History of the CVE 21

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Trials & Transport Operations

Block Island’s crew included more than 50 sailors who came from CV 2 USS Lexington which had been lost at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, 1943. A number of other men had carrier experience; however, most of the 890 sailor complement had never been to sea.

Following 10 days of trials near Puget Sound, the Block Island sailed to San Fra
ncisco where it took on its first air squadron ( originally named Composite Squadron 25 and renamed later to VC-6) of FM-1 Wildcats and TBF-1 Avengers. With destroyer escort DD 496 McCook she sailed to Norfolk, VA, arriving 6 Jun 1943. Her first operational cruise was to transport a cargo of P-47 Thunderbolts. The planes were loaded at Staten Island on 8 Jul 1943. She left on 17 Jul 1943 with a convoy of eight troopships and escorts, CVE 21 Block Island was detached from the convoy on 26 Jul 1943 and tied up at Siddenham Airport, near Belfast, Ireland.  The escort carrier left Belfast on 3 Aug 1943 and reached New York eight days later to take on a second load of P-47s.

A second transport cruise left Staten Island on 21 Aug 1943, CVE 21 proceeded with three escorts -- the old destroyers DD 154 Ellis , DD 160 Herbert and DD 152 Du Pont -- and touched briefly at Argentia, Newfoundland en route, reaching Siddenham Airport on 31 Aug 1943. On 12 Sep 1943, Block Island was back in Norfolk. The photo at above left shows the CVE 21 hanger deck full of partially assembled P-47s. A collision with DD 666 Black occurred after the return to Norfolk, VA and caused a two week repair, no injuries were recorded.

 

Combat Operations

Two of the first “baby flattops” of the US Navy were given the duty of seeking out the German submarines. Since the major sea wars were taking place in the Pacific Ocean against the Japanese, the larger fighting ships were assigned to the Pacific. Back in the early 1940’s President Roosevelt had gone far beyond his congressional authority and sent Great Britain some 25 or 30 small destroyers that we called “Destroyer Escorts” which were much like the frigates that Great Britain had. Great Britain used these ships as escorts for their small carriers with much success.

To make up a “task force” each of the two “baby flattops” were assigned three destroyer escorts. The Captain of the escort carrier became the Task Force Commander.

The vast area assignment required that at least four escort ships work with the Block Island. The destroyer escorts could make depth charge attacks on the submarines that the aircraft from the Block Island spotted. This would leave two of the DEs available to cover landing and takeoff operations and to serve as protection for the carrier.

This hunter/killer activity meant that the task force would go about searching for days and weeks at a time without seeing another allied ship. Naval records show that the success of the action of these “baby flattops” played a great part in the demise of the German submarine force and contributed greatly to the ending of the war with Germany. Because of the large area of ocean the ships covered, depending on each other for assistance on an almost daily basis, a great comradeship and esprit de corps was created.

With the expanse of water between Europe and the United States in the Atlantic Ocean the task force could sustain itself for approximately 45 days with two refuelings and one re-supply service during the period, they left from US ports and searched the seas then arrived at foreign ports for re-supply and refueling before completing the mission and returning to the United States to obtain a new assignment. The circumstances in the Pacific were very different in that there were many supply bases on major and tiny islands scattered throughout the entire area. Refueling and re-supplying was also undertaken from tankers and supply ships in both the Atlantic and in the Pacific areas of operations. Doing this task in the open seas from ship to ship can be as dangerous as actual enemy operations. Naval records show that many ships were forced out of service from structural damage taken during these operations. 

Prior to the assignment of hunter/killer task forces to the Atlantic, German submarines sank hundreds of vessels without any real risk. Once escort carriers like the Block Island and her supporting destroyers were employed, the offensive was taken back from the Germans and the Battle of the Atlantic was on.

The first combat cruise occurred 15 Oct 1943 when the Block Island left Hampton Roads, VA escorted by the destroyers DD 230 Paul Jones, DD 218 Parrott, DD 213 Parker, and DD 222 Bulmer as Task Group 21.16 . The photo at left was taken on 15 Oct 1943.
The initial assignment was to escort convoy UGS-21. After two days the CVE 21 was ordered to an area north of the Azores to hunt a reported concentration of enemy U-Boats. After arriving in the area the task group immediately went into action. The group fired on the re-supply (referred to as a “milch cow”) submarine U-488  putting a hole in her conning tower but failing to sink or capture the boat.

Three days later Lt. Franklin M. Murray, in a TBM and Ens. Gerald L. Handshuh, in a F4F spotted two U-boats and attacked the U-220, which was to believed to have just finished laying mines off Newfoundland. They covered the U-boat's conning tower with machine gun fire and then dropped depth charges and bombs. Forty minutes after the attack the U-Boats exchanged transmissions and six hours later the commander of the U-256 reported hearing explosions in the area of the U-220. The sub was never located. Following re-supply in Casablanca the group continued searching and proceeded to Norfolk, VA arriving 25 Nov 1943.

During the next three weeks, the Block Island received a new squadron, VC-58. It had the same complement of 9 Wildcats and 12 Avengers. Most importantly, a new weapon in anti-submarine warfare was added to the arsenal, a 3.5 inch rocket with a case-hardened steel head.
The designers believed it could pierce the skin of a submarine on the surface or below the water to a depth of 50 feet. The Block Island would be the first to test the theory.


The second combat cruise left Hampton Roads, VA 15 Dec 1943 with the same destroyer escorts as the first combat cruise. Again, the initial assignment was to escort convoy UGS-27. Reassigned four days later, the task group headed for an area north of the Azores known as “The Black Pit of the Atlantic” because of the concentration of U-Boats. The crew had a sober Christmas Day as they heard that the destroyer DD 158 Leary, part of another task group in the area, had been sunk with a heavy loss of life. The task group engaged the enemy without success and sailed to Casablanca for re-supply. On 11 Jan 1944 two TBFs opened fire with rockets on U-758 forcing the U-Boat back to port at St. Nazaire with heavy damage. The photo at right is the rocket attack on U-758 by the Block Island’s Avenger aircraft. On 14 Jan 1944 a TBF spotted life rafts carrying 43 survivors of U-231 which had been sunk by the British the day before. The Bulmer and the Parrott picked them up and transferred them to the Block Island. The photo below is the Block Island and her task group arriving home on 3 Feb 1943.