Block Island CVE-21 Survivor Tales

Life aboard Life aboard the U.S.S. Block Island

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Louis (Bud) Hellwig (RM 2/C, CVE 21/106) :

Bud Hellwig“It was late afternoon & I was on watch in the radio shack with Bill Connolly as my supervisor. My duty was copying the “Fox” schedule on radio NSS. The signal was good & copy easy and I was deep into a long routine message when all of a sudden we were violently shaken by a terrific explosion & that was followed seconds later by another huge explosion. Torpedoes had struck both forward and aft on the port side. General Quarters was sounded & I grabbed a life jacket and headed for my GQ station which was a 20mm gun mount forward side just aft of the bridge. Confusion & concern was everywhere but not panic. I had been on my GQ Station for only a couple of minutes when a third torpedo struck us amidships on the port side. The ship was taking a noted port list and soon we were advised to prepare to abandon ship. Preparations were made with knotted lines and life rafts and the order to abandon was given. I recall going over the catwalk just a bit forward of the bridge. Funny thing…when I went to go over the side to abandon ship, I found several sets of shoes all neatly lined up in pairs where departing shipmates had left them…so I added mine to the nice arrangement! Many lines were over the side & many sailors on them at the same time. We dropped off into water that had a thick, heavy coating of oil floating on it. Hard to make progress away from the stricken ship in the oil until someone yelled, “dig deep” because to do so put your efforts into water instead of oil and you could move out and eventually escape the oil cover. Only the wounded & those who thought they were wounded were in the life rafts, but men clung to the rafts all the way around them. We were an oily mess for certain! But all lent a hand to try to move the rafts away from the ship & toward the DE's who were standing by to pick up survivors. They sure looked to be a long ways away! It was noticed that our escorts were searching for the submarine that had attacked us & also noticed that one of the escorts had suffered a torpedo hit, too. At this time, looking back at the Block Island, we could see that she was listing more and more to port & that she was slowly sinking by the stern. When we neared the USS Ahrens , we could see that they had put cargo nets over the side & had their own men hanging onto the nets to assist survivors up & on board as they reached the side. At last we were able to make our way to the ship's side & anxious hands grabbed us as we reached up the nets. I recall being passed from man to man & thrown onto the deck. Being well lubricated, I slid across the deck & banged into a bulkhead several feet away. Bit of shock, but no pain & just darned happy to be saved. Soon I was led below decks to crews quarters & there, sailors were opening their lockers to supply everyone they could with dry clothing. A good toweling & rubdown and dry clothes felt wonderful but the oil coating was very much still on all of us! That coating would be a problem for many weeks after the sinking. Lines-like on elbow and knuckles would be ever so slow in releasing their darkness! Hair was a miserable mess too. I found my way up to the destroyer's radio shack & volunteered to help in any way I could. They were glad to have me and I took over one of the circuits for them. Awhile later, we were rocked by the shock wave of the sinking Block Island where some of the ordnance had apparently detonated when she sunk. I did not witness the final dive but several of my shipmates described it to me. A sad loss of a dear, old ship! I just spent the night in the radio shack and food was brought up by some of the off-duty radiomen. I was more comfortable than a lot of my mates who tried to find resting spots other places on board. Next morning found us in route to Casablanca. We spent several days there & were all issued Army blankets and Army wear. Nice to be clean & warm, even in strange gear! While there we heard that the Allies were landing in France. Some CVE ships that were carrying freight east were diverted down too Casablanca to help get us survivors home. I was billeted aboard the U.S.S. Mission Bay & she took us into New York City for some of the best liberty we enjoyed while in the Navy. Later, ended up down in Norfolk with new issue of sea bag and renew of supplies and after a briefing & some medical observation, we were granted 30-day survivors leave and all headed home!”

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Paul Hoff (AOM, CVE 21/106 ):

