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Bairoko (CVE-115)


A small harbor on the north coast of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands. In 1942 and 1943, the Japanese used this harbor as the port of supply for Munda airfield, itself important for the battles in and around Guadalcanal. American forces captured Bairoko on 25 August 1943, and its seizure marked an important milestone in the southwestern Pacific counter-offensive.

(CVE-115: displacement 24,275 tons; length 557'1"; beam 75'0" (waterline); extreme width 105'2"; draft 32'0"; speed 19.1 knots (trial); complement 1,066; armament 2 5-inch, 36 40 millimeter, aircraft 34; class Commencement Bay)
Laid down as Portage Bay on 25 July 1944 at Tacoma, Wash., by the Todd-Pacific Shipyards, Inc.,; renamed Bairoko on 5 June 1944; launched on 25 January 1945; sponsored by Mrs. John J. Ballentine; and commissioned on 16 July 1945, Capt. Harry B. Temple in command.

After fitting out at Tacoma, Bairoko conducted preliminary shakedown training in the Puget Sound area before steaming to San Diego in early August. Designed to carry composite squadrons of mixed plane types, the escort carrier conducted flight training for scouting, ground support, and convoy escort missions through the end of the month. On 3 September, she passed her final series of inspections and began four weeks of repairs at San Pedro in preparation for an extended Pacific cruise.

Departing San Diego on 18 October, Bairoko sailed to Pearl Harbor, where she spent two weeks before getting underway for Okinawa on 7 November. En route, however, she received new orders that directed her to proceed to the Marianas. She reached Saipan on the 24th and joined sisterships Siboney (CVE-112) and Puget Sound (CVE-113), and four destroyer escorts. The task group got underway on 30 November to conduct two weeks of combined air operations while enroute to Hong Kong. Following a week of upkeep at the British Crown Colony, the group stood out for Manila on 21 December and moored there two days later. Underway for home on 30 December, the three escort carriers paused at Guam and Pearl Harbor before Bairoko continued on to the west coast alone, arriving in San Diego on 25 January 1946.

Bairoko steamed to Tacoma, Wash., on 1 February for three weeks of modifications designed to allow her to operate jet aircraft. Following these alterations, she conducted pilot qualification training in Puget Sound through the end of the month. After returning to San Diego on 3 March, the escort carrier embarked 16 Ryan FR-1 "Fireballs" of Fighter Squadron (VF) 41. These composite aircraft combined a piston engine in the nose and a jet engine in the after fuselage and were intended to marry the endurance and short takeoff runs of a propeller plane to the high performance of a jet fighter. Testing and evaluation of the "Fireball" continued until 26 April when, owing to manpower shortages in the Navy, Bairoko was placed in standby, or "maintenance," status.

The escort carrier remained in port all summer, awaiting new crewmembers, until reactivated on 15 September 1946. The warship got underway on 15 October for general drills, ship handling, and air operations before steaming to San Pedro on the 26th. She began a three-month modification overhaul at Terminal Island on 30 October and she remained there until 24 January 1947. Bairoko next operated locally until 17 February when she sailed for Pearl Harbor on a ferry mission and for Fleet Problem 2-47. Between 2 and 9 March, the escort carrier flew planes to various other carriers as part of the Logistic Support Force during the exercise. After ferrying planes back to San Diego on the 20th, she loaded cargo and personnel for an aircraft transport mission to the Far East.

Bairoko departed San Diego on 7 April. Upon arrival at Guam on the 27th, she picked up pilots of Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 218 and 20 Vought F4U "Corsairs." The pilots were embarked to fly the planes to Tsingtao, China, for delivery to VMF-211. Underway on 1 May, the escort carrier ended an uneventful voyage by anchoring southeast of Shanghai on 8 May. She flew off her embarked aircraft the next day, made a brief stop at Okinawa, and then steamed for the west coast on 13 May. After stops at Guam and Pearl Harbor, she returned to San Diego at the end of the month.

For the remaining seven months of the year, Bairoko conducted numerous antisubmarine warfare (ASW) exercises off southern California. During one such hunter-killer (HUK) evolution with the submarine Pomodon (SS-486) on 21 November, a Lockheed P2V-1 Neptune (BuNo 89095) from Medium Patrol Squadron (VPML)-2, prosecuting a contact on the fleet boat, suddenly went into a left bank and slammed into the waters south of San Clemente Island. All surface ships in the vicinity immediately proceeded to the scene. Bairoko boat crews rescued Lt. Comdr. Elliot, observer from the First Task Fleet, and Lt. Charles D. Walker, the co-pilot. Ten other men, however, three officers and seven enlisted men, perished in the mishap.

On 7 January 1948, the warship moved to Terminal Island at San Pedro in preparation for a more challenging assignment. Tasked to support Operation Sandstone, a three-detonation series of atmospheric nuclear tests to be held at Eniwetok Atoll that spring, she received an instrument repair laboratory and a decontamination center on her hangar deck. Departing Terminal Island on 15 February, Bairoko loaded reconnaissance aircraft, helicopters, and embarked Radiological Safety Group scientists before sailing for the central Pacific on the 29th.

