US Carriers–Police Action in Korea I


During the Korean War the port at Sasebo was a crowded place. In this view can be seen HMS Unicorn, behind which is the USS Valley Forge.

In a similar manner to the other Allied nations, the United States’ armed forces would undergo a period of serious contraction after 1945. The Axis nations, on the other hand, had little left to disperse, as the German and Japanese fleets were almost destroyed, while the Italian Navy was destined to be divided between the victors and scrapped.

As for the US Navy, it too would see a serious contraction of its strength, not only in vessels, but in manpower as well. With the massive reduction of the latter, due to most being ‘hostilities only’ personnel, there were not enough sea and air crews to maintain such a large carrier fleet, nor was there a perceived need for it in the immediate future, although the attitude and expansion plans of the Soviet Union, an erstwhile ally, were giving rise to concern.

Of the remaining hardware, the elderly USS Saratoga was deemed life expired after its war exertions, and the carrier was also struggling to cope with the larger aircraft entering service. As this was before the days of the memorial and preservation societies, the Saratoga was expended as a target at Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test on 25 July 1946. Thus was lost the chance to preserve one of the early steps in American naval aviation. Of the Yorktown class, only the USS Enterprise had survived the war. At close of play the Enterprise was fully equipped with the latest radar sets, including the CXAM-1, SC-2, SP and fire-control set Mk 4. Other modifications had included the lengthening of the flight deck and the fitment of hull bulges to improve protection and improve stability. As with all such vessels subject to kamikaze attacks, the edge of the flight deck fairly bristled with weaponry. The Enterprise had been in the dockyard at the end of the war after a kamikaze hit had blown the forward lift completely out of alignment. Although fully repaired and redesignated as an anti-submarine carrier, CVS-6, the Enterprise would not re-enter service, being placed in the reserve. The carrier entered the New York Naval Shipyard on 18 January 1946 for deactivation, being fully decommissioned on 17 February 1947. In 1946 the Enterprise had been scheduled for handing over to the state of New York as a permanent memorial. However, this plan was suspended in 1949. Although further attempts were made at preserving the ship, fund-raising efforts were unsuccessful, and so the ‘Big E’ was sold in July 1958 to the Lipsett Corporation of New York City for scrapping at Kearny, New Jersey.

The Independence class of light carriers, based on the hulls of Cleveland-class cruisers, would have mixed fortunes after the war. Of the nine vessels commissioned, eight had survived their Pacific experiences, and those destined for post-war operational service were seen purely as fighter carriers, as they were considered too small for the larger types. The intended aircraft complement was forty-eight Grumman F8F Bearcats, although none of the class ever put to sea with this configuration. The USS Independence would be used as a peripheral target at Bikini, after which the carrier was formally decommissioned in August 1946. Over the following five years the Independence was used as a weapons trials ship before being sunk as a target in February 1951. The Cowpens was formally deactivated in January 1947, being redesignated as an auxiliary aircraft transport, AVT-1, in May 1959, although it was removed from the Navy List in November, being sold for scrap two years later. The Monterey was one of the few Independence class to see significant post-war service. Decommissioned in February 1947, the carrier was reactivated in September 1950 for use as a training carrier by NAS Pensacola in support of Korea operations. After five years in this role the Monterey entered the reserve, being redesignated AVT-2 in 1959. The carrier remained swinging at anchor at Philadelphia until sold for scrapping in 1971. It would be the USS Langley that would have an extended second career. Having been decommissioned in January 1947, after completing a refit the carrier was loaned to the French Navy in January 1951 as the Lafayette. The Langley returned to the United States in 1963, being sold immediately for scrap. The USS Cabot would also have a second career with another navy–in this case Spain. Having been decommissioned in February 1947, the Cabot was returned to service in October 1948 for training duties, this continuing until 1955 in support of Korea operations. Withdrawn after this period, the carrier was reclassified as AVT-3 in May 1959, remaining in the reserve until lent to Spain in August 1967 as the Dedalo. The Spanish Navy would purchase the carrier outright in 1972, the vessel remaining in service until withdrawn in 1988. The Bataan was also placed in reserve in 1947, but would be reactivated in mid-1950 for Korean war duties, the only one of this class to take an active part in this conflict. Withdrawn again in 1954, the vessel was reclassified as AVT-4 in May 1959, although it was struck off the Navy List in September, being sold for scrap in 1960. The San Jacinto would see no post-war service, being completely deactivated in January 1947. Although redesignated as AVT-5 in 1959, the carrier was struck from the Navy List in early 1970, being sold for scrap that same year.