“One of our DE escorts had a sub contact that had shut down his engines to remain quiet, like submarines do when they have somebody after them. We (the carrier) and three of our escorts left the area to search elsewhere, leaving one DE sitting on top of this position, knowing full well that the sub could only stay down a couple of days. When we returned, I guess it was an inopportune time for us & an opportune time for the sub. We had planes in the air & we were turning into the wind to land these aircraft. As we were turning, the sub got us with two torpedoes; one in the bow & one in the stern. At the time, I was in the shower below the hangar deck. My job was to manage the rocket crew on the flight deck. The planes that were in the air were fighters, which carried no rockets. Inasmuch as I had no need to be on duty when the planes landed, I decided that I would beat everybody to the showers. That's where I was when the first two torpedoes hit. After picking myself up twice, as I was knocked to the deck from the force of the torpedoes, I put on some clothes & went to the flight deck to check the rocket magazine in the aft part of the deck. It was a mess, but no fire. The flight deck expansion beams were broken open. The ship was dead in the water. Word was passed that we were to prepare to abandon ship. I hadn't bothered to get a life preserver yet, so I went down to the hangar deck for a life preserver. They were on racks high up on the bulkheads. Finding none in the after part of the hangar deck, I went forward to search there. As I was going forward an aviation machinist that I knew very well was going aft; his name was Owens. Just as I passed him, we received the third torpedo. It struck midship & blew up through the middle of the hangar deck. Owens was right there in the wrong spot, but it missed me. I got my life jacket as they were passing the word that we were to abandon ship. I went up to the flight deck. I could have gone over from the hangar deck; it would have been easier, but I went to the flight deck & went down a knotted line into a sea of oil. As fast as possible, I swam out of that potential firetrap. The sun was going down as it was getting late in the evening & would soon be dark. One of our escorts had also been hit in the stern ( USS Barr ) with an acoustic torpedo, disabling its screws. One other DE was busy sinking the submarine. So there were two left to pick up about 700 sailors. Even though I was a strong swimmer, I missed the first two nets on the first DE. I caught the third & last net. As it turned out, I would have been better off if I had missed that last net & been picked up by the second DE. The first one that picked me up had 500 of us. Since there was about a 200-man crew on the DE, one can imagine how crowded it was. We were covered with oil, wet, scared and tired. We were sleeping on the decks and anywhere else we could find. It took about three days to get to Casablanca since we couldn't cruise very fast. The Barr had to be towed by a second one at a very slow speed. The other two DE's had our survivors on board. When we arrived in Casablanca, the DE that we were on was covered with oil from us. The ship & the survivors were a mess. We were issued some Army clothes, as they didn't have Navy clothes available. We spent a lot of time showering to remove the oil. We weren't in Casablanca very long since there was a Kaiser aircraft carrier in port ready to return to the States. It had been used to transport a load of Army fighter planes to Africa. So we were put on the aircraft carrier to return to the US. When we arrived in Norfolk, we were given the normal 30-day survivors' leave.”

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Wayne C. Blackburn, Jr. (goes by “WC” or “Blackie”), CM3c, CVE 21/106 :

“When the first torpedo hit FBI-21, I was standing in front of my locker getting dressed after taking a shower. I had put on clean underwear & was stepping into the last leg of my dungarees, when the deck below my feet came up so hard & fast that it buckled my knees. It was a second later before I heard the rumbling & crunching sound of the torpedo exploding. Without socks, I stuck a foot into one shoe, when people almost knocked me over running to the ladder going to the Hanger Deck. I picked up my left shoe, grabbed my life jacket & ran behind them with one shoe on & one off. I was on about the third step of the ladder when a second torpedo hit that was closer than the first one. The jarring was worse & the sound was louder. Everyone on the ladder was tossed upward & when I came down, my feet slipped off the step. The man above me slipped also & knocked me back to the deck and I turned my ankle, the one without a shoe. I put my shoe on & continued up the ladder to the Hanger Deck and the lights went out. It became very quiet and you couldn't hear anything running; it was a weird, eerie kind of quiet that you never hear on a ship when it's operating. My General Quarters station was on the bridge, so I started up the ladder to the flight deck when I started having pain in my ankle & it was swelling. I started to pull the shoe off, and then I thought if I pull it off, I might not be able to get it back on, so I left it on. By the time I got the bridge, Capt. Hughes was already there & I heard him give orders to the O.D. to pass the word by sound-powered phones, for all hands to lay topside with life jackets. The second torpedo had knocked out the propulsion system & jammed the rudder. I was looking aft when the third torpedo hit near the stern. The water from the explosion shot up the side of the ship, looked as if it was about a third of the way aft of the flight deck elevator but on the starboard side & must have went 100 feet above the deck, ripping the catwalk up & lapping it back onto the deck. The ship started settling by the stern & there was a bunch of popping sounds & the flight deck tore apart from side to side. At this time, word was passed to prepare to abandon ship. I looked around and noticed I was about 80 to 90 feet above the water. I wasn't about to jump from there, so I went to the flight deck and went aft almost to the crack in the deck & waited for orders to abandon. When the order came, I went to where it was about 20 feet to the water & jumped in along with several others. It turned out to be a bad spot though. The fuel oil from ruptured tanks must have been four inches thick at that area. You haven't tasted anything as nasty & gross as crude oil mixed with salt water & wait until it dries in your hair & eyebrows! My sprained foot started hurting bad and my shoe was real tight, so I pulled it off & when it filled with water, it slipped from my hand is probably down with the BI-21. Pulling the shoe off eased the pain somewhat. Now I remembered to get away from the sinking ship or it will take you down with it. I was with a small group & we all started swimming as fast as we could. After a while, we stopped swimming & looked back at the ship. Even though it was dark, you could still see the ship because the moon was shining. The stern half of the flight deck was under the water and the bow was sticking up at about a 45-degree angle. I swam some more and the next time I looked back, there was no ship to be seen; it had sunk — it left me with a sad feeling. After there were no more explosions, I stopped swimming & other men started showing up around me. Some of us had one-cell flashlights attached to our life jackets & we would shine them at each other to see if we knew them. Up to this time, I don't recall being afraid, but when I couldn't find anyone I knew out of all the men I came in contact with, then I became afraid. My mind was asking questions: Did they get killed? Or did they go down with the ship? The more I thought about things, the more I became filled with fear & apprehension. After all, here I am in the ocean at night, hundreds of miles from land and I don't know one man around me. Because of the noise of the rushing sea water, you couldn't always understand what people were saying, but I heard some men “talking about 30 days survivors leave.” I also heard someone say, “Idiots — they should take a look around, they are hundreds of miles from land unless they stick their heads under water and then it's only two miles down — think they could make it.” We never knew what time it was and if a new man came along, they were asked the time. Seems like everyone's watch was left on the ship or it was waterlogged. I really didn't care what time it was. All I know that it was a very sweet time when I heard the grinding noise of the engines and the swooshing of water from the screws of the DE USS Ahrens as she maneuvered to pluck me out of the ocean. While I was in the water, my swollen foot didn't hurt, but as I climbed a rope ladder-net onto the deck of Ahrens, it started hurting again. As soon as my naked foot hit the cool steel deck of Ahrens, it stopped hurting and I felt a sense of euphoria, as well as a sense of well being. I kept my life jacket on, climbed under the after-torpedo tubes & went to sleep. I went into Casablanca wearing only one shoe!”

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Otis Long, AOM 3/C (CVE 21/106) :

Otis Long“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was playing pinochle at the time. When two torpedoes hit us, one fore and one aft, we were knocked across the room by the force, and the alarm went off telling everyone to man their battle stations. As an aviation ordnanceman, I took my place on the flight deck at a 40-millimeter gun. “When I reached the flight deck, I saw the third torpedo coming through the water. We braced ourselves and held on to some heavy-duty ropes on the deck. As the ship began to relent to the three torpedoes, the men all began to put on their life preservers and make their way into the Atlantic Ocean as the ship doctor called for help. The doctor was trying to free a sailor's leg, which was pinned under flight deck metal that had rolled up onto him from the heat of the torpedo. I witnessed the doctor cutting his leg off. It was the only way to get him out. At 16 years old, that was a little jarring to see. I can still remember him screaming. The man died from loss of blood caused by the amputation. He was one of six who died when the ship sank. Only six men of 900 aboard died. After discovering the CO 2 bottle would not function on my life preserver, I had no choice but to jump from the flight deck without the aid of a life preserver. Being a strong swimmer, I swam far from the ship. The water and the sailors' faces were black from the diesel oil spilling from the ship.” As the men swam from the ship, the ship's weapons were exploding below the surface. You could feel the tremendous explosions in the water and everyone was black. All you could see was the whites of their eyes, and it struck me, it was the diesel oil from the fuel tanks. Everyone was covered. I remember a set of those white eyes swimming toward me in the pitch-black ocean waters. It was my pinochle partner from New Orleans, Art Villerie. The New Orleanian held up his gambling hand dripping from the dark water. “Look at my hand. Look at how many aces I had!,” he said. “Villerie still had 10 aces in his hand. I remember laughing at the small moment of humor they found in that catastrophic time. About an hour into the water, I came upon another sailor who was gasping, trying to stay afloat and went under the surface. I managed to go under and pull him up and then towed him to a raft. A short while later, another sailor and I assisted a drowning sailor to a raft. There were others that helped each other through the ordeal. The group stayed in the water about three hours and since that time, have bonded closely for years since.”

