This article was written by William Cracraft and first published in 1998 in an Oakland Tribune special adverstising supplement celebrating the opening of the Aircraft Carrier Hornet Museum.
The sheer size of the Hornet illustrates the size of her volunteers’ jobs. With thousands of square yards of hull, deck and bulkhead to paint, hundreds of pieces of machinery to clean and repair and dozens of historical displays to invent, display and maintain, volunteer efforts are what bring the big museum back to life.
Bob Hathaway is a former Army MP who read about the Hornet conversion in the newspaper. “I’m an amateur World War II historian,” he said.
Stationed in Europe during the 1950s, he became acquainted with former “German E-boat and submarine guys, and got to talking to them a little bit. That’s my interest, that’s why I’m here,” he said.
A retired cab driver, he tried to learn something from everyone that got in his cab. Now he tries to learn something from everyone that wanders into his section.
“It’s amazing the people that come on board this ship. You get Hellcat drivers that have shot down nine or 19 (planes). They’re famous guys, aces, and you wouldn’t even know who they are. When I talk to them it gives me goosebumps,” he said.
As soon as Hathaway showed his face he was put to work. “I do it five days, Monday through Friday. One interesting person comes on board each day and that makes my day. Somebody who appreciates me, I appreciate them,” he said.
Hathaway is a collector of stories about the Hornet. “Sometimes they ran out of flour and sometimes the flour had weevils, but they cooked bread with it anyway. The cooks would put raisins in the bread to disguise them, but the sailors would hold up a piece of bread to the light and say, ‘Now that’s a raisin and that’s a weevil.’ ”
Although the Hornet wasn’t damaged by enemy bombs, “their own plane dropped a bomb on it. A Hellcat was landing and a bomb got loose and armed itself. It went down through the aft deck and killed people.
“You just hear stories all the time,” Hathaway said. “You get these people down here and I just don’t let them go. I ask them where they’re from, if they were in the service, when they were in the service, what they did in the service, what kind of job it was. I do it nicely – that’s the only way you learn anything,” he added. That’s not to say he doesn’t give plenty back to the flattop.
“There is a lot of work to get this thing done and the only way they are going to do it is with volunteers because of the money situation. I painted part of the hangar deck when they were in a bind,” said Hathaway. The volunteers have so many ideas the ships managers have had to insist on a form being filled out, including details on concept, implementation and funding.
“My idea is to make a mockup of a Helldiver. There were three types of planes on here, one was a Helldiver and there aren’t any more of them,” Hathaway said.
To drum up more business, Hathaway thinks the ship should run a bus load of hotel concierges from San Francisco over to the ship for a little wine and dine to encourage them to send tourists.
For Hathaway, the best part of being a volunteer is the other volunteers. “There aren’t any jerks on board.” Most of the crew are ex-military, although “there are some guys who have never been in the service, but that doesn’t make any difference. We have an optometrist, you never see him. He goes up there and hangs off the island and cleans the windows. He was never in the service,” Hathaway said.
Hathaway does his part to encourage visitors. “I’ve staked myself out here with Frank (MacDonald) to try to give the people their money’s worth. If they are walking around here I come to them and ask, ‘Do you know where you are? Do you know what you’re looking at?’ and get the interest going. Sometimes you get a teenager just along for the ride, and maybe you can jab them up a little about history,” he said.