Above, USS Randolph under construction in Newport News
USS Randolph: The most famous aircraft carrier nobody heard of
From the carnage of Pearl Harbor aircraft carriers rose to rule the sea. US Presidents ask, in time of foreign crisis, "where are the carriers?" These great warships stand ready to assert American might in times of war, peace, and humanitarian relief.
The names of aircraft carriers are etched in naval history; Enterprise, Yorktown, America, Lexington, Essex, Independence, Hornet, Nimitz, Saratoga, etc. However, USS Randolph is forgotten. The name has not been passed to another warship. Even the Randolph's namesake lies in virtual obscurity. Four aircraft carriers were christened after founding fathers; USS Franklin, USS Hancock, USS George Washington, and USS Randolph. Three of the four founders are titular figures in American history, while Peyton Randolph has faded from the national consciousnesses -- much like the ship that bears his name.
USS Randolph plowed the seven seas for a quarter of a century, quietly intersecting with history throughout. I have a biased interest with Randolph. You see, my father, Eugene Santos, called this ship home during World War II.
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Below, USS Randolph commissioning on October 9, 1944
The Pacific Ocean covers 30 percent of the Earth's surface, approximately 60 million square miles. From late 1941 to 1945, the Empire of Japan and the United States savagely fought for control of the Pacific. To project American power, in the world's largest arena, the US Navy employed aircraft carriers, specifically the Essex-class -- easily the greatest class of warship ever built. For the first time opposing fleets would not come in sight of each other. Airplanes roamed the Pacific raining destruction on enemy shipping, planes, troop concentrations, and supplies. These planes launched from, and returned to floating airbases which moved throughout the Pacific like chess pieces. Twenty-four Essex carriers were built. Of these, fourteen saw combat in World War II. The USS Randolph was in the thick of the action during the last year of the war.
A ship is an inanimate object forged out of cold steel. When a crew is placed on-board, the ship, maliciously, becomes a living thing. Eugene Santos (working in the supply department) was one of the sailors who brought the Randolph to life. This, forever, made him a "plank-owner" of the ship.
Aircraft carriers are given the designation of "CV" by the US Navy. The Randolph was the fifteenth carrier ordered. Consequently her hull number was CV-15. She was built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia, and commissioned on October 9, 1944. Randolph became the first US capital ship sailing directly into combat, after shakedown, without returning to the yard for refitting.
The first pages of Randolph's glorious history preserved in the ship's log. On October 9, 1944 Randolph is officially commissioned into the US Navy
JAMBOREE:Going to War
Operation Jamboree was the first carrier airstrike on the Japanese homeland since the famed Doolittle raid, three years earlier. It was also Randolph's inaugural combat action. On February 16, 1945, a detachment of Task Force 58, concealed by poor weather, raced to within 60 miles of Japan. In contrast to the 16 bombers launched by Doolittle in 1942, Task Force 58 sent 1,100 aircraft over Tokyo. The distinctly striped tails of Randolph's Hellcats, Avengers, and Helldivers attacked aircraft factories, airfields and naval bases. It's less than seven months since the ship's launching -- a feat thought impossible. After two days Randolph and the detachment joined the fleet off Iwo Jima to support US Marines during the invasion.
Upper left: F6F Hellcats catapulting from Randolph. Upper right: Randolph in a hard port turn. Lower left: A battle damaged TBM Avenger ditches alongside Randolph. The crew scurries out of the sinking bomber. Lower right: Randolph with fleet off Iwo Jima, Feb 28, 1945.
Randolph's Action Report from Jamboree
The Kamikaze Attack
March 11, 1945, the US fleet rested comfortably, anchored at Ulithi Atoll -- approximately 850 miles from the nearest Japanese base -- air attack was not considered viable. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Japanese launched 24 twin-engine Yokosuka P1Y1 "Frances" bombers from Japan, over 1,300 miles away. These Kamikazes each carried a 1,700 pound bomb. Fortunately, some of the bombers returned with engine problems, while others became lost in squalls. Only two Frances made it to Ulithi, arriving at night. USS Hancock spotted the "bogies" on radar 68 miles out and vectored night fighters toward them. However, the Kamikazes had spiraled down from altitude when the interceptors arrived. The Frances were looking for targets; one crashed into Ulithi while the other approached Randolph's fantail above the waves - exactly were Seaman Eugene Santos was distributing mailbags in the hangar deck.
