
“Let’s get one thing straight; it’s not a boat,” he said. “In the Navy a boat is something that can be hauled by a ship.”
Asked if he had any regrets about his military service, Franz simply smiled and said, “No. I wouldn’t want to do it again, but it took me from being a boy to being a man.”
TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2651.