A sound--a long, broad arm of an ocean--that lies east of Long Island, N.Y., and south of Rhode Island. It takes its name from Block Island which it separates from the Rhode Island coast.
The aircraft escort vessel, AVG-8, was laid down on 12 May 1941 at Pascagoula, Miss., by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corp., under a Maritime Commission contract (MC hull 161); named Block Island on 3 February 1942; reallocated to the United Kingdom under lend lease; had her name cancelled on 19 March 1942; launched on 22 May 1942; renamed Hunter (D. 80) by the Royal Navy; delivered to the Royal Navy on 9 January 1943; and commissioned on 10 January 1943. Returned to the United States Navy on 29 December 1945, the ship's alphanumeric hull designation--she was carried on the Navy list simply as CVE-8--was struck from the Navy list on 26 February 1946. She was sold on 11 September 1946 and delivered to her purchaser on 17 January 1947. Resold to the Dutch government on 13 May 1948, she became the merchantman Almdijk and served under that name until scrapped in October 1965.
(CVE-21: displacement 15,200 tons (full load); length 495'8"; beam 69'6"; draft 26'0"; speed 17.6 knots (trial); complement 890; armament 2 5-inch guns, 20 40mm guns, 27 20mm guns, 28 aircraft; class Bogue; T. C3-S-A1)
The first Block Island (AVG-21) was laid down without a name on 19 January 1942 under a Maritime Commission contract (MC hull 237) at Tacoma, Wash., by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Co.; named Block Island on 19 March 1942; launched on 6 June 1942; sponsored by Mrs. H. B. Hutchinson; reclassified an auxiliary aircraft carrier and redesignated ACV-21 on 20 August 1942; and commissioned on 8 March 1943, Capt. Logan C. Ramsey in command.
After fitting out at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Block Island exercised in Puget Sound for ten days and then sailed for San Diego on 3 April. She made a two-day stop at San Francisco before pushing on to San Diego, where she moored on 9 April. The next day, the new auxiliary aircraft carrier took on board her first air unit--Composite Squadron (VC) 25, flying General Motors FM-1 "Wildcat" fighters and Grumman TBF-1 "Avenger" torpedo bombers. Escorted by destroyer McCook (DD-496), Block Island set out for Norfolk, Va., on 22 May by way of the Panama Canal. She reached Norfolk on 7 June and disembarked VC-25 upon arrival.
While Bogue (CVE-9) and Card (CVE-11) pioneered new antisubmarine warfare (ASW) techniques in the Battle of the Atlantic in mid-1943, Block Island drew the task of ferrying aircraft to England. Mooring at Staten Island on 8 July, the warship took on board the shrouded hulks of Republic P-47 "Thunderbolt" fighters to be delivered to Europe. While there, she was reclassified an escort aircraft carrier and redesignated CVE-21. Underway on 17 July with a convoy of eight troopships and escorts, Block Island was detached on 26 July and tied up at Siddenham Airport, near Belfast, Ireland. Assembled as they were unloaded, the P-47s flew out as quickly as they were put together. The escort carrier left Belfast on 3 August and reached New York eight days later to take on a second load of P-47s. Leaving Staten Island on 21 August, Block Island proceeded with three escorts -- the old destroyers Ellis (DD-154), Herbert (DD-160) and Du Pont (DD-152) -- and touched briefly at Argentia, Newfoundland en route, reaching Siddenham Airport on 31 August. On 12 September, Block Island was back in Norfolk.
The return to Norfolk brought her transport duties to an end and signaled a shift to active prosecution of the Atlantic battle against Germany's U-boat fleet. Soon thereafter, she began four weeks of training with her new squadron, VC-1. Then, on 15 October 1943, Block Island departed Hampton Roads with the veteran flush-deck destroyers Paul Jones (DD-230), Parrott (DD-218), Barker (DD-213), and Bulmer (DD-222) as Task Group (TG) 21.16, given the job of providing air cover for convoy UGS-21. Two days out, however, Block Island received orders to take her task group to an area north of the Azores to hunt a reported U-boat concentration.
