The USS Hornet was originally fitted with 8 x 5"/48 (127mm) caliber Dual-Purpose (DP) guns for self-defense. These were backed by 16 x 1.1"/75 caliber (28mm) anti-aircraft cannon in a 4x4 turret arrangement. Final defense was through 24 x M2 Browning .50 caliber heavy machine guns. In February of 1942, the armament suite was revised to 8 x 5"/38 DP guns, 16 x 1.1" (4x4) cannons and 30 x 20mm AA cannons. In July of 1942, the suite was once again modified to become 8 x 5"/38 DP guns, 20 x 1.1" (4x4) cannons and 32 x 20mm AA guns.
However, the true bread-and-butter of a carrier vessel was in her fleet of aircraft whose potency was only realized when launched. The USS Hornet carried a mix of 90 aircraft usually distributed as a fighting force made up of fighters, torpedo bombers and dive bombers. This allowed the carrier the unmatched capability to respond to all manner of situations as required - whether patrolling or engaging enemy over the sea, on the sea or under it - when far away from friendly soil. Additionally, carriers were most always sent into battle with a protective force of surface warships charged with its very protection - they providing a network of anti-aircraft, anti-ship and anti-submarine measures to ensure the carrier lived to see another fighting day. This is what made aircraft carriers of World War 2 even more feared than the once-grand big-gunner, steel battleships appearing at the turn of the century. The age of the battleship effectively ended with the arrival of the aircraft carrier.
USS Hornet steamed down the Virginia coast during sea trials on December 7th, 1941 when the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) attacked Pearl Harbor, officially sending the United States into war. Nazi Germany then declared war on the United States and her U-boat submarines regularly patrolled along the Atlantic Coast. Hornet was sent to the Gulf of Mexico for her final shakedown cruise and, upon her return to the Norfolk Navy base on February 2nd, 1943, two US Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were hoisted onto her flight deck. She sailed out to sea and launched them successfully - the first time Army bombers had ever taken off from a Navy carrier. The crew was instructed not to discuss this secret launching.
Hornet made some crew changes and was fueled and supplied before departing Norfolk on March 4th with San Diego as her destination. She arrived there March 20th, mooring on North Island to receive aircraft. Air Group 8 squadrons received upgraded aircraft: Fighting 8 (VF-8) received the F4F-4 Wildcat fighter while Bombing 8 (VB-8) and Scouting 8 (VS-8) received the SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber. Torpedo 8 (VT-8) remained with the outdated, but easy to fly, Douglas TBD-1 Devastator due to a delay in the delivery of the new Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo planes. Hornet then left North Island and steamed off the coast of California while qualifying her pilots for carrier launches and landings. Captain Mitscher received top secret orders that would take Hornet on a delayed route to Pearl Harbor. Hornet sailed north to Alameda Naval Air Station for additional aircraft identified in Mitscher's secret orders.
The Doolittle Raid
For the upcoming mission, the Army required bombers with a cruising range of 2,400 nautical miles (4,400 km) that could carry a 2,000-pound (910 kg) bomb load. The bombers looked at were the Martin B-26 Marauder, the Douglas B-18 Bolo and B-23 Dragon, and the North American B-25. The B-26 showcased takeoff problems from a short carrier deck while the B-23 Dragon had a wing span that was half as big as the B-25. This would reduce the number of aircraft that could be stored on deck of the carrier. The B-18 and the B-25 were the final two considered by commander Jimmy Doolittle; however the North American B-25B Mitchell's wing span was shorter and was finally chosen to carry out the mission.
Twenty-four of the group's B-25B Mitchell bombers needed to have revisions completed before the mission and they were sent to the Mid-Continent Airlines modification center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Steel blast plates were mounted on the fuselage around the top turret (expecting fire from above). Atlantic weather required installation of deicers and anti-icers. One of the radio sets and the lower gun turret (as well as one crew) was removed to save weight and make more space for fuel (and thusly range). Three additional fuel tanks were added to increase fuel capacity from 646 to 1,141 U.S. gallons. Fake gun barrels were fitted onto the tail section as a rouse to enemy interceptors. Replacement of the secret Norden bombsight was necessary in case a bomber was forced down over Japan so a low tech replacement was constructed by pilot Capt. C. Ross Greening with materials that cost only 20 cents. When completed, the 24 B-25's were flown to Eglin Field in Florida for pilot carrier take-off training on March 1st, 1942.
