WWII Combat

CV-8 Brief History
Written by Bob Fish, USS Hornet Museum Trustee

New Ship, Secret Orders

The eighth aircraft carrier of the American Navy, USS Hornet (CV-8), was the third and final member of the Yorktown class of ships. As a pre-World War II vessel, her size was fixed in accordance with naval treaties of the 1930s:

• displacement (empty) - 19,800 tons
• flight deck length - 824 feet
• flight deck width – 114 feet
• draft - 24 feet

Identified initially as Hull #385, she was built at the Newport News shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, starting in September of 1939. Launched in late 1940, Hornet was commissioned on October 20, 1941 just 6 weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her commanding officer was Captain Marc “Pete” Mitscher, who would become a recognized master of carrier warfare during WWII. Most of her 2,200 crewmen were young recruits fresh from boot camp. With an average age of 18, few had any shipboard experience and some had never seen an ocean before.

Hornet was in the middle of her sea trial period along the Virginia coast when the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, suddenly plunging America into WWII. Due to German submarine activity along the Atlantic seaboard, her final shakedown cruise took place in the Gulf of Mexico. Immediately after she returned to the Norfolk Navy base, her crew witnessed an unusual event. On February 2, two Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell 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. Little did Hornet’s crew understand what this experiment might portend, but fate had now become a plank owner in this brand new ship.

Hornet departed Norfolk on March 4, heading for the Panama Canal and then on to Pearl Harbor to help staunch the Japanese threat. Her immediate orders were to head to San Diego where she arrived on March 20, mooring at the carrier berth on North Island. In preparation for combat, three of the Air Group 8 squadrons were provided with upgraded aircraft. Fighting 8 (VF-8) received the F4F-4 Wildcat, while Bombing 8 (VB-8) and Scouting 8 (VS-8) received the SBD-3 Dauntless. Torpedo 8 (VT-8) remained stuck with the antiquated TBD-1 Devastator due to a delay in the delivery of the new TBF-1 Avenger. Hornet spent the next week qualifying the pilots for carrier launches and landings. On March 28, Hornet was again tied up at North Island to give her crew a final weekend of liberty in the US mainland. Captain Mitscher received a new set of Top Secret orders that would take the brand new ship on a very circuitous route to Pearl Harbor. Two days later Hornet sailed north, heading towards Alameda Naval Air Station, where she arrived on March 31 and moored at pier 2.

The Doolittle Raid

Meanwhile, twenty-two USAAF B-25 Mitchell bombers were flying into Alameda. On March 31 and April 1, 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 LtCol Jimmy Doolittle, boarded the ship and Hornet slipped out to a mooring in SF Bay to spend the night. At mid-morning on April 2, Hornet and her escorts (Task Force 16.2) steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge, beginning the legendary mission known as the Doolittle Raid.

Eleven days later, Hornet rendezvoused with Task Force 16.1 under the command of Admiral William Halsey aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6). For another week, they sailed west until running into Japanese picket boats roughly 650 miles east of Tokyo. ADM Halsey was concerned about this early discovery of his ships, which represented half of the US carrier strength in the Pacific. He decided to launch the bombers early on April 18, 250 miles further from land than planned. During the launch, Hornet was lashed by gale force winds, driving rain and white cap waves. Within an hour, however, all sixteen aircraft successfully took off, bound for the Japanese homeland. The daring raid caused limited physical damage but raised American morale and stung the Japanese military. While America tried to keep the name of the ship that launched the raid a secret, the Japanese found out shortly after the attack and Hornet became a marked ship. Read more about the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo.

Only minutes after the final B-25 struggled off Hornet’s flight deck, the ships turned and headed for Hawaii at high speed. Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, had decided to disrupt an upcoming Japanese invasion of Port Moresby in New Guinea. He had already dispatched the USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Yorktown (CV-5) to the south Pacific area. While supportive of the Doolittle Raid initiative, he badly wanted Enterprise and Hornet to be involved in this first major naval battle. Both ships raced back to Pearl Harbor, arriving one week later. Hornet was quickly refitted for major combat operations and departed for the Coral Sea on April 30.

Unfortunately, Hornet and Enterprise arrived too late to participate in the Battle of the Coral Sea, which took place on May 7 and 8. Both sides had traded severe blows in history’s first naval engagement where the opposing ships never saw, nor fired directly on, each other. The Lexington was sunk and Yorktown suffered serious bomb damage. The IJN light carrier Shoho was sunk while the fleet carrier Shokaku was heavily damaged and Zuikaku lost a significant number of pilots. Both were removed from fleet operations for a period of time, a major loss of Japanese striking power. The Japanese invasion of Port Moresby was called off so the three Yorktown-class carriers - Yorktown, Hornet and Enterprise - steamed back to Pearl Harbor.

