It’s late January 2019, and the crew of the R/V Petrel sends one of its remotely controlled vehicles almost 17,700 feet down into the frigid depths of the South Pacific. And the researchers have chosen this spot carefully; after extensive investigations, they believe that they’ve finally uncovered the U.S.S. Hornet’s watery resting place. But are they about to confirm their theory? The drone continues to dive, and the team waits with baited breath to see if they’re about to strike gold.
There’s a reason why the Petrel’s crew are so keen to unearth this particular craft. You see, the U.S.S. Hornet has a fascinating history – and she’s had her fair share of adventure. Originally built as a Yorktown Class U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, Hornet was the seventh ship to go by that name. Construction of the vessel began in September 1939 – a little more than three weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War, but before the U.S. had entered the conflict.
With the specter of war still a faint blur on the horizon, the talented ship builders of the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company set about constructing Hornet at Newport News, Virginia. The craft was subsequently launched on December 14, 1940, and she was commissioned ten months later. Captain Marc Mitscher – an experienced Navy hand with 21 years of service under his belt – first took command of Hornet at the Naval Operating Base in Norfolk, VA.
Mitscher was no doubt honored to be in charge of such a craft, too, as the Hornet’s vital statistics were particularly impressive. She was a few inches short of 810 feet in length and measured 114 feet across at the widest part of her flight deck. Four Parsons Marine engines powered one propeller each, and the vessel could sail through the seas at a maximum speed of over 32 knots.
Assuming that there was a full complement aboard, Captain Mitscher was in charge of 1,280 sailors and 86 officers – all of whom manned the vessel. Another 141 officers and 710 crew members were responsible for flying and maintaining the planes. And Hornet’s formidable armament included eight 5-inch multi-purpose firearms and 16 anti-aircraft weapons.
As it happened, Hornet was docked at Norfolk Navy base when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 – thereby plunging America into WWII. So when news of the attack reached the Navy installation, Mitscher received the order to put his ship on a war footing. And not long later, the Hornet would be in action on the high seas.
But before Hornet could get a real taste of battle, she was part of an experiment that apparently baffled her crew. You see, at the beginning of February, the craft set sail from Norfolk. And parked on her deck were two B-25 Mitchell mid-sized bombers that belonged to the Army Air Forces – the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force, which wasn’t actually formed until 1947.
Once Hornet had reached the open sea, then, the B-25s took off. In fact, while Mitscher’s craft had still been docked at Norfolk, the captain had been in discussions about the practicality of his ship carrying some 15 B-25s onboard. The jaunt itself had actually been arranged as a dry run to find out just how practical the idea was. And happily, the experiment was a success: the two planes took to the skies with no problem.
So with this trial complete, Hornet now traveled to the West Coast via the Panama Canal, docking at California’s Naval Air Station Alameda on March 20, 1942. Once at the base, she took on board 16 of the Mitchell B-25s. And after the planes had been safely lugged onto the craft, the men were finally told what Hornet’s mission was: they were going to bomb Japan.
Hornet now joined Task Force 16 and sailed off into the Pacific on what was dubbed the Doolittle Raid. Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle was in charge of the B-25s as well as their ground and flight crews, with the latter two groups including 64 men and 70 Air Corps officers. Their original plan was to drop anchor approximately 460 miles away from Japan’s coastline – but this soon went awry.
Yes, the operational strategy had to be modified, as a Japanese patrol boat – designated No. 23 Nitto Maru – spotted the American ships. And although U.S.S. Nashville sunk the Japanese vessel, the Allied forces still feared that the enemy now knew the location of Task Force 16. An emergency change of plan was now essential – and Hornet would prove pivotal to its success.
You see, although Hornet was still around 650 miles from Japan’s coast, all 16 of the B-25s that she was carrying took flight. The pilots began launching their crafts into the air one after another, and the takeoffs all went off without a hitch – until the last plane attempted to fly, that is. One unfortunate man toppled into the path of a propeller, and he lost an arm as a result. All 16 of Doolittle’s planes were now airborne and bound for Japan, ready to unleash the first load of bombs on the country’s Home Islands.
The planes now reached their targets in Japan, flying high over urban centers, including Yokohama, Yokosuka, Kobe and Tokyo. The bombers succeeded in inflicting considerable damage, too. But now, as the aircrafts had flown for hundreds of miles more than their pilots had anticipated, they were unable to reach the airfield on which they were meant to land in China.
