LIEUTENANT JOSEPH CASTELLO DROPPED HIS FM-1 WILDCAT out of the morning sky and, with a waggle of his wings, lined up on the U.S. Navy Escort Carrier the Liscome Bay. One of 36 pilots practicing landings that October day in 1943, Castello was preparing to join U.S. Forces in trying to dislodge the Japanese from strongholds in the Solomon Islands.
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Perched on a platform off the stern, the landing signal officer raised his paddles and guided Castello in. Even the best landing was little more than a controlled crash on the largest fleet attack carriers, but on the much smaller deck of an escort carrier, the feat was even dicier. Everyone on the Liscome Bay’s flight deck and bridge tensely watched the fighter’s approach.
He’s coming in a bit too high, thought Jim Beasley, one of the ship’s quartermasters. Beasley was no aviator, but he knew a bolter coming when he saw one.
Castello hit the flight deck fast and hard, bouncing over the arresting wires. For a moment, the Wildcat tried to keep flying. Then it smashed back down. Its left landing gear was sheared off as the aircraft skidded across the deck. With a screech of metal, the mangled fighter disappeared over the starboard side and into the Pacific Ocean.
Beasley ran to the ship’s edge and saw Castello struggling in the cockpit. Before the pilot could squirm free, his Wildcat nosed over into the foaming water. Castello’s death on October 16 marked the Liscome Bay’s first casualty. “It left an unforgettable imprint on my mind,” Beasley wrote in an unpublished memoir 50 years later. “I had seen him kiss his wife and child goodbye on the dock in San Diego.”
Castello’s fellow Wildcat and TBF Avenger torpedo bomber pilots in Composite Squadron 39 (VC-39) were horrified. If an experienced pilot like the lieutenant could lose his life in a training accident within sight of the California coast, what chance did they stand when the shooting started? As fate would have it, not much of a chance at all. Seventy-seven pilots and crewmen of VC-39 crossed the Liscome Bay’s gangplank for the first time in San Diego. For over half of them, it would be a one-way trip.
The Liscome Bay set a grim record during the war—for the greatest loss of life in the sinking of a U.S. carrier—yet few people know about the ship. (More men died in a Japanese air attack on the Essex-class carrier Franklin, but that ship remained afloat.) I heard the Liscome Bay’s story only because I was doing research for a book that involved one of the survivors, but the more I looked into it, the more I was convinced that the history of the Liscome Bay should be told. The resulting book, Twenty-three Minutes to Eternity, was published last month by the University of Alabama Press. It joins a surprisingly small body of literature on the escort carriers, but I have found that these ships’ histories, individually and collectively, provide a perspective on World War II naval history that isn’t found in books on the larger attack carriers.
The escort carriers—formally “carrier vessel escorts,” or CVEs—were conceived as the solution to a problem President Franklin Roosevelt faced before the United States entered the war: Ships carrying supplies to Great Britain and the Soviet Union were being sunk in the Atlantic by German U-boats. Beginning in January 1941, Roosevelt pressured a hesitant Navy to convert merchant ships and oilers into light aircraft carriers capable of escorting the vulnerable convoys. It designated the converted merchant ships the Bogue class, after the first escort carrier commissioned from those conversions, and labeled the covered oilers the Cimmaron class. By the time these converted carriers entered the fray in 1943—carrying a typical load of 27 Wildcat fighters and TBF/M Avenger torpedo bombers—the U.S. Navy had begun to engage the Japanese in the southwest Pacific, and the war’s tide was turning slowly in the Allies’ favor.
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.