A Tale of Two Hornets

Many people are familiar with the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier which is now docked as a museum ship in Alameda, California. The ship was commissioned in 1943 and served through the duration of World War 2, then decommissioned afterward and brought back into service just a few years later. Ultimately, it was retired in 1970 after serving both in the Vietnam war and as a recovery vessel during the Apollo space missions.

The crew of Apollo 11 arrives home via the Hornet.

But what a lot of people don’t know, unless you’re a history buff, is that this famous USS Hornet was named for a previous vessel that was downed and presumably lost forever in October of 1942. While engaging in combat during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands the original aircraft carrier was hit by torpedoes and bombs until it was eventually taken out of commission.

140 crewmen were lost. As one of the survivors, Richard Nowatzki, notes, “they used armor-piercing bombs, now when they come down, you hear ’em going through the decks … plink, plink, plink, plink … and then when they explode the whole ship shakes.”

Being aboard the first Hornet during its final, fateful days, he was thrilled to find out that its resting place had been discovered.

“The actual fact that you can find these ships is mind-boggling to me… I want to thank you for honoring me this way,” Nowatzki said.

An anti-aircraft gun sits as it landed. Photo: Paul G. Allens Vulcan Inc.

This proud ship, which launched one of the first raids on Tokyo during the war, was discovered by Vulcan Inc., a company founded by Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. After acquiring more than a bit of money in the tech industry he became a philanthropist, and one of his missions was recovering and rediscovering history by venturing out to find shipwrecks. The subject had always intrigued him, and while he passed away in October of last year, this find would have made him particularly proud as he had an intense interest in aircraft carriers.

An aircraft tug sits upon the USS Hornet. Photo: Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Inc.

The carrier was found in January after 75 years missing by the research vessel Petrel and its robotic sub. Unfortunately, we won’t be diving there anytime soon, as it sits at a depth of 5,200 meters (17,000 feet). That said, knowing the location of the original USS Hornet not only pays respect to the lives lost, but gives future researchers a pinned location at which to learn more about the way it operated and possibly even the final blow which sunk it.

“We had the Hornet on our list of WWII warships that we wanted to locate because of its place in history as a capital carrier that saw many pivotal moments in naval battles,” said Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Vulcan. 

– Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor