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USS Hornet: the Grey Ghost in Alameda

by Art Johnson

The old gray lady sits in the water alongside Pier 3 in Alameda, California, at the end of another busy week. She has lost a lot of the spring in her step since she was launched as a young lady in Newport News, Virginia, in 1943. It’s easy for her to reminisce about the experiences of a long and active lifetime of service.

She is the eighth USS Hornet in a long lineage of ships that go back to the American Revolutionary War. She was also a “Rosie the Riveter” ship with thirty percent of her construction crew being women. Like most people, she gained weight with age. In 1943, she was a young lady of 27,000 tons, while today she is quite a bit stouter at 41,000 tons. Displayed proudly on her island is the Presidential Unit Citation along with several battle stars for her work in World War II. Over 1,400 Japanese aircraft were destroyed and over 1,250,000 tons of Japanese shipping were sunk by her World War II crews. She holds a couple of Navy records: most planes shot down in a day – 72, and most planes shot down in a month – 255.

She fought in all the major sea battles of the Pacific from 1944 to the end of the war. Her two most famous admirals were Mark Mitscher and a part Cherokee Indian named Jocko Clark. After Japan’s surrender, she was filled with bunks on her hangar deck and made several Magic Carpet cruises to bring back the troops to the US from the war zones. With a smile she remembers resting in mothballs alongside a pier at Hunters Point shipyard, out of service from 1947 to 1951. But then things started to go wrong in Korea, and she was quickly restored to life in a major overhaul in the New York Navy Yard. After the Korean truce, she was off to Quemoy and Matsu to try to insure that Formosa was not invaded by the Chinese communists. In the late 1950s and 1960s, her mission was to keep track of the Russian submarines in the eastern Pacific Ocean. She spent two cruises in support of the US effort in Vietnam.

In July of 1969, this strange race of humans had managed to fling three men in a capsule to the moon and was returning them to the earth. She sat gently bobbing in the waves while her helicopters raced to pluck the astronauts from the sea. Proudly she steamed back to Hawaii with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins safely tucked away in a quarantine trailer in one of her hangar bays. High up in her mast was wired a broom – the traditional signal of a successful mission. In November of 1969, she repeated the performance for the all-Navy crew of Apollo 12.

In June 1970, she was off to Bremerton, Washington, for another period of extended sleep in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Resting alongside her was a famous compatriot, the battleship USS Missouri, on whose decks the Japanese surrender documents were signed. In 1995, the Hornet was surveyed from the Navy as no longer capable of active service. A strange chill went up her keel as she was towed to the Bay Area to begin the scrapping process – a strange way to repay her years of faithful service.

But scrapping was not to be. Instead, the Navy donated her to a group in Alameda as a museum ship. You can almost see a smile wrinkle her bow as she thinks about her new crew. They are mostly in their 60s, 70s, and some 80s, but they still step pretty smartly. They have restored her spaces, given her several coats of paint, repaired her equipment, and stocked her with another set of aircraft. On a recent weekend, six hundred Boy and Girl Scouts slept in her berthing spaces. The Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Les Brown bands have played for dances in her hangar bays, and several movies have been filmed in her spaces.

As you drive away from the end of the pier, you can almost hear what she is thinking: “You know this new duty is enjoyable. Maybe I can teach these strange humans a few more things yet.”

City Guide Art Johnson was a USS Hornet crew member from 1958-1961, is currently Vice Chairman of the USS Hornet Docents Council, and works on a ship repair crew.

Sources: USS Hornet - A Pictorial History, Chuck Self, Turner Press The Essex Aircraft Carriers, Andrew Faltum, Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy, Clark Reynolds, Naval Institute Press

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Aircraft carriers at Hunters Point in 1947: (1) Boxer (2) Shangri-La (3) Intrepid (4) Hornet. The Hornet was already assigned to the reserve fleet

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