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The End of Hornet – Part 3

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, Nowatzkishares 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 2, Hornet suffered a devastating second attack leaving her dead in the water with an evacuation of the massive ship underway in the face of the approaching enemy.

It was late in the afternoon. We felt awfully lonely on the slowly sinking ship, still manning our battle stations. The wind was blowing us further away from the other ships. A destroyer began circling us, over his loud speaker he announced, “On the Hornet, all hands abandon ship, we are leaving the area. All hands abandon ship.”

As far as I was concerned, that officially released the salvage and rescue party. I picked up a kapok life jacket and headed quickly to the Fantail area. Since I had put my flash jumper over my phone set that morning, I still wore my phones.

USS Hornet (CV-8) dead in the water with a destroyer alongside, 26 October 1942.

When I reached the Fantail, the decks were slippery with oil and blood. The Medical department had been bringing the dying and wounded to that area and there was a large group of corpses lying there. I tried not to think about them. I concentrated on making my escape from an obviously ‘doomed’ ship.

I remembered the sharks on the Starboard side and my only concern at the moment was to go over the Port side, the high side. I tried three times to reach the high side. Each time, just before I could reach the lifeline, I would slide back down the steeply slanted deck. The oil and blood were everywhere, making the decks very slick. I had the maddening thought that it was just like one of those dreams when you try to run but cannot. I fought off a feeling of panic and focused on the effort at hand. By using various bulkhead fittings, I slowly managed to pull myself up to the port side life line.

I saw that there were many monkey lines hanging over the side. These were ropes with knots tied in them about eighteen inches apart. I straddled the life line and took off the flash jumper to remove the phones. Now that I was safely at the lifeline, I glanced over at the pile of corpses. There were about twenty or thirty bodies, jumbled together. I was struck by the sight of the bottoms of so many bare feet. You normally do not see the bottoms of anyone’s feet. I dropped my phones onto the deck. They made a sharp sound as they hit and slid down the Fantail. I put the flash jumper back on and then the life jacket. I started to lower myself on the monkey line.

Suddenly, I thought I heard someone call out. I stopped and hollered out, asking if anyone was there. I stared at the jumble of bodies and hollered again. I was not sure if I saw a movement or not. I pulled myself back up and re-straddled the life line. I called out for the third time. I did not see any movement. I thought about going over to the pile of bodies but I was not sure what I could possibly do for a badly wounded or dying man. I called out one more time, I decided that if anyone answered, I would get them a life jacket and help them get over the side. I called for the last time and got no response. I also did not see any movement among the bodies lying there. I lowered myself over the side and down to the water. To this day, I still have a feeling of guilt, because I did not go over to the bodies and ensure that they were all dead. I dreaded the thought of trying to crawl up that slippery deck to the high side again. Possibly that was the real reason that I did not go back down there.

When I reached the water, I was relieved to find out that the life jacket would actually keep me afloat. I started to swim away from the Hornet had gone about twenty feet when I felt the monkey line pull on my right leg. I had become entangled in it.

I was gently pulled back to the side of the ship. I had visions of the ship sinking with me trailing along on the line. I tried to reach it but it was impossible with the life jacket on. I forced myself to remain calm. I removed the life jacket and tied it to the monkey line. I ducked under water to free my leg. Something struck me painfully in the head. I surfaced and saw a marine. He had come down the line next to me and had happened to kick me as he splashed away. I ducked under a second time and managed to untangle myself from the line. In the process, I lost my right shoe. I got back into my lifejacket and swam away from the ship, into the wind. I knew that the wind would help blow the Hornet and her sharks away from me.

As I swam, I lost the sock from my right foot. I could visualize my bare, white foot, fluttering in the water. It would act like a lure to any nearby shark. I tried to keep such maddening thoughts out of my mind. I knew with a certainty that my survival depended solely on my ability to remain completely calm and rational. I could not afford to let my imagination have free rein.

Though there were many sailors in the water, a lone swimmer is so physically low in the water, he has a hard time seeing anyone. I had a very lonely feeling as I continued putting distance between the Hornet and myself.

I suddenly came upon a shipmate of mine named Morelock. We had been on the same gun together. We teamed up, just as we saw a flight of horizontal bombers. They were at a high altitude, “V” formation, as they released their bombs on the Hornet. Most of the bombs missed but the ones that hit appeared to land in the gun tub that Morelock and I had just abandoned. We had not left any too soon.

We heard the bombs explode. I asked Morelock if we were supposed to be on our backs or stomachs when being bombed in the water. He said that he did not know, he had missed that lecture. I had missed it also, however, fortunately for us, the bombs that missed the ship, landed on the side of the ship that was away from us. This gave us a little protection.

To understand what happened next, you have to realize that you cannot compress, or squeeze, water. In the case of a bomb going off in the water, it causes a shock wave to travel rapidly through it. It will crush or penetrate any openings in its path. That is why a near miss sometimes does more damage to a ship than an actual hit. A torpedo uses the same principle. It explodes on contact and uses the sea water to push a much larger hole into the ship than the torpedo alone would cause.

In our situation, we heard the bombs explode. A few seconds later, to our complete, unexpected, surprise, a tremendous shock wave, traveling through the water, reached us. The water crushed my sides and testicles in an agonizing iron grip while simultaneously being brutally forced into my anus and lower intestines. At the same time, my spine felt as if I had been struck on the tail bone by a large hammer, it really jarred me. We both involuntarily cried out in agony. It only lasted for a moment, but the unexpected pain was excruciating. If we had been much closer ship, the shock could have easily killed us. Whether we should have been on our backs or stomachs was not important. We should have been one or the other, not neck deep and upright as we were when the shock wave hit.

