A long-overdue history of America's "forgotten flattop."
On November 24, 1943, a Japanese torpedo plunged into the starboard side of the American escort carrier USS Liscome Bay. The torpedo struck the thin-skinned carrier in the worst possible place the bomb storage area. The resulting explosion could be seen 16 miles away, literally ripping the Liscome Bay in half and killing 644 of her crew. In terms of lives lost, it was the costliest carrier sinking in United States naval history.
Liscome Bay's loss came on her first combat operation: the American invasion of the Gilbert Islands. Despite her short career, she touched a number of remarkable and famous lives. Doris Miller, the first black American sailor to win the Navy Cross, lost his life, as did Rear Admiral Henry Mullinax, one of the Navy's first "air admirals." John Crommelin was the senior officer to survive the sinking. Later in his career, Crommelin, a decorated naval aviator himself, sparked the famous Revolt of the Admirals, which helped save the role of naval aviation in America's Cold War military.
James Noles's account of the Liscome Bay and those who served aboard her is based on interviews with the ship's survivors and an unpublished memoir that the ship's pay officer made available to the author. This readable, compelling book pays homage to the crew by telling their story of experience and sacrifice.
|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
James L. Noles Jr. is an independent historian and partner with the Birmingham, AL, law firm of Balch and Bingham. He is author of several books, including Mighty by Sacrifice (which he co-authored with his father James L. Noles Sr.), and Twenty-Three Minutes to Eternity: The Final Voyage of the Escort Carrier USS Liscome Bay.
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Twenty-Three Minutes to Eternity
The Final Voyage of the Escort Carrier USS Liscome Bay
By James L. Noles Jr.
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Baby Flattops
When dawn came on Monday, April 19, 1943, Americans awoke to their 497th day at war. The morning papers, whether purchased on a New York sidewalk or tossed onto a suburban lawn by a San Diego paperboy, brought reports of the widening and strengthening crusade against the Axis by the United States and its allies. That particular day, headlines proudly announced the interception and destruction over the weekend of nearly six dozen German air transports as they tried to ferry Afrika Korps troops to Sicily out of the tightening noose of Allied forces in Tunisia.
Other articles brought more war news: a massive air strike by British Lancaster, Halifax, and Stirling bombers on the Italian naval base at Spezia; U.S. Navy air raids on the Japanese-occupied Aleutian island of Kiska and on Japanese shipping in the Solomons; a smaller Japanese aerial sortie against U.S. Marines occupying Guadalcanal; heavy fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces near Ichang; an Allied air raid on the German U-boat pens at the occupied French port of Lorient; bitter battles between the Soviet Red Army and the German Wehrmacht in the Caucasus; Royal Air Force raids on enemy positions in the Arakan region of Burma; B-17 Flying Fortress bombing missions against Palermo, Sicily; and Dutch B-25 Mitchell bomber raids on the Penfoel Aerodrome in East Timor.
The new issue of Life hit the stands that same day. The cover photograph portrayed the tender farewell between a bespectacled army soldier and his wife. With one glance, readers were quickly reminded that the skies of Europe, the jungles of Guadalcanal and New Guinea, and the mountains of North Africa were only a draft notice, boot camp, and troop transport ship voyage away for their sons, fathers, and brothers.
The effort to support such far-flung military operations, as well as those of the United States' British, Chinese, and Soviet allies, stretched vulnerable maritime supply lines across every sea-lane on the globe. From the icy expanses of the North Atlantic to the sweltering ports of the Red Sea to the steamy islands of the South Pacific, Allied merchant ships had struggled for more than three years to keep their troops supplied with arms and ammunition.
Almost from the outset, that supply effort came at a painful cost. German submarines stalked the nearly defenseless Allied cargo ships, sinking dozens of them. Six months before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, the United States and Germany fought an undeclared war in the Atlantic. Today it is easy to remember the hundreds of lives lost at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, aboard such battleships as Arizona (BB-39), Oklahoma (BB-37), and West Virginia (BB-48). Americans are not as quick to remember, however, the eleven sailors who died on board the American destroyer Kearny (DD-432) on October 17, 1941, following a German submarine attack, or the sinking of Reuben James (DD-245) that same month on Halloween, when 115 of 159 men aboard perished after a German torpedo ripped the American destroyer open in the bitter cold North Atlantic. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still more than a month away.