It was the escort, or jeep, carriers that disappeared from the service of the US Navy very quickly at the war’s end. The Sangamon class saw the name ship scrapped in 1948, while the Suwannee, Chenango and Santee were placed in reserve in 1946. All three were reclassified as CVHE for helicopter operations in 1955, although they were removed from the Navy List in 1959, being sold for scrap the following year. Of the eleven Bogue class, only the USS Block Island had been lost during war service, while the others had mixed fortunes. Most of the class were placed in reserve by the end of 1946, being redesignated as helicopter escort carriers, CVHE, in 1955, although most were scrapped in 1960, having seen no further usage. Carriers known to have suffered this fate included the Bogue, Copahee, Nassau, Altamaha, Barnes, Breton and Prince William. Of the others, the USS Card also entered the reserve in 1946, although the ship was reactivated in 1958 as an aircraft transport, this being followed by service in a similar role during the Vietnam War. During this period the Card struck a mine in Saigon Harbour in May 1964. The vessel was raised and repaired, returning to the reserve afterwards, although it was struck from the Navy List in 1970 and sold for scrap. The USS Core was also another carrier resurrected for transport use by the Maritime Sea Transportation Service in July 1958, although it is highly unlikely that the carrier was used in this role, as it was sold for scrap in 1970. The USS Breton also entered the reserve in 1946 before being recommissioned again by the MSTS in 1958. After returning to the reserve, the carrier was sold for scrapping in 1970. As with the rest of the Bogue class, the USS Croatan entered the reserve in 1946. The carrier was reactivated in June 1958 and assigned to MSTS in a non-commissioned status, being manned by a civilian crew. In August 1963 the Croatan was used to transport twenty-three F-104 Starfighters on delivery to the Royal Norwegian Air Force. In October 1964 the vessel served as an experimental ship under NASA control until May 1965. The purpose of the NASA deployment was to launch Nike-Cajun and Nike-Apache sounding rockets, these being carried on launchers each side of the deck elevator. The rest of the flight deck was covered by trailers holding telemetry and guidance equipment. The Croatan was struck from the Navy List in September 1970 and sold for scrap in 1971.

One of the largest classes of escort carriers was the Casablanca class, which consisted of fifty vessels. Of this total five were sunk in action, these being the Liscombe Bay, St. Lo, Gambier Bay, Bismark Bay and Ommaney Bay. Of the others, the Wake Island, Solomons, Kalinin Bay, Kitkun Bay, Makin Island, Salamaua, Admiralty Islands, Attu and Roi were all withdrawn from use at the end of the war, being sold for scrap the following year. The remaining vessels were placed in reserve as CVHE for helicopter duties in 1958, although most were struck from the Navy List from 1959 onwards, the last going in 1966. A handful did find other uses, however. The Corregidor was taken over by the MSTS for Korean War transport duties, although the carrier’s career ended in 1958, and it was finally decommissioned in 1960. The Thetis Bay had a much more adventurous post-war career, as it was converted to be the first amphibious assault ship in the US Navy. By now designated CVHA, the Thetis Bay was recommissioned in July 1956, being deployed with both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. The experience gained from the Thetis Bay led to the development of the Iwo Jima and Tarawa class of assault vessels. The USS Thetis Bay was finally struck from the Navy List and scrapped in 1966. The Makassar Strait also had a post-war career. However, it was destined to be used as a target for Tartar and Terrier missiles to see how well they performed as ship-to-ship weapons. Eventually this mistreatment caused the rather ragged carrier to sink in 1962.

