By Hill Goodspeed, Historian, National Naval Aviation Museum
The aircraft carrier Hornet (CV 8) served for just 372 days, her short lifespan reflective of the fact that she put to sea in dangerous waters.
During that brief time, it can be said two distinct flights defined the service of the Navy’s eighth aircraft carrier before she slipped beneath the waves at the Battle of Santa Cruz on Oct. 27, 1942. Both represented the heroic spirit of the nation, flying against all odds in the pivotal first months of the Pacific War.
One involved men in Army Air Forces green, who never imagined they would ever see an aircraft carrier much less fly from one. The other consisted of naval personnel at home on a wooden flight deck amidst saltwater spray. Less than two months apart and separated by thousands of miles, the flights of the Doolittle Raiders and Torpedo Squadron (VT) 8 stand as defining moments of World War II.
The Doolittle Raid – America Strikes Back
Though he only stood five feet, four inches tall, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle was a giant of aviation during aviation’s “Golden Age” prior to World War II, receiving nationwide acclaim as a record-setting test and racing pilot. When a plan emerged in early 1942 to use Army Air Forces B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from an aircraft carrier to strike Japan, Doolittle was a natural choice to lead the mission, the confidence of the crews selected to fly the airplanes was bolstered knowing an officer of his capabilities was leading them.
Timing brought Hornet into the operation. Following completion of her shakedown cruise in January 1942, the carrier returned to Norfolk, only to put to sea again in February, her flight deck devoid of her usual assortment of Navy planes and instead host to a pair of B-25s. Their successful launches from the carrier off the Virginia coast proved the concept and took Hornet through the Panama Canal to Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda, California, where sixteen B-25s were loaded on board, their crews having trained at Eglin Field near NAS Pensacola, Florida. This included instruction on short take-off procedures under the tutelage of a Navy flight instructor, LT Henry Miller. After the carrier had put to sea, her skipper, Captain Marc A. Mitscher, announced to the crew that their mission was to launch the bombers against Japan.
On April 18, 1942, in the waters off Japan, Hornet turned into the wind and prepared to launch airplanes, the action occurring earlier than anticipated after a Japanese picket boat spotted Hornet and the carrier Enterprise (CV 6), which was providing air cover, and escorting ships.
“The engines of three other ships [B-25 Mitchell bombers] were warming up, and the thump and hiss of the turbulent sea made additional noise,” remembered Doolittle Raider Capt. Ted Lawson. “But loud and clear above those sounds I could hear the hoarse cheers of every Navy man on the ship. They made the Hornet fairly shudder with their yells—and I’ve never heard anything like it, before or since.”
Later that day, Hornet picked up English language radio broadcasts from Tokyo. “Enemy bombers appeared over Tokyo today shortly after noon for the first time in the current East Asia War. Heavy and telling damage was inflicted on schools and hospitals, and the populace shows much indignation.”
While the mention of schools and hospitals was propaganda, the indignation of the Japanese over the appearance of U.S. aircraft over the Home Islands was true. One result was the advancing of the timetable for an operation designed to draw the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers into a sea battle in the waters around a small Pacific atoll called Midway.
Turning the Tide of the War in the Pacific
Returning to Pearl Harbor on April 25, 1942, the crew of Hornet had just a few days in port before Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chester W. Nimitz ordered her and Enterprise to sea with their escorts to counter a Japanese offensive in the South Pacific. While en route, the carriers Lexington (CV 2) and Yorktown (CV 5) already operating there engaged Japanese carriers at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first engagement in naval history fought entirely by aircraft, the surface ships of the opposing fleets never coming within sight of each other. Lexington was sunk and Yorktown heavily damaged during the battle, the latter ordered back to Pearl Harbor along with Enterprise and Hornet to prepare to counter the Japanese offensive against Midway, the plans for which were being revealed through the work of Navy intelligence.
On May 28, as part of Task Force 16 with Enterprise and escorts, Hornet departed Pearl Harbor with the mission to “prevent enemy attack and occupation of Midway.” Task Force 17 consisting of Yorktown and her escorts followed later, the three carriers and land-based aircraft on Midway Atoll engaging the Japanese June 3–6, 1942, in what became known as the Battle of Midway. Before the battle began acclaimed Hollywood filmmaker John Ford, serving as a Naval Reserve officer, visited Hornet and shot color film of the members of VT-8, little knowing that it would serve as a memorial for the squadron.
Though PBY Catalinas attacked Japanese ships on the night of June 3, the events of the following day proved the most significant of the pivotal battle. Another PBY on patrol spotted the Japanese striking force, prompting Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown to launch their aircraft to seek out and sink the enemy force’s flattops. Leading VT-8 was squadron commander LCDR John Waldron, who in the ready room that morning told his pilots he intended to press home their attack even if the squadron was alone and outnumbered.
Once airborne, believing the course set by the Hornet Air Group’s commander was erroneous, Waldron broke formation and led VT-8 on a more southwesterly course. His assessment proved accurate as his navigation led him right to the enemy carriers. What happened then was captured in a report based on an interview with VT-8’s ENS George Gay. Approaching the enemy ships low and slow as they lugged 1,000-lb. torpedoes, the squadron was approximately 16,000 yards away when attacks by Japanese Zero fighters commenced from above, the enemy pilots shooting down the lumbering TBD Devastators in quick succession. Gay, whose gunner reported being wounded in the rear cockpit, managed to drop his torpedo before a Japanese fighter shot his airplane down, in the process wounding Gay in his left leg, arm, and hand. Ditching his TBD Devastator, which sank before any effort could be made to ascertain the condition of his gunner, Gay floated in the vicinity of the Japanese fleet, using a seat cushion to avoid detection by crewmen on board Japanese ships that passed nearby. He was the sole survivor of the 30 men in his squadron who launched from Hornet that day.
An Early Demise
Less than five months later, a major ground offensive by the Imperial Japanese Army was being supported by Japanese carriers and other large warships which were positioned near the southern Solomons in the hope of drawing out and decisively defeating Allied naval forces. As the Japanese ground offensive engaged U.S. forces in the battle for Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field, U.S. and Japanese ships and aircraft confronted each other on the morning of Oct. 26, just north of the Santa Cruz Islands.
After an exchange of attacks by carrier aircraft, U.S. warships were forced to retreat from the battle area. Ultimately, U.S. losses were one carrier sunk, USS Hornet, and another severely damaged, one destroyer sunk and two heavily damaged, and 81 aircraft. Despite their successes, the Japanese also had to retire because of high aircraft (99) losses and significant damage to both of their carriers, a heavy cruiser, and a light cruiser. Although the enemy could claim a tactical victory, it was never able to make up for the loss of veteran aircrew personnel—contributing to the Allies’ longer-term strategic advantage. This factor also prevented any further significant participation of Japanese carrier forces in the Guadalcanal campaign.
The Office of Naval Intelligence produced a combat narrative of the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in which Hornet was lost. It is available on the website of the Naval History and Heritage Command here.
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