Coast Guard Keeps tabs on China in Aleutians, Maldives, and West Pac

The Coast Guard, flush with capable new vessels, has been steadily stretching its legs as of late, taking up the Navy’s slack a bit, and waving the flag increasingly in overseas locations. This new trend makes sense as, besides the formal People’s Liberation Army Navy, the growing (200 white hulled cutters) China Coast Guard and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (4,600 blue hulled trawlers) are everywhere.

Case in point, this week the USCG’s 17th District, which covers Alaska, announced the USCGC Kimball (WMSL-756), while on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea, encountered the 13,000-ton Chinese Type 055 “destroyer” (NATO/OSD Renhai-class cruiser) Renhai (CG 101), sailing approximately 75 nautical miles north of Kiska Island. A state-of-the-art vessel comparable to a Ticonderoga-class cruiser but larger, Renhai has a 112-cell VLS system as well as two helicopters and a 130mm naval gun. Compare this to Kimball’s single 57mm MK110 and CIWS, and you see the disparity.

A Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crewmember observing a foreign vessel in the Bering Sea, September 19, 2022. (USCG Photo)

Kimball also noted other ships as well.

Via 17th District:

The Kimball crew later identified two more Chinese naval vessels and four Russian naval vessels, including a Russian Federation Navy destroyer, all in a single formation with the Renhai as a combined surface action group operating in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

As a result, the Kimball crew is now operating under Operation Frontier Sentinel, a Seventeenth Coast Guard District operation designed to meet presence with presence when strategic competitors operate in and around U.S. waters. The U.S Coast Guard’s presence strengthens the international rules-based order and promotes the conduct of operations in a manner that follows international norms. While the surface action group was temporary in nature, and Kimball observed it disperse, the Kimball will continue to monitor activities in the U.S. EEZ to ensure the safety of U.S. vessels and international commerce in the area. A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak C-130 Hercules aircrew provided support to the Kimball’s Operation Frontier Sentinel activities.

This is not the first time Coast Guard cutters deployed to the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean encountered Chinese naval vessels inside the U.S. EEZ/MARDEZ. Last August, Kimball and her sister Berthoff kept tabs on a surface action group– a guided missile cruiser, a guided missile destroyer, a general intelligence vessel, and an auxiliary vessel– transiting within 46 miles of the Aleutians.

Meanwhile, in the Maldives

Kimball’s sister, the Hawaii-based USCGC Midgett (WMSL 757) and crew, on a Westpac patrol under the tactical control of 7th Fleet, arrived in the Maldives last week, the first Coast Guard ship to visit the 1,200-island Indian Ocean country since USCGC Boutwell in 2009.

The class of large (418-foot/4,500-ton) frigate-sized cutters have done numerous Westpac cruises in the past few years. Since 2019, the cutters Bertholf (WMSL 750), Stratton (WMSL 752), Waesche (WMSL 751), and Munro (WMSL 755) have deployed to the Western Pacific.

Micronesia and the Solomans

Capping off a six-week extended patrol across Oceania, the 154-foot Webber/Sentinel-class fast response cutter USCGC Oliver Henry (WPC 1140) arrived back at homeport in Guam on 19 September.

The 20-member crew, augmented by two Guam-based shoreside Coasties (a YN2 and an MK2) two Navy rates (an HS2 and HM3), and a Marine Korean linguist, conducted training, fisheries observations, community and key leader engagements, and a multilateral sail.

How about that blended blue and green crew? “The crew of the Sentinel-class fast response cutter USCGC Oliver Henry (WPC 1140) takes a moment for a photo in Cairns, Australia, Sept. 5, 2022. The U.S. Coast Guard is conducting a routine deployment in Oceania as part of Operation Blue Pacific, working alongside Allies, building maritime domain awareness, and sharing best practices with partner nation navies and coast guards. Op Blue Pacific is an overarching multi-mission U.S. Coast Guard endeavor promoting security, safety, sovereignty, and economic prosperity in Oceania while strengthening relationships with our regional partners.” (U.S. Coast Guard photo Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Ray Blas)

They covered more than 8,000 nautical miles from Guam to Cairns, Queensland, Australia, and returned with several stops in Papua New Guinea and one in the Federated States of Micronesia. They also operated with HMS Spey, the first Royal Navy warship to be forward deployed to the Pacific since Hong Kong went back to China.

The two ships were also– and this is key– refused a port visit in the Solomans which is now under a treaty with China that allows PLAN ships to refuel in Honiara. The local government there later clarified that not all foreign military ships were off limits to their ports, as Australia and New Zealand will be exempt (both countries have significant economic ties with the island nation) but it is still a bad look. Of irony, Spey and Oliver Henry were conducting an Operation Island Chief mission in the region, policing illegal fishing of the kind China is noted for.

The Coast Guard currently has three new FRCs in Guam including Henry, Myrtle Hazard (WPC 1139), and Frederick Hatch (1143), giving them options in the Westpac.

The Guide Gun is Back…

The Guide Gun, a hard-hitting carbine with an 18.5-inch barrel chambered in .45-70 Government, was one of the “old” Marlin’s staples, produced from 1998 until 2020 when the brand shuttered with the bankruptcy of Remington Outdoors.

The Marlin 1895G/SG from the maker’s 2018 catalog.

Now, with Marlin since acquired by Ruger and moved under the house of the Red Phoenix, the Guide is back in the field. Still based on the M1895 lever gun with a .45-70 chambering, the new “big loop” model goes a little longer than past carbines, stretching the alloy steel barrel to 19.1 inches for an overall length of 37.25 inches.

What is new is that the cold hammer-forged barrel is threaded– 11/16″-24TPI– and a companion 6+1 mag tube (versus 4+1 in the old 1895G) which explains the bump in length. The gun, Ruger’s first introduction of an alloy steel Marlin rifle with a blued finish, weighs 7.4 pounds.

