Notes from the original webmaster (1999-2009):
All Navy ships are at their most venerable point, or position from underwater attack , when they are changing courses. As the ships turn they slide through the water much like a car making a quick turn. More of the ships sides are pushing the water and the wake created is much wider. This reaction results in the slowing of the ship and presents a larger target for any submarine attack. And aircraft carrier has no choice except to turn into the wind when launching aircraft to provide greater lift for the airplane. This action also tends to slow the carrier as well as the side slipping motion. This activity also engages the escort ships to take stations forward and to the aft of the carrier to pick up the pilots of any aircraft that are “dunked” into the sea. With the advent of the Helicopter these “escort ships” can go about their task of protecting the carrier as the “chopper” is better equipped to handle the rescue in a hover motion. Note that in the following article this circumstance existed at approximately 8:00 PM (2000 military) on May 29, 1944 as launching the six fighters that were lost and the recovery of 4 Torpedo Bombers was taking place. This not only placed the aircraft carrier in it’s most venerable position it also put the 4 escort DE’s scurrying to take their positions for landings and launching. The action also (other than general quarters) is the major task the carrier’s crew must undertake as they go to “Flight Quarters”. The sea conditions and the timing factors were almost perfect for the German submarine to make the attack.
Lots of things become hazy over the years but these memories are still very much alive, especially when discussed time and time again with fellow shipmates.
On 29 May 1944, at approximately 2000 hours, six fighter planes (FM – Wildcats) were ordered aloft to provide air cover to the Block Island task force while the four TBM Avenger Torpedo / Bombers were recovered. All of these aircraft were part of the Navy Squadron VC–55. My duty, as an Aviation Ordnance man, after the TBM’s had landed, was to help in disarming (making “safe”) the .50 cal. machine guns located in the wings and other ordnance. Making “safe” was the removal of the live rounds in the gun chambers, disconnecting the gun belts and moving forward the bolt mechanism, to relieve the spring tension on the bolts. I was working that particular night, as his partner, with Harold (“Chic”) Swails, from Lebanon, Ind. (See Note # l)
After the aircraft was disarmed, I proceeded to my berthing quarters, located in a small space just below the flight deck and above the hanger deck. Then down one ladder to the hanger deck and one more ladders down to the head / shower on that deck. I was taking a shower when the first torpedo struck the port side of the carrier; one in the bow at about frame 12. Approximately four seconds later the second struck toward the stern, between frames 171 and 182, exploding in the oil tank, through the shaft alley and up through the 5 in. magazines, without causing any further fires or explosions. (See Note # 2)
At this time all personnel on the hanger deck were ordered topside to the flight deck. Hurriedly dressing, returning to the hanger deck heading for my general quarters battle station; a 20 mm anti-craft cannon, port side of ship, on a sponson adjacent to the hanger deck. Needless to say, this area and other adjacent cannons were destroyed at the time the first torpedo struck forward on port side of ship.
Other stories, personal experiences printed elsewhere in other Block Island documents, relate to the trapping, above this same area, of Coxswain James O’Neil Franks. The catwalk trapped Franks where he was on look out duty. Later it was learned that Chief Warrant Officer (Carpenter) Clarence M. Bailey with help from medical corpsmen was instrumental in moving Franks from the catwalk to the flight deck. This man died while rescuers were rendering first aid and trying to release his legs. His body remained aboard the ship.
After noting my “General Quarters” battle station was destroyed, many of us were inspecting the hanger deck looking for possible fires. No fires were detected. The crew was anxious to retrieve life jackets which were stored overhead on metal shelves. No one appeared to be injured in this area. Believe it or not and why ( ? ) I returned to my berthing quarters, put on clean clothes, inside and out. Put on my red-stripped helmet (which denoted A O’s when on the flight deck), thinking of being spotted later with that red helmet. I removed from my locker, a copy of the New Testament. This was previously handed to me by our Chaplain, Rev. Gordon MacInnes (learned later he was an uncle to our “CHIPS” Editor, Bill MacInnes) when passing by his office on my way answering a call to “General Quarters.”
After changing clothes and returning to the hanger deck, I met with Chief Aviation Ordnanceman, Fred Bruce Johnson (my Ordnance Dept. head). At 2023, a third torpedo from U-549 struck the helpless CVE, wrecking the lower decks, knocking out all power and breaking Block Island’s back. We then explored the hanger deck and realized that a TBF had fallen through a large hole in the hanger deck surface to the mess deck below. This needed further examination. In the plane we found the body of a deceased sailor. Bruce and I identified him as James Byrol Owen, Aviation Machinist Mate First Class, and a member of our Division. After Bruce Johnson and I had made sure of our identification, we moved up to the flight deck.
