Saturday, April 18, 2015

Historic World War II aircraft carrier rediscovered

The sunken wreck of the USS Independence, lead ship of the class of light carriers named for her, has been found 2,600 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near the Farallon Islands.

The Independence and her sister ships were a stopgap measure to help swell the numbers of US aircraft carriers at the beginning of the Pacific War.  By mid-1942 the US Navy had very few operational aircraft carriers, and the majority of the new Essex class of fleet carriers (CV's) would not enter service until 1944 or later.  Something had to be done to provide more carriers in a hurry.  They had to be fast enough to operate alongside existing and forthcoming CV's and battleships in task forces.  The answer was to convert nine hulls originally designed as Cleveland class light cruisers.  One of them, originally to have been completed as the cruiser USS Amsterdam, became USS Independence, first of the so-called 'light aircraft carriers' or CVL's.  She's shown below during her wartime service.

The CVL's were very successful stopgaps indeed.  They operated fewer aircraft than the big fleet carriers (their design capacity was 30, but they frequently carried up to 20% more;  CV's carried up to 100).  However, they could be built much faster than the bigger carriers, since they were smaller and their hulls were already under construction when the decision was taken to convert them.  Independence was commissioned in January 1943, only a month after USS Essex, the name ship of the new class of fleet carriers.  All nine CVL's were commissioned during 1943, whereas most of the Essex class came online during 1944 and later.  As a result, for most of 1944 and well into 1945 many carrier task groups comprised two (later three) CV's and two (later one) CVL's.  An interesting and entertaining account of life and combat aboard another CVL, USS Belleau Wood, may be found in the book 'Paddles!', which I highly recommend.

(Former President George H. W. Bush served aboard another CVL, USS San Jacinto, from whose deck he flew the mission on which he was shot down during September 1944.)

Independence had an active wartime career, taking part in many of the major battles of the Pacific War from 1943-45 and suffering severe damage from a torpedo hit in November 1943.  She was repaired and rejoined the Fleet in time for the assault on the Palau Islands in August 1944.  However, by the end of the war there were enough CV's to replace all the CVL's, and the latters' limited aircraft capacity meant that they were uneconomical to operate.  Most were soon decommissioned.

Independence was used as a target in the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests of 1946, known as Operation Crossroads.  Her sturdy construction meant that she survived both atomic blasts, despite severe damage to her flight deck and exposure to high concentrations of radiation.  She's shown below moored at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard near San Francisco after the tests, where she was used as a radiation laboratory and study ship for decontamination procedures.

The US Navy eventually decided that her high levels of radioactivity made it necessary to dispose of her.  She was scuttled off the Farallon Islands in 1951 after being loaded with several hundred barrels of additional radioactive waste generated by Operation Crossroads.  This has been a source of controversy ever since, with some alleging that the sinking (and subsequent dumping of additional nuclear waste in the area) resulted in radioactive contamination of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found traces of the ship during an earlier exploration of the refuge, and mounted an expedition last month to survey the wreck using underwater remotely operated vehicles.

Resting in 2,600 feet of water off California's Farallon Islands, the carrier is "amazingly intact," said NOAA scientists, with its hull and flight deck clearly visible, and what appears to be a plane in the carrier's hangar bay.

. . .

"After 64 years on the seafloor, Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes," said James Delgado, chief scientist on the Independence mission and maritime heritage director for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "This ship fought a long, hard war in the Pacific and after the war was subjected to two atomic blasts that ripped through the ship. It is a reminder of the industrial might and skill of the "greatest generation' that sent not only this ship, but their loved ones to war."

. . .

Scientists and technicians on the sanctuary vessel R/V Fulmar followed the AUV as it glided 150 feet above the wreck and successfully surveyed the carrier's nearly intact hull. The survey determined that Independence is upright, slightly listing to starboard, with much of its flight deck intact, and with gaping holes leading to the hangar decks that once housed the carrier's aircraft.

There's more at the link.

Here's an image of the ship as she was during World War II, and as she is today.  Click it for a larger view.

More and much larger images may be found here, and are available for download.

I'm glad Independence has been relocated.  She and her sister CVL's had a proud record during World War II.  They, and those who served aboard them, deserve to be remembered.



Charlie said...

I imagine you also know the story of Admiral Dan Gallery (USS Guadalcanal, a CVE class carrier).
His book "Clear The Decks" is one of the best military histories I have ever read.
As a kid, I loved his humor books (the Capn' Fatso series), not knowing just what calibre of man wrote them.

Murphy's Law said...

What is truly sad is that the last of this class, ex-USS Cabot, was given back to a preservation group in New Orleans in the 1990s, but they mismanged it and the ship was sold at marshal's auction to a scrap yard where she was destroyed in the year 2000. That carrer actually sailed into New Orleans under her own power when gifted back from Spain and she was a completely intact WW2 carrier...and she was destroyed for lack of a few hundred thousand dollars and competent management.

I found out about Cabot too late to help save her, but I'm still angry about the senseless loss of that peice of American history today.

Old NFO said...

I'll echo Murphy's sentiment... sigh

Anonymous said...

Were these ships called
"Jeep carriers?"

Seems to me I read that name
in something on the war in the

Peter said...

@Anonymous: No, "Jeep carriers" were escort carriers (CVE's):

They were even smaller than CVL's, and built on merchant ship hulls, so they were much slower. There were lots of them in the Pacific, but they typically ferried aircraft to the larger, faster carriers or operated off smaller beachheads. Several of them were involved in the Battle off Samar in 1944:

James Young said...

It's a crime the number of important ships that were sent to the breakers or destroyed in tests post-WW2. I still can't believe Enterprise or Washington wasn't saved...