ENEMY ATTACKS ON THE HORNET GROUP
0800 Hornet Group cruising in disposition Victor ONE, speed 23 knots, course 270° T. 0930 Outgoing planes report two large groups of enemy aircraft approaching. 0950 First Combat Air Patrol refueled and relaunched. 1005 Course changed to 040° T. on Admiral Kinkaid's order to close Enterprise group. 1005 Hornet radars indicate many enemy planes approaching on course 230° T., 20-30 miles distant. Ship begins radical evasive maneuvers at 28 knots. 1010 Hornet undergoes coordinated dive bombing and torpedo plane attack. 1020 Hornet dead in water, all power and communications disrupted. 1030 DD's Morris, Russell, and Mustin come alongside and pass fire hoses. 1105 Northampton ready to tow Hornet, but moves off when, at 1109 Single enemy dive bomber attacks; no damage. 1130 Northampton again ready to tow. 1200 Juneau leaves for Enterprise group. 1240 Tow-line snaps. 1300-1540 Russell and Hughes remove Hornet's wounded and excess personnel. 1620 Four to six torpedo planes attack Hornet and Northampton; Hornet hit on starboard side. 1640 Five dive bombers attack, but score only one near-hit. 1655 Six horizontal bombers attack; one bomb strikes Hornet's flight deck. 1727 Hornet abandoned by Capt. Mason, who boards Mustin. 1802 Four dive bombers score 1 hit on Hornet's forward hangar. 1840 Mustin detached to torpedo Hornet. 1900 Task Force KING retires in 2 groups on course 090° T., speed 27 knots. 1903 Mustin fires 8 torpedoes at Hornet with no perceptible results.26 1940 Anderson launches 8 more torpedoes. Only moderate damage.26 2140 Anderson and Mustin set Hornet ablaze with shell fire and retire to southeast as enemy forces close in.26
At 0800 on 26 October the Hornet was in latitude 08°45' S., longitude 166°38' E., about 10 miles south and east of the Enterprise group and about 80 miles northeast of the Santa Cruz Islands. A combat air patrol of eight fighters was stationed 10,000 feet above the Hornet to be controlled by the Enterprise fighter director in the event of an enemy attack.
The Hornet group was on course 270° T., axis 120° T., speed 23 knots, in cruising disposition Victor ONE.27 The Pensacola and the Northampton were on the Hornet's port and starboard quarters respectively. The Morris, the Mustin, and the Hughes occupied the forward sectors. The Barton, Russell, and Anderson steamed in the sectors astern.
At 0822 the Hornet received the report that Enterprise search planes had located a large enemy surface force which did not include carriers (see p.41). Admiral Kinkaid immediately ordered a total of 22 fighters, 24 dive bombers, and 16 torpedo planes launched. Eight of the fighters constituted a second combat air patrol, replacing the first patrol which had been out since 0600. This first group was refueled and relaunched by 0950. As soon as the last fighter had been serviced, the gasoline system of the Hornet was blanketed with C02.
At 0930 radio reports were received from the outgoing planes that they had passed within about 5 miles of two large groups of enemy carrier aircraft which were then approximately 60 miles from Task Force KING. A portion of the fighter escort of these planes was concurrently attacking the Enterprise striking group.
Shortly thereafter the Hornet made radar contact with the approaching aircraft, which had not been previously identified because our own attack groups confused the radar screen.28 As has been pointed out, the Enterprise fighter director was charged with control of the F4F's protecting both carrier groups. Radar plot aboard that vessel was physically adequate to enable the fighter director to handle a single enemy raid, but with several attack groups approaching the two separate targets, the timely vectoring of fighter planes proved most difficult. As a result, most enemy aircraft were intercepted too late, often not until they had completed their attack.
A few minutes before 1000, under orders from Admiral Kinkaid, Admiral Murray headed the Hornet group into the wind, then blowing at 4 knots from 120° T. The attack was developing from 270° T. Shortly afterward, Admiral Murray was instructed to close the Enterprise, about 25,000 yards to the northwest, and changed his course to 040° T. The Hornet radar showed several enemy planes approaching from 230° T., 20 to 30 miles away. When these aircraft were distant about 15 miles, the Hornet combat air patrol was seen to attack them, and several unidentified planes crashed flaming into the water. The Hornet was ready for attack, with no planes on deck and with the protecting ships in their 2,000 yard circular screen. Radical evasive maneuvers at 28 knots were begun.
