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She began life as a nameless Hull in the Kaiser shipyards in Vancouver, Washington, on December 12, 1942. And she ended her short, 11-month span in 23 terrifying minutes off Makin Atoll in the Pacific, after being struck by a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine.
She was the first of her flock to go, but before war's end in 1945, the ill-fated CVE-56 would be joined by five more American-built escort carriers (CVEs) sunk by enemy action. They were: Block Island (CVE-21), sunk by the German submarine U-549 in the Atlantic on May 29, 1944; Gambier Bay (CVE-73), sunk in the Battle of Samar by Japanese cruiser gunfire on October 25, 1944; St. Lo (CVE-63), sunk by a Japanese kamikaze plane attack on October 25, 1944; Ommaney Bay (CVE-79), scuttled after being struck by a kamikaze on January 4, 1945; and Bismarck Sea (CVE-95), sunk by a kamikaze off Iwo Jima on February 21, 1945.
The loss of these ships, tragic and costly in lives as they were, did not compare to the shock that went through America's CVE crews when that first escort carrier was sunk in November 1943. Relatively speaking, it should also be noted, no other single carrier in World War II, escort, light or fast, suffered higher casualties — 600 men killed out of a crew of 900, 70 percent of the crew gone in only 20-plus minutes.
CVE-56 had a name, of course — the USS Liscome Bay.
She began her life as Maritime Commission Hull No. 1137. And when work began on her in earnest as an auxiliary aircraft tender, her designation was changed to Kaiser Shipyards Hull No. 302.
The name she would be given upon her completion, and when she was turned over to the British Royal Navy, would be HMS Ameer (ACV-56).
By April 19, 1943, Ameer's Hull and part of her flight deck were finished. She was launched in a special ceremony at the Kaiser shipyards by her sponsor, Mrs. Clara Morrell. Mrs. Morrell was the wife of Rear Adm. Ben Morrell, founder of the U.S. Navy 'Seabees.' Also attending the ceremony was Mrs. Walter Krebs, matron of honor; Lt. Cmdr. H.C. Zitzewitz, liason officer at the Vancouver yards; and James MacDonald, the British consul in Portland, Ore., who spoke at the ceremony.
After an invocation by Dr. Perry C. Hoffer of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, Mrs. Morrell stepped up to the platform built near the bow of the partially finished Hull and smashed the traditional bottle of champagne against the bow section, sending Ameer sliding down the ways into the Columbia River.
On the same day, tugs took the powerless Hull and towed it downstream 100 miles from Vancouver to the Astoria (Oregon) Naval Station for final fitting out and delivery.
By that time, 3 1/2 months later, in August 1943, the Ameer would have new owners and even a new name.
On June 28, 1943, the vice chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral J.H. Newton, endorsed a recommendation that 29 auxiliary aircraft carriers built for the British navy be assigned to the United States. He further recommended changing their British names and redesignating their class as CVE (aircraft carrier, escort) instead of ACV (auxiliary aircraft carrier).
And so HMS Ameer, formerly Hull No. 302, become USS Liscome Bay, named after a small bay on the south coast of Dall Island, which lies off the southern coast of Alaska. This followed the practice of naming escort carriers after bays, islands and sounds of the United States, or after major U.S. operations, battles and engagements.
On July 15, 1943, Liscome Bay's redesignation from ACV-56 to CVE-56 was completed. The fitting out continued in Astoria. On August 7, 1943, Liscome Bay was delivered to the U.S. Navy. Her log records the event: '1105. Pursuant to orders…. Vessel commissioned U.S.S. Liscome Bay….Capt. I.D. Wiltse assumed command.'
Like all escort carriers, Liscome Bay was built mostly from a converted merchant-ship Hull. Her primary functions were to serve as a convoy escort, to provide aircraft for close air support during amphibious landing operations, and to ferry aircraft to naval bases and fleet carriers at sea.
Accordingly, she was built no larger than her original Hull, given no more armament than was considered necessary for self-defense, and allowed no more speed than she needed to perform the tasks assigned her.
She was 512 feet long, with a beam of 108 feet. She displaced 7,800 tons. Her flight deck was only 400 feet long and 80 feet wide. Two elevators had been installed, one forward, one aft, and a single catapult was located forward on the port side, over the bow.