Plus, it is about $200-250 less than Muger’s other M1895s…

More in my column at Guns.com.

‘A New Kind of Navy Man Pioneering a New Concept of Sea Power in the Age of Space’

Enjoy this great 27-minute circa 1960 film “Man And The FBM” covering the Navy’s Cold War Fleet Ballistic Missile submarine force and the UGM-27 Polaris nuclear-tipped SLBMs they carried. 

Keep in mind, the film was made just a few years after USS Nautilus took to the sea and only 15 since the first, comparatively puny, A-bomb was dropped from a propeller-driven bomber.

These first nuclear-powered FBM submarines, armed with long-range strategic missiles, were ordered on 31 December 1957, with the building attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) lengthened with a 130-foot section to accommodate 16 Polaris missiles.

Rear Admiral William F. Rayborn, USN (left), and Admiral Arleigh A. Burke, USN, Chief of Naval Operations. Examine a cutaway model of the ballistic missile submarine George Washington (SSBN-598), July 1959. Official U.S. Navy photograph. Catalog#: USN 710496.

Completed as USS George Washington (SSBN-598), she was commissioned on 30 December 1959, just short of two years later, the first of the “41 for Freedom” boats that kicked off the strategic missile deterrent patrol system still maintained today. Footage of the GW’s commissioning is included in the film. 

Seldom heard from, the 41 boats of the FBM program made an incredible 2,824 armed patrols during their time on earth, each typically about 65 days. This is about 502 patrol years at sea during the Cold War.

Enjoy!

Ye Olde Glock: Obsolete or Not?

Back around 2012, my carry choice was a SIG Sauer P229R, a 13+1, a platform that I had lots of experience with as I carried one and instructed others on it in my “day job” as a contractor with the Dept. of Homeland Security. While I owned Glocks already, they were in .45 GAP and .40S&W (hey, it was 2012).

Downshifting to the more compact G19 in 9mm, I picked up a brand new Gen 3 model and found it easy and even fun to shoot. Soon, it was my everyday carry. The reason was obvious. While roughly the same length and height as a Glock 19, a P229 loaded with 14 rounds of 147-grain JHPs hits my kitchen scales at 37 ounces. The G19, with 16 rounds loaded, weighs 31 ounces. Plus, with the striker-fired action, there was no need for working a decocker or the hassle of a hammer catching on clothing. The Glock was point-and-shoot while at the same time being more snag-free.

Fast forward a decade and the question is: is it still a valid carry gun? The answer may surprise.

If you don’t care about a red dot-equipped pistol or fingergrooves, the Gen 3 G19 still stacks up despite being a lot older. Not bad for a pistol introduced the same year the Beastie Boys released Intergalactic.

More in my column at Guns.com.

150 Years of Cruisers sent to Mothballs

Over the weekend, the Pascagoula-built Ticonderoga-class sisters USS Hué City (CG-66) and USS Anzio (CG-68) were decommissioned, ending the lengthy careers of the two cruisers. Ordered on the same day in 1987 as part of a money-saving bulk buy, they were the first and second U.S. Navy warships named after their respective Vietnam and WWII-era battles.

Commissioned just nine months apart (14 September 1991 and 2 May 1992) they served 61 years combined.

ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 4, 2016) The guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (CG 68) transits the Atlantic Ocean alongside aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), not pictured. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Justin R. Pacheco/Released) 160704-N-NU281-142

U.S. 5th FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Sept. 27, 2012) The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Hue City (CG 66) is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Scott Pittman/Released) 120927-N-FI736-273

They were preceded by the younger USS Vella Gulf (CG-72), decommissioned last month on 4 August just shy of 29 years of service, and the slightly older USS Monterey (CG-61), decommissioned on 19 September after 32.

A fifth Tico, USS Port Royal (CG-73), is set to decommission on Thursday– at Pearl Harbor– bringing a close to her 28th year with the fleet. Port Royal is the youngest of her class and will likely be the last cruiser ever built for the U.S. Navy.

Truly the end of an era.

NEW YORK CITY (May 20, 2009) The guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf (CG 72) transits the Hudson River during the Parade of Ships as part of Fleet Week New York City 2009. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Danals/Released)

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct. 6, 2020) The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61), front, the Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Thomas Hudner (DDG 116), center, and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf (CG 72) sail in formation with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), not pictured. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Aimee Ford) 201006-N-VG565-0001

PEARL HARBOR (June 24, 2011) The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal (CG 73) passes by the Waianae Mountains as the ship departs Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for a scheduled deployment in the western Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Barker/Released) 110624-N-RI884-060

These five decommissionings strip the Navy of 610 strike-length VLS cells, 10 5-inch MK45 guns, 60 ASW torpedo tubes, 80 Harpoons, five helicopter hangars, and assorted Aegis systems with companion air defense commander suites.

It could be argued that six Flight III Burkes could more than replace the capabilities lost with the five paid-off cruisers and the Navy plans on buying two destroyers per year from FY 2023 through FY 2027 but that seems like a long way away, especially considering the 17 remaining Ticos are all set to be retired by then.

Meanwhile, the DDG(X) program, which is supposed to fill the gap left by the cruiser slaughter, isn’t set to even start fabrication until FY2028. 

Once upon a time: Marine AV-8A Harriers Testing Sea Control Ship Concept

We’ve covered the trials and deployment of a Marine Hawker Siddeley AV-8A Harrier squadron, the Aces of VMA-231, on the Iwo Jima-class phib USS Guam (LPH-9) in 1976 on numerous occasions.

Part of CNO Elmo Zumwalt’s “Sea Control Ship” concept that would provide a Cold War-era evolution to the escort carrier concept for convoy protection and ASW hunter-killer teams, the basic idea was to turn these small (18,000-tons, 592-feet oal) flattops into economical CVEs overnight through the fly-on of a Harrier det for air defense/surface strike and a Sea King SH-3 ASW/SAR element.

