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When the USS Hornet went down, coincidence enveloped a young Marine gunner.

As the waves splashed and rolled past the USS Hornet, Lou Carnaghi glanced at his watch. It was just after 10 a.m. Lou treasured that watch. His folks had saved for months to buy it 10 years ago as a present when he graduated from eighth grade in Joliet, Illinois. Now Lou was 24, a Marine antiaircraft gunner aboard the big carrier as it patrolled off the eastern Solomons. It was October 26, 1942.

Lou had enlisted a week after Pearl Harbor. After basic training and six weeks of sea school, he boarded the Yorktown-class flattop at Pearl Harbor as one of 88 Marines manning the carrier’s 20mm and 1.1-inch guns. The Hornet had returned from the Battle of Midway on June 13 and spent the next several weeks refitting and training. For long-range protection, at each corner the Hornet mounted a pair of five-inch guns. Around the perimeter, the 1.1s, in quad mounts, were effective to 6,300 yards as intermediate defense. The last line of defense was the 20mm array. A 20mm gun had a range of 800 yards. Gunners learned to eyeball targets, leading them and walking rounds to an attacking plane by tracking tracers mixed every few shells into each 60-round magazine. When only one crew was firing, walking rounds was a piece of cake. But let other 20mms open up on the same target, and the game got dicier. “When all the guns were firing at one plane it was hard to keep track of your own tracers and adjust your aim,” Lou said.

The Hornet had four groups of 20mm guns: one battery fore and aft on each side. Individual 20mms were mounted on the bow, stern, and superstructure, or island. Lou worked on the starboard side at the second of that battery’s four 20mms. Each weapon had a crew of three; at Lou’s post were gunner Earl DeLong and aimer Clarence Holt. Lou was the loader. Just aft of their station was a 1.1-inch gun with its own three-man crew, making a total of 15 men.

A harness strapped Earl right to his 20mm, which was why it fell to Lou to attach full magazines, remove the empties, and reload. “Our gun platform was about five feet below the level of the flight deck,” he said. “My head was just above the surface of the flight deck to my right as I stood next to the gun.” Behind the gun crews was the ready room, stocked with antiaircraft ammunition magazines and staffed by sailors. As soon as a gunner emptied a clip, his loader popped the empty magazine free and swapped it for a full one from the men in the ready room. On patrol around Hawaii from July 13 to August 17, Lou and the rest of his gun crew trained under a gunner’s mate named White, who had 12 years in the navy.

On August 17 the Hornet left Pearl Harbor for the eastern Solomons, where for nearly two months the carrier had only minor contact with the enemy. On October 24 the carrier USS Enterprise joined the Hornet near the island of Santa Cruz. At 12:50 the afternoon of October 25, scout PBY Catalinas from Espiritu Santu spotted Japanese carriers about 415 miles away. The Enterprise launched 12 SBD Dauntlesses to pinpoint the enemy flattops’ location but the search came up empty. During the night PBYs once again located the Japanese fleet, which was now 300 miles away. Early the next morning, fleet commander Vice Admiral William Halsey ordered an attack.

Aboard the Hornet the fighter cover launched at 6:50 a.m. The two attack groups took off at 8:31 and 8:56. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, aboard the Japanese carrier Shōkaku, ordered his planes into the air at 8:18. At 9:20 that morning, Hornet radar identified an incoming force of Japanese planes 60 miles away. The Hornet’s fighter cover was directed to intercept. General quarters sounded at 9:45; the second fighter cover group launched at 9:48. Lou’s watch read just after 10 when he spotted the Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo planes. The  Enterprise, steaming about 10 miles away, had ducked into a squall, vanishing in mist and rain. All the Japanese aircraft, 22 dive-bombers and 18 torpedo planes, were forming up to come after the Hornet. The next few minutes would test the carrier— and Lou Carnaghi—to the breaking point.

“I was excited and anxious,” Lou said. “Fear was a part of the mix but not so much fear about dying as it was about doing my job and not letting my buddies down. Honestly, it was like the jitters I would get before a big football game in high school.” At 10:10 the five-inch guns nearest to Lou’s station opened up. “My training kicked in and the emotional buzz was gone,” he said. “Just like the kick-off in football; no more jitters. I just stood on the side of my 20mm waiting to replace magazines.”

The enemy dive-bombers were approaching at 17,000 feet. Each Japanese plane’s line of attack was like a spoke on a wheel, with the carrier as the hub. The bombers were only 1,300 feet from the ship when they released their payloads. Japanese torpedo planes were circling, too, about 200 to 300 feet above the Pacific. Pilots released torpedoes at 1,000 yards, at the edge of a 20mm gun’s range, though as they turned, their planes were vulnerable. This high/low strategy kept the Marine gunners from concentrating firepower in any one direction.

A bomb struck the Hornet’s flight deck near the island and penetrated to the hangar deck and the crew quarters before detonating in the mess hall, killing 88 men. Seconds later a bomb hit the flight deck about 20 feet from the Number 4 gun in Lou’s battery, blowing an 11-foot hole in the deck and killing all six men at guns 3 and 4.

Shrapnel glanced off Lou’s 20mm, wrecking the gun but entirely missing Lou. A piece of scrap metal caught gunner Earl DeLong in the wrist. Lou helped Earl out of his harness and laid the gunner on the floor of the platform. Aimer Clarence Holt was bleeding from the side of his head; shrapnel from the same bomb had severed his ear. But Clarence could walk, so, streaming blood, he made his own way to the casualty collection point. A few seconds earlier, Lou’s battery had consisted of 15 men; now six were dead and seven wounded. Only Lou and John Gaito were unhurt. “John and me each manned a 20mm and began returning fire,” said Lou.