Her armament consisted of a single l5-inch, .38-caliber open gun mounted in a gun tub overhanging her square stern. Sixteen 40mm cannons in two mounts and twenty 20mm machine guns, scattered below the flight deck on both port and starboard sides, were her chief anti-aircraft armament.
Liscome Bay's 'black gang' worked with her two Skinner Uniflow reciprocating steam engines in twin, split-plan engine rooms, using superheated steam running at 4,500 ihp (indicated horsepower) and 161 rpm to turn the ship's twin propellers and produce her top speed of 16 knots.
Liscome Bay carried a crew of 960 men. Most were recent graduates from boot camp. Others, like the aerology crew, had served on board the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) before she was sunk in the South Pacific by a Japanese submarine in September 1942. Others had served on the ill-fated heavy cruiser Quincy (CA-39), sunk in the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942. A few had been on the legendary carrier Enterprise (CV-6), and several of her crewmen had witnessed the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Veteran or recruit, old salt or recent landlubber, all had to consider that the most important member of the crew was their skipper, Captain Irving Day Wiltse, 56, Liscome Bay's first and last commanding officer. He had served as a navigator on the U.S. carrier Yorktown (CV-5) during the Battle of Midway and had commanded a seaplane tender, the Albemarle, before assuming command of Liscome Bay on the day of her commissioning. Wiltse was respected by his crew.
A month after the commissioning, after all the initial trials and shakedown cruises around Astoria, Liscome Bay got underway under her own power for the first time.
Arriving at Puget Sound on September 8, Liscome Bay proceeded to Bremerton Naval Station for degaussing and adjusting of her compasses and radio equipment. She spent four days undergoing further ship's trials before sailing for Seattle, Wash. There, her 20mm AA guns were test-fired. She docked until September 17, 1943, and then sailed for San Francisco. Liscome Bay docked at the Alameda Naval Air Station for refueling and to take on more personnel. The next stop would be San Diego, for an extensive series of shakedown drills and exercises off the southern California coast.
On October 11, while the escort carrier was docked in San Diego for refueling, she received an addition to her complement in the form of Rear Adm. Henry Maston Mullinnix, who would be commanding a carrier division, with Liscome Bay as his flagship.
Called by a former classmate 'one of our outstanding young admirals,' Henry Mullinnix had graduated first in his Navel Academy class of 1916, had served in World War I on a destroyer, had helped design the Navy's first diesel engine, had become a Navy pilot, and had commanded the carrier Saratoga (CV-3) before being appointed to the rank of admiral on August 28, 1943.
A sailor who served on his staff later said, 'As a man, you couldn't find a person any better… '
He was accompanied by his chief of staff, Captain John G. Crommelin. An outstanding pilot and officer, Crommelin had served aboard the Enterprise at the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1942, and was the oldest of five brothers, all Annapolis graduates, all naval officers who would serve in the war. 'He was as fine a man as the admiral,' one sailor said of Crommelin. 'You could talk to him about any problem you had.'
Crommelin's job as chief of staff was to ensure the efficient operation of the staff for Carrier Division 24, Mullinnix's first flag command. At 1000 hours in October 11, Mullinnix, in the words of the log, 'Hoisted his flag aboard Liscome Bay.'
More time was now spent in extensive drills and shakedown cruises. On October 14, the carrier received its aircraft, 12 FM-2 and F4F Wildcat fighters and 16 TBM-1C Avenger torpedo bombers as Composite Squadron No. 39. The commander of Composite Squadron 39 (known as VC-39 in Navy records), Lt. Cmdr. Marshall U. Beebe, became responsible for flight operations of the squadron and for the lives of its 36 officers and 41 enlisted men.
After further drills, along with landing and takeoff practice by VC-39's planes, Liscome Bay set sail October 22 for Pearl Harbor — and the new ship's first battle mission.
