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A tale of 2 aircraft carriers Part II: The tragic loss of ships and men

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In World War II, aircraft carriers were the key elements to helping the Allies get control of a war they had been losing. Two key carriers were the Wasp and the Hornet, which carried on board two old college roommates. In the last of a 2-part series, we look at the fates of all.

By Ron Van Stockum

When the aircraft carrier Wasp transited the Panama Canal in June 1942 to reinforce the Pacific Fleet and, at San Diego on June 25, I was detached as commanding officer of its Marine detachment.

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I had requested to remain on board, but my promotion to major was imminent, and I was needed at Camp Lejuene, N.C., where a new infantry regiment was being formed, the 21st Marines.

Jack Quackenbush, my roommate at the University of Washington, went a separate course with the Hornet.

Our paths didn’t cross again.

 

The Wasp at Guadalcanal

On July 1, Wasp sailed for the South Pacific to support the Marine landing on Guadalcanal.

On July 22, Wasp joined the immense naval force, including Hornet, formed to support the attack on Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942, by the 1st Marine Division. 

Her bombers attacked military targets on the Japanese-held island, and its fighter aircraft established a combat air patrol to destroy any enemy aircraft that might appear.

After the initial day's action in the Solomons campaign, Wasp spent the next month engaged on patrol and in covering operations for convoys with supplies and reinforcements headed for Guadalcanal.

On Sept. 15, Hornet and Wasp were the only two American carriers remaining in the South Pacific.

Steaming within sight of each other, in company with the battleship North Carolina and other supporting warships, they were escorting transports carrying the reinforcing 7th Marine Regiment to Guadalcanal.

That day, at 10:50 a.m., Commander Kinashi, commanding officer of the Japanese submarine I-19, raised his periscope to view a submariner’s dream: a carrier, a heavy cruiser and several destroyers.

He tracked them, plotted their course and speed, and at 11:45 a.m. fired a spread of six torpedoes at the carrier, at point-blank range, only 985 yards distant.

Two or three torpedoes hit Wasp to start uncontrollable fires.  One torpedo from this salvo passed by Wasp and hit North Carolina; one hit the destroyer O’Brien, and another just missed Hornet. 

It is doubtful if a single salvo of torpedoes, fired by either side during World War II, caused greater damage to the foe.

The submarine dived to 265 feet, under Wasp’s wake and succeeded in surviving depth charges, which soon began to explode all around her.

Wasp was damaged beyond survival.  At noon her aviation gas tanks exploded, and at 3:20 p.m. Captain Forrest Sherman, later, as a 4-star admiral, to serve as Chief  of Naval Operations, ordered, “Abandon ship.”

 

Eyewitness account

By coincidence, while researching this column for publication, I received my copy of the quarterly newsletter of the USS Wasp (CV-7) Stinger Club, an organization founded by veterans who had served on Wasp and now kept alive by their children and grandchildren. 

It contained a chapter “Loss of USS Wasp” fromDestroyerMan, a book by John T. Pigott, who had served as an ensign in the accompanying destroyer USS Lansdowne at the time of Wasp’s sinking.

Ensign Pigott wrote that he was awakened by the PA system: "Explosion on Wasp. General quarters."

After racing to his battle station, he observed smoke rising from the nearby Wasp, which he initially thought might have resulted from a minor accident during the refueling of an airplane.  This initial impression was quickly dissipated:

“Someone yelled, "Torpedo!" Dead ahead, aimed for us, came what I can only describe as a tunnel of white, racing beneath the surface of the water at about forty knots. The torpedo itself was not visible, even from my vantage point, but the exhaust wake it left behind was unmistakable, even for those of us – probably all of us – who had never before seen one. What I actually thought at the time can never be retrieved, but I suspect that I realized I was looking at death….

“Nothing happened. I looked astern and saw the white tunnel emerging from between the propellers and heading for the horizon. It had been set for a depth greater than ours; in fact, it was the fourth of a spread of four fired at Wasp, of which three hit.”

Sounds of explosions drifted across the water, and Pigott observed that Wasp was listing 15 degrees and motionless, with smoke billowing into the sky.

Crew members were jumping over the side from the hanger deck. Lansdown lowered its two, 26-foot motorboats into the water. Pigott jumped into the one that had been outfitted as the captain’s gig, to act as boat officer.

As he neared Wasp, he found hundreds of survivors in the water.  Many had drifted hundreds of yards clear of the stricken ship.

While the capacity of the gig was only about 16, he took aboard survivors until the freeboard was down to a few inches.  He carried as many as 36 on his numerous round trips, taking the survivors to Lansdowne or to one of the other destroyers.

