As a 19-year-old seaman who had been in the Navy for about a year and a half, Richard Nowatzki’s ship USS Hornet (CV 8) was mortally wounded in the intense World War II Battle of Santa Cruz Islands. In this first-handaccount, from his book Memoirs of a Navy Major, Nowatzki shares his experiences in the extraordinarily brutal and dangerous environment of combat at sea. This is an often graphic account of a junior Sailor experiencing the horror of war and contemplating his own mortality at an early age. In part 1, Hornet had survived the first wave of a massive coordinated assault. But the ship and her crew were still in peril.
The bombs that had exploded on the Flight Deck had cut down many of the Marines at their exposed, 20 millimeter gun stations. The same battle stations that we used to have before we traded for the five inch guns. At our present battle station, we were all still alive.
Destroyers came alongside and used their fire hoses and foam to help us fight the fires. I could smell the sickening stench of human bodies burning, a smell that I can still recall. Our Damage Control parties had the fires under control in about an hour. The destroyers started removing the wounded and excess personnel of the air department.
The heavy cruiser, Northampton, attempted to take us in tow. We were suddenly attacked by more dive bombers. The Northampton and the destroyers moved away from us so they could maneuver. The dive bombers missed and the rescue efforts resumed. The Northampton managed to secure a tow line to us. As she took a strain, the tow line parted.
It was early in the afternoon. The ship’s side ladder was lowered to the water’s edge on the Starboard side. I was ordered to try and launch the motor whaleboat and bring it to the ladder.
I quickly went down to the Hangar Deck and walked over to the boat pocket on the Starboard side. Wherever I looked, I saw a slaughter house. Evidently at least one bomb had exploded in the Hangar Deck area. Dead and mutilated bodies were lying all about, even in the boat pocket.
The boats were launched by means of an electric crane, located in the boat pocket. I would have to climb a ladder to get to the operating controls. I met the boat engineer as I entered the pocket. I told him we were going to try and launch the whaleboat. As he threw off the boat gripes, I went up the ladder to the crane controls. I tried to start the crane, but the electric power was off. The crane was equipped with an emergency power source, supplied by a huge battery. To engage it, I had to go back down the ladder and throw a large lever from the Normal to the Emergency power position. It took quite a bit of strength to throw the lever. As I got in position, I saw the body of a young sailor, lying right where I had to stand. I did not want to shove him aside, so spread my legs to straddle him as I threw the lever.
I glanced down at the sailor and noticed that his left cheek was twitching. I thought to myself, “This guy may still be alive.”
I reached down and caught him by the shoulders to set him up. Then, to my absolute horror, I saw that he was gone, from the waist down. He had been blown in half. I could see only a thin strip of flesh hanging from his waist. I lowered him to the deck as gently as I could and turned away from him. I leaned against the bulkhead for a few seconds to compose myself before I could again go back up the ladder.
When I got back to the controls, I pressed the power button. This time, I heard the crane motors start up. I raised the hook, taking the slack out of the boat slings. Just as I was taking a strain, the emergency power went off. The battery was dead. There was no way to launch the boat. I told the engineer to forget it and I headed back to my battle station.
I tried not to look at the dead and mangled bodies as I again passed through the Hangar Deck. Walking through that scene was a mind boggling, traumatic, experience. Suddenly a young sailor came up to me. In a bright, cheerful voice, he asked me, “Did you see all these dead sailors lying on the deck?” I looked at him and could see that he had “gone around the bend”. He showed me his arm, he said that it had been broken but he had fixed it himself. The arm looked normal to me. I tried to gently get away from him. He was insisting that I go with him to look at more bodies. He was completely fascinated by the slaughtered people lying about. I told him I had to return to my gun, but I would look for him later. The last I saw of him, he was walking rapidly down the deck, talking loudly to himself.
I kept a tight mental grip on myself as I walked back to the gun. I reported that launching the boat was hopeless without electric power.
The Hornet had been listing to Starboard for several hours. The blood from the dead sailors had been steadily running over the side of the ship through the scuppers. Charley Pellinat called me over to the edge of the gun tub and pointed down into the water. I saw at least three, huge, white sharks. They were rolling wildly in the human blood that was churning the area. They were searching frantically for the meat. Charley said, “If we abandon ship, don’t go over this side.”