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Rev. Rudy Bowling, AOMB:

Rudy Bowling“At Noon Time on May 29, 1944 in Newport, Kentucky, a group of mothers had gathered, as usual during the week, to pray for the boys in the Service. As they were praying, Rudy Bowling's Mother saw a vision, a literal picture of a flat-topped ship sinking in dark waters & many men swimming about in the dark. A voice spoke to her and said, “Your son is at sea, in need! Many souls are in danger!” She immediately told the others what she had seen and heard and they all began to pray in earnest! They prayed a long while, until they felt good about the vision and believed everything was all right. At this time (Noon in Newport) it was 1700 hours at USS Block Island's position in the north Atlantic. We were unaware that a submarine was looking us over at that very moment! On the 21, a light wind was blowing, the moon was up and visibility was low. I was standing at my locker near my bunk (I had moved my bunk from below decks to the Armory platform halfway between the hangar and flight deck) when at 2013, without warning, a torpedo struck the port side of the ship with a tremendous blast! The ship shook violently, throwing our laundryman into his centrifugal dryer, breaking various arms and legs! We could hear “things” falling, metal tearing, and all together it was quite a racket! Two seconds later, another torpedo hit, ripping through several frames and exploding in an oil tank. The blast traveled through the shaft alley and up through a 5” ammunition locker. I picked myself up. A young seaman asked, What's the racket was all about?” I replied that, although I had never had the occasion to listen to one, I thought that it had sounded like torpedoes. We ran up to the flight deck and immediately saw that our ship was in trouble! The front left corner of the flight deck was lapped over like a pancake for about 20 or 30 feet. The stern had sunk down about 10 feet and the ship had a decided list to port, making it hard to stand erect! “Chief,” an Indian lad, opined, “This is awful, ain't it?” We agreed, unanimously. The Captain ordered the men to “Prepare to Abandon Ship.” We were prepared but after thinking it over, I decided I was not! I thought perhaps I needed a better life jacket, seeing the one I had was torn. So, I went below but couldn't find anything in the dark. On the way back up, I stopped at my locker and began to hunt for my wallet. About that time, Elmore spotted a periscope & ran in to drop depth charges as a third torpedo hit us with another tremendous wallop. The stack protected the Armory from the blast, but as I was falling down again, I saw a red reflection & got up and looked over the rail down into a 30-foot hole in the hangar deck. In the middle of that hole, down on the Mess deck, was an FM Wildcat fighter with someone sitting in the cockpit. I could see fire, but in a few seconds, it went out. Our steering engine was wrecked & the rudder jammed, and the ship was broken in two at the aft expansion joint. I forgot all about my wallet and the $600 and ran back to the flight deck. Mr. H---- approached me & wanted to know if the depth charges were on “SAFE”. He should have asked a regular ordinance man as I didn't know and didn't care. It was a proven fact that they would detonate anyway, safe or not! He then asked, “Are those bombsights of yours in a SAFE place?” I answered, “Well, Mr. H----, they soon will be!” Capt. Hughes knew the ship was lost. He also knew he still carried 150 unpredictable depth charges, and thousands of gallons of gasoline and oil. We would have to get away fast, once we abandoned ship. As we were “preparing,” an acoustic torpedo hit Bar r in the stern, removing a goodly portion (the German submarine captain was throwing torpedoes in all directions - A regular Wild Bill Hickok). I could hear strange noises from below and just as we left the ship, I saw the large radar screen topple over on the flight deck. We abandoned ship at 2040 hours. We had quite a swim in the dark; I wondered if I would have to swim all night! All of the rafts were full & no room for anyone else. The rafts were supposed to be for the wounded, but everyone climbed aboard. I guess they were worried about sharks. I figured that I could tie myself to the raft & last the night out, but I found my feet floating under the raft causing my head to go lower in the water. This would never do so I swam away. I heard a voice behind me singing a popular ditty of the day, Milkman Keep Those Bottles Quiet .” I looked around to see an ordnanceman swimming with a wheel chock for water wings! There was enough moonlight to see our ship silhouetted against the dark sky. She stood vertically out of the water with bow pointed at the moon and then slowly sank. Ahrens turned on her searchlight oblivious to the submarine lurking nearby and began picking up survivors. Ahrens , being in command now, ordered Elmore to attack & at 2113, a “hedge hog” salvo destroyed the German U-549 submarine. We were far enough away that we were not harmed by the detonation. I had a difficult time climbing the cargo net draped over the side of Ahrens . As the little ship would roll, my knuckles would bang on the side & my feet would be dislodged from the net. It took a while to climb the six or seven feet up the Ahrens' side. After vomiting oil & gasoline (and the pineapple I had earlier), I limped down to the Sick Bay to have the Medics look at my foot & leg. The Medic told me he didn't have time for “walking wounded.” If I wanted a Purple Heart, I could sign the “Chit” taped to the bulkhead. I told him what to do with his “Chit” and limped away. The sailors of the Ahrens gave us their nice, clean bunks to rest in, which was a fine gesture & their bunks were never the same again! The white bulkheads, every thing we touched turned black! We had to wait until we reached Casablanca to clean up. Some of the men developed ulcers from the oil. Awful! Not long after we were picked up, a terrific blast seemed to lift the Ahrens out of the water as the Block Island 's magazines went up. We thought, for an instant, that we were torpedoed again. It was well for us that we were not in the water at that time! Ahrens picked up 674 survivors & the Paine took in 277. The crew of the USS Block Island counted themselves extremely fortunate to have survived three torpedoes, an abandon ship operation and rescued by DE's with only six dead and 18 wounded (not counting me). Surely, the prayers back home were effective. The next morning, after another search for possible survivors, at 0930, the TG, less Block Island , sailed for Casablanca with Elmore towing Barr. Ahrens was tiptoeing in, in real danger of capsizing! We reached Casablanca, 1 June, where we were impounded for security reasons in a kind of camel barn. We slept in two-tiered bunks (I had the top one) and one night, I felt something crawling up my blanket. As it crossed over my leg, I kicked and heard a faint “splat” as something hit the floor. In the dim light, I saw a large, two-inch, flying roach scurry away. They bite you know! Our stay in Casablanca consisted of eating, sleeping and playing cards and on D-Day; we listened to the War news over the radio. We were allowed to send a wire home, letting our families know we were all right. When my wife and my mother heard the news, there was a lot of joy. Mom was quite demonstrative, with screaming and carrying on. A neighbor heard & assumed the news was all bad, so being a “Good Samaritan,” he went to the Newport Rolling Mill to tell my Dad that I was dead! Back in Morocco, we were standing in line getting checked for this & that and being quizzed about everything! I never saw such carryings on. We were then divided into two groups in preparation to going home. The group I was in boarded the USS Tulagi, a CVE and we set sail on a rough, journey home. I went through more physical examinations; saw a psychiatrist and then received orders for a 30-day survivor's leave! Hooray!”

