4 June 1942: At the Battle of Midway, beginning at 0702 hours, fifteen Douglas TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers were launched from the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) along with squadrons of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters.
Led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, Torpedo Squadron Eight (VT-8) flew at low altitude toward the expected position of the attacking Japanese fleet, while the fighters escorted the dive bombers at high altitude. Waldron sighted the enemy fleet at a distance of 30 miles and ordered his squadron to attack. Without any fighter escort, the slow flying torpedo bombers were attacked by Japanese Navy A6M2 Type 0 fighters and defensive anti-aircraft fire from the warships. All fifteen TBDs were shot down.
A detachment of VT-8, flying Grumman TBF-1 Avengers, had been sent ahead to Midway from Pearl Harbor. These six torpedo bombers, led by Lieutenant Langdon K. Fieberling, also attacked the Japanese fleet. Five were shot down by intercepting Zero fighters. The sixth, flown by Ensign Albert Kyle Earnest, was badly damaged and its gunner killed. The torpedo bomber was able to return to Midway but crash-landed. It was the only aircraft of Torpedo Eight to survive the Battle of Midway.¹
Only one man, Ensign George H. Gay, of the thirty pilots and gunners of Torpedo Eight who had launched from USS Hornet, survived. Ensign Earnest and Radioman Harry Hackett Ferrier, were the only survivors of the 18 men from the Midway detachment of VT-8. The torpedo bombers failed to score any hits on the Japanese ships, and their machine guns did not bring down any of the Zeros.
In the enigmatic ways of warfare, the attack by Torpedo Eight caused all of the Japanese fighters defending their aircraft carriers to descend to low altitude in their efforts to shoot down the American torpedo bombers. When the SBD Dauntless dive bombers from USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown arrived a few minutes later, there were no Japanese fighters at high altitude to interfere with their attack.
The dive bomber attack was devastating. The aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga and Hiryu were bombed and sunk. Soryu received major damage, and was sunk by its escorting destroyers later in the day.
The Imperial Japanese Navy, up to this time on the offense all over the Pacific and Indian Oceans, never recovered from the loss of the experienced pilots that died when those carriers went down.
In his After Action Report, Hornet‘s commanding officer, Captain Marc A. Mitscher (later, Admiral) wrote:
Beset on all sides by the deadly Zero fighters, which were doggedly attacking them in force, and faced with a seemingly impenetrable screen of cruisers and destroyers, the squadron drove in valiantly at short range. Plane after plane was shot down by fighters, anti-aircraft bursts were searing faces and tearing out chunks of fuselage, and still the squadron bored in. Those who were left dropped their torpedoes at short range.
¹ In a 2008 U.S. Naval Institute article, survivor Commander Harry H. Ferrier (then Aviation Radioman 3/c) wrote that following the Battle of Midway, TBF-1 Bu. No. 00380 was returned to Pearl Harbor for inspection. It had been hit by at least nine 20 mm cannon shells and sixty-four 7.7 mm machine gun bullets.
18 April 1942: Task Force 16, under the command of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., U.S. Navy, approached the Japanese islands on a daring top secret joint Army-Navy attack.
Planning for the attack began in January 1942 under orders from Admiral Earnest J. King, Commander-in-Chief United States Fleet. Captain Donald B. Duncan, U.S. Navy, was responsible for the plan.
The operation was carried out by Task Force 16 under the command of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., United States Navy. Task Force 16 consisted of two aircraft carriers, USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8), four cruisers, eight destroyers and two oilers. There were two air groups, consisting of eight squadrons of 54 fighters, 72 dive bombers, 36 torpedo bombers, and one squadron of of 16 medium bombers. Lieutenant Colonel James Harold (“Jimmy”) Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps, commanded the Strike Group of North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell bombers aboard Hornet.
With the land-based Army bombers secured to Hornet‘s flight deck, her own fighters had been struck below. The air group from Enterprise provided Combat Air Patrol for the task force. The plan was to bring the B-25s within 400 miles (645 kilometers) of Japan, have them take off and carry out the attack, then fly on to airfields in Chinese territory.
At 0500 hours, the task force was sighted by a Japanese picket boat while still over 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) away from Tokyo. At 0644 another vessel was spotted by the task force. Fearing that surprise had been lost, Admiral Halsey ordered the bombers launched while still 623 miles (1,003 kilometers) from land.
The sixteen B-25s were successfully launched from Hornet and headed for their assigned targets. The lead airplane, B-25B serial number 40-2344, was flown by Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle.
Single B-25s attacked targets in the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe.The first bombs were dropped on Tokyo at 1215 local time. This was the first offensive operation carried out by the United States of American against the Empire of Japan during World War II.
The actual destructive effect of the attack was minimal. It had been hoped that there would be psychological effects on the citizenry, however the arrival of the American bombers coincided with an ongoing air raid drill, and many thought it was all part of the drill.
Militarily, however, the attack was a stunning success. Four Japanese fighter groups, needed elsewhere, were pinned down at home, waiting for the next attack.
Not a single B-25 was lost over Japan. One landed in Vladivostok where the crew and airplane were interred by the “neutral” Soviets, but they eventually were able to get home. The rest continued on toward China, though without enough fuel to reach their planned destinations. Four B-25s made crash landings, but the crews of the others bailed out into darkness as their planes ran out of gas.
Five of the airmen were killed. Eight were captured by the Japanese, two of whom were executed by a military court, and another died in prison.
For his leadership in the air raid, James Harold Doolittle was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. General Doolittle’s Medal is in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum.
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Brigadier General [then Lieutenant Colonel] James Harold Doolittle (ASN: 0-271855), United States Army Air Forces, for conspicuous leadership above the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life while Commanding the First Special Aviation Project in a bombing raid of Tokyo, Japan, on 18 April 1942. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, General Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland.
War Department, General Orders No. 29 (June 9, 1942), Amended by Department of the Army G.O. No. 22 (1959) & No. 4 (1960)
2 April 1942: After loading sixteen North American Aviation B-25B Mitchell medium bombers and their crews of the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium) at NAS Alameda, the recently commissioned United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) departed San Francisco Bay with her escorts and headed for a secret rendezvous with Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., and Task Force 16.
The new carrier was under command of Captain Marc A. Mitscher. The strike group was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James H. (“Jimmy”) Doolittle, U.S. Army Air Corps. Until the second day at sea, only six U.S. military officers knew of the mission.
The photograph above shows some of the bombers secured on Hornet‘s flight deck. An escorting destroyer, USS Gwin (DD-433) is closing from astern, with light cruiser USS Nashville (CL-43) in the distance. Two more ships are on the horizon.
USS Hornet was a brand new Yorktown-class aircraft carrier, commissioned 20 October 1941. It had just completed its shakedown cruise in the Atlantic when it was sent west for this mission.
The ship was 824 feet, 9 inches (251.384 meters) long, overall, with a maximum width of 114 feet (34.747 meters). Hornet‘s dimensions at the waterline (full load displacement) were 761 feet (232 meters) long with a beam of 83 feet, 3 inches (25.375 meters). Its draft was 28 feet (8.5 meters).
The flight deck had two hydraulic catapults, and three elevators for bringing aircraft up from the hangar deck. A third catapult was on the hangar deck, launching aircraft laterally.
Powered by four geared steam turbines driving four propeller shafts, Hornet‘s engines produced 120,000 shaft horsepower. The carrier’s maximum speed was 33.84 knots (39.94 miles per hour/62.67 kilometers per hour), and maximum range, 12,500 nautical miles (14,385 kilometers).
The aircraft carrier’s primary armament was its air wing, consisting of a squadron each of Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers and Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers. For the Halsey-Doolittle Raid, Hornet‘s air wing was stored on the hangar deck and unavailable.
“To make room for the Army bombers, Hornet had struck her own planes below. Wildcats and Devastators, with wings folded, and dismantled SBDs were packed into every available space, even hung from the overhead. So, except for her few guns, the carrier was defenseless until she rendezvoused with Task Force 16. . . .”
—History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume III, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, by Samuel Eliot Morison, Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1988, Chapter XX at Page 392.
For defense, the ship was lightly armored, with 2.5–4 inches (6.35–10.2 centimeters) of belt and deck armor. She also carried eight 5-inch, 38-caliber (5″/38) dual-purpose guns in single mounts, thirty 20mm Oerlikon autocannon, twenty water-cooled 1.1-inch, 75-caliber (1.1″/75) guns in four-gun mounts, and twenty-four Browning .50-caliber (12.7 millimeter) machine guns.
Including the ship’s air wing, the complement was 2,919 men.
USS Hornet fought at the Battle of Midway, June 3–7, 1942. She was sunk at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942, having been hit by two airplanes, 8 bombs, 16 torpedoes and an unknown number of 5-inch shells.¹
¹ The research vessel R/V Petrel located the wreck of USS Hornet on the sea floor in January 2019. The ship lies at a depth of 5,330 meters (17,487 feet).