Randolph's crew was enjoying the movie 'A Song to Remember' in the forward hangar. Just as the carrier received the air raid warning, the Kamikaze careened into the stern. The 1,700 pound bomb blew downward, destroying 4,000 square feet of flight deck. The 27,000-ton ship shook violently. Seaman Santos was shielded from the blast by the mailbags. Fires were fed by ammunition, gasoline, and oxygen cylinders creating a conflagration. The whole stern was ablaze. Twenty seven sailors were dead and 105 injured, but the crew heroically fought the fire, saving the ship.
Inspections and clean-up began that night. Damage of this extent meant repairs at a yard stateside, but Randolph wasn't an ordinary ship. Repair crews from USS Jason went to work with help from the Randolph sailors. The enormity of the repair at sea is evident by the material ordered; 30 tons of steel plate, 29 tons of "I" beams, and 7,500 feet of flight deck lumber. Some of the "I" beams were procured from a Japanese sugar mill in recently captured Saipan. After 19 days Randolph was ready to land airplanes. Tests completed, she rejoined the fleet at Okinawa. The repair at sea was so exceptional, Randolph didn't require follow-up at a yard. No wonder she became known as "Rando Can Do."
US Navy footage of firefighting and damage assesment
the greatest air sea rescue
Crash site of VB-12 Helldiver
The Okinawa campaign was the peak period for Kamikazes, and were fast becoming problematic for the fleet. The Navy was accruing more battle deaths at sea than the Marines and Army ashore. To preempt attacks, the fleet sporadically struck Kamikaze bases in Japan.
During the morning of May 14, 1945, 60 planes of Randolph's Group 12 were streaking over Japan's southern most island, Kyushu -- bombing, strafing, and rocketing Usa Airfield. One VB-12 Helldiver was damaged attacking a hangar. Ens John Morris piloted the burning bomber to a water landing on the Inland Sea within sight of land. He and his gunner Cletis Phegley scurried onto the survival raft.
Eight Hellcats of VF-12 and VBF-12 circled overhead. The roar of the cats kept small boats away, but a large tanker was moving toward the downed air crew. The Hellcats pounced and the ship fled the area burning.
The fleet off Okinawa was fighting a Kamikaze raid as the cruiser USS Astoria received the most unlikeliest of orders; launch two Kingfisher seaplanes deep into Japanese territory for a rescue mission. Lt Charles Taylor and Lt (jg) Donald Comb catapulted individually off Astoria and escorted on the 360 mile journey by four Randolph Hellcats. Another four Hellcats from Randolph raced ahead to relieve the fighters already onsite.
The situation in the Inland Sea was becoming perilous. The patrolling Hellcats had already shot down a snooping Japanese airplane when they observed two enemy destroyers racing toward the raft. The original eight Hellcats were joined by four of their squadron mates which diverted from a photo reconnaissance sortie. The Hellcats relentlessly tore into the destroyers, forcing them to retreat.
After four hours, the two lumbering Kingfishers were traversing the Bunga Straits in the heart of Japan, through the haze, and onward to the Inland Sea. Both seaplanes landed and plucked the stranded sailors. In a scene out of a Hollywood action movie, the Kingfisher piloted by Comb, picked up Phegley, just as his engine sputtered to a stop. Comb used all three of his cartridge starters one by one before the final starter fired up the engine. As the formation exited through the Bunga Strait, they flew through withering anti aircraft fire, fortunately, both Kingfishers and all Hellcats made it back to the fleet. Morris and Phegley were returned to Randolph in time for dinner.
On this day, Randolph set a record with 199 launches and 197 recoveries. This was accomplished before the advent of the angle-deck carrier. Landing aircraft couldn't be spotted on the side but, rather, lowered in the forward elevator, fueled and armed in the hangar deck, then raised in the aft elevator for launch and so on.
