The Battle off Iwo Jima

Eternal Father, strong to save, 
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, 
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep 
Its own appointed limits keep; 
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee 
For those in peril on the sea!

~ The Navy Hymn, William Whiting, 1861

Jack Russell Terrier mascot of the U.S.S Bismark Sea, a casualty, too, of her sinking.

Completely overshadowed by momentous events that occurred simultaneously upon the beaches and rocky crags of the Volcanic Island, on the evening of February 21,1945 a formation of five Casablanca class escort carriers------the USS Lunga Point (CVE-94), the USS Makin Island (CVE-93), the USS Rudyerd Bay (CVE-81), the USS Anzio (CVE-57), the USS Saginaw Bay (CVE-82), and the old fleet carrier, the USS Saratoga (CV-3)----came under Kamikaze attack while providing close air support to Marines twenty miles away on the contested island. The losses and suffering by the sailors of the US Navy were terrible on that night, even if they were still worse for the Marines ashore, and would foretell of even worse days, nights and endless weeks of terror to come as the U.S. Fleet crept even closer to the Japanese mainland and as Japanese pilots would hurl themselves and their airplanes into the American ships in one last desperate effort to forestall their nation's defeat. 

Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser presents President Franklin D Roosevelt a model of a Casablanca carrier, 1943
Collection of the author.

But first, what of these "baby flat-top" escort carriers of the fleet whose contributions are so often overlooked, especially when compared to the glamorous Fast Carrier Force and its legendary feats across the Pacific? If the fast new Essex class carriers could move swiftly and roam far and wide across the reaches of the Pacific, the slower escort carriers were a backbone that provided air cover and anti-submarine protection to the convoys of men and equipment moving inevitably towards Japan; they delivered airplanes to every far flung base and provided the close air support to the Marines in their island invasions. If it was true that one of the great Essex fleet carriers could carry three times the number of airplanes that a Casablanca could carry, three of the escorts working together could launch and recover an equal number of airplanes in just one-third the time. This they could do because they had been built in such numbers, in an astonishingly quick amount of time----fifty of them in just twenty-one months! The largest class of aircraft carriers ever built.

The U.S.S. Casablanca (CVE-55, ex Alazon Bay) lead ship of the Casablanca class of escort carriers at Vancouver, Washington, 1943.
Collection of the author.

The idea for the Casablancas is credited to West-coast industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. Kaiser was already building the Liberty Ships at his Richmond, California yards that were carrying arms and food to England but even if he was mass-producing them in record numbers (the Richmond yards would build 747 ships during WWII---a world's record that stands to this day) Nazi U-boats were sinking them at an even faster pace in the Battle of The Atlantic, threatening England's ability to stay in the fight. In waters off the eastern U.S. seaboard, below Iceland and in the western approaches to the British Isles, land-based airplanes were able to protect the USA-UK convoys against the U-boats----but in the middle of the ocean there existed a mid-Atlantic gap where land-based airplanes could not reach and where merchant ships were left only to what protection they carried and a handful of aging WWI era destroyers to defend against the German submarine "wolfpacks." 

It occurred to Kaiser that the solution to this problem was to build a fleet of small mass-produced aircraft carriers in his Vancouver, Washington yards that could sail with and protect the convoys of merchantmen all the way across the Atlantic and back again. He took his idea to the U.S. Navy but was turned down. But fate intervened: as he was leaving his meeting with the Navy at the Pentagon, Kaiser happened to bump into a former acquaintance who was known to have the ear of the President; a meeting was set up for the following day and FDR enthusiastically embraced the idea----but with one caveat: the ships would not be built under the usual arrangement and direction of the Navy. The Casablanca carriers would be built under contract of the civilian US Maritime Commission and if proved successful would then be accepted and commissioned within the U.S. Navy. Kaiser set to work.

Engraving of the U.S.S. Casablanca (CVE-55), signed G. Lee, 1944.
Collection of the author.

