Casco Bay (Greater Portland) Maine Naval Operations1941 – 1945
With Arctic Convoy Commemorations in Archangel scheduled for late August 2021, we are all familiar with the story of the Liberty Ships in World War Two. Hundreds of these merchant ships were built in South Portland Maine and some of them carried vital war supplies to Archangel on the Arctic Convoys.
However, the story of United States Naval Operations in Casco Bay Maine during the War is also remembered.
By the summer of 1941, the Lend-Lease program was supplying war ships and supplies to Great Britain in the fight against Hitler. In addition, the U.S. Navy was engaged in the "Neutrality Patrol" in the Western Atlantic to prevent German submarine attacks. The U.S. government recognized that a wider war with Germany was coming and decided to establish two new Naval Operating Bases: an "outer" base in Placentia Bay, Argentia Newfoundland and an "inner" base in Casco Bay, Greater Portland Maine. Construction was well under way by mid-1941.
The many islands of Casco Bay provided a perfect protected anchorage and harbor for naval warships; the channels between the islands were guarded with submarine nets and sunken "block ships". The code name for this Casco Bay project was "Base Sail" and its purpose was to provide training, repair, refueling and re-supply for the warships and crews passing through to and from patrols and duties in the North Atlantic and beyond.
During the war, hundreds of U.S. Navy warships of all types visited Casco Bay, including aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and destroyer escorts. For example, in 1944, 336 warships visited Casco Bay, including battleship Nevada (BB 36), the only battleship to successfully get underway during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Warships frequenting Casco Bay during the War were often assigned to convoy escort duties along the U.S. East Coast and across the Atlantic to Africa, Europe and beyond.
On March 26, 1942, U.S. Navy Task Force 39 formed up and sailed from Casco Bay, crossed the Atlantic to reinforce the British Home Fleet and arrived at Scapa Flow in Scotland on April 4, 1942. This initial American Task Force consisted of several warships including battleship Washington (BB 56), aircraft carrier Wasp (CV 7); heavy cruisers Wichita (CA 45) and Tuscaloosa (CA 37); and destroyers Mayrant (DD 402), Rhind (DD 404), Rowan (DD 405) and Wainwright (DD 419). In company with other Royal Navy ships, the American Task Force provided covering escort for outbound Arctic Convoy PQ 15 in late April/early May 1942; all 25 of the merchant ships in this convoy arrived safely in Murmansk. In late May 1942, the Task Force provided similar escort duties for Convoy PQ 16; 25 of the 35 merchant ships in this convoy arrived safely in Murmansk and Archangel. Although the American Task Force helped escort the next Artic Convoy PQ 17 in July 1942, vicious German air and submarine attacks sunk 24 of the 35 merchant ships. On July 4, 1942 American destroyers Wainwright and Rowan were attacked in the Barents Sea by
several German torpedo aircraft but the ships escaped with no significant damage and no loss of life. Most of the surviving merchant ships reached Archangel.
Warships preparing to escort PQ 17.
Scapa Flow, Scotland, June 1942.
Foreground: USS Washington
Middle: HMS Norfolk
Background: USS Wichita
Casco Bay remained an important naval base even after Germany surrendered in May 1945. By that time, Allied Forces were continuing attacks against Japan and were sustaining significant losses in the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns; U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard warships were suffering deadly attacks from Japanese suicide Kamikaze aircraft. The invasion of Japan's Home Islands was planned for November 1, 1945 and U.S. war planners were eager to find better defensive measures against massed Kamikaze attacks. In May 1945, Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr. was ordered to Casco Bay to direct a project to improve Kamikaze defense, using ships, drones and new weapons. He and his wife made a home in Falmouth Maine and he commuted by boat to his office on board battleship Wyoming (BB 32) at anchor in Casco Bay. Unfortunately, Admiral Lee suffered a fatal heart attack on August 25, 1945 while enroute to his Flagship (just nine days before Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945).