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.
There she found Odysseus among the slaughtered dead men, spattered over with gore and battle filth, like a lion who has been feeding on an ox of the fields, and goes off covered with blood, all his chest and his flanks on either side bloody, a terrible thing to look in the face . . .
The Hornet aircraft carrier, hull number CV-8, launcher of Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo, was sunk in the Battle of Santa Cruz in October, 1942 and hull number CV-12, named and under construction at Newport News, was re-named the Hornet in her honor.
In late 1943, after a shakedown cruise of two weeks, half the usual time, the new Hornet was sent to Pearl Harbor and war in the Pacific. Upon departing Pearl Harbor, she stayed out 18 months and never suffered damage from a enemy bomb, torpedo or kamikaze in hundreds of attacks.
“We pulled into San Francisco the day they dropped the atom bomb,” said Frank MacDonald, former trumpet player in the ship’s band. MacDonald was on me Hornet from October, 1943, before she was commissioned. until the war’s end in August, 1945. Over his 22 months on the ship, he was busy.
“We stood full watches on the bridge at night only, the band members were stretcher bearers at flight quarters during the day, at general quarters, my section was damage control, third deck, portside,” MacDonald said.
Band members had regular duty, too, including playing big band tunes before and during intermission at the ship’s movies. “Whenever we refueled, we would sit on the hangar deck and play to the tanker crew, and when destroyers came by to take fuel off of us we’d play to. them. That could be up to 12. or 14 hours a day,” he added.
When the Hornet left Pearl Harbor in March of 1944, the aircraft in her belly included F6F Hellcats, TBM Avengers and . SB2C Helldivers. Two months ..4lter Hornet squadrons began a 3,0OO-sortie, 7-month attack against Japanese bases in the Marianas Islands, one squadron alone shooting down 233 Japanese aircraft.
In mid-June a scout plane spotted the Japanese fleet as it tried to leave the area. Hornet flyers were the first to attack, hitting an enemy aircraft carrier.
MacDonald’s most vivid memory from the Hornet is of an incident that happened that day, one he said he would like to forget if he could, but can’t.
“It was during the first battle of the Philippine Seas. The American carriers sent planes out to hit the Japanese fleet. When they got there they found it wasn’t the Japanese fleet, it was a bunch of freighters.
“Then they got word the fleet was a 100 or a 150 miles farther. They knew if they went and hit the fleet that some of them may not have enough fuel to get back, . but they went ahead anyway. So that night, we were out there with lights blazing allover the place (in defiance of wartime protoeol), trying to land planes.
“I was standing forward watch on the bridge and this one plane; it was not one of the Hornet’s, an F6 fighter, was coming in to land and his engine quit so he was coming in too low. He would have rammed into the fantail, so he went to the side and ditched just forward of us on the starboard side. As we came up on him, he tried to get out of his plane, but somehow he was caught in there and couldn’t get out. He stood there and waved to us as the .plane went down. Everybody on the bridge was crying,” MacDonald said.
Five days later, June 24, the Hornet pilots “flamed” a record 67 enemy aircraft ill a single day. The ship fought through the summer and by September Hornet’s squadron VF-2 had more ace pilots (28) and more total victories than any other fighter squadron.
In the fall of 1944 the Hornet fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, delivering two strikes against the Japanese fleet, and for the remainder of 1944 sailed toward the Japanese home islands, sending air strikes against Formosa, Luzon, Saigon and Hong Kong.
“It sometimes got a little hairy. One time off Formosa we shot down a torpedo bomber. He had dropped his torpedo and we heard it hit the side of our ship and bounce off without exploding,” MacDonald said.
The ship suffered countless attacks during its marathon voyage. “Off Formosa, some say it was n almost continuous attack. At the time, I believe we were under continuous attack for 72 hours by aircraft,” he added.
When general quarters — battle stations — sounded, it usually only took a few minutes to get to his station, MacDonald said. “Unless you were on watch on the bridge, then you did not leave until you were relieved. Only once, I could not get down to my battle station. It was locked up before I could get down because my relief didn’t get there soon enough,” MacDonald said.
Those below decks tried to find out what was going on by staying in touch with other sections by sound-powered telephones. “When you would be a little nervous, you’d talk to radar, you’d say, ‘What’s the screen look like,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, the screen is clear.’ All of the sudden, you’d hear a 20-millimeter cannon firing and you’d know it was a kamikaze coming into try to ram you. That’s why I weighed 130 pounds when I was there. I gained 10 pounds on the way back to the states,” MacDonald said.
After repeated air strikes on the Japanese main islands, on March 18, 1945, the ship’s aircraft began softening up Okinawa for a Marine landing. Out of 40 days at sea, the ship launched strikes on 32 days, flew over 4,000 combat sorties, then put up an umbrella of air cover over Marines trying to establish a foothold.
In a battle that illustrated the futility of a battleship against naval air power, the Japanese sent the Yamato, their largest battleship, to try to pound the U.S. fleet with her 18-inch guns. Of 280 aircraft launched, those from the Hornet were the first to hit the 72,000-ton target.
The Yamato went down with almost 2,500 of her crew. In early June, luck dealt the Hornet a warning blow. A typhoon, which MacDonald remembers as breaking the wind-gauge at 160 knots, battered the forward flight deck with 60-foot waves.
“When the word came down that the flight deck was cracking up, everybody started to cheer ‘if the sombitch doesn’t sink, we’ll go home.’ MacDonald said. “And we did.”
U.S.S. Hornet’s War record
• In 18 months of combat, the Hornet suffered heavy attack 59 times, but was never hit by a single bomb, torpedo or kamikaze.
• Hornet’s air groups and ship’s guns shot down 668 Japanese planes, destroyed another 747 on the ground and were credited with 73 ships sunk, 37 probable and 413 damaged.
• Her air groups flew 18,569 combat sorties and logged over 23,000 arrested landings of her flight deck.
• Hornet holds many records, including the number’ of pilots (10) who achieved “Ace in a Day” status by scoring five or more aerial victories in a single day while flying from her deck.
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