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Medal of Honor Monday: Navy Cmdr. Donald A. Gary

As an officer in the USS Franklin's engineering department during World War II, Navy Cmdr. Donald Arthur Gary knew all the ins and outs of the aircraft carrier. That knowledge helped him save hundreds of men who were trapped when the ship was nearly destroyed by the Japanese. His fortitude and leadership earned him the Medal of Honor.

Gary was born July 23, 1903, in Findlay, Ohio, to parents Henry and Katherine Gary, who already had seven children, three of whom had passed away before he was born. His parents had one more boy after him, but that son also died at a young age. 

A man in dress uniform and cap poses for a photo.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald A. Gary, Medal of Honor recipient.
A man in dress uniform and cap poses for a photo.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald A. Gary
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Donald A. Gary, Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 230322-N-D0439-062

Gary attended one year of high school before enlisting in the Navy on Dec. 12, 1919, when he was 16 years old. In a speech he wrote later in life, Gary said he'd always wanted to be a fireman, so he joined the service to see the world and hopefully learn some skills that could help him find a job when he returned home, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. 

Gary initially received training in San Francisco before being transferred to the Philippines, where he served on a gunboat and then a survey ship. He later told the Los Angeles Times that he had no plans to turn the Navy into a career, but after six years of service, he decided he liked it enough to stay, reenlisting in February 1926.  

The young sailor worked in various positions and on several different ships over the next 15 years. He also married a woman named Dorothy, and they had a son, Kenneth.  

A large ship floats in water.
USS Franklin
The USS Franklin operates near the Mariana Islands, Aug. 1, 1944.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 440801-N-D0439-021Y

Gary was serving at the headquarters of the 3rd Naval District in New York City when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the U.S. entered World War II. He told the LA Times that he'd planned to retire after 20 years of service, but when that happened, he knew he had to stay the course.  

Fighting the Enemy 

For the next two years, Gary's duties were to ships responsible for monitoring coastal U.S. waters from Canada to Jacksonville, Florida, through November 1943, when he received a commission as a lieutenant junior grade. He spent about a year assigned to an office out of Ohio before joining the USS Franklin in December 1944 as it shipped out to fight the Japanese.  

By mid-March 1945, the Franklin was part of Task Force 58, which was carrying out a series of air attacks on the Japanese homeland in support of the invasion of Okinawa. Gary, who was 42 by then, was an engineering officer on the ship, which was about 50 miles off the southeast coast of Japan. 

Massive plumes of smoke rise from a ship on the water.
USS Franklin
The USS Franklin is covered in smoke and flames after being attacked by Japanese dive-bombers on March 19, 1945.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 450319-N-D0439-013Y

Shortly after sunrise on March 19, the Japanese struck back. The Franklin received a radio warning about incoming Japanese planes, but the overcast skies and cluttered air traffic kept crews from being able to see any foreign aircraft until it was too late. Three minutes after the warning came, the enemy dropped two 550-pound bombs on the vessel. 

Since aerial operations were in effect, the ship's flight deck had 31 fully fueled and armed aircraft, while more than a dozen more were ready to go in its hangar bay. The results were catastrophic. The bombs caused the planes' fuel and ordnance to explode, which completely destroyed part of the flight deck, the hangar and gallery deck spaces. According to the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, there were 126 secondary explosions of various kinds.  

A massive ship lists to starboard in waters as a few men on another ship watch.
USS Franklin
The aircraft carrier USS Franklin is seen on fire and listing after being hit by a Japanese air attack off the coast of Japan, March 19, 1945. This photograph was taken from the USS Santa Fe, which assisted the Franklin with firefighting and rescue work.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 450319-N-D0439-014Y

On top of that, flooding from those trying to fight the fires caused the ship to list heavily. The Franklin lost power, and sailors immediately began evacuating areas that were filling with smoke and heat. 

Gary was stationed on the third deck deep in the ship's belly when the explosions began. He quickly realized he was one of hundreds of men – including the ship's two remaining doctors who weren't killed by the blasts — who were stuck in a messing compartment that was filling with smoke.  

As the panic of the trapped men increased, Gary assured them he would find a way to get them out. One of those trapped men, Reon G. Hillegass Jr., told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper decades after the ordeal that "Gary was the only one who could have saved us. He had a blueprint of the huge ship in his head." 

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, Gary used an oxygen mask with a very limited supply of air to grope through the dark, debris-filled corridors. After wandering about 600 feet through mangled ducting and uptakes, he found a way out. Gary acquired another oxygen mask somewhere along the way and headed back to bring the other trapped men to freedom, despite the intense flames, flood waters and threats of more explosions.  