OS2U Kingfisher catapulting from USS Astoria in 1944
Action report from USS Astoria May, 14, 1945
The Flag Ship
Since the days of sail, crews coveted the distinction of serving as the flag ship. Admiral Marc Mitscher raised his flag on the Randolph on May 15, 1945. The Pacific war was now being prosecuted from the Randolph's bridge. However, rather than pride, the crew succumbed to another age-old naval tradition: superstition. In the previous three days the flag ships, Bunker Hill and Enterprise, were blown up from under Mitscher's feet. The Randolph seafarers saw the Admiral as jinxed. Their worries proved for naught. While other carriers off Okinawa were torpedoed, bombed, and kamikazed, Randolph was unscathed despite being under daily attack.
From April 4 to May 31, Randolph's engines were constantly running as the ship amassed an amazing 25,000 miles of travel -- the equivalent of sailing around the Earth -- as she darted around Okinawa.
The Final Push to Japan
Attacking Japan in June. Randolph's aircraft raided airfields, and naval bases. Remaining active off Japan until receiving word of the Japanese surrender on August 15. Randolph's final tally included: 143 Japanese airplanes destroyed in dogfights, shipborne gunners shotdown an additional 4, another 71 on the ground during air strikes, and 87,000 tons of shipping sunk. Since commissioning the ship sailed 72,800 miles and launched 11,864 missions. Randolph paid with her dearest blood; losing 102 sailors and pilots since leaving Norfolk.
August 15, 1945, Captain Jackson Tate, who replaced Felix Baker as Randolph's commander weeks earlier, reads the announcement of the Japanese surrender. The war which killed 60 million was over. The crew of the Randolph reacts jubilantly.
Above, USS Randolph burns after P-38 crash -- seen from USS Texas
Above, damage control parties extinguish fires on Randolph's deck
June 7, 1945: the fleet temporarily retires from the war zone -- off the Philippines for replenishment. Randolph peaceful rides anchor as tank landing craft LCT-832 loads ammunition into her cargo hold. Seaman Santos is on deck watching two US Air Force Lockheed P-38 Lightnings practice strafing runs over Randolph. Overcome by a sense of foreboding, he retreats below deck. Moments later, the P-38 lost control and slams into Randolph's forward deck, killing thirteen sailors and destroying 10 of Randolph's aircraft.
As fortunate as Randolph was in combat, she seemed cursed in friendly harbors. However, luck was abound; none of the airplanes on deck were fueled nor was the ammunition on LCT-832 ignited. Either would have led to a catastrophic explosion. USS Jason repairs Randolph in four days, due to the damage being far less severe as the Kamikaze attack.
After the incident, Admiral Forrest Sherman threaten to shoot down any Air Force planes practicing strafing runs on the fleet. Needless to say, Sherman's orders was countermanded.
Above, Black dot below burning Randolph is probably LCT-832 clearing the area
Deck log records June 7th USAF P-38 crash into Randolph
At 1636 hours on May 15, 1945, the Admiral's flag is transferred to Randolph
Those who never returned from the sea
From Randolph's WWII cruise book: The Gangway
The Japanese signed the surrender on September 2 aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. While some 250 allied warships participated in the surrender ceremony, Randolph steamed in open waters to provide an umbrella over the fleet in case of a sneak attack. At right, British destroyer HMS Urchin crosses the bow of Randolph in August of 1945, off Japan.
Randolph returned to Norfolk, VA on October 15. The carrier traded her airplanes for bunk beds in the hangar deck. The "Magic Carpet" missions sent the ship twice to Naples, Italy to bring back troops. For the first time the crew of the Randolph saw the ravages of war up close. The Italians were homeless, starving, and dispirited. The landscape was apocalyptic -- the images would haunt my father. At right, Randolph at Naples November, 23-24, 1945.
Since the age of wooden vessels, the US Navy served as a quasi-diplomat, bringing American values and aid to distant shores. After the conflagration of World War II, the fleet returned to its diplomatic mission. There was a genuine concern of Communism spreading from Eastern Europe to the rim of the Mediterranean. The Navy thought 'show the flag' exercises and humanitarian aid would bolster governments in the region. Randolph's first post-war cruise, in 1946, sent the ship into the Mediterranean, visiting Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon. The war ravaged people came out in droves to get a glimpse of the carrier. Deployments like these by Randolph and other capital ships reaffirmed America's leadership in global dynamics, and peacefully prevented a Communist takeover of the Mediterranean. However, in the post-war era a 6,700-ship navy is unaffordable. On February 25, 1948, Randolph was decommissioned, but sleeps lightly because a troubled world will call her back.
