Wednesday, November 24, 1943 began before dawn for the officers and men on board USS Liscome Bay (CVE 56), who were supporting the effort to take Makin Island, the scene of a successful raid the previous year. Before the sun even rose on that day, the Casablanca-class escort carrier would be sunk, and 644 of her crew would be dead or missing, including Ship’s Cook Third Class Dorie Miller, who received the Navy Cross for heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Rear Admiral Henry Mullinix. But what is less known are stories from five sailors who received the Navy Cross for their actions when the Liscome Bay went down.
At 5:10 in the morning, a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine hit the escort carrier, causing catastrophic damage. A huge explosion sent debris raining down on USS New Mexico (BB 40), sailing almost a mile away. The rear half of the ship had been blown to smithereens, and the forward half only remained afloat for 23 minutes before it slipped beneath the waves.
The Liscome Bay was the second of the Casabalanca-class escort carriers, which were built by Kaiser Shipyards. She was completed in eight months, then sent to take part in Operation Galvanic, the capture of the Gilbert Islands. She carried 16 FM-1 Wildcats and 12 TBM-1 Avenger torpedo bombers, which were not used to fight enemy fleets, but instead to help support ground troops. Liscome Bay’s squadron had done that for the past four days, when the fateful torpedo struck.
When the torpedo hit, Captain Irving D. Wiltsie, the ship’s commanding officer, immediately tried to head aft to assess the damage to the escort carrier. According to his Navy Cross citation, he braved the structural damage and raging fires as he proceeded down the starboard side to determine how badly his ship had been hit. Wiltsie went down with his ship.
The ship’s Damage Control Officer, Lieutenant Commander Wells W. Carroll, had been badly wounded after the torpedo hit. Despite his wounds, he desperately tried to help fight the fires that were consuming the Liscome Bay. When the order to abandon ship came, the citation for his posthumous Navy Cross reported that he ordered a sailor not to try to find him a life jacket.
Chief Yeoman Benjamin Sachs and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class William Savitz also received posthumous Navy Crosses for helping rescue shipmates in the time after the fatal torpedo struck the Liscome Bay.
John Bennett Rowe also would receive the Navy Cross for his actions during those 23 hellish minutes. After the hit, Rowe began treating and evacuating the wounded personnel from Liscome Bay. His citation reported that he even attempted to carry out artificial respiration for one of his shipmates. One of those he tried to save, according to a 1944 article in the Benton Harbor News-Palladium was Commander Carroll, who had jumped into the sea despite his wounds to prevent a shipmate from going back into the inferno consuming the ship.
Finley E. Hall, the executive officer of the Liscome Bay, would receive a posthumous Silver Star for remaining on board the stricken ship, trying to rescue shipmates who had been trapped by the devastating explosions. Lieutenant John G. Piegari would receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for assisting in the evacuation of a shipmate who was recovering from an appendectomy when the ship was hit.
The loss of Liscome Bay has faded into history – and the heroism shown by members of her crew in those 23 hellish minutes has become, in some ways, a footnote to history. But those heroic actions deserve to be remembered.