Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Repairs to the carrier USS Hornet

The repair ships of WWII were fully equipped to address almost every kind of damage or make nearly every other kind of repair that a vessel might need. In the Pacific, these unique ships, stationed at advanced bases in combat zones, provided maintenance and support to warships of all kinds including landing craft, destroyers, submarines, seaplanes, battleships, and aircraft carriers. My dad, Frank Dolan, who had previously served on another repair ship, the USS Vestal, was also a weldor on the repair ship Hector, now stationed at Eniwetok.

On today's date in 1944, the aircraft carrier, USS Hornet (CV-12),* received catapult repairs from Hector's crews at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. Hector had to complete significant work on the ram and piston in order to put the catapult in operation. As a weldor, Dad probably would not have worked on this project, but it does illustrate the varied tasks that confronted a repair ship like Hector.

USS Hornet, October  27,1945
Source: Wikipedia Commons

The USS Hornet was commissioned in November 1943, and it quickly played a major part in the war in the Pacific. She spent weeks providing intensive air strikes in the Marianas Islands, including Saipan, Guam, and Tinian. On June 19, 1944, she participated in the decisive Naval Battle of the Philippine Sea. Her fighter pilots sank the Japanese carrier Shokaku and damaged another carrier and cruiser. They also shot down 52 Japanese planes in the famed "Marianas Turkey Shoot."

That same year, from its base at Eniwetok, Hornet attacked the enemy from Guam to the Bonin Islands south of Japan. Then it was on to the Palaus, the Philippine Sea, and to enemy bases on Okinawa and Formosa. Hornet's aircraft supported the invasion force at the Battle of Leyte, October 20. During the Naval Battle for Leyte Gulf, October 23-26, she launched raids against the Japanese in the Battle off Samar, the center-most action in the Battle of Leyte and hastened the retreat of the Japanese fleet.

Through the remainder of 1944, Hornet attacked enemy shipping and airfields throughout the Philippines, including participating in a raid that destroyed an entire Japanese convoy in Ormoc Bay. On December 30, 1944, she departed Ulithi in the Carolines for raids against Formosa, Indochina, and the Pescadores Islands. 

In 1945 Hornet left Ulithi for full-scale aerial assaults on Tokyo, then supported the amphibious landing on Iwo Jima, February 19-20. Her planes next supported the amphibious assault on Okinawa on April 1. A few days later, her fighters joined in attacks which sank the Japanese battleship Yamato near Okinawa. For another couple of months, Hornet provided support to ground troops on Okinawa and raided the industrial capacity of Japan. In almost continuous action for 16 months, Hornet was never hit by enemy fire. But from June 4-5, 1945, the carrier was caught in a typhoon, which collapsed a large section of her forward flight deck. She was forced to return to the states for major repairs. She was returned to service in September 1945, in time to bring home victorious American troops.

USS Hornet. Collapsed flight deck, June 1944

Unlike many of her sister warships, Hornet saw lengthy service after WWII. She next served in the Korean War and then Vietnam. She also had a role in the Apollo space program recovering manned and unmanned spaceships. In 1969, she recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts after their return from the first moon landing, and then she recovered the crew of Apollo 12 later that year.

Hornet was decommissioned in June 1970 and finally struck from the naval register in 1989. In contrast to so many other WWII warships, Hornet was spared scrapping, and in 1991 was designated a National Historic Landmark. She is now preserved as the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, California.

For her extraordinary WWII combat record, USS Hornet earned 9 battle stars.

*The previous ship of this name was the USS Hornet (CV-8), the carrier that launched the B-25s in the Doolittle Raid over Japan in April 1942. It was destroyed in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, October 1942.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Navy's worst aircraft accident

On today's date in 1944, one of the U.S. Navy's worst aircraft disasters occurred on the forward operating base at Eniwetok Atoll. And it occurred not far from where my dad's repair ship, USS Hector, was anchored in the lagoon.

Almost immediately after Eniwetok was taken from the Japanese in February 1944, Navy Seabees began construction of a bomber airstrip on the main southern island. Completed on March 11, the field, had 2 taxiways, facilities for major engine overhaul, and housing for aviation personnel in Quonset huts.  They also created coral-filled piers had been constructed for mooring tankers. Two beaches were developed for Tank Landing Craft. They built small boat repair shops and a floating dock for small ships. In addition to an airport, the airbase also was used for holding reserve carrier aircraft and for receiving and storing aviation fuel.

Named in honor of Navy pilot Lt. John H. Stickell, who was killed in the Marshall Islands, the field was often used by B-24s and B-25s on missions to bomb Truk and Ponape Islands and other targets. From Eniwetok, the Marshall Islands were dominated by air. B-24s were also able to make 13-hour flights to provide photo reconnaissance of Saipan.

Stickell Field, Eniwetok Island

At this point in the war resources and aircraft were being pushed to their limits. It was considered normal for advanced naval airfields, like Stickell, to stockpile necessary materiel toward defeating Japan. So it was expected that Eniwetok Island—only 2 miles long and a quarter-mile wide—would be crammed with aircraft and everything it took to support them. It was also common practice for planes to exceed the maximum gross weight at takeoff. These factors led to the inevitable disaster that occurred on this date.

U.S. Navy PB4Y-1 Liberator bomber at Kwajalein, Jan-Feb 1944
Source: WWII Database
The tragic accident happened in the evening of August 9. As an overloaded Navy patrol aircraft, PB4Y-1 (a Navy version of the B-24 "Liberator"), was lifting off, it drifted and crashed into parked carrier planes that crowded the edges of the runway. Crashing through the row of parked planes, the PB4Y-1 finally came to rest at the end of the strip. There it burst into flames. The fire quickly spread to the parked aircraft, and then its nine 500-pound bombs began to explode. The explosions ignited the aircraft's fuel and detonated its .50 caliber ammunition. The raging fire continued for 2 hours before brave firefighters brought it under control. 106 planes were damaged or destroyed. Amazingly only 9 men were killed in the inferno, all members of the 11-man crew of the PB4Y-1.

The accident on Eniwetok was the greatest loss of aircraft due to a single plane crash in naval history. Many factors contributed to the accident. But, unquestionably, the necessary demands of war and wartime conditions were significant factors. The build-up on Eniwetok was essential for the final assault on the Japanese homeland. While recommendations were made to preclude another disaster of this magnitude, war operations on Eniwetok continued. Stickell airfield and the entire Eniwetok Atoll continued serve as an enormous and strategic base for operations against Japanese-held territory.