In the months between November 1943 and July 1944, Kaiser Company of Vancouver, Washington laid down, launched and commissioned a total of fifty of the mass-produced carriers----better than two a month, in a feat of astonishing and unprecedented speed. The ships quickly proved effective in their defensive role of guarding Atlantic convoys against the threat of the U-boats, but also out in the far reaches of the Pacific where their role was quickly expanded to be an offensive tool in large fleet amphibious operations, providing the close air support to the assault troops and thereby allowing the larger and faster fleet carriers to strike out simultaneously at distant enemy strongholds and pound them down. 

U.S.S. Bismark Sea (CVE-95) loading SBD Dauntless dive bombers aboard, 1944.

The proudest----and most tragic----moments of the Casablanca ships occurred in the months just prior to the invasion of Iwo Jima, during General MacArthur's return to the Philippines at Leyte, in the Battle off Samar. There a group of six of the Kaiser-built carriers had been left to guard the approaches to the invasion beaches while the fast carriers sprinted off in pursuit of approaching Japanese carriers to destroy them once and for all. The escort carriers and their destroyer escorts were horrified to confront---alone----a powerful formation of warships that included the great battleship Yamato, the biggest battleship ever built and having a main battery of nine of the biggest guns ever fitted to a warship that, if allowed to break through, would surely create a murderous slaughter of the American invasion beaches. Heroically, the massively outgunned escort carriers, their pilots and their destroyer escorts stood and fought against the mightiest ships of the Imperial Navy and turned them back-----but at a very steep price: the USS Gambier Bay (CVE-73) was stuck by the surface guns of the Imperial fleet and was sunk, and the USS St. Lo (CVE-63---ex Chapin Bay) was sunk by Kamikaze aircraft, and three of their escorts were sunk.

The U.S.S. Gambier Bay (CVE-73) as seen from the U.S.S. Kitkun Bay (CVE-71), afire from Japanese naval surface guns burns before sinking off Samar, November 1944.

The U.S.S. St Lo (CVE-63, ex Chapin Bay) being struck by a Kamikaze suicide plane before sinking off Samar, November, 1944.

Prior to this, in November 1943, the USS Liscombe Bay (CVE-56) of the Casablanca class had been sunk by a Japanese submarine off Makin Island and in the weeks before the fateful night off Iwo Jima the USS Ommaney Bay (CVE-79) had been struck by Kamikaze and sunk in the Sulu Sea while en route to Lingayen Gulf. Having suffered so many losses to sister ships----and while at once both proud of their accomplishments and their victories and heartbroken at their  lost crews, sailors aboard the Casablanca carriers became superstitious and suspect of the ship's construction, their light armor and their ability to withstand the blows of self-sacrifice of the desperate Japanese pilots. Sailors began calling them "Kaiser coffins."

A burning Japanese Kamikaze airplane narrowly misses the U.S.S. Ommaney Bay (CVE-79)
in the Sulu Sea, January, 1944.

The U.S.S. Ommaney Bay burning before sinking in the Sulu Sea, January 1944.

And so, it must have been with both a great determination to fight but also with no small amount of terror that the sailors aboard the "baby flat-tops" and the old Saratoga beheld Japanese airplanes emerge out of the clouds and setting sun and begin their dive towards their ships. And here I think it best just to let those who were there speak for themselves:

"Enemy air opposition was negligible for the first few days....

Late in the afternoon of February 21st a heavy enemy attack of some fifty suicide planes was made on the naval forces off Iwo. “Flash Red” came the signal over the radio telephone, and “Man all battle stations!” over the loud speakers. At 1703 [5:03 pm]  the SARATOGA, some 20 miles from us reported that she was under attack and had been hit several times. The radar showed a large group of enemy planes closing on us. We "scrambled” 28 additional fighters to intercept, and then had 65 planes airborne, including those returning from attacks on Iwo. Darkness was approaching, the ships were pitching in a heavy sea, and we were not well equipped for night landings.

The Kamikazes launched a combined torpedo and suicide attack. Four planes came in just above the water and were shot down by the ship's gunfire. AA [anti-aircraft] fire was observed to the starboard and the SARATOGA reported she was under attack for a second time. We could see her blazing on the horizon.

