Warship Wednesday, August 16, 2017: Possibly the most Devil Dog carrier, ever
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off 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. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, August 16, 2017: Possibly the most Devil Dog carrier, ever
Here we see the Commencement Bay-class escort carrier, USS Sicily (CVE-118), as she enters San Diego Bay on her return from her first deployment to the Korean War zone, 5 February 1951. Note the Marine Corps F4U Corsairs, OY-2 Sentinel spotter planes and the early Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopter on deck. The aircraft to the rear are Grumman AF-2W Guardians, an early ASW plane. The baby flattop had already marked her place in Marine Corps history when this image was taken.
Of the 130 U.S./RN escort carriers– merchant ships hulls given a hangar, magazine, and flight deck– built during WWII, the late-war Commencement Bay-class was by far the Cadillac of the design slope. Using lessons learned from the earlier Long Island, Avenger, Sangamon, Bogue and Casablanca-class ships. Like the Sangamon-class, they were based on Maritime Commission T3 class tanker hulls (which they shared with the roomy replenishment oilers of the Chiwawa, Cimarron, and Ashtabula-classes), from the keel-up, these were made into flattops.
Pushing some 25,000-tons at full load, they could make 19-knots which was faster than a lot of submarines looking to plug them. A decent suite of about 60 AAA guns spread across 5-inch, 40mm and 20mm fittings could put as much flying lead in the air as a light cruiser of the day when enemy aircraft came calling. Finally, they could carry a 30-40 aircraft airwing of single-engine fighter bombers and torpedo planes ready for a fight or about twice that many planes if being used as a delivery ship.
Sound good, right? Of course, and had the war ran into 1946-47, the 33 planned vessels of the Commencement Bay-class would have no doubt fought kamikazes, midget subs and suicide boats tooth and nail just off the coast of the Japanese Home Islands.
However, the war ended in Sept. 1945 with only nine of the class barely in commission– most of those still on shake down cruises. Just two, Block Island and Gilbert Islands, saw significant combat, at Okinawa and Balikpapan, winning two and three battle stars, respectively. Kula Gulf and Cape Gloucester picked up a single battle star.
With the war over, some of the class, such as USS Rabaul and USS Tinian, though complete were never commissioned and simply laid up in mothballs, never being brought to life. Four other ships were cancelled before launching just after the bomb on Nagasaki was dropped. In all, just 19 of the planned 33 were commissioned.
The hero of our tale, the only ship in the U.S. Navy ever named after the island of Sicily, or more correctly the 1943 military campaign for that island, was laid down at Todd-Pacific Shipyards, Tacoma, Washington, 23 October 1944 and commissioned 27 February 1946. Ironically, seven earlier sisters were decommissioned the same year.
Arriving on the East Coast in July 1946 after shakedown and outfitting Sicily served in the Atlantic Fleet in a number of support and ASW roles, experimenting new types and tactics for the next three years while stationed at Norfolk. By 1950, she was one of the few escort carriers still in active service and embarked big AF-2W (TB3F-1S) Guardians (at 22,000-lbs takeoff weight, the largest single-engine piston-powered carrier aircraft, and likely the largest aircraft period, operated from escort carriers), aboard.
On 3 April 1950, Sicily was reassigned to the Pacific Fleet, arriving at San Diego later that month. While preparing for summer exercises, the North Koreans crossed over into South Korea and the balloon went up.
Gregory “Pappy” Boyington’s famous Black Sheep Squadron, VMF-214, then under Major Robert P. Keller, were given orders to embark for Korea on Sicily as soon as possible. While the Corsairs weren’t front-line fighters in the burgeoning jet age, they could still perform CAS, interdiction, and armed reconnaissance missions and look good doing it.
The ship was commanded by noted WWII aviator, Capt. John S. Thach (USNA 1927), inventor of the “Thach Weave”, a tactic that enabled the generally mediocre U.S. fighters of 1942 to hold their own against the Japanese Zero.
With a line up like Thach and the Black Sheep, you know what happened next.
On 3 August 1950, a group of 8 F4U-4B Corsairs from VMF-214 became the first Marine squadron to see action in Korea, launching from Sicily and executing a raid against DPRK positions near Inchon. At the time, the little jeep carrier was flagship of Carrier Division (CarDiv) 15.
The withdrawal of the marines from the Chosin Reservoir to Hungnam was covered by Corsairs from Sicily. HVAR rockets and napalm make good party favors.
Speaking of that napalm smell…
One of the Black Sheep pilots at the time was 1Lt. Donald “The Great Santini” Conroy, a storied figure who entered the Marines as an enlisted man in WWII and later retired as a full colonel in 1974 after pushing A-4s in Vietnam. More on Conroy later.
National Archives footage of VMF-214 on board Sicily, United States Naval Photographic Center film #246. (no sound)
The jeep carrier also supported SAR ops via helicopters and recon/spotting missions with OY-2s.
The Black Sheep eventually left and Sicily picked up the Death Rattlers of VMF-323 for her second tour with the 7th Fleet, from 13 May to 12 October 1951.
On her third tour in Korea, 8 May to 4 December 1952, she had a few new tricks up her sleeve.
In late August 1952, Sicily took aboard the Sikorsky HRS-1 helicopters of Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 161 (HMR-161) and tested the first vertical envelopment (moving combat-ready Marines from ship to shore via whirlybird) combined with an amphibious assault in what was termed Operation “Marlex-5” off the coast of Inchon. While the tactic had been trialed in California earlier that year with HMR-162, the op with Sicily was the first time it was used overseas, much less in a combat zone.
