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.
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.
Read: The End of Hornet - Part 2
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.