EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of a two-part series based on the World War II diary of Arthur Melvin French, a Chelsea native who died soon after moving to Foxboro in 1958. He was the older brother of William French, who lived on Chestnut Street for nearly six decades before moving to Plainville three years ago.
By the time U.S. forces had secured the islands of Saipan, Tinian and Guam by mid-August 1944, Arthur Melvin “Mel” French had already seen his share of naval warfare.
The 19-year-old Chelsea native had been serving aboard the USS Lexington since the previous October — and had recorded his experiences in a remarkable wartime diary recently shared by his younger brother, longtime Foxboro resident William French.
The fragile pages provide a first-person account of the U.S. Navy’s celebrated “island-hopping” campaign during World War II — particularly the climactic end stage of the Pacific War — from the perspective of an ordinary deckhand more concerned with staying alive than grand strategy.
Securing these three strategic islands in the Marianas Archipelago was a pivotal stepping stone on route to defeating the Japanese empire. Saipan and Tinian, in particular, provided necessary airbases for the protracted land-based bombing campaign which ultimately sealed the fate of Japan’s aspirations in the South Pacific and beyond.
The Lexington played a central role in the historic series of actions, which showcased the emerging doctrine of carrier-based power and in so doing rewrote the rules of naval engagement. “Lady Lex,” as the ship was affectionately known, served as the flagship of Vice Admiral Mark Mitscher, commander of Task Force 58, the Navy’s fast carrier force operating in the South Pacific.
For several months following the capture of Saipan, Tinian and Guam, the Lexington was engaged in a series of attacks on Mindanao, the Manila area and shipping lanes on the west coast of Luzon — all in preparation for an upcoming amphibious assault on Leyte in the Philippines.
In keeping with this objective, the Lexington task group attacked Okinawa on Oct. 10 and Formosa two days later to destroy bases from which enemy counterattacks to the Philippine offensive might be launched.
Although French’s diary entries grew sporadic during this period, they still provide insight on ship-board life in a combat theater — an experience shared by scores of American servicemen thousands of miles from home.
Sept. 9, 1944: “First carrier raid on the Philippines. Hit Mindanao and crossed the deepest-known sink in the world at 59,000 fathoms.”
Sept. 10, 1944: “Big boss came aboard today. There has been a change in plans.”
Sept. 13, 1944: “One bogey bombed us before daylight and got away. This month makes seven months without setting foot on dry soil, not seeing a girl.”
Weeks later, French commented on a Japanese radio broadcast announcing the Lexington had been sunk — one of several occasions the fallacious assertion was made by Japanese propagandists.
Oct. 15, 1944: “We got word from Tokyo Rose saying that they sunk 17 flattops and the one that had Mitscher, the flagship of the fleet, was also sunk. She said that 41 warships were sunk. Well, there must be some mistake, because from where I sit now I can see Mitscher and I don’t think the ship I am on is at the bottom.”
Death from above
Like the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Battle of Leyte Gulf stemmed from Japan’s desperate attempt to counter U.S. troop landings — in this case Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s long-promised return to the Philippines. The largest naval battle of the war, it consisted of four major engagements and a series of clashes which lasted into early November.
Leyte Gulf was noteworthy for yet another reason: It was the first battle in which Japanese aircraft carried out organized kamikaze attacks.
Oct. 20, 1944: “Landed troops in the Philippines. Damage not known yet.”
Oct. 24, 1944: “Under dive bomber attack all day — two near-misses scored on this ship. We do not know as yet how many the ship got but I do know we shot the hell out of them. The U.S.S. Princeton was hit by a bomb and later scuttled. We just got word that the Jap fleet is not far off.”
Oct. 25, 1944: Met Jap fleet. One hell of a battle east of the Philippines.”
Oct. 26, 1944: “Took on 150 survivors from the Princeton. Our chow is pretty near gone.”
Oct. 27, 1944: “Just got the final word on the battle with Jap fleet. Three carriers, two battleships, two cruisers. So far today we have had only one bogey and he was splashed and the day is not over yet. The past five days of hell will never be known to the people back home. I could never write it all if I lived to be 100 years old.”
In fact, aircraft from the Lexington had helped to sink the Musashi, one of Japan’s super-battleships; joined with squadrons from the Essex to sink the carrier Chitose; and alone sank the carrier Zuikaku.
