The “Jeep” Carriers of WWII
Unsung heroes of the WWII Navy fleet: the CVEs, Escort Carriers
Known as “Jeep Carriers,” “Woolworth Flattops,” “Kaiser Coffins” and “One-Torpedo Ships,” the joke went around that CVE stood for the three most salient characteristics of an escort carrier: Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable.
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. The “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. Due to a shortage of merchant ship hulls, four Escort carriers were built on Cimarron-class fleet oiler hulls. These four, USS Csangamon (CVE 26), USS Suwanee (CVE 27), USS Chenanago (CVE 28), and USS Santee (CVE 29), were so successful in anti-submarine work and in covering amphibious operations that, after participating in the landings in North Africa, they were deployed to the Pacific. There, the fleet was in desperate need of carriers.
These early ships paved the way for a tremendous building program of “Jeep” carriers 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. Of the 78 “Jeeps,” 50 were built by the Kaiser Shipyards. Despite Kaiser’s later purchase of Willys Motors, the builder of Jeep vehicles, the nickname name “Jeep” applied to the Escort carriers built by Kaiser had nothing to do with the Jeep vehicles.
Of the 151 aircraft carriers built in the U.S. during World War II, a grand total of 122 were Escort carriers. Though no examples survive to this day, the Casablanca-class holds the distinction of being the most numerous single class of aircraft carrier ever built, with 50 having been launched. The Bogue class comes in a close second, with 45 launched.
Using a new submerged arc welding technique, a Liberty ship could be built in an average 42 days. Given the need for carriers that could escort convoys and provide aerial antisubmarine protection, in 1942 Henry Kaiser proposed to the Navy a conversion of the Liberty ship to create a small aircraft carrier capable of fulfilling that role, promising fast production in the numbers necessary to provide what was essentially secondary naval air power.
It was quickly found that the Escort carriers had better performance than Light carriers (CVLs), which tended to pitch badly in moderate to high seas. The Commencement Bay-class was designed to incorporate the best features of American CVLs on a more stable hull with a less expensive propulsion system.
It is ironic that they fact that the CVEs were lightly armed was also a reason that, like a Timex watch, they could “take a lickin’ and keep on ticking’.” Explosive shells that hit the CVEs usually passed right through the hull without exploding.
Escort carriers were typically around 500 feet long, not much more than half the length of the almost 900 feet fleet carriers of the same era, but were less than 1/3 of the weight. A typical Escort carrier displaced about 8,000 long tons, as compared to almost 30,000 long tons for a full-size fleet carrier. The aircraft hangar typically ran only 1/3 of the way under the flight deck and housed a combination of 24-30 fighters and bombers organized into one single “composite squadron.” By comparison, a late Essex-class fleet carrier could carry a total of 103 aircraft organized into separate fighter, bomber and torpedo-bomber squadrons.
The island on these ships was small and cramped, and located well forward of the funnels (unlike on a normal-sized carrier where the funnels were integrated into the island). Although the first Escort carriers had only one aircraft elevator, two elevators, one fore and one aft, quickly became standard, so did the one aircraft catapult. The carriers employed the same system of arresting cables and tailhooks as on the big carriers, and procedures for launch and recovery were the same as well.
The crew size was less than 1/3 of that of a large carrier, but this was still a bigger complement than most naval vessels. It was large enough to justify the existence of facilities such as a permanent canteen or snack bar, called a “gedunk bar,” in addition to the mess. The “gedunk bar” was open for longer hours than the mess and sold several flavors of ice cream, along with cigarettes and other consumables.
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 (Milchkühe, “milk 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 Dönitz, 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.
Testimony indeed to the hard work, skill and dedication of the “Jeeps” and the men who served in them.
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. 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. This amazing story will be the subject of next Sunday’s post.
Sources: U.S. Navy website article by Robert A. Germinsky, Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II, and Military Wikia.