All Guts, No Glory

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

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Snyder’s buddy Smoke Bennett was among the survivors of the Gambier Bay.

Meanwhile, the CVE pilots’ swarming attacks, coupled with bold maneuvers by Sprague’s destroyers and destroyer escorts, had thrown Kurita into disarray. Demoralized after losing three cruisers to the outgunned Americans, he withdrew his ships. Thus ended the so-called Battle off Samar, which naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison later christened “the most remarkable of the Pacific war.”

The naval actions around the Philippines that October spelled the end of the Imperial Japanese Navy as a mortal threat to the U.S. fleet. But the advent of Japan’s suicidal kamikazes, which claimed the St. Lo the day after Taffy 3’s ordeal, demanded the continued attention of the escort carriers and their pilots. So did future amphibious assaults.

On May 3, 1945, a brand-new escort carrier, again christened the Block Island, arrived off Okinawa. It was one of the new Commencement Bay-class escort carriers: larger, faster, and sturdier than Kaiser’s ships. In command was Captain Francis M. Hughes, who had skippered the original Block Island, lost to the U-549 a year earlier, and among the crew were many survivors of the sinking. Despite the connection to the past, the new Block Island represented a step toward the escort carriers’ future: Rather than U.S. Navy aviators, the CVE carried the first Marine Corps carrier air group, MCVG-1, flying Avengers and F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcat fighters. This concept was born of the Corps’ longstanding desire for its own pilots to support the leathernecks battling the Japanese on such islands as Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

Major R. Bruce Porter initially served as the executive officer of the Block Island’s fighter squadron, VMF-511. Before the war was over, Porter would become an ace and earn acclaim as one of the Marine Corps’ most accomplished night fighter pilots. But even he never took night landings on the escort carrier lightly. “I logged 43 night landings,” Porter says, “but I didn’t do any of them by myself. The good Lord was helping me on every one.”

Marines like Porter, flying off the Block Island and three other CVEs, joined the Navy’s aviators to provide critical air support during the battle for Okinawa. Later, in the Korean War, escort carriers such as the Sicily, Rendova, Bairoko, and Badoeng Strait supported United Nations forces. Nevertheless, the force reductions after World War II resulted in the end of the escort carriers.

In 1947 the Navy’s Project 27A focused on modernizing Essex-class carriers to enable them to handle larger, heavier jets, capable of delivering nuclear weapons and launching guided missiles. In this future, escort carriers had no role. One by one the Navy sold them off as scrap metal. Today the Navy’s fleet of small-deck Wasp- and Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships, launching Marine aviators in SuperCobra helicopter gunships and AV-88 Harrier vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing “jump jets,” offers the most vivid reminder of the escort carriers’ heyday in the Pacific, when scarcely an amphibious landing was made without Wildcats and Avengers launched from a CVE screaming overhead.

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