The escort carrier arrived at Eniwetok Atoll on 17 March and joined the 27 other Navy ships supporting the nuclear weapon tests. Bairoko carried six helicopters for scientific use on shot days and served as the radiological operations center during the three small tests held on 15 April, 1 May, and 15 May. As the escort carrier remained in the lagoon during each explosion, observers on deck were only 8.5 miles away from the 15 May eight-kiloton test, close enough to look up through the bottom of the mushroom cloud. Following each detonation, helicopters and LCVP boat crews from Bairoko took radiation readings in the lagoon and collected film and soil samples from the blast area. After her crew helped decontaminate aircraft and equipment, the warship returned to San Diego in early June.

Bairoko spent the next five months conducting air qualification operations, antisubmarine warfare exercises, and other battle drills off the southern California coast. On 15 December, owing to rapidly dwindling defense spending, the warship reported to the San Francisco Naval Shipyard for pre-inactivation maintenance. After the preservation measures were completed, Bairoko was placed out of commission, in reserve, on 14 April 1950.

Events in the Far East, however, rendered her inactivation short, because North Korean communist troops invaded South Korea on 25 June. Two days later, under United Nations (UN) auspices, the United States intervened in the conflict. Sorely needed to train and then deliver pilots and aircraft to the Korean theater, Bairoko was recommissioned on 12 September 1950, Capt. William F. Raborn, Jr., in command.

After fitting out at Alameda, Calif., the escort carrier embarked VMF-311 and got underway for the western Pacific on 14 November. Shortly after arriving in Japan on 29 November, Bairoko exchanged VMF-311 for Scouting Squadron (VS) 21 and commenced HUK operations in the Yellow Sea. These exercises were designed to test how well General Motors TBM-3S Avengers and Bairoko could locate and track enemy submarines in the event of Soviet entry into the Korean War. Over the next five months, the escort carrier conducted 11 similar operations out of Yokosuka. These missions, each lasting about a week, included HUK operations with friendly submarines in the Yellow Sea, air squadron refresher landings, and bomb and rocket attack training.

This pattern of operations, however, came to an abrupt halt on 10 May 1951 when Bairoko suffered an explosion and flash fire while in port at Yokosuka. The fire broke out in the flight hangar and spread into the engine room. Five men died before the flames were put out. The fire also damaged bulkheads and burned out numerous ventilation and electrical systems. Repairs began immediately; and, after their completion in late June, the escort carrier returned to operations on 3 July.

The warship embarked 16 Avengers from VS-23 that day and resumed flight training. The following day one Avenger picked up a possible submarine contact while on an ASW training mission. Although the contact was soon lost, it provided a little excitement for the crew. Her tour of duty complete on 30 July, Bairoko sailed for the United States on 4 August, mooring at San Diego on the 15th.

The warship remained in port until 10 September when she began 10 weeks of routine operations out of San Diego. These included ASW exercises and night flight operations with Grumman AF Guardian patrol planes from VS-25. On 26 November Bairoko embarked VS-25 support people in preparation for forward deployment and left San Diego on 1 December.

Reaching Yokosuka on the 16th, the escort carrier sailed for Okinawa on 28 December but struck a mooring buoy with her starboard screw while leaving harbor. Two propeller blades were bent in the accident, and the damage forced her into drydock for repairs. Following two weeks of refresher training with VS-25 off Okinawa, between 5 and 20 January, the escort carrier prepared to embark VMF-312 for combat operations in Korea.

The Marine Corsairs landed on Bairoko on 11 February and the escort carrier, in company with escorts HMS Charity (D.29) and HMS Cossack (D.57), took up position in the Yellow Sea on the 16th. For the next nine days, Bairoko launched Corsair fighters for patrol sweeps and targets-of-opportunity strikes between the Yesong and Taedong Rivers in Korea. During the 121 combat sorties flown in this period, her planes bombed and strafed communist-held bridges, enemy gun positions, and supply vehicles. The warship returned to Sasebo on 25 February for fuel, ammunition, and provisions.

In March, Bairoko conducted two more combat missions in the Yellow Sea, one between 5 and 13 March and another between 23 March and 1 April. While 139 combat sorties were flown against communist targets, five Marine squadron planes were downed during attacks on heavily defended positions such as the Chinnampo rail yards and entrenched coastal artillery positions on the Amgak Peninsula. One pilot was killed, two were taken off ice floes by rescue helicopters, a fourth was found by boat crews from HMS Cardigan Bay (F.630), while the last dramatically jumped on board an American helicopter just in time to avoid capture by North Korean troops. Two other pilots were wounded by shrapnel during this period, but both were able to make emergency landings without incident.

