World War II: USS Hornet (CV-8)

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USS Hornet (CV-8) launching the Doolittle Raid, April 1942. hotograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

USS Hornet (CV-8) was a Yorktown-class aircraft carrier that entered service with the U.S. Navy in 1941. The last ship of its class, Hornet earned famed in April 1942 when Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle launched his famed raid on Japan from the carrier's deck. Less than two months later, it took part in the stunning American victory at the Battle of Midway. Ordered south in the summer of 1942, Hornet commenced operations to aid Allied forces during the Battle of Guadalcanal. In September, the carrier was lost at the Battle of Santa Cruz after sustaining several bomb and torpedo hits. Its name was carried on by a new USS Hornet (CV-12) which joined the fleet in November 1943.

Construction & Commissioning

The third and final Yorktown-class aircraft carrier, USS Hornet was ordered on March 30, 1939. Construction began at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company that September. As work progressed, World War II commenced in Europe though the United States elected to remain neutral. Launched on December 14, 1940, Hornet was sponsored by Annie Reid Knox, wife of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Workers completed the ship later the following year and on October 20, 1941, Hornet was commissioned with Captain Marc A. Mitscher in command. Over the next five weeks, the carrier conducted training exercises off the Chesapeake Bay.

Aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) underway in the Chesapeake Bay.
USS Hornet (CV-8) underway in Hampton Roads, VA, October 1941. National Archives and Record Administration 

World War II Begins

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, Hornet returned to Norfolk and in January had its anti-aircraft armament substantially upgraded. Remaining in the Atlantic, the carrier conducted tests on February 2 to determine if a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber could fly from the ship. Though the crew was perplexed, the tests proved successful. On March 4, Hornet departed Norfolk with orders to sail for San Francisco, CA. Transiting the Panama Canal, the carrier arrived at Naval Air Station, Alameda on March 20. While there, sixteen U.S. Army Air Forces B-25s were loaded onto Hornet's flight deck.

USS Hornet (CV-8)

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Aircraft Carrier
  • Shipyard: Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company
  • Laid Down: September 25, 1939
  • Launched: December 14, 1940
  • Commissioned: October 20, 1941
  • Fate: Sunk October 26, 1942

Specifications

  • Displacement: 26,932 tons
  • Length: 827 ft., 5 in.
  • Beam: 114 ft.
  • Draft: 28 ft.
  • Propulsion: 4 × Parsons geared steam turbines, 9 × Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 4 × shafts
  • Speed: 32.5 knots
  • Range: 14,400 nautical miles at 15 knots
  • Complement: 2,919 men

Armament

  • 8 × 5 in. dual purpose guns, 20 × 1.1 in., 32 × 20 mm anti-aircraft cannons

Aircraft

  • 90 aircraft

Doolittle Raid

Receiving sealed orders, Mitscher put to sea on April 2 before informing the crew that the bombers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Doolittle, were intended for a strike on Japan. Steaming across the Pacific, Hornet united with Vice Admiral William Halsey's Task Force 16 which was centered on the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6). With Enterprise's aircraft providing cover, the combined force approached Japan. On April 18, the American force was spotted by the Japanese vessel No. 23 Nitto Maru. Though the enemy vessel was quickly destroyed by the cruiser USS Nashville, Halsey and Doolittle were concerned that it had sent a warning to Japan.

B-25 Mitchell takes off from USS Hornet, 1942.
B-25 takes off from USS Hornet (CV-8). National Archives & Records Administration

Still 170 miles short of their intended launch point, Doolittle met with Mitscher, Hornet's commander, to discuss the situation. Emerging from the meeting, the two men decided to launch the bombers early. Leading the raid, Doolittle took off first at 8:20 a.m. and was followed by the rest of his men. Reaching Japan, the raiders successfully struck their targets before flying on to China. Due to the early departure, none possessed the fuel to reach their intended landing strips and all were forced to bail out or ditch. Having launched Doolittle's bombers, Hornet and TF 16 immediately turned and steamed for Pearl Harbor.

Midway

After a brief stop in Hawaii, the two carriers departed on April 30 and moved south to support USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Lexington (CV-2) during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Unable to reach the area in time, they diverted towards Nauru and Banaba before returning to Pearl Harbor on May 26. As before, the time in port was short as the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ordered both Hornet and Enterprise to block a Japanese advance against Midway. Under the guidance of Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, the two carriers were later joined by Yorktown.

With the beginning of the Battle of Midway on June 4, all three American carriers launched strikes against the four carriers of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's First Air Fleet. Locating the Japanese carriers, the American TBD Devastator torpedo bombers began attacking. Lacking escorts, they suffered heavily and Hornet's VT-8 lost all fifteen of its aircraft. The sole survivor of the squadron was Ensign George Gay who was rescued after the battle. With the battle progressing, Hornet's dive bombers failed to find the Japanese, though their compatriots from the other two carriers did with stunning results.

In the course of the fighting, Yorktown's and Enterprise's dive bombers succeeded in sinking all four Japanese carriers. That afternoon, Hornet's aircraft attacked the supporting Japanese vessels but with little effect. Two days later, they aided in sinking the heavy cruiser Mikuma and badly damaging the heavy cruiser Mogami. Returning to port, Hornet spent much of the next two months being overhauled. This saw the carrier's anti-aircraft defenses further augmented and the installation of a new radar set. Departing Pearl Harbor on August 17, Hornet sailed for the Solomon Islands to aid in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Battle of Santa Cruz

Arriving in the area, Hornet supported Allied operations and in late September briefly was the only operational American carrier in the Pacific after the loss of USS Wasp (CV-7) and damage to USS Saratoga (CV-3) and Enterprise. Joined by a repaired Enterprise on October 24, Hornet moved to strike a Japanese force approaching Guadalcanal. Two days later saw the carrier engaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz. In the course of the action, Hornet's aircraft inflicted severe damage on the carrier Shokaku and heavy cruiser Chikuma

USS Hornet at sea being attacked by Japanese aircraft.
USS Hornet under attack during the Battle of Santa Cruz, 1942. US Naval History & Heritage Command

These successes were offset when Hornet was struck by three bombs and two torpedoes. On fire and dead in the water, Hornet's crew began a massive damage control operation which saw the fires brought under control by 10:00 a.m. As Enterprise was also damaged, it began to withdraw from the area. In an effort to save Hornet, the carrier was taken under tow by the heavy cruiser USS Northampton. Only making five knots, the two ships came under attack from Japanese aircraft and Hornet was hit by another torpedo. Unable to save the carrier, Captain Charles P. Mason ordered abandon ship.

After attempts to scuttle the burning ship failed, the destroyers USS Anderson and USS Mustin moved in and fired over 400 five-inch rounds and nine torpedoes into Hornet. Still refusing to sink, Hornet was finally finished off after midnight by four torpedoes from the Japanese destroyers Makigumo and Akigumo which had arrived in the area. The last U.S. fleet carrier lost to enemy action during the war, Hornet had only been commission one year and seven days.