"The last thing Lieutenant Brown said before he took off was that he would torpedo a carrier at any cost. He did, and the cost was heavy. His plane was hit several times by antiaircraft fire as he was lowering for a final run; part of the port wing was shot off; fire burst out, filling the center section of the plane with flames which forced the radioman to bail out; and the radioman ‘booted’ the gunner out. As the carrier made a sharp turn to port, Lieutenant Brown, now alone in the Avenger, pressed home his attack." (History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol VIII, New Guinea and the Marianas,1953, by Samuel Eliot Morison, at page 295)
The Royal Navy introduced the aircraft carrier during World War One. Although the type was new, many naval officers could envision the operational possibilities of striking an enemy fleet from well beyond the horizon. In the 1920s Japan and the United States also built small fledgling carriers with the Hosho and Langley as their first experiments in aircraft carriers. With the Washington Treaty of 1922 all three major naval powers moved some of their capital ship construction into conversions for aircraft carriers. The Royal Navy did this in a small way with a conversion of a slow battleship into HMS Eagle and conversion of the hybrids, Furious, Glorious and Courageous into full aircraft carriers. These were all smaller and less capable ships than the Japanese and American conversions. Japan converted an unfinished battleship and battle cruiser into the Kaga and Akagi, while the USN converted two unfinished battle cruisers into the Lexington and Saratoga. All three powers still had available tonnage for carrier construction for the rest of the decade but this period was used for experimentation with the existing ships as they entered service.
By the mid 1930s aircraft types had made such a great leap in performance that all three powers built new carriers designed from the keel up as aircraft carriers. All three built up to their maximum tonnage allowed under the 1930 London Treaty. Of the three, Japan went a step further. Although no more carriers were allowed under the treaty, other types of warships could still be built. The Japanese Navy clearly foresaw the possibility if not probability of war with the United States and to a lesser extent Great Britain and also recognized the importance of the aircraft carrier. A number of hulls for new construction were started and slated for different types of ships, such as fast fleet oilers or seaplane tenders, but were also designed to be relatively quickly converted into light aircraft carriers. With the lapse of international treaties and the coming of World War Two, most of these ships were indeed converted into aircraft carriers.
At the start of World War Two the Royal Navy desperately needed additional carriers, for convoy protection as much as for fleet duty. CAM ships could provide one shot protection by catapulting a single fighter to counter German aircraft but that was unattractive duty as the plane had to ditch when in ran out of fuel and rescue of the pirate was problematical. The answer came with merchant ship conversion into a new type of carrier, the CVE. Usually these were slow with a limited air complement but they were crucial in swinging the Battle of the Atlantic towards allied victory. They could also be used in the Pacific but that huge arena of combat also demanded fast carriers. Attrition was high among the fleet carriers of the USN in 1942. Lexington, Yorktown, Hornet and Wasp were all lost. Saratoga was a torpedo magnet and spent far more time under repair than in operations. At one point the operational carriers of the US Pacific Fleet consisted only of USS Enterprise. The Essex class fleet carriers would be coming on line in 1944 (as originally forecast) but these big carriers took time to build. There was, however, one other class of carrier that would come into service in 1943 to supplement the fleet until the mass of Essex class fleet carriers were ready. This was the Independence class of light carrier.
The aircraft carrier had already proven its worth in service with the Royal Navy, especially the attack on Taranto, which immobilized the Italian fleet. However, the USN needed more carriers. The Hornet CV8 would not be completed until late 1941 and the Essex class was years in the future. The initial units of the class were ordered but at this time it appeared that they would not be available until 1944. The President wanted carriers before that time.
The Independence class light carrier owes its birth to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In early 1941 President Roosevelt was worried about the status of the United States Navy. Europe seemed firmly under control of Germany, as France had fallen the year before. The British continued to receive reversals and since Germany and the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact, it seemed that there was no likely relief for the beleaguered island, other than the possibility of the United States. In the Pacific relations were steadily worsening with Japan. He insisted that the navy convert a number of cruiser hulls of the large Cleveland class light cruiser program into aircraft carriers. He looked at the construction program and noticed a huge number of Cleveland class light cruisers already under or slated for construction. Why not convert some of those to aircraft carriers? At first the admirals were against the idea but it was fortunate that the President had the foresight to insist upon the carrier conversion. When presented with the President’s plan, the Admirals found only difficulties with its implementation. The hulls were too narrow and since the bow sheer was pronounced, the hangar and flight deck would be too short. There would be difficulties in routing the stack trunks and the forward elevator would be too far aft because of the narrowness of the bow. However, President Roosevelt wanted new carriers and acceptable compromises were developed to overcome the problems. A small island was built outboard of the hull and instead of trunking all exhausts into one stack, exhaust ducts were run outboard and the four stacks supported with bracing. Thus the Independence class of light aircraft carriers was born.