Of course, Zumwalt wanted some dedicated SCS hulls, but, barring the shipbuilding dollars, the Iwo Jimas could work in a pinch.

Planned Sea Control Ship concept, art

Planned Sea Control Ship concept, model

Sea control ship outline, Janes ’73

The entry for Iwo Jima-class LPH USS Guam as an interim sea control ship in the 1973-74 Jane’s

Well, prior to VMA-231 shipping out on Guam, the Marines ran an extensive evaluation trial in March 1971 on her sister, USS Guadalcanal (LPH-7). I recently came across about 30 minutes of color footage from those trials, involving the “Flying Nightmares” of Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 513, from MACS Beaufort– the first American Harrier squadron– in the National Archives.

Check out this screengrab:

Now that’s a beautiful aircraft. Dig those full-color roundels and the Marine crest. The British-made AV-8A was essentially the same as the RAF’s Harrier GR.1 with very few changes. Keep in mind the first Marine Harrier arrived in the USA on 21 January 1971, just two months before this trial, and the last was delivered in November 1976. 

The videos show ordnance in play, lots of short take-offs and vertical landings of camouflaged early British-built AV-8As, and even some night operations.

Enjoy!

 

Guns of the Air Force at 75

While Ben Franklin theorized using airships to deliver troops to battle behind enemy lines as early as 1783 and the Union Army fielded a balloon service in the Civil War, today’s Air Force traces its origin to the heavier-than-air machines of the U.S. Army’s Aeronautical Division, founded in 1907– just four years after the Wright brothers first flew. After service in Army green during both World Wars, the Air Force became an independent branch of the military in 1947 with the first Secretary of the Air Force named on Sept. 18 and its first Chief of Staff named on Sept. 26. 

To salute the 75th birthday of the USAF this week, I took a deep dive into the small arms of the organization over the years, including some rares.

Cold War-era Colt survival gun prototype
A Cold War-era Colt survival gun prototype on display at the USAF Armament Museum (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)
Remington XP-100 survival gun
The Remington XP-100 survival gun concept. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)
Bushmaster Arm Pistol in 5.56mm
The Bushmaster Arm Pistol in 5.56mm was another planned Air Force survival gun that made it about as high as a lead balloon. Bushmaster did, however, put it in limited commercial production. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

More in my column at Guns.com.

 

Guppy foursome

Subron-21’s GUPPY IIIs in formation on 18 April 1966.

USS Clamagore (SS-343) is in front, with USS Corporal (SS-346) on Clamagore’s port side, USS Cobbler (SS-344) on Clamagore’s starboard side, and USS Blenny (SS-324) bringing up the rear. All four submarines were part of the Balao-class, and all were commissioned into the U.S. Navy in the final two years of WWII although only Blenny arrived in time to make war patrols that earned battle stars (four) prior to VJ-Day.

In formation on 18 April 1966. The boats seen are: USS BLENNY (SS-324), CLAMAGORE (SS-343), COBBLER (SS-344), and CORPORAL (SS-346)

In formation on 18 April 1966. The boats seen are: USS BLENNY (SS-324), CLAMAGORE (SS-343), COBBLER (SS-344), and CORPORAL (SS-346)

Of the quartet, Clamagore survived the longest, retired in 1980, and was scrapped earlier this year after four decades of slowly wasting away as a museum ship in Charleston.

Blenny, the WWII combat vet, decommissioned in 1973, was scuttled off Ocean City, Maryland, on 7 June 1989.

Cobbler, who transferred to Turkey in 1973, was renamed TCG Çanakkale (S 341) and somehow served until 1998.

Corporal also transferred to Turkey although in 1974 and, commissioned TCG Ikinci İnönü (S333), served until 1996.

Bears growling

The Coast Guard’s 1,780-ton, 270-foot medium endurance cutters, the “Famous” or Bear-class are getting around in the news this week as two of them have just wrapped up lengthy patrols.

Built in the 1980s and akin to a patrol frigate/destroyer escort of old, these 13 cutters are downright elderly by modern surface warfare escort comparisons. While they are of the same vintage as the remaining Ticonderoga class cruisers (which the Navy is shedding as quickly as Congress will allow), their contemporaries in terms of “little boys” in naval service, the FFG-7 class, have long ago faded away.

In fact, the Bears have been living on lots of parts cannibalized from old frigates that were stripped away before being expended in SINKEXs– the class is the last American user of the MK75 OTO Melara 76mm gun system and its associated “boiled egg” MK92 GFCS components.

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Northland conducts a live firing of the MK 75 76mm weapons system while underway, September 20, 2020, in the Atlantic Ocean. The cutter returned to its homeport of Portsmouth, Virginia, Wednesday after a 47-day patrol conducting counter-drug and migrant interdiction operations in the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard courtesy photo)

One of their Cold War selling points was that they could be cheap ASW vessels in time of war, fitted with Light Airborne Multipurpose System III (LAMPS III) integration and the ability to carry a TACTAS towed passive sonar array and a set of Mk32 sub-busting torpedo tubes. It was also planned to fit them with CIWS and Harpoon somehow. Coupled with the cutter’s refueling-at-sea rig, SLQ-32 electronic support measures (the first such fit on a cutter), SRBOC countermeasures, and main battery, they promised a lot of interoperability with the Fleet if Red Storm Rising ever kicked off and were leaps and bounds ahead of the cutters they replaced– the old circa 1930s 327-foot Treasury class of WWII fame and converted fleet tugs.

Bear-class Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba (WMEC-907) leads the formation of International Maritime Forces at UNITAS LVIII in Callao, Peru, Wednesday, July 19, 2017.

Well, the Bears never did get their ASW teeth, or Harpoon, or CIWS, but they do still have a Slick 32 and its 75mm gun and the ability to carry a lightly-armed (machine gun and .50 cal anti-material rifle) Coast Guard MH-65 helicopter– and do still practice Convoy Escort missions on occasion!

