Tuesday, July 22, 2008

USS Block Island (CVE-21)

Figure 1: USS Block Island (CVE-21) underway, October 12, 1943 wearing Ms.22 camouflage. Courtesy Haze Gray and Underway. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Block Island (CVE-21) shortly after leaving Norfolk, October 15, 1943, on her first anti-submarine cruise, with aircraft from Composite Squadron 1 (VC-1) on deck—9 FM-1 Wildcats (forward) and 12 TBF-1C Avengers. U.S. National Archives photo #80-G-87149. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Block Island CVE 21 leaving Norfolk, Virginia, January 1944. The picture provided by Bill Harris, son of William F. Harris who was Ships Navigator on the Block Island. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Block Island pulling into harbor at Belfast, Ireland, with a load of Army Air Force P-47s and spare parts for B-24s and B-17s. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Sinking of German submarine U-801, 16-17 March 1944. U-801 sinking with bow high, in position 16 41N, 29 58W on 17 March 1944. USS Corry (DD-463) is coming up at right. The submarine was sunk by aircraft and surface ships of the USS Block Island (CVE-21) group. Photographed from a TBM aircraft of squadron VC-6, based on Block Island. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: USS Block Island (CVE-21) sinking after being torpedoed by German submarine U-549, May 29, 1944 (port side view). Courtesy Haze Gray and Underway. Click on photograph for larger image.

The USS Block Island (CVE-21) was a 15,200-ton Bogue class escort carrier that was built at the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Company, Tacoma, Washington, and was commissioned on 8 March 1943. The ship was approximately 495 feet long and 69 feet wide, and had a top speed of 17.6 knots and a crew of 890 officers and men. Block Island was armed with two 5-inch guns, 20 40-mm guns, and 27 20-mm guns, and could carry 28 aircraft.

After fitting out at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Block Island steamed to San Diego, arriving there on 9 April 1943. The next day a new air unit was placed on board the ship, which was made up of Grumman “Wildcat” fighters and Grumman TBF-1 “Avenger” torpedo bombers. On 22 May, Block Island left for Norfolk, Virginia, going via the Panama Canal. She arrived there on 7 June.

The first wartime mission given to Block Island was that of aircraft ferry. On 17 July 1943, the ship began its first journey to Ireland carrying a cargo of Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighters. Block Island was part of a convoy of eight troopships and escorts and she arrived at Siddenham Airport near Belfast, Ireland, on 26 July. The carrier left Belfast on 3 August and reached New York eight days later to take on board a second batch of P-47 fighters. She left New York on 21 August and returned to Siddenham Airport on 31 August. By 12 September, Block Island was back in Norfolk.

At Norfolk Block Island ended her career as an aircraft ferry and was converted back into an escort carrier. She was given a new squadron of Wildcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers and on 15 October 1943 Block Island left Virginia and became part of Task Group (TG) 21.16, along with the destroyers Paul Jones (DD-230), Parrott (DD-218), Barker (DD-213), and Bulmer (DD-222). The task group was what was known as a “Hunter/Killer” team, where several destroyers were used with an escort carrier for the specific purpose of seeking out and destroying German U-boats that were preying on Allied merchant convoys. Block Island was to provide air cover for convoy UGS-21, but on 17 October the task group was diverted to an area north of the Azores where numerous U-boats were sighted. Block Island’s aircraft were to locate and, if possible, sink any submarines that were on the surface. But if the U-boats submerged, the aircraft were to guide the destroyers in the task group to the area where the submarines were located and assist them in sinking the enemy warships.

On 25 October, the task group nearly scored its first “kill” when the USS Parrott seriously damaged U-488. The submarine managed to escape, but on 28 October aircraft from Block Island found two U-boats on the surface. One of the two submarines, U-220, was sunk by the planes but the other, U-256, managed to get away. On 5 November, Block Island and her escorts reached Casablanca to refuel and to take on provisions. She then provided air cover for convoy GUS-220 before heading back to Norfolk, arriving there on 25 November.

