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Suwannee (AO-33)

1941-1959

A river that rises in the southeastern part of the state of Georgia and flows to the southwest across Florida, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Suwannee Sound; sometimes given the variant spelling of Suwanee. She retained the name as an aircraft escort vessel, auxiliary aircraft carrier, escort aircraft carrier, and escort aircraft carrier (helicopter).

(AO-33: displacement 7,500; length 553'0"; beam 75'0"; draft 31'7"; speed 18.0 knots; complement 380; armament 1 5-inch, 4 .50-caliber machine guns; class Cimarron; type T3-S2-A1)

Markay was laid down on 3 June 1938 at Kearney, N.J., by the Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., under a Maritime Commission contract (M.C. Hull 5); launched on 4 March 1939; sponsored by Mrs. Howard L. Vickery; delivered to the Keystone Tankship Corp. and operated by that company until acquired by the Navy on 26 June 1941. Keystone Tankship Corp., in turn delivered the vessel at Baltimore, Maryland. Renamed Suwannee (AO-33), the ship was commissioned “in ordinary” [an inactive status] on 9 July 1941, then placed in commission on 16 July 1941, Cmdr. Joseph R. Lannom in command.

After fitting out at the Philadelphia [Pa.] Navy Yard (23—31 July 1941), Suwannee transported passengers to Hampton Roads, then on 9 August continued on to the Gulf of Mexico, proceeding to New Orleans, La. (14—16 August)., before she returned to Norfolk on 21 August, setting course later the same day for the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y.  Suwannee there embarked officers and men of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (MTBRon) 1 under Lt.(j.g.) Clinton McKellar, and loaded six 77-foot Electric Boat Co. (ELCO) torpedo boats: PT-20, PT-21, PT-22, PT-23, PT-24, and PT-25 (24—26 August)  The oiler and her passengers and deck cargo began their voyage when she stood out on 26 August.

After transiting the Panama Canal (31 August—1 September 1941), Suwannee proceeded directly to San Pedro, Calif., (9—11 September), whence she sailed on the 11th for Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. She steamed to Pearl Harbor, T.H., where she disembarked Lt.(j.g.) McKellar and his men and offloaded MTBRon 1’s six ELCOs, completing that operation on 18 September. Shifting to Honolulu, T.H., on the 20th, the oiler sailed for San Pedro with two leave-bound USMC non-commissioned officers and one enlisted marine, from Marine Aircraft Group 21, later the same day.

Reaching San Pedro on 26 September 1941, Suwannee embarked east coast-bound travelers on that day and the next, disembarking the three USMC passengers who had ridden the ship from Hawaiian waters. The new passengers’ destinations ranged from new construction like the carrier Hornet (CV-8), the destroyer Hambleton (DD-455), and the submarine Finback (SS-230), to the gunboat Erie (PG-50). A Sea2c, however, who embarked on the 26th with orders to report to the light cruiser Savannah (CL-43), deserted before the oiler cleared San Pedro for the Canal Zone on the 28th.

Suwannee paused briefly at the Canal Zone (6—9 October 1941), disembarking four passengers during her time there—a PhM2c to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Balboa, and an MM2c to the gunboat Erie, on 6 October (in addition to Capt. William H. Abrams, USMCR, Ret., the district legal officer at the Marine Barracks, Balboa) and an OS3c to the Submarine Base, Coco Solo, C.Z., on the 8th; then continued on for Galveston, Texas. Shifting thence to Baytown, Texas, she took on cargo, after which she took departure on 15 October. Disembarking three more passengers at Bayonne, N.J., on the 21st, Suwannee sailed for Hampton Roads the next day. Following her arrival, the oiler disembarked more passengers (23—25 October).

Clearing Norfolk for the Gulf Area on 3 November 1941, Suwannee arrived at her destination after a passage of five days, after which she down the Houston [Texas] Ship Canal, setting course for Argentia, Newfoundland, on 10 November, where she provided services to the Atlantic Fleet’s ships as the fleet’s involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic intensified. Arriving at her destination on 17 November, she remained at Argentia until she sailed for Hampton Roads on 4 December with passengers, the largest group of which (29) held orders to the carrier Yorktown (CV-5). Suwannee’s work at Argentia would earn her the American Defense Service Medal (16—22 November 1941).

