- Before the US entered World War II, the Navy knew that its fleet carriers would not be enough to fight Germany and Japan.
- The solution was the escort carrier, smaller and slower than larger fleet carriers, but capable of protecting convoys and amphibious landings.
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Although smaller and slower than the “Fleet” aircraft carriers used by the United States Navy during World War II, the escort carrier – also known as the “Jeep Carrier” or “Baby Flattop” – still proved extremely important to them War effort.
At only half the length and a third the displacement of the larger fleet carriers, the companion carriers were built on commercial ship hulls, making them cheaper and easier to build.
However, the carriers were too slow to keep up with the main force, which consisted of fleet carriers, cruisers or even battleships. Yet the little escorts served well in protecting convoys while providing air support during an amphibious landing.
The escort carriers also served as transporters and could carry aircraft to all military services.
More porters needed
A Sangamon-class escort carrier transports aircraft for the invasion of North Africa in November 1942.
PhotoQuest / Getty Images
The origins of this new class of warships date back to shortly before America’s entry into World War II.
In a December 1940 letter to the chief of naval operations, Rear Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, Jr., Commander of the US Aircraft Fleet, Battle Force, expressed concern that the six US Navy aircraft carriers were attacking both Germany and against Germany, Japan would not be enough.
Halsey warned that more ships would be needed, and the result was the small CVE, the Navy’s ultimate name for the Escort Aircraft Carrier.
It was a compromise in design, built with a modified merchant ship hull that was lightly armed and armored, slow, and had limited carrying capacity – only 24 to 36 aircraft could be carried compared to the nearly 90 of a fleet carrier.
Lots of small porters
Navy escort carrier USS Casablanca, February 4, 1944.
In the shadow of the larger warships, of the 151 aircraft carriers built during World War II, 122 were actually escort carriers.
Fifty of these were of the Casablanca class, and it was the largest class of aircraft carriers ever built. They were built quickly, too, and all 50 were launched, launched, and commissioned in less than two years by Kaiser Shipbuilding Company’s Vancouver Yard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington.
The 156-meter-long Casablanca escort displaced just 7,800 tons – or nearly 11,000 tons fully laden with 910 crew members, 28 aircraft, ammunition and nearly 120,000 gallons of aviation fuel.
Five Casablanca-class escort carriers were assigned to Atlantic patrols, where escort carriers demonstrated one of several innovations that ultimately defeated the Navy submarines. Originally used to protect convoys and move land-based aircraft, they eventually led five of 11 wandering “hunter-killer groups” that helped hunt down submarines and sank them by the end of War ’53.
Of the 13 US aircraft carriers of all types that were lost in World War II, seven were escort carriers, six of which belonged to the Casablanca class built by the Kaiser.
Navy Bogue-class escort carrier USS Card, December 10, 1943.
Another 45 Bogue-class CVEs were built for service in the US Navy and the British Royal Navy as part of the lend lease program.
All of the ships that served in the U.S. Navy and half the ships for the Royal Navy were built by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation, while some of the early Royal Navy ships were made by Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Western Pipe and Steel Company in San Francisco, California.
After the war, 10 of the baby flattops were put into service for helicopter and airlift operations.
The last class of CVEs to be built was the Commencement Bay class, which was based on the T3 tanker Hull but was actually built from the keel up as a small carrier. Thirty-five were ordered and only 19 were produced while most of them had little to no operational service.
However, after the war, the potential for the use of helicopters and auxiliary transports was recognized and some of the Commencement Bay-class escort carriers were put back into service during the Korean War.
Some CVEs from the different classes were also put back into service in the early years of the Vietnam War, where these warships were renamed AKV (Air Transport Auxiliary).
Navy escort carrier USS Thetis Bay with 8 PBY Catalina flying boats, 18 F6F Hellcat fighters, and a J2F amphibious biplane, July 8, 1944.
US Navy naval aviation news
One of the last – but not the last – Casablanca-class escort carriers to be built was the USS Thetis Bay, which began as the CVE-90.
She was rebuilt in the mid-1950s to become the Navy’s first attack helicopter carrier, and her designation was changed to CVHA-1, while a few years later she underwent another overhaul that greatly modified the warship, including cutting the quarterdeck.
Her name was changed again to LPH-6, an amphibious assault ship, in May 1959. She stayed in the service for another five years and was the last CVE to be scrapped.
Unfortunately, despite the important role these baby flattops played in World War II, not a single one of the 122 Allied CVEs survives today.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He writes regularly on military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear, including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.