Originally created 07/29/01

A sailor's worst day revisited



It was the worst day of Curby "C.L." Smith's life.

Shoeless and covered in diesel fuel from the sinking USS Hornet, the 19-year-old seaman desperately swam through the oily waters of the South Pacific Ocean, toward a destroyer.

But the USS Anderson had to keep moving to avoid being a target for Japanese bombers.

That made catching up with the ship more difficult for Mr. Smith, a Keysville, Ga., native who now lives in Augusta.

When the sailor finally reached the roving destroyer a couple of hours after plunging into the Pacific Ocean, he climbed a rope ladder to board - joining the other survivors who packed the deck, many of them injured.

"And I didn't get a bath until 10 days later," said Mr. Smith, 78, who, almost 60 years later, can joke about his ordeal during the Battle of Santa Cruz.

More than 110 men died when the Hornet sunk Oct. 26, 1942, and 108 were wounded, according to Bert W. Whited, a retired Navy officer and historian.

There were other ships in the water that day, but the Hornet suffered the bulk of Japan's wrath. The Japanese were retaliating for April 18, 1942 - a day six months earlier when Doolittle's Raiders launched from the Hornet and bombed Tokyo in a surprise attack.

The Doolittle Raid

In the early months of 1942, America was still reeling from the devastating December attack on Pearl Harbor. The country's morale was low, and Japan seemed to be strengthening, coming off of victories in Burma, Singapore and the Philippines.

President Roosevelt authorized a "dangerous and sacrificial mission" that involved the Hornet and a man who emerged as one of the legendary heroes of World War II - Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle.

When the Hornet set sail for Japan on April 1, 1942, said Mr. Smith, a Boatswain's mate 2nd class, few knew about the ship's mission - to get within 400 miles of the Japanese coastline so Doolittle and his Army Air Force pilots could take off and bomb Tokyo before heading for landing sites in China.

The raid was planned for the afternoon, but that morning, a boat was spotted. Fearing the crew could have warned the Japanese, the boat was attacked and the raid launched before the ship reached the 400-mile mark.

The worry was that the 16 B-25s would not have enough fuel to make it to China.

All they could do was hope for the best as they watched the planes take off from the carrier deck, Mr. Smith said.

He was there for the launch.

"We wasn't supposed to be up there, but we sneaked up to watch," the former deckhand and gunner said.

Although the raid caused minimal damage to Tokyo, Yokohama and other cities, the mission was considered a success because the Japanese "lost face" and realized they were vulnerable to Allied attacks.

Battle of Santa Cruz

Six months after Doolittle's Raiders hit Tokyo, Japan was gunning for the Hornet in the Battle of Santa Cruz, disabling it before attacking other ships in the fleet near the Soloman Islands.

Torpedos, anti-aircraft fire and bombs exploded on the Hornet, slowly crippling the carrier.

When the sailors were ordered to abandon ship, Mr. Smith slid down the side of the listing carrier, clinging to a rope and hitting the warm water in the early evening hours.

He swam to the first life boat he could find and was helped inside.

But there were injured men in the water, so Mr. Smith removed his shoes and slipped back into the Pacific to help them into the life boat.

The men weren't supposed to swim shoeless because they thought sharks might be attracted to their bare feet, but Mr. Smith said he was more worried about catching up to the destroyer.

Mr. Smith decided it would be faster to swim toward the Anderson than paddle in a lifeboat, so he and a buddy began the half-mile journey.

Men were scattered beyond shouting distance for the most part, but Mr. Smith and his shipmate stayed close as waves, heavy with more than a million gallons of the Hornet's fuel, crashed over their heads.

"I would lift my arm out of the water and oil would just drain off it," he said.

When they finally made it aboard the ship, the Anderson's men had piled dungarees - Navy-issued work clothing - on the deck, donating what they could spare.

Mr. Smith, who was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed about 120 pounds at the time, grabbed what he could.

"I got the pants of a short, fat man, and my shirt sleeves were down to here," he said, indicating a point past his elbow.

The next day, Mr. Smith threw up fuel and salt water.

"I must have heaved up a half gallon," he said.

Even at 19 years old, Mr. Smith knew the day the Hornet sunk would be the worst day of his life. And almost 60 years later, that's still true.

"I was just a country boy from Georgia. I had no idea what was ahead."

Reach Teresa Wood at (706) 823-3765.