July 4, 1945 — The Last D-Day
With the demise of the first escort carrier USS Block Island, CVE-21, as a result of a German torpedo attack in May 1944, the U.S. Navy decided to do the unprecedented in its 170-year history. While the renaming of a second war vessel in honor of the first that was lost is a tradition much older than the U.S. Navy, Britain’s Royal Navy did it before us, the upper administration of the Navy had special plans for commemorating the loss of CVE-21. Not only would there be a second escort carrier named USS Block Island, it would be the first vessel in which the original crew were retained as a fighting entity to battle from the replacement platform. This time she would be called the USS Block Island, CVE-106. And she would battle in the Pacific against the Japanese enemy.
Launched from Todd-Pacific Shipyards in December of 1945, more than 600 original crewmembers of the FBI-The Fighting Block Island, CVE-21, were listed as members of this new Commencement Bay escort carrier. Throughout her career, she made naval history. Sailing south from the state of Washington, she docked in San Diego and picked up the first all-Marine fighter wing ever assigned to a U.S. Navy carrier. These Marines would be put to good use, participating in the largest naval siege in military history. These Marines took off from the wooden flight deck of CVE-106 and aided their fellow Marines battling on the ground on Okinawa in bombing and strafing runs against Japanese positions. On May 29, 1945, the one-year anniversary of the loss of USS Block Island, CVE-21, in the Atlantic, bombs loaded onto planes were inscribed with chalk messages to the Axis enemy.
The Last D-Day
While today the term “D-Day” brings to mind the amphibious operations led by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 6, 1944 and the retaking of Normandy by the Allied forces, the term was universal in amphibious operations in World War II as the day of the landing of any operation, whether that be in the Atlantic or Pacific theater. At the end of June 1945, the USS Block Island and a task force cruised south to Borneo, in what would be the last Allied invasion of the war, the last D-Day.
In heading south they crossed the equator, which would normally result in a visit to any U.S. Navy ship by King Neptune Rex. Military order would be dismissed for a few hours as King Neptune and his Royal Court inspected the new “pollywogs” — sailors that had never crossed the equator. Veteran sailors with years of experience would perform the complex system of initiation rite, which still occurs on U.S. Navy ships and can be traced back to the traditions of the Dutch Navy. However, this was war. The centuries-old ceremony would have to wait.
On the Pacific dawn of June 30, 1945, aircraft lifted off the flight deck of CVE-106. Over the course of four days, almost 100 sorties flew off the wooden deck of the second USS Block Island and assisted in bombing Japanese positions in Borneo to aid the Allied landings. After a successful mission in which no aircraft were lost, CVE-106 cruised back north of the equator. In this crossing the pollywogs of the escort carrier would experience the rite that would transform them into shellbacks, or sailors who had been received and welcomed into the Realm of Neptune Rex.
July 4, 1945
As CVE-106 crossed the equator on July 4, the American flag was hauled down and replaced with the Jolly Roger. All the shellbacks of the crew assembled and awaited the arrival of Neptune Rex and his Court, which included a barber and the Royal Baby. In a very democratic nature, all pollywogs, including officers, had to experience the full hazing to be granted acceptance from King Neptune and to be entrusted as a member of the shellbacks. Enlisted sailors and officers wearing only their underwear crawled through unidentified liquids, kneeled in front of King Neptune, and some had to kiss the big belly of the Royal Baby. Even President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1936, in crossing the line on the USS Indianapolis, CA-35, was subjected to some embarrassment before receiving a certificate as a full member of the shellbacks.
The majority of the crew of CVE-106 were pollywogs, since the first carrier CVE-21 never crossed the equator in the Atlantic. On this July 4, they experienced a memorable few hours’ break from the war. Besides being able to say they survived a sinking of a U.S. aircraft carrier, they were now all members of the Realm of Neptune Rex. King Neptune told Captain Massie Hughes he was impressed with his battled-hardened crew and wished them good luck. As he departed, the U.S. flag was again hoisted up the mast into the Pacific sky.
The war would be over in six short weeks. However, millions of Americans were prepared for a war that could go on for years. As the saying went, “The Golden Gate by 48!”
The USS Block Island, CVE-106, cruised north for its next mission.
The permanent exhibit at the Merrill Slate American Legion Post 36 on the USS Block Islands, Valor & Courage, will be open to the public on Sunday, July 28 from noon to 4 p.m. This exhibition, dedicated in 2005, includes exhibit panels, paintings of both vessels, and objects from the World War II carriers. On the grounds of Legion Park also rests the bell from USS Block Island, CVE-106. This opening is taking place at the Legion’s annual picnic. All proceeds go to supporting veterans and service members.