The final escort carrier class was the Commencement Bay class, consisting of nineteen ships. Few of these carriers entered the reserve for any length of time as most had post-war careers. Of those that did retire most were redesignated as helicopter escort carriers in 1955, the ships involved being the class name ship, the Cape Gloucester, Vella Gulf, Puget Sound, Bairoko, Rabaul, Palau and Tinian. Others of the class were employed as anti-submarine carriers, due to the fleet carriers being heavily employed in the Korean War. Carriers employed in this role included the Kula Gulf, Salerno Bay, Siboney, Rendova, Badeong Strait, Sicily, Point Cruz and Mindoro. The Badeong Strait had been utilised as the development ship for the remainder of the class in the ASW role, although all of these vessels had been retired by 1955. It was the USS Gilbert Islands that had the most varied career of the class. Although placed in reserve after the war, the carrier was recommissioned in 1951 for transport duties during the Korean War before retiring again in 1955. After six years awaiting disposal, the carrier was chosen for conversion to become a Major Communications Relay Ship, AGMR-1, being recommissioned in March 1964 as the USS Annapolis. The newly renamed ship remained in service until finally withdrawn at the end of 1969, having served from 1965. The Gilbert Islands/Annapolis was finally removed from the Navy List in October 1976. In contrast, the Kula Gulf, after its period as an ASW vessel, returned to the reserve, although it would return to sea for use a transport during the Vietnam War under MSTS auspices. The Kula Bay was removed from the Navy List in September 1970. The USS Rendova also had a post-war career, being used in the training, transport and ASW role before being sold for scrap in 1971. The Point Cruz was also a busy ship, for not only was it used in the ASW role during the Korean War, but it was reactivated during the Vietnam conflict for use in the transport role. After this final wartime adventure, the carrier was again placed in the reserve, being sold for scrap in 1970.

The retirement of the venerable Saratoga and the decommissioning of the greater part of the escort carrier fleet left the US Navy with the twenty-four ships of the Essex class. The name ship of the class had been commissioned in December 1942, while the last ship, the USS Philippine Sea, joined the fleet in May 1946. Two further ships of this class had also been laid down, these being the USS Reprisal laid down at the New York Navy Yard in July 1944, while the other was the USS Iwo Jima, laid down in January 1945 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. As the former had been partly completed, it was used as a target after the war, while the barely started latter vessel was broken up on the slips. A further five units designated as the enlarged Essex class were cancelled before construction began.

In the immediate post-war period the entire Essex class was subject to a series of modifications that enabled them to operate the heavier piston aircraft already coming into service and to cope with the jet-powered machines that were on the horizon. Known as SCB-27A, the programme started in 1947 and ended in 1955. The SCB-27 modernisation was extensive, and required at least two years to complete for each vessel. To handle the much heavier, faster aircraft of the early jet era, the original lightweight flight deck support structure was significantly reinforced, enabling it to support aircraft weighing up to 52,000 lb. To complement the reinforced flight deck, stronger elevators, much more powerful catapults, and new Mk 5 arresting gear was installed. The aft elevator was relocated from its original position in the centre of the flight deck to the port deck edge. On the armament side the original four twin 5-inch gun mounts were removed, completely clearing the flight deck of guns. The replacement 5-inch gun battery consisted of eight weapons, two being carried on each quarter of the flight deck. Also added were twin 3-inch gun mounts that replaced the original 40 mm guns, these offering much greater effectiveness through the use of proximity fused ammunition.

The island was completely redesigned, being increased in height, although it was shorter overall due to the removal of its gun mounts. In addition the boiler uptakes were rebuilt and angled aft to accommodate a single radar and communications mast atop the island. To better protect aircrews, their ready rooms were moved from the original gallery deck to below the armoured hangar deck, this being complemented by a large escalator on the starboard side amidships to move flight crews up to the flight deck. Internally the aviation fuel capacity was increased by fifty per cent to 300,000 US gallons, while its pumping pressure was increased to 50 US gallons per minute. Given the problems experienced by the carriers of TF.38 during the war, the ships’ firefighting capabilities were enhanced through the addition of two emergency fire and splinter bulkheads in the hangar deck, the instillation of a fog/foam fire-fighting system, improved water curtains and a cupro-nickel fire main. Also given a much-needed improvement was the electrical generating power system, while weapons stowage and handling facilities were also improved. All of these modifications added considerable weight to each vessel in the class, so that displacement increased by some twenty per cent. Blisters were fitted to the hull sides to compensate for the weight, this widening the waterline beam by eight to ten feet. These changes also meant that the carriers also sat lower in the water, which in turn reduced the top speed to 31 knots.

