USS Block Island Association

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CVE 21 Memories

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Maury Gamache (USS Ahrens)

Frank Burt (USS Ahrens)

In an email from Maury Gamache to Jack Greer:

“You are the first people that I have talked to that were there “that” day. We had an  old gun mount with 101’s (similar to a 40mm) if I remember correctly. I normally was  assigned to the depth charge and K gun area but while we were  picking up survivors I  was sent to the 101  gun mount, along with an ensign. While I was there he told me to keep a close look out to the opposite side where the survivor activity was taking place,  which I did with an occasional look  in that direction. After a while, I think it was just  after dusk, I saw a periscope on the left side of the ship and I was so speechless that I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed and he saw the same periscope. He immediately notified the bridge and that is when the Ahrens had to break off the picking up of survivors and make emergency speed to avoid being sunk also. "

He closed his email saying that he apologized to the survivors that the Ahrens had to leave stranded there in the water as none of those  survivors had any idea that the submarine contact had been made.

“I am glad that I have  finally shared my memory with some one else who was there”

Frank Burt, Chief Radioman from the USS Ahrens, attended the annual USS Block Island Association reunion held in 2000. At the age of 92, he was the oldest member at that time to ever attend the one of the reunions. He added to Maury’s memory with the following:

Maury saw the periscope of the submarine, brought it to the attention of an officer who then notified the FireControl Officer, who then notified the Sonar Officer who traced the submarine but found that the USS Elmore had not picked it's location up on their sonar gear. The Sonar Officer contacted the Radio Room Officer where Frank Burt got involved and passed the location of the submarine over the airways to the Elmore's Radio room,  who passed that position on to the Fire Control Officer who then gave directions to the depth charge crews.

“Buster” Lapeyrolerie (CVE 21/106)

“Where was I when first torpedo hit? Caught with my britches down, in the shower below deck, I ran up to hangar deck with a towel "around my “you know what”. Towels were bathrobes to and from shower, our “shack” located under smoke stack, halfway between hangar deck and flight deck. I ran up the ladder, put on jeans and shirt as the second torpedo hit; ran back down to hangar deck to catch a life jacket as they were dropped from storage rack on port bulkhead. I had promised this "priority" since I was (and still am) a poor swimmer. When the third torpedo hit, “abandon ship” blared out. Went out on port forward sponson and “jumped.” Someone always asks, “What were you thinking of?” Nothing but “jump for survival.” After drifting for some time, I caught on a floating rope raft with 8 other shipmates. I don't remember time in the water. Umpteen “Our Fathers” later, Ahrens picked us up. We had no way to control our rope raft, so after several near misses, Ahrens "laid-by" and let us drift up to them. Up on deck, Ahrens sailors cut our oil-soaked clothes and threw them overboard. Seven hundred men on a ship built for 200!  We were warned to keep well scattered about the ship, as “Don't Rock the Boat.” I was dressed in "Long John's" and the cook's mate gave me a hot cup of coffee, saying “You need this more then I do!”  After it was all over, I realized I had left my brand new “shake-to-wind” wristwatch in my locker and it was “water-proof.”  Several years later, I was swapping war stories with my brother-in-law. Neither knew where the other was during the war. He was in Army Quarter Master Corps in Casablanca and had supplied USS B.I. survivors with "army issue!”

George Hadden (CVE 21)

Note: Ensign George Hadden, from Big Lake, MN served on CVE 21 as an aero engineer. He continued his U.S. Navy service  until well after WWII.  In 1992,  George Hadden, serving as Ships Doctor on a container ship operating in the Pacific, wrote a book "George at War, Part II. ". Dr. George Hadden died in 1998 and Mrs. Marjorie Hadden, his widow , provided the USS Block Island Association with excerpts from his document "Operations on the USS Block Island, March-Mid-May 1944 " so that they could be shared for preservation.

“There were only a couple dozen planes aboard, 12 either -General Motors TBMs or Grumman TBFs,  3-man Torpedo planes rigged with all sorts of aerial radar search gear. They carried MIV aerial mines, being a short stubby torpedo- in fact, motor driven - that would home in on the sub's screw noise when within a few hundred yards. 10 or so Fighters were either F4F-3 Grumman Wildcats or General Motors FM-2s, essentially identical, each being stubby little mid fuselage wing jobs. The fighters could take off if we had a bit of wind over the deck but the torpedo bombers always had to be catapulted with only 1850 Wright engines making them one slow clumsy bird. We were primarily seeking to kill German supply subs other wise known as "milk-cow" subs. These were big varmints approaching 3000 tons and would maintain 6-8 attack submarines of 750 tons, thus avoiding the gauntlet between SE England and the Nazi submarine pens along the NW coast of France. The poor buggers on the attack subs apparently never got ashore and the looks of a handful of survivors we saved from the two subs our planes killed on the six weeks' cruise between Norfolk and Casablanca proved it.  Long hippy-like haircuts but most striking was their skin, sickly like one's skin looks when he pulls off an adhesive bandage that has been in place for a week.

