USS Corry (DD-463) / USS Block Island (CVE-21)
U-Boat Action - 1944



While submerged, U-boats could not travel fast because they could run on battery power only. After a number of hours under-water, the U-boats would have to surface and use their diesel engines to recharge their batteries. While traveling on the surface by diesel engine, they could move much faster than when under-water. However, being on the surface made them visible and detectable by radar, and thus much more vulnerable to attack.

The US Navy developed small task force groups specifically designed to hunt down and kill German U-boats. Central to these hunter–killer teams were baby aircraft carriers, which were often converted transport ships that had flat tops put on them. These ships could carry just enough planes to provide for U-boat search-and-destroy missions.

 Escort (Baby) Aircraft Carrier USS Block Island (CVE-21)

 Displacement: 7,800 tons 
 Length: 496 feet  
 Aircraft Carried: 24
 Complement: 890 officers and men

When part of a baby carrier hunter–killer team, the Corry would escort the carrier, along with four destroyer-escort (DE) ships to protect the carrier from enemy attack. The DEs were not quite as big as destroyers and usually had only one smokestack, while most destroyers had two smokestacks. DEs also fired smaller ordnance. With our 5-inchers, we were the “big guns” of the group. 

While patrolling with the baby flat top, the Corry and the DEs would constantly probe the ocean depths, trying to make sonar contact with submarines. Each ship's lookout personnel would also constantly be on the watch, and the ships' radar would detect not only a surfaced U-boat off at a distance, but also even a periscope three feet above the surface of the water. Our radio direction finder equipment would also identify the precise direction any enemy transmissions were coming from so enemy vessels could immediately be pursued. While all this was going on, planes from the carrier would patrol an entire area of ocean around the task force and would attack any surfaced U-boats they spotted. If a U-boat was able to submerge and escape, the Corry and/or a destroyer-escort would be called over to make sonar contact. Depth charges would then be dropped on the sub in an attempt to sink it or damage it so as to bring it to the surface, where it would be fired on and sunk. This cooperative effort made up the North Atlantic hunter–killer teams that were effective in sinking many of Hitler’s U-boats.

On March 17 and 19, 1944, as part of the USS Block Island hunter-killer task force, near the Cape Verde islands off northwest Africa we were in on the action against two German U-boats, U-801 and U-1059, taking prisoners from each. We then pursued a third U-boat and dropped depth charges on it but eventually lost sonar contact with it. 

On many other occasions during the war we dropped depth charges after making sonar contact, but since we did not bring a submarine to the surface any of those times and did not find credible debris in the water, we didn't know whether the U-boats had evaded us or had suffered direct hits and sunk immediately. 

by USS Corry Chief Radio Technician Francis "Mac" McKernon



February - March 1944

For her third Atlantic combat cruise, Block Island sailed with a different screen, Escort Division (CortDiv) 48 comprising four new destroyer-escorts -- Bronstein (DE-189), Bostwick (DE-103), Breeman (DE-104) and Thomas (DE-102)--and the new destroyer Corry (DD-463). [DD-463 was the second USS Corry.] Composite Squadron 6 reported on board for the cruise, equipped with new Grumman FM-2 "Wildcat" fighters in addition to its "Avenger" complement. Also new on board was Capt. Ramsey's relief, Capt. Francis M. Hughes.




Grumman FM-2 "Wildcat" Fighter

 "Avenger" Torpedo-Bomber Fighter

Departing Norfolk on 16 February 1944, Block Island and her consorts did not see significant action until entering the "Black Pit" almost two weeks later. Three minutes after midnight on 29 February 1944, Block Island's "huff-duff" (high-frequency direction finder) locked onto an enemy transmission, and the task group altered course to pursue. Nine minutes later, Bronstein made an inconclusive "hedgehog" attack on the contact; and, after dawn, hunter-killer teams of "Wildcats" and "Avengers" scoured the area intensively. The search took all day, but persistence paid dividends. In the waning light of day, Lt.(jg.) Norman T. Dowty sighted a periscope feather wake. He and his wingman, Lt.(jg.) William H. Cole circled, and Dowty swept in for a mine run. They dropped a sonobouy and verified the U-boat's presence as Corry sped to the scene from 15 miles away. Then, dusk and nearly empty fuel tanks compelled the pair to return to the carrier.

As it turned out, Block Island's task group had come across a gathering of four U-boats -- U-709, U-603, U-607 and U-441. In the ensuing night-long melee, fought by the escorts, Bronstein killed U-603 with an 18-depth charge pattern that blew the U-boat apart, and then teamed with Thomas and Bostwick to sink U-709. Finally, though not sunk, a badly battered U-441 limped into Brest 14 days later. While Capt. Ramsey estimated that between five and seven U-boats had been in the vicinity that wild night, postwar analysis of the records revealed that Block Island had been within 25 miles of at least 15 U-boats -- all part of a group just deployed in a 100-mile long crescent. With orders to arrive in Casablanca on 8 March, Capt. Ramsey took Block Island and her consorts into port for replenishment and a brief rest, during which he turned over command to Capt. Hughes.