After several indefinite contacts en route and considerable evidence of submarines from radio traffic, TG 21.16 entered the designated area on 25 October and immediately found action. Shortly after dark, the group turned toward a radio direction finder (RDF) bearing. Parrott moved in to investigate minutes after obtaining a radar fix at 10,000 yards; and, at 1904, lit up a surfaced "milch cow" -- U-488 -- with starshell at 300 yards. Parrott opened fire with her 4-inch guns and holed the surprised U-boat's conning tower just as she submerged. The destroyer then subjected the submarine to a depth charge attack which shook U-488 up but did not sink her. Paul Jones attacked several good contacts over the next two hours but apparently achieved nothing.
Early on the 28th, Lt. Franklin M. Murray, in a "Avenger," and Ens. Gerald L. Handshuh, in a "Wildcat," took off from Block Island on patrol. At 0905, Murray spotted two U-boats 20 miles away to port and reported his contact to the ship. He then led Handshuh in to attack the closer of the pair -- the 500-ton U-220, which had just finished laying mines off Newfoundland. They covered the U-boat's conning tower with machinegun fire as they bore in, and Murray claimed to have straddled the target with the stick of depth bombs that he dropped. The other boat, U-256, which they belatedly realized was much the larger of the two, subjected both Americans to heavy antiaircraft fire as they executed their runs.
U-220 "pulled the plug" and submerged, though her stern suddenly rose out of the water at a 45-degree angle and hung there briefly before sliding under. Unable to attack the large sub because he had used up his depth bombs, Murray circled, expecting help at first, unaware that his garbled radio messages prevented relief planes from pinpointing the location. At O945, U-256 crash-dived; and Murray, no longer vexed by the hot antiaircraft fire, dove in and dropped his aerial mine. Although Block Island claimed a definite "kill" on the first sub and a probable on the second, the two U-boats exchanged underwater transmissions 40 minutes after the attack as they resumed their courses home. Still, six hours after that, U-256 crewmen heard what seemed to be a nearby attack, and U-220 never returned.
On 5 November, Block Island and her escorts entered Casablanca harbor to refuel, take on provisions, and share tactical intelligence. Sailing again on the 10th, Block Island provided air cover for convoy GUS-220 until detached to hunt submarines south and west of the Azores. Unsuccessful in that venture, she finally broke it off and headed for Norfolk, arriving there on 25 November. During three weeks in port, the carrier got acquainted with a new squadron, VC-58. Equipped with the same mix of aircraft as her previous composite squadrons, VC-58 brought one new weapon to Block Island's ASW arsenal, the high-velocity aircraft rocket (HVAR). In laboratory tests, the simple two-inch projectile with a solid, case-hardened steel head had displayed the ability to penetrate a submerged submarine's pressure hull at depths up to 30 feet.
Guarded by the same quartet of flush deckers, Block Island moved out of Hampton Roads on 15 December in support of UGS-27. Detached four days later, she and her screen headed for the area north of the Azores known as "The Black Pit of the Atlantic" for the number of U-boats concentrated there athwart the convoy routes. On Christmas Eve, Block Island received orders to go after a group of U-boats operating about 820 miles northeast of the Azores.
The cruise proved uneventful until noon on 27 December, when an Admiralty dispatch alerted her to the presence of a German blockade runner--the 2,700-ton Alsterufer. Capt. Ramsey altered course accordingly, launched a strike group of four "Avengers" within an hour and then closed the reported location in order to recover them at dusk, only four hours off. In the event, the Block Island planes reached the scene too late. After British "Sunderland" flying boats failed to sink the blockade runner, a Czech-flown "Liberator" based in the Azores administered the fatal blows with rockets, bombs and machinegun fire. Alsterufer burst into flames just as the "Avengers" reached the scene. At that point, the leader of Block Island's flight ordered the group to jettison bombs and then roared off back to the ship. The other three pilots husbanded their fuel on the way back and managed to get on board around dusk with tanks all but empty. The flight leader ditched, and Barker rescued him and his crew after they were spotted by another flight of "Avengers" out on a futile hunt for a reported "disabled submarine."