The carrier reached Pearl Harbor on October 28 and moored at the Ford Island Naval Air Station. There were additional drills and exercises in Hawaiian waters, including rehearsals for the upcoming Gilbert Islands invasion, until on November 10, Liscome Bay, accompanied by her sister ships Coral Sea (CVE-57) and Corregidor (CVE-58), sortied from Pearl Harbor with the ships of Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner's Northern Attack Force, Task Force 52. Included in the force were the battleships New Mexico, Mississippi, Idaho and Pennsylvania, four heavy cruisers and 14 screening destroyers, all escorting six transports carrying units of the 165th Regimental Combat Team of the 27th Infantry Division.
The Liscome Bay and her companion ships soon joined the most powerful U.S. naval force assembled in the Pacific up to that time-13 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 4 Essex-class and 4 Independence-class aircraft carriers, 4 escort carriers, 70 destroyers and destroyer escorts. In all, 191 warships in four task forces, coming together from six different directions, all closing in on three tiny Japanese-held atolls in the Central Pacific: Tarawa, Makin and Abemama in the Gilbert Islands.
The pending operation was code-named Galvanic. Its objective was the capture of all three atolls as a steppingstone for future landings in the nearby Marshall Islands. The planners wanted to establish airfields and naval bases in the Gilberts, and to give U.S. forces valuable experience in amphibious operations.
The Southern Attack Force, or Task Force 53, under the command of Rear Adm. Harry W. Hill, was assigned the capture of Tarawa Atoll in the central Gilberts. The northern Attack Force, Task Force 52, under Admiral Turner, was given the objective of capturing Makin Atoll in the northern Gilberts. Marine raiders, operating from the submarine Nautilus, would take Abemama in a separate operation while the main forces were assaulting Tarawa and Makin.
It was with these objectives laid out that Task Force 52 had sortied from Pearl Harbor on the morning of November 10, 1943.
Between November 11 and 19, Liscome Bay, along with the other carriers of CarDiv24, conducted flight operations and anti-aircraft gunnery practice and provided aircraft for anti-submarine patrols around the task force as it steamed for its distant objective.
Even these routine aircraft operations were not without cost. On November 15, Liscome Bay suffered her first operational casualty when Ensign F.C. Fairman's FM-1 Wildcat crashed at sea three minutes after launching. Ensign Fairman was killed in the crash.
By 'Dog Day,' November 20, Task Force 52 had arrived off Makin Atoll and commenced its pre-landing bombardment of the landing beaches. There was no reply from the outnumbered Japanese defenders on Makin's main island, Butaritari, but an accidental explosion in the main gun turret of the battleship Mississippi killed 43 men and wounded 19 others.
The landing forces went ashore and, overcoming fierce Japanese resistance, secured the island on November 23 after nearly 76 hours of fighting.
Throughout this time, Liscome Bay's aircraft played their assigned part by providing direct support of the landings and subsequent ground operations, and flying combat air patrols and anti-submarine patrols around the task force. But again, not without cost. One Avenger was lost in a crash at sea, another in an emergency landing near Makin Island; and a Wildcat was so seriously damaged in a barrier crash that it was dismantled for spare parts.
Then on November 23, five Wildcats took off from Liscome Bay on a late-afternoon patrol. After takeoff the patrol was vectored out to intercept radar 'bogies' northwest of Makin. The patrol, led by Lieutenant Foster J. Blair, proceeded a distance of 40 miles from the ship, then lost contact with her.
When the patrol returned to the spot where Liscome Bay should have been, they could not find her. Bad weather and growing darkness, along with the lack of real navigational equipment carried by the planes (hardly more than a compass and a plot board), compounded their problem.
They radioed for help and were directed to land on the big carriers of Rear Adm. C.A. 'Baldy' Pownall's Task Group 50.1, 60 miles south of Makin and the escort carriers. Two of the Wildcats successfully made night landings on the Yorktown, but the third had trouble. This plane bounced off the carrier's flight deck and into the planes parked on Yorktown's bow.
The Wildcat's pilot bolted clear of his plane without injury, but its belly tank exploded, killing five deck crewmen and setting fire to the parked aircraft. Only quick thinking and heroism by Yorktown's crew saved the carrier from further damage. The two remaining Liscome Bay Wildcats landed safely on the nearby USS Lexington.
As the five VC-39 pilots in the errant flight hit the sack that night, they had no idea how lucky they were.
Near Makin, a tragedy was in the making.
