written by Chuck Myers
Back in 2021, we welcomed Navy veteran Chuck Myers to our VBC Greatest Generation Live to give a virtual tour of the USS Hornet (CV-12). Chuck served as a junior officer on USS Yorktown (CVS-10) in the 1960s. Today, he volunteers as a docent with the USS Hornet Sea, Air, and Space Museum and is a member of the Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation Board of Trustees. Below, he tells the story of the Hornet and how it continues to serve an educational mission today.
On November 29, 1943, the USS Hornet (CV-12) was commissioned in Virginia as the eighth United States ship of that name. By the time she was relegated to reserve status in June 1970, she was known around the globe. But her fame didn’t come from exploits in World War II, the Cold War, or Vietnam. Rather, it derived from the appearance of four famous men on her decks in July 1969.
The world’s eyes were on the Hornet from the time the Apollo command module, Columbia, was sighted coming through the clouds with parachutes open, to the moment President Richard Nixon greeted Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins through the window of the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF).
Left: Hornet maneuvering to retrieve the Apollo 11 Command Module from the Pacific. Right: President Nixon visiting with astronauts in Hangar Bay 2, July 24, 1969
The Hornet went on to recover the Apollo 12 astronauts in November of that year, albeit with much less fanfare, before sailing off to retirement a few months later.
Today, the USS Hornet is a Sea, Air, and Space Museum docked in Alameda, California. The museum features many space exhibits, including an Apollo command module, the Apollo 14 MQF, and the rare “Biological Isolation Garment” – the “BIG” suit. The astronauts of the first three moon landings wore BIG suits from the time of their exit from the command module until they were isolated in the MQF.
The Hornet’s journey from commissioned Navy ship to a floating museum began in 1970. The Navy dispatched her to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where she became a “mothball ship” along with many other ships of all types that had served in World War II. Her flight deck and hangar decks were covered with Styrofoam, although from a distance she would look pretty normal to the casual eye.
Nearly 20 years later, the Navy decided that Essex class aircraft carriers would never be suitable for duty – too small, too weak, too costly to bring up to standards – and she was “stricken from the registry,” a death sentence in Navy terminology.
Imagine, a vessel nearly 900 feet long, with a two-and-a-half-acre flight deck, displacing 40,000 tons when fully loaded as “too small and too weak”! But that was the reality – the hydraulic catapults could not launch modern aircraft and the flight deck could not support the force of landing airplanes that needed acreage almost twice as large.
Unwanted, the Hornet nonetheless benefited from the devotion of some industrious and influential folks, including Apollo 11 astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. They managed to get the Hornet named a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
Unmoved, the Navy sold the ship for scrap, and she was towed back to California to become razor blades.
The ship was saved from such an ignominious fate by a short legal battle. In the end, a chastened Navy sold her to the Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation.
In 1995, during the 50th anniversary of World War II, the Hornet became a fixture at Pier 3 of Alameda Naval Air Station, which was closing. Three years later, on October 28, 1998, the USS Hornet Museum began serving the community. Some 5,000 guests came aboard and pier-side to celebrate the moment.
The USS Hornet Sea, Air, and Space Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is the world’s largest artifact of two of the major historical events of the 20th Century: World War II and the Space Race.
October 1998-Hornet opens as a museum at Pier 3 In Alameda, her home port in the 1960s
The Hornet’s immense size allows her to contain “museums-within-the-museum,” dedicated spaces celebrating illustrious people and moments from the American past. One space tells the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion, racially segregated units made up of Japanese-American Nisei soldiers. Another space focuses on “African-Americans in the Military” from the Revolution to the present.
Renewal and restoration is a persistent theme aboard the Hornet. Our F-4 Phantom aircraft will soon roll out of Hangar Bay 3 on to the flight deck. We’re also opening “the special weapon locker,” which housed a variety of nuclear weapons and were closely guarded in the 1950s and 1960s.
Buzz Aldrin with two young ladies during Hornet’s celebration of the Apollo 11 mission.
In addition to the Hornet’s role as a museum, she also serves as an education center for grades K-12, offering unique STEM and history classes that use the ship’s unique features and legacy to leave a lasting impact on students. What better way to understand the uses of pneumatics and hydraulics, for example, than by working in a carrier’s Catapult Engine Room? These STEM classes have had the benefit of the close cooperation of the US Naval Academy, the US Navy Research Lab and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Almost 10,000 students studied aboard the Hornet in 2022.
Of course, touring the Hornet is a great way to get a glimpse of the life of a US sailor in World War II. If you spend the night with our “Live Aboard” program, as thousands of Boy Scouts have over the years, you’ll see more of the ship than the average crew member did during the war. You also spend a sleepless hour or two in a bunk designed for 1940s-size sailors (5’7,” 145 lbs), but you will gain a whole lot of perspective.
Alan Bean, the 4th man to walk on the Moon is greeted by Boy Scouts as he returns to Hornet
How do we keep this national treasure afloat? The answer is through a small and dedicated staff, which handles day-to-day operations, working alongside equally dedicated volunteers, who work on restoration, give tours, provide security, help with the collections, and operate her ham radio station. The Foundation also has a volunteer Board of Trustees who provide guidance and support.
On November 11, we’ll celebrate Veterans Day, the Hornet’s 80th birthday, and the 25th anniversary of our museum. Check the museum’s website uss-hornet.org for details and join in our one-of-a-kind walk-through of 20th century history.
What’s In A Name?
The F-18 Hornet in flight
The name “Hornet” was established in American history in 1775 when the Continental Congress purchased two commercial sailing vessels and converted them to 10 gun sloops. With no naming conventions to draw on, the two ships were designated “Hornet” and “Wasp” and sent off to fight the Royal Navy.
Over time five more ships carried the name “Hornet” and flew one form or another of the evolving American flag. The first steam-powered Hornet was a Confederate States blockade runner captured in 1864.
The last of the eight ships named Hornet is the museum ship in Alameda. With a touch of good luck and support from the modern Navy, the current “Hornet” will be added to the collection of aircraft featured by the museum. In this case, a F-18 jet aircraft.
The Doolittle Raid
Jimmy Doolittle launches from CV-8 on April 18, 1942
The USS Hornet (CV-8) was also briefly a resident of Alameda before she sailed off to launch the Doolittle Raid in April 1942. She also was a part of the two task forces that won the Battle of Midway in June 1942. That ship, the 7th Hornet in naval history, was lost in October 1942 at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands protecting the beachhead at Guadalcanal. The loss of CV-8 resulted in the name of CV-12 from Kearsarge to Hornet.
Our namesake ship is often confused with the one that launched the Doolittle Raid, in part because the Alameda connection is so strong. James Harold Doolittle was born in Alameda in 1896, hence Doolittle Drive that takes one from Alameda to San Leandro, past Oakland International Airport.
Although CV-12 only arrived in the Pacific in early 1944, her battle record is largely unmatched. And, despite not being the ship that launched Doolittle’s 16 B-25s, she is the only ship to recover astronauts from two moon missions.
The Hornet has three aircraft carrier sisters and a cousin that also serve as museums. The USS Yorktown (CV-10) in Charleston, SC, the USS Intrepid (CV-11) in New York City, and the USS Lexington (CV-16) in Corpus Christi, TX.
Their cousin, USS Midway (CV-41), a carrier generation after Essex, is a museum in San Diego.
This diagram shows the white shape of the Hornet, super-imposed over the larger Nimitz class carrier shape.