The U.S.S. Saratoga (CV-3) burning moments after being struck by Kamikazes off Iwo Jima, February, 1945.

Three suicide planes launched torpedoes at the LUNGA POINT. Two of them crossed her bow and one missed by ten yard astern. One of the enemy planes was hit by a 5-inch shell burst and crashed into the water. Another was hit but crashed into the LUNGA POINT'S island structure and skidded across the flight deck, it's propeller chewing grooves in the planking. A roar of gasoline fire enveloped the deck.

A burning Kamikaze airplane skids across the deck of the U.S.S. Lunga Point (CVE-94) off Iwo Jima, February, 1945.

At 1850 [6:50 pm] the BISMARK SEA was hit by a suicide plane near the aft elevator on the starboard side and the resulting fire spread forward rapidly with many small explosions as if from her anti-aircraft ammunition. In a few minutes she was hit again on the after end of the flight deck and there was a tremendous explosion as her torpedoes were detonated. She was a mass of fire and the flames lighted the night sky, illuminating all the surrounding ships. Four destroyers were ordered to stand by the stricken ship. At about 1900 [7:00 pm] Captain Pratt of the BISMARK SEA ordered “Abandon ship”. Some 900 men were in the rough water around the BISMARK SEA, their small flashlights blinking on and off as the high waves obscured them from view. The rescue destroyers had their boats out and nets over their sides, but the heavy seas added to their difficulties.

The U.S.S. Bismark Sea (CVE-95) exploding as seen from the U.S.S. Rudyerd Bay (CVE-81) off Iwo Jima, February 1945.

Since the attack was over and all the planes were low on gas, all the undamaged carriers began landing aircraft. The SARATOGA, with holes in her deck, asked the other ships to take some of her planes. Planes in the air were trying to land on any ship available. The MAKIN ISLAND landed nine from the SARATOGA. There were several deck crashes due to the difficulty of landing strange planes at night on crowded and pitching decks.

The SARATOGA reported that she had been hit by a total of four suicide planes and three bombs but the fires were out and she was retiring.....

The BISMARK SEA, now a mass of flaming white hot metal, turned over and sank at 2115 [9:15 pm]. Searches continued all night and throughout the next day but many of her men were drowned in the darkness and rough water.

The U.S.S Bismark Sea exploding before sinking off Iwo Jima as seen from the U.S.S. Saginaw Bay (CVE-82), February 1945.

We will not forget that night. We had seen three carriers burning simultaneously.

After the USS Saratoga was put out of action off Iwo Jima, her place was taken by the USS ENTERPRISE, the ship with probably the greatest name and record in the US Navy. She was unaccustomed to cruising with the little CVE's [escort carriers], which had such peculiar names as Saginaw Bay, Petrof Bay, Natoma Bay, etc....."

Her Radio operators sent a message to the Flagship of the CVE's [escort carriers] and our operator asked him to repeat the name of his ship. Again he was asked to repeat. This time the dots and dashes read: "JUST CALL ME ENTERPRISE BAY"

(Commander Price Gilbert, Jr., USNR, The Escort Carriers In Action: The Story---in Pictures--of The Escort Carriers Force U.S. Pacific Fleet, Ruralist Press, Inc., Atlanta, Ga., 1946)

*    *    *    *    *

That night the U.S.S. Saratoga lost 123 men killed and 192 men wounded and she retired from the battle and to the west-coast for extensive repairs, never to fight again.

After sinking the U.S.S. Bismark Sea the Japanese returned to strafe and shoot many of her helpless sailors afloat in the sea and awaiting rescue. In total she lost 318 men killed that night.

Miraculously, the U.S.S. Lunga point was able to quickly control the fires that had been started by the Kamikaze on her flight deck and she suffered only 11 men wounded with none killed.


My grandfather, Tommy Kennard, Fireman 1st class, USNR, of the U.S.S. Rudyerd Bay, said, simply, it was "living hell" out there...

22 February 2020


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