Fifteen of the planes crash-landed on Chinese territory that was occupied by the Japanese. Some came down on land, while others ditched in the sea and struggled to the shore. The 16th plane actually made it all the way to Russia and ran aground near Vladivostok. Miraculously, only three of the 80 aircrew died as a result of these dangerous descents, while 69 lived to tell the tale. And, with the help of friendly locals, a number of them avoided falling into the Japanese’s clutches, too.
Those Chinese who had assisted the Americans were then subjected to vicious reprisals at the hands of the Japanese. At the time, the fates of two crews – a total of ten men – were unknown. Subsequently, it emerged that two had drowned after ditching and eight became prisoners. And at a 1946 war crimes trial, it became apparent that the Japanese had executed three of the men and that one had died in captivity. The remaining four, however, had managed to survive the ordeal.
Meanwhile, Hornet sailed away from Japan and docked at Pearl Harbor. On April 30, 1942, she took to the seas again, heading for a rendezvous with U.S. Navy ships Yorktown and Lexington, which were engaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Yet by the time that Hornet had sped to the battle – which saw the loss of the Lexington – the fighting was over.
But there would be plenty of action for Hornet soon enough. She set out from Pearl Harbor once more on May 28, 1942, again as part of Task Force 16. Captain Mitscher charted a course for Point Luck – a location some 325 miles to the northeast of the diminutive Midway Atoll island that’s situated in the North Pacific.
The major Battle of Midway was about to begin. The Americans planned to launch a surprise attack on a strong Japanese force that included four aircraft carriers. And trying to take out these vessels would be crucial, as this conflict would be largely fought by planes launched from carriers. This style of fighting was still very new indeed: the aforementioned Battle of the Coral Sea had been the first of its type in military history.
Unfortunately, the battle did not start well for Hornet. Dive bombers from the ship could not locate their Japanese targets, and some of them – along with every fighter escort – were forced to ditch into the sea when their fuel reserves hit empty. And while 15 torpedo bombers managed to at least reach the enemy vessels, they were all shot down, as they lacked sufficient fighter protection. In all, of the 30 men aboard those planes, just one survived.
But the Americans persevered with their attacks, and dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown attacked three of the Japanese carriers, setting them ablaze and putting them out of action. A fourth, Hiryu, was the vessel that had downed Hornet’s torpedo planes. But her luck didn’t last: planes launched from the Enterprise now destroyed the Hiryu.
By June 6, the Japanese fleet was in retreat, and Hornet’s planes were on the attack. They played a part in sinking the Mikuma, which was a heavy cruiser, as well as inflicting damage on a destroyer. Then Hornet attacked and severely harmed another heavy cruiser called Mogami. And this turned out to be the final action in the battle of Midway – a conflict that ended in victory for the U.S.
Consequently, Midway Atoll was preserved for the Americans as a forward air base from which to attack Japan. And the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers had struck a devastating blow against the Japanese Navy, sinking four of its carriers. The destruction of these ships had also resulted in the loss of 250 Japanese planes along with a substantial number of key personnel.
As a result, historians have recognized the U.S. victory at Midway as a key moment in the fight against the Japanese in the Pacific. And after playing its part in this momentous battle, Hornet returned to Pearl Harbor where Mitscher handed her over to a new skipper: Captain Charles P. Mason. The ship was now fitted with extra anti-aircraft guns and the latest radar technology.
Hornet sailed from port on August 17, 1942, to go on what was effectively guard duty at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Yet damage to other U.S. Navy ships – along with the sinking of U.S.S. Wasp – left Hornet alone in the South Pacific for a time as the sole effective U.S. carrier. But the vessel wasn’t alone for long: towards the end of October, she teamed up with the carrier Enterprise.
After meeting to the northwest of the New Hebrides Isles, the two carriers set course to counter a Japanese naval force that was heading for Guadalcanal. The scene was set for the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands – and so fighting got under way on October 26, 1942. The battle began for Hornet when she attacked a carrier called Shōkaku and two cruisers, while Enterprise simultaneously bombed another carrier: Zuihō.
Hornet herself was in turn bombarded by torpedo aircraft and Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers. The strike was a forceful one, with the dive bombers hitting Hornet three times in just 15 minutes. Then one of the Vals was hit by anti-aircraft fire. And consequently, the plane smashed into the control island atop the flight deck, killing seven of the ship’s crew.
