The Ship That Held the Line: The USS Hornet and the First Year of the Pacific War

The Ship That Held the Line: The USS Hornet and the First Year of the Pacific War

by Lisel A. Rose


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781557500083
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 04/09/2002
Series: Bluejacket Bks.
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 916,646
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lisle A. Rose was an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy before earning his Ph.D. in history and serving in the state department's bureau of oceans and international environmental scientific affairs.

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Chapter One


By 25 September 1939 World War II was three weeks old and the German army had completed its rush across the sun-baked fields of Poland to surround Warsaw. Waves of Nazi Stukas appeared over the beleaguered city and in screaming dives terror-bombed the tormented inhabitants, who had only days of precarious freedom remaining. A week before, Soviet armies had pushed across Poland's eastern frontiers to help Hitler carve up the hapless nation and to provide Stalin a buffer against German aggression. In the West, Germany's enemies sat uneasily behind Maginot fortifications or squatted apprehensively beneath barrage balloons awaiting tyranny's next blow.

    Across the Atlantic that Monday morning, in Virginia, workmen in one of the two large slipways at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company began laying the keel of a new aircraft carrier. They were proud men, these shipbuilders. They had plied their trade for decades, and their motto was that they would build a good ship, at a profit if they could, at a loss if they must, but always a good ship. In the coming months, as the eight-hundred-foot hull gradually took form, Hitler became the master of all Europe. The fall of Poland was followed by a long winter of uneasy calm, the "phony war." Then in the spring of 1940 the Wehrmacht suddenly raced north through Denmark and into Norway, then turned on the Low Countries and France. To the collective horror of the West, the French, who had held out heroically against the Germans for four years a generation before, fell apart and sued for peace. Nazi troopers swaggered in serried ranks down theChamps-Elysées, while their comrades took positions on the coast of the Pas de Calais, only twenty miles across the English Channel from Dover.

    As the Luftwaffe began to soften up Britain in preparation for a climactic invasion, Americans bitterly debated the wisdom of isolation or intervention. Pundits, politicians, and citizens argued, shouted, and pleaded that Britain could or could not stand alone, could or could not be saved with American aid. On only one point could everyone agree. The nation had to rearm, either to protect its shores or eventually to project its power worldwide in the cause of freedom. The great ship emerging on the slipway at Newport News would be a key element in the fulfillment of whichever policy was eventually pursued.

    The vessel had been authorized under the Naval Expansion Act of May 1938, legislation that reflected the world's growing gloom over the probability of renewed conflict. In 1934 Japan had announced that it would no longer adhere to the international armament limitations agreed to at the Washington and London naval conferences; three years later it began a war against China that included reckless attacks against Western gunboats and property. The large, efficient Imperial Japanese Navy continued to expand dramatically, achieving the capability to overwhelm its U.S. counterpart in the Pacific. Congress responded by authorizing a major increase in naval tonnage, including forty thousand tons of new carrier construction.

    The first vessel to be built under the act would be a product of compromise both within the navy as a whole and in the smaller carrier community. Admirals and seamen remained deeply divided over the relative merits of the carrier versus the battleship, the warplane versus the big gun. It had been fifteen years since Billy Mitchell had convinced some skeptics that airplanes could sink battleships; no one could deny that planes had an exponentially greater range than did the largest naval gun. Between 1927 and 1938 five carriers entered service in the U.S. Navy, and fleet exercises in the late thirties suggested that these ships could play a dominant—not merely an auxiliary—role in future warfare. But "surface sailors" also seemed to have a good bit of history and technology on their side. While the aircraft carrier had become a promising new weapon of war, the battleship itself had been transformed. Britain's Dreadnought, launched in 1905, had revolutionized war at sea. Battleships were now huge vessels carrying many large naval rifles on enormous hulls that could at least theoretically be so minutely subdivided as to make them virtually unsinkable. Thus traditionalists continued to insist that the carrier's role was primarily as a scout platform and secondarily as a supplementary offensive weapon in fleet actions between opposing lines of battleships. The increasingly aggressive naval aviation community insisted just as vociferously that in any coming conflict the carrier would be the major strike weapon, projecting naval power many hundreds of miles farther, much more rapidly, and with much greater collective force than any line of battlewagons could.

    But the supremacy of carrier warfare remained unproven. The great naval battle of what was now being referred to as merely a first world war had conformed to custom. Long lines of British and German battleships and battle cruisers had blazed away at one another at Jutland, and Winston Churchill had observed trenchantly that Sir John Jellicoe, the British commander, was the only man who could lose an empire in an afternoon. The debate over the relative merits of guns and planes continued throughout the late thirties both inside and outside of the naval community. By 1938, however, a rough consensus had apparently been reached among moderates on both sides: Carriers would support the battle line, but they would do so offensively by aggressively seeking out and sinking opposing carriers so that the battleships could get at their enemy counterparts unhindered. Under the circumstances Congress and the White House made the expedient decision: The United States would build both battleships and carriers. In 1937 and 1938 Congress authorized six new battleships of the North Carolina and South Dakota classes, and by 1938 naval designers were developing a new six-ship class of very fast battleships whose lead vessel would be named Iowa. Thereafter, Congress allocated the major portion of capital ship spending for dramatic expansion of the modest carrier fleet.

    A new class, the Essex, would be constructed, incorporating all the lessons learned from operating the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, and Enterprise. But developing this advanced design would take time, and by late 1939 there was no time. The most recent two-ship Yorktown class had been developed years before, and although the vessels themselves were still young, they had exhibited some striking deficiencies in size, armor, and design. But if the U.S. Navy was to counter the large Japanese fleet successfully and provide some support in any naval war against Germany, it had to get as many carriers as possible into the water quickly. A smaller and marginally suitable fleet carrier, the Wasp, was due to be commissioned in the spring of 1940, but the first of the Essex class was not scheduled to touch water before 1943. The quickest way to get sufficiently large and fast flight decks to sea would be to replicate the Yorktown design. The new carrier would be the last of the old, not the first of the new.

    Few carriers have been as elegant as the Yorktown class. Battleship and cruiser critics derisively condemned the vessels as barn doors laid over bathtubs, but they were actually graceful ships with clean, sharp lines. From the bulbous bow a high forecastle swept back about one hundred feet to even higher forward gun galleries on both the port and starboard sides. Each of these galleries mounted two powerful 5-inch, 38-caliber, dual-purpose surface and antiaircraft guns. The galleries sloped away to a 565-foot enclosed hangar bay that could be opened at many points by steel roller curtains, allowing aircraft to be warmed up without creating a buildup of deadly fumes. When planes were not aboard, the steel deck of this huge cavern gleamed and shone like an immense ballroom. At the after end of the hangar bay rose the rear gun galleries, each of which mounted two 5-inch, 38-caliber guns. The after gallery structures dropped away to the incurving fantail.

    Nestled in the hull were the engineering spaces and quarters for nearly three thousand men. Nine immense Babcock and Wilcox boilers provided sufficient steam power to drive the attendant geared turbines at more than 120,000 horsepower, giving the ship a trial speed of slightly more than thirty-three knots, roughly thirty-eight miles an hour. Living conditions were superior to those aboard most U.S. Navy vessels in 1940. Large galleys could turn out hot meals for the crew three times a day; each ship contained a bakery that was possibly better than many found in small American communities at the end of the Depression decade. There was even a "mechanical cow" that turned out gallons of ice cream each day. It was not the best product, since it was made with dehydrated milk. But after long days at sea, any kind of treat was to be treasured.

    The hull and hangar deck comprising the "bathtub" were topped by an 809-foot "barn door," the wooden flight deck. It stretched from just aft of the fantail to just short of the bow. The sides of the flight deck were lined with 20-millimeter and 1.1-inch light guns for close-in air defense. The deck itself was more than one hundred feet wide and unbroken except on the starboard side amidships, where an enormous, narrow funnel faired gracefully into an equally narrow island structure nearly forty feet high, which contained the navigation bridge, chart house, captain's sea cabin, admiral's quarters and bridge (flag plot), aviation offices, flight control station, gun director platform, and signal bridge. Unloaded, the Yorktown and Enterprise each displaced almost twenty thousand tons. The new carrier would displace exactly that figure but would differ in minor ways from her older sisters—most notably in the number of gun directors and the provision of a prominent conning tower forward on the island just below the navigation bridge. Fully loaded for combat, each of the ships displaced more than twenty-five thousand tons.

    Because she was a "repeat," the third member of the Yorktown class grew quickly in her slipway. She was the eighth aircraft carrier built by the United States, and so she became "CV-8," the "C" standing for carrier, the "V" for heavier-than-air aircraft (that is, planes instead of airships). The thousands of steelworkers, electricians, boilermen, mechanics, and shipwrights knew exactly how to build her, and they moved swiftly and confidently to complete the contract. By mid-December 1940, CV-8 was ready for launching into the midst of a world war whose contours had suddenly become unclear. Hider had not been able to sweep the Royal Air Force from British skies after all, and the European conflict remained in doubt as England hung on grimly against the on-slaughts of both Göring's bombers and Dönitz's U-boats. In the Far East, Germany's new Axis ally, Japan, continued its incessant aggressions, which now threatened to spread from China into the imperial holdings of Nazi-occupied Holland and France. As the long hull of CV-8 slid down the way to touch saltwater for the first time, Annie Reid Knox, the wife of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, christened her Hornet. Her place on the slip was immediately taken by the keel of the Essex. The navy and the country were gearing up for war.

