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 3 of 6)
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.
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.”