Franklin County has sired many a patriot and one of these was William Ellis Van Vleet.
Born in Apalachicola to William and Florida Van Vleet on Oct. 28, 1924, he entered the world with a twin sister, Erris.
His friends and family called him “Buddy.” He was by all accounts an all-American boy, who loved boating and fishing, excelled at sports and made friends easily.
His parents kept every one of his Sunday School graduation certificates from the First Baptist Church where their younger son, Louis, is still a devout member. The diplomas are tucked away with Buddy’s other things in a wooden trunk.
As soon as he was old enough, Buddy began shrimping with his father, when not in school. Sometimes they took along Louis, who was four years younger.
Louis said he has often wondered what it would have been like to grow up with a brother. He has happy memories of Buddy’s kindness.
“He was a good brother,” said Van Vleet. “One time, when I was little, I had gone down to the Dixie Theatre. It cost a dime to get in. I got up to the window and found out I had lost my dime. My brother stepped up and put one down for me. I never forgot that.”
And Buddy is not forgotten. A shelf in the Van Vleet living room displays his pictures, and a handful of special treasures. His trunk, in a cozy bedroom, is filled with his things as if he might still return to claim them.
Like so many of his members of the “Greatest Generation,” Buddy volunteered in 1943 and at age 18 became a Marine. His Marine handbook remains in the trunk of his belongings.
After training, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier, USS Franklin. Nicknamed "Big Ben," the Franklin was one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built for the Navy during World War II. She was 872 feet long and 147 feet wide with a crew of more than 2,000. She carried 100 aircraft.
Aboard the Franklin, Buddy traveled to the Pacific, crossing the international dateline on June 23, 1944 and the equator on Sept. 20.
The Franklin participated in numerous battles from July through October 1944. On Oct. 27, she was hit by a suicide bomber killing 56 crew members and wounding 60.
The wrecked plane in two sections was shoved into the water off opposite sides of the ship. The Franklin was so badly damaged she returned to Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs.
Buddy, who was on his gun mount during the fatal battle, was unhurt, but his cabin was burned. He had to borrow clothes for the return trip to the US. While the Franklin was being repaired, Buddy was able to return to Apalachicola for a visit with his family.
“He had a week off. It was the last time we was all here together,” recalled Van Vleet.
Buddy, who had never been a lady’s man, joked with his mother that he might bring home a bride from the Philippines.
He told his young brother, “Anybody’s ever been in a war they’ll never forget it.”
He gave Louis what must have been a tremendous treasure to a boy in his early teens, a piece of the fuselage from the kamikaze that crashed into the Franklin.
After Buddy returned to the aircraft carrier, his mother told Louis that Buddy believed he would never return home again. “She said she could read it on him,” said Van Vleet.
The telegram that every soldier’s family dreads arrived on April 10, 1945.
On March 19, the Franklin maneuvered closer to the Japanese mainland than any other US carrier during the war. She was struck by two armor-piercing bombs causing severe damage and triggering explosions of stored ammunition and rockets. She lay dead in the water; many of the crew were killed or blown overboard.
Initially, 724 were listed as dead or missing but later the toll of the dead was raised to more than 800.
Buddy was among the missing. “It like to killed Mama,” said Van Vleet.
When the telegram came, word spread fast. Dr. Weems, the family physician, was across town but he told the people he was with, “I have to go now. Mrs. Van Vleet will need me.”
There was some question about where Buddy had been at the time of the attack. Many of the young men killed had been in the chow line.
Ellsworth Taylor, who served on the Franklin with Buddy, wrote the Van Vleet family, that their son “was one any mother would be proud to call her son. He was not killed in the chow line. He was on the second deck and there was a big explosion. It’s very hard to tell a mother that her son is dead but I really believe he is. If your boy died, he didn’t suffer as the boys never knew what hit them. Your boy lived a very clean life as we used to go on liberty together and I believe he was ready to meet God.”
Buddy’s remains were never returned home. In August, 1945, his effects were returned by parcel post.
Included in the package were four books, a box containing six handkerchiefs, a collar stay, an envelope of photographs, a bundle of letters, a pipe, a bathing suit, a sewing kit and four bath towels. Most of these items remain in the trunk at the Van Vleet home.
In March 1946, the Van Vleets received an official “declaration of presumptive death” from the Navy. Florida Van Vleet arranged for a memorial service and purchased a monument with the US Marine Corps insignia that can still be seen in Magnolia Cemetery.
The family continued to inquire after their lost boy. “My mother wrote to people about him and she looked for him to come home for another 10 years,” said Louis.
Buddy received a posthumous Purple Heart. The family received a section of plank from the Franklin from the Naval Historical Center in Washington D.C. On it Louis mounted the bit of fuselage his brother brought him in 1944.
After Buddy enlisted, the Van Vleet family saved every letter from the son and every memento of his wartime travels. His brother, Louis, still treasures these keepsakes of an American hero.
Van Vleet said he hopes to eventually donate his brother’s effects to the Camp Gordon Johnston Museum in Carrabelle so they can eventually be preserved for future generations.