At least one could mark the demise of Kearny and Reuben James with some degree of stoic acceptance. After all, they were warships, tasked with the thankless mission of going into harm's way. Loss figures for the civilian merchantmen seemed even grimmer, especially after Hitler's declaration of war on the United States and the launching of the Paukenschlag submarine offensive the month after the Pearl Harbor attack. Within two weeks of the offensive's opening salvos, U-boats had torpedoed twenty Allied ships to the ocean's bottom.
As hostilities widened, the U.S. Navy faced an acute challenge. Escort destroyers and cruisers could only do so much to protect the merchant convoys. Naval air power seemed to be one of the obvious keys to beating back the submarine menace, but the vast stretches of sea traversed by the Allied cargo ships imposed limits on how far U.S. and British land-based warplanes could provide air cover.
Aircraft carriers seemed the obvious answer to the United States' dilemma. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, the U.S. Navy boasted only seven large fleet carriers. As the Japanese attack had proven, such carriers were far too valuable to be relegated to escorting convoys or ferrying warplanes to the United States' allies or its various island outposts. More fleet carriers were already under construction, but it was typically at least eighteen months between the time a shipyard laid down a carrier's keel and the ship's commissioning. As the Japanese rampage across the Pacific and into Southeast Asia in December had vividly demonstrated, much could happen in thirty days. No doubt even more could happen in eighteen months. The U.S. Navy needed to solve its carrier problem, and quickly.
Fortunately, a possible solution had been in development as early as 1927. At that time, Lieutenant Commander Bruce G. Leighton, USN, a naval aviator and aide to the secretary of the navy, had authored a paper titled "Light Aircraft Carriers, A Study of Their Possible Uses in So-Called 'Cruiser Operations,' Comparison with Light Cruisers as Fleet Units." In his paper, Leighton forecast the use of light carriers in roles such as bombing enemy capital ships, support of fleet operations, scouting and reconnaissance, attacks on shore positions, and, importantly, antisubmarine missions. He concluded that the light carrier "might well be considered as a worthy substitute for the light cruiser, or even distinctly preferable to the cruiser."
Leighton's idea survived the passing years. In 1939, Captain John S. McCain, USN, commander of the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4) and grandfather of the latter-day senator from Arizona, advocated building at least eight "pocket-size" carriers of cruiser speed. A year later, the navy's Bureau of Construction and Repair went so far as to begin drawing up plans for converting passenger ships to carriers.
In November 1940, however, the chief of naval operations halted further development of light carriers. "The characteristics of aircraft have changed," he reasoned, "placing more exacting demands upon the carrier. These demands are such that a converted merchant vessel will no longer make as satisfactory an aircraft carrier as was [formerly] the case."
At that point, though, President Franklin D. Roosevelt weighed in on the matter. The chief executive, a former assistant secretary of the navy, was well attuned to the difficulties being encountered by the British as they struggled to keep supplies flowing to their war machine across the Atlantic in the face of relentless German submarine attacks. Through his naval aide, Roosevelt suggested pointedly that the navy acquire a merchant ship and convert her into an aircraft carrier that could provide escort service to the Atlantic convoys. Roosevelt even suggested that such a ship might accommodate eight to twelve of the newfangled helicopters under development at the time.
Although it declined to adopt the use of the prototype helicopters, on January 7, 1941, the navy, under ever-increasing pressure from the president, agreed to convert two merchant ships, Mormacmail and Mormacland, to light carriers. On March 6, 1941, the navy acquired Mormacmail and began her $1.5 million conversion. Three months later she emerged from the shipyard as the auxiliary aircraft escort vessel Long Island, designated as AVG-1 and captained by Commander Donald B. Duncan, USN. The converted ship had a flight deck length of 362 feet, carried sixteen planes, was capable of reaching speeds of 17.6 knots, and berthed 190 officers and 780 sailors. Unlike contemporary carriers, she contained no island atop her flight deck to break her flat silhouette. Rather, a rectangular flight deck capped the length of the ship. Using diesel engines for power meant that Long Island's flight deck was not obstructed by smoke pipes.