The sailors saved had to be stowed in the brig, but the one 28 year old skipper was given the run of the ship by our Captain after he pledged his honor. He ate in the wardroom, gave us long discourses on how we were doing and what was right or wrong about our tactics. He spoke perfect British English, being educated there until called into the German Navy just before 1939. It should be noted that he stressed that there were few , if any, real dedicated Nazis in the German Navy and subsequent facts during and after surrender proved this.

All these survivors knew the exact location of POW camps in the USA, something I surely didn't, wondering whether they would be sent to Texas, North Dakota, etc. I understand a good number of them, especially in the Dakotas, got to stay on after the war, married and are very productive citizens at this time

The Landing Signal Officer (LSO) names Tommy Thompson from Colorado Springs, Colorado, was my best friend aboard and a flyer, but never flew off the ship. Actually, he was the most important man aboard, being responsible for getting the planes aboard at any time and in any weather.”

( Jack Greer comment: Being an aircraft carrier built to be the "floating airport or landing field" for aircraft of all nature, and to provide service all over the world at any time, it is understood by all military personnel why our little LSO welcomes you aboard this website).

“He stood on a wooden platform level with the flight deck, jutting out beyond the catwalk, having a bet extending maybe 3 feet beyond it where it projected beyond the ship that he could dive into to escape being decapitated by a wing or in fact the entire airplane if it came in too low or crashed against the ship. I spent many off duty hours up there just behind his platform just outside his diving range, and believe I could have waved a plane aboard if it had became necessary.

There was an assistant LSO aboard, but the squadron wanted Thompson after very little experience with him and the other chap never waved a flat that I knew of. I don't think that Tommy ever hit his bunks for weeks, dozing in the ready room only, located amidships just below the flight deck with a light lock door to the catwalk and then 4-5 step ladder up to the flight deck. He guided the planes aboard using two orange fluorescent colored paddles, short handled and about the size of a tennis racket. At night, a fluorescent light in front of him shined on the paddles, but this was all the pilot could see. All Tommy had to guide with was the flash of lights from the exhaust ports on the plane's engine. The flight deck had slit-like lights that showed over only about a 20 degree arc that could be seen by the pilot along each side of the flight deck, but if, and only if, he was in the "grove" so to speak on a proper approach.

There were three arresting barriers of heavy cable around  mid-ship, making a stout fence so to speak, and if a plane came in to fast or too high, or the deck dropped out from under it due to wave action, sailors manning the barriers could throw a hydraulic switch dropping the first two barriers but never the third. As soon as the prop hit the barrier, the plane would rear up with the tail high and the last few revolutions of the prop would often chew up through the 4-inch fir deck and steel deck below that, throwing a bit of shrapnel down in a shower onto my plane maintenance crew on the hanger deck below. For a while I considered outfitting my crew with steel helmets to avoid possible injury, but they would have none of that. They groaned nonetheless because they knew that with the sudden stoppage of the engine, it meant another total engine change and a new prop for the plane.

Navy Squadron VC 55 served aboard CVE 21 after the ship completed the "aircraft ferrying" trips to Belfast, Ireland. The pilots must train continually to maintain their ability to land and take off from the Carrier. While "take offs" (either by fly offs or catapult) are relatively safe,  however, it requires some great skills landing an aircraft on the deck of a carrier. The picture is a celebration cake for the 1000th landing that VC 55 made on CVE 21 in the Atlantic chasing German Submarines.”  

Note: The following is from the Epilogue regarding the sinking of CVE-21.

"I think note should be made of the fate of the six F4F fighters we had in the air at the time of the sinking. They were given the option via radio from the ship: fly to the Azores and be interned for the rest of the war by a neutral country, Portugal; try to ditch near a large fleet of French fishing vessels, known to be off the shores of the Azores; or ditch along side the rest of us (being the remaining three Destroyer escorts). They all had enough gas and after the ship went down, they all made a graceful dive over us, above the water, wiggling their wings as a final salute. Two of them did land at the Azores, four of them ditched and two of those perished, not to be heard from again. Two were picked up by French fishermen and were ashore in Casablanca waiting for us there.”


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