Seaman Second Class James Herley Fleenor
On the night of December 7, 1941, two energetic boys sat comfortably on their living room floor playing with toy soldiers and listening to music reverberating in the background from the family radio. Suddenly, an intense voice came through the worn speakers announcingJapan’s heinous attack onPearl Harbor. The date that would live in infamy would ultimately change this family forever.
One of the two boys was James Herley Fleenor, who was not unlike many teenage boys at the outbreak of World War II. Residing in Bristol,Virginia, James and many of his friends were jumping at the chance to join the armed forces and destroy the Axis powers. James would come home every day during his senior year of high school with Navy consent papers for his parents to sign and every day his mother would tear them up and throw them in the trash. Finally, his persistence paid off and on October 11, 1943, at 17 years of age, James was sworn into the United States Navy and rose to the rank of Seaman Second Class.
After graduating from basic training in November 1943, James began his training for large ships, became a gunner, and was set aboard an Essexclass aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin. In July 1944, the Franklin was fully manned and set off to the Pacific. The trip was not uneventful for long. Throughout the summer and into the fall of 1944, the Franklin was attacked by Japanese suicide planes. One such plane hit the deck and dropped down the elevator shaft which inflicted incredible damage. Sixty-nine men were lost as well as countless wounded. Fortunately, James was unharmed and was given furlough that December while the ship was being repaired. His younger brother, Bud Fleenor, remembers James’ final trip home. “He was an entirely different person….he aged so much in one year,” Bud said. One can only imagine the horrors he witnessed at such a young age.
Returning back to the Franklin after days at home would have been hard for anyone, but there was a war to win. James and the rest of the crew set off to prepare for the invasion of Okinawa. On March 19, 1945, all plans changed indefinitely. Around 6:55AM, the Franklin started launching over 30 planes to start bombing the Japanese islands. Only six planes made their way off the flight deck when they received word from a neighboring ship, the USS Hancock, that Japanese planes were sighted heading straight towards the Franklin. At 7:03AM, a Japanese plane came within 50 feet above the ship and released two 500 pound bombs. The first landed on the deck of the ship, and the second went straight down to the third deck. Both bombs exploded, engulfing the ship in flames and vaporizing those close to the explosion. Over 800 were killed and countless others were wounded. Of the 2,544 men aboard the initial sailing of the vessel, only 704 returned home. Regrettably, James was not one of the 704 who would return. Bud reminisces about the day his family was told the horrible news. His father was out of town on business, he and his sister were at school, and his mother was alone in the house when a yellow cab pulled up in front and the driver presented her with the telegram. His family never fully recovered from James’ death, but knows that he gave his life to preserve our freedoms. Along with the Purple Heart, James was awarded the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic/Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.
The Virginia War Memorial would like to give a special thanks to Bud Fleenor, a dedicated volunteer at the Memorial, for sharing his brother’s story. James is a true hero and will always be remembered within the glass and stone walls of the Shrine of Memory.