USS Hornet Museum

Peacefully moored alongside a pier in Alameda, with an outstanding view of San Francisco, is the World War II aircraft carrier-turned-museum USS Hornet (CVS-12). A national historic landmark, the Hornet was involved in three of the major events that shaped the United States and the world during the latter half of the 20th century. During 15 months of WWII combat in the Pacific theater, this lethal fighting machine was at the center of many campaigns, earning nine battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. Two decades later, she was still serving her country with three patrol tours on “Yankee Station” off the coast of Viet Nam. During her last year of active service, she recovered the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 lunar landing missions. Now, 68 years after her commissioning, she serves as an educational venue for young and old as the Bay Area’s premiere air, sea and space museum.

The legacy of ships named Hornet extends all the way back to the birth of the U.S. Navy during the Revolutionary War. Hornet (CV-12) is the eighth ship of its name in the American fleet. Her immediate predecessor, Hornet (CV-8) launched the daring Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, fought at the decisive Battle of Midway and helped turn back Japanese expansion during the Battle of Guadalcanal. In October 1942, almost one year to the day from her commissioning, she was lost to a ferocious enemy air attack at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands.

One of the legendary Essex-class aircraft carriers, Hornet (CV-12) was commissioned in November 1943 and entered the Pacific fray in March 1944. For the ensuing 15 months she never tied up at a pier, until being put out of service by a typhoon during the battle of Okinawa. The ship was a marvel of technology for her era — and a big one too. She is three football fields long, originally displaced 27,000 tons and the top of her mast stands 190 feet above the water. She could carry up to 100 aircraft and as many as 3,500 men. During WWII, her pilots and crew destroyed over 1,400 enemy planes and sank 73 enemy ships, both U.S. Navy records. Her reputation for being a lucky ship derives from having been attacked 59 times but suffering only minor damage and casualties. Hornet is one of the most decorated ships of WWII, having participated in nearly every major action in the latter-stage of Pacific combat operations.

Designed specifically to sweep the Pacific islands, skies and seas clear of Japanese combat forces, 24 Essex-class carriers were built during WWII. With the introduction of jet-powered aircraft into the fleet during the Korean War, the Essex-class ships were superseded by even larger carriers. In the late 1950s, Hornet was extensively modified to engage in an anti-submarine warfare mission and its designation was changed to CVS-12. After her Viet Nam service was over, Hornet was selected to recover the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. On 24 July 1969, Neil Armstrong’s first steps back on Earth were taken in Hornet’s hangar bay with President Nixon in attendance. After recovering the all-Navy astronaut crew of Apollo 12 four months later, Hornet was decommissioned and mothballed in Bremerton, WA, for 25 years.

A living museum

Hornet was nearly scrapped in 1995 until some of its former crew and other volunteers banded together to preserve this key piece of America’s heritage as a living museum. The museum personnel have always been passionate about “bridging” the values of the World War II generation to the youth of today. The museum receives no financial support from any government organization. Basic operations are supported by revenue gained from daily visitors, tour groups and private functions. The creation of new exhibits and major events relies on the generosity of corporate sponsors and private benefactors. While there are four other aircraft carrier museums in the U.S., the Hornet is unique due to the extensive “period” restoration and education activities performed by its staff and volunteers.

Many years ago, kamikazes screamed overhead trying desperately to plunge their aircraft into the flight deck. Urgent voices on the loudspeakers boomed, “All hands, man your battle-stations.” The sound of gunfire reverberated throughout the entire ship, as sailors fought off attack after attack. Today, only seagulls shriek and wheel over the flight deck. Those same loudspeakers now primarily announce the next engine room or bridge tour. The main sounds echoing throughout the cavernous hangar bays are the voices of laughing children.

All principal operational spaces have been restored including the Captain’s bridge, crew’s berthing quarters, torpedo room, engine room, flight control center, combat information center and infirmary. Educational displays are located throughout the ship, many with videos the whole family will enjoy. The museum has 12 aircraft on display, ranging from a vintage WWII TBM bomber to an F-14 Tomcat used as recently as operational Desert Storm. There are some unique Apollo artifacts, including the Mobile Quarantine Facility (trailer) used by Apollo 14 astronauts upon their return from the moon in 1971 and an Apollo spacecraft that flew an unmanned test mission in 1966 (and was recovered by Hornet) and the SH-3 Sea King helicopter used in the highly acclaimed 1995 movie “Apollo 13.”

The public is welcome to tour much of the ship on their own, or take docent-guided tours into special locations, any day of the week. Many of the docents served aboard aircraft carriers, some even on the USS Hornet. They have an infectious attitude, wanting to share their knowledge with all visitors, tall or small. Many have great sea stories they are willing to share with your family. More than just a museum, the ship is a floating repository of memories, of courage in times of great danger, of honor in times of sacrifice.

One Saturday a month (usually the third) is designated Living Ship Day, giving visitors significant insight into a sailor’s life at sea. Radar antennas sweep the horizon, loudspeakers blare out various personnel commands, and airplanes are tugged around the hangar bay by “mules.” The carrier’s huge aircraft elevator whisks airplanes — and people — between the flight deck and the hangar bay in a few seconds, as it did during combat operations.

Since the museum opening in 1998, over 100,000 children have spent a night onboard the ship. Many Friday and Saturday nights, 350 lucky children participate in the Liveaboard encampment program. They sleep in the same berths, shower in the same lavatories, and eat in the same mess hall as the original sailors did. A privileged few scouts also get to attend one of the merit badge classes on Saturday, whose topics include radio, aviation and space exploration.

Over the years, the museum has also earned a special reputation in the Bay Area entertainment field. Its Big Band dances, held twice a year, have gained a dedicated group of swing dance aficionados who dress up in WWII period costumes and cut a mean rug! All or part of the Hornet is also available to be rented for private functions such as corporate dinner parties, group meetings or military reunions. Several movies and TV documentaries have also been filmed onboard.

In today’s school environment, children can only read a brief overview of major events such as WWII or the space race of the 1960s. At the Hornet Museum, they can touch it, providing a unique opportunity to actually step into history!

USS HORNET MUSEUM (Pier 3, Alameda Point, P.O. Box 460, Alameda, CA 94501; phone 510/521-8448 x282, www.uss-hornet.org) is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s). Adult admission, $15; $12 seniors, students and military, $6 ages 5-17. There is ample free parking at the head of Pier 3 by the museum.

Bob Fish is the author of “Hornet Plus Three,” the first book to reveal the eyewitness story of the recovery of Apollo 11 in 1969.