Class leader USCGC Bear (WMEC 901) returned to her homeport in Portsmouth Tuesday, after a 74-day patrol in the northern regions of the Atlantic Ocean.

During the deployment, Bear “sailed more than 10,000 nautical miles while simultaneously working in tandem with allied and partner nations as a part of the naval convoy in Operation Nanook, a signature military exercise coordinated by the Canadian Armed Forces.”

Included in the image is HMCS Margaret Brooke, Bear, French support ship  Rhone, Her Danish Majesty’s Ship (HDMS) frigate Triton, HMCS Goose Bay, and Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Leonard J. Cowley. Bear is in the top right corner. 

Operation Nanook 22 USCGC Bear (WMEC 901) with RCN French and Danish forces (RCN photo)

For approximately two weeks, American, Canadian, Danish and French forces navigated the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean performing multiple training evolutions that included search-and-rescue, close-quarters maneuvering, fleet steaming and gunnery exercises. Additionally, personnel from Maritime Security Response Team East, a specialized Coast Guard law enforcement unit, embedded with Bear to exercise their capabilities and assist with enhancing the training curriculums for other nations.

Bear also completed a living marine resource enforcement patrol for commercial fishing vessels as part of the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization, ensuring compliance with federal regulations while safeguarding natural resources.

Meanwhile, her sister, USCGC Legare (WMEC 912), just returned to her homeport Wednesday, after an 11-week counter-narcotics deployment that included key partner nation engagements and search and rescue operations throughout the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Legare patrolled more than 15,000 nautical miles in support of Joint Interagency Task Force South and the Seventh and Eleventh Coast Guard Districts, working in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and federal agents from throughout the U.S., the Royal Netherlands Navy, and partner nation coast guards in the Caribbean Sea and Eastern Pacific Ocean.

During the patrol, Legare successfully interdicted four smuggling vessels, including one specially designed low-profile craft, and seized more than 7,000 pounds of illicit narcotics, valued at approximately $67 million. The crew also offloaded approximately 24,700 pounds of cocaine and 3,892 pounds of marijuana, worth an estimated $475 million, at Base Miami Beach Sept. 15, 2022.

Crew members assigned to USCGC Legare (WMEC 912) interdict a low-profile vessel in the Eastern Pacific Ocean in July 2022. Legare’s crew returned to Portsmouth Wednesday, following an 11-week deployment in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea in support of the Coast Guard’s Eleventh and Seventh Districts and Joint Interagency Task Force South. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Andrew Bogdan)

Warship Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2022: Way Down Upon…

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2022: Way Down Upon…

U.S. Navy photo in the National Archives. 80-G-344419

Above we see Naval Aviators of the “Flying Boars” of Fighter Squadron (VF) 40, upon their return to the Sangamon-class escort carrier USS Suwannee (CVE 27), talking about splashing three Japanese Vals off Okinawa, on 16 May 1945. In flight suits are (L-R): Ensign Raymon L. Lebel, LT John E. Lockridge, and LT (jg) Joseph Coleman. For that month alone, the F6F-3 Hellcat squadron would claim six enemy aircraft and nine fishing boats destroyed.

Not a bad job for flying from a converted oiler.

Tanker flattops

During WWII, the U.S. launched 50 of the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company’s Casablanca-class and 45 smaller Bogue-class escort carriers between September 1941 and June 1944. These 95 rapidly built flattops, based on simple Liberty ship/C3-class freighter hulls, were the bulk of the “jeep carrier” production. At just 10,000-ish tons and about 500 feet long with the ability to carry about 20 or so aircraft (typically Wildcats and Avengers), these formed the backbone of the Allied “hunter-killer” ASW teams in the Battle of the Atlantic and later lent their shoulders to support amphibious warfare landings across the Western Pacific.

However, before the Navy settled for these little guys, it rushed a four-ship class of oiler conversions into service which set the bar high for the type.

The largest escort carriers converted for the U.S. Navy; the Sangamon-class all started life as big Maritime Commission Type T3-S2-A1 oil tankers. Large and turbine powered, the 553-foot, 11,300-ton (gross) vessels could tote 146,000 bbl. of oil at 18-19 knots and do it reliably. A full dozen of these had been laid down before WWII started, originally intended for a variety of U.S.-flagged oil companies. Of that dozen, all were rapidly taken up by the Navy in the summer of 1941 for conversion to desperately needed Cimarron-class oilers, a type the fleet would need possibly more than any other in 1942.

The thing is, in 1942, the Navy found it needed aircraft carriers even more.

Four CimarronsSS Esso Trenton, Esso Seakay, and Esso New Orleans, all originally planned for Standard Oil; and Esso Markay, which would drop the “Esso” and become just the SS Markay for the Keystone Tankship Corp– had only just gotten as far as changing their names to the Cimarron-class standard convention after rivers when the Navy stepped in once again and ordered their fast conversion to “Aircraft Escort Vessels,” often with different hull numbers to keep things properly confusing.

  • SS Esso Trenton became USS Sangamon (AO-28), then AVG-26.
  • SS Esso Seakay became USS Santee (AO-29), then AVG-29.
  • SS Esso New Orleans became USS Chenango (AO-31), then AVG-28
  • SS Markay became USS Suwannee (AO-33), then AVG-27.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

While our vessel is the only “Suwannee” on the NVR– named for the river which rises in Ware County in southeastern Georgia and flows southwest across Florida to empty into the Gulf of Mexico at Suwannee Sound– the Navy had two previous “Suwanee,”: a Civil War gunboat that spent her career fruitlessly chasing the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, and a captured German steamer (ex-SS Mark) that was turned into a collier in the Great War.