At sundown on November 23, the ships of the now precisely named Task Group 52.13 had maneuvered into night cruising disposition, forming a circular screen around the three escort carriers.
Liscome Bay was in the middle, as guide for the surrounding ships. In the first circle surrounding Liscome Bay were battleships New Mexico and Mississippi, the cruiser Baltimore on the left flank, and Coral Sea and Corregidor on the right flank. The outer circle was formed by the destroyers Hoel, Franks, Hughes, Maury and Hull.
The task group, commanded by Rear Adm. Robert M. Griffin on the New Mexico, steamed at 15 knots, without zigzagging, throughout the night 20 miles southwest of Makin.
At 0400, the destroyer Hull left the task group and proceeded to Makin. Hull had been operating off Liscome Bay's starboard rear quarter, so her departure did not alter the task group's disposition.
At 0435, the Franks, also operating off Liscome Bay's starboard side, reported a dim light on the surface in the distance and was directed to investigate.
A minute later, New Mexico's surface search radar picked up a radar contact six miles from the formation-'apparently closing,' in the words of the official report. A few moments later the contact faded from the radar screen without any identification being made.
On Liscome Bay, preparations were being made to launch the day's first aircraft. For the carrier's crew and the men of VC-39, the past three days had been hectic, and they expected the 24th to be the same.
Today was also the eve of Thanksgiving. Down in the galleys, the cooks broke out the frozen turkeys that had been packed aboard at Pearl Harbor. There was a lot of work ahead if the traditional meal was to be done up right.
At 0450 flight quarters were sounded. The deck crew began manhandling 13 planes into position on the flight deck in preparation for a dawn launch, while seven planes rested on the hangar deck, armed but not fueled, ready for later launch. Stowed in the carrier's magazine were more than 200,000 pounds of bombs, including nine 2,000-pound, semi-armor-piercing bombs, 78 1,000-pound bombs, 96 500-pound bombs and a large number of torpedo warheads.
At 0505 Liscome Bay's crew was called to general quarters. Dawn was only 30 minutes away as pilots and aircrewmen climbed into their planes.
Five minutes later, Rear Adm. Griffin ordered the task group to turn northeast. Liscome Bay, as guide of the formation, started her turn, followed by the other ships. The formation was a bit ragged because of the absence of the two destroyers, so Admiral Griffin ordered the remaining destroyers to close up the gap left by the Franks' departure.
Not far away, hidden by the blackness of night, lay the Japanese submarine I-175, under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Sumano Tabata. Having approached Task Group 52.13 on the surface to avoid detection, Tabata found that his submarine was perfectly positioned to attack through the hole left in the outer circle by the double departure of Hull and Franks. With the American ships now turning toward him, no zigzagging, at 15 knots, Tabata had a setup that submariners dream of.
He made the most of it. Taking a firing bearing on the ships with I-175's sound gear, he gave the fateful order-a spread of torpedoes streaked from I-175's four bow tubes toward the unsuspecting task group. That done, he took the submarine deep to escape the depth-charging sure to follow.
None of the destroyers in TG 52.13 detected I-175 on sonar, nor did anyone see a torpedo wake on the surface until it was too late.
At 0513, an officer stationed at one of Liscome Bay's 40mm guns on the starboard side screamed, 'Here comes a torpedo!' into his telephone.
A moment later, it struck the carrier with a shattering roar, throwing up a column of bright orange flame, flecked with white-hot pieces of metal. Seconds later a larger explosion followed, as the torpedo warheads and bombs stowed below the ship's waterline detonated.
The consecutive explosions hurled large fragments of the ship and the airplanes that had been parked on its flight deck 200 feet into the air. A huge mass of wreckage, thrown into the sea, drifted away from the carrier, burning fiercely. The intensity of the blast stunned lookouts on the surrounding vessels. Debris from the stricken carrier rained down on them. New Mexico, 1,500 yards away, was showered with oil particles, burning deck fragments 3 feet long, molten metal droplets, bits of clothing and human flesh.
The destroyer Maury, 5,000 yards astern, was also splattered. The flames from Liscome Bay were so intense they lighted up the sea around the task group and were seen from the battleship Pennsylvania near Makin, 16 miles away.