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Bill Davis (RM 1/C, CVE 21/106):

Bill Davis“I remember very vividly the day of the sinking of CVE 21. I was off duty at the time & was lying in my bunk when the first torpedo hit. I knew what it was, having been on the USS Lexington which took three torpedoes in the Coral Sea battle. I immediately jumped out of my bunk, which was one deck below the hangar deck & headed for the flight deck. We had been informed that if we were ever torpedoed, to abandon ship promptly as the ship would break up quickly. In my haste to get to the fight deck, I forgot my life jacket, which was attached to my bunk. But as I was crossing the hangar deck, I spotted a jacket that someone had apparently dropped. I picked it up & continued to the top. As I got to the flight deck, I could see that the aft end of the ship had already split and was dragging in the water. I immediately headed toward the bow & went down a net that had been lowered into the water. There was already quite a bit of oil in the water & I came up looking like a “tar baby”. I eventually swam far enough out from the ship to stop for a little rest, but was feeling the effects of the depth charges that were being dropped by our forces. I finally got together with a group of other survivors & we were eventually picked up by one of our DE's — I'm not really sure, but I think it was the USS Ahrens. I was in the water for quite some time, but suffered no problems. We were later taken into Casablanca and finally set up ship's company in camel barns but that's another story!”

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Irv Biron (GM, CVE 21/106):

Irv Biron“I joined the Navy on November 1,1942 and went aboard the Block Island in January 1943. On the evening of 29 May 1944, I was in the armory playing checkers with Wallace, while someone was cooking steak and eggs for our supper. All of a sudden the whole ship shook as the first torpedo hit forward on the port side. Seconds later, the second one hit aft. Immediately every man in the armory ran to his GQ station. I got to my position (port side forward) where there were 6 - 20 mm guns. Already the ship was listing to port and all of us knew that the situation was really bad. Grabbing a life jacket, I went up the ladder to the flight deck to find Wetzel. He was on the starboard side with the 20 millimeters and appeared to be OK. I then went aft to check those guns and the third torpedo hit. As I ran I had to jump a crack in the deck and remember looking straight down and seeing water. At that point we heard the order to abandon ship. The ladder on the starboard side ended 12 to 15 feet above the water. I went down and dropped into the oily sea. Nearby was a raft which I swam to. The raft was crowded with shipmates, but I could see a nearby DE (the Ahrens) with a cargo net over the side. So I decided to swim for it — maybe 300 yards. Even though I had always been a strong swimmer, I was exhausted by the time I reached the net. At the top two sailors lifted me over the side. Telling them I was OK and could walk on my own, I took a few steps and fell flat. I was exhausted!”

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John (Jack) J. Ward, (EM 3/c, CVE 21/106 ):

“The evening of the sinking, I was preparing to run the movie from the projection room above the Hangar Deck. My memory being what it is does not allow me to recall who else was present. I had just come off duty so I had my tool belt and flashlight with me. This later proved to be a Godsend because it saved my life as well as Kneip's (Gilbert F., EM2/c) and another sailor whose name I can't recall. I'm sure if that person reads this, he will verify this to be true. My GQ station was at the power distribution board in the Engine Room. The first fish struck the port side, followed instantly by a second toward the port stern. When GQ sounded, I made a beeline to my locker, which was located on the starboard side of the Hangar Deck. I did this primarily to retrieve my wallet, which contained my Boston & Maine Railroad pass, which I thought would come in handy if we made it back to the states. I then went to the Engine Room just as the third fish struck. I can't recall who else was there with me, but it was obvious that we could not retain electrical power. I do know that the auxiliary diesels