Jun 2

This Day in Naval History: June 2 – FIRST Aircraft Escort Carrier

Sunday, June 2, 2019 12:01 AM

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Aerial port broadside view of USS Long Island (CVE-1) underway.

USS Long Island (CVE-1) (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

On June 2, 1941, the USS Long Island (AVG-1) was commissioned as the first Auxiliary Aircraft Escort Carrier. The design led to more experimentation, turning merchant ships into aircraft carriers. By the end of World War II, there were more escort carriers than aircraft carriers.

You are probably wondering what is an escort carrier? Don’t you mean an aircraft carrier? Wasn’t the first carrier called the Langley?

Yes, the aircraft carrier came before the escort carrier. During World War II, there was a shortage of aircraft transport vessels. As a result, the escort carrier was created out of merchant ships to act as a make-shift aircraft carrier.

History

In the Proceedings July 1932 article “The Need for Additional Aircraft Carriers,” by Major General James E. Fechet, states, “the only way to oppose hostile air forces arriving by sea is with fighting aircraft based at sea. This is done through the medium of the aircraft carrier.” At the time, there were only two carriers in the fleet: the USS Lexington and USS Ranger. Fechet argued the carrier is a weapon for fighting a weaker but faster fleet.

Read the entire article here.

How the Escort Carrier Evolved

In December 1940, Rear Admiral William F. Halsey sent a letter to CNO Harold R. Stark stating the entry of the U.S. into the European war would require all six aircraft carriers deployed immediately. Thus, the U.S. would be left with nothing to transport our aircraft to overseas bases and restrict training exercises.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s naval aide, Captain Daniel Callahan, proposed to increase convoy protection, “a 6,000- to 8,000-ton merchant vessel capable of attaining a speed of at least 15 knots be converted into an experimental carrier equipped with a flight deck that could accommodate ten helicopters or ten planes with low-landing speeds.” In less than three months, the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock completed the conversion of the C-3 into the first Auxiliary Aircraft Escort Carrier USS Long Island.

USS Long Island (AVG-1)

USS Long Island (AVG-1) (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

The 10,000 ton Mormacmail, a C-3 merchant ship, was the first ship converted into escort carrier. “[S]he had a flush flight deck extending 362 feet abaft and above the pilothouse, a catapult installed to launch planes off her port bow, and a single elevator. Designed to carry 16 carrier scouting planes (SOCs), she was also armed with two 3-inch/50-caliber guns on her forecastle and a single 5-inch/51 gun at her stern. Following flight-testing on board the carrier later that summer, in September 1941 the Bureau of Ships authorized adding 77 additional feet to her flight deck by extending it forward over the pilothouse.” (Jeffrey G. Barlow, “The Navy’s Escort Carrier OffensiveNaval History November 2013,)

More Auxiliary Vessels

Following the attack of Pearl Harbor, the board on Navy Auxiliary Vessels recommended the requisition of 24 additional merchant hulls to convert into more auxiliary aircraft carriers. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox approved and the Maritime Commission agreed to give the Navy 20 C-3 freighters.

As World War II continued the need increased. In the June 2019 Proceedings, Ensign G. I. “Ike” Heinemann, USN, wrote about the usefulness of the light aircraft carriers (CVL) that closed the gaps in the fleet and their operations as independent naval air fleets. The ships were so useful the majority of the Navy’s carriers were escort carriers CVEs. Ultimately, of the 151 aircraft carriers built in WWII, 122 were escort carriers.

To read the entire article by Ensign Heinemann, click here

Often one auxiliary carrier was part of each surface-support group and operated offensively in “killer operations,” for example the USS Bogue (CVE-9). It sunk the German U-Boat U-118 on 12 June 1943 near the Canary Islands.

USS Bogue (CVE-9)

USS Bogue (CVE-9) (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

U-118 is attacked and sunk by U.S. Navy aircraft from the USS Bogue (CVE-9) (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

Operations

The USS Long Island (AVG-1) participated in the transportation of reinforcement planes in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

A Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter is lifted on board USS Long Island (ACV-1) from USS Kitty Hawk (APV-1), at Fila Harbor, New Hebrides, 28 August 1942. This plane was en route to Guadalcanal as part of the second group of U.S. Marine Corps planes to be based at Henderson Field. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph)

The planes, 19 Grumman F4F Wildcats and 12 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers aboard the USS Long Island (ACV-1) (reclassified as ACV in 1942), were some of the first to reach Henderson Field. These planes became instrumental in the air assault campaign. (Morison, Samuel Eliot (2010). The Struggle for Guadalcanal: August 1942 – February 1943. Naval Institute Press.)

U.S. Navy transports at anchor off Guadalcanal Island in 1943.

U.S. Navy transports at anchor off Guadalcanal Island in 1943. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

Beached Japanese transports burn at Guadalcanal as a SBD Dauntless dive bomber flies by in the foreground, 26 November 1942.

Beached Japanese transports burn at Guadalcanal as a SBD Dauntless dive bomber flies by in the foreground, 26 November 1942. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

Following V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day) the USS Long Island (CVE-1) participated in Operation Magic Carpet, along with many escort carriers. The ship reclassified as CVE, an escort aircraft carrier or “baby flattop.” The mission was to repatriate the millions of A`merican military personnel from the multiple theaters of the Pacific, Europe, and Asia.

Post-war the Long Island was decommissioned in 1946 at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. In 1948, it was converted for merchant use, renamed Nelly in 1949, and served as an immigrant carrier for Europe and Canada. (Silverstone, Paul H. (1968). U.S. Warships of World War II. Doubleday & Company)

Ultimately, it scrapped in Belgium in 1977. The Long Island’s awards include one battle star for service in WWII.

Why is this important?

The escort carrier is an example of the Navy’s adaptability. Converting merchant ships to transport aircraft in 3 months is astoundingly productive rather than building a carrier from scratch. This practice continues today, the use of commercial-off-the-shelf technology integration in the Navy is applied even to the most complex of vessels, our submarines.