More than three-quarters of a century after enemy torpedoes sent it below the waves, the USS Hornet has been found resting on the Pacific Ocean floor near the Solomon Islands.
The World War II aircraft carrier — the seventh U.S. Navy ship to carry the name “Hornet” following the Revolutionary War — was discovered by the research vessel Petrel, funded by the Paul Allen Foundation.
Alameda’s USS Hornet Sea, Air & Space Museum, which was named after the lost carrier, announced the discovery Tuesday.
The same research vessel previously found the USS Lexington, which sank in May 1942, and the USS Indianapolis, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in July 1945 just as World War II was ending.
The Hornet was lost on Oct. 26, 1942 after sustaining heavy damage during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands and abandoned.
According to historians, 140 men died on the ship.
“I never expected that we would ever see that ship again,” Navy veteran Rich Nowatzki said Tuesday after learning the Hornet was found. “It brings back a lot of memories.”
Now 95, the Roseville resident was helping man a 5-inch gun on the starboard side during the battle that led to the sinking of the carrier.
As a sailor assigned to a search-and-rescue team, Nowatzki was among the last to scurry off the stricken vessel after it was hit and began listing to starboard.
“I went back to the fantail, got a lifejacket and went down a rope,” Nowatzki said.
He swam against the wind: It would push the ship away from him, Nowatzki reasoned, and prevent him from getting pulled under when the 770-foot long carrier slipped below the waves.
Repercussions of Japanese bombs finishing off the Hornet cut through the water. For Nowatzki, then a 19-year-old sailor from Chicago, the blow was like something a boxer would endure in the ring.
“It felt like a vice crushing our side,” Nowatzki said. “It didn’t last long. But, boy, it was excruciating.”
Nowatzki reached a crowded lifeboat and clung to the side until the destroyer USS Barton picked him up.
The Petrel found the Hornet nearly 17,500 feet below the surface in January. The discovery was not announced, however, until Tuesday.
Underwater photos show a 5-inch gun at the ready near the carrier’s flight deck, and a Grumman F4F Wildcat, a fighter aircraft, with its wings still folded to save space on the ship. An International Harvester, once used to move aircraft, looks as if a sailor just parked it.
In June 1942 the Hornet was one of three American carriers that surprised and destroyed four Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway, turning the tide of the war in the Pacific. It was sunk just four months later.
“With the loss of Hornet and serious damage to Enterprise, the Battle of Santa Cruz was a Japanese victory, but at an extremely high cost,” retired Rear Admiral Samuel Cox, director of Naval History and Heritage Command, said in a release. “About half the Japanese aircraft engaged were shot down by greatly improved U.S. Navy anti-aircraft defenses. As a result, the Japanese carriers did not engage again in battle for almost another two years.”
Along with its role during the Battle of Midway, the Hornet is best known for launching the Doolittle Raid of April 1942 on mainland Japan, an attack that boosted American morale following Pearl Harbor.
“Although her service was short-lived, it was meteoric,” Admiral Bill Moran, vice chief of Naval operations, said in a statement. “In the dark days following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, she and the Doolittle Raiders were the first Americans to punch back at Japan, giving hope to the nation and the world when things looked bleakest. She was there when the American Navy turned the tide in the Pacific at the Battle of Midway, and she was there when America started the long drive to Tokyo in the Solomon Islands.”
The aircraft carrier that is now a museum in Alameda — also named Hornet — was being built when the Hornet sank and was named in honor of the lost ship. It was initially to be named the USS Kearsarge.
Bob Fish, a museum trustee, said the Doolittle Raid was “a shining example” of innovation because the military dispatched twin-engine Army bombers from the Hornet, helping lay the foundation for overall bombing strategy in World War II.
The Hornet was discovered after Petrel, the research vessel, began operating out of Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands and a legendary battle site of the Pacific war.
The 10-person expedition team on the 250-foot Petrel located Hornet’s position by piecing together data from national and Naval archives that included official deck logs and action reports from other ships.
Positions and sightings from nine other U.S. warships in the area were plotted on a chart to generate the starting point for the search grid.
Researchers wanted to find the Hornet because of the pivotal role it played in Naval history, according to Robert Kraft, the director of subsea operations for Vulcan, the private company established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to manage his business and philanthropic affairs.
It was not immediately known whether efforts would be made to recover any artifacts from the sunken carrier.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation supports technology and efforts to improve the environment, plus it works to locate and preserve historical artifacts, such as ships lost during World War II.
© 2019 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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