Sinking of Aircraft Carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-65) & Operation Galvanic: Tarawa and Makin Islands, November 1943

80-G-391023: USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), September 2, 1943. Photographed at Naval Air Station, Astoria, Oregon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. (2018/02/28).

Sinking of Aircraft Carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-65) & Operation Galvanic: Tarawa and Makin Islands, November 1943 On 24 November 1943, the escort carrier Liscome Bay was operating about 20 nautical miles southwest of Makin Island. Liscome Bay was the flagship of Rear Admiral Henry Mullinnix, commander of Task Group 52.3, a force of three escort carriers. Liscome BayCoral Sea (CVE-57, later renamed Anzio). And Corregidor (CVE-58) were tasked with providing air support to ground operations on Makin and anti-submarine support to U.S. ships in the area. The three escort carriers were operating within a temporary task group, designated TG 52.13, commanded by Rear Admiral Robert M. Griffin, embarked in the battleship New Mexico (BB-40).

The USS Liscome Bay is launched on April 19, 1943, at the Kaiser Shipyard. It was the second escort carrier built in Vancouver.
USS Liscome Bay is launched on April 19, 1943, at the Kaiser Shipyard.

Liscome Bay was a Casablanca-class escort carrier, a class of 50 commissioned during the war that were the first escort carriers designed and built from the keel up for the role. (Older classes had been built on converted merchant ship hulls.)

The class was designed and built rapidly, and had significant survivability design flaws; five of the class would be lost during the war. Liscome Bay was new, having been commissioned in August 1943, and was under the command of Captain Irving Day Wiltse, who had been the navigator on the carrier Yorktown (CV-5) when she was sunk at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

A profile of the design of Takanis Bay, which was shared with all Casablanca-class escort carriers. Sinking of Aircraft Carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-65) & Operation Galvanic: Tarawa and Makin Islands, November 1943

The ship embarked Composite Squadron 39 (VC-39), initially with 12 FM2 Wildcat fighters (trained for ground attack) and 16 TBM-1C Avenger torpedo bombers (trained for bombing and anti-submarine warfare) under the command of Lieutenant Commander Marshall U. Beebe.

VC-39 was a case study in how dangerous carrier operations were even without the enemy.

After leaving Pearl Harbor, one Wildcat crashed, killing the pilot. During the Makin landings, one Avenger crashed in the water and another was lost in an emergency landing. One Wildcat was so badly damaged in a barrier crash that it was cannibalized for parts.

On 23 November, five Wildcats got lost and had to make night recoveries; three recovered safely on carrier Lexington (CV-16) and two recovered safely on Yorktown (CV-10,) but the fifth crashed into parked aircraft on Yorktown. The pilot survived but five of Yorktown’s crew did not.

Before dawn, TG 52.13 was steaming in a circular formation with Liscome Bay in the center. The old battleships New Mexico and Mississippi, and the new heavy cruiser Baltimore (CA-68) were to the left, and Coral Sea and Corregidor to the right, with an outer circular screen of five destroyers. At 0400, the destroyer Hull (DD-350) was detached for operations at Makin, and at 0435 the destroyer Franks (DD-554) was dispatched to investigate a dim light (a fading flare dropped by a Japanese aircraft).

This left a gap in the formation’s outer screen. 

New Mexico detected a radar contact at 6 nautical miles and closing, which was then lost, and no evasive action was taken. The contact was probably the Japanese submarine I-175, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Sumano Tabata, which had arrived off Makin the day before.

New Mexico, with Mt. Fuji in the background, August 1945.

At 0450, Liscome Bay went to flight quarters, and, at 0505, to general quarters. Preparing to launch 13 planes, including one on the catapult, all fueled and armed. The remaining seven planes were in the hanger and were armed but not fueled. As the formation turned into the wind to launch aircraft, I-175 was in the perfect position to take advantage of the gap in the outer screen. The sub remained submerged and fired four bow torpedoes based on sound, and then immediately went deep. None of the destroyers ever saw the submarine, although they dropped 34 depth charges, six of which were close. Two of I-175’s torpedoes narrowly missed Coral Sea.

An officer on Liscome Bay sighted a torpedo approaching from starboard only moments before impact at 0513 just aft of the after engine room.

The explosion of the torpedo immediately detonated the poorly protected bomb storage magazine. (One of the design flaws) that was stocked with almost a full allowance of 200,000 pounds of bombs. The resulting explosion was so massive that it was seen on ships many miles away. Shrapnel hit destroyers at 5,000 yards. The battleship New Mexico at 1,500 yards was showered by metal, clothing, and body parts.

More than one third of the after end of Liscome Bay was obliterated and everyone aft of the forward bulkhead of the after engine room was killed.

All steam, compressed air, and fireman pressure was immediately lost. In addition, large parts of the flight deck were destroyed, and the hangar deck engulfed in flames. Of 39 aircrew in the planes on deck, 14 were killed. It was obvious that the ship could not be saved, and within 23 minutes she rolled to starboard and sank.

Like many World War II losses, the exact number of crewmen killed as a result of the sinking of Liscome Bay may never be known, as it was difficult to track wounded who may have died later. Of the 272 (55 officers and 217 enlisted personnel) recorded as being rescued, many were grievously burned and maimed. Initial casualty reports listed 642 (51 officers and 591 enlisted men), while other accounts list a total of 644 killed.

The Navy Department War Damage Report lists 54 officers and 648 enlisted men killed (702 total), which may include those who died from wounds.

Among the dead was the task group commander, Rear Admiral Mullinix, and Cook Third Class Doris Miller. The first African-American to be awarded a Navy Cross (for his actions during the Pearl Harbor attack).

The ship’s commanding officer, Captain Wiltse, was last observed walking into a mass of flames and never seen again.

A number of aerographer’s mates, who had survived the sinking of the Wasp (CV-7) in September 1942 were lost, although one survived both sinkings. 

Liscome Bay suffered the highest percentage of casualties (over 70 percent) of any U.S. aircraft carrier in World War II.

Pearl Harbor hero Doris “Dorie” Miller was among the more than 700 men lost when USS Liscome Bay was sunk by a Japanese torpedo

Among the survivors was VC-39 commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Beebe, who would go on to distinguished service in World war II (as a “double ace”—10.5 kills—and a Navy Cross recipient) and Korea (where he would be the inspiration for James Michener’s book The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which was dedicated to Beebe). Admiral Mullinnix’ chief of staff, Captain John G. Crommelin also survived. Crommelin was the oldest of five brothers who all graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the war. Two of them were killed, and two, including John, would reach flag rank after the war.

The Perry-class frigate Crommelin (FFG-37) was named in honor of the five brothers (and was sunk as a RIMPAC target in 2016, where she didn’t go down easy).

I-175 would be sunk with all 100 hands on 4 February 1944 during Battle for Kwajalein. When destroyer Charrette (DD-581) and destroyer escort Fair (DE-35) engaged her. And Fair fired a hedgehog depth charge pattern that sank the submarine.

(Sources for this section include, Navy Department Bureau of Ships War Damage Report No. 45, dated 10 March 1944, “USS LISCOMBE BAY. Loss in Action, Gilbert Islands, Central Pacific, 24 Nov 1943”. And “USS Liscome Bay Hit by a Torpedo Near Makin I During WWII,” by William B. Allmon in the July 1992 edition of World War II magazine.)

Sinking of Aircraft Carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-65) & Operation Galvanic: Tarawa and Makin Islands, November 1943

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

Sinking of Aircraft Carrier USS Liscome Bay (CVE-65) & Operation Galvanic: Tarawa and Makin Islands, November 1943