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Imperial Japan, on the other hand, had gone from ten carriers at the start of the war, to five or six. Its complete output of aircraft carriers, including the ones it had on hand at the outbreak of the war, totaled just 29 ships.
As for the ships the Vanport crews were cranking out, they were literally game changers. Unescorted convoys had been easy meat for the Nazi submarines; the addition of an escort carrier with a couple dozen planes circling around dropping bombs turned them into hornets’ nests which a U-boat commander might only poke at his great peril. Submarines had to be very close to the surface to launch torpedoes — close enough to be seen and hit by one of the constantly-circling airplanes.
In combat, the escort carriers’ numbers, size, and lack of armor left their crews feeling a little ambivalent about them. They called them “Kaiser Jeeps,” which was a little confusing later on when Kaiser Motors merged with Willys-Overland in 1953 and became Kaiser Jeep Co. Their military designation was CVE, which stood for “Carrier Vessel, Escort”; the crews joked that it really stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendible.”
In the Pacific, their finest hour came in the Battle Off Samar, in October 1944, which was basically the last battle with the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was a classic hopeless “last stand” type of battle which the Americans had no business winning, but somehow did, albeit at great cost.
The setup was a Japanese gambit in which they hurled a small carrier force against the main American fleet, lost a couple big ships, and raced away. The commanding admiral fell for it and gave chase with everything he had, leaving the American troops landing on Leyte (part of the campaign to retake the Philippines) with no air cover. The main Imperial force would then show up, launch its planes, and hurl the Americans back into the sea — that was the idea.
But luckily for those American troops, three Task Units (“Taffys”), each consisting of six escort carriers and several destroyers and destroyer escorts, remained behind.
When the Japanese force — a huge armada composed of four battleships, eight cruisers, and 11 destroyers — slipped in to attack the landing troops, they ran right into one of these three Task Units — Taffy 3.
These little unarmored ships, with their handful of light 5-inch deck guns, turned back and defeated the main force of the Imperial Japanese Navy that day.
To be fair to the Japanese, the battle wasn’t as one-sided as it might have seemed. Among the three “Taffys,” the Americans had about 450 airplanes at their disposal — equal to the complement of about five full-size fleet carriers. The Japanese force had no air cover at all beyond a handful of catapult-launched seaplanes, because for some reason they had used their only remaining carriers as part of the "bait" used to lure the admiral's forces away.
Nonetheless it was a spectacular success for the little Kaiser-built carriers.
After the war, Kaiser’s “Jeeps” were true surplus; there wasn’t much they could be used for. Their power plants were the main reason for this: due to wartime shortages, they had been equipped with obsolete steam engines that provided enough speed to keep up with convoys of merchant ships, but not enough to be very useful to a peacetime Navy. The surviving ships were fairly quickly mothballed and then scrapped. None of them survive today.
Which is kind of a shame, because the Vancouver-built Casablanca-class escort carriers remain to this day the most numerous carrier class of all time; no other class comes close. In fact, those 50 escort carriers represent almost half of all American aircraft carriers built during the Second World War. (Japan, by contrast, only managed to build 15 during the war.)
Not a bad showing!