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-hand account, 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.
The Enterprise joined us on 25 October. We were very happy to see her. For 41 days we had been holding down the fort all alone. We hoped that with two carriers, we might be able to return to a modified Condition Three.
Before anything could happen, we were told that at least two enemy carriers were in our vicinity and we were to get ready for the first night carrier action of the war. We went to our battle stations, but, for some reason or other, the night action was canceled. We returned to Condition Two.
After breakfast the following day, 26 October, I washed my flash clothing by tying it to a heaving line and letting it drag over the side for a few minutes. The sea pounded it clean in short order. It reminded me of Amundson, the petty officer, who was dragged over the side in the boatswain chair.
I was at my gun station, letting my flash clothing dry in the sun, when General Quarters sounded. I put on the trousers but the top was still damp. I left it off for awhile as I strapped on my phones and reported in to the director. I normally would have put the parka on first and then the phones. A few minutes later, I slipped the parka on, over the phones.
We launched aircraft at about 0730 and settled down at our battle stations to await developments. We happened to be operating near the island of Santa Cruz.
Around 0830, I overheard some partial conversations on the phones that indicated that our overhead fighter protection was engaging planes. I searched the skies but saw nothing in our immediate vicinity. I did see some slight smoke in the sky at quite a distance away, but I did not see any aircraft. I passed the comments, that I had overheard, to our Gun Captain. The tension began to mount at our battle station. Whenever one of our planes wanted to pass a message to the Hornet without breaking radio silence, he would fly the length of the Flight Deck and drop a small, hand held cylinder, with the message inside it. An air-dale would run it up to the Bridge. The ship would always pass the word, “Stand by for message drop.”
On this particular morning, around 0900, I heard over my phones, someone say, “Stand by for message drop.” Immediately, another talker said, “If he is going to drop a message, why are his wheels down?”
When I heard the phrase, “wheels down”, I quickly looked up. In those days, some of the Japanese planes did not have retractable landing gear.
I looked toward my right and saw a Japanese Val dive bomber heading straight for our gun tub. His wing guns were winking brightly as he fired at us. I shouted at the Gun Captain and our gun spun around to fire back at him. I locked the sights into automatic and looked again at the plane. I could hear the machine gun bullets strafing the Flight Deck and our gun tub as he dove at us. It was my “moment of truth.” My first gut reaction was to seek cover, but my training had kicked in and I had automatically performed my job. I realized at that moment that my life could end in the next fleeting second. It was a terrifying thought as I watched the plane’s tracer bullets converging straight at us.
I saw his bomb release. It headed for our wildly careening ship and struck our Flight Deck. It hit near my station, but slightly forward of our guns. We heard the bomb hit and the plinking sound as it continued through several decks before exploding with a tremendous force. We lost all power to our gun mount as soon as the bomb exploded. All of our automatic circuits were disrupted. Our struggle had just started and we were completely on our own, in “manual ” operation.
Dive bombers were plunging at us from all directions as we put up a screen of anti-aircraft fire. Then I saw enemy torpedo planes, low on the horizon on the Starboard side. I pointed them out to the Gun Captain and he trained the mount around to take them under fire. The dive bombers were tremendously distracting, but we had to ignore them and concentrate on this new threat. The bombers could cripple us. The torpedo planes could sink us.
I manually zeroed the sights since the torpedo planes were heading straight into us. We put up a wall of shrapnel and the planes kept coming. We fired as rapidly as we could in manual, but we could not stop them all.
Other ships were firing at them also but there were just too many planes. The torpedo planes began making a very erratic approach, jerking themselves up and down to spoil our aim. When they were within range, they straightened out into level flight, just long enough to release their torpedoes. They flew right through our defensive fire and zoomed over us. We could hear bombs ripping into the Hornet as we watched the rapidly approaching torpedo wakes.
On the gun mount, I had to stand while at my battle station. A bomb exploded near us and I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my right thigh muscle. I shifted my weight to my left leg. I had heard stories of men in battle who lost an arm or leg and only felt a small pain at first. I was afraid to look down as I cautiously felt for my right leg with my right hand. It was still there but so was something else. I felt a sharp pain my right hand. I looked down and discovered that a burning wooden splinter from our wooden flight deck had stuck in my thigh. It was about twelve inches long and was still smoldering. I jerked it out, relieved that I still had both legs.
Suddenly the first torpedo exploded against our Starboard side. It shook the Hornet like a rag doll. A second later, another torpedo struck the same side and we began to roll to Starboard. Heavy smoke started coming out of our powder and shell hoists. We had to quickly empty them before they exploded in our gun tub. A plane dived into our stack area and plunged to the Flight Deck, detonating his bombs. Another plane circled our bow and then crashed into the forward part of our ship. He continued on, through the officers compartments and into the hangar area. He finally crashed into the steel shaft in the center of the forward elevator. The wreckage fell into the elevator pit and started a tremendous fire.
When the first attack ended, the Hornet was seriously wounded. We had been hit by two torpedoes, four or more bombs and two planes had crashed into us. We were dead in the water, no power, listing about twelve degrees to Starboard and had numerous fires raging aboard the ship. We later discovered that we had run into four enemy carriers. Their planes had simply overwhelmed us.
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.