Monday, September 21, 2009


I was a World War II buff when I was a boy. To my boy eyes, war seemed an ennobling, romance of bright, loud explosions and wildly dancing bodies (usually glimpsed through the lens of Combat, still a surprisingly good TV show or via the impudent grin of Errol Flynn).

This past Labor Day, boy memories simmered again when my sister-in-law Margaret suggested that we (along with her husband Charles) visit the USS Hornet Museum.

The museum floats on the old Alameda Naval Air Station in Alameda, an island city in San Francisco Bay, a lifesaver’s toss west of Oakland. The USS Hornet is a retired U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that sailed into war in various incarnations since the country was founded until the ship was decommissioned in 1970.

Its two most famous manifestations appeared during World War II. The first WW-II Hornet (Model # CV-8) was the vessel that carried Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, 80 crew members and 16 B-25 bombers to the spot from where they launched the first bombing raid by U.S. air forces on Japan on April 18, 1942. The carrier later participated in crucial air and sea battles at both Midway and the Solomon Islands where it was sunk that October at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands near Guadalcanal. (How speedy is history!)

USS Hornet CV-12 (aka “The Grey Ghost”) sailed from Pearl Harbor in March 1944 and, as a Navy flag ship, was the command vessel and made it through repeated battles structurally unscathed (but at the human cost of 250 fighter pilots and crewman), from the Philippines to Iwo Jima. It suffered its only actual damage on its way home when 60-foot waves from a typhoon crumpled a 24-foot section
of the forward flight deck like a tin can.

After the war, The Hornet dozed in mothballs until 1951 when it was renovated for modern jet fighters and recommissioned. It did two tours in the misbegotten Vietnam War, but finished on a high note as the recovery ship for Apollo Flights 11 and 12 on their return from their pioneering Moon voyages. On June 26, 1970, USS Hornet, rendered obsolete by bigger, faster nuclear-powered ships, was retired for good.

While the Hornet Museum is a national treasure for military veterans and history buffs, strict pacifists, Luddites and other sensitive souls may find it disturbing, its massive scale overwhelming (as any extraordinarily large, but agile-looking structure might). As you approach its prow, the way it poises narrowly on its keel before widening to width of 191 feet, 11 inches makes it seem larger, more menacing, than your conventional 20-story skyscraper.

And there is the primary purpose it was designed for: for war, the ugly business of mass killing (I like to think that when it was sent on any of its several rescue missions, including the Apollo flights, many Hornet crewmen heaved some sort of relieved sigh into the sea air).

You enter the Hornet up through a caged gangway to the hanger deck where the fighter planes were stored. You’ll feel no sense of floating. The ship is so huge, its interior seems like just another extremely large but open building, but for the giant hangar bays through which you see other Navy ships floating nearby.

Today, the USS Hornet Museum is crewed by a crusty collection of retired salts from several of the services who serve as docents. Charles, a mechanical engineer (U.C.-Berkeley 1972), wanted to tour the engine room and I immediately acceded. (Thanks in part to him, my former intimidation and ennui when encountering complex technology has eased).

Our growly docent Victor led us down four long steep ladders. For the physically challenged among you, please note: no elevators).We eventually entered the hot blasting heart of the ship, the engine room. Despite his gruffness, Victor earned admiration with his knowledge of every darn pipe and wire, screw and plate that kept this gigantic tub plowing through the world’s oceans for nearly 30 years.

What struck us most, beyond the extraordinary power and complexity involved in running this vessel, was the extreme nature of engine room duty itself. Of the Hornet’s crew of 3,400, around 500 of them worked as engineers and mechanics in conditions that would inspire insurrection anywhere else. During both war and peace, keeping The Hornet under sail was about the hardest, grimmest duty imaginable—the men spent eight-hour shifts in a cramped, dangerous environment where temperatures rose to 140°F (and never sank beneath 100°F; it’s been said the men always worked nude); where an invisible steam leak from high pressure pipes could sever limbs as suddenly and easily as a knife slicing soft butter (I didn’t think to ask what the rates of injury, illness and collapse were, but I doubt I would have lasted half-a-day.)

Suitably humbled by the sacrifices involved (and the stamina of those who made them), we returned above decks where, alone, I explored the second deck where most of the crew lived. These anthropological wanderings constituted my favorite part. “How did people live?” I like to ask. “Very closely” whispered ghosts from silent, empty quarters.

If you’re the modest type who fanatically cherishes your privacy, military life is not for you. The USS Hornet, big as it is, is a crowded space for 3,400 with privacy at a—no, it’s not even that good, unless you’re an officer and even then, you had what amounted to a closet. The largest quarters I saw could best be described as cozy, its most potent luxury a record player that only played old 78 rpm vinyls. Even the ship captain’s at-sea cabin on the navigation bridge looked crushingly cramped and barren.

The mess (kitchen and dining) felt more expansive, though even there the crew was fed in a constantly moving assembly line. As a Navy ship, an exclusive area was set aside for a small armed contingent of US Marines, who even used the “head” (which you know as the “facilities”) as a hangout spot. Special quarters existed for those rare occasions when women came on board at that heavily sex-biased time.

We wandered the flight deck for awhile, gaping at the various fighter jets and one WW II prop fighter that were on display. Another docent (whose name I failed to note) took us onto the carrier’s island, the command structure that towers over the flight deck, the main base of the Hornet’s human power. We passed through many rooms, among them the Flag Bridge, from where many of the Navy’s finest admirals supervised Navy Task Forces, a parade of power and influence that finally culminated in the gloomy presence of President Richard Nixon who came to watch the Apollo
11 rescue.

There’s some nostalgia (memorials to departed Hornet crew members) but not a lot of gung-ho flag-waving on display (except for the Apollo exhibit). There is little reflection on the costs of war, unlike the war museum at West Point, New York, (as well-related by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll). We went off-ship at around 4:30 and while I completely enjoyed this peek into the lives and sacrifices of the previous generation but I felt almost no nostalgia. Just as well.

Thanks for your service. Glad I missed the war.



U.S. Air Force serviceman (“20 years, 3 months and 19 days”), textile artist, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, neighbor, friend, The Mayor of Masonic Avenue, The King of Golden Gate Park . . . I’ll still look out the bus window for you every time I ride by.

“Don’t be a motherfucker! Don’t fuck with anybody!”


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