Cleve T. Martin
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Later grade school
Cleve "T." Martin Jr., known to his family as "Jack," was born at his farm home in Jackson County, Kansas in 1920. His ancestors were among the first settlers in the area when Kansas Territory became available for homesteading in 1857. His parents were Cleveland Taylor and Mabel Rose (Stone) Martin. Jack was the fifth of nine children who survived to grow to adulthood. The siblings, in birth order, were Chris, Lewis, Harry, Roberta, Cleve, George, Bonnie, Bill and Bob.
Cleve attended grade school at South Star School, a one-room school north of the Martin homestead. His mother, Mabel, and his sister, Roberta, taught at the school during the time period when classes were held in that school building.
Cleve graduated from Meriden High School in 1938, then helped his father farm full-time until younger brother George graduated from high school in 1940 and relieved him of farm duties.
In the fall of 1941 Cleve traveled to California with his older brother Lewis. He intended to enroll in Barber College and learn the barbering trade like his Uncle Chris, a barber who had moved from the Kansas family farm to Los Angeles many years before. A few days after arriving in Huntington Beach, suburb of Los Angeles, Cleve registered for the draft on his twenty-first birthday, in October 1941.
Instead of starting barber school, however, he went to work with Lewis as a Shipping and Receiving Clerk for Atlas Scraper Metalworking Company. Atlas made hand railings, stairs and constructional steel for contractors and made props and set pieces for the local Hollywood movie industry. Cleve worked in the storeroom managing time cards, checking out equipment, and sharpening tools and drill bits.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Atlas did extensive war preparation work, including making rails for gun mounts to be used to guard the West Coast of the United States. The Atlas personnel office thought they could get Cleve deferred from military duty because of his war defense work, but Cleve decided to enlist in the Navy rather than leaving himself vulnerable to being drafted into the Army. He signed up on the day after he received his A-1 military classification in the mail.
He visited home in Kansas for two weeks in the spring of 1942 before reporting for navel duty. He deeded his car to his sister, Roberta, so she would qualify for gas rationing. He sold a cow and a calf. Then he headed back to San Diego to attend boot camp, also leaving behind his prize pocket-watch, a gift from his father, earned for not smoking through his twenty-first birthday.
On June 1, 1942 Cleve started boot camp. At camp Cleve was issued white work clothes and a white navy hat to wear. His dress uniform, however, was of hot navy-blue wool, uncomfortable clothing to wear in the heat of summer.
In the rush to get young men ready for combat, the Navy rushed recruits through basic training in only four weeks, rather than the four months taken before wartime. Cleve didn't even have time to learn to swim before leaving boot camp.
During training he qualified for Machinist's Mate training and was one of 40 sailors sent, early in July, 1942, to Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas. Cleve had given his Los Angeles address when he enlisted. The Navy thought they were sending him, along with many other Big City boys from the Los Angeles and Dallas areas, far from home for their special training. But Lawrence was very near the Martin Farm. Having free time from Saturday noon through Sunday evening, Cleve didn't have any trouble finding sailors who wanted to go home with him to the country for a stay on the farm.
There were 160 trainees in all. One group was forty volunteers from Texas. A warship, the U.S.S. Houston, had been sunk by enemy fire. Recruiters promised young men from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area that, if they enlisted, they would be kept together and commissioned together on a new ship, also named U.S.S. Houston. However, after these young men had enrolled, the Sullivan family made national news. Five brothers had joined the Navy together, were stationed together on the same ship, the U.S.S. Juneau; and died together when the ship was sunk in the Pacific Theatre of War. This tragic event caused the Navy to change its policy. The Texas recruits did not serve together after training.
On weekends at the Martin farm Cleve's sailor friends enjoyed farm life —big breakfast, farm chores, fresh air and open country. The experience was very different from life in the city. One sailor surnamed Hunter loved to ride the Martin saddle horse. He could be found riding during most daylight hours during his stays in the country.
Sometimes a group of seven or eight sailors would ride on a Greyhound bus to the farm from Lawrence. Sometimes Cleve and a friend or two would hitchhike home.
George Booth, from Texas, visited the Martin farm several times during the summer of 1942. His fiancée came north and married George in Lawrence. Then the couple honeymooned on the Martin farm. Roberta Martin, spending the summer at home on break from teaching school, gave the Booth’s her room for the night.
Upon graduating as Machinist's Mates in early November, twenty of the eighty student graduates, including Cleve, were sent for six more weeks of study at the York Refrigeration and Air Conditioning School in York, Pennsylvania. There, Cleve would room with K.P. Lewis, a fellow sailor he'd meet in Lawrence, in a private home on the beach at York.