Suwannee disembarked her passengers, then underwent a restricted availability at the Norfolk Navy Yard, during which time the Japanese unleashed their onslaught in the Pacific (7—8 December 1941) and Germany joined its Axis partner (11 December). Against that backdrop of the United States’ being at war in both oceans, the oiler sailed from Hampton Roads on 13 December and set course for New Orleans, and there loaded a cargo of oil. Departing that port on 19 December, Suwannee touched at San Juan, Puerto Rico, then returned to Norfolk.

Suwannee cleared Norfolk on 11 January 1942 for Bermuda with passengers that included six bound for the carrier Ranger (CV-4), five for Savannah, and two for the destroyer Rhind (DD-404). Disembarking her passengers on 14 January, she provided fueling services there before returning to Hampton Roads, where, upon completion of unloading, she began preparations to undergo conversion. Re-designated as an aircraft escort vessel, AVG-27, on 14 February 1942, and Suwannee was decommissioned on 20 February 1942 at Newport News, Virginia, to begin the conversion process.

On 20 August 1942, Suwannee was re-designated again, to an auxiliary aircraft carrier, ACV-27. She was recommissioned alongside Pier 9, Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., on 24 September 1942, Capt. Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark in command.

Less than a month after commissioning, Suwannee, with VGS-27 embarked, stood out of Hampton Roads on 25 October 1942 in Task Group (TG) 34.2, as part of Task Force 34, for Operation Torch, the invasion of Vichy French-held North Africa. She joined Ranger (CV-4) as the other carrier attached to the Center Attack Group whose specific objective was Casablanca itself, via Fedala [Mohammedia] just to the north. Early in the morning of 8 November, she arrived off the coast of Morocco and, for the next few days, her Wildcat fighters maintained combat and antisubmarine air patrols, while her Avengers joined Ranger’s in bombing missions. Between 8 and 11 November, Suwannee sent up 255 air sorties and lost only five planes, three in combat and two to operational problems. On 11 November, off Fedala Roads, her antisubmarine patrol claimed the destruction of a submarine, a “kill” not verified in post-war accounting.

Suwannee remained in North African waters until mid-November 1942, then sailed, via Bermuda, for Norfolk. She arrived back at Hampton Roads on 24 November and stayed until 5 December when she got underway for the South Pacific. The auxiliary carrier transited the Panama Canal (11—12 December) and ultimately reached New Caledonia on 4 January 1943, anchoring in Great Roads. For the next seven months (during which time she was re-designated to an escort aircraft carrier, CVE-27, effective 15 July 1943), she provided air escort for transports and supply ships replenishing and bolstering the marines on Guadalcanal, as well as for the forces occupying other islands in the Solomons group. During that span of time, she visited Guadalcanal, Efate, and Espíritu Santo in addition to New Caledonia.

She returned to the U.S. at San Diego in October and, by 5 November 1943 was back at Espíritu Santo, with a  new air group, CVEG-60 embarked. On 13 November, she departed to participate in the Gilbert Islands operation. From the 19th to the 23rd, she was a part of the Air Support Group of the Southern Attack Force, and her planes bombed Tarawa, while the ships in the Northern Attack Force engaged the enemy at Makin. Following the occupation of the Gilberts, the escort carrier returned to the United States, via Pearl Harbor, arriving in San Diego on 21 December.

She remained on the west coast for two weeks into the New Year 1944, then set a course for Lahaina Roads in the Hawaiian Islands. She departed Hawaii on 22 January 1944 and headed for the Marshalls. During that operation, Suwannee joined the Northern Attack Force, and her planes bombed and strafed Roi and Namur Islands, in the northern part of Kwajalein Atoll, and conducted antisubmarine patrols for the task force. She remained in the vicinity of Kwajalein for the first 15 days of February; then spent the next nine days helping out at Eniwetok. On the 24th, she headed east again and arrived at Pearl Harbor on 2 March for a two-week stay.

By 30 March 1944, she was in the vicinity of the Palau Islands as the Fifth Fleet subjected those islands to two days of extensive bombing raids. A week later, she put into Espíritu Santo for four days. After short stops at Purvis Bay in the Solomons and at Seeadler Harbor, Manus, the escort carrier headed for New Guinea. For two weeks, she supported the Hollandia landings by shuttling replacement aircraft to the larger fleet carriers actually engaged in air support of the landings. She returned to Manus on 5 May.

Following two voyages from Espíritu Santo, one to Tulagi and the other to Kwajalein, Suwannee arrived off Saipan in mid-June 1944. For the next month and one-half, she supported the invasion of the Marianas, participating in the campaigns against Saipan and Guam.

