Baptized by saltwater: The sinking of the USS Block Island
The day before Memorial Day in 1944, May 29, American sailors, marines and airmen were scattered across the globe taking on the Axis enemy. Out of these millions of men, roughly 1,000 were sailors assigned to the escort carrier USS Block Island, CVE-21. On the evening of May 29, hundreds of miles south of the Azores Islands in the Atlantic, the Block Island and the task force she led were hunting a German U-Boat. For two days they had tracked U-549; however, they had no idea how close to the enemy they were as the sun started to set that May evening.
Sailor Joe Booi, when he first heard of his transfer to the Block Island, was not happy, for she represented a “target ship,” meaning a vessel most likely to end up being torpedoed by the enemy. Booi joined the Navy at the age of 18 in 1940. He survived the attack on Pearl Harbor as a crew member of the USS New Orleans, CA-32. He went on with her to the battles of Coral Sea and Midway in the Pacific. Then the Navy sent him to the 10,000-ton Block Island in February of 1943. Booi found himself surrounded by ‘greenhorns.”
However, this green crew was quickly transformed into a battle-hardened fighting entity. First under the command of Capt. Logan Ramsey, the escort carrier earned a reputation for taking the fight to the German U-Boats in the Atlantic. She earned the nickname the “F.B.I.,” for the “Fighting Block Island.” She launched planes to track the German U-Boats that were threatening the transport vessels shuttling the weapons of victory to the United Kingdom from the United States. The task force she led quickly racked up confirmed kills of German U-Boats, pushing back the dominance of the U-Boat menace from the central Atlantic.
On the evening of May 29, Joe Booi was in the engineering spaces down in the bellows of the vessel. Standing around waiting for some coffee to brew, two explosions rocked the Block Island. While the task force tracked U-549, they sailed directly over her position. The German U-Boat commander, looking up from his periscope, saw the amazingly large target of CVE-21, and fired two torpedoes into the escort carrier.
On board the Block Island, the men ran to their battle stations. The smaller destroyer-escorts of the task force sought out the U-Boat that had just inflicted major damage to CVE-21. Luckily for the men of CVE-21, no secondary fires or explosions of weapons or fuel oil took place. However, the hits slowed her speed and she remained a sitting duck for the still lurking German U-Boat.
About 10 minutes after the first torpedo attack, the Block Island received her death blow. A third torpedo slammed into the middle portion of the ship on the port side. She was dead in the water and lost all electrical power. For men like Booi, deep inside the compartmentalized war vessel and below the water line, they lost all lighting. Booi turned on a battle lantern. After these loud explosions, and the ship engines stopping, the vessel was unusually quiet. Booi told those around him, “If we see water, we’re out of here!” The minutes in the dark seemed like an eternity.
Amazingly, the phone circuitry still worked. Booi had the receiver up to his ear. In the dark, not sure what was transpiring up on the surface with the escort carrier, Booi heard five words. “Is there anybody down there?” Booi replied yes, they were at the battle stations in the IC Room. The reply, “We have been abandoning ship for 20 minutes!!!”
Booi and his cohorts were some of the last sailors to abandon the USS Block Island on this evening. They swam through oil leaking from their wounded vessel, were stung by Portuguese Men of War, and after hours in the Atlantic safely plucked from the waters by the task force’s destroyer escorts after they successfully sank U-549.
The next day, Memorial Day, as the destroyer escorts packed with Block Island sailors cruised to Casablanca, a burial at sea took place. A wounded sailor, who did not survive his injuries, was laid to rest in the Atlantic. As one sailor recalled to me, “He came out under the American flag and splashed. I see that every Memorial Day.”
In May of 2006 I traveled to San Antonio for the reunion of the USS Block Island Association. I met Joe Booi, and his shipmates, and interviewed them on their Navy experiences. Joe said he would send me an item from his experience of the sinking. A few weeks later, getting a package from him at the Block Island Post Office, I opened a package that smelled of diesel fumes. It contained his underwear, called “skivvies” in the Navy, which he wore when he abandoned CVE-21. Swimming in half a foot of oil, which luckily for them was not alight, Booi and his shipmates swam away from the Block Island for the last time. These “skivvies,” which will be on display this summer at the Block Island Historical Society, still hold the smell of the fuel they swam through all those years ago.
The tale of the USS Block Island, CVE-21 will be highlighted in this year’s exhibition at the Block Island Historical Society titled “Pirates, Ship Wrecks, and Tales of the Sea.” The opening of the exhibition and reception will be at the Historical Society on June 22 from 5 p.m.- 7 p.m. The Museum is open weekends in the month of June and by appointment during the week, 466-2481.
Dr. Ben Hruska serves as the Court Historian for the U.S. Department of Defense’s U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C. and as a public history consultant for the Block Island Historical Society.