Escort carriers, nicknamed “baby flattops” and “jeep carriers,” were slow, thin-skinned, small, and cramped. Their crews, in a sarcastic reference to the classification “CVE,” called them “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable.” On top of that, at first, the U.S. Navy high command didn’t want them. In 1940 Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark believed advances in aircraft technology made escort carriers impractical, so development was stopped. President Franklin Roosevelt overruled them and demanded a crash program converting merchantmen into carriers for use in anti-submarine warfare.
Of the 151 aircraft carriers built by American shipyards during the war, 122 were escort carriers. Designed more to be easily mass produced rather than as the most efficient warships, they were based on existing hulls originally planned for C-3 merchant ships, tankers, oilers, and fast transports. Many were supplied under Lend-Lease to the Royal Navy. Because they were both slow and roughly half the size of fleet carriers, they didn’t usually have enough wind over their short decks for combat-loaded aircraft to safely reach flying speed, so CVEs had catapults installed to assist in launching aircraft.
With few exceptions, the U. S. Navy’s escort carriers, too slow to operate with the fast carrier task forces, worked anonymously: ferrying aircraft, protecting convoys, providing tactical air support for amphibious landings, even taking soundings of uncharted ocean depths for the Navy’s Hydrographic Office.
“[Escort carriers] are so cheap and are so easily constructed that they are bound to be our shock troops in the Pacific.”
—Capt. Austin K. “Artie” Doyle, USS Nassau (CVE 16)
Even though escort carriers helped provide air support for Operation Torch, their primary mission in the Atlantic was anti-submarine warfare (ASW), initially defensively operating as escorts in or near convoys and later offensively in independent hunter-killer groups.
The U.S. Navy’s most successful ASW escort carrier in that theater was USS Bogue (CVE 9), namesake of the second largest escort carrier class built in the war. Bogue entered service in February 1943 and served as the flagship for six ASW task groups that conducted operations from April 20, 1943, to Aug. 24, 1944. Bogue and her escorts sank 13 enemy submarines and received the Presidential Unit Citation which noted “. . . Bogue and her escort vessels were largely instrumental in forcing the complete withdrawal of enemy submarines from supply routes essential to the maintenance of our established military supremacy.”
Escort carrier workload in the Pacific was more varied. Initially they shuttled aircraft to Australia and island outposts throughout the Pacific. USS Chenango (CVE 28) and USS Suwanee (CVE 27), both veterans of Operation Torch, were the first escort carriers to see combat action in the Pacific, engaging Japanese forces in the Battle of Rennell Island, the last major naval battle of the Guadalcanal campaign.
One escort carrier captain who envisioned an expanded role for escort carriers was Nassau skipper Capt. Austin K. “Artie” Doyle. A Naval Academy graduate (1920), Doyle earned his wings in 1922 and spent most of the interwar years flying fighters. He was assigned to USS Nassau (CVE 16) in August 1942, his first ship command.
When not drilling his crew, Doyle was peppering his boss Vice Adm. John H. Towers, Commander, Air Forces, Pacific Fleet, with memoranda containing suggestions regarding escort carrier doctrine and tactics. To increase efficiency and firepower, he recommended they operate in tactical groups of four to six ships, with each escort carrier assigned a specific air capability: the faster and larger Suwanee class armed with dive and torpedo bombers and the smaller Bogue class (which included the Nassau) carrying fighters.
This put him at variance with official Navy doctrine that emphasized independent operations for carriers, each carrying a complete air group of several different aircraft and thus maintaining their asset of tactical maneuverability. It was the fear of anchoring his fleet carriers to the Marine beaches following the landings at Guadalcanal that contributed to Vice Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher’s decision to withdraw his carriers out of range of Japanese air attack two days after the Marines had landed.
As naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in his official history, “In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar.”
The Nassau’s only combat action came in May 1943 with Operation Landcrab, the recapture of the Japanese-held island of Attu. Initially responsible only for air protection of the fleet, because of poor weather conditions in the Aleutians and long distance separating the assault beaches from Army Air Force bases in Amchitka and Dutch Harbor, Nassau also provided close air support for the troops.
In his official report to Pearl Harbor and the Pentagon submitted on June 5, 1943, Doyle wrote, “The Army Air Corps couldn’t get over [the target], or when they did, couldn’t get under [the overcast]. Their effort was negligible . . . I think the ACV (escort carriers were designated ACV, or auxiliary aircraft carriers, until July 15, 1943) is ideally suited for amphibious operations due to their flexibility and availability in numbers.” Doyle’s success in Landcrab caused the Navy to rewrite doctrine and make escort carriers responsible for close air support for amphibious assault troops.
Escort carriers lost their anonymity forever in October 1944, when “Taffy 3,” containing six escort carriers (CVE 70 Fanshaw Bay; CVE 63 St. Lo; CVE 66 White Plains; CVE 68 Kalinin Bay; CVE 71 Kitkun Bay; CVE 73 Gambier Bay) and a handful of destroyers and destroyer escorts, successfully defended the U. S. Army landing beaches on Leyte against the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of the Japanese Center Force in the Battle of Samar Island. As naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in his official history, “In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar.”
Doyle would later captain the fleet carrier USS Hornet and retire from the Navy with the rank of admiral on the retired list.