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All Guts, No Glory

What they lacked in strength, World War II escort carriers made up in numbers...and the perseverance of their crews.

The U.S. public had dubbed the escort carriers “baby flattops” and “jeep carriers”; the British called them “Woolworth carriers,” after the chain of American dime stores. The cookie-cutter qualities of mass production and the hurried schedule made the sailors assigned to the ships uncomfortable. At least one old salt complained that the escort carrier designation “CVE” stood for “combustible, vulnerable, and expendable.”

Kaiser launched his first escort carrier, the Casablanca, on April 5, 1943. The ship’s name was also bestowed on the class of CVEs that followed. The second, the Liscome Bay, came two weeks later. And by the end of the contract, Kaiser had delivered all 50—roughly one a week. Mindful of that record, and eyeing the carriers’ welded hulls, thin bulkheads, temperamental steam engines, and pell-mell construction schedules, skeptical sailors labeled them “Kaiser coffins.”

But the Liscome Bay’s officers and sailors had little time to dwell on possible shortcomings. A hasty shakedown cruise followed the carrier’s August 7, 1943 commissioning, but the pilots and their 28 Wildcats and Avengers did not embark until mid-October, and steamed for Pearl Harbor on the 22nd. There the crew received its first orders for combat—to provide air support for the Army’s invasion of Makin Atoll, a tiny island 100 miles north of Tarawa in the Gilbert chain, which lies about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

For four days, the Liscome Bay’s aircraft, joined by others from sister carriers the Coral Sea and the Corregidor, strafed and bombed Japanese positions on Makin. No enemy fighters challenged them, but, as the days passed, the Liscome Bay’s crew grew nervous. How long would their slow, thin-skinned carrier have to remain off Makin?

In the pre-dawn darkness of November 24, the crew’s worst fears were realized. A torpedo launched from the Japanese submarine I-175 smashed into the carrier’s aft starboard quarter and exploded in the worst possible place—a magazine in which nearly 70,000 pounds of bombs were stowed. A little over a mile away, the skipper of the battleship Mississippi watched in shock:

“The first indication of the hit was a bright quick flash of fire,” the captain wrote later, “followed within two or three seconds by a great explosion and towering mass of fire which seemed to engulf the ship and brilliantly illuminated the surrounding area. This column of fire rose to a height of several hundred feet carrying with it burning wreckage and fragments which showered down into the sea for several minutes on all sides. A second heavy explosion was seen and heard about twenty seconds after the first…. When the cloud of fire lifted from the ship she was seen to be a blazing wreck with fires raging throughout her structure.”

Ensign Selden N. May, one of VC-39’s Wildcat pilots, was asleep in an upper bunk when the torpedo hit. The blast knocked him onto the steel deck. “I was stunned,” May recalled in a survivor’s statement, “and woke up when [men] started running through my room. I slept in the raw, but I grabbed my life preserver and started running to find a way off the ship. There were continuous explosions. I finally climbed through a hole in the port antiaircraft [guns’ ammunition] clip room onto the port catwalk. The ship was listing about thirty degrees to the starboard. I saw two men with a rubber raft just below me [and] I went down the rope and joined them.”

All along the flight deck, on the catwalks, and through holes blown in the side of the ship, men slipped down lines or simply jumped into the dark sea to escape the spreading conflagration. Twenty-three minutes after the torpedo strike, the Liscome Bay sank, along with 644 men. Among those lost was Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller, the first black sailor to receive the Navy’s highest award for heroism. During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller had been a mess attendant aboard the battleship West Virginia, and his actions that day—firing an anti-aircraft machine gun he had never been trained to use, plus moving his wounded captain and shipmates out of harm’s way—earned him the Navy Cross.

The Liscome Bay’s skipper, Captain Irving D. Wiltsie, last seen scouring the ship for survivors, also went down with the ship.

The same day that the Liscome Bay sank in the Pacific, the Block Island, a Bogue-class escort carrier converted from a merchant ship hull, stood out of Norfolk on an assignment that demonstrated the versatility of the baby flattops. Serving as the nucleus of an anti-submarine hunter-killer group (usually consisting of a CVE and four or five destroyers and/or destroyer escorts), the Block Island was tasked with destroying German U-boats in the Atlantic. The pilots newly assigned to the ship, the VC-55 squadron, had claimed their first enemy sub a month earlier.

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