On 19 June 1944, as the Battle of the Philippine Sea began to unfold, Suwannee was one of the first ships to draw enemy blood when one of her TBM-1C Avengers of VT-60, accompanied by an F6F-3 on anti-submarine patrol, spotted the Saipan-bound Japanese submarine I-184 (Lt.Cmdr. Rikihisa Matsuji, commanding) on the surface. Ens. Guy A. Sabin, A-V(N), USNR, attacked, dropping four 325-pound depth bombs along the axis of the enemy Type KD7 boat, and scored at least two direct hits that sent her, and her 97 souls, to the bottom.

Suwannee’s planes did not actually become engaged in the famous battle of naval aircraft, because they remained with the invasion forces in the Marianas providing antisubmarine and combat air patrols.

On 4 August 1944 she cleared the Marianas for Eniwetok and Seeadler Harbor, reaching the latter port on the 13th. Almost a month later, on 10 September, she put to sea to support the landings on Morotai in the Netherlands East Indies. Those landings went off without opposition on the 15th, and Suwannee returned to Seeadler Harbor to prepare for the invasion of the Philippines.

On 12 October 1944, the escort carrier got underway from Manus in Rear Adm. Thomas L. Sprague’s Escort Carrier Group to provide air support for the landings at Leyte Gulf. She reached the Philippines several days later, and her planes began strikes on enemy installations in the Visayas until 25 October. She provided air support for the assault forces with antisubmarine and combat air patrols and strikes against Japanese installations ashore.

On 24 and 25 October 1944, the Japanese launched a major surface offensive from three directions to contest the landings at Leyte Gulf. While Adm. Ozawa Jisaburo’s Mobile Force sailed south from Japan and drew the bulk of Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr.’s Third Fleet off to the north, Adm. Shima Kiyohide’s Second Striking Force, along with Adm. Nishimura Shoji’s Force, attempted to force Surigao Strait from the south. This drew Vice Adm. Jesse B. Oldendorf's Bombardment Group south to meet that threat in the Battle of Surigao Strait. With Oldendorf’s old battleships fighting in Surigao Strait and Halsey’s Third Fleet scurrying north, Suwannee, with the other 15 escort carriers and 22 destroyers and escort vessels (DE), formed the only Allied naval force operating off Leyte Gulf when Admiral Kurita Takeo’s First Striking Force penetrated the unguarded San Bernadino Strait into the Philippine Sea.

Just before 0700 on the 25th, one of Kadashan Bay’s (CVE-76) planes reported a Japanese force of four battleships, eight cruisers, and numerous destroyers. That force, Kurita’s, immediately began a surface engagement with Rear Adm. Clifton A. F. Sprague’s Taffy 3, the northernmost group of escort carriers. Suwannee was much farther south as an element of Rear Adm. Thomas Sprague’s Taffy 1. Consequently, while she herself did not participate in the running surface battle off Samar, her air group TBMs and F6Fs carried out persistent attacks on Japanese capital ships.

Her problems, however, soon came from another quarter. At 0740 on the 25th, Taffy 1 was jumped by land-based planes from Davao in the first deliberate suicide attack of the war. The first one crashed Suwannee’s sister ship Santee (CVE-29); and, 30 seconds later, Suwannee splashed a kamikaze during his run on Petrof Bay (CVE-80). Her gunners soon scratched another enemy plane, then bore down on a third circling in the clouds at about 8,000 feet. They hit the enemy; but he rolled over, dove at Suwannee, and crashed her about 40 feet forward of the after elevator, opening a 10-foot hole in her flight deck. His bomb compounded the fracture when it exploded between the flight and hangar decks, tearing a 25-foot gash in the latter and causing a number of casualties.

Within two hours, her flight deck was sufficiently repaired to enable the escort carrier to resume air operations. Suwannee’s group fought off two more air attacks before 1300; then steamed in a northeasterly direction to join Taffy 3 and launch futile searches for Kurita’s rapidly retiring force. Just after noon on the 26th, another group of kamikazes jumped Taffy 1. A Zeke crashed Suwannee’s flight deck and careened into a VT-60 TBM, piloted by Lt. F. W. Beidelman, Jr., A-V(N), USNR, which had just been recovered only 30 seconds before. The two planes erupted upon contact, Beidelman and his two crewmen perishing in a fiery instant. Ensuing fires destroyed nine other planes parked forward on her flight deck. The resulting blaze burned for several hours, but was finally brought under control by the concerted efforts of her crew and air group. In the two attacks Suwannee suffered the loss of 13 officers and 80 enlisted men, and the wounding of 13 officers (including Capt. Johnson) and 89 enlisted. A muster revealed 2 officers and 56 sailors missing (some of whom were recovered subsequently). The escort carriers put into Kossol Roads in the Palaus on 28 October, then headed for Manus for upkeep on 1 November.

