BOOK REVIEW – Valor and Courage: The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World War II

Benjamin Hruska, Valor and Courage: The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World War II. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2021. 288 pp.

Review by Lt Col Nicholas Smith
Senior Instructor, United States Air Force Academy

“For the 957 sailors on board, the two German torpedoes with 660 pounds of explosives slamming Block Island caught them in a range of activities including showering, cooking meals, and doing laundry…..immediately heading for the bridge (Captain) Hughes witnessed visible damage, ‘en route I noticed the port side of the flight deck curled back about ten feet and forward part of the flight deck covered with oily water…’ a group of sailors soon gathered on the bow around a wounded sailor who was serving as lookout when the torpedo struck.  Besides being badly injured, his legs were trapped in the mangled catwalk as a result of the explosion.”1

This excerpt from Valor and Courage provides a perfect example of how Benjamin Hruska blends life on board the Block Island with the reality of the dangers the crew faced at sea during World War II. In this case, when a German U-boat off the coast of North Africa torpedoed them on May 29, 1944, making her the only American carrier sunk in the Atlantic theater.

Hruska’s Valor and Courage: The Story of the USS Block Island Escort Carriers in World War II tells the story of both Bogue class escort carriers (CVE-21 and CVE-106).

These carriers incorporated, “a hull designed for commercial use into floating airfield (s) fashioned for warfare.”2 CVE-21, was sunk in the Atlantic and CVE-106 would be renamed after it and would go on to serve in the Pacific theater until the end of the war (setting sail a mere 12 days after her namesake sank). By examining both ships, Hruska provides a unique lens concerning carrier operations in two theaters during the war, the different leadership styles of the crews’ two captains, and insight into naval adoption of aviation tactics aboard an escort carrier. Through the eyes of the crewmembers, the reader experiences hunter killer missions in the Atlantic for German U-boats, transportation of German POWs, the terror of waiting to be rescued from the water after having their carrier sunk, potential kamikaze attacks, and supporting the invasion of Okinawa.        

Throughout the book, Hruska expertly examines the lives and actions of the sailors who served aboard these two ships.  By drawing upon oral histories and interviews of the original crewmembers, official records, and archival entries, many of the unsung actions of these brave individuals come to life in vivid detail. Additionally, he weaves together these primary sources in a fluent and conversational tone. Valor and Courage lays out its tale across twenty-five chapters, including a helpful list of figures (of which there are twenty), endnotes broken up by chapter, an index, and a bibliography.        

The only criticism that can be levied on the book (and it is a minor one) is that it tries to be too many things. Hruska sets out to not only tell the intimate story of the crews of the Block Island, but also to examine the impact of American mass production, and prove that “the interwar period served as a time of incubation for naval leadership.”3 Additionally, the work highlights the careers of the Block Island’s two commanding officers, and charts how naval officers who early on adopted to naval aviation played a critical role in the war ahead. While he provides evidence to support his claims, the book really comes to life when telling the tale of the crews, offering a rare insight that Hruska himself admits is, “not found only in such repositories as the National Archives or the Naval History and Heritage Command.” (5)   

Valor and Courage does exactly what is sets out to do, which is to bring to life the actions of the crews of CVE-21 and CVE-106 in such a way that has not been done before. True, many of the goals Hruska sets out to accomplish aside from this have already been argued at greater lengths, but that should in no way dissuade anyone from reading this well-crafted work of history. Valor and Courage should be of value to anyone interested in either naval history, World War II, or a more general audience that wants to explore the history of this thus far uncovered topic.

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

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