Warship Wednesday October 15, 2014: The Devil Dog of the Seven Seas
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. –Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday October 15, 2014: The Devil Dog of the Seven Seas
Here we see the Independence-class light aircraft carrier USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24), dark and in her war paint, near Hunters Point in 1945. She was a hard-working ship, who had a hard war. She was a ship built to meet a very specific need, and she met it well under no less than two flags.
In 1942, the Navy had its ass in a bind. Starting the war with just six large-deck fleet carriers, within the first six months of combat was down to just four and by the end of the year; just a single one of these (Enterprise) was still afloat and operational. While the first huge and ultra-modern 34,000-ton Essex-class carriers were building as fast as the riveters could rivet and the welders could chip slag, they would not be able to arrive in numbers until 1944. This put the Big Blue behind the Japanese 8-ball in naval warfare.
FDR, himself always a Navy man (he won a naval warfare essay contest while a teenager and slept with Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History on his nightstand before being appointed Asst. Scty of the Navy during World War One), came up with the idea to convert a bunch of cruisers that were already partially complete at the New York Navy Yard over to flat-tops. Although the Navy balked, FDR was the commander and chief, so guess who won?
The 14,000-ton Cleveland class light cruisers were designed after the gloves came off in 1940 and the U.S. no longer had to abide to the Washington and London Naval treaties of the 1920s and 30s. As such, these were very large cruisers, at just a hair over 600-feet long, and very fast (33-knots). Designed to carry a dozen 6-inch and a supplemental dozen 5-inch guns, they were also heavily armed.
In all the Navy wanted something on the order of 40 of these warships to lead destroyer groups, escort convoys, scout ahead of battle groups, and screen carriers and battleships. Well, FDR carved nine whose hulls were nearing completion but did not have decks, guns or superstructures installed yet.
It was not that hard of a concept. Many of the first carriers were auxiliaries, cruisers, and battleships who had their topside removed and covered with a flattop. Langley, the first U.S. carrier, was a collier. Lexington and Saratoga, the country’s second and third carriers respectively, were originally laid down as battlecruisers.
The first of the class of FDR’s “cruiser carriers,” laid down originally as the cruiser Amsterdam but commissioned instead as the USS Independence, was commissioned 14 Jan 1943 and rushed to the fleet. Over the next nine months, eight sisters would join her, roughly one every 45 days on average. The third of the class, originally laid down as the light cruiser New Haven (CL-76) just four months before Pearl Harbor, was stripped of that name and hull number and commissioned instead as the USS Belleau Wood (CV-24) on 31 March 1943.
Sponsored by the wife of the Commandant of the Marine Corps at her christening, the ship was named after the epic Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918 during the First World War. This battle, steeped in Corps lore, was fought by the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments (and rumor has it, a few Army units too) in a thick wooded area of Northern France.
It produced the time-honored catch phrases, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” from Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, and, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here,” attributed to Capt. Lloyd Williams. It was in this pitched combat, where Marines fought so savagely that German troops opposing them referred to the sea soldiers as Teufelshunde (literally, “Devil Dog”), a name that has stuck for the past hundred years. After the war the wooded area was renamed Bois de la Brigade de Marine in honor of the more than 1,000 Marines killed there in the summer of 1918.
With her name to live up to, and packed with 24 F6F Hellcats (of VF-24 “Fighting Renegades”) and 9 TBM Avengers (of VT-24 “Bobcats”), Belleau Wood arrived in the Pacific just three months after her commissioning and by September was dropping it like it was hot in raids on Tarawa, Wake Island, and the Gilberts, reminding the Japanese Navy that the Yanks were playing for keeps and all would soon be in order.
Assigned to the fast moving Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58, she was the battered old USS Enterprise‘s wingman during the Roi-Namur Landings and remained with the group for the seizure of Kwajalein and Majuro Atoll, the Hailstone Raid on Truk, the occupation of Saipan and a number of other engagements.
In 1944, she found herself up to her radar masts in Japanese aircraft during the Battle of the Philippine Sea where her air wing delivered the final torpedo to the Japanese Navy’s 25,000-ton aircraft carrier Hiyō, sending her to the bottom on 20 June 1944. The Japanese avenged the loss by sinking Belleau Wood’s sister ship USS Princeton (CV-23) at the Battle of Leyte Gulf just four months later.
On October 30, 1944, the same day that the USS Franklin survived her famous kamikaze attack, Belleau Wood almost succumbed to a hit from a Zeke kamikaze that killed no less than 92 of her crew and sent her to the shipyard for much needed repair.
Back in the war by 1945, Belleau Wood‘s new air wing shot down the very last enemy aircraft of the war, a Yokosuka D4Y3 “Judy” dive-bomber swatted out of the sky by Ensign Clarence Moore, an F6F-3 pilot of “The Flying Meat-Axe” VF-31.