After five days in Seeadler Harbor, Suwannee got underway to return to the west coast for major repairs. She stopped at Pearl Harbor overnight (19—20 November 1944) and arrived at Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Wash., on the 26th. Her repairs were completed by 31 January 1945; and, after brief stops at Hunter's Point and Alameda, Calif., she headed west and back into the war. The escort carrier paused at Pearl Harbor (16—23 February), sailing with a new air group, CVEG-40, at Tulagi (4—14 March, and at Ulithi (21—27 March), before arriving off Okinawa on 1 April.

Her first assignment was close air support for the invasion troops; but, within a few days, she settled down to a routine of neutralizing the kamikaze bases at Sakishima Gunto. For the major portion of the next 77 days, her planes continued to deny the enemy the use of those facilities. Periodically, she put into the anchorage at Kerama Retto to rearm and replenish, but she spent the bulk of her time in air operations at sea.

On 16 June 1945, she headed for San Pedro Bay in Leyte Gulf. She remained there for a week, then returned to the Netherlands East Indies at Makassar Strait to support the landings at Balikpapan, Borneo. The carrier reentered San Pedro Bay, Leyte, on 6 July and spent the next month there. On 3 August, she got underway for Okinawa, arriving in Buckner Bay three days later.

Hostilities ended on 15 August 1945, but Suwannee remained at Okinawa until 2 September; then headed back to the United States. She was assigned to the Atlantic Inactive Fleet later that month. On 6 February 1946, she was assigned to the berthing area at the Boston [Mass.] Naval Shipyard. On 28 October 1946, the carrier was placed in a reserve status with the Sixteenth Fleet at Boston and, just over two months later, on 8 January 1947, was placed out of commission.

Suwannee remained in reserve at Boston for the next 12 years. She was re-designated—for the final time—to an escort aircraft carrier (helicopter) CVHE-27, on 12 June 1955. Her name was stricken from the Navy List on 1 March 1959.

Her hulk was sold to the Isbrantsen Steamship Co., of New York City on 30 November 1959 for conversion to merchant service, but after the cancellation of the project, in May 1961 her hulk was resold to the J. C. Berkwit Co., also of New York City. She was finally scrapped in Bilbao, Spain, in June 1962.

Suwannee (and her embarked air units for the pertinent periods: VGS-27, VGF-27, VGS-30, VGF-28, CVEG-60 and CVEG-40) received the Presidential Unit Citation and 13 battle stars for her World War II service: North Africa occupation, Algeria-Morocco Landings (8—11 November 1942), Anti-submarine action (planes S-10, S-11, and S-12 of VGS-27) (11 November 1942); Battle of Rennell Island (29—30 January 1943); Gilbert Islands operation (20 November—8 December 1943); Marshall Islands occupation: Occupation of Kwajalein and Majuro Atolls (31 January—8 February 1944) and Eniwetok (17—24 February 1944); Pacific Raids: Palau, Yap, Ulithi and Woleai (30 March—1 April 1944); Hollandia operation (Aitape, Humboldt Bay, and Tanahmerah Bay) 22 April—5 May 1944); capture and occupation of Saipan (23 June—11 July 1944); occupation and capture of Tinian (12 July—1 August 1944); Morotai Landings (15 September 1944); Leyte landings (10 October—29 November 1944); Assault and occupation of Okinawa Gunto (25 March—4 June 1945); and Balikpapan operation (26 June—6 July 1945).

Commanding Officers                      Date Assumed Command

Cmdr. Joseph R. Lannom                     16 July 1941

Capt. Joseph J. Clark                             24 September 1942

Capt. Frederick W. McMahon             21 January 1943

Capt. William D. Johnson. Jr.               30 December 1943

Capt. Delbert S. Cornwell                      8 December 1944

Capt. Charles C. McDonald                   2 September 1945

Cmdr. Schermerhorn Van Mater         2 October 1945

Capt. Elton C. Parker                            16 November 1945

Cmdr. John M. De Vane, Jr.                  29 March 1946

Cmdr. Stanley E. Ruehlow                      1 September 1946

 

Updated, Robert J. Cressman

11 June 2021

Published: Fri Jun 11 13:29:13 EDT 2021