Steamship Sunday – U.S.S. Hornet, CV8

Steamship Sunday


U.S.S. Hornet, CV-8

In our post about U.S.S. Hornet, CV-12, we wrote that the U.S. Navy has had a Hornet in its fleet almost since the beginning of the Navy. Today, we look at the predecessor of CV-12, the brief but glorious history of Hornet CV-8.

Hornet CV-8 was one of three aircraft carriers built in the Yorktown class. (U.S.S. Wasp, CV-7) was a scaled-down version of the Yorktown class, but is not generally counted as being among the class.) Yorktown, the lead ship in the class was CV-5. CV-6 was Enterprise and Hornet, CV-8. Of the three, only Enterprise was not lost in World War II. Enterprise became the most decorated ship of the war.

Aircraft carriers were still largely in their infancy when the Yorktown-class ships were built. The first carrier in the U.S. fleet was Langley, which was converted from the collier Jupiter in 1922. Langley was followed by Lexington and her sister, Saratoga, both of which had been converted from two unfinished battle cruisers. The first purpose-built carrier in the Navy was Ranger CV4 which was laid down in 1933. Yorktown entered service in 1937, followed by Enterprise in 1938. Hornet was laid down in 1939 and entered service in October of 1941, commanded by Admiral Marc Mitscher. The Yorktown-class carriers and their cousin, Wasp, were constructed at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, Newport News, Virginia. It was the three Yorktown-class carriers that won the Battle of Midway. Midway is generally considered to be the point at which the tide began to turn against the Japanese in the Pacific War.

After being commissioned, Hornet conducted training exercises off the Chesapeake Bay for five weeks. The average age of the crewmen aboard Hornet was 18 and few of them had ever been at sea before.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, Hornet returned to Norfolk and in January had its anti-aircraft armament substantially upgraded. Remaining in the Atlantic, the carrier conducted tests on 2 February 1942 to determine if a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber could fly from the ship. Though the crew was perplexed as to why this was being done, the tests were successful. On 4 March, Hornet departed Norfolk with orders to sail for San Francisco, CA. Transiting the Panama Canal, the carrier arrived at Naval Air Station, Alameda in San Francisco Bay on 20 March. While there, sixteen US Army Air Forces B-25s, 16 of them, were loaded onto Hornet‘s flight deck.

Hornet CV8_B-25

One of the Doolittle raiders’ B-25 bombers departing Hornet

The B-25s had been prepared at McClelland Airfield northeast of Sacramento and flown to Alameda. Hornet was docked at Pier 3 where Hornet CV12 is now docked. There is a splendid view across San Francisco Bay from her stern, the view showing off San Francisco and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Receiving sealed orders, Mitscher put to sea on 2 April 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 U.S.S. Enterprise. With Enterprise‘s aircraft providing cover, the combined force approached Japan. On 18 April, the American force was spotted by the Japanese vessel No. 23 Nitto Maru. (Maru is Japanese for “ship.”) Though the enemy vessel was quickly destroyed by the cruiser U.S.S. Nashville, Halsey and Doolittle were concerned that it had sent a warning to Japan.

Still 170 miles short of their intended launch point, Doolittle met with Mitscher, Hornet‘s commander, to discuss the situation. The two men decided to launch the bombers early. Leading the raid, Doolittle took off first at 8:20 AM 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.



Although the Doolittle raid did little serious damage to Tokyo, the psychological effect of the raid was exactly what the U.S. intended: it put the Japanese war leaders on notice that the U.S. intended to fight. The Doolittle Raid was gutsy, innovative and unexpected. It also showed the value of the aircraft carrier as a part of the Navy fleet. The aircraft carriers repeatedly proved their value in the Pacific: the Doolittle Raid, the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway and the relentless pounding of Japanese targets across the Pacific right up to the end of the war. The “Battleship Admirals” got the word, word they were reluctant to accept, that the era of the battleship as the prime weapon of the Navy had ended.

