Life and Death of Hornet
By Staff Sergeant Angus Gillis, U.S.M.C. as told to Major H. S. Mazet, U.S.M.C.R.
I was there at the birth of the ship; I was there at her death. She was a noble ship. This is her story. I first saw the USS Hornet one day in the late fall of 1941. Still minus her guns and planes, she looked at a distance like a huge flat barge, but I could see, too, her beautiful lines, her trim bow, her well-shaped stern and the overhanging catwalks of the flight deck. "I'm going to like that ship!" I breathed to myself as we approached the dock. "She's a beauty!"
Two weeks later we sailed for our shakedown to the southern tip of Florida and up into the Gulf. There we participated for the first time in maneuvers with flight. Our escort was two or three old four-stack destroyers. It was just before sunrise one morning when one of these destroyers, proceeding back to our convoy for refueling, drew up alongside a German submarine which was operating in the Gulf. The crew said it would have been possible for them to throw hawsers aboard the sub and tow her back to the nearest port. But, of course, at that time we were not at war.
The declaration of war found us berthed in Norfolk , but a few weeks later we were ploughing the vast Pacific, an ocean which it was the carrier's fate never to leave. Soon we were plunged into war work.
A group of Marine Corps pilots came aboard for qualifying in carrier landings. These pilots caused no small amount of talk because of heir unorthodox tactics. They would tear down the deck, pull back the stick, leave the flight deck and zoom up in a steep climb toward the heavens. Our Navy pilots usually made a slow climb after quitting the ship and the contrast was laid to the desire for showing off - yet I have since discovered that this same "devil-may-care" attitude is typical of Marine Corps squadrons.
Shortly thereafter we proceeded to a certain port and there immediately started to load Army B-25's. All of us thought we were bound for Alaska where we would unship the bombers and continue on to some other destination. But we were scheduled for a far more important mission.
The next morning several of us made the stern of the carrier via Jacob's Ladder returning from liberty while the Hornet was putting purposefully out to the open sea on her way to make history. We were one step nearer to action.
It was approximately the twenty-fifth of April, 1942. We were proceeding in convoy with another carrier
Immediately we started warming up the B-25's that were already loaded with bombs. As the day was stormy, the take-off from the flight deck was dangerous. We all feared the boys would not make it. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was the first man off. He ran down the flight deck, lurched into the air at a moment when the ship was on the upward of a heave trough, and was away.
Spray splashed over the bow, and men on forward gun mounts and in the arresting gear were soaked to the skin. But they didn't mind it; every face was lighted up as the planes in turn left the ship without an accident. One of the Army pilots taking off on the starboard side of the ship lost his "go-to-hell" hat with emblem attached. I grabbed it for a souvenir. Then all the planes streaked off toward the dim horizon. The Tokyo raid was on.
Two months, upon leaving Honolulu for the Battle of Midway, June 7, 1942, we were once more in high spirits. The men all seemed anxious for a scrap. Our position was north and west of Midway Island. We of the Hornet were to hit the enemy from the sea and thereby cut off retreat in the general direction of Japan.
About 11 o'clock in the morning we received definite information on the location of Nip ships. We launched our torpedo squadron, our bombers squadron and the flight patrol of fighters. This time our fighting Torpedo Eight hit the Jap ships with everything they had.
The licking given the Japanese in the Battle of Midway was complete. We sent them scating [sic]. But in that conflict we lost our first carrier, USS Yorktown. The last I saw of her was a disheartening sight as she disappeared over the horizon, smoking and burning amidships.
On a day not long thereafter we were once more ordered to sail, this time in a northerly direction for the Aleutian Islands, to be in on the fringe of a great Jap attack on our installations in that area. We recrossed the equator and were two days nearer the Aleutians when orders were changed again to return to Honolulu. The jinx of no action was nipping at our heels.
Yet it was not very long before our Old Lady was sniffing the stink of Japs on the horizon as we churned the Pacific toward the Solomon Islands. After our tanker had left us, we made ready for action. At general quarters, we strained our eyes along the horizon as we neared out objective. Hornet's interair patrol shot down an enemy observation plane before he could radio his base as to our position. We were on the qui vive.
We launched our attack on the morning of October 5, 1942, on Bougainville in the Shortland Islands. Our planes flew in to Bougainville only to discover the islands covered with an impenetrable ground fog without a chance of bombing. So we turned south immediately and began taking the planes aboard. As the distance involved was great, we were anxious concerning one plane which failed to return on time.
Finally he hit the deck. He had flown over the entire island praying for an opening, until he came back in the general direction of the ship; he dropped down into the ground fog and flew so low that he was able to locate a Jap barracks. He laid a thousand-pound egg directly in the middle of it and was gratified to observe pieces of timber and bodies flying around his plane as he sped away. Shortlands, aside from this bull's-eye, was a frost for us. The rest of our duty there was ordinary patrol, featured by a few ill-starred enemy patrol bombers who were all well entertained by our interair patrol and just gave up.