Meanwhile on the 29th, Parrott locked onto a sound contact and Bulmer joined her. The task group had come across a concentration of nine U-boats. In radar plot where Capt. Ramsey conned his ship, U-boats appeared on and disappeared from the radar screen, while the escorts vainly tried to hunt them down. The near chaos almost gave U-270 an ideal firing position, but Block Island spoiled her solution with a last-minute emergency turn. Since the weather was too foul to operate aircraft, the job of tracking down and attacking the submarines fell to the destroyers. Yet, while many depth charges roiled the sea, none killed a U-boat.
Reaching Casablanca on 4 January 1944, the task group replenished there until the 8th and then headed back to its recent hunting grounds to guard the passage of two British convoys--one north-bound, one south-bound. Early in the cruise, however, Block Island suffered her first aircraft loss on 11 January when a "Wildcat" crashed and sank, taking the pilot, Ens. T. P. Ridley, with it. Later that day, however, Lt.(jg.) Leonard L. McFord, flying an "Avenger," came across U-758 running on the surface and led his wingman, Lt.(jg.) Willis D. Seeley, to the attack. Six of their two-salvo HVAR attacks went wild, and even their best salvoes only hit the water short of U-758 as she "pulled the plug." Still, while their rockets, depth bombs and machinegun fire failed to sink the U-boat, they did cut short U-758's war patrol by forcing her back to base with a ruptured lube-oil tank, an unserviceable battery, disabled torpedo tubes and a near useless periscope.
On the 14th, another prowling "Avenger" located 11 life rafts carrying the 43 survivors of U-231, sunk by British planes the day before. Bulmer and Parrott picked up the Germans, transferring them to Block Island via breeches buoy and treating the Block Island crewmen to their first sight of live enemies. The group retired to refuel near the Azores and to let Bulmer and Parrott rearm with depth charges at Horta. After that, poor weather ruled out further air operations, and Block Island shaped a course for home, reaching Norfolk on 3 February.
For her third Atlantic combat cruise, Block Island sailed with a different screen, Escort Division (CortDiv) 48 comprising four new destroyer escorts -- Bronstein (DE-189), Bostwick (DE-103), Breeman (DE-104) and Thomas (DE-102)--and the new destroyer Corry (DD-463). Composite Squadron 6 reported on board for the cruise, equipped with new Grumman FM-2 "Wildcat" fighters in addition to its "Avenger" complement. Also new on board was Capt. Ramsey's relief, Capt. Francis M. Hughes. Departing Norfolk on 16 February, Block Island and her consorts did not see significant action until entering the "Black Pit" almost two weeks later.
Three minutes after midnight on the 29th, Block Island's "huff-duff" (high-frequency direction finder) locked onto an enemy transmission, and the task group altered course to pursue. Nine minutes later, Bronstein made an inconclusive "hedgehog" attack on the contact; and, after dawn, hunter-killer teams of "Wildcats" and "Avengers" scoured the area intensively. The search took all day, but persistence paid dividends. In the waning light of day, Lt.(jg.) Norman T. Dowty sighted a periscope feather wake. He and his wingman, Lt.(jg.) William H. Cole circled, and Dowty swept in for a mine run. They dropped a sonobouy and verified the U-boat's presence as Corry sped to the scene from 15 miles away. Then, dusk and nearly empty fuel tanks compelled the pair to return to the carrier.
As it turned out, Block Island's task group had come across a gathering of four U-boats -- U-709, U-603, U-607 and U-441. In the ensuing night-long melee, fought by the escorts, Bronstein killed U-603 with an 18-depth charge pattern that blew the U-boat apart and then teamed with Thomas and Bostwick to sink U-709. Finally, though not sunk, a badly battered U-441 limped into Brest 14 days later. While Capt. Ramsey estimated that between five and seven U-boats had been in the vicinity that wild night, postwar analysis of the records revealed that Block Island had been within 25 miles of at least 15 U-boats -- all part of a group just deployed in a 100-mile long crescent. With orders to arrive in Casablanca on 8 March, Capt. Ramsey took Block Island and her consorts into port for replenishment and a brief rest, during which he turned over command to Capt. Hughes.
