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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.

Lieutenant Denny Moller was VC-55’s assistant engineering officer. Like all of the squadron’s pilots, he endured a demanding schedule of both day and night flying. The Block Island operated within a screen of four destroyer escorts, launching patrols of four aircraft. Each airplane took a quadrant and carved it into 30-degree slices—out, across, and then back in to the carrier. Because the pilots had to observe radio silence at night, they had to find their way back to the moving carrier by relying on dead reckoning—flying a compass heading for a calculated time and hoping to spot the carrier when the time was up.

“We would try to work out our navigation beforehand,” Moller explains, “so on takeoff, you always hated to see the flight deck crew holding up a chalkboard that said, ‘The course of the carrier will be so-and-so, the wind direction is so-and-so. Good luck!’ That meant you had to figure out a whole new set of navigational figures on the go. That wasn’t easy in a dark cockpit at night.”

On March 19, 1944, VC-55 claimed another German sub, the U-1059. But on May 29 near the Canary Islands, the Block Island’s prey turned hunter. As dusk fell, the U-549 slipped through the destroyer escort screen and launched three torpedoes into the carrier.

Moller dashed topside with a group of pilots from his squadron’s ready room. The torpedo strikes had put a massive fracture in the Block Island’s flight deck. Standing precariously on the listing deck, Moller soon heard the inevitable order: “Abandon ship.”

“I wasn’t much for swan dives from that height,” Moller says, “so we took off our shoes, tied them together by the laces, hung them around our necks, and slid down ropes into the water. Of course our shoes floated away immediately.”

Moller and his companions inflated their Mae West life jackets and soon found a cork float net. Before the night was over, the destroyer escort Ahrens plucked them from the chilly Atlantic. In contrast to the Liscome Bay, only six men were lost. After 30 days of survivor’s leave, Moller was back in action with a new hunter-killer group on board the Croatan.

Moller was not the only aviator seeking a shipboard home in the summer of 1944. In the Pacific, ensigns Ken Snyder and Darrell “Smoke” Bennett were looking for a carrier squadron. Finally, two slots opened up on escort carriers.

“We flipped for it,” Snyder recalls. “Smoke got Gambier Bay, and I got Kitkun Bay.”

Soon after, Snyder joined VC-5 in the Kitkun Bay as a Wildcat pilot. “Oh my gosh, they were solid little devils,” Snyder says, “but a little lively on their narrow landing gear. Still, it was a good plane. It could take an awful lot of punishment, and dish it out too.”

That summer in the Kitkun Bay was a busy one for Snyder and his comrades, flying in support of the bloody landings on Tinian, Guam, Anguar, and Peleliu as U.S. forces drew ever closer to the Philippines. With each invasion, the escort-carrier-based squadrons proved their mettle. Over Peleliu they disrupted a rare Japanese tank attack against a vulnerable U.S. Marine beachhead. Their finest hour, however, was yet to come.

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