Fighting ships bore SE names

Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2003

During World War II, 24 U.S. aircraft carriers were given Southeast Alaska place names.

Our large aircraft carriers (CVs) were named for famous old ships of the U.S. Navy, or for famous battles.

The smaller escort carriers (CVEs) were named for sounds, bays and for battles of World War II. Throughout the fleet these ships were referred to as baby flattops or jeep carriers. Their crew thought CVE stood for Combustible Vulnerable and Expendable and called them Kaiser's Coffins. They were freighter hulls covered with a flight deck. Their function was to provide air cover for amphibious landings, air cover for convoys, and to transport planes and instruct pilots.

Two ships bore the names Glacier Bay and Pybus Bay but, after they were sent to Great Britain under Lend Lease, were renamed HMS Atheling and HMS Emperor.

In addition, 22 of the 37 Casablanca class CVEs carried Southeast Alaska place names.

With the number of earned battle stars (recognition for involvement in major battles) in parentheses, they were: Fanshaw Bay (5), Gambier Bay (4), Hoggatt Bay (5), Kadashan Bay (2), Kalinin Bay (5), Kaasan Bay (1), Kitkun Bay (6), Liscombe Bay (1), Natoma Bay (7), Nehenta Bay (7), Ommaney Bay (2), Petrof Bay (5), Rudyerd Bay (5), Saginaw Bay (5), Sargent Bay (6), Shamrock Bay (3), Shipley Bay (2), Sitkoh Bay (3 + 1 for Korea), Steamer Bay (6), Takanis Bay, Thetis Bay (1) and Windham Bay (3).

Three of these ships made the ultimate sacrifice.

Liscombe Bay's first and last action was at Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, where her planes did their part in bombing and strafing the enemy. The day after the Marines concluded their 76-hour ordeal and the atoll was secured at a cost of 980 Marines and 29 sailors, Liscombe Bay was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine with the loss of an additional 644 men of the Navy.

CVEs gained everlasting fame in the greatest naval battle of all time, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In the action off Samar Island, a Japanese force, led by four battleships and ten cruisers, came upon the small carriers in broad daylight. U.S. planes and accompanying destroyers attacked the enemy force with such fury and heroism that their action was a major factor in the Japanese decision to withdraw.

Gambier Bay was sunk by a Japanese heavy cruiser off Samar in this action. She lost more than a hundred sailors. Gambier, Fanshaw, Kalinin, Kitkun, Natoma and Petrof earned Presidential Unit Citations for their extraordinary heroism in that melee. Hoggatt Bay earned the Navy Unit Commendation.

A little more than a month after the battle off Samar, the Ommaney Bay fell victim to a kamikaze in the Sulu Sea. Unable to bring the fires under control, she was abandoned and then sunk by a torpedo from one of our destroyers. All but 95 of her crew were rescued.

These Casablanca class carriers were built by the Henry J. Kaiser Co. or by the Oregon S.B. Corporation at Portland, Ore., in 1943 and 1944. Jane's Fighting Ships of World War II reports they were 6,730 tons standard, had a complement of 800 men, a length of 498 feet, a beam (width of flight deck) of 80 feet and a maximum draft of 19 feet, 9 inches. Their weapons consisted of 28 planes, one 5-inch gun and 24 20mm machine guns. Later ships of the class had eight 40mm and 24 20mm guns. They were rated at 18 knots. Two of the Casablanca class carriers took only 76 days to build!

These ships did not make heroic returns to the places whose names they proudly bore throughout the war. In fact, they never sailed Southeast Alaska waters and would undoubtedly have astounded the occasional fisherman, prospector, trapper or kayaker they might have encountered had they made port in any of these bays.

None of the CVE's of World War II were saved as memorials. Naval historian Steve Ewing observed that "Probably no other World War II Escort Carrier will have been memorialized to a greater degree than the Gambier Bay CVE 73."

The Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola, Fla., has a display honoring her and a memorial plaque stands in the "Arlington of Carrier Aviation."

William D. Overstreet, a former Juneau mayor and superintendent of schools, was a sailor during World War II.

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