History of the CVE 21

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 Original text by Jack Greer

Updated Fall 2009 by Jack Sprague


Summary

USS Block Island was the first of two escort carriers to serve in World War II. She was named after the island and surrounding sound located off the northeast coast of the United States that is
now part of the state of Rhode Island. The USS Block Island
was constructed by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation and launched on 6 June 1942 by Mrs. H. B. Hutchinson. The Block Island was commissioned on 8 March 1943, with Captain Logan C. Ramsey in command. Originally classified AVG-21, she became ACV-21 on 20 August 1942, and CVE 21 on 15 July 1943.

After two trips to Ireland and England during the summer of 1943 with cargos of aircraft, she operated as part of a task group designated to find and destroy German submarines.  During four combat cruises, the Block Island Task Group sank two submarines and shared credit for the sinking of two additional submarines. She earned the nickname of “FBI” for Fighting Block Island.

CVE 21 was hit by three torpedos off the Canary Islands on 29 May 1944 by German submarine U-549. The carrier was sunk with all but six crew members surviving. Of the six aircraft in the air at the time of the sinking only two airmen were recovered. Supporting destroyers sank the U-Boat and rescued the CVE 21 crew. The USS Block Island received two battle stars for her service.

Need for Escort Carriers

The need for escort carriers came early in the war when German submarines and aircraft were taking a devastating toll on convoy shipping. The heaviest losses occurred far out at sea where land-based aircraft could not operate. The Royal Navy had experimented with catapult-launched fighter planes from merchantmen; while this was somewhat successful in combating the U-boats, the number of planes that could be embarked was limited. Something else was needed, and in a hurry. Great Britain appealed to the United States for help.

No real specifications had been developed for escort carriers at that time, although the Navy had looked into converting merchant ships for this purpose before the war began. Thus, the quick solution was to build the early CVEs on merchant ship hulls (photo at left is CVE 21 entering Belfast Harbor with a cargo of P-47s).

The two Block Island aircraft carriers (CVE 21 and CVE 106) were unlike any other two ships by the same name.  CVE 21 (along with five other CVE’s)  was actually a C3 tanker hull being constructed to deliver oil to our allies in Europe. The scourge of the German submarine activities, taking the great toll of the convoys underway far out to sea, became a major priority to all of the allied nations due to the fact that the majority of the sinkings were taking place far out of range of any allied aircraft. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill got together and the United States entered into an agreement to convert several tanker hulls into small aircraft  carriers to be provided to Great Britain to roam the vast areas of the Atlantic Ocean seeking out these submarines.

The first few conversions were delivered to Great Britain in 1942. About this same time the German Navy was increasing their boldness and actually was sinking our ships as close as five miles from the US shoreline. Very little information of this activity was being given to the general public either in Great Britain or the United States. Both governments felt that this information would create panic in their countries. Because of this concern, the US Government saw fit to undertake and make “Baby Flattops” a vital part of the Atlantic Fleet. Six C3  tanker hulls being built in the Seattle area were converted to small aircraft carriers for the US Navy.

While the first few small carriers took five or six months to convert, by the time that the first Block Island was constructed the construction time was cut to less than three months. At that time it was taking as long as two years to construct the larger carriers. The best understanding of this undertaking is that eight small carriers carrying 20 planes each could be constructed in the same period of time it took to construct a larger carrier. The larger carriers could only handle as many as 90 aircraft with a total construction cost of around $120 million. Smaller carriers were built at a cost of $11 million each and carried 20 aircraft. The large carriers moved around at 30 knots compared with about 20 knots for small carriers. The smaller carriers became “the plan of the day” in the Pacific. While more escort and service ships were required to service the eight small carriers, the loss of a large carrier put  90 aircraft out of action and involved over 3000 crew members. The loss of a small carrier only put 20 aircraft out of service and involved around 900 crew members. However, when the large carrier was lost there was not another carrier available to save its aircraft. If a small carrier was lost, the aircraft then could land on and work from one of the other small carriers. When it came time to construct the second Block Island the construction time was cut to 79 days. Admiral Kincade advised congress that he could launch and retrieve 160 aircraft in half the time it would take the larger carriers to land and launch 90 planes.

Great Britain saw these small carriers as a major part of their fighting force. In fact there was a first Block Island (CVE 8), shown here, that was under construction; it was transferred to Great Britain as part of the “lend/lease" program to become the HMS Hunter. The United States saw the carriers as a major way to transport airplanes to Great Britain and North Africa and to return to the United States with damaged airplanes that could be repaired and returned to combat. The attacks on the convoys by German submarines continued to take a greater toll until the United States established Hunter/Killer task forces of escort carriers.

Documents were filed to obtain support from Congress to undertake the building of these small aircraft carriers.  The configuration used the space on both the hanger and flight decks to transport up to 77 combat ready aircraft and spare parts  to anywhere in the world. After the British lost two of their large carriers in an attempt to sink German battleships they began using the small carriers ( also known as "Jeep Carriers” or “baby flattops” ) for combat operations. The United States then realized that they could be more than just a useful transport tool.

Construction

The USS Block Island was converted from a C3 tanker hull (number 237) by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation to a Bogue class escort carrier (eighth of eleven Bogue class). She was launched 6 June 1942 and sponsored by Mrs. H. B. Hutchinson, wife of Commander Hutchinson and transferred to the U.S. Navy on 1 May 1942. The ship was commissioned on 8 March 1943 with Captain Logan C. Ramsey in command. The photo at left is of the nearly completed USS Block Island at Tacoma, WA. The
USS Block Island was originally designated as AVG-21, changed to ACV-21 on 20 August 1942, and CVE-21 on 15 July 1943.

The hull of CVE 21 was actually a Class C3 tanker hull designed to maintain balance of the liquid motion of fuel (oil and gasoline) as the ship passed through the rough motion of the sea. The original hulls were designed to withstand as much as a 40 degree list which required the entire hull to be "compartmentalized" to override the internal motion of the liquid fuel weighing as much as 10 pounds per gallon ( this meant contending with over 15 thousand tons of sloshing liquid ). Construction required that the 5’ x 2’ elliptical openings between compartments be laterally supported and very strong. The openings were from the aft end of the ship all the way to the bow. Between decks were hatches that could be closed down to separate the deck. These openings, in the case of a carrier, then become compartments of open spaces where the fuel normally was housed. Several compartments were left intact to provide for the fuel storage the carrier will need as well as the escort ships. Others are left intact for ammunition, bombs, torpedoes and depth charge storage and they become what are called magazines.


This configuration provided four or five sealed decks and many open spaces that were used for quarters, storage, machinery and equipment housing. Going up and down between decks required the opening and closing of hatch
es; moving forward and aft, the openings become passage ways.


The hull design was quite different from the escort carriers built by Kaiser which were designed for carriers from the keel up with operational needs in mind. Escort carriers that were "designed from top to bottom" when sunk or badly damaged, lost hundreds of their crew members during World War II. Not so with CVE 21; the first USS Block Island had a C3 hull design. Photo at right is the CVE 21 starting sea trials after completion in Tacoma, WA.




 

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