On his first day of refrigeration training in York, the instructor gave the sailors two bits of advice: “Carry a rubber hose to beat off the women, and be here each morning at 8 a.m. prepared to learn.”
K.P. introduced Cleve to the sport of roller-skating. Cleve bought shoe skates and a skate case and K.P. had his skates sent from his home in California. Cleve, K.P. and other friends frequented a local roller rink while training in York.
Cleve did some sightseeing in Pennsylvania, touring the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg and visiting with the family of his Lawrence classmate, Joe Connie. Joe had a sister who played hostess to Cleve, showing him the sights one weekend during his stay in York.
Cleve finished training as a Machinist's Mate, Refrigeration Specialist in early December, 1942, and traveled home by train for Christmas. One cold, snowy afternoon he rode Barney, the saddle horse, to his brother Harry's farm home to meet his new niece, Marilyn Sue.
From Kansas Cleve traveled on to Bremerton, Washington, where the U.S.S. Block Island (CVE-21) was commissioned. This aircraft carrier was a converted tanker, called a "baby flattop." It was not nearly as large as a normal class carrier. Around 1000 airplane pilots, ship's crew and officers made the Block Island home.
Cleve slept in a hammock the first night on board ship. The next day he was assigned a bunk bed and never used his hammock again—but he kept the hammock until he moved from his home in Topeka into an apartment in the fall of 1996.
In Bremerton the ships crew waited for the Block Island CVE-21 to be commissioned. At that time it was recommended that Cleve have his wisdom teeth pulled while he was confined to port. After one particularly hot day’s work detail chipping paint inside the bilge of a battlewagon brought back from Pearl Harbor, Cleve decided to report to the dentist the next morning and have his teeth extracted. Two of his wisdom teeth were pulled that day, and the other two pulled a week later. Time was allowed for him to recuperate between and after extractions. He figured that getting his teeth pulled was better than such hot, noisy work detail.
The Block Island had a one-week shakedown cruise in Puget Sound in January, 1943. Then the ship was dry-docked for a final check over. Soon the Block Island and its crew were headed out of Puget Sound for San Francisco.
Before his ship had even cleared Puget Sound, Cleve experienced his first storm at sea. He suffered greatly from seasickness. Weighing 168 pounds when he left dock, he lost 15 pounds by the time they'd anchored in Frisco Bay. After debarking to solid ground and eating a couple of good meals Cleve felt better. During the rest of his tour of duty, through the end of the war, he was never again so seasick as on that first trip.
From San Francisco the Block Island moved through the Panama Canal into the warm waters of the Caribbean, then headed north into the Atlantic Ocean along the East Coast. On the Eastern seaboard the carrier picked up airplanes and ferried them to Ireland — escorted by destroyers and battlewagons.
While in Ireland, the Block Island was based in Belfast. Cleve found many pages of "Martin's" listed in the Belfast telephone directory and thought his family might be Irish. Later he found he was of German ancestry—his great-great grandfather coming to the U.S. as a Hessian soldier conscripted to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War.
While in the British Isles the Block Island anchored once off the coast of Scotland. Cleve and other sailors had the opportunity to bus inland to see the sights.
For the first couple of trips across the Atlantic the Block Island carried fighter planes on both the flight and hanger decks. Eventually, the carrier picked up its flight crew while in Norfolk, Virginia, and the flight deck was cleared for business. Fighter planes, looking for enemy submarines, took off and landed on the flight deck. The carrier was on official submarine patrol duty. The Block Island usually operated with at least one destroyer and two escorts to protect it from being torpedoed by enemy submarines.
Cleve's duty was to care for the ship's refrigeration and air conditioning needs. The meat locker needed one refrigeration compressor to cool the meat. Two backup compressors were also needed "at the ready" in case a compressor malfunctioned. The vegetable room also needed refrigeration.
There were three refrigeration specialists aboard. Cleve's battle station was the compressor compartment, just beneath the waterline, mid-ship. The mess hall was directly above the compressor compartment. The ship’s three refrigeration specialists also cared for air conditioning compressors for radar operations and the pilots ready-room (separately located on the hanger deck), an engine room in the bowels of the vessel, and were also responsible for maintaining all of the drinking fountains aboard ship. Duty included four hours of watch with eight hours off, per man, between watches.
The Block Island toured the Atlantic throughout 1943 and the first half of 1944 while on submarine patrol duty. At times they docked in Philadelphia and, occasionally, in Norfolk.