Japanese military leaders were shocked by the Doolittle Raid and stung by the failure to take Port Moresby. They decided to expand their control eastward into the central Pacific. At the same time, they wanted to lure the US carrier fleet into a decisive battle for supremacy of the seas. They made a reasonably hasty decision to launch an early-June invasion of Midway Atoll, which is located only 1,300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor.

The Battle of Midway

The US Navy had broken a major communications code used by the Japanese Navy. Once he learned about this upcoming attack, Admiral Nimitz decided to ambush the IJN carrier strike force. In only two days, Hornet was replenished and prepared for the battle. During this time, Captain Mitscher was promoted to Admiral and Captain Charles Mason was selected to take command of Hornet. It was decided not to make the change just before a major engagement, however, so both remained onboard. In an ironic twist, both of Hornet’s skippers – its first one and its last one - stood side by side on the bridge during the most important naval battle of the war.

At the end of May, the three Yorktown-class carriers sortied from Pearl Harbor, the only time they would fight as a team. The American ships placed themselves at a location (call-sign Point Luck) 325 miles northeast of Midway Atoll and waited for the invasion fleet to arrive.

Early on June 4, four Japanese fleet carriers launched an air raid against Midway’s naval base. During this time, American reconnaissance aircraft located the Japanese fleet. Soon thereafter, all three US carriers launched full strike groups of torpedo, dive bombing and fighter aircraft. Just before the Navy airplanes arrived, the Japanese carriers had recovered their airplanes and were rearming and refueling them for another attack against the land-based installations on Midway. They were shocked to see carrier aircraft coming in to attack.

The first unit to spot the Japanese carriers was Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) launched from Hornet. The fifteen old and slow TBD Devastator torpedo bombers were no match for the high performance Japanese Zero fighters. Flying just above the sea surface, all of the aircraft were shot down without causing damage to the Japanese ships and all but one of the aircrew was killed. The men of VT-8 were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their gallant efforts.

Other torpedo planes met a similar fate – most were shot to pieces and none scored any “hits.” These included a second contingent of VT-8 pilots flying the new TBF Avengers from Midway. However, this harassment meant the Japanese carriers could not launch very many aircraft. It also resulted in the Japanese combat air patrol being brought down to the ocean’s surface to make their attacks. The skies were relatively undefended when, at 10:20am, the American SBD Dauntless dive bombers began their runs from 15,000 feet.

Within five minutes, two of the four Japanese carriers had been mortally wounded with a third following soon thereafter. Later that day, aircraft from the Japanese carrier Hiryu managed to severely damage Yorktown before being destroyed herself. Yorktown was later hit by two torpedoes fired by from an enemy submarine and sank. Hornet’s dive bombing group struck the final blow in this epic battle by sinking the heavy cruiser Mikuma and seriously damaging her sister Mogami. Read more about the Battle of Midway.

There is no doubt the battle of Midway was a major turning point in the war. While the Japanese still occupied a vast empire in the western Pacific, it was no longer the dominant naval power in the Pacific. The loss of her carrier striking capability removed any thoughts of invading new lands and they switched to defensive strategy. It was now time for America and her allies to start chipping away at the far-flung Japanese empire.

Simultaneously with the aborted attempt to invade Port Moresby, the Japanese had captured a few remote islands in the Solomon Islands chain intending to harass the supply route between the US mainland and Australia. They built a seaplane base on Tulagi and began construction of a large airfield on Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal

The shattering blow suffered by the Japanese at Midway allowed US war planners to press their advantage and start recapturing Japanese-occupied lands. On August 7, 1942, the First Marine Division assaulted both Tulagi and Guadalcanal. Neither American nor Japanese strategists predicted the bitter six month contest of attrition that would take place on and around these remote jungle islands.

To maintain the Marine’s desperate toehold around Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, the Navy eventually invested most of its combat and supply assets in the Pacific. There were many surface and air engagements, with both sides inflicting significant losses on the other. On August 24th, Enterprise was put out of action by bomb damage from an enemy air attack. One week later, the USS Saratoga (CV-3) was heavily damaged by an enemy submarine.

On September 15, the USS Wasp (CV-7), sailing only a few miles away from Hornet, was hit by three torpedoes from a submarine. Two other nearby ships were also torpedoed at the same time. Hornet had always been considered a lucky ship and had never sustained any major damage, with most of her losses occurring in the air groups. Now, many of the ship’s crew watched in shock as Wasp went through her death throes, suffering massive explosions from onboard munitions and raging fires from aviation fuel stores. When Wasp sank, a feeling of mortality began to settle over the young CV-8 sailors.