Twenty-two of the USAAF B-25 Mitchell bombers had completed training and were ordered to Alameda, California. On March 31st and April 1st, with Hornet's aircraft stored in the hangar deck, sixteen of the bombers were craned aboard and tethered to the flight deck. Shortly thereafter, 134 Army pilots and aircrew, led by Lt Col Jimmy Doolittle, boarded the ship and the USS Hornet left San Francisco Bay on April 2nd, 1942. Hornet and her escorts (Task Force 16.2) steamed towards Japan on the mission that would become known to history as the "Doolittle Raid" - a mission intended to show the Empire of Japan leaders that mainland Japan was not out of reach of American war power.
Hornet rendezvoused with Task Force 16.1 under the command of Admiral William Halsey aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6). For a week they sailed west until running into Japanese picket boats roughly 650 miles east of Tokyo. ADM Halsey, concerned about the discovery of his ships, decided to launch the bombers early on April 18th, some 250 miles further from Japan than was originally planned. As the bombers were ready to launch, gale force winds and a driving rain hit the Hornet. However, within an hour, all 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers had lifted off the deck, bound for their targets on the Japanese homeland.
As the deck of the USS Hornet proved impossible for landings by a medium bomber, these aircraft were sacrificial lambs to the mission at hand. Aircrews would be required to bail out over friendly Chinese terrain or risk capture, torture and execution at the hands of the Japanese. As such, all B-25s were lost in the raid and eleven crewmen became POWs or were executed for their role. The Japanese then turned their anger against the aiding Chinese and executed some 250,000 civilians for their role. The Doolittle Raid marked the first American attack on the Japanese homeland, bolstered morale at home and showcased the reach of American naval and air power assets.
Battle of Midway
The failure of the Japanese military to take Port Moresby en route to Australia and the embarrassment of the Doolittle Raid pushed the IJN into an operation to lure the US carrier fleet into a decisive battle for supremacy of the Pacific. The decision was to launch an early June invasion of the Midway Atoll which lay some 1,300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A major disadvantage of the Japanese Navy was that US Navy specialists had broken the IJN communications code which all but gave up the initiative. Admiral Nimitz decided to use the secret code intercepts to ambush the IJN carrier strike force in turn as they approached Midway. Hornet was resupplied at Pearl Harbor for the battle at hand and a command change was made with her current Captain Mitscher being promoted to Admiral while Captain Charles Mason was chosen to take command of Hornet.
At Pearl Harbor, the three Yorktown-class carriers would form the nucleus of the strike force and this would prove the only instance the class would fight a battle alongside one another. The rally point callsign for the American fleet was "Point Luck" to which American carriers would lay in wait for the IJN invasion fleet 325 miles northeast of Midway Atoll. On the morning of June 4th, the air raid was launched against the naval base on Midway with aircraft from four Japanese carriers. Soon, all three US carriers launched strike groups of torpedo, dive bombing and fighter aircraft against the opposing carrier group. The Japanese carriers had recovered their airplanes and were rearming and refueling when land-based aircraft from Midway attacked.
The Midway aircraft failed to sink or damage any of the Japanese carriers while taking high losses in turn. Soon Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) launched from Hornet and spotted the Japanese carriers. The 15 TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were without fighter cover yet still attacked though all were shot down in short order by Japanese Zero fighters with only one survivor - though none of the America aircraft found their mark with their torpedoes. Many of the other torpedo planes launched from Yorktown and Enterprise were also shot down without scoring any torpedo hits on the Japanese carriers. Forty-one torpedo planes were launched by American carriers and only six returned. The attacks of the torpedo planes paved the way, by the luck of the draw, in keeping the Japanese fighter air umbrella busy and not up to their assigned patrol altitudes needed to protect the Japanese fleet. This lapse of discipline by the Zero fighters, who went wave-hopping to shoot down the low-flying torpedo planes, left the skies over the Japanese carrier group undefended. At 10:20am, American SBD Dauntless dive bombers arrived at 15,000 feet and began their attack runs while catching the Japanese Zeros flat-footed. Within five minutes, three of the four Japanese carriers had received numerous bomb hits with one sunk and two put out of action.