On 11 March, the carrier and her escorts put to sea to track down a "milch cow" northwest of the Cape Verde Islands -- U-488, ironically the U-boat that she had attacked the previous October. Steaming southwest, Block Island sent hunter-killer teams ahead to hunt for the other submarine believed to be headed for the rendezvous indicated in the intelligence reports. This boat, U-801, was totally unaware of Block Island's approach of as she completed surface gunnery practice late on the afternoon of 16 March. Then, one of the Block Island hunter-killer teams, Lt.(jg.) Charles Woodell's "Avenger" and Lt.(jg.) Paul Sorenson's "Wildcat," rudely cut short her drills. Sorenson strafed the surfaced sub, observing hits at the base of the conning tower and inside the bridge while the U-boat's surprised crew scrambled for shelter. After Woodell aborted a bombing run, Sorenson came in for a second strafing run, noticing that fire had broken out on the bridge, apparently from exploding ammunition and burning deck planking. Woodell then made his second pass, loosing two depth bombs which overshot the submarine as she submerged at 1728. At that point, the American planes dropped sonobouys which clearly showed the submarine's track. Planes covered the area for two hours but were then recalled. U-801 surfaced cautiously to report that she had been attacked and damaged, whereupon the command at Brest set up a rendezvous with U-488 -- Block Island's original target!
After the radio exchange with Brest, U-801 detected approaching aircraft and "pulled the plug." A search plane covered the area for a while around nightfall but sometime between the plane's departure and Corry's arrival, U-801 managed to surface and recharge her batteries for two hours without being detected. Only then did the Germans discover that they trailed a tell-tale oil slick.
As Corry arrived in the area to hold down the U-boat, Block Island launched Lt.(jg.) Dowty at 0210 to pursue a "huff-duff" fix obtained on the transmitting submarine only 45 miles away. Dowty met up with Corry and commenced an expanding search. His radar picked up a contact almost immediately, and he dropped down to attack only to see the U-boat submerge. While Corry spotted and destroyed the radar decoys U-801 had left scattered on the surface, Dowty located the wake of a periscope and dropped a mine on the swirl. He dogged U-801's trail for the rest of the night, and dawn rewarded him with the sight of an oil slick meandering off into the distance. Low on fuel, Dowty alerted Block Island and then returned to her after a fresh plane relieved him.
Meanwhile, Bronstein had joined Corry; but neither they nor the plane could locate the oil at first. Finally, at 0900, the new "Avenger" picked up the scent again, dropping a string of float lights to mark the spot. Corry and Bronstein then picked up the contact; and the destroyer attacked at 0942, her depth charges opening a seam in U-801's hull and forcing her skipper to dive deeper. For an hour, the U-boat evaded the attacks, but she continued to leak oil. Around 1140, Corry dropped another pattern of depth charges, and this one proved decisive. With bilge pumps and some switchboards knocked out and her periscope's power having failed, the submarine could not mount a submerged defense, so she had to come up. U-801 lurched to the surface as Block Island, screened by Thomas and Breeman, arrived to witness the last act of the drama.
Warning off the "Avenger" overhead as it dove toward the sub, Corry and Bronstein opened fire with 5-inch, 3-inch, and automatic weapons. The heavy fire killed the U-boat's captain and warrant quartermaster as soon as they gained the open bridge. Those who followed wasted no time in abandoning ship. Corry and Bronstein, cheered on by Block Island's crew thronging her flight deck, methodically reduced U-801 to junk; and, at 1226, the badly battered U-boat sank. The two warships then moved through the oily water to recover two officers and 45 enlisted men--a remarkable number considering the hail of gunfire through which they had passed. That afternoon, Corry transferred all 47 to Block Island by breeches buoy.
The original object of the search, however, U-488, had yet to be found. The task group scoured the sea during daylight on the 18th and then shaped a southwesterly course that night in the hope of locating another south-bound submarine. Six hunter-killer teams launched at dawn on 19 March fanned out from the warship and covered the area within a 150-mile radius. At 0726, Lt.(jg.) Cole, in his "Wildcat", spotted a submarine ahead, to port of his heading. Flying with the early morning sun at their backs, Cole and Lt.(jg.) Dowty, had surprised the Germans completely. The new 1,100-ton U-1059 lay dead in the water while her captain, Oberleutnant zur See Gunter Leopold, joined many of his crew in a morning swim.
