The Last Hours of the USS Hornet

Chris Pope

3 mins

05 Nov 2018

The aircraft carrier USS Hornet was launched from the Newport News builders yard on 14 December 1940. She displaced 20,000 tons, slightly more than her two sister ships Yorktown and Enterprise.

Contemporary British carrier design emphasised armoured protection and a heavy anti-aircraft (AA) armament at the expense of aircraft capacity. Contrarily, American doctrine was to maximise aircraft capacity. As a result, Hornet had a lighter AA battery and unprotected flight deck, but could carry more than 80 aircraft, over twice that of the British Illustrious class.

USS Hornet

A proud wartime record

The Hornet’s first operation was launching the B24 bombers to carry out the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. This was followed by her participation in the decisive American victory at Midway. But at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, on 26 October 1942, her luck ran out.

Accompanied by USS Enterprise, the Hornet was providing support for the US ground forces on Guadalcanal. Opposing them in the coming battle were the Japanese carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku, Zuiho and Junyo.

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The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

Both sides exchanged air strikes on the morning of 26 October and the Zuiho was damaged.

At 10.10am, Japanese B5N torpedo planes and D3A dive bombers made a co-ordinated attack on the Hornet from both port and starboard sides. She was hit first by a bomb on the aft end of the flight deck. A D3A dive bomber, possibly already hit by AA fire, then carried out a suicide attack and struck the funnel before crashing onto the deck.

Hornet was also hit by two torpedoes shortly afterwards, causing an almost complete loss of propulsion and electrical power. Finally a B5N crashed into the port side forward gun gallery.

The B5N torpedo bomber was operated by the Japanese navy until the end of the war.

Hornet was dead in the water. The cruiser Northampton eventually took the badly damaged carrier in tow, while the Hornet’s crew worked feverishly to restore the ship’s power. But at around 1600 hrs more Japanese aircraft were sighted.

Northampton cast off the tow and opened fire with her AA guns but with no US fighters present to intercept, the Japanese made another determined attack.

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The Hornet was hit again on her starboard side by another torpedo and began to list dangerously. It was now obvious that, though she had soaked up enormous punishment and was still afloat, there was no chance of saving the carrier.

Abandon ship

The ‘abandon ship’ order was given and her crew were taken off before another handful of Japanese aircraft attacked and scored a further hit. Still the carrier stubbornly refused to sink, even after US destroyers torpedoed her again.

USS Hornet under attack during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.

Eventually the US ships had to clear the area as superior Japanese surface forces arrived. It was Japanese destroyers who brought the Hornet’s agony to an end with four torpedo hits. The gallant carrier finally sank beneath the waves at 1.35am on 27 October. 140 of her crew were killed during this, the Hornet’s last battle.