After loading fuel and supplies at Sasebo during the first week of April, Bairoko resumed combat operations along the west coast of Korea on the 9th. Over the next eight days, VMF-312 Corsairs flew 165 combat missions against communist targets in western Korea. These were primarily strikes against buildings, North Korean garrisons, and the occasional train. Although 20 planes were damaged by small arms and antiaircraft fire, only two planes were lost in these operations. The first crashed on 11 April during a landing attempt on the carrier, leaving the pilot uninjured, while the second plane was severely damaged during a strafing run over Chungnangdong on the 14th. The pilot managed to glide the stricken Corsair over the beach and ditch the plane offshore. He was rescued 15 minutes later by a flying boat.

After being relieved by light carrier HMS Glory on 18 April, the warship returned to Japan for minor repairs. On 2 May, she embarked the Navy search planes of VS-25 and proceeded to Okinawa for a series of ASW exercises. Those lasted until the 24th when Bairoko returned to Yokosuka to refuel. Two days later, the escort carrier got underway for the United States and, after a brief stop at Pearl Harbor, arrived at San Diego on 10 June. Two weeks later, Bairoko entered Long Beach Naval Shipyard for repairs to machinery and equipment worn out during her long Far Eastern tour.

After the shipyard completed the work on 1 October, the warship steamed to San Diego on the 4th. There, she conducted local operations, including air search and destroyer escort ASW training, for the remainder of the year. A highlight of this period was a late October trip to waters off Point Mugu, Calif., to witness several Talos guided-missile test firings. Bairoko departed San Diego for her fourth Far Eastern deployment on 12 January 1953. She arrived at Pearl Harbor on the 18th and remained there for a week before continuing across the Pacific. After short stops at Guam and Okinawa, the escort carrier moored at Yokosuka on 18 February. She made two extended cruises, both to Okinawa for ASW exercises with 7th Fleet destroyer escorts, before returning to combat operations off Korea.

Arriving at her station in the Yellow Sea on 14 May, Bairoko launched Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 312 aircraft to enforce the blockade of the west coast of Korea. Despite inclement weather, VMA-312 aircraft flew 183 combat air patrol, photo reconnaissance, and air strike missions against enemy positions. The Corsairs also flew close air support during an Army raid south of the Taedong estuary. After returning to Sasebo on 22 May, she carried out four more patrols in the Yellow Sea between 30 May and 27 July. Throughout this period, Corsairs from VMA-312 and VMA-332 cooperated with friendly Korean partisan infantry regiments in harassing communist troop movements and bridge reconstruction efforts. Between 17 and 26 June, Bairoko's planes also covered the evacuation of the partisan regiments and their families from the islands they had held off the North Korean coast. Her final "line" period, marked by numerous strikes against enemy logistic efforts in northwest Korea, ended on the evening of 27 July, the same night the Korean armistice took effect.

On 7 August, the warship steamed for San Diego and, after dropping off planes at Pearl Harbor, arrived home on the 24th. Shortly thereafter, on 8 September, she entered the Long Beach Naval Shipyard for an overhaul and equipment modifications. Seven weeks later, the escort carrier moved to San Diego and began preparations for Operation Castle, a six-detonation series of atmospheric thermonuclear tests to be held at Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls. At San Diego through the end of the year, Bairoko loaded special radiological equipment, six Corsair reconnaissance aircraft from Composite Squadron (VC) 3, and 12 helicopters from Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (HMR) 362 before setting out for the Marshall Islands on 9 January 1954.

Arriving at Kwajalein on 20 January, the escort carrier provided ship-to-shore airlift to work crews on Bikini and Eniwetok. During the detonation phase of the operation, Bairoko launched aircraft for post-shot radiological surveys, served as a decontamination center, and supported radiation safety operations. The first test, a 15-megaton blast called Bravo held on 1 March, exceeded expectations and released a large cloud of radioactive coral particles into the atmosphere. Bairoko, steaming 38 miles to the southeast, unexpectedly sailed into part of this cloud of gritty, snow-like dust. Although the ventilation system was sealed to avoid internal contamination, over the next few hours sixteen crewmen suffered minor radiation burns before the deck was cleared of fallout. The same cloud of radiation later burned twenty-three crewmembers of the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru about 90 miles to the north. The escort carrier resumed aircraft support and decontamination operations through five more test shots until Bairoko departed the area on 16 May. She returned to San Diego on the 28th.

Bairoko carried out routine training exercises out of San Diego until 17 July when she reported to the Long Beach Naval Shipyard for preinactivation overhaul. On 8 October, she moved to the San Francisco Naval Shipyard for the final phases of inactivation. Bairoko was decommissioned on 18 February 1955 and assigned to the Pacific Reserve Fleet at San Francisco. Although reclassified an aircraft ferry (AKV-15) on 7 April 1959, the ship was never recommissioned. Her name was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 April 1960, and she was sold to Hyman-Michaels Co. of Chicago, Ill., on 10 August 1960 for scrapping.

Bairoko received three battle stars for her service during the Korean War.

Timothy L. Francis
14 December 2005

Published: Tue Jun 20 14:55:18 EDT 2023