The F4F's only partially disrupted the oncoming enemy formations, and at 1010 the Hornet underwent a well-coordinated dive-bombing and torpedo attack from several directions. Reports of the various ships in the Hornet group disagree regarding the number of aircraft participating in this first assault, but the Hornet's commanding officer, Capt. Charles P. Mason, estimated that 15 dive bombers and 12 torpedo planes were involved. The 5-inch batteries and automatic weapons of the Hornet and screening ships threw up a heavy antiaircraft curtain, but it was ineffective in preventing many planes from coming in on the starboard beam and the port quarter of the carrier. One of the first dive bombers scored a hit on the starboard side of the after end of the flight deck. Then came two near-hits on the starboard side abreast of the bridge. Next a dive bomber with machine-guns blazing crashed into the stack, spraying gasoline over the signal bridge, and plunged part way through the flight deck in the neighborhood of the first bomb hit. This suicide plane apparently was armed with one 500-pound and two 100-pound bombs. One 100-pound bomb demolished the signal enclosure, causing many casualties, and partly destroyed the stack. The plane itself, and probably the other 100-pound bomb, exploded on piercing the flight deck, causing a large fire there and in the compartment below. Fortunately the 500-pound bomb proved to be a dud. The fire on and under the flight deck burned for 2 hours, finally being extinguished by the efforts of a bucket brigade which carried foamite to the scene since all water pressure had been lost at 1015.
This dive bombing attack had been delivered from the port quarter. Almost simultaneously a torpedo attack developed from the starboard
quarter. At 1015 two hits in the engineering spaces disrupted all power and communications and caused a 10½° list to starboard which slowly improved to 7°-8°. At the same instant two 500-pound bombs landed on the after part of the ship, one penetrating to the fourth deck before exploding, and the other detonating on piercing the flight deck. A third heavy bomb reached the third or fourth deck and exploded near the forward messing compartment, starting fierce fires and killing a number of personnel. Two minutes later, an unarmed and flaming torpedo plane attempted a suicide dive from dead ahead. It miscalculated its approach and crashed into the port forward gun gallery, exploding just outboard of the No. 1 elevator shaft, the wreckage lodging in the pit.
During the remaining minutes of the first attack, about 6 planes penetrated the screen to port and 9 or 10 to starboard. Five or six of the former were brought down by machine-gun fire, and although several dropped their bombs, none scored hits. Only a few of the planes attacking to starboard escaped. Six were either shot down or left the vicinity smoking. Hornet gunners alone reported destroying 9 dive bombers during the entire first attack.
Because of the intensity of the assault on the Hornet, details regarding the manner in which it was delivered must be gleaned from the reports of the protecting ships. From the viewpoint of the Juneau, the angle of the dive bombing was 70°-80°, and several aircraft were unable to pull out after reaching the release point of about 800 feet. The torpedo planes approached at low altitude from quite a distance away from the Task Force. Juneau observers saw no torpedoes released less than 1,000 yards from the Hornet but aboard the San Diego it was believed that they were launched from 300 to 800 yards away. Whatever the exact details of this first attack, there is no doubt that it was closely coordinated and driven home with determination.
Damage to other ships in the Task Force was negligible. One plane which started to strafe the Mustin was shot down by her 20-mm. guns. One torpedo bomber in the first group attacking the Hornet found the Pensacola in its path and attacked her. She swung toward the plane with right full rudder and set it afire with 20-mm. fire when it was about 1,000 yards away. It attempted a suicide crash but missed the bow by a few feet and dived into the water. A torpedo plane which fired a machine-gun burst at the Anderson caused no damage.
Although about 20 of the 27 aircraft estimated to have comprised the first enemy group were shot down, the attack was crippling.29 By 1021 the Hornet was dead in the water, with several large fires burning, a decided list to starboard, many of her personnel killed, many more injured, and power and communications so disrupted that all efforts to reestablish them failed.
If the carrier was to be saved, her fires had to be brought under control. Accordingly, the Morris and the Russell and later the Mustin, were ordered to come alongside and pass hoses. The Morris was first on the spot and payed out three hoses, two of which were hauled across the flight deck and used to fight the fire on the port side, while the third was assigned to the conflagration on the signal bridge. When the Russell came alongside on the port bow, her hoses were directed against the fires on the port side, as were the Mustin's when she came up on the port quarter. Many bucket brigades passed foamite and water, about a thousand men being occupied in fighting the fires. About 1100 they appeared to be under control.
Smoke from the Hornet had made it difficult for the Mustin to approach the carrier. As the destroyer maneuvered to place her bow on the Hornet's starboard quarter, swells lifted her and brushed her bridge against the radio direction finder. Next the Mustin was forced under the lee counter. Finally she was ordered to proceed to the carrier's port side, where she joined the Russell.
By 1105 the Northampton had left her position in the screen and made ready to tow. Four minutes later, a single dive bomber attacked from ahead, with no warning from any ship in the Force, and interrupted the towing preparations. Its one bomb landed just outboard of the Morris, which was abreast of the Hornet's bridge. No damage resulted, and the plane escaped, although fired on by all ships.
By 1130 the Northampton was again ready to tow. She took a light strain at 1223, but her 1¾-inch line snapped at 1240. Not until 1430 was a 2-inch towline secured which personnel aboard the Hornet had roused out by hand.
