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The End of Hornet - Part 3

Feb. 13, 2019
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.

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.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 190213-N-ZV259-0045

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.