The Battle of Midway Roundtable
HISTORY OF THE USS HORNET (CV-8)
by Frederick C. Branyan
In the Beginning
The USS Hornet was the seventh USN ship to bear this name. The keel for the ship, which was authorized by the Naval Expansion Act of 1939, was laid down on September 25, 1939 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., Newport News, Virginia. The Act was in response to cancellation of prior naval arms limitation treaties and the obviously approaching war.
Launched on December 14,1940 with Mrs. Frank Knox, wife of the Secretary of the Navy presiding, she was commissioned on October 20th, 1941. The new carrier was built as one of three ships of the Yorktown class. She was 824’ 9” in length with a draft of 24 feet. Her flight deck was 114 feet wide and the beam of her hull measured 83’ 3”. Her four Newport News Shipbuilding geared turbines could propel her 26,507 tons at full load up to a speed of 33 knots (38mph) while generating 120,000 shp. She was designed to carry up to 95 aircraft.
She was probably the last USN warship designed with non-alternating boiler rooms and engines, a design feature incorporated into the Essex class which followed her. Instead, there were three boiler rooms with three Babcock and Wilcox 400 PSI boilers abreast in each, behind which were located two machinery rooms each with two geared turbines to drive the four propeller shafts. The engine rooms were not divided on the center line, a feature intended to minimize list if they flooded. One reason for this arrangement was to place the boiler rooms directly below the island thus minimizing the length and complexity of uptake leads into the stack. This boiler/turbine structural arrangement would turn out to be a major factor in her loss.
Like most USN ships of the time, crew comfort was not what it is today. The only air conditioning was in the pilot ready rooms.
She was not an identical sister to Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise (CV-6). She had updated boilers, directors, AA battery, different placement for her 1.1 inch guns (the vertical director tower for gun #2 is a unique feature in any silhouette photo), 12’ wider at the forward end of the flight deck, and had a rounded/streamlined forward edge of the island unique to the class. Her two sisters had a length of 809’6”, making Hornet 15’3’ longer. This difference made her approximately 200 tons heavier. Her design crew was 86 officers (14 aviators) and 1280 enlisted sailors. At commissioning approximately 700 of the latter were activated reservists. One of them, Seaman 1/c Norman E. Branyan, 3rd Division, was my father.
An Unusual Flight Test
On December 7, 1941 the ship was still undergoing post commissioning shakedown work. This continued throughout January 1942. On February 2nd, the ship launched two B-25s approximately 25-30 miles off the coast of Virginia to test the feasibility of launching such planes. It should be noted these planes were standard issue unloaded B25s and did not carry the max loads and multiple modifications that the Doolittle raider B-25s did.
The rest of the month was spent in final preparations for departure on operations and applying the distinctive modified Measure 12 camouflage paint scheme consisting of mottled application of navy blue on the lower hull, ocean gray above it, and ocean gray and haze gray applied to this island. Prior to departure and possibly shortly after commissioning, the deck was stained blue, possibly either Flight Deck Stain 21, 1942 revised deck blue 20-B, or Norfolk 250N Flight Deck Stain. It was not striped until enroute on the Doolittle raid.
The ship left Norfolk on March 4, 1942, possibly from pier 7, based on the book The Ship That Held the Line by Lisle A. Rose. (The often published February 28, 1942 photos were taken at pier 10.) It was in the Panama Canal on March 11th. It arrived in San Diego on March 20th. Upon arrival it received mostly brand new F4F-4 and SBD-3 aircraft from NAS San Diego at North Island. The TBD planes left with the ship at Norfolk as far as I know. The ship also received the pilots and crews of the Hornet air group at this time.
The ship departed on March 23, 1942 to conduct carrier qualification training in takeoff/landing procedures for the pilots. It returned to San Diego on Friday March 27th, remained for the weekend, and presumably departed for San Francisco on March 30th.
