On June 19, 1944, at the climax of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, planes from the aircraft carriers Hornet, Belleau Wood, Cowpens and Bataan, commanded by Admiral J.J. Clark aboard the Hornet, sank the Japanese carrier Hiyo and put two other flattops, Zuikaku and Junyo, out of action, effectively destroying the enemy's air power for the rest of the war.
But darkness was approaching, and the returning planes were running low on fuel. There was no way they could find their ships in the dark, much less land on them. And the ships didn't dare turn on any lights to help them because even a single bulb could be seen by enemy subs miles away and turn entire task force into sitting ducks.
That was the conventional wisdom, but Admiral Clark wasn't a conventional man. He decided to risk it and ordered the Hornet to shine a vertical searchlight beam. Then he notified his superior, Admiral Mark Mitscher, what he had done.
Mitscher responded by ordering every ship in the task force to turn on their lights. All but 50 planes were able to land safely, and those that didn't were able to put down in the water next to the ships, and the pilots were safely rescued. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of the U.S. Navy.
So when you go to visit the Hornet, which is now moored at Alameda Point as a naval museum, remember: You are standing on sacred ground. Because of the moral courage of one man, hundreds of boys lived instead of crashing to watery deaths.
He was also a real character. He liked to sleep on a cot on the bridge so he could spring into action at a moment's notice; and it was a common sight to see him directing a nighttime battle in his polka-dot pajamas and fuzzy slippers – but with his Admiral's hat firmly on his head, of course.
There's a small memorial to Admiral Clark - whom everyone, from Mitscher down to the lowliest seaman, called "Jocko" - in his old cabin aboard the Hornet, featuring some of his personal possessions, including his pocket watch, ashtray, paperweight, and teacups. But his real memorial is in the hearts of the men who served on the Hornet, who adored – there's no other word for it – him, down to the very last man.
"There's nothing we wouldn't do for him," one of them told me, "because there's nothing he wouldn't do for us."
The Hornet is actually an archaeological dig. Every time I go back to visit her, they've restored another area of the ship. The latest is the officers' mess, which was unveiled to the public for the first time a few weeks ago.
Alas, time and the elements have taken their toll on the wooden flight deck, and an aircraft carrier without a flight deck isn't an aircraft carrier. The Hornet has already raised $550,000 toward the $800,000 they'll need to complete the first stage of the restoration, but they need our help to raise the rest.
You can donate (tax-deductible, of course) online at tinyurl.com/hornetheritage or send a check to the USS Hornet Museum, P.O. Box 460, Alameda CA 94501.
Tell them an old man in polka-dot pajamas and fuzzy slippers sent you.