On 11 March, the carrier and her escorts put to sea to track down a "milch cow" [supply sub] northwest of the Cape Verde Islands -- U-488, ironically the U-boat that she had attacked the previous October. Steaming southwest, Block Island sent hunter-killer teams ahead to hunt for the other submarine believed to be headed for the rendezvous indicated in the intelligence reports. This boat, U-801, was totally unaware of Block Island's approach of as she completed surface gunnery practice late on the afternoon of 16 March. Then, one of the Block Island hunter-killer teams, Lt.(jg.) Charles Woodell's "Avenger" and Lt.(jg.) Paul Sorenson's "Wildcat," rudely cut short her drills. Sorenson strafed the surfaced sub, observing hits at the base of the conning tower and inside the bridge while the U-boat's surprised crew scrambled for shelter. After Woodell aborted a bombing run, Sorenson came in for a second strafing run, noticing that fire had broken out on the bridge, apparently from exploding ammunition and burning deck planking. Woodell then made his second pass, loosing two depth bombs which overshot the submarine as she submerged at 1728. At that point, the American planes dropped sonobouys which clearly showed the submarine's track. Planes covered the area for two hours but were then recalled. U-801 surfaced cautiously to report that she had been attacked and damaged, whereupon the command at Brest set up a rendezvous with U-488 -- Block Island's original target!

After the radio exchange with Brest, U-801 detected approaching aircraft and "pulled the plug." A search plane covered the area for a while around nightfall but sometime between the plane's departure and Corry's arrival, U-801 managed to surface and recharge her batteries for two hours without being detected. Only then did the Germans discover that they trailed a tell-tale oil slick.

As Corry arrived in the area to hold down the U-boat, Block Island launched Lt.(jg.) Dowty at 0210 to pursue a "huff-duff" fix obtained on the transmitting submarine only 45 miles away. Dowty met up with Corry and commenced an expanding search. His radar picked up a contact almost immediately, and he dropped down to attack only to see the U-boat submerge. While Corry spotted and destroyed the radar decoys U-801 had left scattered on the surface, Dowty located the wake of a periscope and dropped a mine on the swirl. He dogged U-801's trail for the rest of the night, and dawn rewarded him with the sight of an oil slick meandering off into the distance. Low on fuel, Dowty alerted Block Island and then returned to her after a fresh plane relieved him.

Meanwhile, Bronstein had joined Corry; but neither they nor the plane could locate the oil at first. Finally, at 0900, the new "Avenger" picked up the scent again, dropping a string of float lights to mark the spot. Corry and Bronstein then picked up the contact; and the destroyer attacked at 0942, her depth charges opening a seam in U-801's hull and forcing her skipper to dive deeper. For an hour, the U-boat evaded the attacks, but she continued to leak oil. Around 1140, Corry dropped another pattern of depth charges, and this one proved decisive. With bilge pumps and some switchboards knocked out and her periscope's power having failed, the submarine could not mount a submerged defense, so she had to come up. U-801 lurched to the surface as Block Island, screened by Thomas and Breeman, arrived to witness the last act of the drama.

Warning off the "Avenger" overhead as it dove toward the sub, Corry and Bronstein opened fire with 5-inch, 3-inch, and automatic weapons.

The heavy fire killed the U-boat's captain and warrant quartermaster as soon as they gained the open bridge. Those who followed wasted no time in abandoning ship. Corry and Bronstein, cheered on by Block Island's crew thronging her flight deck, methodically reduced U-801 to junk; and, at 1226, the badly battered U-boat sank. The two warships then moved through the oily water to recover two officers and 45 enlisted men--a remarkable number considering the hail of gunfire through which they had passed. That afternoon, Corry transferred all 47 to Block Island by breeches buoy.

U-801 Enlisted Men POWs

The original object of the search, however, U-488, had yet to be found. The task group scoured the sea during daylight on the 18th and then shaped a southwesterly course that night in the hope of locating another south-bound submarine. Six hunter-killer teams launched at dawn on 19 March fanned out from the warship and covered the area within a 150-mile radius. At 0726, Lt.(jg.) Cole, in his "Wildcat", spotted a submarine ahead, to port of his heading. Flying with the early morning sun at their backs, Cole and Lt.(jg.) Dowty, had surprised the Germans completely. The new 1,100-ton U-1059 lay dead in the water while her captain, Oberleutnant zur See Günter Leopold, joined many of his crew in a morning swim.

Cole swept around the U-boat's stern to come up on the port quarter and allow Dowty, in the slower "Avenger," to move in directly on her starboard quarter. Cole triggered his six .50-caliber machineguns and shot up the submarine's decks, his bullets striking home among the German sailors being rousted out of their morning relaxation. Some, however, managed to get the antiaircraft guns into action by the time Dowty dropped down to deliver his depth-charge attack and got off a few bursts from the 20-millimeter and 37-millimeter guns as the "Avenger" roared low over their heads.

Dowty's charges burst in textbook fashion, straddling U-1059, and an enormous explosion cleaved the submarine in two. Cole banked around for a strafing run but quickly saw that no useful target presented itself. The two broken sections of the U-boat settled while a pitifully small group of men struggled in the water outside a mass of flame and smoke. Dowty, too, banked around in a sharp turn for another run; but he either lost control or his engine failed. The "Avenger" dropped one wing and spun into the ocean a short distance from her kill. Dowty and his radar operator never got out of the sinking plane, but a third occupant just "along for the ride" -- Ens. Mark Fitzgerald -- managed to free himself and grab a life raft before the plane sank.

Cole, circling overhead, reported the crash and the lone survivor, and Corry rushed to rescue him and the few Germans who remained. Cole counted about 15 Germans in the water at first, but the number declined steadily during the two hours that passed before Corry arrived. In the meantime, Ens. Fitzgerald inflated the raft and used it to rescue two of the Germans himself -- a severely wounded sailor and the U-boat's equally badly injured commanding officer. When she arrived, Corry rescued this trio and then picked up six more Germans about a mile away. The task group cruised the area for several days and attacked two underwater contacts -- both apparently non-submarine -- before heading back to Norfolk where it arrived early on 31 March.

With seven wounded prisoners from U-1059, USS Corry departed the task group and headed for Boston, arriving there on 30 March 1944.

Note: Aircraft carrier USS Block Island (CVE-21) was torpedoed and sunk on 29 May 1944 by U-549.

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