Map from Randolph's 1946 cruise book
The reception in Turkey was overwhelming. Hordes crowded the waterfront, while the media reported widely on the carrier's visit.
USS Randolph in Portsmouth, England, during 1947 call. Essex-class carriers were normally the most prestigious vessels in port. However, during this visit, Randolph relinquished that honor to the small wooden sailing ship at left, which is non other than HMS Victory -- flagship of the Battle of Trafalgar.
By 1956 Randolph underwent a SCB-125 modification. This added an angled flight deck and an enclosed hurricane bow. This Randolph was unrecognizable from her World War II angular appearance. This was a much sexier ship, more capable, almost doubling her displacement to 47,000 tons.
On 29 October 1956, Israel, Britain, and France invaded and captured the Suez Canal in Egypt. The carriers Randolph and Coral Sea were participating in amphibious exercises in nearby Crete and were ideally suited for evacuating Americans from the war zone. The Air Force airlifted 1,200 Americans from Israel, but couldn't evacuate those beyond the reaches of airports. Furthermore, Cairo, Egypt was under attack and the airport besieged. 6th Fleet ships withdrew US citizens from the ports of Haifa, Israel and Alexandria, Egypt as Randolph's jets flew overhead. The Navy successfully evacuated 3,000 Americans without injuries.
The Soviet Union threatened to intervene in Egypt and attack London and Paris with atomic bombs. Soviet forces deployed to Syria for an invasion of Israel. USS Franklin Roosevelt and USS Forrestal reinforced the 6th Fleet. Randolph's Captain advised the crew that war with the Russians could break out at any moment. Consequently the fleet was on a war footing. Randolph's operating area was euphemistically called 'Point Moses'.
The four aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, including Randolph, gave President Dwight Eisenhower the upper hand. Tensions eventually defused, allowing diplomacy to prevail.
Banshees of VF-102 over Randolph during the Suez Crisis
Randolph sporting her new enclosed hurricane bow in June 1957. This prevents heavy seas from entering her hangar deck and pounding the flight deck. Compare to USS Valley Forge in background, which still has open bow.
Recommissioning and messing with mother nature
A permanent peace after World War II was impossible. By 1950 China had fallen to Communism, and US forces became embroiled in Korea, fighting a Communist invasion. USS Randolph was pulled out of mothball and underwent a 30-month overhaul. Known as a SCB-27A modification, the flight deck and elevators were strengthen to handle the heavier jets. The 5" gun turrets were removed and the island shorten to clear deck space. Randolph emerged from the yard a new ship. She was recommissioned on July 1, 1953 as CVA-15. The "A" designates the ship as an attack carrier. A special guest at the recommissioning was Edward Fairfax Randolph, descendant of the ship's namesake Peyton Randolph.
Top: Randolph alongside legendary ocean liner SS United States at Newport News during SCS-27A modification.
Middle left: Randolph's new streamlined island during recommissioning.
Middle right: Randolph at Norfolk shortly after launching.
Left: Peyton Randolph's descendant Edward Fairfax Randolph with Captain Quackerbush during recommissioning.
Randolph's log from the recommissioning
Randolph sailed straight into a category 3 hurricane during the night of September 10-11, 1954. Hurricane Edna battered the carrier. Off Cape Hatteras, Randolph rode nearly 100-foot waves, rolling side to side as much as 35 degrees. The ship's expansion joints stretched wildly appearing as though the vessel would snap in half. Waves crashed over the bow, washing through the open hangar deck, pulverizing everything in its path. Hitting the bottom of swells, Randolph would come to an abrupt stop, shuddering violently. The fantail rising out of the water with the screws whining in the air. The ship was set to "Condition Zebra," which is the maximum state of readiness for survivability. For hours Randolph withstood the fury of Edna. She exited the hurricane heavy damaged. The flight deck at the bow was twisted and raised 11 inches. Structure was damaged or demolished. Radio rooms were flooded. Topside, catwalks, antennas, guns, and lights were ripped off. Yet, there were no serious injuries or fatalities. Randolph did what she always did; brought the crew back home.