Four ladies swimming and eating watermelon in the Suwannee River, Fanning Springs Florida

Our subject vessel was laid down at New Jersey’s Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. as hull number 5 on 3 June 1939 for Standard Oil, then, as mentioned, was delivered to Keystone in early 1941 sans her planned “Esso” prefix. She was purchased by the Navy on 26 June 1941.

Tanker SS Markay (incorrectly listed as Esso Markay) was photographed on 26 June 1941, just before conversion into USS Suwannee (AO-33), later AVG/CVE-27). Probably photographed in Baltimore, Maryland. 19-N-24297

Her Navy conversion was brief, and Suwannee was placed in commission on 16 July 1941 after just three weeks of work which consisted primarily of adding underway replenishment gear, painting her haze gray, and bolting on a topside armament of a single 5-inch gun and four water-cooled .50 caliber machine guns.

Her first task was to take Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (MTBRon) 1, including its men as passengers and six 77-foot Elco torpedo boats (PT-20, PT-21, PT-22, PT-23, PT-24, and PT-25) as deck cargo, to Hawaii, shipping out from Brooklyn with the mosquito boats aboard and arriving at Pearl Harbor on 18 September, delivering the craft to Hawaii. Originally to go to the Philippines, MTBRon 1 would instead see action at Pearl Harbor, then later at the Battle of Midway, and participated in the Aleutian campaign.

PT Boats and Zeros Painting, Oil on Canvas; by Griffith Baily Coale; 1942; Unframed Dimensions 10H X 20W Accession #: 88-188-AF On the brightly colored waters of the lagoon, the PTs are skimming about, darting here and dodging there, maneuvering between the rows of machine gun splashes, incessantly firing their twin pairs 50 caliber guns.

Shipping back to the East Coast, Suwannee carried passengers and cargo from Texas to Newfoundland in the uneasy neutrality that was the U.S. in 1941. At Norfolk Navy Yard in maintenance on December 7th, she continued her service as an oiler, dodging U-boats along the East Coast.

With the success of the small early escort carriers USS Long Island (originally AVG-1, later ACV-1 then CVE-1), her sister HMS Archer (D78), and the Royal Navy auxiliary aircraft carrier (aka escort carrier) HMS Audacity (D10), it was decided just two months after Pearl Harbor to convert the quartet of above-mentioned oilers to carriers.

With that, Suwannee decommissioned on 20 February 1942 at Newport News, Virginia, to begin the conversion process.

Meet your new carrier

Recommissioned 24 September 1942– 80 years ago this week– our new carrier’s first skipper was Capt. (later Admiral) Joseph James “Jocko” Clark. The first Native American to graduate from Annapolis when the Cherokee passed out in 1917, Jocko learned his trade in the surface warfare field and then became a Naval Aviator in 1925. He was XO of USS Yorktown (CV-5) at the Coral Sea and Midway, having just seen his beloved carrier sent to the bottom just three months before taking command of his tanker-turned oiler-turned-AVG. Kind of a demotion and promotion all at the same time.

Armed with two 5″/38s, one port another starboard, these ships would eventually carry 22 40mm and 21 20mm AAA guns before the war was out, giving them a respectable self-defense armament.

The Sangamon class carrier’s air department included the flight deck and hangar deck crew, an Aerology Lab, radar, and radio maintenance shops, a photographic lab, a parachute loft, an ordnance gang, and Air Office. With a flight deck 503 feet long and 85 feet wide, they had a single catapult installed but would later pick up a second. They were the only CVEs during the war that were deemed suitable to fly dive bombers from as the SBDs were awkward on small hulls since their tough wings, filled with massive air braking flaps, did not fold.

Keep in mind that in their full-load 1944 displacement, the Sangamons went almost 25,000 tons, twice the weight of other CVEs. This made them more akin to light carriers (CVLs) which were made from converted light cruiser hulls.

USS Sangamon, as converted

Suwanee’s first air group, 18 F4F Wildcats and 15 new TBF Avengers of Escort Scouting Group (VGS) 27 were the Navy’s top aircraft of the time and were attached on the day she was recommissioned. It should be noted this was significantly larger than the freighter-based CVEs (some of which only shipped out with eight aircraft) and, with a more robust hull type, the oiler-based baby flattops could conduct ops in higher seas.

As noted in Hunter-Killer: U.S. Escort Carriers in the Battle of the Atlantic by William T. Y’Blood:

The Sangamon-class ships were much more stable than the Bouge-class vessels because they had lower flight decks– 42 feet versus 54 feet– on a longer hull. These vessels also had two elevators but the hangar deck distance between them was shorter than in the other carriers. This shorter length was mitigated by increased width and no shear in the hangar deck area. A number of openings in the flat sides of the hull gave excellent ventilation for the hangar deck.

One big advantage that vessels of the Sangamon class had over the Bogue class was in the amount of fuel oil the former could carry. The Bouge could carry only 3,290 tons whereas the Sangamons could carry over 5,880 tons. Over and above this, too, was the fact that these ex-oilers could carry 100,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 7,000 gallons of aviation lubricants.

The Sangamon-class were very efficient, with more speed, greater range, increased stability, and the capability of operating more aircraft than the earlier escort carrier classes. However, because of the critical need for more oilers, these four ships would be the only such vessels converted. Had sufficient tanker hulls been available, the Kaiser CVEs might never have been built.

Aerial view of the escort carrier USS Suwanee (CVE-27) underway. USN 470158

Torch!

Just barely out of the shipyard– their guns had only been test fired for structural validation and yard workers were still aboard– the four Sangamons were joined with the Navy’s only “real” carrier in the Atlantic at the time, the smallish USS Ranger (CV-4), to form TF34 under RADM Ernest McWhorter and head to North Africa where they would support the Operation Torch landings.

As the Vichy French had 170 modern aircraft ashore in Morrocco as well as a significant surface and submarine force, and, if they wanted to, could be a formidable opponent, the five-carrier task force had its hands full.