Cleve’s work duties found him working alone a lot. There were other machinists mates onboard, but only Cleve and Tom O’Hallerin had been to school for training. Tom worked in the engine room. He was transferred just before the first Block Island was sunk.Return to top
In late May, 1944, the Block Island found herself marking time in the South Atlantic near the coast of Africa. The crew knew they were awaiting orders. What they did not know was that a European invasion was immanent. While awaiting their orders, the carrier continued on submarine patrol in the warmer South Atlantic waters.
Pilots were on patrol duty on the evening of their third day out—May 29, 1944. Planes usually stayed aloft until nearly dark, landing just before the late spring sunset dimmed visibility to the point where landing lights would be needed. (Lights aboard ship could give its location away to German submarines.) The carrier began a turn, so pilots could land into the wind.
Suddenly the Block Island was slammed with two torpedoes, one fore and one aft. The aft torpedo tore the screw, the huge propeller under the waterline, and the ship was dead in the water. Immediately sailors were called to General Quarters (their battle stations) and the destroyer escorts rapidly maneuvered to protect their charge from further attack.
The Ahrens had been placed in a defensive position between the presumed location of the submarine and the carrier and told to pick survivors out of the water. The unseen enemy fired two more torpedoes. One hit the fantail of the Barr, another of the four destroyer escorts. A fourth torpedo hit the Block Island a fatal blow mid-ship, just below the waterline.
By this time Cleve had relieved the sailor standing watch at the compressor room just below the water line, below the mess hall. This was Cleve’s battle station. The other sailor went two decks lower to his own battle station in an auxiliary engine room. (This was a duty he had competed for with the third refrigeration specialist, not wishing to have duty at the anti-aircraft guns battle station on deck.)
The final torpedo had hit the fuel supply, very near Cleve’s compartment, and fuel oil began to pour through the open hatchway (an open doorway between compartments) and fill Cleve’s compartment.
Cleve thought about the sailor that he’d relieved who was even further below deck. Could he help him? Probably not. The forces of the fuel pouring in were too great for Cleve to force his way through the hatchway.
Could he even save himself?
Would there be a fire? He was sogged in fuel oil. He would burn if the fuel caught a spark.
Could he get through the hatch and up the ladder and escape above the water line?
Would his way to the top be blocked by torpedo damage?
The ship shifted, groaned and listed as it began to sink. Cleve pulled out his life preserver, hanging from his belt, blew into it to inflate it, donned the vest, and climbed onto a cabinet to give him time to think.
Finally, he found himself floating at the top of the room, dog-paddling in fuel oil. Power to the room had been cut. It was totally dark in the compartment, and soon the fuel would reach ceiling level. He would have to act soon, or drown.
He would have to remove his life vest and dive through the oil, hoping that the pressure had equalized enough to allow him through the open hatch. Then he would have to be lucky enough to find the ladder, submerged in fuel, and hope he surfaced before the air in his lungs ran out.
He was out of time. His was breathing in a small air space between the fuel and the ceiling. He slipped out of his life vest, took deep breaths and held the last one. In total darkness he dove toward the hatch. Seeing nothing, he felt the pressure of the entering fuel push him upward. His hand touched a stair rail. Luckily, he was through the hatch! He swam upward.
Finally, his lungs begging for a breath of air, his head popped out of the fuel. He was up one level and near the main hatch. He saw a patch of light. Pulling himself out of the muck, he headed for the daylight beyond the last hatchway opening, and freedom.
He’d made it out!
When the torpedoes hit and fuel started leaking, most of the sailors had abandoned ship, fearing fire. Few stopped to pull one of the many life rafts with them. They just went over the side.
One sailor, who was showering at the time the first torpedoes hit, went over the side without a life preserver or a stitch of clothing—nothing. Sailors’ heads bobbed in the water. A slick mix of fuel oil, crude oil and gasoline floated on the water surrounded them. Daylight faded as the stern of the Block Island began to sink and the bow tipped upward. Sailors swam frantically to get away from the ship and its undertow. She was obviously going down, and they also feared an explosion.
At mid-deck, the chaplain, a pharmacist’s mate and a radar specialist prepared to seal the final drop-down hatch sealing the area below. It seemed unlikely that anyone beneath deck could have survived the blast and the flood of fuel.
But Cleve had survived. He popped out, covered in slimy fuel. They were surprised to see anyone emerge after so long a delay. They pulled Cleve onto deck and locked the final hatch, sealing the flooded area beneath him.
Together the four sailors took stock of the situation. They must leave the sinking ship. They agreed to drag one of the buoyant 6x8 foot life rafts left behind by the others out of the oil slick and away from the sinking vessel.