It arrived at Alameda NAS on either March 31st or April 1st—I cannot locate the date. In any event, it loaded the 16 Doolittle Raid B-25s at Pier 2 at Alameda on April 1st and departed the next day at midmorning. The ship would never see any U.S. mainland shores again.
Hornet and the rest of TF 16.2 departed to join the Enterprise and the rest of TF 16 northwest of Pearl Harbor. Shortly after departure, Captain Marc Mitscher announced the purpose of the B-25s on deck to the crew. The resulting shouts of joy from the crews could be heard between ships according to crewmen who were there.
The Doolittle Raid
The linkup took place on April 13, 1942, resulting in TF 16 composed of two carriers, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, eight destroyers and two oilers. On final approach to the intended launch site the destroyers and oilers reversed course since they could not keep up with the heavier ships due to rough weather conditions. The intended launch time was the evening of April 18th at approximately 400 miles from Japan. Unfortunately, TF 16 encountered IJN patrol boats at approximately 600 miles from Japan early in the morning of the 18th. Since they were heard transmitting position reports, the decision was made at 0800 to launch immediately.
First off was Jimmy Doolittle at 0825, approximately 625 miles from Japan. The last plane was launched at 0920. In order to minimize the risk of the right wing hitting the island, and to enable the launch officer to better time the start signal, all planes launched from a point approximately 470 feet from the bow. Weather conditions at time of launch were approximately 40 knot winds, swells 30-40 feet, ship speed approximately 20 knots, creating a 60 knot wind before the planes started to move. Both white and green water came over the bow. The flight deck personnel were wet for the entire exercise. Photos show the bow pitching approximately 20-30 degrees.
The successful launch with the only casualty an amputated arm of a deck crewman blown into a prop by prop blast was a testament to the seaman/airmanship of the deck and plane crews. Every Hornet and Enterprise crewman I have communicated with said the B-25 takeoffs were one of the most impressive and beautiful things they ever saw.
Immediately after the launch the ships reversed course, picked up the separated ships and proceeded immediately to Pearl Harbor, arriving on April 25th. She departed again on the 30th to try to assist the Lexington and Yorktown at the Coral Sea battle. She did not arrive in time and was ordered back to Pearl Harbor to prepare for the Midway engagement, arriving on May 26, 1942 and departing May 28th for Midway.
The ship participated in the Battle of Midway with mixed results. On June 4, 1942, its torpedo squadron, VT-8, was the first of three torpedo squadrons to attack the IJN fleet, all with disastrous results. Of its 15 planes, all were shot down with only one pilot, Ensign George Gay, later picked up. Of the 41 TBDs launched by the three USN carriers, only six returned and one of those was immediately pushed over the side due to damage. The rest of the Hornet air group failed to locate the IJN carriers, and all 10 of the escorting Wildcat fighters had to ditch with the loss of two pilots who were never found. This still controversial failure by Hornet Air Group commander Stanhope Ring to locate the IJN was combined with another controversial event later that day—the hard landing of Yorktown Ensign Daniel Sheedy, which was followed by the activation of his six .50 caliber machine guns. The end result of that accident was five killed and 20 wounded. Whether the accident was caused by Sheedy’s failure to safe his guns or, as he stated, the fact that his safety mechanism was shot out by Zeros over the Kido Butai was never resolved. Hornet SBDs did participate in the sinking of the heavy cruiser
Mikuma on June 6th .
The losses for Hornet due to the Battle of Midway are listed in its after-action report as 15 TBDs (29 pilots and gunners lost), 12 F4F-4s (six pilots lost), five SBD-3s (one crew lost), and five killed and 20 wounded from the Sheedy accident.
After Midway the Hornet spent the rest of the summer at Pearl Harbor and environs training, repainting its camouflage, reorganizing its air group, and having new radar installed on its tripod mast. She sailed from there on August 17, 1942 to participate in the Guadalcanal campaign.
