Tuesday, July 3, 2007

USS Bunker Hill (CV-17)

The USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) was an Essex Class carrier and was launched on 7 December 1942 by the Bethlehem Steel Co. in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was commissioned on 24 May 1943 with Captain J.J. Ballentine in command. After a “working up” period in the Atlantic, the Bunker Hill was sent to the Pacific in the fall of 1943 where she had an amazing career. The Bunker Hill took part in a carrier strike on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul on 11 November 1943, participated in the Gilbert Islands campaign by providing air support for the invasion of Tarawa (13 November to 8 December 1943), assisted in the Kavieng air strikes in support of the Bismarck Archipelago operation (25 December 1943; 1 and 4 January 1944), took part in the Marshall Islands campaign (29 January to 8 February 1944), and attacked the Japanese base at Truk (17-18 February 1944), during which eight Japanese warships were sunk. The Bunker Hill’s planes then went on to raid islands throughout the Pacific, including the Marianas, Palau, Yap, Ulithi, Truk, Satawan, Ponape, and Hollandia. She then took part in the invasion of the Marianas Islands from 12 June to 10 August 1944 and also fought in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. On 19 June 1944, during the battle, the Bunker Hill sustained some damage when a Japanese bomb scored a near miss on the carrier, spraying shrapnel fragments across the ship. Two men were killed and more than 80 were wounded. But the Bunker Hill stayed in the fight and her planes helped to sink one Japanese carrier and shot down a portion of the 476 Japanese aircraft that were lost during that battle. In September of 1944 she took part in the Western Caroline Islands campaign and, after that, began launching air strikes against Okinawa, Luzon and Formosa.

On 6 November 1944, the Bunker Hill steamed back to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs and a badly needed overhaul. On 24 January 1945 the carrier returned to the front in the Pacific and took part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Her planes also bombed the Japanese islands of Honshu and Nansei Shoto and took part in an attack on Japanese naval forces in the East China Sea. During that raid the Japanese battleship Yamato, one cruiser and four destroyers were sunk.

But, on the morning of 11 May 1945, while participating in the invasion of Okinawa, two Japanese “Kamikaze” suicide planes hit the Bunker Hill. Major gasoline fires burned out of control and several explosions tore through the ship. The Bunker Hill was on fire, listing and heavily damaged. But even though the situation looked hopeless, the brave crew refused to give up on their ship. After fighting the fires for several hours, the crew gradually began to bring the situation under control. The loss of life, though, was staggering: 346 men were killed, 43 were missing and presumed dead, and 264 were wounded, many of them badly burned. But the ship remained afloat and, remarkably, was able to make it back to Bremerton for repairs under her own power. This incident showed how much punishment an Essex Class carrier could take and still remain afloat.

The Bunker Hill was sent back into service in September 1945, just after Japan surrendered. Throughout the rest of the year she was given the task of transporting US servicemen home from the Pacific. In January 1946 the Bunker Hill was sent to Bremerton and placed in reserve. Although reclassified three times while in reserve (first as an “Attack Aircraft Carrier” CVA-17 in October 1952, then as an “Antisubmarine Warfare Support Aircraft Carrier” CVS-17 in August 1953, and finally as an “Auxiliary Aircraft Transport” AVT-9 in May 1959), the Bunker Hill never returned to active duty. She was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in November 1966 and sold for scrap in May of 1973. The Bunker Hill received the Presidential Unit Citation for the period of 11 November 1943 to 11 May 1945 and received 11 battle stars for her service during World War II.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) at sea in 1945 (although dated October 16, 1945, this picture is older, as the ship did not operate aircraft after May 1945). This photo has been autographed by Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, who served on board the Bunker Hill in January-May 1945, while he was Chief of Staff to Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, Commander, Task Force 58. From the Admiral Arleigh A. Burke Collection, USN. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): The Bunker Hill on fire after being hit by two “Kamikaze” suicide planes off Okinawa, 11 May 1945. Photographed from the USS Bataan (CVL-29). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): The Bunker Hill (CV-17) burning after being hit by "Kamikaze" suicide planes during the Battle for Okinawa, 11 May 1945. A Cleveland class light cruiser is steaming nearby, at left. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): With the fires almost put out, this picture shows just some of the damage done by the Japanese suicide planes to the Bunker Hill. Official US Navy Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.