The chaplain stayed behind to wait with the captain and executive officer. The captain, traditionally, is the last one to leave a sinking ship.
Once in the water, the other three sailors, including Cleve, held onto the raft by ropes at the sides and began to swim away from the sinking ship. They swam into the wind, where the fuel spilling into the water was in a narrower band. They knew they stood a better chance of swimming clear of the slick on the leeward side. Once they had pulled the raft outside the oil slick, hundreds of desperate men who had been treading water immediately tried to climb aboard. It was hard to talk reason with these wild-eyed men and, as they clamored aboard, Cleve’s raft sank to water level from the weight of scrambling crewmembers. Finally, with enough shouting, the sailors were talked into climbing off, back into the water, and holding onto the raft by the ropes attached at the sides, where they awaited rescue.
By then the carrier was standing on its fantail, bow pointing skyward. It wouldn’t be long now before it was gone.
Floating survivors watched from a distance as two whaleboats went back to the carrier to take off the captain, the chaplain and the executive officer. Their rescue was almost too late. As the ocean swallowed the bow of the ship, the whaleboat hung at the hole left in the water. Luckily, it was not sucked under.
The Elmore and the Paine circled the area, but couldn’t stop to help rescue crew because they were still on patrol. They went on the offensive. The Ahrens, busy with her rescue chores, still managed to contact the enemy sub and ordered the Elmore to attack it. After two attacks, three hits were made. About four minutes later there was a loud underwater explosion. The enemy sub was presumed destroyed.
The Barr, although incapacitated, did not sink. Surviving crew were fighting an onboard fire caused by the torpedo hit.
There were 951 carrier survivors picked out of the ocean. Only six Block Island sailors lost their lives. (Among those lost was the refrigeration specialist whose battle station was on the deck beneath Cleve’s.)
There was a greater loss of life on the Barr. Seventeen sailors from the Barr died.
Rescue precautions were undertaken to avoid destroyer escorts becoming targets of potential enemy subs as they hauled men aboard. Block Island survivors bobbed in the water for several hours, well past midnight, before being plucked out. Tired, wet, dirty men filled the decks of the still-able destroyer escorts to a level well beyond normal capacity.
The site of the sinking was near the Canary Islands. With the Ahrens and the Paine screening further attacks, the four destroyer escorts, heavy with survivors, limped back to port at Casablanca, North Africa. The Elmore towed the incapacitated Barr for two days of the journey until another ship dispatched from Casablanca took over the towing so the Elmore could proceed at maximum speed.
When land was sighted, Cleve remembers that the destroyer escort he was on tipped precariously as eager sailors on the overfilled boat rushed to port side for a welcome look. The loudspeaker snapped, “Equalize the load!” Sailors eager to see land were forced to move away from the port railing to avoid another dunking.
Six planes were airborne when the carrier was sunk. They could not land on deck and were given the choice, by radio, of a water landing near the site of the sinking or to fly toward the Canary Islands with the hope of not running out of fuel in the middle of the Atlantic, but to land on-or-near land. As a group, the pilots decided to chance flying toward land. At night and in sight of one of the Canary Islands, they again decided, again as a group, to do a water landing and swim to shore. Of the six, two pilots landed safely, swam ashore, and were helped over a period of days--each separately and with an individual accountings of events--to reconnect with the U.S. Navy. The two pilots who survived were suprised to learn later, with heavy hearts, that the other four pilots did not survive the rough water landing.
In Casablanca sailors finally got to clean the spilled fuel from their bodies and were issued new bedding. Cleve had lost his watch and his billfold. Wearing elastic-sided slippers at the time he was called to general quarters, he had lost one shoe completely, and the sole of the other was torn back to the heel. His small flashlight, worn on his belt, was the only piece of equipment he brought away with him when rescued. His daughter, Carol, keeps that flashlight as a symbol of his great good luck in surviving the sinking of the only U.S. aircraft carrier lost in the Atlantic theatre of operation during World War II.
In Kansas Cleve’s sister, Roberta, was the first of the family to hear on the radio about the sinking of the Block Island. She immediately called her parents to learn if Cleve was safe. Cleve’s mother, Mabel, answered the telephone.
“What have you heard about Jack?” she asked. (Cleve’s family called him Jack to distinguish him from his father, Cleve Sr.)
“I heard on the radio that his ship, the Block Island, was sunk in the Atlantic,” she replied. She heard a thump at the other end of the line. Cleve’s mother had fainted and slumped to the floor.