were activated, but it was impossible to transfer the load. The Engine Room became dark & we were only able to see with our standby lighting. I wish I had a better recall for the name of the Machinist (Chief) who was present, but since I could do nothing at the board, I assisted in closing the saltwater intake valve (why we needed to close that I don't know because it was obvious that we would not be making any fresh water again on the 21). When word came down that we should go topside, we all pawed our way up the ladders passing through the area of the Mess Hall, where there was a large gaping hole with one of the aircraft nose down from the Hangar Deck. We had an express route through a hatch into the air space around the exhaust stacks, which allowed us to go up or down without delay. We used this to reach topside. While standing on the flight deck, we saw our Destroyer Escort take a fish that folded about 60 feet of her stern forward, so that the entire stern section lay over the stacks (it was a weird sight to say the least). Since I came aboard the 21 as a seaman, I was familiar with most of the deck crew so I knew Franks, who was trapped in the forward port lookout station. We stayed near him until help came to cut him free. We all gathered on the forward starboard side to await further orders. When the order came to “abandon ship,” I do recall that a Chief EM was with us on the Flight Deck for a while. The chief had been a survivor of the Yorktown , as I recall. I don't know why, but I thought it was McSherry (it turned out to be DeBerry). When the word came down that we were to abandon ship, we moved to the forward starboard side & began to climb down the safety nets. The ship, by this time, was sinking lower toward the stern so that the bow was unusually high. For the most part, the procedure was orderly, but it became necessary to jump into the sea from quite high. The only danger we could perceive was being hit by one of the jumpers once we were in the water. My watch, which I donated to the “Valor & Courage” exhibit, shows I hit the water at 8:40 p.m. Once I was in the water, I was joined by Kneip & another sailor (wish I could recall his name). Kneip was one of my favorite characters. We all called him the “old man” because he had been drafted at age 38, was married with family. To a kid of 18, anyone that age was old. Neither of us had kapok* life jackets. We had inflatable life belts, which had a habit of being out of CO 2 bottles. These belts can be inflated by mouth, provided you can open knurled valve. Kneip was becoming anxious because he could not inflate his life belt. I told Kneip fear not “old Jack” had thought of everything & proceeded to open his valves with my pliers, which I had in my tool belt. The three of us plodded along, blowing up the life belts as needed, but we stayed together. I don't know if anyone recalls Chief Warrant Officer Ironsides, but I had a very valid reason to remember him. He was a stern old coot, but very fair & reasonable. Anyway, as the three of us were plodding along, who should appear but “old Ironsides” complete with his cap in place, moving at a respectable pace. The last words we heard from him were “Swim on your backs, men.” The waters were alive with Portuguese Man-O-Wars, a very toxic jellyfish, which has numerous long tentacles. Anyone who was foolish enough to remove their shirt and/or pants was in for a very painful surprise. Fortunately, we were fully dressed. When we reached the Ahrens, we were exhausted. I knew we could not climb up those nets. We didn't have to; a couple of strong arms reached down & pulled us out! I guess the rest of the story is the same for everyone — finding soap & water to remove the oil, etc. Watching the old ‘21’ sink into the briny, then rise again when the depth charges let go. By the way, the crew's composure throughout was impressive.”
* Note: Kapok Life Jacket… They were made out of Kapok, a vegetable fiber found in tropical tree pods, resembling milkweed. The waxy coating which covers the kapok fiber provided the necessary buoyancy. The kapok fiber was sealed in vinyl plastic packets to prevent exposure to the water. One problem with the vinyl-sealed kapok fiber life jacket was that the packets could be punctured, causing the jacket to lose its buoyancy. Kapok is now prohibited for use in life preservers.