Another bomb hit the flight deck, exploding three levels down. A crippled dive-bomber carrying three bombs struck the ship forward of the island. One bomb exploded on impact, the other two penetrated the flight deck. Fuel from the crashed plane turned that part of the island and deck into an inferno. While Lou was busy with the 20mm, a torpedo hit the Hornet starboard, a little aft of the island. A second torpedo hit almost directly beneath where Lou and John Gaito were keeping up their fire. The torpedoes knocked out the ship’s power, and within minutes the carrier was dead in the water, listing to starboard with flames raging all over. The attack had lasted almost exactly 10 minutes. Lou came out of what felt like a trance.

“I became aware of the smell of smoke, men shouting orders, and the cries of wounded men,” he said. “I was breathing like I had just run a mile and my mouth felt like sandpaper. I looked over at John and he had a dazed look that I’m sure I must have had as well.”

Earl lay on the platform, moaning. Lou helped him up and walked him to the island, where sailors and Marines were spread out flat on the flight deck waiting for corpsmen to examine them. As Lou helped Earl lay down he noticed Steve Garvey, who had been manning the 1.1-inch gun where the dive-bomber had crashed. Lou knelt next to Steve and stroked the hair away from his badly wounded friend’s forehead.

“How you doing?” Lou asked.

“My legs are killing me!” Steve said.

Both of Garvey’s legs were gone above the knee. Somebody had knotted belts around his thighs as makeshift tourniquets but blood was puddling from the raw stumps.

“You’ll be okay,” Lou said, telling Steve he had to get back to his battle station.

Three destroyers came alongside the Hornet to help fight fires. By 11 a.m. the crew had the flames under control except for a blaze below decks where an enemy bomb had gone off. By word of mouth—the public address system and the intercom were out of commission—men heard that excess personnel were to head to the destroyers. John and Lou helped wounded men get to the island and prepared for another attack. At 4:20 p.m. it came—torpedo planes. The destroyers skedaddled. Once again Lou and John were firing and loading on their own. A torpedo struck starboard, flooding the engine compartment. So much for repairing the engines or restoring power. The Hornet’s starboard list worsened to 14.5 degrees. Japanese dive-bombers arrived, starting high and slamming low. Not one of these enemy planes scored a hit but the detonations shook the enormous vessel.

Around 5 p.m. Lou and John were in the ready room watching the ocean come their way; the ship appeared to be listing 18 degrees. Lou had come upon a can of peaches and was eating for the first time in 24 hours when a sailor shouted at the Marines that there was an order to abandon ship and they were to get over to the port side. They scrambled into the hangar deck, struggling against the fatal tilt and surfaces so slippery the only way to make progress was by crawling.

On the port side they encountered dozens of knotted ropes dangling; men were using the lines to get to the water. Lou and John were waiting their turn when up ahead a young ensign froze, began blubbering, and would not move. Finally a Marine sergeant kicked the junior officer in the behind. “Climb down the #^&@ rope!” the leatherneck yelled. Down the ensign went. John and Lou followed. “I went hand over hand,” Lou said. “I slipped and as I grabbed at the rope my wristwatch was torn off. I can still see it falling into the ocean.”

In the water, Lou, wearing a life jacket, joined hundreds of men paddling around. No ships were there to rescue them; expecting more air attacks, the destroyers had dispersed again. Lou knew he had to get away from the Hornet. If he stayed close he risked being bombed or strafed—or sucked under when the big ship went down. As he swam he saw what looked like a white balloon. It was a condom someone had inflated. Inside was a watch. The case had an inscription on it. “Well, I guess I have a watch again,” Lou said to himself. He pocketed the timepiece and went back to swimming.

Lou had put about a mile between himself and the Hornet at 6 p.m., when Japanese dive-bombers made the final sortie of the day. One bomb hit the carrier’s flight deck; the rest missed. Lou braced for the worst. He had learned in training that an explosive shock travels much farther in water than on land, generating pressure that can force water into the rectum like a fire-hose colonic. “We were taught that if we were anywhere near an underwater explosion to use our hands to push our butt cheeks together to stop the deadly enema,” Lou said.

Even a mile off, the men in the water were in serious danger. “Everybody squeezed themselves as tight as possible,” Lou said. “The shock wave hit and I felt like someone had shoved a rod in my rectum and stirred it around. Everything inside me hurt all at once. I thought if I opened my mouth salt water was going to shoot out. I leaned back in my life jacket and stared at the sky hoping I wasn’t bleeding to death.”

The USS Barton appeared, idling among the survivors, its crew pulling men from the water until they had packed the destroyer to the gunwales. Marines and sailors stripped off oilsoaked clothes and changed into whatever was available.

The next day, as the tin can made for Nouméa, New Caledonia, Lou was on the Barton’s deck watching the waves. Gunner’s mate White joined him. They talked about what had gone on yesterday and wondered how the battle had turned out.

As he and the old salt were shooting the breeze, Lou was trying to set his new watch. He told the story of how he had come by it, which White enjoyed. They said goodbye, and Lou went back to watching waves. Hours later, he was still at the rail when White reappeared, this time with a navy officer in tow. The navy man said he had been aboard the Hornet, and that as the carrier sank he had stowed his watch in a condom.

“He wondered if it was the watch I had,” Lou said. “The watch was a college graduation gift from his mother and it had an inscription, which he recited. I handed over the watch. He thanked me and he and White walked away. I turned back to the railing and resumed watching the waves splash and roll past the ship. I needed to get another watch.”


Originally published in the April 2015 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.