The Navy soon officially notified families of the event, however, and listed the many survivors and the few casualties. The Martins’ were relieved to know that Cleve was okay and would be coming home on survivors leave.
The ship’s crew came back to Norfolk, Virginia on another carrier. It was a cruise of several days. In Norfolk each sailor was issued a new sea bag. The Navy flew Cleve home to Kansas City for a thirty-day leave. He took a bus to the farm, where family welcomed him home.
Read accounts of the sinking by other survivors
In Memorium: View List of veterans lost in this incident.
Read List of Firsts accomplished by CVE-21Return to top
In July, 1944, the surviving crew of the Block Island reported back to Bremerton, Washington where they were reassigned as a unit, having worked before as a team, to a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, also called the U.S.S. Block Island (CVE-106). This ship was larger than the CVE-21. Additions to the crew were made beyond the original survivors of the first Block Island, but CVE-106 was also called a “baby flat-top.”
While waiting for their ship to be commissioned in Bremerton, the sailors were expected to fall in for muster each morning. Then 15 to 20 men were assigned that day’s work detail. Many of the men failed to appear these mornings, and where was a good chance that those who did show up would be put onto work detail.
The second Block Island was eventually sent to the Pacific Theatre of Operation, starting duty around Borneo and spending the last year of the war helping support island invasions. The second Block Island seldom got close enough to heavy action to see much in these later stages of war. It was battlewagons and destroyers that saw the real action in the Pacific. Destroyers searched for submarine activity under water. Air radar monitored for airplane attacks. Japanese kamikaze pilots had often targeted the bigger supply ships earlier in the war, but the Block Island CV-106 was never a target.
The Block Island hunted submarines near Okinawa, Saipan, and Formosa. They were involved in bombing raids on Okinawa.
Whereas they had taken prisoners while on tour in the Atlantic, they seldom took prisoners in the Pacific. Sometimes they transferred their few prisoners to another ship while at sea. Cleve occasionally saw prisoners as they were being fed.
In the Pacific Cleve got topside occasionally—something that did not happen much while he had served in the Atlantic.
Also while in the Pacific Cleve first crossed the Equator and was subject to the hazing and partying that sailors traditionally encountered at their first crossing of that line. He received and kept a wonderful, elaborate certificate—complete with drawings of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, and various mermaids—to commemorate the event. (One sailor on board had a particular gift for drawing and his drawings were used regularly in the ship’s newsletters.)
Cleve knew many of the onboard cooks in his duties of keeping the meat locker and vegetable bin cool. Some sailors complained about the food served aboard ship, but Cleve never minded it. The only air conditioning on board was in the pilots ready-room. Other areas, including the mess hall, were well ventilated but not air-conditioned.
Whereas one or two of the crew were older, most of the guys were very young.
Cleve wore a blue work shirt, dungarees and a white sailor’s cap while on duty. He wore a dress uniform when on land, having received dress whites after his specialized training in refrigeration.
Usually sailors called each other by their last names. Some sailors onboard had nicknames, but Cleve was known as “Martin.”
After the war’s end, August 14, 1945, discharges were awarded on a point system. After the Block Island was delayed three or four times in heading home, Cleve packed up and shipped home on another carrier. However, the Block Island returned home very shortly after Cleve arrived on U.S. soil.
He was sent to San Pedro, California for discharge and was mustered out on December 10, 1945. He had been promised travel money home but, because the Navy thought he was a Californian, they gave him only the twenty-one cent fare to ride the bus from San Pedro to Huntington Park.
After stopping a few days there to see his brother Lewis and his sister-in-law, Cleve paid his own train fare to Kansas. Upon boarding, he found the train to be packed with Christmas holiday travelers. Sitting priority was given to servicemen, but he had changed into his civilian clothing and, due to the crowd onboard, he had to ride as a civilian, standing up in the passenger loading space just inside the closed compartment door most of the way to Oklahoma. This poor sailor was freshly off the boat after more than a year in a tropical climate! The temperature had dropped quickly the farther east he traveled and Cleve was cold. Even after he was finally able to move inside a car he still had to stand all of the way to Oklahoma City. There, finally, enough people got off the train that Cleve could sit to ride north to Topeka.
It was –6 degrees when he arrived in Topeka. Cleve was cold and tired. His parents met him at the Topeka train station. It was Christmas Eve, 1945. They drove their son home to the Jackson County farm, but Cleve simply could not get warm in the pickup truck on the drive to the farm.
On Christmas morning the Kansas temperature stood at –16 degrees. Cleve was excused from morning chores and he wondered if he would ever be warm again.Return to top
After the war: