The USS Hornet: History & the Battle of Midway

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the American aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Hornet and its role in the decisive Battle of Midway. We will examine its activity during World War II, and most specifically its involvement in the Battle of Midway.

The U.S.S. Hornet: A Celebrated Ship

If you ever have the opportunity to set foot on an aircraft carrier, it is highly recommended. The sheer size of these ships is staggering. On top of that, they are a tremendous weapons system, capable of producing an unimaginable degree of destruction. Aircraft carriers played a decisive role in World War II naval battles, particularly in the Pacific Theater.

This lesson is about a celebrated aircraft carrier called the U.S.S. Hornet. Now we have to clear one thing up right away: there have actually been eight U.S. Navy ships named the U.S.S. Hornet! The first one, a ten-gun sloop was commissioned in 1775 and fought in the Revolutionary War. The most recent U.S.S. Hornet was commissioned in 1943 during World War II and today can be visited at the U.S.S. Hornet Museum in Alameda, California. The U.S.S. Hornet we want to focus on was a World War II-era aircraft carrier commissioned in 1941 that played a decisive role in the pivotal Battle of Midway. Let's learn more!

The U.S.S. Hornet was commissioned in 1941. It was involved in the Doolittle Raid and the pivotal Battle of Midway.
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The U.S.S. Hornet and the Doolittle Raid

The U.S.S. Hornet was Yorktown-class aircraft carrier commissioned in October 1941. This was just two months before the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When the Pearl Harbor attack took place, the Hornet was off the coast of Virginia engaged in training exercises. The ship displaced 20,000 tons and had an overall length of 825 feet. By March 1942, the Hornet had set sail for the Pacific. Steaming deep into enemy territory, it was from the deck of the of the Hornet that the famous Doolittle Raid was launched in April 1942. The Doolittle Raid was basically retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Organized by Lieutenant Colonel James 'Jimmy' Doolittle, sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the deck of the Hornet (not an easy task!) on April 18 and bombed Tokyo, Japan. The bombers did not have enough fuel to fly back to the Hornet, so they crash-landed in China (an American ally). The Doolittle Raid was a complete shock to the Japanese who believed they were impenetrable to Allied bombing and an important morale boost to the U.S.

The U.S.S. Hornet and the Battle of Midway

The Doolittle Raid alarmed Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, prompting him to prepare an attack against American controlled Midway Island. The Battle of Midway took place between June 4-7, 1942, just six months following Pearl Harbor. It is typically regarded as the ''turning point'' of the war in the Pacific Theater. One notable historian has gone as far to call the battle ''the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.'' This epic naval battle pitted four Japanese carriers against three American carriers. Both sides had other ships as well, such as heavy cruisers and destroyers.

The Japanese hoped that by setting their sights on Midway Island, they could draw out the American fleet and destroy them. However, intelligence played a critical role in this battle. American intelligence officials cracked the Japanese code and knew their plans. In fact, American Admiral Chester W. Nimitz knew the exact positions of all four Japanese carriers planning to assault Midway. Instead of the Japanese setting an ambush for the Americans, the Americans set an ambush for the Japanese. The Hornet was positioned some 300 miles northeast of Midway Island lying in wait for the Japanese fleet. After the Japanese planes had attacked Midway Island, they needed to be rearmed and refueled for a second assault. Just when these planes were on the deck of their carriers, the Hornet, along with two other carriers, the U.S.S. Yorktown and the U.S.S. Enterprise, launched aircraft that attacked the Japanese carriers and their planes. Dive-bombers from the Hornet proved particularly effective.

The stories of those who fought in the battle are remarkable. One pilot, George H. Gay, Jr., was shot down after attacking the Japanese carrier, the Kaga. For spending 30 hours in the Pacific Ocean and witnessing the sinking of 3 Japanese carriers, he was picked up. He lived until 1994.

The Hornet, Yorktown, and Enterprise were the three American aircraft carriers involved in the Battle of Midway.
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