Then, about October 15th while we were still on routine patrol duty in the southwest Pacific, we received word that a strong force of Japanese were approaching Guadalcanal. Our orders being to break up the attack at all costs, we immediately steamed in the general direction of the Stewart Islands whence the Japs were coming. On the morning of October 26th, we launched an attack on the Jap ships. The next thing we knew aboard the Hornet, we were manning our battle stations for our lives.
My first sight of enemy planes was a group of high altitude bombers. Next I saw low-flying planes as I looked over the starboard rail toward the horizon. These I took to be just what they were: Jap torpedo planes. They sped toward us from all directions. The first torpedo hit was received under our mount amidships. We were firing at this plane long before it launched it's tin fish, but it was successful in dropping the torpedo. Then we cheered as its engine cowling spouted fire. It swooped up from about three feet above the water and started its climb; we thought that we were in imminent danger of it's crashing out of control right into our mount. But we were not hit; the Jap cleared the mount and smashed into the sea on the port side.
Now hell was popping all around us. Bombs were exploding fore and aft, torpedo planes were flying in from all sides. The rattle and chatter of our guns of the aft batteries were the only consolation that we had in our hopes of beating off the attack. Other ships around us and in the same convoy were also firing like mad.
I noticed a Jap plane that had stayed upstairs until such time as the rest of his flight had done their damage; he started a dive down over our decks, releasing a five hundred pound bomb. We were firing at him frantically. It looked as if the Jap was actually on a suicide mission, and no doubt his commander had instructed him to get the Hornet at all costs. But he dropped his bomb and then flattened, opening with his machine gun as he passed, strafing the deck. I fell, as I had been taught, on my stomach. With my head cocked in my elbow, I watched a perfectly straight line kicking up the deck six feet away. Bullets!
But this plane also must have been hit, because he pulled out of his dive, turned on his left wing and crashed into the klaxon horn mounted on the side of our funnel. It started a hot fire amidships. The smoke was heavy and we lay dead in the water. The firing of our own guns now through all the smoke was a difficult job. We could hardly see; if we scored hits we never knew it.
A plane that crashed into the deck and the bomb that let go mush have hit me and several other men of my mount. The first thing I knew, the attack was over. But I recovered my senses sufficiently to make the guns ready for another attack, for we expected one at any minute.
In the meantime, Major Blais, commanding A.A. Aft Control, ordered me over the phones to make a survey of the dead and wounded. I started down the starboard side of the ship. On my own mount there were no casualties, but on the first twenty-millimeter batteries there were two dead, three wounded. The same bomb hit had caused, among other wreckage, a freak accident for two of the men. Corporal Rector, a close friend of mine, was completely divested of his clothing; it had been stripped away by the bomb concussion. Another Marine reported that he had lost his wrist watch from the same cause; he found it again, however, still running.
There was death and desolation on the aft twenty-millimeter battery. I tried to make an accurate count of the casualties. Next I moved across to the port side, to make a similar check. I found one of our batteries wiped out to the last man. I never had a job I liked less than this one.
When I returned to the flight deck I felt something warm in my shoes. I removed one of them, finding that my foot was oozing blood and my shoe practically swimming with it. The other foot was in a similar condition. I called a corpsman, asking if he would cauterize the wounds. "Sarge," he replied. "What the hell's holding you up?" It was then that I took a good look at myself, and saw that I was practically covered with blood. I must have resembled something that should be lying in the scuppers.
I cornered another chap from one of the twenty millimeter batteries aft and tore off his shirt. His bloody back was completely peppered with shrapnel. The doctor, who happened to be passing, stopped and asked if he could do anything for the man. The answer was typical of the spirit of the Hornet men: "No sir, there is nothing. The only thing I want to do is get back into the harness of my gun and keep on firing!"
A bit later I could stand the pain in my feet no longer and so requested permission to board a tin-can which had drawn up alongside and was taking off the wounded. Permission was granted and I proceeded below. In a moment it was my turn to board the destroyer. I made the weather deck aboard her just in time for the smaller ship to shear away. The Japs were back.
This second wave, being much smaller, flew over the rest of the shipping to attack the Hornet lying stationary in the water. They peppered her. Then came two more attacks on the Old Lady during the remainder of the afternoon; she was really making heavy weather.
The Hornet at 6 o'clock, even though listing heavily to starboard, was still afloat. At about 7 o'clock, in the hour before darkness, she was abandoned by her crew, leaving only the gallant dead aboard. I watched painfully the last moments as I lay on the destroyer's deck. We were circling madly around the stricken carrier one moment, expecting the fifth attack, and the next moment stopping to pick up men that were afloat in the water.
The Hornet's last hours were, I think, just as great as the deeds she had performed. Voluntarily she was sunk by the other guns and torpedoes of the convoy. The firing commenced, and at 11 o'clock that same evening the old carrier slid beneath the waves. I felt that I had lost a close friend when the Old Lady went. There was something grand and proud in the look of her that I shall carry with me in memory always.
(Article first published in Mechanix Illustrated, October 1943)
Submitted by Fred Branyan
Transcribed by Michael W. Pocock
Page published Apr. 24, 2008