Yet things went from bad to worse for Hornet, when Nakajima B5N “Kate” planes successfully directed two torpedoes into the vessel. This brought the U.S. ship to a standstill, and now another damaged Val dive bomber took the opportunity to strategically pitch into her. Since Hornet was without power, her planes could neither take off nor land. And this meant that those in the air were forced to head over to Enterprise or opt for the sea.
On the orders of Rear Admiral George D. Murray, a heavy cruiser called U.S.S. Northampton attempted to transport Hornet away from the danger. And as she slowly moved away, maintenance crews found themselves close to getting her power running again – until nine more Japanese torpedo planes bore down on the damaged carrier.
Of the nine Japanese planes now on the attack, eight were gunned down or missed their target. But the final aircraft landed a shot with deadly accuracy, and Hornet began to list heavily. At this point, it was no doubt clear that the vessel was doomed. And “abandon ship” was the only sensible order left to be given.
Hornet’s crew was picked up by escort vessels, with Mason the last man to leave his ship. Before the crew members had been rescued, though, Vice Admiral William Halsey had ordered for the stricken vessel to be sunk – once the men were clear, of course. In an attempt to comply, a number of American ships fired nine torpedoes into Hornet, but she failed to go down. Then two destroyers, Mustin and Anderson, bombarded her with over 400 5-inch shells – yet she remained stubbornly above the waves.
Eventually, the Americans gave up and sailed away. It was left to two Japanese destroyers, Makigumo and Akigumo, to finally send her to the bottom of the Pacific in the early morning darkness of October 27, 1942. Of the 2,200 men who had been aboard the American carrier, 140 lost their lives. From launch to sinking, Hornet’s action-packed career had lasted a little less than two years.
In the short term, taking into account the ships lost by the Americans, the Battle of Santa Cruz was a win for the Japanese. But many of Japan’s most experienced pilots never returned from the battle – and the shortfall was never made good. So the short-term victory came at a high price, fatally weakening the Japanese war machine.
After the Hornet had sunk, she lay rusting at the bottom of the sea and went undiscovered for nearly eight decades. But there were those that were keen to find her, such as Vulcan – the group set up by Microsoft’s late co-founder: Paul Allen. Although he died in October 2018, his organization lives on.
Vulcan is involved in a variety of enterprises, ranging from technology to arts and charitable works. But it has also made a name for itself in the field of undersea exploration. Specifically, the organization has found and explored several vessels lost at sea using the research ship R/V Petrel.
And vessels that have been found or explored by Petrel include the U.S.S. Juneau – sunk near Guadalcanal in 1942 – and the U.S.S. Indianapolis – lying 18,000 feet below the surface of the Philippine Sea. The latter plunged to the sea bed after being hit by a Japanese torpedo in July 1945. In March 2018 Petrel found the wreck of U.S.S. Lexington. The Japanese had sunk her during the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea – the fight to which Hornet had arrived too late.
In a quirk of fate, the next target on the Petrel’s list was indeed the Hornet. But the first of the researchers’ tasks was decidedly less glamorous than undersea exploration: they decided to trawl through naval archives, including Japanese records, to find out as much information as they could about the ship’s most likely final position. The team also examined reports from other vessels that had fought in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands to build an even more comprehensive view of events.
In a statement from Vulcan’s subsea operations section, director Robert Kraft said, “We had the Hornet on our list of WWII warships that we wanted to locate because of its place in history as a capitol carrier that saw many pivotal moments in naval battles.” And speaking to CBS in February 2019, Kraft revealed that their research had given them a very strong lead on the ship’s whereabouts.
So, the mission began in January 2019. Once the researchers had navigated the Petrel to the spot where they suspected the Hornet’s wreck might be, they sent down an underwater drone. This high-tech piece of equipment would search the seabed using sonar. To get to the sea bottom – a staggering 17,700 feet or so below the surface – took the drone some 90 minutes. And the data it collected indicated the possible wreckage of a ship.
Perhaps in light of these encouraging first results, Kraft then decided that it was worth sending down another remotely controlled underwater vehicle – but this one would be equipped with cameras. And what the crew aboard the Petrel were then able to see via a video feed left them in no doubt. They had discovered the wreck of U.S.S. Hornet – 76 years after she’d ended up at the bottom of the ocean.
And one man perhaps felt the emotion of this discovery more than any other. Richard Nowatzki – 95 when the discovery was made – was an 18-year-old sailor aboard the Hornet on the day that the Japanese sank it. Speaking to CBS in February 2019, Nowatzki said, “I know I’ve been a very fortunate man. The actual fact that you can find these ships is mind-boggling to me… I want to thank you for honoring me this way.”