The forth Japanese carrier, IJN Hiryu, had hidden under rain clouds and was undecided to this point in the battle. She launched aircraft and followed the American planes back to the American carriers. They found the Yorktown and damaged her before returning to the Hiryu. Yorktown had put out her fires when, three hours later, torpedo planes from Hiryu found Yorktown and hit her. The crew worked all night and into June 5th attempting to save her. However the order was given abandon ship and this completed with minimal loss of life. Her career ended when a Japanese submarine returned to sink the hull. On Hiryu, Japanese airmen were exhausted and the decision was made to let them have a meal instead of quickly relaunching another strike against the American force. Fate again stepped in as American warplanes found Hiryu with aircraft and fuel store exposed about her deck. She was struck with several direct bomb hits at a great cost of life but managed to remain afloat.
On June 5th, Task Force 16, command by Rear Admiral Spruance, pursued the Japanese fleet westward. Being pressed by the oncoming American fleet, the carriers Akagi and Hiryu, having been bombed out of commission the day before, were torpedoed by Japanese destroyers and sunk to avoid capture by the enemy. The final air attacks of the battle took place on June 6th when dive bombers from USS Hornet, supported by USS Enterprise, attacked the fleeing Japanese fleet. They bombed and sank the heavy cruiser Mikuma with all hands and damaged her sister ship, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and destroyers Asashio and Arashio. This final action of the Midway theater was one of the decisive battles of the Pacific operation. This operation saved Midway as an airbase of operations for the Americans in the western Pacific and likely saved Pearl Harbor, Hawaii as well. The results were crippling to Japanese naval strength by the lost of four of her fleet carriers, a heavy cruiser and experienced pilots, crews and some 337 planes. The US Navy lost the fleet carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) and 147 planes in constrast.
Battle of Guadalcanal
In the failed attempt by the Japanese to invade and take Port Mores, they had turned to capturing islands across the Solomon Islands group in an attempt to interrupt the supply lines from the United States headed to Australia. A seaplane base was built on Tulagi and formal construction of a large airfield was undertaken on Guadalcanal. Knowing this, the US First Marine Division was rerouted to assault both Tulagi and Guadalcanal on August 7th, 1942. Fighting for Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and in the surrounding waters by the US Navy was fierce with both sides inflicting significant losses on the other. Carriers USS Enterprise and USS Saratoga were put out of action and on September 15th, 1942 while USS Wasp was torpedoed along with two other ships near USS Hornet. When the Wasp was sunk, it was the USS Hornet that remained as the only American carrier in the South Pacific.
Following the Battle of Midway, USS Hornet returned to Pearl Harbor by mid-June for repairs and to be rearmed and, while docked, she received new radar. By August 17th, 1942, the repairs were completed and she steamed out to guard the sea approaches to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The Japanese were aware that the USS Hornet was alone and targeted her for destruction, remembering her as the vessel responsible for the Doolittle Raid. Her Japanese codename was "Blue Base" and she became target Number One.
Hornet was the life line for the US Marines on Guadalcanal for the next few weeks while also serving as the flagship for Task Force 17, the cruiser and destroyer force acting in local waters. The combat situation on Guadalcanal kept her busy in providing Combat Air Patrol (CAP) for TF-17 and against enemy forces trying to attack the Marines on the island. In late October, the Japanese decided to launch a major offensive to defeat TF-17 with a battleship, carrier and cruiser striking group sent from the IJN base at Truk Atoll along with fresh Japanese Marines to be landed on Guadalcanal with plans to wipe out the US Marines at Henderson Field. The Japanese were unaware that the USS Enterprise had been repaired enough to rejoin USS Hornet by this time.
Battle of Santa Cruz
On October 26th, 1942, the Japanese and American fleets found each other off of the Santa Cruz Islands near Guadalcanal and the ensuing battle would become the last carrier action of the Guadalcanal campaign. The Japanese fleet consisted of four carriers, two fleet ships - the IJN Shokaku (CV) and IJN Zuikaku (CV), one escort - the IJN Junyo (CVE) and IJN Zuiho (CVL), a light carrier, four battleships - the IJN Hiei, IJN Kirishima, IJN Kongo, and IJN Haruna, nine cruisers, twenty-eight destroyers, eleven submarines and seven support ships.