During this time many crew members gathered on the flight deck awaiting further word concerning damage, etc. Meanwhile Petty Officers Don Taylor, Alexander Culberson and Leonard Johnson flooded the aviation gasoline storage tanks. These three men were awarded the Bronze Star Medal for this action, I wish that the letters accompanying these awards were available for inclusion in the Block Island’s web page. These letters would be of great interest to surviving relatives of those recipients. While on the flight deck, we saw an explosion off the port quarter, thinking that one of the D E ‘s had dropped depth charges or fired hedgehogs and had found the sub. Later word was passed along that the explosion we saw was a fourth torpedo, intended for the “21” that hit the stern of the USS Barr DE 576, resulting in a large number of casualties.
At 2040 Captain Hughes ordered all hands to “Abandon Ship”. By 2100 most men went over the starboard side, either jumping or sliding down knotted 40-ft. Rope ladders. As the ship sank the planes spotted on deck slid into the sea like toys, the TBM’s depth changes exploding deep under the surface. Block Island took her final plunge at 2155. We were equipped with various types of life belts / jackets as well as cork supported rope nets. Many times, when describing this incident, friends would ask about “the lifeboats.” Since we had only two small boats aboard, most of time these were used in transporting personnel, mail, etc. whenever the carrier was anchored away from any pier while in port.
The USS Ahrens DE 575 stopped engines and drifted to a stop in the Atlantic swells, recovering the Block Islanders from the sea. With Ahrens’ engines now stilled, her sonar almost immediately detected U-549. Ahrens skipper radioed the USS Elmore DE 686 coaching the sister ship to where the German submarine lay. Three projectiles from Elmore’s hedgehogs slammed into the U-549’s hull at 2127. A great, grinding internal explosion audible to the monitoring ships destroyed the U-boat a moment later.
The USS Ahrens picked up 674 survivors (I was included) and the USS Paine DE 578 picked up 277 personnel. I have no memory as to how long we were in the water. The crew of the Ahrens helped the survivors aboard, by many of its crew hanging over the side to help.
The next morning, 30 May, Elmore with the damaged Barr under tow, and the two DE’s laden with the CVE survivors, cleared the area for Casablanca, arriving 1 June. The personnel of the two DE’s, did a commendable job of making all hands as comfortable as possible, some giving up bunks for others to catch a few winks. The task of feeding this large number, aboard the Ahrens and the Paine, was without parallel. While we were lined up on the main deck, waiting turns to go below to eat our two meals. Sometimes, from the bridge came the order for some men to shift from one side or to the other to maintain an even keel. The odor of diesel fuel oil was everywhere that we touched.
My what a mess! However, we were SAFE. After we arrived in Casablanca, showers and clean khaki uniforms made each of us feel much better. The crew was then mustered together to start obtaining information from them. Bruce Johnson and I were questioned separately and later together, as to our certain identification of Petty Officer James Owen, found inside the cockpit of the damaged TBM. Ironically during this time of interrogation, neither of us was asked for names of family members to be notified of our survival. My family received telegram “Missing in Action” but quickly followed by “Well and Safe.” My mother lovingly saved these telegrams.
Survivors departed Casablanca aboard three Carriers: USS Mission Bay – CVE 59, USS Kasaan Bay – CVE 69 and USS Tulagi – CVE 72 for the return trip home to Norfolk Va. and to begin the traditional thirty (30) day “Survivors’ Leave.” After leave had expired, most of crew was ordered back to Norfolk, Va. for a cross-country troop train ride to Seattle (Bremerton), WA. and further assignment to the NEW USS BLOCK ISLAND, CVE 106.
Note # 1: For many years I had wondered who had piloted this last plane (TBM) to land on the Block Island just before the sub’s attack began. The same plane that “Chic” Swails and I disarmed the ordnance. The Navy Aviation crew members were transferred from the new CVE 106, at San Diego to a Naval Air Station, Twenty-Nine Palms, CA, CASU # 5 (Carrier Aircraft Service Unit).
While stationed with CASU # 5, I became acquainted with Rudy Esquivel, an Aviation Metalsmith Petty Officer from San Antonio, TX.
