All Guts, No Glory
What they lacked in strength, World War II escort carriers made up in numbers...and the perseverance of their crews.
- By James L. Noles, Jr
- Air & Space magazine, July 2004
Naval Institute Photo Archive
(Page 2 of 6)
But the increasing number of naval operations demanded more escort carriers. In 1943, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser secured a contract to build 50 carriers over the course of a year—a seemingly impossible feat. Kaiser’s 500-foot-long CVEs would be just over half the length of the Essex-class fleet carriers and, with a top speed of 18 knots (21 mph), would be only half as fast. The Navy intended these warships, the first escort carriers designed from the keel up, to escort convoys, hunt U-boats in the Atlantic, and provide close air support for Allied invasion troops in the Pacific. But how would such small, slow ships fare when they sailed into battle?
As far as Kaiser was concerned, that was the Navy’s problem. “Eighteen or more by ’44,” his shipyards pledged. Kaiser was already cranking out cargo-carrying Liberty ships in under 60 days each. He applied the same techniques to his escort carriers, assembling much of each ship from prefabricated sections.
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.”