The Independence class could steam at 32 knots and stay with the fleet. On a limited displacement of 10,000 tons the ships packed a very formidable air wing of 45 aircraft. This air complement was far more formidable than the numbers of aircraft that could be carried by the Japanese converted aircraft carriers and was at least equal to the striking power of most British full fleet carriers. Originally they were to use the standard CV nomenclature but due to their smaller size, they renamed light carriers CVL. Nine were ordered and converted from Cleveland class light cruiser hulls. All nine were commissioned in 1943 with USS Independence CVL-22 the first on January 1, 1943 and USS San Jacinto CVL-30 the last on December 15, 1943.
The design did provide fast carriers on a comparatively light displacement and were very cramped because of their size. However, in comparing the Independence class with Japanese light carrier designs, the USN CVL packed a very strong punch. Originally slated to carry 45 aircraft, the Independence could carry 40 in the hangar. Because of their high speed they served with the fast fleet units and were normally teamed with Essex class fleet carriers. Near the end of the war with a surplus of Essex class construction, they would sometimes serve to ferry aircraft with 40 in the hangar and 60 to 70 on deck. They had a limited future after the war, as they were simply a war time expedient. Originally slated to carry only fighters, they were to carry 48 F8F Bearcats and operate with the Essex and Midway classes, which would carry the attack aircraft. With budget cuts they were quickly removed from the fleet and placed in reserve status.
USS Independence was completed with 5-inch/25 gun positions at bow and stern but all of the subsequent ships were completed with 40mm mounts in these positions. USS Belleau Wood was laid down as the light cruiser New Haven CL-76 at New York Ship Building on August 11, 1941. Of course there was some delay when the cruiser design was switched to that of an aircraft carrier. The ship was launched as USS Belleau Wood CVL-24 on December 6, 1942 and was completed very quickly to be commissioned on March 31, 1942, the third of the class to go into service. However, it was not until June that Belleau Wood, along with Independence and Princeton deployed for action. Her first duty was to cover the occupation of Baker Island on September 1, 1943, along with Princeton, but there was no opposition, except for F6F Hellcats shooting down three Emily flying boats so quickly that they never had the chance to radio the presence of American forces. Belleau Wood saw her first combat action between September 18 and 19, 1943, when she, Lexington and Princeton raided Tarawa and Makin Islands. Next month Belleau Wood was part of the largest carrier strike yet made by the USN. Six carriers, three Essex class and three Independence class, stuck Wake Island on October 5 and 6. Operation Galvanic was a complex operation to seize Tarawa and Makin Island. Belleau Wood was teamed with Enterprise and Monterey as the Northern Carrier Group TG 50.2 left Pearl Harbor on November 10 with the mission to pulverize Makin Island, which was conducted on November 19 and 20 (D-Day). For Operation Galvanic Belleau Wood carried 38 Hellcats and 9 Avengers. Another six carrier strike was organized for December. Enterprise, Essex, Yorktown, Lexington, Belleau Wood and Cowpens were dispatched to ravage Kwajalein and Nauru. Belleau Wood was carrying 24 Hellcats and 9 Avengers for this operation. The Hellcats provided CAP for TG 50.3 of Essex, Enterprise and Belleau Wood, while the fleet carriers hit Japanese shipping and airfields on December 4, 1943.
At the start of February Belleau Wood was back to visit Kwajalein, along with Enterprise, Yorktown and three battleships. This time it was not just a raid but to support the seizure of Kwajalein, scheduled for February 1, 1943. Operation Hailstone was a deep strike directed at the base of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Truk. Belleau Wood and Enterprise were still teamed up but Yorktown was added as the third carrier. The strike was on February 17 and 18, 1944 and as a result of it the Japanese Navy moved their headquarters of the Combined Fleet out of the "Gibraltar of the Pacific". March was fairly quiet with Belleau Wood and Enterprise supporting the occupation of Emirau on the 20th but in April Belleau Wood, now teamed with Hornet, Cowpens and Bataan in TG 58.1, was part of a three carrier group mission to launch attacks on airfields on New Guinea to support General MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific operations. This operation was conducted between April 21 to 24, 1944.
