Thursday, December 30, 2021

Book Review, Valor and Courage: The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in WWII

By Benjamin J. Hruska
Reviewed by Dr. Ira R. Hanna, HRNM Docent

Although it is a relatively short book (203 pages), Valor and Courage covers much more than the story of the two escort carriers that bore the name Block Island. It describes the important change in naval policy toward the strategic use of aircraft carriers, particularly CVEs, during WWII. CVEs were needed to carry aircraft, equipment, and supplies to the United States armed forces and its allies. Although Americans learned that CVEs were Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable, they achieved their missions and in some cases victory through the heroic actions of their captains and crews. Hruska tells the story of two of these valiant ships, mainly through the eyes and ears of those who manned those ships so courageously.

USS Block Island (CVE 21) in 1944 (Naval History and Heritage Command)
The first Block Island (CVE 21) was built by Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Company and commissioned on March 8, 1943. It departed San Diego in May and steamed to Norfolk, VA, under the command of Logan C. Ramsey, graduate of the Naval Academy and an experienced naval aviator. During the summer of 1943, Block Island twice delivered squadrons of Army fighters to Great Britain. Then, with several different destroyer escorts, it sought to find and sink German submarines lurking along the Atlantic coast. During four anti-submarine cruises, its planes sank two submarines and shared the credit of sinking two more with its destroyer escorts. In March 1944, while in Casablanca for “rest and recreation” and resupply, Ramsey was relieved by Francis “Massie” Hughes, also an experienced naval aviator. Much different in command leadership than Ramsey, Hughes pushed his pilots and deck officers to physical and mental extremes. Limited biographies of these two very different COs were included. In my opinion, they could be expanded into a very insightful book.
Francis Massie Hughes as a Lieutenant (Naval History and Heritage Command)
On May 29, 1944, CVE 21 was torpedoed by U-549 and sank within minutes. Because the ship was abandoned quickly, most of the crew survived. Hughes was cleared of any misconduct in the sinking. When a new Block Island (CVE 106) was launched at the Todd Pacific Shipyard in Tacoma, WA, Hughes resumed command. He immediately requested that all the survivors of the first Block Island be reassigned to the new one. For the first time in the history of the United States Navy, a surviving crew from one lost ship was ordered directly to a new ship. The new Block Island was sent to the Pacific Theater and took part in the preparation for the invasion of Okinawa. Block Island’s last mission was to evacuate the hundreds of prisoners held by the Japanese on the island of Formosa. After hostilities ended, it transited the Panama Canal in January 1946 and proceeded to Norfolk. Something the book did not mention was that CVE 106 was then towed to Annapolis, where it was used as a training ship for the midshipmen. In 1950, CVE 106 was transferred to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, but was recommissioned in 1951. Until 1953 it carried out local operations off the Virginia Capes.
USS Block Island (CVE 106) underway in January 1945 (Wikipedia)
Some of this book reads like a dissertation. Hruska admits this in his introduction. Many of his attempts to explain the purpose of the book begin with “this work argues, “this work purposes,” and “I attempt to demonstrate.” Nevertheless, it is a fascinating study of the development, manufacture, and wartime use of CVEs. The narrative provided by the interviews of officers and enlisted men makes this book a testament to the valor and courage of the CVE sailors. He describes the important change in naval policy toward the strategic use of aircraft carries instead of “battleship diplomacy.”

This book is not just a history of two escort carriers but a polemic on the exclusion of the escort carrier as a major contributor to the American victory in WWII. Who can forget the valiant group of “Taffy 3’s” CVEs that turned back a Japanese fleet that would have destroyed the landing on Leyte? Or those that were part of the hunter-killer groups that sank so many German submarines that convoys leaving East Coast ports after mid-1943 no longer feared to cross the Atlantic?

There is no firm conclusion in this book except to lament the lack of reverence for the CVEs. No CVE was kept as a museum, as was done for battleships, CVA carriers, submarines, or destroyers. There is no place for CVE sailors to remember their wartime “valor and courage.” There are only the memories of those who served on those easily destroyed but important contributors to the USA’s victory. In his concluding chapter, Hruska found it perplexing that many sailors had a total lack of memory about the first ship’s sinking. This, he said, “poses a rather philosophical question. How can a life-changing event be identified or mean something to someone who doesn’t remember it at all?” That is his conclusion if there is one! This book has a multitude of memories that need to be told and I enjoyed reading about them.

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