Once there she missed the Battle of the Eastern Solomons on August 24th, but participated in air ops in support of Guadalcanal from the time she arrived in the area on August 28th. These ops continued until the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, 1942, one of several actions designed to prevent the IJN from establishing air superiority over ground reinforcement of Guadalcanal.
On that date, while operating in the vicinity of the Enterprise task force, the Hornet was hit by one of the best coordinated dive-torpedo bomber attacks of the war, launched from the IJN carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. Later in the day she was hit by Kates launched form Junyo. The end result was five bomb hits, three torpedo hits, and two early Kamikaze hits to the island and port side near the forward elevator. The first two torpedo hits at approximately 1014 struck the forward engine room (immediately below the crane mast behind the island) and the magazine (below the center of the starboard aft boat pod). These hits plus the bombs
knocked out the engines and generators temporarily and caused about a 10 degree list. Damage control and towing efforts by the USS Northampton followed. At 1623 a Junyo Kate put a torpedo into the after engine room, effectively dooming all attempts to restart the engines. At 1650 the list had increased to 18 degrees and the order to abandon ship was issued. All personnel were picked up by approximately 1800. Ship casualties were 133 killed.
Shortly after dark the destroyers Anderson and Mustin were ordered to sink the Hornet to prevent capture by the IJN. Despite firing 369 rounds of 5 inch-38 caliber ammo and nine torpedoes at the ship, when they departed at 2140 she was still afloat although burning fiercely and slowly sinking. She was later sunk at 0135 on October 27th by IJN Yugumo class destroyers Akigumo and Makigumo1 in 16,000 feet of water at 08.38S - 166.43E. At that depth, based on the conditions of the Titanic (12,600), Bismarck (15,500), and Yorktown (16,650), there appears to be a very good chance that she is not being eaten by the steel-loving crud that is destroying the Titanic. The bad news is
that Hornet was essentially in the same condition as the IJN carriers at Midway before they sank, namely on fire stem to stern. If the fire reached the hangar deck (the strength deck in Yorktown class carriers), then the chance that it broke up on the way down is good, as the IJN carriers probably did2. Hopefully, someone will search for and find it some day.
Hornet was awarded the Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal with four engagement stars for its service during WWII. Torpedo 8 received the Presidential Unit Citation for its heroism at Midway. I know at least one Hornet crewman who also received the Presidential Unit Citation for the ship’s support of the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal. Apparently at some point during WWII, the PUC was awarded to ships that made decisive contributions to the support of the First Marine Division. The official regulation is now silent on that issue.
Hornet served her country for a year and six days. Her contribution to the Pacific campaign, for approximately one month of which she was the only carrier in the Pacific supporting Guadalcanal, was an important one. She was crewed by typical members of the Greatest Generation, who combined to step forward and accomplish the ultimate defeat of the Japanese empire.
1. Akigumo was sunk by USS Redfin (SS-272) 30 miles southeast of Zamboanga on April 11, 1944; 137 KIA. Makigumo was sunk by a mine while evading a PT boat attack 3 miles SSW of Savo island on February 1, 1943; 3 KIA, 2 MIA, 7 WIA.
2. Assumption based on the fact that no intact hulls of the Japanese carriers have ever been found.
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Comments from other members
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From: FTC Bernard C. Cotton, USN-Ret
(FC1/c, Mk 37 Fire Control Director, USS Hornet)
I'd like to add my two cents to Fred Banyan's short history of the Hornet. The deck crewman that had his arm amputated by the last B-25 was not blown into the prop by prop blast, but due to the wet deck he slipped while pulling on a line attached to the plane’s landing gear. He put his arm out to protect himself. One of his shipmates took off his own yellow shirt and stuffed it into his wound to staunch the bleeding.
In theory the Kamikaze force was not activated until later in the war. I was tracking that dive bomber (“Kamikaze”) with the forward Mk 37 director and I believe that pilot was dead due to considerable damage to the plane. The Kate that hit at the port side #1 elevator was apparently hit by the number one 1.1-inch machine gun.
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