The USS Bunker Hill, an esteemed Essex-class aircraft carrier, played a pivotal role in the United States Navy during World War II.

Commissioned in 1943, it was at the forefront of numerous key battles in the Pacific Theater, shaping the course of the war at sea.

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Design Of USS Bunker Hill

The Essex-class carriers, including the USS Bunker Hill, were designed with several advancements over previous carrier designs. This class was conceptualized following the limitations experienced with earlier carriers during the early stages of the Pacific War. The key design objectives were to enhance aircraft operational capacity, survivability, and versatility.

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The Bunker Hill measured approximately 872 feet in length and had a beam (width) of 147 feet at the flight deck. This size made it significantly larger than the preceding Yorktown-class carriers. The larger size allowed for a more spacious flight deck, which was crucial for handling the larger number of aircraft and the more complex operations they entailed. The standard displacement of the Bunker Hill was about 27,100 tons, but this could increase to over 36,000 tons when fully loaded for combat operations.

USS Bunker Hill pictured at sea in 1943.

Powered by eight Babcock & Wilcox boilers and four Westinghouse geared steam turbines, the Bunker Hill had an impressive power output. This system drove four propellers and provided a total of 150,000 shaft horsepower. The carrier was capable of reaching speeds up to 33 knots, making it one of the fastest vessels of its size at the time. This speed was crucial for outrunning threats and for flexible positioning during air operations.

The Essex-class carriers, including the Bunker Hill, were equipped with a formidable array of defensive armaments. This included 12 5-inch (127 mm) 38-caliber dual-purpose guns, 32 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns, and 46 20-mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons. The enhanced anti-aircraft armament was a direct response to the increasing threat of enemy aircraft.

In terms of armor, the Bunker Hill had a much-improved protection scheme compared to earlier carriers. The class featured an armored flight deck, a feature that was not present in the earlier Yorktown-class. This addition provided significant protection against aerial bombs. The hull was also protected by a belt of armor, and the vital machinery and magazines were protected by additional armored bulkheads.

One of the most significant features of the Essex-class was their large air group. The Bunker Hill was designed to carry a complement of up to 90-100 aircraft, a substantial increase over earlier carriers. This capacity allowed for a diverse mix of aircraft types, including fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. The hangar deck was spacious, and the design included two aircraft elevators and multiple catapults to facilitate rapid aircraft deployment and recovery.

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The construction of the USS Bunker Hill was part of a larger wartime shipbuilding effort that emphasized speed without sacrificing quality. Built at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, the Bunker Hill was laid down on September 15, 1941, launched on December 7, 1942, and commissioned on May 24, 1943. The speed of construction was remarkable, reflecting the urgency and industrial capability of the United States during the war.

Service In World War II

The Bunker Hill’s first major engagement was in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign. During this campaign, it provided air support for the amphibious assaults on Tarawa (November 1943) and Kwajalein (January-February 1944). These operations were vital in breaching the Japanese defensive perimeter in the central Pacific. The carrier’s aircraft were instrumental in softening enemy defenses prior to the landings and providing close air support to ground troops.

In February 1944, the Bunker Hill participated in Operation Hailstone, a massive two-day air and naval attack on Truk Lagoon, a significant Japanese naval base. The carrier’s aircraft launched sorties against Japanese ships and facilities, contributing to the destruction of a substantial portion of the Japanese fleet and air capabilities in the region. This raid effectively neutralized Truk as a threat and hindered Japanese operational capabilities in the Pacific.

A near miss from Japanese bomb during the Battle of the Phillipine Sea, 19 June 1944.

One of the most significant engagements of the Bunker Hill was in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, often referred to as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” During this battle, the carrier’s air group played a critical role in the overwhelming defeat of the Japanese naval air force. The battle resulted in the loss of hundreds of Japanese aircraft and several carriers, severely crippling Japanese naval aviation capabilities.

In October 1944, the Bunker Hill participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II. The carrier’s aircraft attacked Japanese surface ships in several phases of this multi-faceted battle, contributing to the eventual U.S. victory. This victory was instrumental in liberating the Philippines and cutting off Japan from its occupied territories in Southeast Asia.

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In 1945, the Bunker Hill continued its operations in the Pacific, supporting the invasions of Iwo Jima in February and Okinawa in April. During these operations, the carrier’s aircraft provided crucial air support, attacking Japanese positions, and aiding ground forces.

The service of the Bunker Hill was dramatically altered on May 11, 1945. While operating off the coast of Okinawa, the carrier suffered severe damage from two successive kamikaze attacks. The attacks caused extensive fires and explosions on board, resulting in the tragic loss of 346 crewmen and injuring 264 others. The damage inflicted was significant, but the carrier did not sink, thanks to the rapid and effective response of its crew.

Bunker Hill after being hit by a Japanese Zero in a kamikaze attack, 11 May 1945.

The Fate Of USS Bunker Hill

After World War II, the demand for large-scale naval combat operations diminished significantly. Consequently, the Bunker Hill was repurposed for peacetime activities. Initially, it was used as a training vessel. In this role, the carrier helped in honing the skills of naval aviators and crew, ensuring that the Navy maintained a state of readiness and proficiency in carrier operations even during peacetime.

The carrier was also used for transport duties under “Operation Magic Carpet,” a mission to repatriate U.S. military personnel from the Pacific Theater. This humanitarian role showcased the versatility of aircraft carriers beyond combat operations, as they were repurposed to bring thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen back home after the war.

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In 1947, the USS Bunker Hill was placed in the reserve fleet, reflecting the downsizing of the U.S. Navy’s active forces in the post-war period. During its time in the reserve fleet, the carrier was kept in a state of readiness, allowing for potential reactivation if the need arose. However, it never returned to active service.

In the 1950s, the Bunker Hill was reclassified as an auxiliary ship, specifically an Auxiliary Aircraft Transport with the hull classification symbol CV(A)-17. This reclassification was part of a broader effort to categorize and organize the Navy’s assets in a manner that reflected their potential peacetime roles and uses.

Despite its illustrious service history and the modifications it underwent, the Bunker Hill was ultimately deemed surplus in the context of the evolving technological and strategic landscape of the Navy. In 1973, the carrier was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register, marking the end of its official status as a naval asset.

USS Bunker Hill being scrapped in 1973.

In 1974, the USS Bunker Hill was sold for scrap. The decision to scrap the vessel was driven by several factors, including the high maintenance costs of keeping such a large ship in reserve, the rapid advancements in carrier technology rendering older ships obsolete, and the strategic shift towards supercarriers in the Cold War era.