Suwannee (AO-33) was laid down on 3 June 1938 at Kearney, N.J., by the Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., under a Maritime Commission contract as Markay (MC hull 5) ; launched on 4 March 1939; sponsored by Mrs. Howard L. Vickery; delivered to the Keystone Tankship Corporation and operated by that company until acquired by the Navy on 26 June 1941; renamed Suwannee (AO-33); and commissioned on 16 July 1941, Comdr. Joseph R. Lannom in command.
After operating for six months as an oiler with the Atlantic Fleet, Suwannee was redesignated AVG-27 on 14 February 1942 and decommissioned on 21 February at Newport News, Va., for conversion to a Sangamon-class escort aircraft carrier. On 20 August, she was redesignated an auxiliary aircraft carrier, ACV-27, and was recommissioned as such on 24 September 1942, Capt. J. J. Clark in command.
Less than a month after commissioning, Suwannee was underway from Hampton Roads for the invasion of North Africa. She joined Ranger (CV-4) as the other carrier attached to the Center Attack Group whose specific objective was Casablanca itself, via Fedhala 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 Fedhala Roads, her antisubmarine patrol sank what was reported to be a German U-boat, but which was later determined to have been one of the three French submarines which sortied from Casablanca on the day of the assault. She was the first escort carrier to score against the enemy undersea menace, and she helped to prove the usefulness of her type in antisubmarine warfare.
Suwannee remained in North African waters until mid-November, 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 on 11 and 12 December and arrived at New Caledonia on 4 January 1943. For the next seven months, 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 Espiritu Santo in addition to New Caledonia.
She returned to the United States at San Diego in October and, by 5 November, was back at Espiritu Santo. On 13 November, she departed to participate in the Gilbert Islands operation. From the 19th to the 23d, 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, 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, she was in the vicinity of the Palau Islands as the 5th Fleet subjected those islands to two days of extensive bombing raids. A week later, she put into Espiritu 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 Espiritu Santo, one to Tulagi and the other to Kwajalein, Suwannee arrived off Saipan in mid-June. 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, 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 planes flying combat air patrol attacked and sank the Japanese submarine I-184. 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, 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, the escort carrier got underway from Manus in Rear Admiral 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 Visayans 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 Admiral Ozawa's Mobile Force sailed south from Japan and drew the bulk of Admiral Halsey's 3d Fleet off to the north, Admiral Shima's 2d Striking Force, along with Admiral Nishimura's Force, attempted to force the Surigao Strait from the south. This drew Admiral 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 3d Fleet scurrying north, Suwannee, with the other 15 escort carriers and 22 destroyers and destroyer escorts, formed the only Allied naval force operating off Leyte Gulf when Admiral Kurita's 1st Striking Force sneaked through 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. This force, Kurita's, immediately began a surface engagement with Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague's "Taffy 3," the northernmost group of escort carriers. Suwannee was much farther south as an element of Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague's "Taffy 1." Consequently, she did not participate in the running surface battle off Samar.
Her problems 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 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 torpedo bomber which had just been recovered. The two planes erupted upon contact as did nine other planes on her flight deck. The resulting fire burned for several hours, but was finally brought under control. 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 on 19 and 20 November and arrived at Puget Sound Navy Yard on the 26th. Her repairs were completed by 31 January 1945; and, after brief stops at Hunter's Point and Alameda in California, she headed west and back into the war. The escort carrier stopped at Pearl Harbor from 16 to 23 February, at Tulagi from 4 to 14 March, and at Ulithi from 21 to 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 pounding 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 air bases. 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, 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 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, 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 Boston Naval Shipyard. On 28 October 1946, the carrier was placed in a reserve status with the 16th Fleet at Boston and, just over two months later, on 8 January 1947, she was placed out of commission.
Suwannee remained in reserve at Boston for the next 12 years. She was redesignated an escort helicopter aircraft carrier, CVHE-27, on 12 June 1955. Her name was struck 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. The project was subsequently cancelled; and, 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 earned 13 battle stars during World War II.