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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

Block Island

 

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.

II

(CVE-106: displacement 24,275 tons (full load); length 557'1"; beam 75'0"; extreme width 105'2"; draft 32'0"; speed 19.1 knots (trial); complement 1,066; armament 2 5-inch, 36 40mm., 20 20mm., 30 aircraft; class Commencement Bay)

The second Block Island (CVE-106) -- an escort aircraft carrier built as such from the keel up incorporating some of the best features of the tanker conversions of the Sangamon class and the specially designed Casablanca class -- was laid down as Sunset Bay on 25 October 1943 at Tacoma, Wash., by the Todd-Pacific Shipyards; launched on 10 June 1944; sponsored by Mrs. E. J. Hallenbeck; renamed Block Island on 5 July 1944; and commissioned on 30 December 1944, Capt. Francis M. Hughes in command.


Departing Tacoma on 10 January 1945 after outfitting, Block Island ran brief exercises in Puget Sound and then loaded ammunition and supplies at the Puget Sound Navy Yard and in Seattle. Negotiating the Juan de Fuca Strait on the 20th, she headed down the west coast to reach San Francisco on the 22d. Taking on board some damaged aircraft and five 13-ton picket boats for transportation, Block Island sailed for San Diego on the 24th. On 26 January, the new escort carrier reached her destination, unloaded the cargo brought from San Francisco and began taking on board 5-inch aerial rockets at North Island to arm her air group.


At this juncture, the Navy was planning to embark Marine Corps air groups on board carriers to provide close air support for the amphibious assaults and island warfare so characteristic of the Pacific war. The first fully Marine Corps carrier air group was being formed on the west coast; and, on 3 February, the initial contingent of 226 officers and men of Carrier Aircraft Service Division 1 reported on board Block Island. Soon thereafter, the planes these marines were to service came on board as well: eight Grumman F6F-5(N) "Hellcat" night fighters and eight Vought F4U-1d "Corsairs" and the support personnel from Marine Fighting Squadron (VMF) 511. On 4 February, Block Island proceeded to the operating area off San Diego to carry out flight operations. Augmenting VMF-511 was a torpedo squadron, VMTB-233, equipped with Grumman TBM-3 "Avengers", commanded by Maj. Robert W. Vaupell, which landed on board on 7 February 1945.


Block Island departed North Island on 10 February, accompanied by Douglas H. Fox (DD-779), for what was scheduled to be 10 days operational training in the San Diego operating area. The carrier conducted routine flight operations off San Clemente and San Nicolas for three days until the 14th. On that day, her planes were to carry out live-ammunition strikes on the bombing area on the southern tip of San Clemente Island, both in the morning and afternoon. The morning flight found the weather unsatisfactory upon arrival at the island, and the planes returned to the ship, expending their ordnance at a towed spar target. At 1219, one of the returning planes' engine cut out and crashed, although the pilot extricated himself and was picked up by Childs (AVD-1).


Continued unsatisfactory weather over the target prompted the cancellation of the afternoon operations. Instead, Block Island launched six "Avengers," three "Corsairs," and one "Hellcat" to make rocket and bombing runs on a towed spar. At 1640, the escort carrier launched nine more planes to carry out similar evolutions but recalled all planes at 1734 in the face of the frighteningly rapid approach of a severe storm. Within six minutes, the turbulent weather engulfed the area and prevented the planes from entering the landing circle. One "Avenger" managed to break through the overcast and land on board at 1808, but repeated attempts to bring in the rest failed. Block Island then directed the planes to San Nicolas Island which, though 120 miles away, reported a 1,500-foot ceiling.


Although given vectors by Ranger (CV-4) operating nearby, the escort carrier's planes found that the weather had closed in San Nicolas, too. One "Hellcat" pilot reached the Marine Corps air station at Santa Barbara, but an "Avenger" pilot who attempted to reach San Nicolas failed. He and his two-man crew perished when the plane crashed just outside the field. Two "Corsairs" also crashed just outside the field, taking their pilots to their deaths. Maj. Vaupell tried to penetrate the overcast first at San Nicolas and then at Santa Barbara, before trying to make Bakersfield. Twenty miles short of the field, his "Avenger" crashed, and all on board died. Three others ditched successfully near San Nicolas and Santa Catalina, and the Coast Guard rescued two crews, uninjured, almost immediately while a third was picked up 12 hours later suffering from shock and exposure. All other planes landed at San Nicolas. Block Island and Childs spent the rest of that day and the next morning searching the waters off San Nicolas before returning to San Diego.