The speed of Mormacmail's conversion to the carrier Long Island benefited from the president's personal attention and insistence on a three-month deadline for the project. Mormacland's conversion took longer, but in November 1941 the United States turned her over to the Royal Navy as HMS Archer.
The U.S. Navy's operations with the ungainly Long Island, like those of the Royal Navy with Archer, proved the viability of the light carrier concept. Japan's raid on Pearl Harbor drove the point home. Accordingly, on December 26, 1941, the navy ordered the conversion of twenty-four merchantmen and Cimmaron-class fleet oilers to aircraft carriers. Those converted from merchantmen became known as the Bogue class, named after the first carrier to be converted in that class, while the four ships converted from the faster and larger fleet oilers were designated the Sangamon class. Carriers of this group relied on a steam turbine power plant rather than diesel engines, boasted a small island like the larger carriers, and enjoyed longer flight decks and more hangar deck space.
The four Sangamon carriers — Sangamon (AVG-26), Suwannee (AVG-27), Chenango (AVG-28), and Santee (AVG-29) — demonstrated their value in November 1942 during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Fighters and bombers from Sangamon, Suwannee, and Santee complemented those of the carrier Ranger and lashed at the Vichy French defenses in Morocco. Following Operation Torch's success, the commander in chief of the navy's Atlantic force commented that the escort carriers "proved to be a valuable addition to the Fleet. They can handle a potent air group and, while their speed is insufficient, they can operate under most weather conditions and are very useful ships."
After Operation Torch, the navy dispatched escort carriers to the Pacific. The pilots stationed on board Chenango, Suwannee, and Sangamon saw action in the Solomon Islands. Their clashes with Japanese aircraft and warships, while seldom decisive, played an important role in helping to develop the United States' small-carrier doctrine. The relative success of these ships' operations off the North African coast and in the South Pacific encouraged the navy to pursue an ambitious building program in partnership with Henry J. Kaiser.
Kaiser, a longtime political supporter of President Roosevelt's, had risen from humble beginnings as a photographer and hardware salesman to control one of the largest construction companies in the country. During the 1930s his workers were responsible for such structures as the Bonneville, Grand Coulee, and Shasta Dams as well as the Oakland — San Francisco Bridge. As war approached, Kaiser shifted his focus and remarkable energy to shipbuilding. On January 20, 1941, he rolled his bulldozers into Richmond, California, to build his first shipyard. Less than ninety days later, it laid down its first keel.
The heavy-set, sixty-year-old Kaiser and his shipbuilding operations personified Roosevelt's philosophy that "energy was more efficient than efficiency." Kaiser embraced on-the-job training for his workers, relied on prefabricated bulkheads, decks, and hulls to speed ship construction, and utilized welding rather than the slower but more commonly accepted riveting as his preferred means of slapping ships together. His methods paid off. By early 1942 his company was capable of completing a so-called Liberty ship in less than sixty days.
Regardless of his revolutionary pace, however, Kaiser was not satisfied with building merchant ships. The navy clearly needed aircraft carriers, and Kaiser approached his friend Roosevelt with a bold proposition — his shipyards would build fifty escort carriers within a year.
Roosevelt and the navy accepted Kaiser's proposal and awarded him a contract for the next class of escort carriers, to be constructed under the supervision of the U.S. Maritime Commission. Although Kaiser's team pushed its own design for the carriers, the navy interceded. In the end, the naval architectural firm of Gibbs and Cox designed Kaiser's carriers, but serious questions remained regarding the combat-readiness of the proposed design. In the eyes of many naval officers, the final product bore too many similarities below the waterline to a merchant ship. Merchant ships, for example, didn't need excessive watertight compartmentalization or thickened hulls to withstand torpedo strikes; warships did. Despite the navy's misgivings, Kaiser's shipyards sprang into action. This time the work would be focused in his new shipyard in Vancouver, Washington, a small town nestled a hundred miles inland from the Pacific on the banks of the Columbia River.
