USS Block Island Association

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CVE 21 Memories

Jack Greer (CVE 21/106)

Notes from the original webmaster (1999-2009):


All Navy ships are at their most venerable point, or position from underwater attack , when they are changing courses. As the ships turn they slide through the water much like a car making a quick turn. More of the ships sides are pushing the water and the wake created is much wider. This reaction results in the slowing of the ship and presents a larger target for any submarine attack. And aircraft carrier has no choice except to turn into the wind when launching aircraft to provide greater lift for the airplane. This action also tends to slow the carrier as well as the side slipping motion. This activity also engages the escort ships to take stations forward and to the aft  of the carrier to pick up the pilots of any aircraft that are "dunked" into the sea. With the advent of the Helicopter these "escort ships" can go about their task of protecting the carrier as the "chopper" is better equipped to handle the rescue in a hover motion. Note that in the  following article this circumstance existed at approximately 8:00 PM (2000 military) on May 29, 1944 as launching the six fighters that were lost and the recovery of 4 Torpedo Bombers  was taking place. This not only placed the aircraft carrier in it's most venerable position it also put the 4 escort DE's scurrying to take their positions for landings and launching. The action also (other than general quarters) is the major task the carrier's crew must undertake as they go to "Flight Quarters". The sea conditions and the timing factors were almost perfect for the German submarine to make the attack.


Walter “Smiley” Burnette (CVE 21/106)


Lots of things become hazy over the years but these memories are still very much alive, especially when discussed time and time again with fellow shipmates. 

On 29 May 1944, at approximately 2000 hours, six fighter planes  (FM – Wildcats) were ordered aloft to provide air cover to the Block Island task force while the four TBM Avenger Torpedo / Bombers were recovered.  All of these aircraft were part of the Navy Squadron VC–55. My duty, as an Aviation Ordnance man, after the TBM’s had landed, was to help in disarming  (making  “safe”) the .50 cal. machine guns located in the wings and other ordnance.  Making “safe” was the removal of the live rounds in the gun chambers, disconnecting the gun belts and moving forward the bolt mechanism, to relieve the spring tension on the bolts. I was working that particular night, as his partner, with Harold (“Chic”) Swails, from Lebanon, Ind. (See Note # l)

After the aircraft was disarmed, I proceeded to my berthing quarters, located in a small space just below the flight deck and above the hanger deck. Then down one ladder to the hanger deck and one more ladders down to the head / shower on that deck. I was taking a shower when the first torpedo struck the port side of the carrier; one in the bow at about frame 12. Approximately four seconds later the second struck toward the stern, between frames 171 and 182, exploding in the oil tank, through the shaft alley and up through the 5 in. magazines, without causing any further fires or explosions. (See Note # 2) 

At this time all personnel on the hanger deck were ordered topside to the flight deck. Hurriedly dressing, returning to the hanger deck heading for my general quarters battle station; a 20 mm anti-craft cannon, port side of ship, on a sponson adjacent to the hanger deck. Needless to say, this area and other adjacent cannons were destroyed at the time the first torpedo struck forward on port side of ship. 

Other stories, personal experiences printed elsewhere in other Block Island documents, relate to the trapping, above this same area, of Coxswain James O’Neil Franks. The catwalk trapped Franks where he was on look out duty.  Later it was learned that Chief Warrant Officer (Carpenter) Clarence M. Bailey with help from medical corpsmen was instrumental in moving Franks from the catwalk to the flight deck. This man died while rescuers were rendering first aid and trying to release his legs. His body remained aboard the ship.

After noting my “General Quarters” battle station was destroyed, many of us were inspecting the hanger deck looking for possible fires. No fires were detected. The crew was anxious to retrieve life jackets which were stored overhead on metal shelves. No one appeared to be injured in this area. Believe it or not and why ( ? ) I returned to my berthing quarters, put on clean clothes, inside and out. Put on my red-stripped helmet (which denoted A O’s when on the flight deck), thinking of being spotted later with that red helmet. I removed from my locker, a copy of the New Testament. This was previously handed to me by our Chaplain, Rev. Gordon MacInnes (learned later he was an uncle to our “CHIPS” Editor, Bill MacInnes) when passing by his office on my way answering a call to “General Quarters.”

After changing clothes and returning to the hanger deck, I met with Chief Aviation Ordnanceman, Fred Bruce Johnson (my Ordnance Dept. head). At 2023, a third torpedo from U-549 struck the helpless CVE, wrecking the lower decks, knocking out all power and breaking Block Island’s back. We then explored the hanger deck and realized that a TBF had fallen through a large hole in the hanger deck surface to the mess deck below. This needed further examination. In the plane we found the body of a deceased sailor. Bruce and I identified him as James Byrol Owen, Aviation Machinist Mate First Class, and a member of our Division.  After Bruce Johnson and I had made sure of our identification, we moved up to the flight deck. 