After the Doolittle Raid in April, Hornet along with her sisters Yorktown and Enterprise in early June surprised the Japanese on their way to Midway Island. The Japanese plan had been to draw the U.S. carriers out from Pearl Harbor and sink them in a surprise attack at Midway. However, U.S. codebreakers had deciphered the Japanese code and the three Yorktown-class sisters were already at Midway, waiting for the Japanese. Yorktown had been seriously damaged at the Battle of Coral Sea, but limped to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Admiral Nimitz ordered round-the-clock work to repair her in anticipation of Midway. Yorktown arrived at Midway with repair crews still working on her. Although Yorktown was lost at Midway, the three sisters and their aircrews sank all four of the Japanese carriers (Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, and Soryu) and the Japanese cruiser Mikuma.


VF-8 Wildcats launching from Hornet during the Battle of Midway

In October, Hornet was in support of the U.S. assault on Guadalcanal. In an attempt to drive Allied forces from Guadalcanal and nearby islands and end the stalemate that had existed since September 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army planned a major ground offensive on Guadalcanal for 20–25 October 1942. In support of this offensive, and with the hope of engaging Allied naval forces, Japanese carriers and other large warships moved into a position near the southern Solomon Islands. From this location, the Japanese naval forces hoped to engage and decisively defeat any Allied (primarily U.S.) naval forces, especially carrier forces, that responded to the ground offensive. Allied naval forces also hoped to meet the Japanese naval forces in battle, with the same objectives of breaking the stalemate and decisively defeating their adversary.


Hornet ablaze during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, Oct. 1942

The Japanese ground offensive on Guadalcanal was defeated by Allied ground forces in the bitterly fought Battle for Henderson Field. Nevertheless, the naval warships and aircraft from the two adversaries confronted each other on the morning of 26 October 1942, just north of the Santa Cruz Islands. After an exchange of carrier air attacks, Allied surface ships were forced to retreat from the battle area with one carrier sunk – Hornet – and another – Enterprise – heavily damaged. The participating Japanese carrier forces, however, also retired because of high aircraft and aircrew losses plus significant damage to two carriers. Although an apparent tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk and damaged, the loss of many irreplaceable veteran aircrews first at Midway and now at Santa Cruz by the Japanese provided a significant long-term strategic advantage for the Allies, whose aircrew losses in the battle were relatively low, and were quickly redeemed. As such, it is considered a Japanese Pyrrhic victory, and as a result of the battle the Japanese carriers played no further significant role in the Guadalcanal campaign, which was ultimately won by the Allies.


Hornet on fire and under assault, Battle of Santa Cruz Island

Although Hornet was lost at Santa Cruz, she was a tough ship to sink. Japanese aerial assaults set her afire from stem to stern, but the fires were brought under control. 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 the ship to be abandoned.



Hornet sinking. In service one year and seven days.

After attempts to scuttle Hornet 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 US fleet carrier lost to enemy action during the war, Hornet had only been commission one year and seven days. Thus ended the short but glorious career of the then most current U.S. Navy ship to bear the proud Hornet name. The Essex-class carrier CV12, slated to be christened Kearsarge, was under construction at Newport News when Hornet CV-8 was lost. To carry the Hornet name forward, CV-12 became the next Hornet.

(As built, 1941)

Displacement: 19,900 tons standard; 25,600 tons full load
Dimensions (wl): 761′ x 83.25′ x 28′ (full load)
Dimensions (max.): 824.75′ x 114′
Armor: 4″-2.5″ belt; 60 lbs protective deck(s); 4″ bulkheads; 4″ (side)-2″ (top) conning tower; 4″ (side) over steering gear
Power plant: 9 boilers (400 psi); steam turbines; 4 shafts; 120,000 shp
Speed: 32.5 knots (40.6 m.p.h.)
Endurance (design): 12,500 nautical miles @ 15 knots
Armament: 8 single 5″/38 gun mounts; 4 quad 1.1″/75 machine gun mounts; 24 .50-cal machine guns
Aircraft: 90+
Aviation facilities: 3 elevators; 2 flight-deck and 1 hangar-deck hydraulic catapults
Crew: 2,919 (ship’s company + air wing)



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