In October of 1942, Charles Mason took one last look at the hulking gray warship the US Navy had entrusted to his command, ensuring that all other personnel had been accounted for and evacuated from its massive long decks. Seconds later, Mason jumped into the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean to be picked up by nearby American destroyers, leaving his now-empty and thoroughly damaged aircraft carrier — the USS Hornet — to its fate.
While Mason passed away in 1971, a retired Vice Admiral with numerous honors and service distinctions to his name, neither he nor the 2000-plus survivors of the Hornet would ever see their ship again, as they steamed away from an inbound Japanese flotilla on the destroyers and frigates which had picked them up.
Now, just over 76 years after its loss, a team of “ocean hunters” aboard the Research Vessel Petrel have rediscovered the Hornet relatively intact in its watery grave, deep in the shadows of the Pacific Ocean.
An aircraft tug still chained to the flight deck of the Hornet (R/V Petrel photograph)
Last month, the Petrel’s remotely-operated vehicles (essentially underwater drones) found the lost ship — (the last American fleet carrier to have been sunk by enemy fire) — by triangulating its approximate location through researching and poring through old ships logs from the last Navy surface vessels to see her.
The R/V Petrel, owned by the estate of the deceased co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, has led the way in rediscovering the wrecks of a number of warships once thought eternally lost to the depths of the world’s largest ocean. Among the many finds to its name are the USS Indianapolis, the USS Juneau, and the Japanese battleship Musashi — sister ship of the infamous behemoth Yamato.
The Hornet, one of the most beloved boats in the Navy at the time of its sinking, was a veteran of the Doolittle Raid, having participated in delivering a joint forces comeback punch to Japan in the wake of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It would quickly rearm and resupply for the Battle of Midway in May 1942, where it helped turn the tide of the war against the juggernaut Imperial Japanese Navy.
One of the Hornet’s anti-aircraft guns (R/V Petrel photograph)
Then, just over five months after Midway, Hornet was lost during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. Alongside the USS Enterprise, Hornet’s fighters and bombers dished out a heavy beating to nearby Japanese warships, including the Shōkaku, one of several aircraft carriers which had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous year.
Japanese aircraft responded in kind, crippling the Hornet and preventing it from launching and recovering its aircraft. Attempts to repair the carrier and get it back in the fight proved to be futile against the Japanese onslaught, and the order was begrudgingly given to abandon ship. To prevent the carrier from falling into enemy hands, nearby American frigates and destroyers began shelling the Midway veteran after picking up its crew, but despite being considerably damaged, it refused to sink.
An advancing Japanese battle group engaged the Hornet, not knowing that it was emptied of its crew and aircraft, and sank it with a barrage of torpedoes. The ship would not to be seen again until early 2019 when the R/V Petrel rediscovered it not too far off the coast of the Solomon Islands. Of the 2200-strong crew aboard the Hornet, 140 were killed in action.
The Hornet currently sits at a depth of 17,000 feet in fairly decent condition. Pictures from the wreck site show barnacle-encrusted surfaces and hardware, rusting away in the salty and murky depths of the ocean.
Given that a number of the Hornet’s crew perished aboard the ship, it’s almost certain that the wreck is also their final resting site, making it a war grave. Thus, the Hornet will remain untouched and a protected site, as the Navy considers it hallowed ground. R/V Petrel is currently still operating in the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands as it continues its search for other lost warships in the area, including the Japanese battleship Hiei.