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Three Hundred and Seventy-two Days

Rear Adm. Randy Mahr

This post was written by Rear Adm. Randy Mahr, commander, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division and assistant commander for Research and Engineering, Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Md.  He is an avid history buff and writes a weekly blog for the command at http://www.navair.navy.mil/nawcad/. This post originally ran on the command blog April 18, 2011.

Commissioned in Norfolk, Virginia on October 20, 1940, the USS Hornet (CV 8) was the eighth aircraft carrier of the Navy and the third and final member of the Yorktown class of ships. Her first commanding officer was Captain Pete Mitscher, who would become a recognized master of carrier warfare during WWII. Today marks the 69th anniversary of the first time Hornet and her crew faced the enemy and there was more to their story than one mission.

Less than two months after Pearl Harbor, on February 2, 1941, two Army Air Corps B-25 bombers were hoisted onto Hornet’s flight deck, and once clear of Norfolk, they were launched successfully marking the first time Army bombers had ever taken off from a Navy carrier. Few, if any, in Hornet’s crew understood the eventual outcome from this experiment and how their fates would be entwined. Hornet left Norfolk on March 4, transited the Panama Canal and arrived on March 31 at Naval Air Station Alameda. With her own air wing stowed in the hangar bay, sixteen B-25 bombers were craned aboard and 134 Army pilots and aircrew led by Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle boarded the ship. On April 18, 1942, Hornet launched those aircraft on what we have come to know as the “Doolittle Raid” – the first strike on the Japanese home islands.

It’s relatively easy to find pictures of those B-25s launching from the pitching deck where you can see Lieutenant Edgar Osborne, laying almost prone with his launch flag against the deck, as he timed the pitch of the bow and gave each pilot the signal to start their deck run. Lieutenant Osborne? You’ve never heard of him? He’s right there in many of the pictures.

How about Boatswain Mate First Class Norman Branyan? He was part of the commissioning crew of Hornet and crewed the five-inch gun at mount #5. When the small task force unexpectedly encountered the Japanese picket ships, no doubt, he was called to his battle-station that morning. Lieutenant Clayton Fisher, a pilot assigned to Bombing Squadron 8, with his own plane secured below decks to make room for the Army, was part of the cheering throng on the deck as the B-25s launched. How about Aviation Machinist Mate Gilbert Dunsmore, from Utica, New York? He was aboard Hornet that day and stayed with her until her last battle a few months later. Parachute Riggers Theodore Archer and Thirl Alexander were also aboard that day, no doubt wondering about the fate of those Army crews, as well as their own. Ship’s Cook Third Class Walter Ellis, from Macon, Georgia, probably helped prepare the chow for the crews that morning. Seaman Robert Wall, working on the flight deck, lost his arm as the last Raider aircraft prepared to launch when he accidentally reached into the propeller arc to release a tie down point.

As you can see there was more to the Doolittle Raid than Army bombers and an inanimate steel flight deck. Sailors, many of whom were civilians less than a year before, crewed a ship that was not in commission six months earlier.

Hornet, her captain and crew returned to Pearl Harbor and then were sent to the Coral Sea, although they missed the battle which was fought on May 7th and 8th. They fought gallantly at Midway where Bombing 8 and Fighting 8 engaged and Torpedo 8 became infamous for the loss of most of the squadron aircraft during their attack.

Hornet went on to fight at Guadalcanal where her sister ship Wasp (CV 7) was lost, and for a short time she became the only operational American carrier in the South Pacific. The Japanese had five carriers in that area. Finally, at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands, fate caught up to her. Just after 10:00 on October 26, 1942 Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers found the American fleet. When Enterprise (CV 6) was able to enter a rain squall for temporary protection, the focus of the attack became Hornet. She was hit by four bombs, two torpedoes, and two dive bombers crashed into her. While most of the crew was transferred from the ship, a damage control party put out the fires and the Northampton (CA 26) took her under tow. Late that afternoon, she was hit by another torpedo and two bombs, forcing her to be abandoned and she later sank the next morning – three hundred and seventy-two days after being commissioned.

BM1 Branyan served on Hornet until she was sunk. He continued to serve on destroyers, PT boats and USS Hancock before being discharged in Maryland in late 1945. Lt Fisher fought in all of the battles Hornet saw and many more before being discharged at the end of the war. ADC Dinsmore turned down a Purple Heart for wounds during the sinking of Hornet, was discharged after the war and became the golf course superintendent at the Naval Station San Diego. Chief Archer and Petty Officer Alexander both served on Hornet until she was sunk then moved on to other ships. Ship’s Cook Ellis was one of the approximately 140 Sailors lost when Hornet sank. The crew of the USS Hornet took up a collection for SN Robert Wall before he left the ship in Hawaii. He was honorably discharged as a result of his injury and worked for Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego for 39 years. I wasn’t able to find out what happened to Lt. Osbourne.

One last part of the story…Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1976

According to Mr. Jim Butts, his father, Aviation Electrician Chief Leroy Butts Jr., served on Hornet for the life of the ship. Thirty years after the end of the war Mr. Leroy Butts and his wife were living in Cape Canaveral. Mr. Butts was a member of the Fleet Reserve Association and heard that Jimmy Doolittle and his wife were being honored at an “Invitation only” dinner and dance at the officer’s club. Mr. Butts got out the card that showed he was a Hornet Shellback (which means he was on Hornet when they crossed the equator). Although uninvited, he and his wife showed up at the event. He handed the card to one of the Sailors at the entrance and asked him to take it to Lt. Gen. Doolittle. They could see the crowd getting seated and saw Doolittle at the front table, along with several high ranking officers, Florence Henderson and her husband. The Sailor made it around the crowd to the table where Doolittle was seated and showed him the card. Doolittle studied it and told the Sailor to bring Chief Butts and his wife up to his table. Doolittle asked Florence Henderson and husband to move down several places and welcomed the Butts to sit alongside him. His words to Chief Butts were, “I know I can’t possibly remember you but I know you were there – thank you Sir”.

The Doolittle Raid was a daring mission. It flew in the face of logic and gave the country hope against the backdrop of the tragedy at Pearl Harbor. It set the stage for the Battle of Midway which was the turning point for the war in the Pacific. But it was due to real people, whose names were written in ship’s logs, not the history books, and who are now almost forgotten. The anecdote of Lt. Gen. Doolittle’s action in 1976 indicated he understood that the success was due to everyone on board the ship that day – not just the crews who flew toward Tokyo.

The stories of those Sailors are our stories, their experiences are shared by the men and women at-sea today – the cooks, boatswains, machinist mates and aircrew aboard modern Navy ships. On this anniversary please take the time to remember.


USS Hornet (CV 8), commissioned in Norfolk, VA. on Oct. 20, 1940, was the eighth aircraft carrier of the Navy and the third and final member of the Yorktown class of ships.


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