Liscome Bay had been hit in the worst possible spot-the bomb stowage area, which had no protection from a torpedo hit or fragment damage. The bombs stowed there had detonated en masse. The resulting explosion disintegrated half of the ship. No one aft of the forward bulkhead of the after engine room survived. In an instant, the interior of the aft portion of the carrier blazed with blast-furnace intensity.
Few survived on the flight deck. The blast caught most, flying shrapnel cut down the others.
Flaming material was flung the length of the hangar deck and into the forward elevator well. The hangar deck became a roaring wall of flame.
The blast sent the ship's bullhorn and radar antenna crashing down on the bridge, killing two men. Lieutenant Gardner Smith, a radio announcer before the war, went to the open bridge looking for Captain Wiltse and found it a shambles. Two sailors were pinned alive beneath the bullhorn; Smith had to try several times before he could free them.
Tremendous waves of heat engulfed the carrier's island, making the bridge rails too hot to touch. From the nearby Corregidor, Liscome Bay's bridge seemed to 'glow a cherry red.' The heat abated for a moment, and the men threw knotted lines over the bridge railing on the island's inboard side and scrambled down to the flight deck.
Marshall U. Beebe, commander of VC-39, had been in the head when the torpedo hit. 'There was a terrific rumbling throughout the ship, and an explosion that lifted me off the deck. The next thing I knew I was trying to get out the door in the darkness, but I could find no passage….'
Beebe somehow made it to the flight deck and found it ablaze, with oil burning on the water near the bow, and nearby ammunition beginning to explode.
Captain Wiltse ordered all hands to go as far aft as possible, then go over the side. On his way aft he met Beebe, and they proceeded aft along the remains of a catwalk. 'The fire was spreading rapidly,' Beebe recalled, 'making it apparent that we weren't going to get very far. I called to the captain to go over at this point, but he did not answer….' Wiltse instead disappeared into the mass of flame and smoke, never to be seen again.
Beebe lowered himself into the water by a line running from the catwalk, holding an uninflated life raft he had found. Unable to maintain his grip on the line due to an injury to his left arm, Beebe fell heavily into the water and surfaced next to the raft, where two of his pilots joined him. They pushed the raft 200 yards from the carrier before inflating it.
All over the ship, crewmen realized that it was hopeless to try fighting the raging fires without water pressure in the fire mains, and they began to abandon ship. One sailor, trapped below decks, groped his way to a ladder so overcrowded he could not go up. He then climbed a superheated steam pipe, burning both his hands.
Another climbed 40 feet up electrical wires to a gun plot before jumping overboard. A pilot, Frank Sistrunk, of VC-39, recovering from an appendectomy done only six days earlier, and no swimmer, jumped overboard and managed to make it to a life raft several hundred yards away with the help of his friends and a small piece of floating debris.
Other VC-39 pilots, scheduled for a later flight, had been asleep when the torpedo hit. The explosion trapped some in their bunks temporarily and threw some out of theirs. Like most survivors, they had to crawl through the jumble of wreckage scattered throughout the ship before going over the side. Fifteen VC-39 pilots were later picked up by destroyers. Fourteen others had died in their planes when the aft flight deck disappeared in the fireball caused by the torpedo.
The fate of Admiral Henry Mullinnix is unknown. He was in air plot when the torpedo struck and was apparently injured by the blast. Several men remembered seeing him seated at a desk, head cradled on his folded arms; others recalled seeing him swimming away from the ship after it went down. In any event, he did not survive.
John Crommelin, Admiral Mullinnix's chief of staff, was stepping out of the shower when Liscome Bay exploded. 'The violent shaking knocked me off my bare feet,' he recalled, 'and I hit the deck. The lights went out but flames lighted the ship's interior instantly….'
Naked, Crommelin fought his way through burning compartments of the flight deck. 'I felt like a fool-caught stark naked when even a boot [recruit] knows one should be protected against fire. My fingers looked like boiled wieners popped open.' He received burns on the right side of his face, legs and arms. Despite this, he took charge of the men in his area and directed the evacuation at that point before jumping overboard himself.
