When the shipbuilders of Newport News launched the USS Hornet on Dec. 14, 1940, the last carrier in the Yorktown class was considered to be in a class by itself.
Its deck measured nearly 5 feet wider than that of its sister ships -- the Yorktown and the Enterprise -- and it would need every inch to carry 16 B-25 bombers commanded by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle across the Pacific in early 1942 for America's first bombing raid on Tokyo.
Completed and commissioned at the Norfolk Navy Yard just six weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Hornet and its almost completely untested crew had just finished sea trials in the the Gulf of Mexico when they conducted an experimental launch of two B-25 bombers in the waters off the Virginia Capes on Feb. 2, 1942, says Robert F. Fish, trustee of the USS Hornet Museum.
Two months later, it left San Francisco on its secret mission, ferrying Doolittle's heavily modified warplanes to within 650 nautical miles of their target on April 18, 1942. Not for more than year, however, was the ship's role in the historic raid made public.
By that time the Hornet itself had been lost in the Oct. 26-27 Battle of Santa Cruz after a relentless Japanese attack in which the vessel was struck by six large bombs, nine torpedoes and two direct hits by crashing enemy planes.
Though heavily damaged in the initial assault, the carrier's repair crews were on the verge of restoring power to its engines when it was attacked again while under tow by the heavy cruiser USS Northampton.
Eight of its assailants were either shot down or failed to score hits, but the ninth sent a torpedo into the stricken vessel's starboard side, reversing the repairs to its electrical system and causing a 14-degree list.
With additional Japanese forces expected to arrive soon, Vice Adm. William "Bull" Halsey ordered the Hornet abandoned and sunk. But the ship was still floating after taking 9 torpedos and hundreds of 5-inch rounds from two American destroyers.
Not until the Japanese arrived -- and found a smoking hulk too extensively damaged to be saved -- did the Hornet finally slip to the bottom after taking 4 more enemy torpedos.
Before its loss, however, the aircraft carrier and its crew fought gallantly in the decisive Battle of Midway as well as the defense of the American landing at Guadacanal in the Solomon Islands.
During its short wartime career of only a year plus six days, the Hornet earned 4 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.
In 1995 it received the Task Force 16 Citation from the Secretary of the Navy for its role in the Doolittle raid.
The Hornet is still distinguished today as the last American fleet aircraft carrier to be lost to enemy fire.
-- Mark St. John Erickson