On the US Navy side there proved a fleet of less than half that size including two fleet carriers - the USS Hornet (CV-8) and USS Enterprise (CV-6), one battleship - the USS South Dakota (BB-57), three heavy cruisers - the USS Portland (CA-33), USS Northampton (CA-26) and USS Pensacola (CA-24), three light cruisers - the USS Juneau (CLaa-52), USS San Diego (CLaa-53) and USS San Juan (CLaa-54), plus 14 destroyers. The light cruisers were the new (CLaa) anti-aircraft types with sixteen 5" ant-aircraft guns rather than the fifteen 6" naval guns carried by standard light cruisers.
USS Hornet and USS Enterprise were north of the Santa Cruz Islands when scout aircraft from the Japanese fleet found them while aircraft from the American carriers found the Japanese fleet. All the carriers launched their air groups at approximately the same time, passing within sight of one another. While American aircraft were locating and engaging the enemy, American ships were also under fire. Enterprise was hidden under a rain squall and was undetected when the Japanese planes arrived and 27 Japanese aircraft found and attacked the Hornet. The USS Juneau (CLaa) and other screening ships threw up an effective AA barrage shooting down 20 of the attacking planes. Unfortunately, Hornet was fighting off a coordinated dive bombing and torpedo plane attack. In a 15 minute attack, Hornet was hit by three bombs from Aichi D3A "Val" dive bombers - a forth bomb hit when a "Val" itself crashed into the deck. Two Nakajima B5N "Kates" torpedo planes hit Hornet with two torpedoes and another "Val" aircraft without a bomb crashed into the deck.
Hornet's crew worked feverishly to save the ship and Rear Admiral Murray ordered the cruiser USS Northampton to take Hornet in tow as the Japanese were attacking Enterprise. Hornet was being towed by Northampton at about 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph). Just before noon, USS Juneau was ordered to leave Hornet's escort to aid the Enterprise group under attack some miles away. Hornet, while under tow, again came under attack from another wave of Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo bombers later in the day. A "Kate" scored another torpedo hit forcing the "abandon ship" order by Captain Charles P. Mason. All the survivors were rescued by destroyers.
Admiral Murray ordered U.S. forces to scuttle Hornet. She was well made and absorbed nine torpedoes in all. Despite this, Hornet did not sink and the American destroyers moved off as Japanese ships arrived. The Japanese destroyers IJN Makigumo and IJN Akigumo, finding Hornet, fired four 24" (610 mm) torpedoes into her. At 01:35 on October 27th, 1942 she slipped under the waves taking 140 of her crew with her, these souls having been killed during earlier actions that day. She withstood more punishment than any other ship in the war - to sink her, it took a total of sixteen torpedoes, four aerial bombs, two Val aircraft crashing into her deck and more than 400 x 5" (127mm) cannon rounds.
After USS Hornet sank, the American forces retired to the southeast. The battle was costly for the US Navy as the USS Hornet and one destroyer, a number of aircraft, and 200-plus good men were lost. The Japanese Marines were not landed on Guadalcanal due to the heavy damage the IJN received at Santa Cruz. This allowed the U.S. forces time to reinforce the garrison at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal against the next enemy attack. The Japanese goal was not achieved and the damage to two Japanese carriers, Zuiho and Shokaku, received and the major loss of air crews reduced the aircraft sorties available to counter the American Navy in the final Naval Battles of Guadalcanal.
The Legacy of USS Hornet (CV-8)
USS Hornet was on duty for only 13 months before she was sunk but her place in American naval history was assured by her key role in the immortal Doolittle Raid. When Hornet was first crewed, they were young men out of boot camp, charged with facing fierce Japanese veterans having fought across Asia. The young Americans on Hornet held their own against these warriors.
In November of 1943, after CV-8 sank, a new ship was commissioned as the USS Hornet (CV-12) The 8th ship to hold the Hornet name. The USS Hornet became the last U.S. fleet carrier to be sunk by enemy action during World War 2 and was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on January 13th, 1943. Her name was later revised through the Essex-class aircraft carrier as the USS Hornet (CV-12). During the course of her short career, the original Hornet was awarded four Battle Stars in recognition of her actions during the Battle of Midway, the Buin-Faisi-Tonolai strikes, the capture and defense of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands. Her Torpedo Squadron 8 was given a Presidential Unit Citation for their service in the Battle of Midway.