Cole swept around the U-boat's stern to come up on the port quarter and allow Dowty, in the slower "Avenger," to move in directly on her starboard quarter. Cole triggered his six .50-caliber machineguns and shot up the submarine's decks, his bullets striking home among the German sailors being rousted out of their morning relaxation. Some, however, managed to get the antiaircraft guns into action by the time Dowty dropped down to deliver his depth-charge attack and got off a few bursts from the 20-millimeter and 37-millimeter guns as the "Avenger" roared low over their heads.
Dowty's charges burst in textbook fashion, straddling U-1059, and an enormous explosion cleaved the submarine in two. Cole banked around for a strafing run but quickly saw that no useful target presented itself. The two broken sections of the U-boat settled while a pitifully small group of men struggled in the water outside a mass of flame and smoke. Dowty, too, banked around in a sharp turn for another run; but he either lost control or his engine failed. The "Avenger" dropped one wing and spun into the ocean a short distance from her kill. Dowty and his radar operator never got out of the sinking plane, but a third occupant just "along for the ride" -- Ens. Mark Fitzgerald -- managed to free himself and grab a life raft before the plane sank.
Cole, circling overhead, reported the crash and the lone survivor, and Corry rushed to rescue him and the few Germans who remained. Cole counted about 15 Germans in the water at first, but the number declined steadily during the two hours that passed before Corry arrived. In the meantime, Ens. Fitzgerald inflated the raft and used it to rescue two of the Germans himself -- a severely wounded sailor and the U-boat's equally badly injured commanding officer. When she arrived, Corry rescued this trio and then picked up six more Germans about a mile away. The task group cruised the area for several days and attacked two underwater contacts -- both apparently non-submarine -- before heading back to Norfolk where it arrived early on 31 March.
When Block Island returned to sea, she carried another air squadron, VC-55; and CortDiv 60 -- comprising four turbine-electric destroyer escorts: Ahrens (DE-575), Barr (DE-576), Eugene E. Elmore (DE-686) and Buckley (DE-51) -- served as her screen. On 29 April, she headed across the Atlantic with her new consorts to relieve Croatan (CVE-25) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Croatan's task group had just sunk U-488, the elusive "milch cow" that Block Island had tried to get twice before. Although deprived of her old foe, Block Island went after the submarines that still attempted to rendezvous with the "milch cow." A few minutes before midnight on 1 May, a hunter-killer team followed a radar contact to a surfaced submarine, but before the planes could attain attack position, U-66, "pulled the plug." After pursuing a southerly trail with sonobouys, the team made an aerial mine attack but without results. A few hours later, a relief plane made a similarly unsuccessful effort with depth charges. Sonobouys continued to disclose the U-boat's course, but the destroyer escorts that arrived on the scene failed to develop the contact. A pair of "Avengers" attacked with more aerial mines after dawn, but helplessly watched both mines broach and ignore the submarine to go after each other!
Well before dawn on 3 May, a surfaced submarine appeared on the radar of a Block Island "Avenger" some 60 miles east of the site of a previous U-boat attack, but the plane found only swirling water when it arrived on the scene. Soon, however, the U-boat surfaced again, right in the middle of a sonobouy pattern, but the depth-charge attack that followed failed to sink her. At dawn on the 5th, airborne radar again picked up the U-boat, still stubbornly trying to work her way east. Harassed by Block Island's planes for days and later picked by HF/DF, U-66 appeared on Block Island's own radar just before midnight on the 5th as the U-boat maneuvered to attack the carrier only 5,000 yards away to starboard. With her planes out on all quadrants, Block Island surged ahead at flank speed and executed an emergency turn while Buckley rushed to investigate. Although the destroyer escort could not develop the contact, she stayed in the vicinity and continued to search.
At 0330 on 6 May, an unarmed "Avenger" flown by Lt.(jg.) Jimmie J. Sellars picked up a blip on radar. Following up, he soon found himself over his quarry in bright moonlight. Oddly, the U-boat remained on the surface, only trying to keep the plane at bay with sporadic antiaircraft fire. Sellars coached Buckley to the attack, and the destroyer escort managed to get within 4,000 yards of the submarine before being spotted. The U-boat loosed a torpedo and opened up with automatic weapons, but Buckley closed in and opened fire with her 3-inch guns at 2,100 yards, scoring a first-salvo direct hit just forward of the conning tower. The destroyer escort then turned sharply to avoid a second torpedo but resumed closing until she found herself nearly alongside the U-boat, raking U-66 from stem to stern with 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter fire.