At this point, Hornet was the only operational American carrier left in the south Pacific, while the Japanese had five carriers in the area. The Japanese were aware of this and, wanting revenge for the Doolittle Raid, sent a message to all commands saying “destruction of Blue Base (the code name for Hornet) was now a primary objective of the Imperial Fleet.” The message was intercepted by US code breakers and forwarded to Hornet where it was passed on to the ship’s crew. The whirlwind of fate was about to swirl Hornet’s way.

For the next five weeks, Hornet was the nerve center for the Task Force 17, the cruiser-destroyer force protecting Guadalcanal. Her schedule continued at a hectic pace, dictated by the demands of the combat situation on Guadalcanal. She provided combat air patrol for the ship’s of TF-17, air escort for the movement of supply ships into Guadalcanal and conducted long range searches for enemy forces trying to attack the island. In addition to these normal “Navy related” functions, Hornet’s air groups also flew many ground force suppression mission, strafing enemy barges, troop concentrations and supplies stacked on beaches.

The Battle of Santa Cruz Islands

On October 22, the Japanese decided to launch a major offensive on Guadalcanal while at the same time “sweeping” the American fleet from the Solomon Islands. Even though the ground offensive was halted by the Marines, the IJN battleship-carrier-cruiser striking group rushed south from Truk. Enterprise had been patched up and rejoined Hornet just in time for this decisive sea battle.

Early on October 26, when Hornet and Enterprise were just north of the Santa Cruz Islands, search aircraft from the opposing forces found each others main fleet. Both opponents launched their air groups at about the same time and, in fact, they passed within sight of each other. The initial strikes against each fleet occurred around the same time. The IJN carriers Zuiho and Shokaku suffered significant bomb damage and were knocked out of further action.

Just after 10am, Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers found the American fleet. Enterprise had entered a protective rain squall, so the full fury of the attack was focused on Hornet. Within ten minutes, she was hit by four bombs and two torpedoes, and sustained significant damage from two Val dive bombers that crashed into her. Hornet lost her propulsion capability and was dead in the water. After most of the crew was transferred from the ship, a damage control party put out the fires and repaired some of the damage. The cruiser USS Northampton (CA-26) tried to tow her a safe distance away. Later that afternoon, she was attacked again and hit by another torpedo and two bombs. At this time, she was abandoned and sank early the next morning – one year and seven days after being commissioned. Approximately 140 of her sailors and fliers were killed that day. Read more about the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands.

Hornet’s final actions, however – her air group attacks on the IJN carriers and her ship’s anti-aircraft gunnery crews – wrought significant damage on the Japanese. The massive assault on Guadalcanal had been turned back.

Hornet earned four battle stars in her brief career –

• Battle of Midway
• Buin-Faisi-Tonolai strike
• Capture and Defense of Guadalcanal
• Battle of Santa Cruz Islands

But her place in American history is assured by one that was never created – her key role in the immortal Doolittle Raid. On May 15, 1995, roughly fifty years after the end of WWII, Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton issued a formal citation of recognition for all the ships and crew who were members of Task Force 16.

Twenty months after CV-8 was launched from Shipway #8 at the Newport News Shipyard, the keel for a new Essex-class carrier was laid down. Construction workers knew her only as Hull #395. In November 1943, thirteen months after CV-8 sank, the new ship was commissioned as the USS Hornet CV-12. The torch was passed - it became job of the CV-12 crew to maintain the high standard of excellence set by the officers and crew that had gone before.

The Legacy of Hornet CV-8

The personnel, ships, and aircraft of the US military at the beginning of WWII bore the brunt of Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Most of Hornet’s crew was composed of raw recruits fresh out of boot camp, while their opponents were battle-hardened veterans from years of fighting in Asia. Hornet’s personnel were thrust into a vicious combat environment far from home and relied on good training and a “can do” spirit to guide them. But the US Navy had not worked out carrier combat tactics and, in some cases, had inferior technology, resulting in unfortunate losses. Hornet was a key part of this small naval aviation group that “held the line,” stopping the Japanese juggernaut while piling up “lessons learned” for naval units that would follow.

One key aspect of Hornet’s legacy is the buying of time for America’s industrial and technological might to gear up and get engaged in the war. Equally important, the Yorktown-class carriers decimated the IJN naval aviation striking forces, eliminating their ability to wage offensive operations, which dramatically changed the tone of the war. After 1942, America and her Allies advanced at their will, while the Japanese had to focus on defending their “empire.” The Navy learned valuable, if painful, lessons about ship and aircraft design, damage control procedures, anti-aircraft protection, crew training, and carrier task force tactics. As a direct result, Hornet CV-8 was the last fleet carrier lost in combat during the war.

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