June witnessed the American assault into the Mariana Islands with key objectives of Saipan and Guam. This resulted in the Battle of the Philippine Sea or the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. Belleau Wood was still with TG 58.1 but Yorktown was added to the mix. On June 19, 1944 Belleau Wood was in the thick of the battle. Radar spotted an unusual blip over Guam. Part of the CAP from Belleau Wood was sent to investigate but the blip proved to be swarms of Japanese fighters. They called for help and the rest of the ship’s Hellcats piled in, along with another 36 Hellcats from three other carriers of the TG. The major Japanese carrier strikes developed later in the morning and were in the form of four raids from 10:00 to 14:50. Although Belleau Wood carried mostly fighters (26 F6F), she was equipped with 9 Avengers (3 TBF and 6 TBM). In the twilight strike that evening this small group of Avengers found pay dirt. At 1621 TF 58 launched a huge strike of 85 Hellcats, 77 Helldivers and 54 Avengers from six fleet carriers and five light carriers. The target was the Japanese fleet, especially their carriers. LTJG George R. Brown led a four plane detachment of Belleau Wood’s Avengers and were flying with four Avengers from Yorktown. When they spotted the Japanese carriers, the four Yorktown Avengers went after Zuikaku. Brown wanted the Belleau Wood to have her own trophy. He spotted the carrier Hiyo and ordered his detachment to attack. Brown was hit and on fire. His two crewmen had to bail out but in diving the fire was put out. He dropped his torpedo, which probably hit, and a sure hit was obtained by LTJG Warren Omark. Brown severely injured, could no longer steer a straight course. Into the night his squadron mates accompanied him. However, his badly shot up Avenger flew into a cloud and was never spotted again. However, Brown’s two crewmen made it safely to the sea and witnessed the end of Hiyo. Nagato, Mogami and several destroyers steamed circles around the stricken carrier. Finally the big ships left, leaving only one destroyer as an attendant. "Fires spread rapidly over the carrier until she was burning from stem to stern. Three violent explosions were sharply felt by the swimmers, and several smaller explosions followed. As darkness descended, Hiyo, down by the bow so that her propellers were out of water, cast a brilliant light on the surrounding waters." (History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol VIII, New Guinea and the Marianas,1953, by Samuel Eliot Morison, at page 296) Within two hours of the attack, Hiyo had disappeared. Brown’s crewmen were picked up the next day.
On June 24 TG 58.1 raided Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima. Belleau Wood provided CAP and anti-submarine patrol as the other three carriers launched the strike. Japanese forces had detected the American approach and sent strikes against the Task Group. The Hellcats of Belleau Wood, along with AA fire, splashed all 20 torpedo bombers of the first wave. The second Japanese wave consisted of 23 fighters and 18 bombers. The Belleau Wood CAP intercepted them at long range. Seven bombers and ten fighters were knocked down before the surviving Japanese aircraft turned for home without sighting the American carriers. That fall Admiral Halsey was in command and the fast carriers were now part of Third Fleet. Belleau Wood had taken back up with Enterprise and those two carriers along with Franklin and San Jacinto were the strike force of TG 38.4. It was MacArthur’s big show, his return to the Philippines. During the Leyte operation Belleau Wood’s first mission was to send a fighter sweep, along with Hellcats from Franklin, over Manila and Manila Bay. The movements of the Battle of Leyte Gulf is well known. Since Belleau Wood was part of the fast carriers, she went north with the rest of the gang after Admiral Ozawa’s decoy carriers. In the Battle of Cape Engano the bombers of Belleau Wood and San Jacinto went after Japanese light cruisers. A hit was scored on Tama from a Belleau Wood Avenger. After the first strike Belleau Wood Hellcats loitered over the Japanese force for over 45 minutes, reporting on Japanese movements. On October 30, 1944 the Japanese finally got back at TG 38.4. Franklin was hit by one Kamikaze and Belleau Wood by another. The suicide plane went through her flight deck and the light carrier lost 12 aircraft, 92 men killed and 54 badly injured. The fire seriously damaged the ship. Franklin and Belleau Wood limped off to Ulithi.