“At 12:00 noon, Monday, May 29, 1944, a group of women had gathered together in the little City of Newport to pray for all of the boys in combat. One of the women, while weeping and praying, saw a vision of a small aircraft carrier sinking in the dark waters of the North Atlantic with many men swimming in the cold oily waters. At the same time she heard a voice saying to her “your son is at sea, in need and many souls are in danger”. That woman, my Mother, immediately stopped the prayer and told the others what she saw and heard. They believed and began to pray earnestly until they felt they had a victory. At that very same moment it was about three or four hours before the USS Block Island CVE-21 was torpedoed and sunk.. The people of the little City of Newport knew about the sinking before it happened.
Later, after we were hit and I saw we were going down I began to call on God.
“Lord, I am afraid, I am a sinner and not ready to die. I have been told since I was a child that if I asked sincerely, I would receive. I don’t mean to bargain with you Lord, but if you save me and my friends, I promise I will be your servant all the days of my life”. A MIRACLE happened that cold night and the Navy and the news media said so. Only 6 men were lost of the crew of the carrier, 15 men from the Destroyer Escort USS Barr and 4 pilots who’s planes were in the air at the time of the sinking of their landing field the aircraft carrier. Why we don’t know, but we can assume that God in His Sovereign Will wanted them!”
A Board of Enquiry was set up to review the sinking. The Board reviewed the matter in that, given the circumstances, a C3 tanker hull converted into an aircraft carrier that took three torpedoes, one exploding in the fuel tanks with no massive fire, the cold stormy seas, only 4 small escort ships for assistance, one the those escort ships torpedoed without power, one escort ship having to take the damaged escort ship in tow to keep it from sinking, the other two small escort ships left to pick up the survivors, depth charges from the carrier going off as the ship sunk thereby lifting the small ships up out of the water, one destroyer escort being able to actually attack and sink the submarine, another of the small destroyers suffering damage to it’s hull, and having to shift these survivors around from place to place on the damaged escort ship to keep it from capsizing for 3 long days, and then getting all of these many survivors back to the safety at Casablanca. Their findings : A MIRACLE had taken place.
“I joined the Navy on November 1,1942 and went aboard the Block Island in January 1943. On the evening of 29 May 1944, I was in the armory playing checkers with Wallace, while someone was cooking steak and eggs for our supper. All of a sudden the whole ship shook as the first torpedo hit forward on the port side. Seconds later, the second one hit aft. Immediately every man in the armory ran to his GQ station. I got to my position (port side forward) where there were 6 – 20 mm guns. Already the ship was listing to port and all of us knew that the situation was really bad. Grabbing a life jacket, I went up the ladder to the flight deck to find Wetzel. He was on the starboard side with the 20 millimeters and appeared to be OK. I then went aft to check those guns and the third torpedo hit. As I ran I had to jump a crack in the deck and remember looking straight down and seeing water. At that point we heard the order to abandon ship. The ladder on the starboard side ended 12 to 15 feet above the water. I went down and dropped into the oily sea. Nearby was a raft which I swam to. The raft was crowded with shipmates, but I could see a nearby DE (the Ahrens) with a cargo net over the side. So I decided to swim for it — maybe 300 yards. Even though I had always been a strong swimmer, I was exhausted by the time I reached the net. At the top two sailors lifted me over the side. Telling them I was OK and could walk on my own, I took a few steps and fell flat. I was exhausted!”
In an email from Maury Gamache to Jack Greer:
“You are the first people that I have talked to that were there “that” day. We had an old gun mount with 101’s (similar to a 40mm) if I remember correctly. I normally was assigned to the depth charge and K gun area but while we were picking up survivors I was sent to the 101 gun mount, along with an ensign. While I was there he told me to keep a close look out to the opposite side where the survivor activity was taking place, which I did with an occasional look in that direction. After a while, I think it was just after dusk, I saw a periscope on the left side of the ship and I was so speechless that I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed and he saw the same periscope. He immediately notified the bridge and that is when the Ahrens had to break off the picking up of survivors and make emergency speed to avoid being sunk also. ”
He closed his email saying that he apologized to the survivors that the Ahrens had to leave stranded there in the water as none of those survivors had any idea that the submarine contact had been made.
“I am glad that I have finally shared my memory with some one else who was there”
Frank Burt, Chief Radioman from the USS Ahrens, attended the annual USS Block Island Association reunion held in 2000. At the age of 92, he was the oldest member at that time to ever attend the one of the reunions. He added to Maury’s memory with the following:
Maury saw the periscope of the submarine, brought it to the attention of an officer who then notified the FireControl Officer, who then notified the Sonar Officer who traced the submarine but found that the USS Elmore had not picked it’s location up on their sonar gear. The Sonar Officer contacted the Radio Room Officer where Frank Burt got involved and passed the location of the submarine over the airways to the Elmore’s Radio room, who passed that position on to the Fire Control Officer who then gave directions to the depth charge crews.
