Don Noble
3:42 pm
Mon June 7, 2004

Twenty-Three Minutes to Eternity

James L. Noles, Jr., an attorney and independent historian from Birmingham, has told the story of the Liscome Bay from the laying of her keel in the Kaiser shipyards in Washington State to the aftermath of the sinking and even a cluster of brief biographies of some of the survivors.

On November 24, 1943, the day before Thanksgiving, with the turkeys actually thawing in the galley, the American escort carrier USS Liscome Bay was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine as she steamed off shore in support of the American invasion of the Gilbert Islands.

The torpedo struck the Liscome Bay about amidships and at the very area where the bombs for the carrier planes were stored.

Almost at once, the explosion tore off the stern of the ship and sent a pillar of orange flame into the air a thousand feet. The stored bombs exploded, and the flames ignited the ship?s aviation fuel and diesel fuel and the shells for the 20- and 50-caliber guns, which were to protect her from attack by enemy aircraft. Airplanes from the flight deck were hurled two hundred feet into the air. The ship glowed like a furnace.

After such explosions, the sinking came fast. From the moment the torpedo struck to the time the Liscome Bay went under, only twenty-three minutes passed, and of the ship?s crew, 267 were saved and 642 were lost. This makes the sinking of the Liscome Bay the worst carrier sinking in American naval history and one of the worst of any class of ship. The Arizona went down at Pearl Harbor with 1,177 aboard, the cruiser Indianapolis with 803, and there were a few other catastrophes of this magnitude, but not many.

James L. Noles, Jr., an attorney and independent historian from Birmingham, has told the story of the Liscome Bay from the laying of her keel in the Kaiser shipyards in Washington State to the aftermath of the sinking and even a cluster of brief biographies of some of the survivors.

Noles attempts to answer some questions about this sinking. Why did the ship sink so quickly? Why did it sink at all? In 1943 the U.S. Navy needed a great many small carriers and needed them quickly. One answer was to weld the hulls together, rather than rivet them. This made for weaker, thinner hulls, but speedy production was of paramount importance.

At the battle in the Gilberts, the Army went ashore on Makin Atoll. This was one of the first U.S. amphibious landings, and we weren?t very experienced and confident about it.

The troops proceeded slowly, calling in naval bombardment and air strikes for three days, on and off, allowing a small Japanese force to regroup and allowing the Japanese submarines to come to the area where the American ships were circling, vulnerable.

On Tarawa, to the south, the Marines did it faster, better, and the ships were able to get out of harm?s way quickly.

Samuel Eliot Morrison, naval historian, called the Army?s performance ?miserable, dilatory.? Some soldiers? lives were saved by the Army?s caution, but the ship was lost.

Noles has reconstructed life on board ship and, especially, the events of the twenty-three minutes from torpedo to sinking. The accounts are almost all heroic. Men saved others, helped their shipmates, sacrificed their own safety and even their own lives for their buddies.

Rear Admiral Henry M. Mullinax and the ship?s commanding officer, Captain Irving T. Wiltsie, went down with the ship. The highest ranking survivor was Commander John J. Crommelin, one of the five famous Crommelin brothers of Alabama, all graduates of the Naval Academy and all World War Two heroes.

Noles tells this story in a clear, unobtrusive style, but I think all readers will wish that the publisher had provided better maps and a schemata of the ship Liscome Bay and had tried harder to find better photographs of the ship. These all are surely available or could be generated. Otherwise, this is a good read for those interested in naval history with a strong Alabama connection.

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