Warship Wednesday, March 4, 2020: The Saipan Jug Carrier
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, March 4, 2020: The Saipan Jug Carrier
Here we see the deck of a Kaiser-built Casablanca-class escort carrier USS Manila Bay (CVE-61) filled with some unusual aircraft– USAAF P-47D Thunderbolts– flying off her stubby deck just after a Japanese attack on the ship in June 1944. Her first exposure to combat, the next seven months would be a wild ride for Manila Bay, one that would see her count coup on some of the most iconic Japanese warships.
No matter if you call them “jeep carriers,” “baby flattops,” or “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable,” the escort carrier concept is one we have covered a few times in the past several years on WW. Besides one-off training carriers and prototype ships, four large classes of U.S.-built CVEs (Bogue, Sangamon, Casablanca, Commencement Bay) were cranked out during WWII, approaching 150~ hulls planned or completed for Uncle Sam and his Allies.
Manila Bay and her multitude of sisters (CVE-55 through CVE-104) were basically Liberty ships, C-3-S-A1 freighters, whose topsides were sliced away and fitted with flight decks and a small island on the starboard side with a modicum of AAA guns placed in tubs alongside the flight deck for self-protection.
Cranked out by the Kaiser yard in Vancouver, the Casablancas was the most prolific CVEs to see service, with a solid 50 ordered in bulk, to be completed within two years.
Think about that: one yard making 50 carriers in two years. You couldn’t beat that, even though they were not nice, larger fleet carriers. Quantity over quality.
Besides, the CVEs could be used for supporting beachheads during amphibious operations, escorting slow-moving convoys, and easily shuttling aircraft from location to location– all jobs that typically tied down the more valuable large flattops, freeing the big boys up for strategic and decisive fleet actions ala Mahan.
Just 513-feet long overall, the Casablancas could carry a couple dozen aircraft in a composite squadron, typically a mix of upgraded FM‑2 Wildcat fighters and lumbering TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. However, they only had one catapult (most other CVEs had two) which limited their op-tempo a bit.
Manila Bay’s wartime embarked air wings (squadrons):
VC-7, 29 Jan – 28 Feb 44 – Marshall Islands.
VC-7, 19 Mar – 19 Apr 44 – Bismarck Archipelago.
VC-7, 27 Apr – 2 May 44 – Western New Guinea.
VC-80, 12-26 Oct 4 4- Leyte Operation.
VC-80, 12-18 Dec 44 – Luzon Operation.
VC-80, 4-18 Jan 45 – Luzon Operation.
VC-71, 9 Jun – 20 Jun 45 – Okinawa Gunto Operation.
For reference, see the below overhead shot of sister USS Savo Island (CVE-78) with a nice starboard bow aerial view of the Casablanca-class escort carrier underway.
Laid down originally as Bucareli Bay (ACV‑61) on 15 January 1943, our featured carrier was renamed the more warlike Manila Bay (CVE-61) just two months later. Launched 10 July 1943, she was commissioned 5 October 1943 at Astoria, Oregon. In all, she went from first steel laid to joining the fleet in 263 days. Not bad.
The Casablancas carried a smaller armament than other CVEs, but they still weren’t helpless, packing a single open 5″/38cal DP mount for use in scaring off a small surface attacker, 16 dual 40mm Bofors, and 20 Oerlikon singles.
She spent the rest of 1943 on shakedown along the west coast, where plane handling was often a new thing for many on both sides of the stick.
By January 1944, she was forward deployed, with her planes socking it to the Japanese on Kwajalein with Task Force 52, where she carried the flag of RADM Ralph Davidson for CarDiv 24.
From there, she continued operating in the Marshalls including Eniwetok and then to Majuro, before chopping to TF 37 to hit Kavieng and then support operations in the Bismarck Archipelago and New Guinea.
Relieved of her flag duties, the now-veteran carrier turned for Pearl Harbor for a quick refit and a mission to pick up a load of Army aircraft, 37 P-47-D Thunderbolts, for transshipment to points West. They would be headed to still-hot Saipan in the Marianas, where the “Jugs” would be engaged in combat immediately.
There, just East of Saipan, the ship had her literal baptism of fire when she was jumped by a quartet of Mitsubishi A6Ms. Dropping small 100-pound bombs, they just missed the carrier by 400 to 600 yards. In return, her crew fired five 5-inch, 190 40mm and 465 20mm rounds at the planes. Likewise, these also evidently caused no damage.