“Where was I when first torpedo hit? Caught with my britches down, in the shower below deck, I ran up to hangar deck with a towel “around my “you know what”. Towels were bathrobes to and from shower, our “shack” located under smoke stack, halfway between hangar deck and flight deck. I ran up the ladder, put on jeans and shirt as the second torpedo hit; ran back down to hangar deck to catch a life jacket as they were dropped from storage rack on port bulkhead. I had promised this “priority” since I was (and still am) a poor swimmer. When the third torpedo hit, “abandon ship” blared out. Went out on port forward sponson and “jumped.” Someone always asks, “What were you thinking of?” Nothing but “jump for survival.” After drifting for some time, I caught on a floating rope raft with 8 other shipmates. I don’t remember time in the water. Umpteen “Our Fathers” later, Ahrens picked us up. We had no way to control our rope raft, so after several near misses, Ahrens “laid-by” and let us drift up to them. Up on deck, Ahrens sailors cut our oil-soaked clothes and threw them overboard. Seven hundred men on a ship built for 200! We were warned to keep well scattered about the ship, as “Don’t Rock the Boat.” I was dressed in “Long John’s” and the cook’s mate gave me a hot cup of coffee, saying “You need this more then I do!” After it was all over, I realized I had left my brand new “shake-to-wind” wristwatch in my locker and it was “water-proof.” Several years later, I was swapping war stories with my brother-in-law. Neither knew where the other was during the war. He was in Army Quarter Master Corps in Casablanca and had supplied USS B.I. survivors with “army issue!”
Note: Ensign George Hadden, from Big Lake, MN served on CVE 21 as an aero engineer. He continued his U.S. Navy service until well after WWII. In 1992, George Hadden, serving as Ships Doctor on a container ship operating in the Pacific, wrote a book “George at War, Part II. “. Dr. George Hadden died in 1998 and Mrs. Marjorie Hadden, his widow , provided the USS Block Island Association with excerpts from his document “Operations on the USS Block Island, March-Mid-May 1944 ” so that they could be shared for preservation.
“There were only a couple dozen planes aboard, 12 either -General Motors TBMs or Grumman TBFs, 3-man Torpedo planes rigged with all sorts of aerial radar search gear. They carried MIV aerial mines, being a short stubby torpedo- in fact, motor driven – that would home in on the sub’s screw noise when within a few hundred yards. 10 or so Fighters were either F4F-3 Grumman Wildcats or General Motors FM-2s, essentially identical, each being stubby little mid fuselage wing jobs. The fighters could take off if we had a bit of wind over the deck but the torpedo bombers always had to be catapulted with only 1850 Wright engines making them one slow clumsy bird. We were primarily seeking to kill German supply subs other wise known as “milk-cow” subs. These were big varmints approaching 3000 tons and would maintain 6-8 attack submarines of 750 tons, thus avoiding the gauntlet between SE England and the Nazi submarine pens along the NW coast of France. The poor buggers on the attack subs apparently never got ashore and the looks of a handful of survivors we saved from the two subs our planes killed on the six weeks’ cruise between Norfolk and Casablanca proved it. Long hippy-like haircuts but most striking was their skin, sickly like one’s skin looks when he pulls off an adhesive bandage that has been in place for a week.
The sailors saved had to be stowed in the brig, but the one 28 year old skipper was given the run of the ship by our Captain after he pledged his honor. He ate in the wardroom, gave us long discourses on how we were doing and what was right or wrong about our tactics. He spoke perfect British English, being educated there until called into the German Navy just before 1939. It should be noted that he stressed that there were few , if any, real dedicated Nazis in the German Navy and subsequent facts during and after surrender proved this.
All these survivors knew the exact location of POW camps in the USA, something I surely didn’t, wondering whether they would be sent to Texas, North Dakota, etc. I understand a good number of them, especially in the Dakotas, got to stay on after the war, married and are very productive citizens at this time
The Landing Signal Officer (LSO) names Tommy Thompson from Colorado Springs, Colorado, was my best friend aboard and a flyer, but never flew off the ship. Actually, he was the most important man aboard, being responsible for getting the planes aboard at any time and in any weather.”
( Jack Greer comment: Being an aircraft carrier built to be the “floating airport or landing field” for aircraft of all nature, and to provide service all over the world at any time, it is understood by all military personnel why our little LSO welcomes you aboard this website).