Once at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, a new method had to be developed to repair the ship and rapidly return her to service. Instead of removing the flight deck, the dock workers improvised and jacked the flight deck to access and replace structural supports. While in the shipyard, mother nature took another swipe at Randolph as Hurricane Hazel struck. However, the homesick ship couldn't be kept from the sea. The carrier was floated out of drydock on November 1, 1954, months earlier than expected.
Randolph's deck logs from Edna. Second page details the extensive damage
A Very Special Visitor
One of the most influential figures of the 20th century toured USS Randolph on October 26, 1958. Sir Winston Churchill, who led Britain during its darkest hours, came aboard at Cannes, France. This was the only time Churchill boarded a US warship after World War II. 'Randolph' was an old family name and one of the reasons precipitating the visit, Sir Winston explained to Randolph's Captain Strean. In the attached telegram, he recounted the trip as a "delightful and exciting experience." This was also Churchill's first helicopter ride, which the former Prime Minister described as "exhilarating."
With 400 Soviet submarines posing a threat to the world's sea lanes, many Essex-class carriers traded their attack missions for anti-submarine roles. In 1959, Randolph underwent such a conversion and redesignated CVS-15. She was fitted with a bow sonar and her air group consisted of a mix of sub hunting helicopters and twin-engine airplanes.
Legendary CBS news man, Walter Cronkite, filmed a documentary on-board Randolph -- aptly named: "Sub-Killers." The show aired on November 13, 1960, and featured the wide ranging capabilities of the carrier to hunt and attack submarines.
In 1963, Grumman Aircraft produced its own anti-submarine film. "Goblin at the Doorstep" highlighted the company's S2F Trackers flying off the deck of the USS Randolph. By this time, Randolph was the premiere sub hunter in the fleet.
However, nothing can top CVS-15 appearance in the opening credits of the 1963 movie "Follow the Boys." Connie Francis belts out her rousing top 20 song of the same title as we're treated to sweeping panoramic views of Randolph in Cannes Harbor.
"Standby for Collision on Port Side!!!"
On October 16, 1961, USS Randolph was conducting sonar sweeps off the coast of Charleston, SC. As the sun set, the destroyer USS Stormes (DD-780) came alongside for fuel. The carrier began fueling the destroyer at 5:48pm. Randolph's radar detected a ship approaching fast on a collision course. Tethered to the destroyer by a fuel line, Randolph couldn't maneuver. Instead, she ordered the approaching vessel to alter coarse on the radio. The ship kept coming. Randolph's whistle sounded 6 blasts to no avail. Randolph directed the destroyer Stormes to execute an "emergency breakaway." Within a minute the speedy Stormes clears out. Randolph sounds 3 more blasts. Captain Harry Cook reverses the carrier; "all engines back full." The collision horn is rung with the announcement: "standby for collision on port side!" At 6:19pm Liberian-registered oil tanker Atlantic Viscountess gorged into the Randolph's port (left) bow. The tanker's prow buried into the carrier. To free itself, Randolph lunges ahead with Atlantic Viscountess scrapping the carrier's port side. Randolph had a 25-foot rupture in the hull and a torching fire, which was quickly brought under control. There were no serious injuries on the carrier. Randolph sent a medical staff to the Atlantic Viscountess to tend to the injured. Randolph returned to Norfolk for repairs.
Video taken of the collision damage by Randolph sailor Rudi Markl
Log entries are usually mundane but the accounts of the Oct 16, 1961 collision are quite dramatic
The right stuff
In July 1961 Randolph sailed into the Caribbean as the recover ship for astronaut Gus Grissom on America's second manned space flight, which lasted a mere 15 minutes. Upon splashdown, the spacecraft's hatch prematurely blew off. With seawater entering the capsule, named Liberty Bell 7, Grissom's life was endangered. The Randolph's helicopters were expecting to perform a routine recovery now had to rescue a drowning astronaut. Grissom's suit filled with water and downwash from the helicopter's rotors was pushing the astronaut below the surface. For three perilous minutes Grissom struggled to stay afloat. Finally, a helicopter plucked Grissom, while another wrestled with the sinking capsule. Liberty Bell 7 was fully submerged and pulling the helicopter into the water. The pilot had to release the capsule to the murky depths of the Caribbean. Liberty Bell 7 was discovered and raised from the sea floor 38 years later in 1999.