By this time in the war, with opportunities to sink Japanese ships few and far between, most light carriers were switched to an air group that consisted of 34 x F6F fighters and 2 x F6F-3P recon aircraft, and one of the class (Independence) even operated a hybrid night fighter group late in the war.
Her airwing took place in the immense aviation armada over Tokyo harbor on Sept. 2, 1945 that blackened out the sky and she helped bring U.S. troops home from overseas all through 1946. With the U.S. Navy flush with brand new Essex class carriers, the days of the Independence class were numbered in a post-war environment. Soon, the eight remaining ships of the class were all in mothballs, with Belleau Wood, by then reclassified as a “light carrier” (CVL-24), being decommed 13 January 1947.
Class leader Independence was scuttled after being used as a target for the A-Bomb during Operation Crossroads in 1946, while a few (Monterrey, Bataan) were dusted off for Korea. However, most would be on the scrap heap by the early 1960s. A few, however, were loaned to friends.
USS Cabot, who served with Belleau Wood in TF58 during WWII and VF-31 also flew off of, was transferred to Spain while the Belleau Wood herself and sister ship Langley (CVL-27) were loaned to the French Navy as their fifth and sixth aircraft carriers, respectively.
While the French renamed Langley as Lafayette (pennant R96) when they acquired her in 1951, they aptly kept the Belleau Wood’s name intact, only correcting the spelling to Bois Belleau. She was accepted into the French Navy with pennant number R97 on 5 September 1953, and commissioned 23 Dec of that year with Captain Louis Mornu in command.
Sailing for French Indochina she had an airwing made up suplused USN F6F-5 Hellcat (of 11° Flotiile) aboard (see our entry here on that little neatness) SB2C Helldivers (of 3° Flotille) and a pair of Piasecki HUP-2 SAR helicopters. These neat little twin rotary craft could carry a half dozen crew and passengers up to 300 miles.Her planes dropped it like it was hot on Charlie during the first part of 1954 when the French withdrew, helping to evacuate some 6000 French troops and citizens in December that year.
However, she soon found herself in the Med doing the same thing for Algerian rebels with an airwing of late model F4U-7 Corsairs (the last 93 Corsairs ever built and considered the most advanced) of 14° Flotille off and on between 1955-59. During this period, she also participated in the Suez Crisis in 1956 and attended an International Naval Review in Hampton Roads in 1957.
Her last commander, Captain Pierre Hurbin, retired her colors on 12 September 1960 and she was returned to U.S. Navy custody at in Philadelphia, replaced by the newly built carrier Clemenceau. Langley/Lafayette picked up her squadron for another two years until Bois Belleau was likewise returned to her place of birth, replaced by the newly built aircraft carrier Foch. 14° Flotille then hung up their Corsairs in 1963 and transitioned to the F8E (FN) Crusader.
For Belleau Wood, the U.S. Navy held on to her for a couple weeks then struck her name from the Navy List 1 Oct, and sold her 21 November 1960 for her value in scrap metal. She had earned a Presidential Unit Citation and 12 battle stars for her WWII service.
The last of her class, Cabot, was returned to the U.S. by Spain in 1989. Shamefully she sat in New Orleans for a decade in disrepair as one group after another squandered money donated to turn her into a museum ship. I visited her on the Mandeville docks there in 1998 (after letting myself in through a poorly locked gate), and fought back and urge to open up the seacocks and sink the poor old gal myself. In the end, that ship was finally scrapped in 2002 but her small island is preserved at the U.S. Naval Air and Space Museum in Pensacola along with a working Mk3 40mm mount that the Spaniards did not remove.
If Pensacola is too far of a drive, a closer memorial for the old Belleau Wood may be the ex-USS Little Rock (CL-92/CLG-4/CG-4). One of the ships of the Cleveland class that was actually completed as a cruiser, Little Rock has been operated by the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, Buffalo, New York as a Museum Ship since 1977. She is the Belleau Wood‘s technical half-sister (at least from the 01 level down anyway)
On 23 September 1978, the U.S. Navy commissioned the Tarawa-class landing ship USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3) to honor the old light carrier (even though she was almost twice the size of her namesake!) in my hometown of Pascagoula. After a hard 27 years service, that veteran was decommissioned and expended as a target in 2006. That ship’s coat of arms carried the twelve gold battle stars in a field of blue to honor her namesake’s accomplishments, while her island carried the Devil Dog insignia
Displacement: 11,000 long tons (11,000 t)
Length: 622 ft 6 in (189.74 m)
Beam: 109 ft 2 in (33.27 m)
Draft: 26 ft (7.9 m)
Speed: 31.6 kn (58.5 km/h; 36.4 mph)
Complement: 1,569 officers and men
Armament: 26 × Bofors 40 mm guns
Aircraft carried: 30-40
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