“He stood on a wooden platform level with the flight deck, jutting out beyond the catwalk, having a bet extending maybe 3 feet beyond it where it projected beyond the ship that he could dive into to escape being decapitated by a wing or in fact the entire airplane if it came in too low or crashed against the ship. I spent many off duty hours up there just behind his platform just outside his diving range, and believe I could have waved a plane aboard if it had became necessary.
There was an assistant LSO aboard, but the squadron wanted Thompson after very little experience with him and the other chap never waved a flat that I knew of. I don’t think that Tommy ever hit his bunks for weeks, dozing in the ready room only, located amidships just below the flight deck with a light lock door to the catwalk and then 4-5 step ladder up to the flight deck. He guided the planes aboard using two orange fluorescent colored paddles, short handled and about the size of a tennis racket. At night, a fluorescent light in front of him shined on the paddles, but this was all the pilot could see. All Tommy had to guide with was the flash of lights from the exhaust ports on the plane’s engine. The flight deck had slit-like lights that showed over only about a 20 degree arc that could be seen by the pilot along each side of the flight deck, but if, and only if, he was in the “grove” so to speak on a proper approach.
There were three arresting barriers of heavy cable around mid-ship, making a stout fence so to speak, and if a plane came in to fast or too high, or the deck dropped out from under it due to wave action, sailors manning the barriers could throw a hydraulic switch dropping the first two barriers but never the third. As soon as the prop hit the barrier, the plane would rear up with the tail high and the last few revolutions of the prop would often chew up through the 4-inch fir deck and steel deck below that, throwing a bit of shrapnel down in a shower onto my plane maintenance crew on the hanger deck below. For a while I considered outfitting my crew with steel helmets to avoid possible injury, but they would have none of that. They groaned nonetheless because they knew that with the sudden stoppage of the engine, it meant another total engine change and a new prop for the plane.
Navy Squadron VC 55 served aboard CVE 21 after the ship completed the “aircraft ferrying” trips to Belfast, Ireland. The pilots must train continually to maintain their ability to land and take off from the Carrier. While “take offs” (either by fly offs or catapult) are relatively safe, however, it requires some great skills landing an aircraft on the deck of a carrier. The picture is a celebration cake for the 1000th landing that VC 55 made on CVE 21 in the Atlantic chasing German Submarines.”
Note: The following is from the Epilogue regarding the sinking of CVE-21.
“I think note should be made of the fate of the six F4F fighters we had in the air at the time of the sinking. They were given the option via radio from the ship: fly to the Azores and be interned for the rest of the war by a neutral country, Portugal; try to ditch near a large fleet of French fishing vessels, known to be off the shores of the Azores; or ditch along side the rest of us (being the remaining three Destroyer escorts). They all had enough gas and after the ship went down, they all made a graceful dive over us, above the water, wiggling their wings as a final salute. Two of them did land at the Azores, four of them ditched and two of those perished, not to be heard from again. Two were picked up by French fishermen and were ashore in Casablanca waiting for us there.”
“I was in charge of the IC (Internal Communications) Room at the time we were torpedoed. We had three bunks set up high in there above the workbenches. A bunch of us Electricians (8 or 10) were standing around waiting for the coffee to get done. Seems like our coffeepot was called a Silex. In any event, it was a two-part unit where the water in the pot raised up into the upper unit when it got hot and mixed with the coffee grounds that were in the upper unit. We were B’S’ing when the first two torpedoes hit us. As far as I was concerned, it was only one explosion, but a lot of the guys claimed that later they heard two distinct explosions. One of the group (I think it was Ellingson) yelled out, What happened, did we run aground? I explained no, we weren’t within a thousand miles of ground. Then GQ (General Quarters) started ringing and everybody but me ran to their battle stations. I was at mine. Meyer EM2c (you might remember him as he fixed watches) was at the after Gyro Room and I was talking to him about a problem he had with the Gyro as it was pressing back and forth 2-3 degrees. He couldn’t do anything as it was locked and the key was up in the IC Room. While I’m talking to Meyer, Bair came down to keep me company (it was his GQ station also). He told me that he was crashed out in his bunk, which was in one of the rooms we had off the hanger deck. The explosion knocked him out of his bunk and there was a wide-open vertical split on the seaward bulkhead and he could look out and see the sea. I asked him if things were that bad what the Hell did he come down here for! Anyhow, he noticed that the coffee was ready and I can see him to this day pouring his cup of coffee when the third torpedo hit. It hit right close to the after Gyro and killed Meyer and two Machinist mates. We then lost all of our power in the IC Room. I have no idea how long we stayed there. Our sound powered lines were dead. I got a battle lantern and kept looking up and down the passage way figuring if I saw water, we were going to get out of there. I got pretty mixed up with the cord on the sound-powered phone line, but kept the phone on. Finally, somebody asked if there was anyone on the circuit. I answered and he said he picked up the discarded phone laying on the hanger deck and asked where we were when I told him he answered, What the Hell are you still doing down there; we’ve been abandoning ship for 20 minutes! I don’t think I answered him as I was fighting to get out of the tangle I was in with the phone cord! As we were going by the hatch to the Emergency Diesel Room, I couldn’t help