By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
During World War II war correspondents spanned the globe to cover its pivotal events. Their proximity to the action brought them up close and personal with the hazards faced by those in uniform. Some like Walter Cronkite flew on bombing missions, while Ernie Pyle’s dispatches from the front-illuminated the experience of the American G.I. for those on the home front. The rise of the aircraft carrier in the Pacific War drew many to the floating airfields. They included Pyle, who spent time on board USS Cabot (CVL 28) during 1945, giving the carrier her nickname “The Iron Woman.”
Earlier in the war, before the American industry produced scores of aircraft carriers that swept across the Pacific, only a few flattops held the line in the Pacific. One of them was USS Hornet (CV 8) and in a window of time during her final combat actions in the waters around Guadalcanal, LIFE magazine artist and war correspondent Tom Lea captured the final days of the ship, her crew, and the naval aviators that launched from the flight deck that impressed him at first sight.
“For a long time I had imagined standing on the flight deck of a carrier, and my first view of that great space high above the water gave me a kind of lift in my heart,” Lea recalled later. “There was something about it like the marriage of the sea and the sky.”
Curious about his subject, Lea traveled the passageways and catwalks of the ship, spent time in the ready rooms and other spaces, and quickly immersed himself in the sights, sounds, and smells of an aircraft carrier at war. He even experienced the time-honored tradition of “Crossing the Line,” during which he transformed from a pollywog to a shellback. This affinity for the human dimension and machinery of war emerged with vivid detail in his resulting sketches and artwork.
An example of Lea’s connection with his subject was his friendship with LT Alberto Emerson, who was nicknamed “Ace” and “Silver,” the latter because he was prematurely gray. The Executive Officer of Fighting Squadron (VF) 72, Emerson was the subject of one of Lea’s most famous works, a close-up of the fighter pilot in his battle-damaged F4F Wildcat engaging Japanese aircraft. Emerson did not survive the war. He was declared missing in action on Feb. 12, 1943.
While on board Hornet, Lea witnessed the sinking of USS Wasp (CV 7) after she was struck by torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine, prompting him to reflect on the nature of a warship.
“It is commonplace, of course, amongst men who deal with the sea and with its ships, that every ship achieves an individual character and personality and behavior as it comes to be a living thing,” he wrote to a friend. “So it comes about that a ship dedicated to war has its quality of living somehow shaped by its quality of dying. Men on warships think of dying as normally as they think of living and so men seem more fully alive because they are more fully aware of death.”
His words foreshadowed the remaining life of Hornet, the end of which he was not destined to see. Around midnight on Oct. 21-22, 1942, carrying the drawings he had made documenting life on board the aircraft carrier, Lea rode a bosun’s chair to the oiler USS Guadalupe (AO 32) and bade the flattop farewell. He eventually made his way to Pearl Harbor where he met Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. It was from the steely-eyed admiral, while they looked at a drawing of Hornet launching an aircraft that Lea learned of the carrier’s loss at the Battle of Santa Cruz just days after he last saw her.
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