In February 1962, Randolph was standing-by as the command ship of a flotilla to recover astronaut John Glenn. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth. Determining the splashdown area from a orbit was exponentially harder than a 15-minute vertical flight into space and back. To complicate matters, Glenn's capsule, Friendship 7, developed a malfunction on the third orbit, precipitating its early return. A sonic boom was heard over the fleet as the spacecraft reentered the atmosphere. The capsule floated in the Caribbean for 20 minutes before the destroyer USS Noa retrieved Friendship 7. Glenn and Friendship 7 were transferred to Randolph.
Randolph's log from Grissom recovery
Randolph's log from Glenn recovery
Minutes from nuclear war
The Cuban Missile Crisis broke out in October of 1962. The Soviet Union placed ballistic missiles in Cuba which could strike New York and Washington, DC. President John F Kennedy was given three military options; (1) invade Cuba, (2) bomb the missile sites, or (3) a naval blockade of Cuba. The US President chose the naval blockade, which he chose to call a quarantine. To further complicate global dynamics, four Soviet submarines were traversing into the Caribbean as a prelude to a larger Russian naval presence. President Kennedy made it a priority to locate the submarines.
The USS Randolph was training off the Virginia Cape with her Task Group when orders came to join the fleet quarantining Cuba. Entering the Sargasso Sea on October 27th, the Randolph Task Group immediately cornered a submerged Russian submarine, the B-59. Destroyers of the Task Group began dropping practice grenades to force B-59 to the surface. The Russian crew believed they were under attack. The captain and political officer consented to using a nuclear tip torpedo against the Task Group but were reversed by the overall commander, who was not going to start World War III. B-59 was subjected to nearly 24 hours of sonar pinging from the destroyers and aircraft. With batteries low and crew fatigued, B-59 surfaced amongst the Task Group at 8:53pm. The submariners wondered which carrier doggedly pursued them. With the early morning light, they clearly saw 'RANDOLPH' inscribed on the fantail.
October 27th is referred to as 'Black Saturday'. The B-59 hunt followed an accidental U-2 intrusion into Russia while another U-2 was shot-down over Cuba. Field commanders had their fingers on the nuclear trigger rather than the leadership of the United States and Soviet Union. The following day cooler heads prevailed, as Khrushchev and Kennedy came to an agreement to resolve the crisis.
The Smithsonian Channel's submarine docu-drama 'Hell Below' on August 5, 2018 recounted the apocalyptic cat and mouse game between B-59 and the Randolph group in an episode titled 'Cuban Crisis'.
Headlines from the Arizona Republic on October 23, 1962 heralds the naval blockade of Cuba and escalating tensions.
Russian submarine B-59 forced to the surface with a Randolph Sikorsky Seabat helicopter hovering above.
The crew of the Randolph displays two Battle Efficiency "E" awards, one awarded to the best anti-submarine carrier, and the other the sixth consecutive Efficiency Award presented to the Engineering Department.
Russian painting by Valentin Pechatin depicting the surfacing of B-59 by the Randolph Task Group.
Randolph's log for the 27th simply reads; "2053 Submerged contact being kept under surveillance during the day surfaced at this time."
Randolph's position while pursuing B-59, 3 hours before surfacing
RANDOLPH'S ELEVATOR FALLS INTO THE SEA
During the night of April 1st 1964, off the coast of Virginia, while launching and recovering planes, a fire broke out on the ship's Number 3 deck elevator. Elevators raise and lower aircraft between the flight deck and hangar deck. The elevator broke off dropping into the sea taking with it five sailors, a Grumman Tracker, and a vehicle. Randolph sounded fire quarters and man overboard alarms -- then came to a stop and turned on the man overboard lights. The destroyer USS Holder (DD-814), trailing the carrier as the "lifeguard," retrieved three sailors from the water. Despite searches through the next day, two men were lost at sea. Randolph pulled into Norfolk for repairs.