“We overloaded the boat to the point that on one occasion I was heaving on the shoulders of an oil-covered seaman when I looked down and saw that the sea was pouring in over the gunwale,” he wrote. “I had to let go, telling him, as we told many others whom we had to pass up, that he would be picked up on the next trip. And he was.”

On his last three or four trips Pigott closed to Wasp’s lee. He described being under the overhang of a burning and exploding ship as a terrifying experience.

So far as he knew his boat and the others from the destroyers picked up every officer and man of Wasp, who made it to the water, over a thousand.  As a result of these valiant rescue efforts, a remarkable 90 percent of Wasp’s crew survived.

Some reports of the sinking indicated that sharks were in the water, viciously attacking some of the survivors, even as they were being pulled aboard the rescue boats, but Pigott has informed me that he saw no sharks during his rescue operations.

 

A notable survivor

A fire from stem to stern, the proud ship refused to sink and had to be scuttled by five torpedoes fired by Lansdowne.

Wasp had 193 killed or missing. Among those who perished was Marine Capt. John Kennedy, the officer who had taken my place as commanding officer the Marine detachment only three months before.

One of the survivors was Lt. Dave McCampbell, the Landing Signal Officer, who had brought the Spitfire in for a crash landing in the Mediterranean.

He had been a champion swimmer and diver during his Naval Academy days. It was reported, possibly with a little hyperbole, that he made a perfect dive off the ship’s fantail.

He did survive to become the Navy’s top fighter ace, with 34 kills, and to win the Medal of Honor during the battles of the Philippine Sea in 1944.

 

Hornet watches Wasp

When the crew of the Wasp was fighting for life, Jack Quackenbush was at his battle station in Hornet, perhaps below deck, supervising the transfer of bombs and projectiles to the planes and guns on deck.

At general quarters, all hands aboard ship are involved in the action, including medical officers and supply officers, like Jack. Unlike ground combat, all personnel in a ship take the same risk, from the admiral down to the lowest seaman.

He would have been relieved to learn that one of the enemy torpedoes had barely missed the ship but apprehensive about what else was happening above decks.

Hornet still had only six weeks of life left.

 

Battle of Santa Cruz

Loss of the Wasp reduced carriers in the South Pacific to one, Hornet.

She bore the brunt of air cover in the Solomons until Oct. 24, when she steamed to intercept a Japanese carrier and battleship force bearing down on Guadalcanal.

The Battle of Santa Cruz Island took place Oct. 26, 1942, without contact between surface ships of the opposing forces.

Planes from Hornet severely damaged carrier Shokaku, and cruiser Chikuma.  Two other cruisers were also attacked by her aircraft.

Meanwhile, Hornet, herself, was fighting off a coordinated dive-bombing and torpedo-plane attack, which left her so severely damaged that she had to be abandoned.

The Hornet, ablaze from stem to stern, refused to sink. She still floated after receiving nine torpedoes and more than 400 rounds of 5-inch shellfire from United States destroyers. 

Japanese destroyers hastened the inevitable by firing four 24-inch torpedoes at her blazing hull.

At 1:35 a.m., Oct. 27, 1942, she finally sank off the Santa Cruz Islands.

So perished U.S.S. Hornet (CV-8). 

She was in service only 372 days but had put her time in commission to great advantage in a time of great peril.

 

Of Quackenbush

My university roommate, Jack Quackenbush did not survive the sinking.

An Internet search has revealed a detail about his death from an eyewitness:

“One of the two suicide planes hit the island of the ship, killing Lt. Quackenbush, the ship's supply officer.”

Two Japanese dive bombers did crash into the ship, but whether or not the crashes were intended is unknown.

Hornet was the last of the U. S fleet carriers to be sunk in World War II. 

Only three of the eight old pre-war carriers remained.  They would be succeeded by a series of improved and larger carriers, commissioned after Pearl Harbor or on the ways at that time.

The old carriers had sacrificed lives and ships to blunt the advance of the Japanese in the Pacific.

The new generation of carriers would finish the job.

 

To read part 1 of this series and other columns by Gen. Ron Van Stockum, visit www.SentinelNews.com/features.

 

Notes on sources

Creditable sources abound on the Internet. A diligent search can provide all detail needed in columns about naval vessels and naval actions, including official U. S and Japanese accounts.  For example, an official summary of the movements and actions of the Japanese submarine I-19, which sank Wasp, was located.  I also consulted James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno: The U. S. Navy at Guadalcanal.  For the delivery by Wasp of Spitfires for the relief of Malta, I referred to my Marine Corps Journal, with permission from the Filson Historical Society, part of the “Van Stockum Collection” held it in their archives.