Leo Hopkins, 92, a member of St. Joseph Parish and survivor of the USS Franklin attack that killed over 700 people, speaks about his days aboard the carrier and his friends who died while serving aboard the ship in World War II. Today, he is a prayer warrior and prays for the souls who lost their lives. (PHOTOS BY LINDA REEVES | FC)

Tragic memory still ignites a blessed, prayerful life

One World War II veteran here is strong in faith and eternally grateful to God for the blessing of life

STUART  |  Former U.S. Navy Radioman Second Class Leo Hopkins clearly remembers a day 72 years ago that changed his life forever and took the lives of so many, for whom he continues to pray every day.

“I don’t know why I lived,” said Hopkins, 92, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Stuart, who was only 20 years old and serving aboard the USS Franklin when a Japanese dive bomber sliced through thick clouds, swept over the carrier and dropped two 550-pound bombs that ripped his ship apart and caused a blast and an inferno.

It was the early morning of March 19, 1945 — the feast of St. Joseph — a day cemented in history books as one of the great naval tragedies of all times. The USS Franklin — known as the unsinkable “Big Ben” — became the most heavily damaged U.S. carrier to survive World War II. The high number of casualties was also a record breaker. Data indicates that 800 men died during the attack.

During the bombing, Hopkins and other men prayed the Our Father and Hail Mary. They also quoted parts of Scripture including Psalm 23: “Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.”

“I don’t know why I made it when so many died,” said Hopkins wounded during the attack, and later awarded decorations for action along with 106 officers and 603 enlisted who saved their ship through courage, bravery and patriotism. “I pray for the guys who died. They were all kids. We were all kids in the war. It is so sad.”

Ironically, the day before the attack Hopkins attended Mass during which the chaplain instructed the soldiers to wear their dog tags for identification. The Franklin had been in campaigns throughout the Pacific and seen battles since it was commissioned in January 1944. Its planes destroyed aircraft on the ground and in the air, enemy ships, gun instillations and airfields. But that March, the Franklin was 50 miles off the shore of Japan, and the Japanese knew about the ship’s successful record and wanted it destroyed.

“I had just finished breakfast and was walking out (of the mess hall,) when I felt the ship take a hit,” said Hopkins, who was eating below with other sailors and aviators. “It was 9 in the morning when the bomb hit. I was wounded and blown out in the hallway.”

The Franklin had 53 planes aboard, and 31 aircraft were fueled and ready for takeoff. One of the Japanese bombs hit the deck and ignited the fuel tanks of the aircrafts causing a firestorm. Gasoline vapor exploded, and some planes were tossed into other planes causing more blasts.

Hopkins was shaken and disoriented in the dark pit of smoke below deck. He recalled how Lt. Junior Grade Donald Gary discovered the men some grasping for air and trapped in the compartment.

“Lt. Gary came down looking for survivors.  He found us. There were about 200 guys,” Hopkins said. “He told us to grab hold of the guy in front and ‘don’t let go.’ We went out in a line.”

The lieutenant led the men through the dark and smoke-filled ship to an exit. Then, Hopkins spotted Lt. Comdr. Father Joseph O’Callahan, the warship’s Catholic chaplain.

“He said ‘Leo, follow me. Come on.’ Everything was blown up and on fire.”

Father O’Callahan gave the men orders directing them in firefighting and rescue missions to reach the trapped and the injured. He tended to the wounded and administered the last rites to the dying. Many crew members were blown overboard or driven off the ship by the hell storm aboard.

“The guys were cooked like turkeys,” said Hopkins about the burned bodies. The dead were covered and placed in rows along the deck. Eventually, the men were buried at sea during a “moving” burial ceremony led by Father O’Callahan, who gave the men words of comfort and hope.

“Father O’Callahan said the spirit was gone,” Hopkins said. “Their souls are in heaven. So many of my friends were killed. I pray for them.”

Father O’Callahan later received a medal of honor. He was the first chaplain to receive the nation’s highest award for gallantry. Some accounts of that day indicate that the priest seemed to be everywhere and doing everything after the attack. He saved many lives and helped save what was left of the ship, but remained in prayer as he tended to the dead and dying.

The ship was eventually taken in tow and then managed to gain enough speed to sail on its own into Pearl Harbor where the carrier was patched up. Eventually, it sailed to Brooklyn, N.Y., arriving April 28, 1945, with a hero’s welcome waiting.

“I saw the Statue of Liberty and I said I am home,” Hopkins said. “The ferry boats all came to welcome us.”

After Hopkins was discharged from the military at the end of January 1946, he returned home and enrolled in school. He later married his high school sweetheart, Helen. They made a home in Scranton, Pa.

“I saw Father O’Callahan in 1950,” Hopkins said. “He came to a breakfast event at my church in Scranton, Nativity (of Our Lord) Church. He was a speaker. It was good to see him.”

Fast forward to today and Hopkins is a dedicated “prayer warrior.” A faithful parishioner of St. Joseph for the past 36 years, he still drives, enjoys his doughnuts and coffee every morning, attends daily Mass and is on a mission encouraging all to pray.

Hopkins lost his beloved Helen in 2009. Leo and Helen had one son Jeff, who has three children. He continues to pray for his naval buddies, family members who have gone before him, and everyone he meets. He is also on a mission to turn hearts to prayer. Three months ago, he began his own prayer book mission.

“Leo is the sweetest, kindest, most tender-hearted man you can meet,” said St. Joseph parishioner Thomas Masty. “He cares about the country, his family and Church. He has made 1,000 prayer books.”

Hopkins has a small, simple publishing operation at his house. Sitting at his dining room table, he hand-makes his 6½-by 4½-inch, 36-page books, which feature the Immaculate Conception image on the front cover. The books contain pages with Mary images, the mysteries of the rosary and various prayers.  “I wanted to make 1,000 prayer books,” Hopkins said. “I asked Mary for her help. I have made 1,075. I make three books a day.”

Hopkins is often seen on St. Joseph Parish grounds wearing a cap with the USS Franklin logo and toting his small prayer books, which he gives to people he meets. He also has photos from those military days, a picture of the 870-foot USS Franklin and plenty of war stories.

Hopkins suffered a stroke and is a little slow, using a cane to get around, but he is quickly turning out prayer books and continues to be a man of strong faith eternally grateful to God for the blessing of life. He is also devoted to Mother Mary.

“The Blessed Mother has been so good to me,” Hopkins said. “I ask her for help.”