The carriers had to mix and match their air wings so that Chenango could carry 76 Army P-40F Warhawks on a one-way trip. To support the landings, Ranger carried 54 Wildcats and 18 SBDs while Sangamon would ship with 9 Avengers, 9 SBDs, and 12 Wildcats; Santee with a strike-heavy package of 14 F4Fs, 8 TBFs, and 9 SBDs; and Suwanee with at least 29 Wildcats drawn from VGF-27 and VGF-28 and 9 TBFs. The Wildcats, fresh from Grumman, had to test fire their guns for the first time on the trip from the East Coast to the war zone.

USS Brooklyn (CL-40) and USS Suwannee (ACV-27) underway, with the amphibious convoy, en route to North Africa, in early November 1942. 80-G-30228.

USS Santee (ACV 29) en route to Torch landings

Color image showing SBD Dauntless and F4F Wildcat aircraft on the flight deck of USS Santee (ACV 29) during Operation Torch. Note the directions written on the deck

USS Chenango (CVE-28) ferrying army P-40F fighters to Morocco, with the North African Invasion force, November 1942. 80-G-30221

As the landings had three major objectives– Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers– Ranger and Suwanee would remain in the Center Attack Group (TG 34.9) headed for Casablanca, Sangamon and Chenango headed for Port Lyautey with the Northern Attack Group (TG 34.8), and Santee would cover the Southern Attack Group (TG 34.10)’s push off Safi.

Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter (nicknamed “Rosenblatt’s Reply”) on board USS Suwanee (ACV-27), circa late 1942 or early 1943. The plane bears traces of the yellow Operation Torch marking around its national insignia. Photographed by Ensign Barrett Gallagher, USNR. 80-G-K-15634

SBD Dauntless dive bombers pictured in flight over an escort carrier during Operation Torch. NNAM photo

As noted by DANFS:

Early in the morning of 8 November, Suwanee arrived off the coast of Morocco, and, for the next few days, her Wildcat fighters maintained combat and antisubmarine air patrols, while her Avengers joined Ranger’s in bombing missions. Between 8 and 11 November, Suwannee sent up 255 air sorties and lost only five planes, three in combat and two to operational problems. On 11 November, off Fedala Roads, her antisubmarine patrol claimed the destruction of a submarine, a “kill” not verified in post-war accounting.

While DANFS says Suwanee’s claim wasn’t borne out post-war, most other sources disagree.

To expand on that, Suwanee’s operations included sending her Avengers with Ranger’s airwing to attack the French battleship Jean Bart and three submarines at Casablanca, scoring a bomb hit on the incomplete dreadnought and one on the docked submarines. Her Avengers also got in licks against the cruiser Primaguet and the destroyer Albatros as they tried to sortie from Casablanca’s outer harbor.

With her Wildcats burning gas providing a CAP over the Task Force, it once again fell to her Avengers to do the heavy lifting, with four TBF “Turkeys” smothering the French Redoutable-class submarine Sidi Ferruch (Q181) in a dozen Mk.17 depth bombs off Fedhala Roads.

French submarine Sidi-Ferruch (Q181) facing the cathedral of Saint Mary Major in the Old Port of Marseille, pre WWII

As noted by Y’Blood:

The Sidi-Ferruch was diving when the last four bombs exploded directly over her. The conning tower bobbed back up, and pieces of the vessel were flung in the air. The conning tower then submerged vertically. Violent explosions and a “boiling” of the water disturbed the surface for about ten minutes. Seeing the obvious death throes of the submarine, the fourth pilot held his bombs. A light boiling of the water, accompanied by some oil, continued for 45 minutes. There was no doubt that the VGS-27 fliers had destroyed the sub.

Even Uboat.net, the gold standard these days for Axis submarine losses in Europe, holds that Sidi Ferruch met her end at the hand of Suwanee’s air group.

Overall, the four “oiler carriers” acquitted themselves well in Torch. Despite almost near total inexperience by all involved, with new planes flown by green crews from ships that had been rushed through conversions, the three operational Sangamons flew 582 combat sorties in four days, dropped 399 bombs, and fired 111,000 rounds of ammunition. In exchange, they lost 29 aircraft– 21 from Santee alone– and landed 74 of 76 Army P-40s from Chenango.

Shifting gears to Guadalcanal

The Vichy regime over, and all but occupied metropolitan France now in with the Allies, Suwannee sailed home and, after a short yard period, was transferred to the Pacific where the fight around Guadalcanal was at its height and the Navy could only count on one or two forward deployed carriers at a time, all the others having been sunk or sent home with a beating.

Reaching New Caledonia on 4 January 1943, Suwanee spent the next seven months providing air escorts for Guadalcanal-bound convoys and in the occupation of New Georgia, Rendova, and Vanunu. She was interchangeably part of TF 18 and TF 69 during this period.

View from another ship showing a Sangamon-class aircraft carrier underway in the South Pacific in 1943. NNAM photo

It was during this time that one of her airedales, AMM B. L. Thomas, penned several safety drawings that were turned into posters.

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), April 7, 1943. Flight deck poster made by an AMM, B. L. Thomas, of the crew. Artwork details the dangers of propellers. Photograph: April 7, 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-39315

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details crossing the flight deck during launchings. 80-G-39316

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details crossing the flight deck during landings. 80-G-39317

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details sitting on the flight deck during flight operations. 80-G-39318

Suwannee returned to the U.S. for a brief refit, leaving Espiritu Santo on 26 August and arriving at Alameda on 10 September. There, she left her original air wing of VGS-27 behind and picked up the 12 F6F-3 Hellcats, 9 TBM-1C Avengers, and 9 SBDs of the newly formed Air Group (CVEG) 60 composed of VC-60 and VF-60. She would carry this force through November 1944 and would be the only carrier to embark CVEG-60.

Leaving San Diego on 16 October, Suwannee was back at Espiritu Santo and returned to service in time to spend Thanksgiving 1943 as part of the Gilbert Islands operation, bombing Tarawa with TF 53.