At that point, Buckley turned hard right and rammed the enemy boat. In the bright moonlight, destroyer escort and U-boat locked in mortal combat, and one of the strangest battles of World War II took place. Some of the Germans scrambled up the side of the warship, and the Americans fought them off with a variety of ad hoc weapons, including empty 3-inch shell cases, pistols, and even a coffee mug. The furious bout lasted for two minutes before ending when Buckley backed away from the U-boat. U-66 then veered into the destroyer escort and rolled toward her to an angle of 60 degrees. Thereupon, a Buckley torpedoman pitched a hand grenade down the open conning tower hatch, and it exploded in the bowels of the U-boat. U-66 drifted slowly aft with flames darting from the conning tower and forward hatches. Still making about 15 knots, the enemy submarine slid beneath the waves at 0436, just over an hour after the first sighting.
For the next three hours, Buckley proceeded through the area slowly, picking up 36 officers and men from U-66. Then, while Eugene E. Elmore and Ahrens pursued another contact -- possibly the homeward-bound U-188 -- and attacked it unsuccessfully, Buckley -- impeded by her damaged bow -- crept toward a rendezvous with Block Island. After taking the German prisoners on board, Block Island dispatched Buckley to Bermuda for voyage repairs and then resumed combing the area for more targets until relieved by Bogue (CVE-9) on 13 May. She then led her task group toward Morocco, meeting Robert I. Paine (DE-578) -- Buckley's replacement -- on the 15th. After 26 days of sustained activity, Block Island entered Casablanca on 18 May.
Following rest and replenishment at Casablanca, Block Island returned to sea on 23 May. The mission on which she embarked took her out between Madeira and the Canary Islands and thence northwest to intercept a submarine passing down from Lorient. An hour after midnight on 28 May, Lt.(jg.) Carl Mansell, in an armed "Avenger," made contact on a submarine about four miles away and headed for it. Almost as soon as he banked, however, his radar went out; and neither he nor his relief managed to hold the contact. U-549, two weeks out of Lorient on her first war patrol under Oberleutnant zur See Detlev Krankenhagen, continued to elude both the ships and planes of the Block Island task group; but Capt. Hughes, certain that he was holding the submarine down, maintained the hunt and launched planes at 2045 for night operations.
At 0255 on 29 May, an unarmed search "Avenger" picked up a strong radar contact more than 100 miles southwest of the previous sighting. Block island dispatched an armed "Avenger" out to assist; but darkness, an overcast sky, and a parachute flare that burned out just as the target came in view defeated their attempt at a coordinated attack. Ships and planes from the task group combed the area well into the next day, but each search came up empty handed. At 1703, Block Island steamed into the wind and launched six "Wildcats" to fly sector searches out from the ship; air plot soon reported Block Island to be directly over the projected position of the submarine. A few minutes later, the carrier changed course to launch night searches while plane handlers spotted six "Avengers" and a "Wildcat" on the flight deck. An adverse weather report, however, cut the number to a pair of "Avengers" spotted for catapulting. The reversed course brought the formation back over the enemy submarine's supposed position, a supposition which proved to be fatally accurate for Block Island.
The U-boat chose to fight rather than to try to hide or run. Without warning, U-549's first torpedo slammed into Block Island's bow at about frame 12; and, approximately four seconds later, a second struck her aft between frames 171 and 182, exploding in the oil tank, through the shaft alley and up through the 5-inch magazines without causing any further fires or explosions. The escort carrier went dead in the water, and Capt. Hughes ordered all hands not engaged in damage control to go topside, and Comdr. Delos M. Wait, the executive officer, began clearing the hangar deck. In radar plot, Lt. I. H. Houston, the combat information officer, got a bearing and distance on the nearest land from air plot and relayed it to the planes still aloft. They took the directions and, after briefly attempting to help the escorts locate the submarine, the six "Wildcats" set off into the gathering darkness toward what proved to be Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. Sadly, only two of the six pilots made it safely.
