If original intentions had their way, the brilliant battle history of the Yorktown-class carriers would have been reduced by a full thirty-three percent; with just two carriers initially planned for the class, only Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise (CV-6) would have represented the design during the first months of the Pacific War. Plans change, however, and with the general abandonment of the Washington Naval Treaty the United States Navy found itself no longer bound by treaty tonnage restrictions and instead in need of more and larger aircraft carriers. At that time, the eventually prolific Essex-class carriers were in the design process but still far from ready for construction. This situation resulted in an emergency addition to the Yorktown-class of a third carrier, the soon-to-be-named Hornet.
Rarely will the final ship in a multi-vessel class be built to identical specifications as the class leader, but the Yorktowns tookthis rule to new lengths. Yorktown and Enterprise, contemporaries in the shipyard, relatedto each other on a design level in many ways. Hornet, however, was commissioned three years after Enterprise, and thus benefitted from the many improved design changes gleaned from lessons learned by the Navy during that period. A longer flight deck, increased anti-aircraft protection, upgraded fire direction technology, and a modified island layout all gave Hornet a distinctive silhouette which rendered her more immediately identifiable than her sisters.
In addition to her unique structural characteristics, Hornet could be easily distinguished by one quick look at her paint scheme. While later Pacific campaigns would be dominated by dazzle schemes or overall blue, Hornet was painted in Measure 12 (Modified). This scheme used the same colors as the more traditional Measure 12 – Sea Blue 5-S, Ocean Gray 5-O, Haze Gray 5-H – with one caveat: rather than separating the scheme along horizontal longitudinal lines, the paint demarcations “may be broken up by large splotches of paint.”
With the coming of war, Hornet was pressed into violent service far earlier than her builders intended. Still, despite a keel-to-completion time of just under 25 months (15 and 20 months less than Yorktown and Enterprise, respectively), her combat record was to be glorious, if not – sadly – brief.
Without doubt, Hornet‘s most famous exploit was the Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942. The details of this audacious mission can be found in numerous publications and periodicals which have far more time and energy to devote to the tale than do I on this blog, so I shan’t dive deeply into the story here. Suffice it to say, however, that the carrier ferried 16 B-25B Mitchell land-based medium bombers across the Pacific, launching them from an otherwise-cleared flight deck in an unprecedented and unexpected mission against Japan.
The raid caused minimal physical injury but critical psychological damage to Japan. With the vulnerability of the Home Islands now clearly illustrated, Japanese leadership decided to throw out the boundaries of the empire even further by launching a campaign to capture Midway Island in the central Pacific.
And we all know how that turned out.
In the first six months of war, Hornet had proved her mettle by launching one of the most famous raids in military history. Following this campaign the ship would be finally brigaded with her two sisters, and the Yorktowns would gain immortality as they went about the business of holding the line of the Pacific against a multi-pronged Japanese armada, turning the tide of war in the process. As we reach the eve of Midway, however, Hornet has reached the midway point of her storied and momentous life.
Roger Chesneau. Shipcraft 3: Yorktown Class Aircraft Carriers. London: Chatham Publishing, 2005.
Adrezej Perepeczko. Yorktown, Enterprise, Hornet: Vol. 1. Gdansk: AJ Press, 2010.
Steve Wiper. Warship . Pictorial #9: Yorktown Class Carriers. Tucson: Classic Warships Publishing.
USN Camouflage 1941-1945. http://www.shipcamouflage.com/measures.htm