The USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) was one of the first of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built for service during WWII. She was named for a battle of the American Revolution that took place near Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1777.
The Essex class represented the first "modern" aircraft carriers that were specially designed to meet the needs of larger, more powerful prop-driven aircraft; many of them underwent further modifications with the introduction of jet aircraft after the war. The most numerous of the US Navy's "capital" ships during the 20th century, Essex-class aircraft carriers were the mainstay of the naval force from their introduction in the early years of World War II until well into the 1960s.
Construction on Bunker Hill began in September 1941 at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard at Quincy, Massachusetts. She was launched on the one-year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and commissioned in May 1943 under the command of Captain J.J. Ballantine.
Fully loaded, the Bunker Hill displaced over 36,000 tons, measuring 872 feet from stem to stern and was powered by 4 Westinghouse geared steam turbines. She carried a crew compliment of 2600 officers and seamen.
Repairs and Upgrades
Other than repairs for extensive damage (see "Asbestos Risk" below) and the usual required maintenance, the Bunker Hill never underwent extensive modifications. The vessel was reclassified as an attack carrier (CVA) in October 1952 and an anti-submarine carrier (CVS) less than a year later, but remained inactive during the Korean conflict. In 1959, Bunker Hill was again reclassified as an Auxiliary Aircraft Landing Training Ship (ATV), but was never used for this purpose.
Bunker Hill saw more action than almost any other vessel in the Pacific Theater of operations during World War II. The carrier reported for duty in September of 1943, just as the United States began waging a more offensive war in the Pacific.
Bunker Hill launched strikes against Japanese positions on Rabaul, the Gilbert Islands, and the Tarawa Atoll during the fall months of 1943. Christmas Day 1943 saw her involved in the invasion of Kavieng, earning her the nickname "Holiday Express." During the first half of 1944, the crew of the Bunker Hill saw action during operations off the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, the Palaus, the Truk Island group and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. During the fall of 1944, Bunker Hill took part in operations against Japanese positions on the Caroline Islands, Okinawa and Formosa (present-day Taiwan). The vessel sailed for home in November 1944.
After almost three months of repairs, Bunker Hill returned to the combat zone for the first strikes against the Japanese home islands, joining the Third and Fifth Fleets in the Battle of Iwo Jima and the initial raids on Honshu and Okinawa. This was followed by Operation Ten-Go in the East China Sea, during which the IJN Yamato, pride of the Japanese Fleet, was sent to the bottom.
Heavily damaged during the Okinawa invasion, Bunker Hill managed to limp home in May 1945. Repairs were carried out over the summer, but the war was over for the carrier.
In September, Bunker Hill began functioning as a troop carrier during Operation Magic Carpet. She carried out this duty until January 1946, when she was ordered to stand down at Bremerton, Washington.
Although reclassified a number of times between 1947 and 1966, the "Holiday Express" never returned to active duty. In 1966, Bunker Hill was moved to San Diego Naval Air Station, where she was used as a stationary electronics test platform until she was sold for scrap in May 1973.
Asbestos Risk on the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17)
The Bunker Hill suffered more damage during the Pacific campaign than any other naval vessel that survived the war. During strikes against the Mariana Islands in June 1944, a near-miss from an enemy shell caused 82 casualties and structural damage. Temporary repairs were affected until the vessel could return to the Puget Sound Naval Yard in Bremerton, Washington for repairs. During the Battle of Okinawa on 11 May 1945, the Bunker Hill was struck by two kamikaze suicide pilots, both of which crashed into the flight deck, crippling the vessel and killing or injuring over 600 crewmen. Attacks of this sort released asbestos into the air when insulation and fireproofing panels were damaged in battle.
Using asbestos fireproofing in the design of oceangoing vessels was required by the United States Congress in the early 1930s, after a fire at sea on the SS Morro Castle killed more than 100 people. If asbestos is worn or damaged it can become friable, which means that the fibers can break off and escape into the atmosphere, and then are inhaled or ingested by naval personnel and repair workers, increasing the odds of developing mesothelioma.
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Faultum, Andrew. The Essex Aircraft Carriers (Baltimore: Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1996).
Friedman, Norman. United States Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983).
Raven, Alan. Essex-Class Carriers (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988).