but notice the diesel was still running and made me wonder if they had got word about abandoning ship. I opened the hatch and there was the Electrician (Kroner) and two Mechanics. I motioned at them to come, but all they did was stare up at me. Remember, the damn diesel was running. I went down the ladder and dragged Kroner into the soundproof booth and yelled at him to abandon ship. Let me tell you that all three of those sailors beat me up that ladder! I got up to the hanger deck and started over to the port side to my abandon ship station, but there was a pretty good-sized hole in the deck with some minor smoke rising from same. I ended up on the flight deck where they were abandoning ship from the starboard side. Someone decided things were going too slow and ordered us to start going over the side on the Port side. They had avoided the port side up to this time as all the torpedo holes were on the port side. In any event, I was on the port side and there was a rope coiled up there hanging onto the rail and I flung it over the side and there was a life raft right under the end of the rope. I started to go over the side when somebody grabbed me by the shoulder and suggested that it would be a good idea if I secured that end of the rope to the rail. I thought this was a great idea and tied it down and then slid down the rope right onto the life raft without getting my feet wet.” event, I was on the port side and there was a rope coiled up there hanging onto the rail and I flung it over the side and there was a life raft right under the end of the rope. I started to go over the side when somebody grabbed me by the shoulder and suggested that it would be a good idea if I secured that end of the rope to the rail. I thought this was a great idea and tied it down and then slid down the rope right onto the life raft without getting my feet wet.”
“It was late afternoon & I was on watch in the radio shack with Bill Connolly as my supervisor. My duty was copying the “Fox” schedule on radio NSS. The signal was good & copy easy and I was deep into a long routine message when all of a sudden we were violently shaken by a terrific explosion & that was followed seconds later by another huge explosion. Torpedoes had struck both forward and aft on the port side. General Quarters was sounded & I grabbed a life jacket and headed for my GQ station which was a 20mm gun mount forward side just aft of the bridge. Confusion & concern was everywhere but not panic. I had been on my GQ Station for only a couple of minutes when a third torpedo struck us amidships on the port side. The ship was taking a noted port list and soon we were advised to prepare to abandon ship. Preparations were made with knotted lines and life rafts and the order to abandon was given. I recall going over the catwalk just a bit forward of the bridge. Funny thing…when I went to go over the side to abandon ship, I found several sets of shoes all neatly lined up in pairs where departing shipmates had left them…so I added mine to the nice arrangement! Many lines were over the side & many sailors on them at the same time. We dropped off into water that had a thick, heavy coating of oil floating on it. Hard to make progress away from the stricken ship in the oil until someone yelled, “dig deep” because to do so put your efforts into water instead of oil and you could move out and eventually escape the oil cover. Only the wounded & those who thought they were wounded were in the life rafts, but men clung to the rafts all the way around them. We were an oily mess for certain! But all lent a hand to try to move the rafts away from the ship & toward the DE’s who were standing by to pick up survivors. They sure looked to be a long ways away! It was noticed that our escorts were searching for the submarine that had attacked us & also noticed that one of the escorts had suffered a torpedo hit, too. At this time, looking back at the Block Island, we could see that she was listing more and more to port & that she was slowly sinking by the stern. When we neared the USS Ahrens , we could see that they had put cargo nets over the side & had their own men hanging onto the nets to assist survivors up & on board as they reached the side. At last we were able to make our way to the ship’s side & anxious hands grabbed us as we reached up the nets. I recall being passed from man to man & thrown onto the deck. Being well lubricated, I slid across the deck & banged into a bulkhead several feet away. Bit of shock, but no pain & just darned happy to be saved. Soon I was led below decks to crews quarters & there, sailors were opening their lockers to supply everyone they could with dry clothing. A good toweling & rubdown and dry clothes felt wonderful but the oil coating was very much still on all of us! That coating would be a problem for many weeks after the sinking. Lines-like on elbow and knuckles would be ever so slow in releasing their darkness! Hair was a miserable mess too. I found my way up to the destroyer’s radio shack & volunteered to help in any way I could. They were glad to have me and I took over one of the circuits for them. Awhile later, we were rocked by the shock wave of the sinking Block Island where some of the ordnance had apparently detonated when she sunk. I did not witness the final dive but several of my shipmates described it to me. A sad loss of a dear, old ship! I just spent the night in the radio shack and food was brought up by some of the off-duty radiomen. I was more comfortable than a lot of my mates who tried to find resting spots other places on board. Next morning found us in route to Casablanca. We spent several days there & were all issued Army blankets and Army wear. Nice to be clean & warm, even in strange gear! While there we heard that the Allies were landing in France. Some CVE ships that were carrying freight east were diverted down too Casablanca to help get us survivors home. I was billeted aboard the U.S.S. Mission Bay & she took us into New York City for some of the best liberty we enjoyed while in the Navy. Later, ended up down in Norfolk with new issue of sea bag and renew of supplies and after a briefing & some medical observation, we were granted 30-day survivors leave and all headed home!”