The kamikaze strike knocked the Belleau Wood out of action for the remainder of 1944. In early 1945 it was again the turn of Admiral Spruance to take over as commander 5th Fleet. The operation would be the first carrier strike against the Japanese Home Islands since the Doolittle raid. The freshly repaired Belleau Wood was back with the fast carriers. She was the only CVL in TG 58.1, along with fleet carriers Hornet, Wasp and Bennington. In April the aircraft of Belleau Wood were part of the aerial storm that went after Yamato and her escorts. "One American had a grandstand seat for seeing this queen of battlewagons go down. He was Lieutenant (jg) W. E. Delaney USNR from carrier Belleau Wood. His Avenger had made bomb hits on Yamato from so low an altitude that the explosion set him afire and all had to bail out. The two crewmen had parachute trouble and were drowned, but Delaney managed to get into his rubber raft, from which he witnessed the death throes of Yamato." (History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol XIV, Victory in the Pacific 1945,1953, by Samuel Eliot Morison, at page 208)
After the damage from the kamikaze strike the next damage to Belleau Wood was not from the Japanese but from nature. On June 5, 1945 Third Fleet encountered her second devastating Typhoon. The first one was in December 1944 but Belleau Wood missed that one as she was under repair at the time. However, she didn’t miss the June storm. All four carriers of TG 38.1 were damaged. Belleau Wood had lowered her elevators to improve stability by having the weight of the elevators at a lower level. The Typhoon carried away the forward part of her starboard catapult and swept a sailor overboard. The captain maneuvered the carrier to rescue his sailor and during this time she was rolling 35 to 40 degrees. A tractor broke loose and damaged several planes. Finally Belleau Wood steered with the seas 20 to 30 degrees on her port bow and her captain reported that she, "rode like a little lady". After the war Belleau Wood was engaged in Operation Magic Carpet and then decommissioned on January 23, 1947. There was little future for the light carrier in the USN. The design could not be developed further. Belleau Wood was lucky. Named after a battle in France in WWI in which the USMC had participated, the French government was interested in the carrier in rebuilding the Marine Nationale. As a consequence Belleau Wood became the Bois Belleau and served in the French Navy until September 1960. Not bad for an improvised design. (History from: Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present, 1984, by Roger Chesneau; History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volumes VII, VIII, XII, XIII & XIV,1953, by Samuel Eliot Morison)
Dragon has released the USS Belleau Wood light carrier kit in 1:700 scale. This new release is part of their "Premium Edition" that adds additional features and parts to the original kit. The highlights of the "Premium Edition" for the Independence, released in the fall 2006, include new aircraft, as clear plastic F6Fs Hellcats and TBF Avengers are included in the kit, a new decal sheet, a brass photo-etch set that includes a brass hangar deck and clear plastic flight deck so that you can build the model showing the hangar. The DML Belleau Wood is also a "Premium Edition" release and adds additional parts and variants to the DML Independence kit. Although the bulk of the parts from both the Independence and Belleau Wood kits are identical, there are enough differences to give the Belleau Wood a different appearance from the Independence. Common sprues will be noted and differences pointed out in the review of each sprue. The DML Belleau Wood is clearly in the 1945 fit, as it has two catapults, 26 40mm guns and SK-2 radar, all found in 1945.
Sprue A – Hull
This fret also includes many other structural items for the hull. There is a so-so forecastle deck, end bulkheads with access doors, four stacks, nice stack external bracing and island. There are some nice plastic parts that you will not use because of the extras included in this "Premium Edition" kit. No need to use the plastic island mast, radar or boat crane, as the kit includes far better and finer brass photo-etch replacements on the enclosed fret. Other items include flag/jack staffs, bow and stern gun tubs, and bracing. This sprue is identical between the two kits.
Sprue B –Weapons
Sprue C– This sprue is produced in clear styrene plastic. Without the prior release of the Independence, I cannot say if this same sprue appeared in the earlier version in opaque gray, or if this sprue has been entirely redesigned. Unlike the DML Independence kit, there is no clear flight deck attached to this sprue, although the other parts are the same. The two most prominent of these parts are the hangar bulkheads. These bulkheads are loaded with detail, which includes roller screens in a closed position, doors, vertical ladders, ventilation openings, and portholes. The forward bulkheads are separate parts with detail consisting of portholes. Seven platforms are also found on this sprue, all of which had a foot grid pattern in relief. Other clear plastic parts are two twin 40mm guns with separate mounts, 22 carley floats and other miscellaneous fittings.
Sprue D – This sprue is concerned with the underwater portion of the model. The DML Belleau Wood, Premium Edition, can be built as waterline or full hull. The sprue is dominated by the lower half of the hull. Locator holes for the propeller shafts, shaft supports and rudder are found on the part. However, the keel appears too thick. Also on this sprue are the four shafts and four propellers, which are nicely done parts, as well as the single rudder. A stand for the full hull version of the model is also included with a nameplate for USS Independence but there is no nameplate for the Belleau Wood. This sprue is identical between the two kits.