Another short stint on the West Coast and she headed for the Marshalls in January 1944 with her planes raiding the Roi and Namur islands of the Kwajalein Atoll and performing antisubmarine patrols.

Parry Island, Eniwetok Atoll, under bombardment 21 Feb 1944 recon from USS Suwanee (CVE 27) 80-G-218634

Escort carrier Suwannee (CVE 27) pictured at anchor at Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands in an image taken from the heavy cruiser Baltimore (CA 68) Feb 7, 1944

March, joining her three sisters– Sangamon, Chenango, and Santee— as Carrier Division 22 (CarDiv 22), brought raids on the Palau Islands while April saw Suwannee supporting the Hollandia landings.

By June, they were part of the invasion of the Marianas including the campaigns against Saipan and occupied Guam This led to the Battle of the Philippine Sea in which CVEG-60 came face-to-face with another Axis submarine, a Japanese Type KD7 boat.

As told by Combined Fleets on IJN Submarine I-184:

19 June 1944: The Battle of the Philippine Sea: 20 miles SE of Saipan. The USS SUWANEE (CVE-27) is supporting the invasion of the Marianas. Ensign G. E. Sabin’s Grumman TBM-1C “Avenger” torpedo-bomber of VT-60 is flying an ASW patrol. Sabin drops below the cloud cover and spots a surfaced Japanese submarine. LtCdr Rikihisa spots the Avenger and crash-dives, but Sabin drops his depth bombs just ahead of the submarine’s track and sinks I-184 with all 96 hands at 13-01N, 149-53E.

By September, Suwannee was supporting the landings on Morata in the Dutch East Indies and then was placed in the vanguard of the force headed to liberate the Philippines after two years of Japanese occupation.

The Divine Wind

Sailing from Manus with RADM Thomas L. Sprague’s Escort Carrier Group Task Unit 77.4.1 (Taffy 1) of TF77 on 12 October with her sisters Santee and Sangamon along with the new Casablanca-class “Kaiser coffin” USS Petroff Bay (CVE-80), Suwannee’s planes were soon raiding the Visayas.

By the 24th Taffy 1 was embroiled in the wild combat that swirled around the Battle of Leyte Gulf, just escaping the sacrifice of TG 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”) off Samar. While her airwing landed several blows against Japanese capital ships– battered survivors of the Battle of Surigao Strait– Suwannee and her sisters were subject to repeated kamikaze attacks from land-based planes across the 24th-26th.

Despite bagging at least one Zeke with her AAA guns, Suwannee took a hit about 40 feet forward of her aft elevator which peeled back a 10-foot hole in her deck and penetrated to the hangar where a 25-foot gash was ripped in the deck.

“Two Japanese Zero aircraft making suicide attacks on USS Sangamon (CVE 26) off Leyte Gulf, Philippines, as seen from USS Suwannee (CVE 27). One Japanese near miss near the bow. Trailing Japanese turned away and was shot down by our fighters, 25 October 1944.” 80-G-270665

Fires and explosion on USS Suwannee (CVE 27) resulting from a suicide hit of a Japanese “Zero” near Leyte Gulf, Philippines, taken from USS Sangamon (CVE 25), 25 October 1944. 80-G-270626

Japanese “Zero” crashes deck of USS Suwannee (CVE 27) and bursts into flames, Leyte Gulf, Philippines, 25 October 1944. TBM may be seen in flight behind the smoke. This plane which was loaded with a torpedo was unharmed by the crash. 80-G-270662

Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944. Damage done to USS Suwannee (CVE 27) after attack by a Japanese kamikaze off Leyte Gulf, photographed 25 October 1944. Note the hole in the flight deck. 80-G-270693

Battle of Leyte Gulf, wardroom of USS Suwannee (CVE 27) in use as an emergency sick bay following the kamikaze hit of 25 October 1944. 80-G-289527

Back conducting air ops just three hours later, the 26th saw a second kamikaze hit, this time creating a fire that destroyed nine of CVEG-60’s aircraft along with much of the ship’s bridge.

Fires and explosions on the flight deck of USS Suwannee (CVE 27), resulted from a suicide hit of a Japanese “Zero” near Leyte, Philippines. The airborne plane is friendly. Taken from USS Sangamon (CVE 26) at Leyte, Philippines, 26 October 1944. 80-G-270619

Japanese suicide “Zero” coming in for dive on USS Suwannee (CVL 27) off Leyte Gulf surrounded by ack ack This attack was the second one of the day, 26 October 1944. 80-G-270673

U.S. Navy escort carriers pictured at sea during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The photograph was probably taken from USS Petroff Bay (CVE-80), which was part of Task Unit 77.4.1 (Taffy I), together with the USS Sangamon (CVE-26), USS Suwannee (CVE-27), and USS Santee (CVE-29). The carrier burning in the background is most probably Suwannee, which was hit by two kamikazes, Santee by one amidships. U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 2000.236.023

Damage done to USS Suwannee (CVE 27) after attack by Japanese suicide plane off Leyte Gulf. Note the shrapnel pattern. Photographed on 26 October 1944. 80-G-270689

Damage to elevator well on USS Suwanee following October 26, 1944 kamikaze hit

Nonetheless, her crew again patched up, made an emergency open-air navigational bridge, and made for the Palaus for repair.

An emergency bridge manned on after flight deck of USS Suwannee (CVL 27) was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze plane off Leyte Gulf, the Philippines, on 26 October 1944. 80-G-270674

In all, her two kamikaze hits in two days would result in almost 100 dead, another 58 missing, and 102 wounded. Keep in mind her crew and embarked air group at its largest only numbered about a thousand, meaning a full quarter of the men who sailed aboard her were on her casualty lists:

The same battle left sister Santee extensively damaged, hit both by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-56 and a kamikaze, while Sangamon was struck by two kamikazes of her own. Retiring on 29 October, Sprague’s “oiler carriers” proved they could take abuse of the kind that was hard to shrug off.