Following this tragedy, she turned to in order to restore morale and carried out intensive training until mid-March as her ship's company and air group readied themselves to join the Pacific war. Departing San Diego on 20 March, Block Island carried 30 aircraft as Hawaii-bound cargo in addition to the 36 in her own air group, and 192 naval officers and enlisted men travelled as passengers. Block Island reached Pearl Harbor on 26 March and, after discharging her passengers and cargo, spent the ensuing weeks engaged in underway training in Hawaiian waters.


On 17 April, Block Island sailed for Ulithi, in the Carolines, screened by Harry E. Hubbard (DD-748), proceeding via Eniwetok, in the Marshalls. As the two ships approached Ulithi on 28 April, the escort carrier had her closest brush with an enemy aircraft. Eighteen miles from her destination, she began receiving radio reports from Ulithi announcing a condition red alert and an incoming "bogey." Block Island went to general quarters and her CIC watched by radar as shore-based interceptors splashed the "Jill." One friendly aircraft, buzzing the ship to attract attention to the remains of the enemy plane nearby, found himself under fire from Block Island's forecastle 40-millimeter quadruple mounts until he established his identity! Her starboard guns then took two others under fire until their friendly character became apparent as well.


Detaching the destroyer, Block Island anchored at Ulithi on 28 April, and Capt. Hughes reported his ship ready for duty with the 5th Fleet. Two days later, the warship was underway again, bound for Okinawa. Escorted by Samuel S. Miles (DE-183) and joined by Helm (DD-388) en route, Block Island rendezvoused with RAdm. Calvin Durgin's Task Unit (TU) 52.1.1 on 3 May as it steamed 64 miles southeast of the tip of Okinawa. Detached the next day to join TU 52.1.3 under RAdm. William D. Sample, she joined Suwannee (CVE-27), Santee (CVE-29) and Chenango (CVE-28), replacing the kamikaze-damaged Sangamon (CVE-26). For the week that followed, Block Island underwent a shakedown of sorts, getting broken in on operations in the Pacific by providing combat air patrol.


On 10 May, Block Island launched her first offensive mission, her "Avengers" unloading bombs and rockets on a Japanese strong point near the town of Naha, against no opposition. At midday, a flight of her CAP fighters strafed enemy installations on a tiny off-shore island. That afternoon, urgent orders sent the armorers and plane-handlers to work arming a strike group with bombs and rockets, and eight torpedo planes and eight fighters soon roared off Block Island into the afternoon sky. After a 175-mile flight, they found their targets -- the airfields at Hirara and Nobara in the Sakashima Gunto -- and attacked. During the action, the Block Island planes cratered runways, destroyed buildings and punished the antiaircraft installations that met them with heavy and accurate defensive fire. To be sure, the Japanese got their licks in as well, claiming two victims of their own. One "Avenger" fell over the target after commencing its second run on the Nobara runway, while another "Avenger" took a direct hit from a medium caliber shell but managed to ditch near Block Island. A planeguard destroyer picked up the crew.


At daybreak on 11 May, the marines resumed their campaign against outlying airfields. First, a flight of fighters worked over the fields at Ishigaki Island, farther west in Sakashima Gunto. A mixed strike made up of both fighters and bombers followed. Then, another fighter sweep capped the effort. As before, a photo plane carried out the difficult post-strike reconnaissance. Three planes took hits from antiaircraft fire, while a fourth had to land at Yontan on Okinawa because of a bomb loose in his bomb bay and a shot-up hydraulic system. Block Island's planes provided CAP on 11 and 12 May while planes from British carriers took their turn working over Sakashima Gunto.