'I jumped off the flight deck with less than I was born with,' he later said, 'on account of the fact I left part of my hide behind.' Crommelin swam for nearly an hour, supported only by a cork float, before being rescued, still stark naked. In Liscome Bay's final moments, the ship's senior medical officer, Lt. Cmdr. John B. Rowe, displayed what survivors called'splendid' conduct in his concern for the safety of his patients and in administering to the wounded aboard a rescue ship, despite a leg injury of his own.
Rowe rushed into the operating room to prepare his patients for evacuation. The flight deck was ablaze, and Dr. Rowe made a number of trips back and forth through the sick bay, forming his group for evacuation and picking up first aid gear. Rowe's group grew to 15 men, including the ships' damage control officer, Lt. Cmdr. Welles W. 'Buzz' Carroll, who refused Rowe's offer to dress his wounds, and Liscome Bay's chaplain, Lt. j.g. Robert H. Carley.
Chaplain Carley, like Beebe, had been in the head when the blast came. Carley picked himself up from the jumble of smashed sinks, toilets and urinals, and staggered out into the passageway. There he joined up with Dr. Rowe and his group.
Carroll and his men attempted to fight the fires they saw flickering through holes in the overhead, but were unable to get any water pressure in the fire main. Giving that up, Carroll and his men groped their way through smoke-filled passages and joined Rowe and Carley's party.
The group clambered over piles of debris and squeezed through passageways crushed inward like tin cans until they reached the forward elevator well, where a sailor named Hunt was trying to extinguish the blaze with portable CO2 bottles. Seeing that Hunt's efforts were useless, Carroll told him to get out before he was trapped, but Hunt refused to leave and returned to his firefighting.
The group climbed to the flight deck. To them the scene was Dante's Inferno brought to life. The fire was roaring so loudly that men had to shout to be heard. Constant explosions of ammunition added to the tumult.
Three men huddled around a 20mm gun made no reply when Carley told them to abandon ship-they were dead. Three other sailors standing numbly nearby 'woke up' when they heard Carley's order and slid down a rope into the water, followed by Carley.
Carroll, although weakening due to blood loss from his injuries, paced up and down the flight deck giving orders and helping men to abandon ship.
Carroll refused to leave the ship until Seaman Hunt (who had come up from below after giving up his firefighting efforts) told him that he would not leave without him. Medical officer Rowe, Carroll and Hunt all went over the side together. Once they were in the water, Hunt swam off to find a raft for the injured Carroll, while Rowe held his head out of the water. Hunt returned with a raft a short time later and asked how the commander was. Rowe looked down at the man he was holding. 'He's dead,' he said and let Carroll's body slip beneath the water.
Twenty-three minutes after the torpedo hit, Liscome Bay sank stern first, still burning furiously. 'Looking like a gigantic Fourth of July display,' said one survivor.
'I watched her go,' said aerographer Lyle D. Blakely, 'and heard her death gurgle. There was no suction, only a loud hissing.'
'Liscome Bay went down gracefully,' said Commander Beebe. 'Settling by the stern, going down fast, and sliding backwards. Her final farewell was an audible hiss as the white hot metal cooled. The ships' bow was enveloped by a cloud of steam obliterating our view.'
Liscome Bay was gone, taking with her Admiral Mullinnix, Captain Wiltse, 51 other officers and 591 enlisted men. Only 55 officers and 217 enlisted men, many badly injured with shattered limbs, frightful burns, and severe concussions from the enormous blast, had survived.
They were rescued from the oil-thick water-many clinging to life rafts, bits of wreckage, or floating in kapok life jackets — primarily by the destroyers Morris and Hughes. The destroyers picked up the last few by 0730. Morris and Hughes then transferred them to the transports Neville and Leonard Wood, anchored in Makin lagoon.
Neville and Leonard Wood set out for Pearl Harbor with the Liscome Bay's survivors on November 25, arriving December 2, 1943, after an eight-day voyage.
The same day, the Navy Department issued an epitaph of sorts for CE-56: 'The USS LISSCOME BAY (an escort carrier) was sunk as a result of being torpedoed by a submarine on November 24, 1943, in the Gilbert Islands area. This is the only ship lost in the Gilbert Islands operation.
'The next of kin of casualties aboard the Liscome Bay will be notified as soon as possible.'
This article was written by William B. Allmon and originally appeared in the July 1992 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
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