We were both groaning and gasping for breath and surprised to have weathered this latest, unexpected, onslaught. After a quick, desperate discussion, we decided to try for a raft to get out of the water.

We spotted a raft. About the time we started for it, dive bombers were again attacking the Hornet. We debated whether or not the planes would strafe the rafts. We also considered the sharks. We knew it would soon be dark. Darkness falls quickly at sea. We did not want to spend the night in the water in case those sharks decided to fan out to find their dinner. The sharks were constantly on our minds.

It appeared that the destroyers who were rescuing survivors, were stopping at the rafts and not for individual swimmers. We decided to take a chance on being strafed and join a raft. The one we reached was full of men. We held onto the sides and kept a weather eye peeled for strafing planes.

A destroyer, the USS Barton, stopped near us. I let go of the raft and swam quickly to the ship. I expected to climb up by myself. About amidships, I grabbed a line and tried to climb up. I found out that I did not have enough strength left to climb out of the water. Normally, I would have been able to climb up that rope like a monkey. Until that moment, I had not realized how totally exhausted I was. Being bombed in the water had taken a lot out of me also.

USS Barton (DD 599) In Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, on the day she was commissioned, 29 May 1942.


A Filipino sailor looked over at me and tried to pull me up. He got me about half way up and then let go, dropping me back into the water. I was too heavy for him. He hollered down that he was going to get help. Then he left. I had a death grip on the line and hung on for dear life.

In the meantime, the raft had reached the Barton and the wave action was slamming it heavily against the ship. The raft was a large, sturdy one, made of Kapok that had been painted over many times. It was very solid and it was moving toward me as it continually crashed against the ship’s steel side. I had no doubt that if I got caught between the raft and the ship, I would be crushed. I had to make a decision. If I let go of the line, I might be too weak to again reach any ship. If I stayed where I was, I could be crushed. I was truly between the Devil and the deep blue sea.

The raft slammed against the ship about a foot away from me. I had to make a life or death decision to release the rope or not. At that moment, I felt the line that I was gripping start to move.  Suddenly I was being pulled up. The Filipino had indeed gotten another man to help. Between the two of them, they hoisted me aboard as the raft slammed into the ship’s side below me. I hugged and thanked my rescuers profusely. They then directed me to go into their mess hall to be given a quick medical check. As I walked away, I realized that I had also lost my other shoe. I was barefooted, but I was saved.

There was a Pharmacists Mate in the mess hall, examining survivors. When he got to me, he asked me if I was wounded or bleeding. After what I had seen on the Hornet, I did not consider myself as being wounded. I told him about being bombed in the water and I was not sure if I had any internal damage. He had me strip and checked me over quickly, I had deep cuts on both hands and he found the wound on my right thigh where the splinter had struck me. I had completely forgotten about it. He bandaged my cuts and I dressed. I was elated to have been rescued, still alive and in one piece. I already felt as if still was regaining some of my strength.

A Barton sailor gave me a cigarette but he did not have a match. I went out on deck to find a light. I thought I might also be useful in helping bring other survivors aboard. Before I could do either, the ship’s General Alarm sounded. The loud speaker announced, “Enemy aircraft approaching, all survivors get clear of the weather decks”. I opened the nearest water tight door and jumped inside. I slammed the hatch shut and spun the locking mechanism, dogging down the door. When the door closed, the compartment lights automatically came on. I turned around to discover that I was in an ammunition space, directly beneath an antiaircraft gun. If a bomb hit in this space, I would be obliterated.

I started to leave, when a sudden wave of anger surged through me. I thought to myself, to hell with it. All day long I have had the crap scared out of me. It had been one damn thing after another. The bombs, torpedoes and sharks had not been enough. Then, when I thought I was safe, the raft almost crushed me against the side of the ship. I said to myself, “If anyone is going to kill me, do it here and now, in one big blast, I don’t give a damn.”

I sat down in the ammunition space and waited patiently for the ship to secure from General Quarters. Strangely enough, after my mental Dutch Uncle talk to myself, I was very calm and relaxed. I had lost the fear that had accompanied me all day, since that first plane had strafed my battle station.

We could still see the crippled Hornet blazing from numerous fires as we steamed away from her. There were two destroyers circling her as we left. We were told that Japanese surface ships, including battleships, were heading towards us. The Barton and the rest of our group were scattering like quail, in all different directions, before this formidable force. The largest American ship present was the Northampton, a cruiser. A battleship could stay out of range and leisurely blow us out of the water. Our only possible protection was to avoid being caught by them.

Years later, I found out that the destroyers who stayed with the Hornet, were the Mustin and Anderson. They fired five inch shells and torpedoes into her but were unable to finish sinking her before leaving. They had to escape to save themselves when they saw the Japanese searchlights on the horizon.

The Japanese fleet arrived to find the fiercely blazing Hornet, still afloat but slowly sinking. They fired two more torpedoes into her and she sank at 0130 (1:30AM) on 27 October. Ironically, this is the date that the Navy celebrates as Navy Day. The Hornet had been in commission for a year and seven days.

It could have been much worse. If the Japanese had managed to salvage the Hornet and tow her to Japan, it would have been a humiliating turn of events. Japan knew by then that the Hornet was the ship that bombed Tokyo. When reporters had asked president Roosevelt where the bombers came from, he told them, “From Shangri-La.” This was the name of a mythical Himalayan kingdom in the novel, Lost Horizon. Though he hated to lose a carrier, I am sure that Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz was relieved to learn that the Hornet was sunk and had not been captured.

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.