A B-25 launches from the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, as part of the Doolittle Raid on Japan.
By George Morris
Less than two months after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II, the USS Hornet sailed from its base at Norfolk, Virginia with two B-25 bombers aboard. That had the sailors talking.
“We had scuttlebutt running around, all kinds of scuttlebutt,” said Tom Varnado, who served aboard the Hornet. “We just thought that was an experiment to see if they could take off.”
Which they did. Two months later, when the Hornet departed San Francisco Bay, there were 16 B-25s aboard, but the sailors thought they would simply be delivering the aircraft to Pearl Harbor. After all, the Hornet passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in broad daylight with the bombers in plain sight on the flight deck.
“Traffic was just stopped there,” Varnado said. “It was just a mass of people on the bridge. We went right under them. I thought, ‘Well, we’re not going on a secret mission because they wouldn’t do this.'”
But they would. A day into the cruise, the crew got the news. They weren’t going to Pearl Harbor. They were going to bomb Japan.
That raid, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle on April 18, 1942, can be described many ways: daring, foolhardy, brilliant bit of psychological warfare, a great test of courage. It gave the Hornet legacy that far outlived the ship itself.
Getting the Hornet in position to launch the bombers would be an adventure. Especially for Varnado, who was in charge of one of the 5-inch guns just below the flight deck. The next morning, his gun crew performed the required testing of the gun barrel’s mobility. They didn’t notice one of the B-25 wings that hung out over the deck above them, and they raised the gun too high and poked a hole through the wing.
A few minutes later, a lieutenant appeared to ask who was the gun captain. That’s when things got testy.
“I hadn’t been in long enough to really know how to address an officer properly, or I was young enough that I just really didn’t give a darn,” said Varnado, who was 18 at the time. “But he was furious. He grabbed me by the nape of the neck and said, ‘You’re going on report!’ So, I told him what he could do with his plane wings, where he should put them, and he didn’t like that.”
The lieutenant hauled Varnado up to the flight deck and told him he would be put on report for sabotage.
“He said, ‘If I had my way, you’d be in front of a firing squad before sundown!'” Varnado said. “I thought to myself, ‘Damn, this could get serious!'”
It didn’t. The ship’s commander ordered all aft guns not to be elevated above 15 degrees, and Varnado was off the hook.
On April 18, the American task force was sighted by Japanese patrol boats about 550 miles east of Japan. The boats were quickly sunk, but it had to be assumed that they had already spread the news of the American ships’ presence. One day and 150 miles ahead of schedule, Doolittle’s bombers were launched.
The weather was foul; winds had whipped up 30-foot waves that sprayed onto the flight deck as the carrier turned into the wind. Naturally, the bow of the carrier rocked up and down in the heavy seas, and takeoffs were timed so that the bombers would reach the end of the runway when the bow was at its peak.
Varnado watched each bomber take off, and he especially recalls the seventh plane, which was flown by Ted Lawson, who wrote the famous book on the raid, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Lawson had forgotten to put his wing flaps in takeoff position.
“I remember that plane going off the end of the flight deck and just dropping, and I thought, ‘Oh, my god, they’re lost!'” Varnado said. “It just frightened me. I got really concerned. I was standing there pulling for every one of them to get off: ‘Lift! Lift! Lift!'”
Lawson’s plane stayed airborne, as did all of the others. As soon as the last B-25 cleared the decks, the Hornet and the rest of the task force turned for Pearl Harbor. Japanese bombers that had been sent after them were turned back by bad weather, Varnado said.
On the trip back, the Hornet passed through the area where the patrol boats had been sunk. The bodies of Japanese sailors floated in the water near the ship. Varnado noticed the tool cabinet was empty. His gun crew had thrown the tools at the dead Japanese as they passed by.
“They were just that determined to get a lick in any way they could,” Varnado said.
They would do slightly less damage to Japan than the raid itself; because of the need for extra fuel, each B-25 was limited to four bombs. But the raid was designed to prick the Japanese bubble of invincibility after its early run of success in the war.
The Hornet’s involvement in the mission was kept an official secret for a year, during which President Franklin Roosevelt referred to the origin of the raid as “Shangri-La.”
The Japanese apparently found out anyway, Varnado said.
“Later on, we got word that Japan had put out the order to get the Hornet at all cost,” he said. “We always knew that every time we got close to something that they were going to get us.”
That would happen on Oct. 26, 1942. Joining the USS Enterprise, the Hornet steamed to intercept a Japanese task force. On Oct. 26 near Santa Cruz Island, the Hornet’s airplanes would inflict heavy damage on two Japanese ships. The Hornet, however, would also meet its match.
At about 9 a.m., Japanese planes attacked, and before the abandon ship order came at 4:25 p.m., the Hornet was hit with numerous bombs and torpedoes and at least two suicide attacks. A third enemy plane very nearly struck the ship — and if it had, Varnado would not be alive to tell his story.
“There was a plane coming in, and I said, ‘Damn, he’s coming right in with us. He’s got us. This is it,'” Varnado said. “There was one gun firing, one of these pom-poms, one barrel. They were bad about jamming. It was so distinct: ‘Pom…pom…pom,’ just that one barrel. I didn’t know what he was shooting at, but this plane got so close I could see the pilot, and he’s coming right in.”
At the last minute, though, the pilot lurched to one side, apparently having been wounded, and the airplane crashed in the water just short of the ship.
For much of the attack, the Hornet was dead in the water, and torpedoes that had struck below Varnado’s gun left a hole so large that sharks would swim in and out of the ship. During a lull in the fighting, Varnado said he and another member of the gun crew lowered a grappling hook and tried unsuccessfully to hook a shark.
Bomb from Japanese diver bomber strikes the Hornet on Oct. 26, 1942.
That was not the only odd happening. At about 3 p.m., Varnado saw a man swimming alongside the ship clutching a piece of life raft.
“I shouted to him, ‘You’d better get back aboard ship, man. What are you doing out there?'” Varnado said. “He said, ‘I’m headed for San Francisco. Get you a piece of life raft and come on.’ I never heard what happened to him.”
Varnado said he didn’t hear the order to abandon ship; he just noticed no one was around. Seeing life boats in the water, he lowered himself by rope and swam to a raft.
Initially, the officer aboard the life boat would not let Varnado aboard, but bombs began striking the water nearby.
“I’ve never been hit so hard in my life,” Varnado said. “I started climbing in the life raft, and he said, ‘Stay out.’ I said, ‘Go to hell. I’m getting out of the water.'”
A destroyer, the USS Barton, came by, but when tow ropes thrown to the raft fell short, Varnado swam toward the ship, got a rope and brought it back to the raft. Varnado then swam to the Barton. As he did, he noticed a man on the Barton’s bridge holding a rifle.
“As soon as I got on deck … I said, ‘Tell me, just what does the guy up there think he’s going to do with a rifle,'” Varnado said. “He said, ‘Oh, that guy was waiting to shoot that shark when he made a pass at you.’ I said, ‘I didn’t see the shark.’ He said, ‘We didn’t think you did.’”
In a few hours, he would see no more of the Hornet. The blazing, abandoned ship did not sink despite torpedoes and gun fire from U.S. ships. Eventually, Japanese subs finished the job.