    But it was an agonizingly slow process. America had been mired in economic depression for a decade; industrial production and know-how, along with public morale, had slumped badly. As the nation's great factories slowly came back to life, managers and laborers had to deal with novel problems involved in manufacturing goods for war, not peace, while those who contended that Britain was America's first line of defense insisted that most of the new planes, tanks, and ships be sent across the North Atlantic. The Hornet was a potentially splendid weapon, but would she be given the right tools to fulfill her mission?

    And would she have the right men to do the job? As the big carrier took final shape alongside her fitting-out pier in the summer of 1941, the nucleus of her crew began to report. One of the first was Capt. Marc Andrew Mitscher, a small, wizened fifty-four-year-old holder of the Navy Cross whom friends called "Pete." He was a natural leader, "the epitome of a Navy man who had been brought up in ships, been brought up in planes," according to Lt. Stephen Jurika, who served under him on the Hornet. Mitscher was a doer more than a thinker, a no-nonsense man, soft-spoken, direct, to the point. Detailed planning and logistical strategy bored him. Jurika recalled: "He was a man whom men followed. He was a man who could inspire a shipload of men or a task force of men, and he never used five words where one would do. Sincerity just oozed out of him." Colleagues said he never lied, never evaded, never issued an unnecessary order. His concern for his men was legendary. His attitude toward subordinates was simple: Everyone was an essential part of a big team, all working for the same objective. According to Jurika, the captain's manner proclaimed, "I'm Pete Mitscher and I want to know what goes on." As the Hornet's chief disciplinarian he would be strict with the older petty officers and seamen who got in trouble but lenient with the younger sailors. They were kids in an alien environment. They needed to be trained and trained hard, but Mitscher believed harsh punishment could break their spirits before they became seasoned professionals.

    He was nearly a chain smoker, and at sea he wore a little baseball cap with a long brim, which became such a legend that decades later the navy made baseball caps part of the sea uniform. The caps did not keep him from getting sunburned and freckled, however, and he always seemed to be itching.

    Mitscher had been a Wisconsin farm boy before going to Annapolis. After serving in World War I, he won his service's highest decoration for piloting the NC-I on the navy's first transatlantic flight in 1919. He alternated shore and sea duty during the long, dreary years of peace and penury in the interwar navy, gradually climbing the promotional ladder until 1937, when he received command of the aircraft tender Wright. By the spring of 1941 Mitscher was assistant chief of the navy's Bureau of Aeronautics. After two years of the steadily mounting paperwork that accompanied the navy's gradual expansion, he was eager to get back to sea. He also had a crusade. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Harold "Betty" Stark, had recently issued a new Operating Force Plan, which Mitscher believed was designed to subtly but unmistakably eliminate' aviation as a distinct component of the U.S. Navy. The best place to defend naval aviation was not behind a desk but on the bridge of a new carrier.

    Mitscher was determined to get the finest senior officers and petty officers he could for the Hornet, not only men whom he could trust implicitly but those who had "a spectrum of abilities," including naval intelligence. He succeeded brilliantly. Comdr. George Henderson, the executive officer, was a veteran of seaplane service who held nine world records. He had been a test pilot and Mitscher's exec on the Wright before moving on to command a patrol wing. He and Mitscher were close friends. While ashore the two men and their wives golfed together as often as possible; at sea Henderson and Mitscher usually dined each night in the captain's cabin. Henderson had a lively sense of humor and a taste for "epic poems," some of a distinctly scatological nature, which he would occasionally compose when an incident amused him.

    The air officer, Comdr. Apollo Soucek, remembered by shipmates as a "great gentleman" and "a wonderful naval officer," had set a then-astounding world altitude record of 43,166 feet in 1930 and had flown off the decks of most of the navy's carriers. His father, a history professor in love with Greek mythology, had named his two sons Apollo and Zeus. Apollo, a genial-looking man with a broad forehead and thinning hair, had won a Distinguished Flying Cross for his aviation exploits. Artist-writer Tom Lea later wrote that "a quieter, more charming, pleasanter man would be hard to find." Soucek believed that the key to leadership was getting his men to like him, not fear him, and he was instrumental in fashioning the character of "the happy Hornet."


Excerpted from The Ship That Held the Line by Lisle A. Rose. Copyright © 1995 by Lisle A. Rose. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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