Meanwhile, Comdr. Wait's clearing of the hangar deck had proved providential by moving about 75 men from the after part of the space so that only two remained near the elevator when the deck seemed to erupt beneath them, killing one and severely injuring the other. At 2023, a third torpedo from U-549 had struck the helpless escort carrier, wrecking her lower decks, knocking out all power, and breaking Block Island's back. The engineering officer, Comdr. George Gronvold, ordered the engine room abandoned because of uncontrollable flooding. Capt. Hughes passed the word for the crew to stand by to abandon ship but not to go over the side. At about that time, Eugene E. Elmore picked up the sight of a submarine periscope and maneuvered to attack, dropping depth charges.
Suddenly, the men gathered topside on Block Island's flight deck began shouting excitedly; a few hundred yards away on the port bow, a shower of depth charges rose from Barr's after depth charge projectors followed by an eruption of oil and smoke. Unfortunately, their assumption that Barr had sunk the U-boat misconstrued the image that they had seen; Barr had not hit the submarine. Instead, an acoustic torpedo from U-549 had smashed into Barr's stern setting off the Y-guns and leaving the destroyer escort dead in the water with 28 men killed.
At the same time, Block Island's own desperate situation grew steadily worse. The warship had begun settling by the stern, and an 18-inch split opened across her after flight deck and ran down the shell plating to the hangar deck. Aware that only good fortune had kept the torpedoes from detonating stowed ordnance and tanks of 100-octane aviation gasoline, Capt. Hughes decided not to tempt fate with his crew any longer and ordered all hands to abandon ship at 2040. Comdr. Wait and others had already cut loose the rafts on the sponsons and catwalks while some men recovered rubber rafts from the six "Avengers" on the flight deck. In orderly fashion, streams of men went down knotted 40-foot lines into the water, most doing so on the starboard side forward into her lee in order to drift safely away from the ship. By about 2100, almost all of her men had gone over the side and gathered into small groups around the rafts as they drifted away from the ship. Capt. Hughes kept the remaining few on board only briefly to do one last sweep of the ship for stragglers. This handful finally left the ship at 2140.
Ahrens stopped engines and drifted to a halt in the Atlantic swells, picking up Block Island crewmen from the sea, a gallant act which yielded an unexpected benefit. With her engines stopped, Ahrens' sonar picked up U-549 noises almost immediately. With coaching from the stopped Ahrens, Eugene E. Elmore launched three projectiles from her hedgehog; and they slammed into U-549's hull at 2127. A great, grinding internal explosion audible to the monitoring warships destroyed the U-boat a moment later.
Meanwhile, Robert I. Paine closed to join in picking up Block Island survivors as the escort carrier settled lower and lower into the Atlantic. As she sank, the "Avengers" on Block Island's flight deck slid off into the sea like toys, their depth charges exploding deep under the surface. Block Island took her final plunge at 2155.
Capt. Hughes reached Ahrens and immediately told her skipper to get his ship clear -- the entire depth charge and torpedo magazine of the ship might go off and damage the fragile destroyer escort. When a terrific shock did punch up from the deep and nearly lifted Ahrens from the water, Block Island's startled survivors at first feared that their rescue ship had been torpedoed; but every man who had gone over the side from Block Island survived. A total of 674 men crowded every available space on board Ahrens, and another 277 crammed on board Robert I. Paine. Only 13 men were lost from the ship's company and the embarked composite squadron combined. Seven men died on board the escort carrier during or soon after the attack, and four of the six "Wildcat" pilots aloft at the time of the attack failed to make it to Las Palmas.
The next morning, after standing by her through the night, Eugene E. Elmore took the crippled Barr in tow and set out for Morocco with her two survivor-laden consorts. The warships ultimately pulled into Casablanca harbor on 1 June. Army-issued fresh khakis and toilet gear went to each man, but the Block Island crew remained isolated for several days to keep news of the ship's loss from leaking out. Block Island's name was struck from the Navy list on 28 June 1944.
Block Island (CVE-21) received two battle stars for her World War II service.
13 April 2005