During the attack, the Army fighter pilots calmly tended their planes while the bluejackets tended their guns. Just after the attack was over, the first four P-47s launched for Aslito Field.
This great video covers the 318th FG and their trip to Saipan.
On Manila Bay‘s return trip to Pearl, she was used as a hospital ship, embarking 207 wounded troops for a return stateside.
Returning to CarDiv24, Manila Bay picked up a new skipper, CAPT. Fitzhugh Lee III (USNA 1926), who was the great-great-grandson of Light Horse Harry Lee of Revolutionary War fame and grandson Virginia cavalry general Fitzhugh Lee of Civil War and SpanAm War fame. Like his forefathers, he would lead his men into harm’s way.
–But first, she had to shlep a load of Navy and Marine bombers to the front.
Then, as part of Escort Carrier Group (TG 77.4), came the push for the Philippines, where Manila Bay was part of the famed Taffy 2 during the Battle of Samar.
About the last week of October 1944 from DANFS:
Prior to the invasion, her planes pounded enemy ground targets on Leyte, Samar, and Cebu. She launched ground support, spotting, and air cover strikes during the amphibious assaults 20 October; thence, she sent bombers and fighters to support ground forces during the critical first few days at Leyte.
As Manila Bay cruised to the east of Leyte Gulf with other carriers of Rear Adm. Felix B. Stump’s Taffy 2 (TU 77.4.2), powerful Japanese naval forces converged upon the Philippines and launched a three‑pronged offensive to drive the Americans from Leyte. In a series of masterful and coordinated surface attacks, an American battleship, cruiser, and destroyer force met and smashed enemy ships in the Battle of Surigao Strait early 25 October. Surviving Japanese ships retreated into the Mindanao Sea pursued by destroyers, PT boats, and after sunrise by carrier‑based bombers and fighters.
Manila Bay sent an eight‑plane strike against ground targets on Leyte before sunrise; subsequently, these planes bombed and strafed retiring enemy ships southwest of Panaon Island. A second strike about midmorning pounded the disabled heavy cruiser Magami. In the meantime, however, Manila Bay turned her planes against a more immediate threat-the enemy attack against ships of Taffy 3.
The running battle between the escort carriers of Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague’s Taffy 3 and the larger, vastly more powerful surface ships of Admiral Kurita’s Center Force; the brilliant, self‑sacrificing attacks by gallant American destroyers and destroyer escorts, and the prompt, aggressive, and unceasing torpedo, bomb, and strafing strikes by planes from Taffy 2 and Taffy 3, all contributed to the American victory against great odds in the Battle off Samar.
Manila Bay launched two airstrikes during the enemy pursuit of Taffy 3 and two more as the Japanese retreated. At 0830 she sent four torpedo‑laden TBMs and a seven‑plane escort to join the desperate fight. Three launched torpedoes at a battleship, probably Yamato, but she combed the wakes. The fourth plane launched her torpedo at a heavy cruiser, most likely Chikuma. It hit her to starboard near the fantail, forcing her out of control. The second strike an hour later by two TBMs resulted in one torpedo hit on the portside amidships against an unidentified battleship.
As the Japanese ships broke off attack and circled off Samar, the fierce airstrikes continued. At 1120 Manila Bay launched four TBMs, carrying 500‑pound bombs, and four bombers from other carriers. Escorted by FM‑2s and led by Comdr. R. L. Fowler, they soon joined planes from other Taffy carriers. Shortly after 1230, some 70 planes jumped the retiring Center Force, strafing and bombing through intense antiaircraft fire. Manila Bay’s bombers made a hit and two near misses on the lead battleship, probably Kongo or Haruna. Manila Bay launched her final strike at 1245, strafing destroyers and getting two hits on a cruiser.
Later that afternoon, Manila Bay‘s CAP intercepted a Japanese bomber‑fighter strike about 50 miles north of Taffy 2. Her four fighters broke up the enemy formation, and with reinforcements drove off the attackers before they reached the carriers. Her planes continued to pound enemy ships the following day. Laden with rockets and bombs, one of her TBMs scored two hits on light cruiser Kinu and several rocket hits on Uranami, an escorting destroyer. Both ships sank about noon in the Visayan Sea after numerous air attacks.
Some of her downed aircrews managed to be returned quickly.
Of note, one of her Avenger pilots, LT (j.g.) Horace D. Bryan was presented with the Navy Cross, for landing two 500-pound bombs on the Japanese Nagara-class light cruiser Kinu in the Camotes Sea area on 26 October, which proved key in sending her to the bottom.