The campaign to capture Okinawa continued over the weeks that followed, and Block Island's air group persevered in its contributions to the effort. On the 22d, she made a replenishment visit to nearby Kerama Retto. Soon back in battery, Block Island sent her planes to help reduce Shuri Castle, a Japanese strong point on southern Okinawa, on the 24th. Three days later, VMF-511 lost its commanding officer, Maj. R. C. Maze. Leading a sweep of four fighters over Ishigaki. Maze dove for a rocket attack on boat yards and small craft, but his plane did not come out of the dive, crashing in shallow water offshore. On the 29th, Block Island's planes flew 28 attack sorties on airfields at Ishigaki and Miyako. Regrettably, another of her air group's "Avengers" and its crew fell victim to antiaircraft fire that day during a rocket run on a barracks in Ishigaki town. Block Island lost her last plane at Okinawa on 16 June when antiaircraft fire claimed the "Hellcat" piloted by 1st Lt. R. H. Ploen, Jr, during a strafing run at Amami O Shima in the Nansei Shoto.


On that same day, she became the flagship for Carrier Division (CarDiv) 27 under RAdm. Dixwell W. Ketcham and cleared Okinawa on her way to the Philippines. The warship reached Leyte Gulf three days later but, after a brief rest and relaxation period on Samar, departed again for the last major amphibious operation of the war. Along with Suwannee, Gilbert Islands (CVE-107) and a screen of six destroyers, she set course for Balikpapan on Borneo. On 30 June, as amphibious landings commenced with the dawn, Block Island's planes joined those from Suwannee and Gilbert Islands in bombing and strafing ground targets and providing CAP. Over the three-day operation, her Marine Corps aviators flew 98 sorties without casualty. They expended 21,700 tons of bombs, 82 5-inch rockets and 10,800 rounds of machinegun ammunition. Balikpapan also gave Block Island and her air group an important career highlight early on 3 July when she dispatched a "Hellcat" night fighter to intercept the only Japanese plane to approach the landing force. The "Jake" quickly fell in flames about 50 miles from Balikpapan, becoming their only victory in aerial combat.


With Balikpapan secured, Block Island and her marines returned to Leyte Gulf but remained there only briefly, continuing on to Guam almost immediately. There, she began repairs to her arresting gear while hostilities in the Pacific played out to their conclusion. Still in Apra Harbor when the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Block Island was on her way from Guam to Leyte in company with Santee and four destroyers when word of the impending Japanese surrender reached her on 14 August. The formal dispatches announcing Japan's surrender and the ceasefire order arrived at 1630 the following day.


Block Island remained in Leyte Gulf from 17 to 28 August, during which time she joined Santee and four destroyer escorts in TG 77.1, assembled to provide air cover and support for TG 71.2, a minesweeping group tasked with clearing mines from the approaches to Jinsen (Inchon), Korea. The task group sailed for the Yellow Sea on 29 August, but a typhoon swirling in its path from 1 to 3 September buffeted the ships with mountainous seas and high winds. Still, they managed to avoid the brunt of the storm by marking time southeast of Formosa. Ironically, the typhoon-induced delay even proved beneficial for it alerted the Allied command to several large prisoner-of-war (POW) camps on Formosa, and RAdm. Ketcham, in Block Island received orders to get to northern Formosa as quickly as possible. The Korean mission put off, the task group headed for the Kiirun area of Formosa, 800 miles away, on 3 September. The following day, RAdm. Ketcham sent Col. A. D. Cooley, along with 32 marines and a medical team from Block Island, as the ad hoc advance unit to enter Kiirun with Thomas J. Gary (DE-326) and Kretchmer (DE-329).


On the evening of 4 September, RAdm. Ketcham drafted a proclamation to the Japanese commander on Formosa, informing him of his impending arrival and ordering him to make arrangements to evacuate POWs and internees. A flight of "Corsairs" swept over Kiirun Harbor and nearby Matsuyama airfield at dawn on 5 September, delivered six copies of the proclamation by parachute and made a photographic reconnaissance of the area.


Meanwhile, RAdm. Ketcham decided to hurry things along by landing a plane at Matsuyama. At 1010 on the 5th, a Block Island "Avenger" set down on the airstrip carrying Maj. Peter Folger who demanded that the Japanese airfield commander take him to the POW camps at once to determine the most urgent reeds. That information quickly found its way back to the ship via one of the covering "Hellcats," and soon planes loaded with medicine and food began touching down at Matsuyama. In all, 9,000 pounds of relief supplies flown ashore from Block Island and Santee were rushed to the three camps where the POWs had congregated. Among the more than 1,000 men gathered were survivors of Singapore and Bataan -- malnourished, mistreated men who tottered proudly past sullen guards to the trucks that took them to the train commandeered by Col. Cooley. Thomas J. Gary and Kretchmer then took the men to the carriers. On board Block Island, more than 600 cots, clean sheets and pillows, clothing and a personal toilet kit stood ready for each former prisoner. The hangar deck became a hospital with ranks of cots from bow to stern.


