Before their eventual defeat in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Nazi German Kriegsmarine’s U-boats (“Unterseeboote”) were the absolute scourge of Allied shipping, merchant vessels, and warships alike during the Second World War. The British Royal Navy suffered quite a number of grievous capital ship losses, including the battleships HMS Barham (pennant number 04) and Royal Oak (pennant # 08), and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal (#91; James Bond’s WWII ship of service no less[!]) and Eagle (#94).
The U.S. Navy, for its part, also suffered its fair share of losses at the hands of the German submarines.
Indeed, the USN’s first warship loss of WWII took place not at Pearl Harbor, but off the shores of Iceland on Halloween Day 1941 at the hands of one of these subs, as commemorated in the folk song “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” composed by Woody Guthrie and covered by a variety of folk singers from Oscar Brand to The Highwaymen (I’m especially partial to the latter artists’ rendition). However, no American battleships were lost to U-boat action in the Atlantic, and only one carrier was lost.
That carrier was the USS Block Island.
Profile of the Victim: USS Block Island (CVE-21)
USS Block Island was a Bogue-class escort carrier, named in homage to Block Island Sound off Rhode Island. Built by the Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding Corporation, she was laid down on January 19, 1942, launched on May 9, 1942, and commissioned on March 8, 1943.
She had a displacement of 16,620 long tons, a hull length of 495.66 feet, a beam width of 111 feet 6 inches, and a draft of 26 feet. Max speed was 18 knots (21 miles per hour). The aircraft carrying capacity was 24. The airwing normally included Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, though, on a couple of occasions, she ferried Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters to Belfast. The defensive armament consisted of two 5-inch guns, sixteen 40mm antiaircraft guns, and twenty 20mm “ack-ack” guns. The normal crew complement was 890 commissioned officers and enlisted men.
Before her ultimate untimely fate, Block Island contributed to the sinking of four U-boats and earned two Battle Stars.
Profile of the Killer: U-549
The U-549 was an IXC/40 Type submarine was laid down at the Deutsche Werft AG Shipyard in Hamburg on September 28, 1942, launched on April 28, 1943, and commissioned on July 14, 1943. She had a displacement of 1,126 tons on the surface and 1,237 long tons submerged, a hull length of 251 feet 10 inches, a beam width of 22 feet 6 inches, a height of 31 feet 6 inches, and a draught of 15 feet 4 inches. Max speeds were 18.3 knots (21.1 mph) surfaced and 7.3 knots (8.4 mph) submerged. Armament consisted of six torpedo tubes – four in the bow, two in the stern – which carried 21-inch torpedoes, along with a 4.1-inch SK/C32 deck gun, one 1.5-inch SK C/30 antiaircraft gun, and a twin 20mm Flak 30 AA gun. The normal crew complement was four commissioned officers and 44 enlisted sailors.
Killing … and then Being Killed
It was at 20:13 on the evening of May 29, 1944, west-northwest of the Canary Islands that U-549 slipped past the anti-submarine hunter-killer screen and struck the Block Island with three torpedoes.
Not that it’s any comfort to the loved ones of those crewmembers who lost their lives, but only six of Block Island’s sailors were KIA, which is a sharp contrast to the 100 out of the 144 men of the Reuben James who lost their lives. The carrier’s 951 survivors were transferred to the destroyer escorts USS Ahrens (DE-575) and Robert I. Paine (DE/DER-578).
What’s more, Reuben James’s loss was never truly avenged, as her killer, U-552, was scuttled on May 5, 1945, to prevent her from falling into Allied hands. By contrast, Block Island was avenged within the same calendar day of her sinking: that evening, two destroyer escorts, the aforementioned Ahrens along with USS Eugene E. Elmore (DE-686) attacked the U-549 with Hedgehog mortars, which were far more accurate and sophisticated antisubmarine warfare (ASW) weapon than old-fashioned depth charges. By the third attack, the German sub was sent to her own watery grave with a loss of all 57 hands.
U-549 had no prior sinkings to her credit; in the same attack on the Block Island, she also damaged the destroyer escort USS Barr (DE-576).
Where Are They (the Shipwrecks) Now?
According to The Wrecksite, the world’s largest online shipwreck database, U-549 was sunk “in 5,000 meters deep water. The position was 31°13’N-23°03’W.” Strangely, though that same website has an information page on Block Island, it does not give a specific depth or grid coordinates for the American vessel’s place of death.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).