During mop-up operations, torpedo bombers from the Lexington also sank the heavy cruiser Nachi while off Luzon on Nov. 5.
Later that same day, sailors aboard the Lexington absorbed their first successful kamikaze attack, with an enemy plane exploding into the ship’s superstructure. Although normal flight operations were resumed within a half-hour, the incident remained especially harrowing for eyewitnesses — including Mel French.
Nov. 5, 1944: “As we went into GQ two bogeys made a run on the ship. We shot one down. The second one kept coming and was hit many times. He made a dive and hit [us]. We have 100-150 men wounded bad and 50-70 dead. The men’s bodies and blood is all over the place.
“Tonight we still have parts of bodies lying all over the deck. Men are hurt plenty bad. They are calling for blood donations. Many of my buddies were among those killed. I just hope and pray to God that another one of them don’t try the same thing.”
Nov. 6, 1944: “Buried 22 last night and 24 this morning. We have 30 men missing, 50 dead and well over 150 wounded.”
The Lexington spent much of the next month making repairs while at anchorage in Ulithi, a staging area in the Caroline Islands, before departing in mid-December and resuming offensive operations. According to French’s diary, the task force struck Luzon and landed troops on Mindanao before returning to Ulithi on Christmas Eve.
After several weeks of raiding in the South China Sea, planes from Lady Lex bombed airfields near Tokyo on Feb. 16, stifling opposition to the Iwo Jima landings three days later. Shortly thereafter, the carrier sailed for the West Coast and a major overhaul.
Feb. 18, 1944: “Today was the ship’s birthday — two years old. So far we have covered 146,000 miles.”
Feb. 19, 1945: “Hit Iwo Jima. Also landed troops.”
Feb. 25, 1945: “Hit Tokyo. Bad storm over target. Results not known.”
Afterwards, the Lexington provisioned at Ulithi then headed back to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, stopping first at Pearl Harbor.
March 7, 1945: “Underway for home after 13 months away from the States.”
March 17, 1945: “Tied up at Pearl Harbor after 1 year and 14 days.”
March 20, 1945: “Left Pearl Harbor for the States.”
French’s diary concludes with a final entry.
March 27, 1945: “Arrived in U.S. after 13 months.”
This wasn’t the end of Mel French’s wartime service, however. According to his discharge papers, French was transferred to the USS Ticonderoga, which also had been at the Puget Sound Navy Yard since Feb. 15 to repair damage sustained in a Jan. 21 kamikaze attack.
As a result, neither the Ticonderoga nor the Lexington participated in the invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945, but returned to the South Pacific that May in anticipation of a climactic invasion of the Japanese homeland rendered superfluous by the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Mel French was formally discharged on Dec. 2, 1945 — three months to the day after the Japanese surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri. He received a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars for valor, but apparently never a Purple Heart for the wounds which contributed to his death at such a young age.
According to his brother, William French, Mel returned home to a job in the Chelsea public works department, and later was hired as a corrections officer — first at the old Charlestown jail and subsequently at Walpole State Prison.
In fact, it was the transfer to Walpole that prompted the Navy veteran — by then married — to follow his younger brother to Foxboro, where he purchased a house at what is now 8 Ledgeville Road in Foxboro in April 1958.
According to Norfolk County land records, Arthur M. and Virginia French obtained a mortgage for $11,300 from Natick Federal Savings & Loan. The monthly installments were $62.49
It was a brief, though happy, domestic arrangement — with Mel and Virginia socializing regularly with William and his wife, Adele, who had purchased their own home on Pine Acres Road.
But time was fleeting for Melvin. That fall he took ill suddenly and was admitted to the Chelsea Soldier’s Home, where he was diagnosed with a kidney infection — ostensibly stemming from a war-time shrapnel wound.
He died Nov. 29, 1958, just eight months after buying the Ledgeville Road house and less than 13 years after being discharged from the Navy.
Land court records show the Ledgeville Road house was foreclosed on the following September and Virginia later remarried, William French said.
William said he was moved to share Mel’s diary after Foxboro formally adopted the designation as a “Purple Heart Town” last summer, adding that he always questioned why his brother had not been awarded a Purple Heart, and hoped his diary might elicit information about the mystery.
In addition, French said he wanted to honor the memory of a sibling who served his country with honor, witnessed history in the making while still a teenager, then returned home to die in his early 30s.
“I was devastated when he died,” William French reflected. “He was my hero.”