Seamen honor USS Hornet's 70th birthday

Seamen honor USS Hornet's 70th birthday

Dave Boitano

Former crew members of the USS Hornet served on a panel Saturday to discuss their time on the ship when it served the U.S. Navy. Photo by Dave Boitano.

Ted Crosby, 93, can recall in detail that day in the spring of 1945 when he shot down five Japanese Kamikaze planes.

Crosby was flying a Grumman Hellcat fighter off the USS Hornet during the Battle for Okinawa when radar operators spotted a swarm of Japanese suicide aircraft headed towards the U.S. fleet.

At least two Navy destroyers had been sunk by the Kamikazes and Crosby’s flight leader decided to stop the Japanese planes before they could do more damage.

“There were 20 of them and he said, ‘Here we go Ted, let’s wipe these guys out,’ and I said ‘I’m with you,’” Crosby recalled.

Downing five enemy aircraft qualified Crosby to be a fighter “Ace,” an honor he is proud of.

Crosby and other veteran naval aviators shared plenty of sea stories during a special Living Ship Day celebration held aboard Saturday aboard the Hornet, moored permanently at Alameda Point.

Though the foundation that runs the ship has a museum that holds these events each month, Saturday’s gathering honored the 70th birthday of the ship’s commissioning and its 15th year as a floating museum.

If a ship could be said to have a personality, the Hornet, designated CV12 in naval classification, could well reflect the spirit of the men who gathered on the flight deck Saturday.

She is a proud former warrior who served the nation faithfully from World War II through the Korean and Vietnam wars and was the rescue ship for astronauts returning from the Moon during the Apollo 11 and 12 flights.

The Hornet was one of 24 Essex-class carriers built during World War II to engage and defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy. The ship was to be have been named the USS Kearsarge, but Navy authorities changed the name after another Hornet carrier, designed as CV 8, was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz, in 1942.

After being deployed to the Pacific, the Hornet and her crew took part in almost every major naval battle designed to drive the Japanese off remote island chains and the Philippines.

The first Hornet gained fame as the ship that launched the “Doolittle Raiders” on a mission to bomb Tokyo in 1942.

Designed to boost American morale in the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the mission involved flying heavy B-25 bombers off the flight deck, a feat that had never been tried before.

After leaving Alameda, the crew was informed by the captain they would be transporting the bombers to attack Japan, said Richard Nowatski, who was a seaman fresh out of Navy boot camp on his first combat tour.

“A cheer went up,” Nowatski said. “The whole ship was cheering.”

Nowatski later had a legendary encounter with Col. Jimmy Doolittle, the commander of the bomber group that struck Tokyo.

A bomber pilot had convinced Nowatski that Navy volunteers would be sought to operate a camera stationed in the back of the aircraft to photograph the raid. Nowatski and a friend sought out Doolittle, who burst out laughing when the men offered their services. The cameras were to be controlled by the pilot up front and the two men had been duped.

But Nowatski looks back on the joke with fondness.

“That guy (pilot) did me a favor,” he said. “I got to talk to a world famous man and gave him some enjoyment during a pressure-filled situation, and he gave me a great sea story.”

Due to its extensive record of service, the Hornet was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1991. The effort to save the ship began in 1995 when the ship was scheduled to be scrapped at a San Francisco shipyard.

Environmental regulations made disposing of the ship financially difficult for the company assigned to the task.

Supporters of the Hornet managed to get the ship towed to Alameda and had to sue the Navy to get the vessel transferred into private hands for use as a museum, said retired Navy Capt. Gerald G. Lutz.

Going up against the Navy wasn’t easy, but it was necessary if the carrier was to avoid the jaws of a wrecking machine, Lutz said.

“That was the most fun I had,” he said, “not because I sued the Navy but because we all felt it was the right thing to do to save the ship.”

The Hornet opened to the public in October of 1998. The ship’s foundation relies on a dedicated group of volunteers to serve as on-board docents and helps pay the bills with admission fees, overnight stays for community groups and special events like World War II-era Big Band dances.

Robert Halton of Watsonville is one of those volunteers. Once a month, he dons an authentic 1940s-era Navy flight suit and goggles and talks to visitors about the ship and its legacy.

He volunteers to honor the veterans, Halton said, and for one other reason.

“I love the sea stories,” he said.