Sprues E – Flight Decks
There are two E sprues in the Belleau Wood kit. There was no E sprue in the DML Independence kit. The two E sprues are identical except to the color of plastic used. One is opaque gray and the other is clear plastic. The flight deck itself is different from that found in the DML Independence kit. First it is a 1945 deck with two catapults. The second catapult was not added until 1945. There are also less deck side galleries as fewer 40mm mounts replaced the earlier, more numerous 20mm guns. The planking could be finer and the checked deck lines are raised. Most modelers will probably wish to sand the raised deck markings flat but be careful not to remove the arrestor cables and fittings, which are also raised on the deck. Since the Premium Edition Belleau Wood comes with the same brass hangar, as found in their Independence kit, some modelers may wish to leave this deck in clear plastic so that the hangar with planes can be seen below it. The flight deck has the side galleries and gun sponsons already part of the deck and both galleries and gun tubs have foot plate grids visible in the plastic. For the galleries, they show a perforated design but this is achieved through relief, rather than having actual holes for the perforations. For the gun positions, there is a cross-hatched grid design. This appears to be over scale but nonetheless the effect is attractive. Not every deck plank is depicted and yet there are sufficient lines to provide the planked effect. Arrestor gear positions are also molded into the plastic. The two deck elevators are clearly and cleanly indicated. They are part of the flight-deck and do not come as separate parts for assembly in a down position.
K Sprue – Weapons & Fittings
Brass Photo-Etch Frets–
The new smaller fret, found only in the Belleau Wood kit adds a larger bridge of a different design, new stack support lattices, new platforms, a circular SK-2 radar, a new larger lattice mast and railing for mast platforms. The addition of the lattice stack supports is an important addition not found in the Independence kit. The inclusion of the brass frets alone, make the Premium Edition DML Belleau Wood, far superior in terms of quality over the previous all plastic parts versions.
Dragon has included two new sheets of decals for this release. They are different from the single sheet found in their Independence release. Produced by the Italian company of Cartograf, the larger of the new decal sheets provides additional options for the modeler. There are three stern names provided in this sheet; USS Belleau Wood; USS Monterey and USS Cowpens. Although two large deck 4s, two 3s, two 5s and two 6s are included on the sheet, allowing for the numbers of other ships of the class to be modeled, there are only those three name plates. Likewise the small white hull numbers only include the numbers for those three carriers, # 24, 25 or 26. A full set of deck markings is included, as well as four national ensigns in two different sizes. Another option included in the decals is a choice of aircraft markings. Included are 50 national insignia with red outlines, used in 1943 and 50 national insignia without red outlines used for the rest of the war. However, since the kit represents the 1945 Belleau Wood, the red outline national insignia should not be used. Since each aircraft will show three insignia, one on the wing and two on the fuselage, there are more than enough to equip all included aircraft with enough to spare to add the insignia to the underside of the wings. The second sheet only has a single large deck number 22, which the deck number for Independence. Small white hull numbers are also included but no nameplate.
The instructions are produced in the standard fan fold out style of DML. There are eight pages. The first page includes depictions of the parts sprues and fret with unused parts highlighted in blue. Unused parts comprise a good portion of the K sprues and almost all of the parts of the B sprues. Page two includes icons used in construction, paint color designations and paint and markings detail for the aircraft. Page three contains hangar assembly, as well as armament assembly. Page four has hull assembly and also depicts platform with some fittings assembly. Please note: There are at least two errors on this page. The instructions show optional 5-inch guns at bow and stern. Only Independence and Princeton had these for a short period, not Belleau Wood. Another error depicts the two starboard gun tubs as receiving 20mm Oerlikons (K25). Wrong! This is the 1945 Belleau Wood and twin 40mm guns were in those positions, not pop gun 20mm. You have enough parts. I am surprised at this error as not only does the box art show the correct 40mm placement but also other diagrams in the instructions and the included plans show the correct twin Bofors. Page five attaches the flight deck and includes bracing and tower detail. Page six finishes assembly with boat crane, stacks and island attachment. Page seven shows two camouflage schemes, Ms 21 and Ms 22. However, Aircraft Carriers of the US Navy by Stefan Terzibaschitsch states that Belleau Wood wore only Ms 21 from January 1945 after her repairs from the kamikaze hit.
The Dragon Premium Edition of USS Belleau Wood in 1:700 scale is a somewhat different kit from the DML Independence. The Belleau Wood depicts the light carrier in 1945 with two catapults and 26 40mm guns. Two brass frets provide an extra level of detail not found in the Independence. Whether hitting the Hiyo, going after Yamato or fighting Typhoons, the Dragon Belleau Wood will do the job.