Archive for November 24th, 2009

Usually, when I cover a topic, the search for related artwork or photos is relatively easy.  But when the subject is the USS Liscome Bay, such is not the case.  There are very few photos available.  And that’s because the life of Liscome Bay was short, and it was a life that ended quickly…and violently.

She was known as CVE-56 in Navy-number-speak, as was classified as a Casablanca-class escort carrier.  That means she was about half the size of a conventional carrier, and carried a smaller compliment of men, aircraft, and armor.  But its smaller size also meant it was cheaper to build and could be finished in much less time than bigger flattops.  So it’s no surprise that, in the 20 months that Casablanca-class carriers were built, a staggering 50 examples were built…more than any other carrier class ever.  The St. Lo, which we just talked about last month, was a Casablanca-class carrier.

Normally, escort carriers were fairly slow got the more mundane jobs like supporting land-based activity such as close air support and interdiction strikes.  Casablanca-class carriers were moderately fast (capable of 20 knots), but were still considered too slow for major fleet action (bigger carriers, battleships, and such could all make 30 knots or more).  Still, they got to mix it with the big boys on occasion, as Taffy 3 did in Leyte Gulf.

But St. Lo and Taffy 3 and Leyte Gulf were in October of 1944, and this was November of 1943…almost a year earlier.  At this point the Navy was thinking about the Philippine Islands (and Leyte Gulf and all that), but the work at hand involved the Gilbert Islands, specifically those around Betio…Tarawa.  Concurrent with the landings at Tarawa were the landings on Makin, a small group of islands about 100 miles south.  The small Japanese garrison on Makin (less than a 1000 men) was expected to fall quickly…a day, maybe two.

Like most Pacific operations, however, it didn’t play out that way.  Cleaning up Makin took 3 full days.  And of course, this ground operation was supported by the escort carriers…in this case, the Liscome Bay, Corregidor, and Coral Sea.  Having just been commissioned in August, our subject was brand new, carrying 28 aircraft and more than 900 men.

In the early morning (just after 5:00am) of November 24, 1943, she was preparing to launch aircraft when one of the ship’s lookouts yelled, “Here comes a torpedo!”  Indeed, the Japanese submarine I-175 had arrived the day before and selected the Liscome Bay as her target.

At 5:10am, a single torpedo struck the aft engine room and exploded.  But the real catastrophe occurred when the torpedo remnants plowed into the aircraft bomb magazine.  When ammunition cooks off, it does so in dramatic fashion, and the Liscome Bay was no exception.  Witnesses said the ship was just a massive ball of orange flame, and bits of ship hit other task force vessels nearly 3 miles away.  At 5:33am, Liscome Bay slipped beneath the waves, carrying with her nearly 650 sailors and officers.

The operation on Makin Atoll was intended to be a relatively clean one-day operation.  One explosion, however, had caused U.S. casualties to achieve near parity with the Japanese.

Recommended Reading:  Tarawa:  A Hell of a Way to Die

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