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was playing pinochle at the time. When two torpedoes hit us, one fore and one aft, we were knocked across the room by the force, and the alarm went off telling everyone to man their battle stations. As an aviation ordnanceman, I took my place on the flight deck at a 40-millimeter gun. “When I reached the flight deck, I saw the third torpedo coming through the water. We braced ourselves and held on to some heavy-duty ropes on the deck. As the ship began to relent to the three torpedoes, the men all began to put on their life preservers and make their way into the Atlantic Ocean as the ship doctor called for help. The doctor was trying to free a sailor’s leg, which was pinned under flight deck metal that had rolled up onto him from the heat of the torpedo. I witnessed the doctor cutting his leg off. It was the only way to get him out. At 16 years old, that was a little jarring to see. I can still remember him screaming. The man died from loss of blood caused by the amputation. He was one of six who died when the ship sank. Only six men of 900 aboard died. After discovering the CO2 bottle would not function on my life preserver, I had no choice but to jump from the flight deck without the aid of a life preserver. Being a strong swimmer, I swam far from the ship. The water and the sailors’ faces were black from the diesel oil spilling from the ship.” As the men swam from the ship, the ship’s weapons were exploding below the surface. You could feel the tremendous explosions in the water and everyone was black. All you could see was the whites of their eyes, and it struck me, it was the diesel oil from the fuel tanks. Everyone was covered. I remember a set of those white eyes swimming toward me in the pitch-black ocean waters. It was my pinochle partner from New Orleans, Art Villerie. The New Orleanian held up his gambling hand dripping from the dark water. “Look at my hand. Look at how many aces I had!,” he said. “Villerie still had 10 aces in his hand. I remember laughing at the small moment of humor they found in that catastrophic time. About an hour into the water, I came upon another sailor who was gasping, trying to stay afloat and went under the surface. I managed to go under and pull him up and then towed him to a raft. A short while later, another sailor and I assisted a drowning sailor to a raft. There were others that helped each other through the ordeal. The group stayed in the water about three hours and since that time, have bonded closely for years since.”
“I remember very vividly the day of the sinking of CVE 21. I was off duty at the time & was lying in my bunk when the first torpedo hit. I knew what it was, having been on the USS Lexington which took three torpedoes in the Coral Sea battle. I immediately jumped out of my bunk, which was one deck below the hangar deck & headed for the flight deck. We had been informed that if we were ever torpedoed, to abandon ship promptly as the ship would break up quickly. In my haste to get to the fight deck, I forgot my life jacket, which was attached to my bunk. But as I was crossing the hangar deck, I spotted a jacket that someone had apparently dropped. I picked it up & continued to the top. As I got to the flight deck, I could see that the aft end of the ship had already split and was dragging in the water. I immediately headed toward the bow & went down a net that had been lowered into the water. There was already quite a bit of oil in the water & I came up looking like a “tar baby”. I eventually swam far enough out from the ship to stop for a little rest, but was feeling the effects of the depth charges that were being dropped by our forces. I finally got together with a group of other survivors & we were eventually picked up by one of our DE’s — I’m not really sure, but I think it was the USS Ahrens. I was in the water for quite some time, but suffered no problems. We were later taken into Casablanca and finally set up ship’s company in camel barns but that’s another story!”