Before Kaiser arrived, Vancouver had been a quiet Pacific Northwest riverfront town, home to about eighteen thousand residents. With his arrival, however, the face of Vancouver changed forever. Kaiser had begun acquiring property for the Vancouver yards in January 1942. Eventually, twelve massive shipways lined the Columbia River. The first Kaiser-built ship slipped down one of those ways that June, built by workers who had poured into Vancouver from every corner of the nation. The town's population almost tripled in two years under the rush of wartime ship production, and its streets rang with accents ranging from Brooklyn to New Orleans. Thousands of workers — male and female — swarmed over skeletal steel hulks as they welded steel plating on the slowly materializing ships. Blowtorches glowed and sparks flew day and night as Kaiser's workers applied American industrial assembly-line operational concepts to the task of creating ships for a growing navy.
As the pace of shipbuilding at the Vancouver yards accelerated into the autumn of 1942, a piece of unsettling news arrived. Two weeks into November 1942, a Royal Navy escort carrier, HMS Avenger, had sailed into the sights of a German U-boat off the coast of Gibraltar. The German skipper planted a torpedo into the middle of the British ship, detonating its bomb magazine and literally blowing the vessel in half. More than five hundred British officers and sailors died; only about a dozen survived. The remnants of the broken ship sank beneath the waves in less than three minutes.
Shaken by the dramatic loss, the British Admiralty Delegation wrote to Admiral Howard L. Vickery of the U.S. Maritime Commission. "I know it is late to start talking about modifications in design," the letter began, "but the thought of sending these ships to sea as at present designed quite frankly fills me with dismay, particularly after the recent experience we ... had when [Avenger] sank practically with all hands after one torpedo hit near the bomb-room. These auxiliary carriers are such valuable ships, have such valuable equipment and, above all, invaluable trained personnel, that if it is humanly possible I think we would be amply justified in any reasonable improvements which will help them to keep afloat when damaged."
The Admiralty's warning, however, didn't arrive until January 1943, by which time Kaiser had laid down the first keels of the U.S. Navy's new class of escort carriers. Within three months the Vancouver yards launched what would become the Casablanca (CVE-55), the navy's first all-welded carrier, on April 5, 1943. Before thousands of excited onlookers, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt broke a bottle of champagne over the ship's bow. The ceremonial smashing sent the ship slipping down the ways into the Columbia River, and the Casablanca class was born.
Even as Eleanor Roosevelt was launching Casablanca, Kaiser Shipyards was putting the finishing touches on the first of Casablanca's sister ships. Like Casablanca, they would be designated by the navy with the letters CVE, meaning "aircraft carrier, escort." Naval officers referred to these ships as simply escort carriers. Skeptical sailors, noting the thin welded hulls and seemingly inadequate compartmentalization of the new ships, and less than enthusiastic about sailing on a vessel that was essentially a floating aviation fuel and ammunition dump, agreed that "CVE" was the appropriate moniker for the small carriers but claimed that the letters stood for "combustible-vulnerable-expendable." Others called them "Kaiser's coffins" or "two-torpedo carriers." One torpedo, the sailors reasoned derisively, would be the one that would sink it, and the second would simply pass over the sinking ship's flight deck. The British, with perhaps a greater understanding of the need for Kaiser's new brand of ship and their slapdash method of production, labeled them "Woolworth carriers" after the chain of U.S. department stores.
Excerpted from Twenty-Three Minutes to Eternity by James L. Noles Jr.. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
List of Abbreviations,
Prologue: Unbehagen's Dream,
1. The Baby Flattops,
2. A Crew for the "Listing Lizzie",
3. Wildcats, Avengers, and a Rear Admiral,
4. Into the Breach,
5. Galvanic and Kourbash,
6. Three Task Forces, Three Brothers,
7. "The God of Death Has Come",
8. Twenty-Three Minutes and Counting,
9. Abandon Ship!,
10. Pacific Dawn,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A straight-up account of a little-remembered event; the death of the "Liscome Bay" during World War II. Noles does go to some effort to place the carrier's loss within the context of the military campaign to take Tarawa and Makin, but the main focus is on the effort to survive disaster in a ship's company that barely had time to develope a unit identity; all in all a good story well told.