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Arlie (Buster) Lapeyrolerie, AOM 1/c (CVE 21/106):

Buster Lapeyrolerie“Where was I when first torpedo hit? Caught with my britches down, in the shower below deck, I ran up to hangar deck with a towel "around my “you know what”. Towels were bathrobes to and from shower, our “shack” located under smoke stack, halfway between hangar deck and flight deck. I ran up the ladder, put on jeans and shirt as the second torpedo hit; ran back down to hangar deck to catch a life jacket as they were dropped from storage rack on port bulkhead. I had promised this "priority" since I was (and still am) a poor swimmer. When the third torpedo hit, “abandon ship” blared out. Went out on port forward sponson and “jumped.” Someone always asks, “What were you thinking of?” Nothing but “jump for survival.” After drifting for some time, I caught on a floating rope raft with 8 other shipmates. I don't remember time in the water. Umpteen “Our Fathers” later, Ahrens picked us up. We had no way to control our rope raft, so after several near misses, Ahrens "laid-by" and let us drift up to them. Up on deck, Ahrens sailors cut our oil-soaked clothes and threw them overboard. Seven hundred men on a ship built for 200!  We were warned to keep well scattered about the ship, as “Don't Rock the Boat.” I was dressed in "Long John's" and the cook's mate gave me a hot cup of coffee, saying “You need this more then I do!”  After it was all over, I realized I had left my brand new “shake-to-wind” wristwatch in my locker and it was “water-proof.”  Several years later, I was swapping war stories with my brother-in-law. Neither knew where the other was during the war. He was in Army Quarter Master Corps in Casablanca and had supplied USS B.I. survivors with "army issue!”

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Bob Wolf (Radioman, CVE 21/106):

Bob Wolf“The 29th of May was an exciting day. The ship was preparing for a fun time on the 30th. I was in the Radio shack, sitting at the typewriter making up the roster for the different events that would be taking place on the flight deck the next day. When the torpedo's hit, I was thrown topsy-turvy, not really knowing what had happened but it wasn't long before the third torpedo hit and we were called to abandon ship. I was part of a three man Direction Finder group and of course we were working with classified equipment so I had to head for the room that held our equipment to destroy it and the manuals containing German information. After we did that, Jesse Watson and I headed for the flight deck where they had lines down to the water. Jesse was leery of going into the water and brave me, (ha, ha) said that I would save him. Once in the water, we seemed to get separated and I found myself pulling a raft. Some time after that, I don't know how long, there was an explosion.  It must have been after the ship had sunk far enough for the explosives to go off.  All I know was, it felt like I was given an enema with a telephone pole. I was in the water for about 3 1/2 hours. By the time we got to the Ahrens, it was filled to capacity so we had to continue on to the Paine. I could hardly get up the rope ladder without a lot of assistance. The fellows were great. We had the privilege of washing the oil off of us in salt water, cold at that. Since our clothes were saturated with oil, they were thrown overboard, so we had to sleep in our birthday suits. The crew was so nice; they gave up their bunks to us to sleep in. The next day we went to ship supply and were issued some clothes. I got a pair of long johns, winter wool socks and a pair of size 10 rubbers to wear on my feet. I take a size 8 1/2. We ate well and when we pulled into Casablanca and walked off the ship, we were really a scream and the women on the dock & others really got their laughs. We were glad when we got our Army issue of clothing. It was some experience, but I don't think I would want to go through it again. Nicknames for the Radio Gang: Bob was called Sammy; Jesse Watson was called swivel hips, Bill Connolly was called Slick; McPherson was called Snake.”