"We wet cloths and placed them over our faces to breathe through the smoke," Hillegass told the Virginian-Pilot. "It was so dark we couldn't see. Each man held the belt of the man in front of him as Gary led us away from the compartment." 

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The Virginian-Pilot article said Gary led them through a long hatchway into a  funnel-like exhaust duct that went from the bottom of the ship toward the top. The duct happened to have ladder rungs, so they were able to climb up and onto a catwalk just below the destroyed, flame-covered flight deck. 

Gary returned to the messing compartment three times, calmly leading large groups of men along that path through blankets of smoke until all of them – about 300 sailors – had made it to safety. 

They might have made it out of that compartment alive, but they weren't out of the woods yet, and Gary knew that. He continued to rally the men to organize themselves and fight the fires still plaguing the ship, including the blazing flight deck. His Medal of Honor citation said that, after determining two of the ship's firerooms were no longer operable, Gary went into the third fireroom "and directed the raising of steam in one boiler in the face of extreme difficulty and hazard."  

Gary's courage and leadership were inspiring, even though he remained modest about it throughout his life. In a 1950 LA Times interview, he said, "It was just a matter of knowing your ship, and I should have thought of the escape method sooner."  

Twisted, rusted metal makes up a ship deck as it enters the waters nearing massive skyscrapers.
USS Franklin
A view of the USS Franklin’s damaged flight deck as the debilitated carrier moved into New York Harbor circa April 28, 1945. The ship had just returned from the Pacific for repairs after being seriously damaged in battle off the Japanese coast on March 19, 1945.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 450428-N-D0439-031Y
Twisted, rusted metal from the damaged deck of a ship sinks stories below deck as it enters the waters nearing massive skyscrapers.
USS Franklin
The heavily damaged USS Franklin enters New York Harbor after returning from battle in the Pacific. The ship was bombed twice by the Japanese but managed to survive.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 450428-N-D0439-032Y

Other U.S. ships eventually came to the Franklin's aid to put out the fires and rescue the men who'd gone into the water. All told, around 800 men died or were missing, and about 300 more were wounded. 

The ship was towed until it was able to resume travel under its own power and get to Ulithi Atoll, where it received emergency repairs. It then sailed to Pearl Harbor and onto New York City for a full overhaul.  

The March 19 incident marked the fourth time the Franklin had been hit during the war. The damage it incurred that day led to it earning the title of being the most heavily damaged carrier in the war to survive.  

Officially Honored 

Gary received the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony on Jan. 23, 1946. Three other heroes received the medal that day: Army Sgt. John R. McKinney, Army 1st Lt. Daniel Lee and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Joseph O'Callahan, who was also on the Franklin. The distinction made O'Callahan the first Navy chaplain to earn the Medal of Honor. Crew members of the Franklin also earned 19 Navy Crosses, 22 Silver Stars and 116 Bronze Stars.  

Two men shake hands. One touches a medal on the other man’s neck.
Navy Lt. j.g. Donald A. Gary
President Harry S. Truman shakes hands with Navy Lt. j.g. Donald A. Gary as he presented him with the Medal of Honor, Jan. 23, 1946.
Photo By: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
VIRIN: 460123-O-D0439-012Y

About two months after the awards ceremony, Gary was promoted to lieutenant commander. He stayed with the Franklin until February 1947. Gary retired from active duty on June 1, 1950, and was advanced to the rank of commander thanks to his stellar service record. At 46, after having served on every type of vessel in naval service, he was ready to try civilian life for the first time. 

Gary, his wife and his son moved to a home they had built in Garden Grove, California. The retired sailor remained there for the rest of his life, working as a realtor and as the part-owner of a nursery, according to the LA Times.  

He also served as the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's national secretary from 1964 until April 9, 1977, when he died of lung cancer. Gary was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.  

In 1976, a year before his death, the Garden Grove City Council honored Gary by naming its Civic Center mall the Commander Donald A. Gary Bicentennial Mall, his LA Times obituary said. 

A ship moves through a sea.
USS Gary
The frigate USS Gary plows through the South China Sea while deployed to the Western Pacific, Jan. 31, 2007.
Photo By: Navy
VIRIN: 070131-N-D0439-051Y

On Nov. 17, 1984, the Navy commissioned the guided missile frigate USS Gary to celebrate the Medal of Honor recipient. It was put to work extensively for decades, remaining in use until its decommissioning on July 23, 2015.  

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.

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