A short while later, I was given another order to, “Report to the Fantail.” I went there and discovered it was completely covered with dead and dying sailors. I tried to find out what I was to do there, but no one seemed to know. The Medical people seemed to be in charge, so I asked several of them if they had sent for me. They had no idea of why I was there. I returned to the gun and reported that no one needed me there. I never did find out why I was sent there.
About the middle of the afternoon, the Northampton finally got a tow line rigged and slowly got us in motion. We had a faint glimmer of hope that we might be able to save the Hornet after all.
I was exhausted as I lay on the deck of the gun tub with my head pillowed in my helmet. I tried not to think of my slaughtered and mutilated shipmates. We all knew the enemy would return, our only hope was to be gone from this location when they got here. I re-played the morning’s events in my mind. I realized that the coordinated attack of dive bombers and torpedo planes had been extremely well executed by the Japanese. We had been attacked by professionals. I hoped our own planes would prove to be as effective when they reached the enemy carriers.
I wondered if I could possibly survive this battle. The present chances of being killed or crippled were very high. I realized that I had not really experienced life. I had never had opportunity for a meaningful sexual relationship. I might never have a chance to marry or raise a family. I was nineteen. It seemed to me that nineteen would be an awfully young age to die.
Then my thoughts turned to God. I wondered if there really was a “spiritual” being who could bail us out in our hour of need. I thought about my experiences at Saint Thomas [the Apostle Catholic School] and came up with the same rationale I had formed at school. I still did not believe that the Catholic religion had the answer. I really wished that they had been able to convince me because it would have really helped if I had something within me to turn to in my hour of need. However, I could not lie to myself and pretend to believe, especially at this moment when I was face to face with death or life as a cripple.
The thought crossed my mind that possibly there was something beyond us, maybe some force, maybe the Devil himself. There could be something or someone that we were unable to understand. I said to myself, if there is something or someone, somewhere, who can control these things, get me out of this tight spot this time, and I will never, ever, ask for help again.
As an afterthought, I said I want to survive in one piece, I don’t want to be a basket case.
Then, as a true “Doubting Thomas” would do, I asked for some sort of a sign, that my message had gotten through.
At that very moment, when I asked for a sign and, while I was lying there, one of my shipmates, named White, came over and sat next to me. He handed me his address and asked me to write to his parents and tell them what happened in case he did not make it. I told him I would. Then I asked him, “Wait a minute, we are in the same spot together, what makes you think that I ‘m going to survive and you are not?”
He was very sincere as he said, “You look to me like you will make it.” That was the only conversation we had that day. He was assigned to the other gun in my tub, gun 5.
I wondered if that could possibly have been the “sign,” that I had just that instant asked for. If it was not the sign, it had been an almost unbelievable coincidence. After an hour or so, a little after 1600 (4PM), we saw another flight of enemy torpedo planes on the horizon. They headed in towards us, again using their now familiar, erratic movements. The Northampton cut the tow line so she could maneuver and we were again dead in the water. We fired our remaining shells at the planes but we were ineffective.
We watched as they straightened their planes to level flight. Two planes, flying wing tip to wing tip, dropped their torpedoes simultaneously. I saw the two torpedoes heading for our Starboard side. They struck together with a tremendous explosion. The blast caused the Hornet to actually lift up until she was on an even keel. Then, she started to swiftly roll back down to Starboard. We watched helplessly as she rolled, watching the water come closer to us. The roll stopped once and then started again. When it finally stopped, we were listing about twenty degrees. We were next attacked by dive bombers but I did not feel any hits. There were several near misses. At about that time, the word was passed to, “Abandon ship, abandon ship, all hands abandon ship, except for the Salvage and Rescue party.” That was when I found out what that particular team was really for, to salvage rescue our own ship.
In my case, my salvage and rescue station was on the gun. I was already there. I stayed at my battle station and watched my shipmates abandoning the Hornet. The powder and shell hoists were inoperative. The ammunition magazines were probably flooded anyway. We had only five shells in our ready box and no powder. I called around with my sound powered phones to the other guns. I located four powder cans. My gun could now fire at most, four shells if we had to. We could not afford to waste any of them.
Richard Nowatzki was born in Freeport, Illinois, in 1923 but soon moved to Chicago. He graduated high school in June 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. As a young seaman fresh out of boot camp, Nowatzki became a plankowner of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8). He served aboard the ship through commissioning, the famed Doolittle Raid, the Battle of Midway and was aboard when Hornet was sunk by the enemy in October 1942. Richard Nowatzki went on to a very successful U.S. Navy career eventually retiring in 1973 as a Lieutenant Commander.