Meanwhile, just before noon, the Juneau had intercepted a message from the Northampton to the returning Hornet aircraft, saying "Go to Enterprise." Unaware that the message was intended for the planes, the Juneau proceeded to join the Enterprise. She was not recalled while
en route because it was assumed she had left the Hornet formation to rescue personnel belonging to our planes, several of which were making water landings because of exhausted fuel. Thus the Hornet's antiaircraft protection was diminished at a most inopportune time.30
Command of the Hornet's screen, which had been exercised by the Northampton, was assumed by the Pensacola when the Northampton first commenced towing operations. At 1257, Admiral Murray and his staff were taken from the Hornet by the Russell, and transferred to the Pensacola, which became the flagship for the Hornet group. The Russell then went alongside the Hornet and removed wounded and some uninjured survivors. A total of 500 men were taken aboard by means of cargo nets stretched from the Hornet's deck, by breeches buoys, and by stretchers. The Hughes, which also took off Hornet personnel, was slightly damaged at 1503 when she scraped against the carrier.
By 1540 all seriously wounded and excess personnel had been transferred to destroyers. The Hornet was being towed at a speed of 3 knots, and there was a faint hope that the persistent efforts of all engineering personnel might be successful in partially restoring her power.
About 1600, however, the Hornet began to pick up reports of the approach of unidentified aircraft on the voice warning net and by flag-hoist. At 1620, a group of from four to six torpedo planes was seen approaching from the starboard beam in a fast weaving glide which had commenced at 6,000 feet. One or two of these planes made for the Northampton. She promptly cast off the towline and evaded the attackers by using hard left rudder. Of the two or three planes which concentrated on the Hornet, one scored a hit on the starboard side, causing an immediate, progressive list. When the list had reached 14½°, orders were given to be ready to abandon ship but not to cast loose the life rafts or to go over the side. A few personnel aft misunderstood the order and, thinking the carrier was being abandoned, launched one or two nests of rafts. About 100 men went down the life lines.
The torpedo attack was clearly seen from aboard the San Diego. Six to eight planes were observed in a dive angle of 10°-15°, dropping their loads at ranges of from 250 to 700 yards. Although it seemed that all torpedoes should have hit, only two explosions were noted. The anti-aircraft fire of the circling ships was ineffective. San Diego personnel
saw none of these planes shot down, but Northampton personnel believed three of them were destroyed.
Five dive bombers which attacked at 1640 scored only near-hits, one shaking the Hornet violently. Although the ship's guns continued to function effectively until the very end, and although all the ships in the Force fired on these planes, none was shot down. As the Hornet's list had increased from 18° to 20°, gunnery control personnel were ordered from the island and the command was given to abandon ship.
At 1650 Capt. Mason left the bridge for the flight deck. Five minutes later, 6 planes approached at about 9,000 feet in tight V formation and launched a horizontal bombing attack. These aircraft had been picked up by radar, but the contact faded. The planes became visible to the eye, but they released their sticks of bombs while still obscured by clouds, 4 to 6 missiles landing close aboard the San Diego on the starboard quarter, 40 to 100 yards away. The second pattern landed about 50 yards off the Hornet's starboard quarter. One of the bombs struck the starboard after corner of the flight deck, the others being near-hits in a pattern so small as to seem one splash.
During this attack, four boats were busy rescuing Hornet personnel. Fortunately, none was damaged. Three of these horizontal bombers were seen to crash in flames.
The Hornet was abandoned in an orderly manner "although about 10 non-swimmers were urged into the water with some difficulty." Survivors were picked up by all destroyers of the Task Force. Four dive bombers again attacked the Hornet at 1802 when the destroyers had collected the occupants of all but two rafts and two boats, one carrying Capt. Mason, who had finally left his ship at 1727. One bomb exploded in the hangar just forward of the island, starting a large fire which died down in about 15 minutes. Although the screening and rescuing destroyers scattered as the attack was delivered, they soon returned and recovered all personnel shortly before dark. A destroyer which made a last-minute circle around the Hornet found no further survivors. Capt. Mason boarded the Mustin, temporary flagship of Destroyer Squadron TWO.
The Mustin was detached to destroy the Hornet with torpedoes, at 1840. About 1900 signal was made to break up the antiaircraft screen around the stricken carrier and to form column, course 090° T., speed 27. For several hours during that evening's retirement the Force was shadowed
by Japanese patrol planes which hovered just outside antiaircraft range, occasionally dropping flares, but taking no offensive action.
26 The torpedoing of the Hornet by the Mustin and Anderson is treated in Appendix A.
27 Disposition Victor ONE is a circular formation for meeting air attack. Each screening vessel maintains an assigned true heading from the carrier at the center. As the carrier maneuvers, the screening vessels conform to keep their distance and true heading (though not their relative position) from the guide.
28 The Hornet was equipped with the CXAM radar which had heen removed from the U.S.S. California after the Pearl Harhor disaster.
29 Most of the aircraft were destroyed during retirement.
30 The Juneau remained with the Enterprise group until the next day, when she rejoined the Task Group commanded by Admiral Murray.
Last updated: June 29, 2003Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation