A tale of two ships
My P-47 is a pretty good ship and she took a round comin’ cross the Channel last trip, I was thinkin’ bout my baby and lettin’ her rip, always got me through so far”
“Johnny Come Lately,” by Steve Earle
I have scant knowledge of World War II; however, I have learned a few pieces of the complex puzzle regarding this turning point in the history of the United States. For example, my dad explained what he learned at the Pensacola Air Station when he was stationed there. He told me about the danger of fast-tracking Corsair pilots for combat, and the navigation simulators where pilots could screw up and not get killed. In my years of sailing Narragansett Bay and my observation of the military remains of Gould Island, I always nod while sailing by, to the old PBY seaplane ramp and hanger at the south end of the island. This type of aircraft was used for search and rescue and recon missions during the war in the Pacific theater and the Battle of the Atlantic. I knew my uncle flew out of Quonset and about seventeen years ago I had a chance to check out Jimmy Buffet’s Grumman Albatross—a vintage SAR and recon aircraft— when he tied his plane down there for a couple of years. Furthermore, Block Islander Everett Littlefield told me about how Corsairs were assembled at Quonset Point. The aforementioned, and some knowledge of German U-Boats, most notably U-853 which was sunk off Point Judith after Hitler failed miserably, were some bits of prior knowledge which set me up perfectly to crack open a new book written by Benjamin J. Hruska titled “Valor and Courage, The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World War II.” I had trouble putting this prodigiously researched book down over several close reading sessions.
Steve Earle’s song is about a young American pilot who is in love with a woman he met while stationed in England during the war. The pilot says, “I painted her name on the nose of my plane. Six more missions, I’m gone.” The young pilot, like many of his comrades wants the war to be over so he can go home. His job is loaded with risk; many things can harm him. This song puts a face on the warrior, and that is precisely what Hruska’s entire book does. Wars are fought by young men with audacious leaders on land, on the sea, and in the air, and while reading the story of the two escort carriers named the USS Block Island the reader becomes familiar with the stories of the men who served on these ships. This book is a fascinating story of the inner workings of the minds of sailors and pilots who served our country on two battle fronts.
Escort carriers were known as “Jeep carriers,” and had diminished respect in contrast to their larger carrier counterparts. The USS Block Island was built from a tanker hull which was converted to carry air planes to fight Hitler. Moreover, they were involved with what were known as “Hunter-Killer” missions. According to Karl Donitz, Germany was involved in a “tonnage war,” which is where his U-Boat Wolf Pack strategy was employed to sink Allied supply ships heading to fight Germany. He knew if a U-Boat sank a ship, a new one had to be built to keep the supply and demand chain moving efficiently to win the war. U-Boats ganged up in a remote place in the ocean known as the “Black Pit,” and this is where they could discreetly hunt for merchant and military cargo ships. All ships were vulnerable in this part of the Atlantic and this is where the USS Block Island became a valuable asset for the Navy. The escort carriers may have carried Jeeps, but they also carried P-47s, Corsairs, and Avengers. The Avenger was a formidable airplane and schooled
German U-Boats on how they could also hunt. With the aid of radar and sonar, the hunter became the hunted; in war, technology can win the day.
The escort carriers were called “baby flat-tops,” “pocket carriers” and “auxiliary carriers.” You could call them whatever you wanted, but if an Avenger could take off from the USS Block Island near the “Black Pit,” and track down a German U-Boat, the plane could put a hurting on the submarine. And, they did. What Benjamin J. Hruska does in this outstanding book is display the absolute, and focused, courage, valor and commitment of the commanders, pilots, and enlisted men to complete their missions. Hruska says of the Steve Earle lyric, “Those P-47s didn’t fly themselves to the European. Logistics aren’t sexy but Steve Earle did a hell of a job in his song.” In essence, this is what the book is about. While on a hunter-killer mission on 29 May 1944, the CVE 21, AKA, the USS Block Island was hit by two torpedoes. The bulk of the men survived through a “baptism of salt water,” several perished, and three pilots had to ditch their planes because they had no carrier to land upon returning from their missions.
The surviving crews that became known as members of the FBI, the Fighting Block Island, were then assigned to a new carrier that was built in Vancouver and went on to fight in the Pacific theater. (This was an unprecedented move.) While Hruska was working at the Block Island Historical Society years ago, he became aware of two ships known as the USS Block Island, and for this writer it was game on. Ben has written a book that will pin the reader down for long stretches. Many Americans forget how close Hitler’s U-Boats came to the shores of the entire eastern seaboard; they were a formidable menace. However, our country responded with brains, tenacity, courage, and valor, and shut Hitler’s little dream, down. Moreover, in the Pacific theater the FBI was also on task. Hruska tracked down this surviving Band of Brothers in their living rooms and wrote down their stories. The surviving crew of the FBI also paid a visit to Block Island to donate the bell of their ship to the island community. So here’s the drill; read this book. ‘Nuff said.
“Valor and Courage, The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World II,” is available at: Island Bound Bookstore, The Block Island Historical Society, The Southeast Lighthouse, and Dave Chatowsky’s Gallery.