The entire operation took only 36 hours. Thirty-two marines rescued more than 1,200 POWs who were then distributed among the six ships of the task group, with Block Island getting 474. Early on 6 September, Block Island stood out with the task group, and rendezvoused with a British task force which took over the air patrols and moved into the harbor to watch over the POWs deemed too ill to be moved. By 2337, all of the POWs in TG 77.1 had been distributed, and the group sailed for the Philippines, arriving in Manila on 8 September.


Her part in the mercy mission completed, Block Island stood out of Manila Bay on 17 September and reached Okinawa on the 20th. Subsequently, the escort carrier participated in a show of force at Formosa on 16 and 17 October, covering the landing of the Chinese 70th Army. Putting into Saipan on 23 October, Block Island soon sailed for the United States, picked up planes and passengers at Guam, and reached Pearl Harbor on 2 December. Returning to sea on the 5th, she arrived at San Diego on the 11th. Pushing on for the east coast on 5 January 1946, Block Island transited the Panama Canal on 15 January, and stood into Norfolk on 20 January.


After round-trip voyages to New York and Guantanamo Bay, Block Island served as a recruit training ship off Camp Peary, Va. for two months. On 28 May 1946, she was placed in service, in reserve, at Portsmouth,, Va., with Comdr. Frank Slater as officer-in-charge. Shifting to Norfolk a few days later, she then proceeded to Annapolis, Md. on 7 June to serve as a training ship for Naval Academy midshipmen, berthed in the Severn River across from Reina Mercedes.


The expansion of the Navy during the Korean War, though, gave Block Island a new lease on life. Transferred to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet on 3 October 1950, she was towed to Norfolk for drydocking, at the end of which she was towed from Norfolk to Philadelphia, arriving on 25 October. There, Block Island was recommissioned on 28 April 1951, Capt. Arthur S. Hill in command. After fitting out, she put to sea on 5 January 1952 for Guantanamo Bay, where she carried out flight operations and other training until mid-March. After operations out of Norfolk in the Virginia capes operating area, Block Island made another round-trip voyage to the West Indies and back in late April, returning to Norfolk on the 27th. Local operations out of Norfolk occupied her for the rest of 1952.


Standing out of Hampton Roads on 5 January 1953, Block Island carried out training in the West Indies before entering the New York Naval Shipyard on 25 February for a month of repairs. She then returned to the Virginia capes to resume flight operations until mid-April. Departing Norfolk on 17 April for the United Kingdom, Block Island made port visits in Great Britain and Ireland before proceeding to Golfe Juan, France. The escort carrier then operated briefly in the Mediterranean visiting Naples before returning to Norfolk late in June. That fall, she conducted a second West Indian cruise, this time with a detachment of Sikorsky HO4S-3 ASW helicopters from Helicopter Squadron (HS) 3 embarked, her last voyage before being placed in reserve at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on 15 January 1954. Block Island was formally decommissioned at Philadelphia on 27 August 1954.


Although she never returned to active service, the warship experienced a series of promising -- but, in the end, purely administrative -- status changes during the nearly fives years that she remained in reserve. Slated for conversion to an amphibious assault ship, she was redesignated LPH-1 on 22 December 1957 but reverted back to CVE-106 upon cancellation of those plans in June of 1958. Though Block Island was again reclassified -- becoming a cargo ship and aircraft ferry -- and was redesignated AKV-38 on 7 May 1959, she carried that designation for less than two months. Her name was struck from the Navy list on 1 July 1959, and she was sold to Kowa Koeki Co., Ltd., Mitsubishi Naka, of Chiyoda-Ku, Tokyo. She was scrapped in Japan during the summer of 1960.


Block Island (CVE-106) received two battle stars for her World War II service.


13 April 2005