Block Island made several more trips to and from the area north of the Azores known as “The Black Pit,” because it lay in the middle of the Allied convoy routes and because of the number of U-boats that were concentrated there. Block Island was always part of a Hunter/Killer task group and on several occasions either its planes or its escorts attacked German U-boats. On 29 December 1944, two destroyers from the task group (Parrott and Bulmer) accidentally came across nine U-boats, but they scattered before the destroyers could sink any of them. On 8 January 1944, aircraft from Block Island seriously damaged U-758, forcing her to submerge and return to base for repairs. On 29 February 1944, during another action in the “Black Pit,” Block Island’s task group ran into four U-boats (U-709, U-603, U-607, and U-441). U-603 was sunk by one of the destroyers in the task group and two others sank U-709. U-441 was seriously damaged by the escorting destroyers and had to return to Brest, France, for repairs.

On 11 March 1944, Block Island and her escorts were sent northwest of the Cape Verde islands to hunt for U-boats. On 16 March, aircraft from Block Island attacked U-801 as it was slithering along the surface. The aircraft seriously damaged the submarine but did not sink it. However, the attack caused the submarine to leak oil. The destroyers in the task group eventually sighted this oil slick and located the submarine by following the oil slick. After a drawn out battle, the destroyers escorting Block Island managed to sink U-801. On 19 March, aircraft from Block Island also located, attacked and destroyed U-1059.

On 29 April 1944, Block Island was part of a new task group named “CortDiv 60,” which included the destroyer escorts Ahrens (DE-575), Barr (DE-576), Eugene E. Elmore (DE-686) and Buckley (DE-51). The task group was sent to relieve another Hunter/Killer team west of the Cape Verde Islands. On 1 May, Block Island made radar contact with U-66, but the submarine got away before the carrier’s aircraft or her destroyer escorts could find her. During the early morning hours of 6 May, one of Block Island’s aircraft again located U-66 on the surface, but this time the plane guided the destroyer escort Buckley towards the target. After an amazing gun battle between the Buckley and U-66 in which the American destroyer escort actually rammed the U-boat, U-66 burst into flames and eventually sank.

On 29 May 1944, Block Island’s task group was steaming near the Canary Islands searching for German submarines. A plane from Block Island got a strong radar contact on a submarine. Although more planes were sent to locate the U-boat, they could not find it. At the same time, the submarine (which turned out to be U-549) also spotted the carrier and decided to come in for the kill. Suddenly, two torpedoes slammed into Block Island, causing major damage to the ship. The explosions from the torpedoes caused Block Island to go dead in the water. Then a third torpedo hit the crippled carrier, destroying her lower decks, knocking out all of power, and breaking the back of the ship. Block Island was going down and the order to “Abandon Ship” was given. Then, just as the ship began settling by the stern, another torpedo from U-549 hit the destroyer escort Barr in the stern, killing 28 men but not sinking the ship. Barr eventually had to be towed to port. As the destroyer escort Ahrens began picking up Block Island’s survivors from the water, she stopped her engines. Sonar on board the Ahrens then picked up the sound of U-549 approaching. The Ahrens radioed the other destroyer escort in the group, Eugene E. Elmore, for assistance and guided the Elmore towards the sonar contact. Elmore eventually launched three “hedgehog” projectiles (a type of depth charge fired from the ship by a launcher). Remarkably, all three hit U-549, causing a massive underwater explosion that destroyed the submarine. Block Island eventually slipped beneath the waves but, fortunately, only thirteen of the ship’s crew was lost. The other ships in the task group rescued the rest of the crew.

Block Island was the only American aircraft carrier sunk by enemy action in the Atlantic. But the other ships in the task group had the satisfaction of sinking U-549, the ship that destroyed Block Island. In addition, Block Island and the other escort carriers like her represented a turning point in the war against the U-boats. Hunter/Killer teams sunk or damaged numerous U-boats, keeping the German submarines away from their primary targets, which were Allied merchant ships. This enabled a large and steady stream of Allied merchant ships to sail unharmed all over the Atlantic and Mediterranean, thereby allowing a massive amount of supplies to reach Allied troops overseas. Escort carriers such as Block Island helped to turn the tide against the U-boats, eventually allowing the Allies to win the Battle of the Atlantic.