The prototype for the SCB-27A modification programme was the USS Oriskany, which was still incomplete at the end of the war while a decision was made about the depth of work that would be undertaken. The Oriskany entered the New York Navy Yard in August 1947, being returned to service in September 1950. The class ship USS Essex was decommissioned in January 1947, remaining in reserve until moved to the shipyard at Puget Sound in September 1948, finally emerging in September 1951 for recommissioning. The carrier’s new air wing comprised McDonnell F2H Banshees, Grumman F8F Bearcats and Douglas AD Skyraiders. The third vessel to enter the programme was the Wasp which entered the New York Yard in May 1949 from the reserve, with work being completed in September 1951. The Kearsarge had remained in active service until entering the Puget Sound Yard in February 1950, being ready for recommissioning two years later. The Lake Champlain was another newly completed carrier that entered the reserve quickly after the war in March 1946. Norfolk Navy Yard would be the venue for this ship’s modernisation, this beginning in August 1950, being ready for commissioning again in September 1952. The next vessel put through the conversion process was the USS Bennington, which had undertaken a period of war service in the Pacific. The carrier was withdrawn to the Norfolk Navy Yard and to the reserve in November 1946, entering that dockyard in December 1950 for SCB-27A modifications. This work was completed by November 1952, when the carrier was recommissioned. Another veteran of the Pacific campaign was the Yorktown, which entered the reserve in January 1947. Four years later the carrier entered the Puget Sound Yard, being ready for recommissioning in February 1953. The USS Randolph was also a Pacific veteran, although it would remain in the training role until being placed in reserve in June 1947. The Randolph entered Newport News Yard in June 1951, the modification programme being completed in July 1953. Following the Randolph into the conversion programme was the USS Hornet, which was placed in reserve in January 1947 before entering the New York Yard in July 1951, returning to service in September 1953. The Hancock would enter Puget Sound Yard in December 1951, having been in reserve in May 1947. Unlike the earlier carriers, the Hancock was subject to the SBC-27C modification programme, which introduced Type C11 steam-powered catapults, a British innovation, jet blast deflectors, deck cooling, a fuel-blending system, an emergency barrier and storage and handling for nuclear weapons. The fuel-blending system would enable the carrier to operate both piston and jet-powered aircraft.

The extended modifications further increased the aircraft carrier’s beam and weight. As these modifications were more extensive, the Hancock was not -ecommissioned until February 1954. The Intrepid was also subject to the SBC-27C programme, having been in the reserve since 1947. The carrier entered the Newport News Yard in April 1952, being recommissioned in June 1954. In a similar manner to the other vessels of the class, the USS Ticonderoga was placed in reserve in January 1947 before entering the New York Yard in April 1952 for SBC-27C modifications. These were completed in September 1954, the carrier being recommissioned soon afterwards. The final three vessels to undergo modification were the Shangri La, Lexington and Bon Homme Richard. Unlike the earlier Essex carriers, these ships were further modified under programme SBC-125. These changes were even more radical as they included an angled flight deck, another British innovation, a hurricane weather bow that improved the weather security of the ship, and also a space for an auxiliary bridge and steering position. The Shangri La entered Puget Sound Yard in October 1952, where it underwent the combined SBC-27C and SBC-125 modifications, which kept the carrier out of service until January 1955. The Lexington would enter the same dockyard a year later, although its conversion was completed by August 1955. Mare Island Yard was the location for the Bon Homme Richard modification, which started in May 1953, being completed by September 1955. It was the USS Antietam that was entered straight into the SBC-125 modernisation programme instead of being subject to any of the earlier SBC programmes. The Antietam had been commissioned too late to take part in Pacific operations although it would spend some time in the Far East after hostilities had ended. Unlike its sister vessels, the Antietam was not placed in reserve until June 1949, although its time laid up was short, as the vessel resumed active service in January 1951 for Korean War service. This was completed in April 1952, the carrier entering the New York Yard some five months later. Utilised very much as the prototype for the SBC-125 angled deck, the carrier received few of the other modifications, and so its 10.5-degree offset deck was the only indication of its partly modified state. The Antietam was recommissioned in April 1953, being subject to much trials work to prove the angled deck. Although the Antietam was utilised in front-line operations, the carrier was relegated to the training role in 1957, remaining as such until struck from the Navy List in May 1963. After ten years in the reserve fleet the carrier was sold for scrapping in 1973.

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