Operation Iceberg

After some quick patchwork to get her that far, Suwannee made for Pearl Harbor in mid-December and then spent Christmas in San Diego. Repaired, she set out for Hawaii again in mid-January 1945 where she would shake down with a largely new crew and a new air wing, Air Group (CVEG) 40 composed of VC-40 and VF-40. This final package, of 20 F6F-5s and 12 TBM-1Cs, would be her last and, like CVEG-60, CVEG-40 would only know Suwannee as home.

By April Fool’s Day, she was off Okinawa as part of TF for Operation Iceberg, an 82-day battle that is known in Japan as the Kotetsu no ame (“rain of steel”) due to the intensity of the Japanese kamikaze attacks sent at the American forces. Keep in mind Japan lost an estimated 1,600 planes against the U.S. Fifth Fleet at Okinawa, a figure that never fails to stun no matter how many times you read it.

Again, Suwannee would sail with her three sisters of CarDiv 22 and was the flagship of RADM William Dodge Sample.

F6F-5 Hellcats of Fighting Squadron (VF) 60 pictured preparing to launch from the escort carrier Suwanee (CVE 27) on April 21, 1945

From DANFs on Suwannee during the period:

Her first assignment was close air support for the invasion troops; but, within a few days, she settled down to a routine of neutralizing the kamikaze bases at Sakishima Gunto. For the major portion of the next 77 days, her planes continued to deny the enemy the use of those facilities. Periodically, she put into the anchorage at Kerama Retto to rearm and replenish, but she spent the bulk of her time in air operations at sea.

In May, Suwannee suffered another serious fire because of a cracked-up Avenger.

Fire-fighting crews on board USS Suwannee (CVE 27) brought the blaze under control when a 100-pound bomb of TBM-3 (Bu# 68368) exploded after the plane landed on board. Pilot, Lieutenant Junior Grade Obed F. Flingerland, USNR, was killed and 13 crewmembers were injured. One of the crewmen died later. Photographed by Seaman First Class Hyman Atias, 24 May 1945. 80-G-325116

Likewise, both Chenango and Santee would suffer similar incidents during the operation. High-tempo carrier ops in a combat environment on a 500-foot deck across extended periods with lots of new pilots will do that.

As noted in her War Diary:

Part of CVEG-40’s scoresheet for Iceberg:

Balikpapan

With Iceberg thawed, Suwannee was pulled from the line, stopped in the PI for a week or so, then shipped south for the Dutch East Indies to support the cakewalk Free Dutch-Australian landings at Balikpapan on the Borneo coast. That accomplished, she headed North to the Japanese Home Islands once again and was at Buckner Bay, Okinawa when the news came that the Emperor would throw in the towel.

F6F-5 Hellcat of Fighting Squadron (VF) 40 launches from USS Suwanee (CVE 27) on August 30, 1945

VF-40 pilots smiling around the “kill” scoreboard, August 1945. Left to right: LCDR James C. Longino, Jr., LT (jg) Levi Monteau– pointing to trophy flags– LT(jg) Joseph Coleman, Ensign Raymond L.J. Lebel, and LT Earl E. Hartman. 80-G-349434

While RADM Sample and Suwannee’s skipper, Capt. Charles C. McDonald would go missing after their Martin PBM Mariner flying boat disappeared near Wakayama, Japan soon after VJ Day (they would be recovered in 1948), the rest of her crew made it home in late September 1945 under the command of XO, CDR Schermerhorn Van Mater.

Epilogue

Assigned to the Atlantic Inactive Fleet in October 1945 at Boston, Suwannee spent the rest of her career in mothballs there where she was re-designated to an escort aircraft carrier (helicopter) CVHE-27 in 1955. Stricken from the Navy List on 1 March 1959, she was sold later that year for conversion to merchant service but, with that falling through, was instead towed to Spain where she was scrapped in 1962.

She earned a Presidential Unit Citation and 13 battle stars for her World War II service, the most decorated of her class.

Her 13 stars and Unit Citation

Suwannee’s war diaries and plans are in the National Archives but few other relics endure.

Her three sisters of CarDiv22 likewise were mothballed just after the war, silently redesignated CVHEs– a job they were no doubt suited for– and scrapped by the early 1960s. Between them, Santee, Sangamon, and Chenango received a total of 28 battle stars, a Navy Unit Commendation, and the Presidential Unit Citation during WWII. An impressive record. It should be noted that the Navy’s final 19 escort carriers ever finished, the Commencement Bay-class, were all based on Maritime Commission type T3 tanker hulls like the Sangamons. Apparently, a lesson had been learned.

Of Suwannee’s 31 Cimarron-class oiler half-sisters, two, USS Neosho (AO-23) and USS Mississinewa (AO-59) were lost during the war while the rest continued to serve throughout the Cold War. The final Cimarron in the fleet, USS Caloosahatchee (AO-98), only decommissioned in 1990 after an amazing 45 years of service and was not scrapped until 2010.

The U.S. Navy fleet oiler USS Caloosahatchee (AO-98) underway in 1988.

Specs:

(1942, as Converted)
Displacement (design): 11,400 tons standard; 24,275 tons full load
Length: 553
Beam: 114 over deck
Power plant: 4 boilers (450 psi); 2 steam turbines; 2 shafts; 13,500 shp (design)
Speed: 18+ knots
Endurance: 23,920 nm @ 15 knots (with 4,780 tons of oil fuel)
Aviation facilities: 2 elevators; 1 hydraulic catapult
Crew: 830 (ship’s company + air wing)
Armament: 2 single 5″/51 gun mounts; 4 twin 40-mm/56-cal gun mounts; 12 single 20-mm/70-cal gun mounts
Aircraft: 25-40


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