The Navy's escort carriers, called "Jeep carriers" or (by the press) "baby flat tops," never received the headlines or glory accorded their bigger sisters. Jeeps did the routine patrol work, scouting and escorting of convoys that their larger fleet-type counterparts couldn't do. Lightly armored, slower than the fleet carriers and with far less defensive armament and aircraft, they performed admirably when called upon.
Jeep carrier crews, who joked that "CVE" (the Navy's designation for this type of ship) really stood for "Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable," became experts at hunting, finding and killing U-boats in both ocean theaters. Jeeps and their crews also provided fighter and close air support for amphibious landings, and served as aircraft transports as the tempo of the carrier war in the Pacific mounted to a crescendo.
The need for escort carriers came early in the war when German submarines and aircraft were taking a devastating toll on convoy shipping. The heaviest losses occurred far at sea where land-based aircraft couldn't operate. The Royal Navy had experimented with catapult-launched fighter planes from merchantmen; while this was somewhat successful in combating the U-boats, the number of planes that could be embarked was limited. Something else was needed, and in a hurry. Great Britain appealed to the United States for help.
No real specifications had been developed for escort carriers at this time, although the Navy had looked into converting merchant ships for this purpose before the war began. Thus, the quick solution was to build the early CVEs on merchant ship hulls.
The first CVE was USS Long Island (CVE 1), converted from a Maritime Commission freighter.
These early ships paved the way for a tremendous building program of Jeeps in the United States. Between June 1941 and April 1945, 78 escort carriers would be built and launched - a remarkable feat of wartime naval construction.
In the Atlantic, escort carriers originally stayed close to the convoys they were protecting. Over time, tactics evolved that enabled the Jeep carriers and their destroyer escorts to become independent "hunter-killer" groups. They could attack concentrations of U-boats at will and were no longer required to provide constant umbrella coverage for a convoy. This tactic was further refined by having the escort carrier groups concentrate their efforts in areas where U-boats met their supply submarines ("milch cows").
This operational phase was so successful that three Jeeps - USS Core (CVE 13), USS Card (CVE 11) and USS Bogue (CVE 9) - and their escorting destroyers sank a total of 16 U-boats and 8 milch cows in a period of 98 days. During this time, U-boats sank only one merchantman and shot down only three planes from the escort carriers. This loss of submarines, particularly the milch cows, was a severe blow to the German Navy. With diminished capability for refueling U-boats at sea, and with no friendly bases in the area, Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of the German U-boat fleet, was forced to withdraw his remaining supply submarines and cancel all U-boat operations in the central Atlantic.
In the Pacific, Jeeps performed less glamorous but no less important duties. Whether providing air cover for amphibious landings, ferrying planes, resupplying the big carriers or performing tactical air strikes in support of ground forces ashore, the little flat tops did whatever work had to be done.
On 07 May 1959 the classification of 36 escort carriers, designated CVE, CVU, and CVHE, was changed to AKV, Cargo Ship, and Aircraft Ferry. The change was accompanied by a change in hull numbers and marked the end of the escort carrier as a combatant ship in the US Navy.
Battle of Samar
With all of their versatility, however, they were never designed to go toe-to-toe with heavy enemy surface units in a running sea battle. They never had to - until Oct. 25, 1944, off the island of Samar in the Philippines.
Task Group 77.4 consisted of 16 CVEs organized into three task units: Taffy 1, Taffy 2 and Taffy 3, so named because of their voice radio call signs. These Jeeps were tasked with protecting the transports unloading in Leyte Gulf and supporting troops ashore by striking enemy fortifications and airfields.
The little escort carriers were preparing for another day when, early in the morning of Oct. 25, lookouts on board ships of Taffy 3 spotted Admiral Takeo Kurita's heavy surface force attempting to enter Leyte Gulf and attack the transports and beachhead. What Taffy 3 faced were four battleships and six heavy cruisers. Outgunned and outmanned, the Jeeps and their accompanying destroyers and destroyer escorts did the only thing they could in the face of such overwhelming odds and firepower - they attacked.
Taffy 3, which would bear the brunt of the fighting, began launching aircraft and making smoke. Taffy 2 and Taffy 1, further away, began launching their aircraft to come to the aid of Taffy 3. No heavy American surface units or carriers were in the area; the Jeeps were on their own.
Aircraft from the Jeeps attacked and harassed the enemy, bombing and strafing. Pilots then made "dry" runs on the cruisers and battleships when they ran out of ammunition, in the hope of distracting the enemy gunners from shooting at the little carriers. The gutsy little destroyers, completely overmatched, bore in and carried out torpedo attacks, and fired at the massive battlewagons and cruisers with their relatively puny 5-inch battery guns. The escort carriers themselves were saved from utter destruction because of excellent maneuvering by their captains, and because, when hit, their thin armor permitted the Japanese shells to pass completely through without exploding.
Bold tactics on the part of the carriers, their planes and destroyers convinced Kurita that he had encountered a much larger force of heavy American surface ships and carriers. He had no idea that relatively little stood between his ships and the transports now unloading in Leyte Gulf.
With little knowledge of the situation, and with his ships widely dispersed after fending off the destroyer attacks, Kurita ordered his ships to break off the action and retire from the area. The fight, however, was still not over.
Following Kurita's withdrawal, ships of Taffy 2 and Taffy 3 came under attack from kamikazes, or Japanese suicide pilots. The kamikazes inflicted far greater damage on the little carriers than did Kurita's gunfire, which only managed to account for one carrier, USS Gambier Bay (CVE 73). Hits were scored on Santee, Suwanee, USS Kitkun Bay (CVE 71) and USS St. Lo (CVE 63). Of these four, St. Lo was hit hardest, and she sank as a result.
This Battle off Samar, which lasted a little over two hours, wrote a glorious chapter in the history of the Jeep carriers. By the time Kurita broke off his attack and the kamikazes had been repulsed, more than 1,100 U.S. sailors were dead or missing. Two escort carriers were lost along with four of the destroyers. With no support from heavy American surface units or carriers, the Jeeps of Taffy 1, 2 and 3, their air crews and destroyers bravely and successfully defended the landing beaches and transports at Leyte Gulf.
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