In a small farming community in Edinburg Texas there was the Owen Family with three sons and a daughter. This family had just gone through the “big depression” and while they had deep concerns about the Germans and the Japanese trying to take over a major part of the world their attitude was not unlike over 85% of the general public. That attitude was to avoid entering into the war and had actually maintained an “isolationists” attitude. On December 7, 1941 that family and the entire nation did “awake” and their actions became a part of history.
James B. Owen was the eldest son and as soon as he was of eligible he enlisted in the United States Navy and his first duty was aboard the USS Block Island CVE 21 serving as a Petty Officer as an airplane captain. His next younger brother Jack Owen had gone to the recruiting station with him to also enlist in the Navy but failed to qualify because of some minor physical problem. However that rejection did not stop Jack from wanting to serve his country so he enlisted in the Army Air Force.
As soon as the youngest brother Odell was of age he also enlisted in the Navy. Three sons and all three in the service to their country determined to stop the Germans and Japanese from rul;ing the world.
James B. Owen lost his life when the USS Block Island CVE 21 was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Atlantic Ocean on May 29, 1944. Because that ship had taken two torpedoes that ripped many of the ships life rafts and life saving gear off it’s sponsons there was a great need for additional life vests and flotation materials. Being an airplane captain Jim knew that each airplane remaining there on the decks had small rafts that were made available to the pilots in case they had to ditch or were shot down over the water. Jim and other crew members immediately joined in the task of securing these life saving devices. While Jim was in the cockpit of his airplane a third torpedo struck the ship just below the water line almost immediately under the position of that airplane. The explosion ripped through the hanger deck, lifted the aircraft off the deck and the hole left in the deck was so large that when the airplane fell it went down through to two decks below. Jim Owen was one of the shipmates who lost his life in that sinking.
Jack Owen inspected B-17s in 1944. Later Jack was transferred to repair work on the B-29s and trained flight personnel who had taken flight positions in combat without technical training. Being transferred to Seattle he trained the aircrews that were being readied for combat over Japan. He served with both the 2nd and 3rd Air Force during WWII.
Odell Owen, the younger brother, was serving on board the USS Arenac transporting military personnel to the Philippines in preparations for the invasion of Japan proper. He was serving on that ship when the Japanese surrendered. He was serving on board the USS Appalachian when the first Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test was made.
The shipmates of the two Block Islands formed an Association back in 1963 and both the younger brothers Jack and Odell joined as associate members attend these yearly reunions.
Just before CVE 21 made that last voyage on submarine patrol Jim Owen had gone on shore leave and was able to visit with his brother Jack. As a memento to his visit he gave his brother a small Ronson cigarette lighter that was made as a Christmas recognition of the CVE 21 being at sea on that December Day of 1943 (see photo at right). Little things become such a major cherished item when the “giver” is taken from this earth.
“The 29th of May was an exciting day. The ship was preparing for a fun time on the 30th. I was in the Radio shack, sitting at the typewriter making up the roster for the different events that would be taking place on the flight deck the next day. When the torpedo’s hit, I was thrown topsy-turvy, not really knowing what had happened but it wasn’t long before the third torpedo hit and we were called to abandon ship. I was part of a three man Direction Finder group and of course we were working with classified equipment so I had to head for the room that held our equipment to destroy it and the manuals containing German information. After we did that, Jesse Watson and I headed for the flight deck where they had lines down to the water. Jesse was leery of going into the water and brave me, (ha, ha) said that I would save him. Once in the water, we seemed to get separated and I found myself pulling a raft. Some time after that, I don’t know how long, there was an explosion. It must have been after the ship had sunk far enough for the explosives to go off. All I know was, it felt like I was given an enema with a telephone pole. I was in the water for about 3 1/2 hours. By the time we got to the Ahrens, it was filled to capacity so we had to continue on to the Paine. I could hardly get up the rope ladder without a lot of assistance. The fellows were great. We had the privilege of washing the oil off of us in salt water, cold at that. Since our clothes were saturated with oil, they were thrown overboard, so we had to sleep in our birthday suits. The crew was so nice; they gave up their bunks to us to sleep in. The next day we went to ship supply and were issued some clothes. I got a pair of long johns, winter wool socks and a pair of size 10 rubbers to wear on my feet. I take a size 8 1/2. We ate well and when we pulled into Casablanca and walked off the ship, we were really a scream and the women on the dock & others really got their laughs. We were glad when we got our Army issue of clothing. It was some experience, but I don’t think I would want to go through it again. Nicknames for the Radio Gang: Bob was called Sammy; Jesse Watson was called swivel hips, Bill Connolly was called Slick; McPherson was called Snake.”