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Walter (Joe) J. Booi, CEM, CVE 21/106 ) :

Joe Booi“I was in charge of the IC (Internal Communications) Room at the time we were torpedoed. We had three bunks set up high in there above the workbenches. A bunch of us Electricians (8 or 10) were standing around waiting for the coffee to get done. Seems like our coffeepot was called a Silex. In any event, it was a two-part unit where the water in the pot raised up into the upper unit when it got hot and mixed with the coffee grounds that were in the upper unit. We were B'S'ing when the first two torpedoes hit us. As far as I was concerned, it was only one explosion, but a lot of the guys claimed that later they heard two distinct explosions. One of the group (I think it was Ellingson) yelled out, “What happened, did we run aground?” I explained no, we weren't within a thousand miles of ground. Then GQ (General Quarters) started ringing and everybody but me ran to their battle stations. I was at mine. Meyer EM2c (you might remember him as he fixed watches) was at the after Gyro Room and I was talking to him about a problem he had with the Gyro as it was pressing back and forth 2-3 degrees. He couldn't do anything as it was locked and the key was up in the IC Room. While I'm talking to Meyer, Bair came down to keep me company (it was his GQ station also). He told me that he was “crashed” out in his bunk, which was in one of the rooms we had off the hanger deck. The explosion knocked him out of his bunk and there was a wide-open vertical split on the seaward bulkhead and he could look out and see the sea. I asked him if things were that bad what the Hell did he come down here for! Anyhow, he noticed that the coffee was ready and I can see him to this day pouring his cup of coffee when the third torpedo hit. It hit right close to the after Gyro and killed Meyer and two Machinist mates. We then lost all of our power in the IC Room. I have no idea how long we stayed there. Our sound powered lines were dead. I got a battle lantern and kept looking up and down the passage way figuring if I saw water, we were going to get out of there. I got pretty mixed up with the cord on the sound-powered phone line, but kept the phone on. Finally, somebody asked if there was anyone on the circuit. I answered and he said he picked up the discarded phone laying on the hanger deck and asked where we were when I told him he answered, “What the Hell are you still doing down there; we've been abandoning ship for 20 minutes!” I don't think I answered him as I was fighting to get out of the tangle I was in with the phone cord! As we were going by the hatch to the Emergency Diesel Room, I couldn't help but notice the diesel was still running and made me wonder if they had got word about abandoning ship. I opened the hatch and there was the Electrician (Kroner) and two Mechanics. I motioned at them to come, but all they did was stare up at me. Remember, the damn diesel was running. I went down the ladder and dragged Kroner into the soundproof booth and yelled at him to abandon ship. Let me tell you that all three of those sailors beat me up that ladder! I got up to the hanger deck and started over to the port side to my abandon ship station, but there was a pretty good-sized hole in the deck with some minor smoke rising from same. I ended up on the flight deck where they were abandoning ship from the starboard side. Someone decided things were going too slow and ordered us to start going over the side on the Port side. They had avoided the port side up to this time as all the torpedo holes were on the port side. In any event, I was on the port side and there was a rope coiled up there hanging onto the rail and I flung it over the side and there was a life raft right under the end of the rope. I started to go over the side when somebody grabbed me by the shoulder and suggested that it would be a good idea if I secured that end of the rope to the rail. I thought this was a great idea and tied it down and then slid down the rope right onto the life raft without getting my feet wet.”

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Read account of the sinking by:
Cleve Martin (MMR 1/C, CVE-21/106)

In Memorium: View List of veterans lost in this incident.

Read List of Firsts accomplished by CVE-21

Also visit: U.S.S. Block Island web site

© 2009 by authors listed above
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gunn turret on deck 1 on deck 2 onboard compressor South Seas island shore leave party Machistists Mate diploma Machinists Mate commencement program list Lawrence training certificate Lawrence commencement program cover Early Navy portrait photo Navy portrait photo Cleve's parent and brother George visit him in nearby Lawrence, Kansas Ham, K.P. Lewis, and C.T. Martin During 4 short weeks of basic training, San Diego Cleve during basic training, Southern California Older brother Lewis attends Cleve's completion of 4 weeks Basic Training, San Diego