During this time many crew members gathered on the flight deck awaiting further word concerning damage, etc. Meanwhile Petty Officers Don Taylor, Alexander Culberson and Leonard Johnson flooded the aviation gasoline storage tanks. These three men were awarded the Bronze Star Medal for this action, I wish that the letters accompanying these awards were available for inclusion in the Block Island’s web page. These letters would be of great interest to surviving relatives of those recipients. While on the flight deck, we saw an explosion off the port quarter, thinking that one of the D E ‘s had dropped depth charges or fired hedgehogs and had found the sub. Later word was passed along that the explosion we saw was a fourth torpedo, intended for the “21” that hit the stern of the USS Barr DE 576, resulting in a large number of casualties.

At 2040 Captain Hughes ordered all hands to “Abandon Ship”.  By 2100 most men went over the starboard side, either jumping or sliding down knotted 40-ft.  Rope ladders. As the ship sank the planes spotted on deck slid into the sea like toys, the TBM’s depth changes exploding deep under the surface. Block Island took her final plunge at 2155.  We were equipped with various types of life belts / jackets as well as cork supported rope nets. Many times, when describing this incident, friends would ask about “the lifeboats.” Since we had only two small boats aboard, most of time these were used in transporting personnel, mail, etc. whenever the carrier was anchored away from any pier while in port.  

The USS Ahrens DE 575 stopped engines and drifted to a stop in the Atlantic swells, recovering the Block Islanders from the sea.  With Ahrens’ engines now stilled, her sonar almost immediately detected U-549.  Ahrens skipper radioed the USS Elmore DE 686 coaching the sister ship to where the German submarine lay. Three projectiles from Elmore’s hedgehogs slammed into the U-549’s hull at 2127. A great, grinding internal explosion audible to the monitoring ships destroyed the U-boat a moment later. 

The USS Ahrens picked up 674 survivors (I was included) and the USS Paine DE 578 picked up 277 personnel. I have no memory as to how long we were in the water. The crew of the Ahrens helped the survivors aboard, by many of its crew hanging over the side to help. 

The next morning, 30 May, Elmore with the damaged Barr under tow, and the two DE’s laden with the CVE survivors, cleared the area for Casablanca, arriving 1 June. The personnel of the two DE’s, did a commendable job of making all hands as comfortable as possible, some giving up bunks for others to catch a few winks. The task of feeding this large number, aboard the Ahrens and the Paine, was without parallel. While we were lined up on the main deck, waiting turns to go below to eat our two meals. Sometimes, from the bridge came the order for some men to shift from one side or to the other to maintain an even keel.  The odor of diesel fuel oil was everywhere that we touched. 

My what a mess!  However, we were SAFE.  After we arrived in Casablanca, showers and clean khaki uniforms made each of us feel much better. The crew was then mustered together to start obtaining information from them. Bruce Johnson and I were questioned separately and later together, as to our certain identification of Petty Officer James Owen, found inside the cockpit of the damaged TBM. Ironically during this time of interrogation, neither of us was asked for names of family members to be notified of our survival. My family received telegram “Missing in Action” but quickly followed by “Well and Safe.” My mother lovingly saved these telegrams.

Survivors departed Casablanca aboard three Carriers: USS Mission Bay – CVE 59,  USS Kasaan Bay – CVE 69 and USS Tulagi – CVE 72 for the return trip home to Norfolk Va. and to begin the traditional thirty (30) day “Survivors’ Leave.” After leave had expired, most of crew was ordered back to Norfolk, Va. for a cross-country troop train ride to Seattle (Bremerton), WA. and further assignment to the NEW USS BLOCK ISLAND, CVE 106. 

Note # 1: For many years I had wondered who had piloted this last plane (TBM) to land on the Block Island just before the sub’s attack began.  The same plane that “Chic” Swails and I disarmed the ordnance. The Navy Aviation crew members were transferred from the new CVE 106, at San Diego to a Naval Air Station, Twenty-Nine Palms, CA, CASU # 5 (Carrier Aircraft Service Unit).

While stationed with CASU # 5,  I became acquainted with Rudy Esquivel, an Aviation Metalsmith Petty Officer from San Antonio, TX.  Rudy and I hitchhiked from Los Angeles, CA for Christmas 1945 leave, to his home.  We continued our friendship for many years after WW  II.  Rudy studied Law and later was appointed to the Texas State Supreme Court as Assistant Chief Justice. During a visit with Rudy in San Antonio,  I located LT jg Calvin E. Mansell, Garden Ridge, TX, the pilot from VC–55 who landed this last plane on the “21”.  I was quite elated, after so many years, wondering whom this person might have been and found this pilot.  Mr. Mansell was a retired Attorney who practiced many times before my friend, Judge Esquivel.  What a small world and persistence sometimes does pay off.

Note # 2:  I would like to comment at this time, none of the Association members have been able to locate relatives of the six men killed aboard the “21”, with one exception.  Two brothers of James Byrol Owens, Jack and Odell Owen, located the Association and attended their first BI reunion in Lafayette, LA May 1992.  These two brothers have continued a very active role with our Association.  The six fighter pilots airborne at the time of attack,  two, LT jgs James G. McDaniel and John F. Carr were rescued later at Las Palmas. These two men were / or former members of the Association. 

Many times the Association has acknowledged those lost shipmates at memorial services during annual reunions.  At the Reunion, May 2002, Memphis, TN,  a special memorial service was conducted to honor those “lost” aboard the “21” and the Navy and Marine personnel “lost’ aboard the “106” during the Pacific operations.


 

Rev. Rudell Bowling (CVE 21/106)


"At 12:00 noon, Monday, May 29, 1944, a group of women had gathered together in the little City of Newport to pray for all of the boys in combat. One of the women, while weeping and praying, saw a vision of a small aircraft carrier sinking in the dark waters of the North Atlantic with many men swimming in the cold oily waters. At the same time she heard a voice saying to her “your son is at sea, in need and many souls are in danger”. That woman, my Mother, immediately stopped the prayer and told the others what she saw and heard. They believed and began to pray earnestly until they felt they had a victory. At that very same moment it was about three or four hours before the USS Block Island CVE-21 was torpedoed and sunk.. The people of the little City of Newport knew about the sinking before it happened.

Later, after we were hit and I saw we were going down I began to call on God.

“Lord, I am afraid, I am a sinner and not ready to die. I have been told since I was a child that if I asked sincerely, I would receive. I don’t mean to bargain with you Lord, but if you save me and my friends, I promise I will be your servant all the days of my life”. A MIRACLE happened that cold night and the Navy and the news media said so. Only 6 men were lost of the crew of the carrier, 15 men from the Destroyer Escort USS Barr and 4 pilots who’s planes were in the air at the time of the sinking of their landing field the aircraft carrier. Why we don’t know, but we can assume that God in His Sovereign Will wanted them!"

A Board of Enquiry was set up to review the sinking. The Board reviewed the matter in that, given the circumstances, a C3 tanker hull converted into an aircraft carrier that took three torpedoes, one exploding in the fuel tanks with no massive fire, the cold stormy seas, only 4 small escort ships for assistance, one the those escort ships torpedoed without power, one escort ship having to take the damaged escort ship in tow to keep it from sinking, the other two small escort ships left to pick up the survivors, depth charges from the carrier going off  as the ship sunk thereby lifting the small ships up out of the water, one destroyer escort being able to actually attack and sink the submarine, another of the small destroyers suffering damage to it’s hull, and having to shift these survivors around from place to place on the damaged escort ship to keep it from capsizing for 3 long days, and then getting all of these many survivors back to the safety at Casablanca.  Their findings :   A MIRACLE had taken place.

 

Irv Biron (CVE 21/106)


“I joined the Navy on November 1,1942 and went aboard the Block Island in January 1943. On the evening of 29 May 1944, I was in the armory playing checkers with Wallace, while someone was cooking steak and eggs for our supper. All of a sudden the whole ship shook as the first torpedo hit forward on the port side. Seconds later, the second one hit aft. Immediately every man in the armory ran to his GQ station. I got to my position (port side forward) where there were 6 - 20 mm guns. Already the ship was listing to port and all of us knew that the situation was really bad. Grabbing a life jacket, I went up the ladder to the flight deck to find Wetzel. He was on the starboard side with the 20 millimeters and appeared to be OK. I then went aft to check those guns and the third torpedo hit. As I ran I had to jump a crack in the deck and remember looking straight down and seeing water. At that point we heard the order to abandon ship. The ladder on the starboard side ended 12 to 15 feet above the water. I went down and dropped into the oily sea. Nearby was a raft which I swam to. The raft was crowded with shipmates, but I could see a nearby DE (the Ahrens) with a cargo net over the side. So I decided to swim for it — maybe 300 yards. Even though I had always been a strong swimmer, I was exhausted by the time I reached the net. At the top two sailors lifted me over the side. Telling them I was OK and could walk on my own, I took a few steps and fell flat. I was exhausted!”
 

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