History of the CVE 21

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Sinking

After arriving in the area the Block Island picked up a radar contact which turned out to be veteran German submarine U-66 which had sunk over 200,000 tons of Allied shipping in its three years of attack patrols. Captain Seehausen of the U-66 successfully evaded the Block Island task group for several days. On 5 May 1944 the Block Island picked up the sub only 5,000 yards off starboard, maneuvering for an attack on the carrier. The Block Island made an emergency turn at flank speed with Captain Hughes sending the Buckley to investigate.

Only a few hours later at 0330 on 6 May 1944, pilot Jimmie Sellars, with a nickname of “Geronimo”, flying a stripped-down TBM, followed up a radar contact and found U-66 on the surface in bright moonlight. Captain Seehausen kept U-66 on the surface, reporting to Brest, France while keeping the TBM at a distance by firing AA. Sellars stayed on station until the Buckley could attack. At one point he dived his unarmed TBM directly at the sub emptying his Colt 45 into the conning tower!

When the Buckley was within 4,000 yards the sub opened up with a torpedo. DE 51 Buckley returned fire from her 3” guns at about 2,000 yards. The Buckley turned sharply to avoid a second torpedo. The two ships were now side by side firing on each other.
The Buckley then did a hard right rudder and rammed the submarine. The Buckley Captain then gave an American order that had not been heard since the earliest days of our country, “Stand by to repel boarders”. In the next few minutes the two crews were engaged in hand to hand combat that sometimes involved just fists. DE 51 Buckley backed off and U-66 veered into her and rolled to a 60 degree angle. Quick thinking men aboard the Buckley threw hand grenades down the open hatch of the conning tower. U-66 still moved away and began a dive only to suffer severe explosions. Buckley began searching for survivors but only four officers ( no captain ) were found. The photo at right shows DE 51 Buckley’s bow bent and in for repairs following the ramming of U-66. USS Buckley Captain, LCDR Brent Maxwell Abel USNR received the Navy Cross for his actions in the encounter with U-66.

Block Island remained in the area with the captured Germans until 13 May 1944 when relieved by CVE 9 Bogue. CVE 21 reached Casablanca 18 May 1944. The re-supplied carrier was again underway on 23 May 1944 and back in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands. On 28 May 1944 the Block Island’s search TBMs picked up a radar contact and then lost it. It was U-549, a 750 ton type IXc U-Boat on its very first patrol. Another contact was made at 0255 on 29 May 1944 but it disappeared before ordinance could be dropped. As Block Island continued its search over the next hours the U-Boat continued to evade the hunter.

As evening arrived a periscope broke the surface with the Block Island directly ahead.
At 2013 the first U-549 torpedo slammed into the bow area.  About four seconds after the first, a second torpedo hit the stern penetrating an oil tank and ordinance magazine. The photo at left shows CVE 21 after the first and second torpedo hit. CVE 21 was dead in the water as the hunter had become the hunted. A third torpedo struck at 2023 finishing off the Block Island. Captain Hughes gave the order to prepare to abandon ship.
DE 686 Eugene E. Elmore sighted a periscope and started an attack with depth charges. Crewmen standing on the Block Island’s flight deck started cheering when they saw oil and smoke coming from near the Barr after it sent out depth charges. What they did not know was a fourth U-549 torpedo ( in the sequence it is believed that torpedos #1, #2 hit CVE 21 followed by #3 into the Barr and #4 into CVE 21 ) had hit the Barr near the stern causing 28 deaths and many injuries. Many believe the torpedo was intended for the Block Island as Barr moved into position to protect the carrier.
The damage from the torpedo to DE 576 Barr is shown in the photo at right.

With the Block Island’s fate now sealed, Captain Hughes gave the order to abandon ship starting from the forward starboard side. Life rafts were cut loose and even some rafts on TBMs were thrown into the water. Most men descended down ropes into the water from the starboard or lee side so they could drift way from the ship. By 2100 most of the crew were in the water and began gathering around rafts.

Captain Hughes kept a small group on board including men who were trying to free a man whose leg was trapped. After an hour of using an acetylene torch to no avail, the ship’s surgeon removed the leg only to have the man die a short time later. Six other men who had lost their lives remained on board. Captain Hughes ordered all remaining personnel off CVE 21 at 2140.

DE 575 Ahrens stopped engines and began picking up survivors. With its engines quiet it picked up sonar noise from U-549. Captain Harris of the Ahrens radioed the Eugene E. Elmore immediately. Hedgehogs (ant-submarine mortars) from DE 686 Eugene E. Elmore struck U-549 at 2127 causing a large explosion audible to ships monitoring in the area and sending the sub crew to the bottom of the sea. The Robert I. Paine picked up additional survivors as the Block Island began to sink. At 2155 the Block Island slipped below the surface followed by a large shock as ordnance magazines exploded. The Ahrens was nearly lifted from the sea as a result and many of the CVE 21 survivors thought they had been torpedoed.

Several crewmen of CVE 21 remember that at the time the submarine was spotted some of the Block Island gun crews were still at their battle stations. Word was passed for the 5” gun on the fantail  to train on the area where the periscope was
spotted. This gun crew answered that it was impossible for them to train on the periscope because the carrier
was so low in the water that any shots they could take would strike the underside of the flight deck. The orders
then were for the gun crew to abandon ship as ordered.


Everyone who went over the side of the Block Island into the sea survived, a total 674 men crowded every space on the Ahrens and 277 were crammed aboard the Paine. Unfortunately, of the six pilots in the air at the time of the sinking only two were able to reach Las Palmas, the other four were never found.

The next morning the destroyer escorts with the survivors and the Barr in tow made for Casablanca. They arrived 1 Jun 1944 and were issued Army khakis in an effort to keep the news of the sinking from German spies. Photos at left and right show crew in Casablanca following rescue. On 8 Jun 1944 personnel were allowed to cable home with news of the Block Island. The crew was loaded onto three escort carriers, CVE 59 USS Mission Bay,  CVE 69 USS Kasaan Bay, and CVE 72 USS Tulagi and transported home for 30 days survivors’ leave.
During this time Captain Hughes began an intensive campaign to keep his crew together to serve on a new Block Island. He was very proud of his crew and their efforts during combat operations. He believed that they would make an excellent, veteran crew for a new ship. The rest of the story continues with the history of CVE 106, the second USS Block Island.

The Memories link on this website has a number of stories from the actual survivors of the sinking.

Unfortunately a number of shipmates did not arrive in Casablanca as survivors. By clicking this link you can visit our In Memoriam page.




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References:

CDR Roy L. Swift with Robert J Cressman(1986, Winter). The Tale of Two Block Islands., The Hook, 22-39

Dictionary of American Fighting Ships, www.history.navy.mil/danfs/index.html

Naval Historical Foundation Photographic Service. Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC.

Y’Blood, William(1983). Hunter-Killer: U.S. Escort Carriers in the Battle of the Atlantic. USA:Naval Institute Press.

James L. Noles, Jr. (July 1, 2004). All Guts, No Glory., Air & Space Magazine

USS Block Island Association. CHIPS newsletters, vol. 1-23



 

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