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…
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.
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 Cimarrons— SS 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was during this time that one of her airedales, AMM B. L. Thomas, penned several safety drawings that were turned into posters.
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.
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.
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.
Nonetheless, her crew again patched up, made an emergency open-air navigational bridge, and made for the Palaus for repair.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
(1942, as Converted)
Displacement (design): 11,400 tons standard; 24,275 tons full load
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
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