With no rest, the flattop was soon active in the Mindoro invasion and operations around Luzon for the rest of the year and going into 1945.
There, she felt the Divine Wind. Sistership USS Ommaney Bay (CVE–79) was sunk after an attack by a kamikaze Yokosuka P1Y Ginga twin-engine bomber on 4 January. The next day, it would be Manila Bay’s turn in the barrel.
The enemy air attacks intensified 5 January. Patrolling lighters broke up morning and early afternoon strikes, shooting down numerous raiders. At 1650 a third attack sent all hands to general quarters. Vectored CAP bagged several enemy planes and antiaircraft fire splashed still more. Three planes got through to Louisville, Stafford, and HMAS Australia. Just before 1750, two kamikazes dove at Manila Bay from the portside. The first plane [a Mitsubishi A6M Zeke] hit the flight deck to starboard abaft the bridge, causing fires on the flight and hangar decks, destroying radar transmitting spaces, and wiping out all communications. The second plane, aimed for the bridge, missed the island close aboard to starboard and splashed off the fantail.
Firefighting parties promptly brought the blazes under control including those of two fueled and burning torpedo planes in the hangar deck.
Within 24 hours she resumed limited air operations. Most repairs to her damaged electrical and communication circuits were completed by 9 January when the amphibious invasion in Lingayen Gulf got underway.
“Manila Bay had 14 men killed and 52 wounded, but by 10 January she resumed full duty in support of the Lingayen Gulf operations,” notes DANFs. “In addition to providing air cover for the task force, her planes flew 104 sorties against targets in western Luzon. They gave effective close support for ground troops at Lingayen and San Fabian and bombed, rocketed, and strafed gun emplacements, buildings, truck convoys, and troop concentrations from Lingayen to Baguio.”
Sent stateside for repairs, Manila Bay was back in action off the coast of Okinawa by 13 June, launching rocket and strafing strikes in the Ryukyus. Then, given a break with a cruise to the Aleutians, she ended the war in support of occupation operations in northern Japan, dropping supplies to POWs.
Switching to Magic Carpet duty, Manila Bay landed her aircraft and made three runs from the Western Pacific to Pearl and San Francisco. By 27 January 1946, she was given orders for the peacetime East Coast and eventual lay up in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, being decommissioned at Boston on 31 July.
Manila Bay received eight battle stars and the Navy Unit Commendation for her wartime service.
While some CVEs, typically late-war Bogue-class escort carriers, found use in Korea and Vietnam, primarily in as aircraft shuttles, the Casablancas remained at anchor growing rusty. Only five of the class saw any significant post-war service past 1946– USS Petrof Bay (CVE–80), Sitkoh Bay (CVE-86), Cape Esperance (CVE-88), Tripoli (CVE-64), and Corregidor (CVE-58)— typically as unarmed MSC-controlled aircraft ferries with a mostly civilian crew. Even this limited role would end by 1959.
Five of the 11 American carriers lost during WWII were sisterships of Manila Bay, earning the class the perhaps unfair nickname of “Kaiser’s Coffins.”
As a class, the remaining Casablancas were retyped as utility carriers (CVU) or aircraft ferry (AKV), which saw Manila Bay designated CVU‑61 on 12 June 1955 while still in mothballs.
Subsequently, her name was struck from the Navy list 27 May 1958 and she was sold for scrap to Hugo New Corp., 2 September 1959, a fate largely shared by the rest of her class.
By 1969, no Casablancas would remain anywhere in the world.
There has not been a second Manila Bay on the Navy List.
I can’t find her bell, but much of her war diaries are available online at the National Archives.
As for her 1944-45 skipper, Fitzhugh Lee III, he was present at the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2, 1945, aboard Missouri and would go on to retire as a Vice Admiral in 1962. He was a double Navy Cross recipient, both for his command of Manila Bay at the Battle of Samar and on her kamikaze strike. He passed in 1992 and is buried in Northern Virginia, naturally.
Displacement: 7,800 long tons (7,900 t)
Length: 512 ft overall
Beam: 65 ft
Draft: 22 ft 6 in
4 × 285 psi boilers 9,000 shp
2 × 5-cylinder reciprocating Skinner Unaflow engines
2 × screws
Speed: 19 kn
Range: 10,240 nmi at 10 kn
Embarked Squadron: 50–56, Ship’s Crew: 860
1 × 5 in/38 caliber dual-purpose gun
16 × 40 mm Bofors guns (8×2)
20 × 20 mm Oerlikon cannons (20×1)
Aircraft carried: 27
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