On 4 September 1952, the Checkerboards of Marine Fighter Squadron 312 (VMF-312) moved from airfields ashore to Sicily’s decks and over the next several days their Corsairs had a number of run-ins with North Korean MiGs. The hardy Soviet-built Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, which could do Mach 0.87 at sea level and had a pair of 23mm cannon supplemented by a big 37mm mount, was a brawler.
Well about that…
On 10 September, Marine Capt. Jesse Folmar in his F4U-B (BuNo 62927) destroyed a North Korean MiG-15 in aerial combat over the west coast of Korea while flying with his wingman. Outnumbered 4:1 the two Marine Corsairs were outnumbered by eight MiGs.
From VMF-312’s unit history:
Folmar and Walter E. Daniels were attacked by eight MIG-1 5s which made repeated firing runs on the slower F4Us as they tried to get out of the area. After one of the MIGs completed a run on the Corsairs, instead of breaking off to the side, the jet pulled up directly in front of Captain Folmar’s guns. A quick burst of the 20mm cannon soon had the MIG ablaze and heading for the ground. The kill marked the first time an American had downed a jet fighter with a propeller-driven aircraft. Another MIG retaliated with a burst of 37mm fire which forced Captain Folmar to bail out, but he was rescued and returned to the ship. Captain Daniels’ plane was not hit and safely landed on board the carrier.
It was quite a feat.
While USAAF, Soviet and British piston-engine fighters chalked up something like 150~ German Komets and Me262 kills in the latter stages of WWII, the MiG was a much more formidable adversary. There were few comparable events.
The Brits, in their only air-to-air victory in Korea, chalked up a similar action to Folmar’s when on 9 August 1952, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Lt. “Hoagy” Carmichael of 802 Squadron downed a Nork MiG 15 while flying a Sea Fury of the carrier HMS Ocean, while in Vietnam Navy A-1 Skyraiders accounted for several MiG-17s.
Sicily’s Guardians, of Navy Reserve Anti-Submarine Squadron VS-931, also gave unsung service, conducting maritime patrol and keeping an eye out for submarines. Two of the big sub hunters, with their four-man crews, were lost while on Sicily‘s third war cruise– BuNo 124843 and 126830– though their crews were saved.
Sicily finished the war in the United Nations Escort and Blockading Force, deploying to the Far East from 14 July 1953 to 25 February 1954.
And just like that, with a tad over eight years of service, five Korean War battle stars, and legends under her belt, Sicily was decommissioned 4 Oct 1954. Though retained in mothballs until 1960, the days of the short-deck carrier were over for the jet powered Navy and newer purpose-built Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ships, with about half the crew of the Sicily and her sisters, were being commissioned to carry Marine helicopters into battle. Like the Commencement Bay-class, the Iwo’s were named after battles.
On 31 October 1960, Sicily was sold to the Nicolai Joffe Corporation for scrap.
Of the rest of the Commencement Bay-class, most saw a mixed bag of post-WWII service as Helicopter Carriers (CVHE) or Cargo Ship and Aircraft Ferries (AKV). Most were sold for scrap by the early 1970s with the last of the class, Gilbert Islands, converted to a communication relay ship, AGMR-1, enduring on active service until 1969 and going to the breakers in 1979. Their more than 30 “sisters below the waist” the other T3 tankers were used by the Navy through the Cold War with the last of the breed, USS Mispillion (AO-105), headed to the breakers in 2011.
As for Sicily‘s heroes, their tales endure.
MiG-killer Folmar’s deeds from Sicily in 1952 were commemorated in a painting by Lou Drendel, which now hangs at the Naval Air and Space Museum in Pensacola.
The Aviator himself was posthumously inducted into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame and is buried in Foley, Alabama, passing away in 2004.
Remember the (literal) Black Sheep pilot, The Great Santini? Conroy’s son, Southern storyteller Pat Conroy, later based Lt. Col. Bull Meechum, USMC (played by Robert Duvall in the movie) as the wild man Marine Corps pilot with a host of family issues on his father in a book and film of the same name.
Conroy, who called MCAS Beaufort home and graduated from the Citadel, filled his works with many references to Marines and, obliquely, to his father. Col. Conroy is buried at Beaufort and in later life he attended book signings alongside Pat, inking “The Great Santini” with his signature.
Of Sicily‘s Marine squadrons, all are still around. VMFA-312 flies F/A-18Cs based out of MCAS Beaufort (Santini’s base) while the Black Sheep of VMA-214 are pushing AV-8Bs out of Yuma until they get their shiny new F-35Cs. The Death Rattlers of VMFA-323? They are assigned to Miramar and still deploy on carriers regularly, as their Hornets are a part of Carrier Wing 11.
Meanwhile, the Korean People’s Army Air Force remain the last military operator of the MiG-15, as some things never change.
10,900 long tons (11,100 t) standard
24,100 long tons (24,500 t) full load
Length: 557 ft. (170 m)
75 ft. (23 m)
105 ft. 2 in (32.05 m) flight deck
Draft: 30 ft. 8 in (9.35 m)
Propulsion: 2-shaft geared turbines, 16,000 shp
Speed: 19 knots (22 mph; 35 km/h)
Complement: 1,066 officers and men
2 × 5″/38 caliber guns (1 × 2)
36 × 40 mm Bofors gun (3 × 4, 12 × 2)
20 × 20 mm Oerlikon cannons
Aircraft carried: 34
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