On the morning of Oct. 26, 1942, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and its crew were engaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz Island in the Solomons.
Within a span of 10 minutes, however, everything changed as the carrier was hit by four bombs, two torpedoes and two dive bombers that crashed into the Hornet, according to the website www.uss-hornet.org.
The attacks left the vessel “dead in the water.” The crew managed to put out most of the fires aboard the vessel, but in the early afternoon, a second wave of attacks including two more bombs and another torpedo finished off the Hornet, which had only been commissioned one year and a few days before its sinking.
“There are 141 sailors still on the Hornet at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t want anyone to ever forget them,” said Curby “C.L.” Smith, who was on the Hornet that fateful day and vividly remembered it as it marked its 75th anniversary.
Smith, who lives in Columbia County, was 18 when he joined the military in June 1941, months before the United States entered the war.
“I wanted to get a job and get out of the cotton farm in Jefferson County,” said Smith who remembers picking cotton as young as the age of 7 in 1930 with his family. The entire family would pick hundreds of pounds of cotton and only bring home $1 a day during the Depression.
He joined the Navy and ended up on the Hornet, which had an illustrious 12-month run before it was sunk. The aircraft carrier was the takeoff site for Jimmy Doolittle, who led the Battle of Tokyo in April 1942.
“If I’d known how famous he was going to become I would’ve shaken his hand so I could’ve said I’d shaken his hand,” said Smith.
Smith remembers watching as Doolittle gave his men a final talk before they left the USS Hornet on their mission.
“He said ‘a lot of you aren’t coming back. If you don’t want to do this, step aside,’ None of them did,” said Smith.
There were 16 planes and 80 men in the raid. They were to bomb Tokyo and land in China. Some of them crash- landed, others bailed out and some landed safely. Some of the pilots and crewmembers were taken as prisoners of war. Doolittle received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Hornet also saw action during the Battle of Midway in May 1942.
But it was that harrowing day of Oct. 26, 1942, that Smith will never forget.
After abandoning the ship, they spent many hours in the water and in lifeboats. Smith said he disobeyed an order that day.
“I took my shoes off. They said not to because of the sharks,” he said.
He was eventually pulled out of the water and into a lifeboat. And according to Smith, they were rescued by the same boat that would rescue President George H.W. Bush in 1944 when his plane was shot down.
Smith spent the rest of World War II working in logistics and living in a tent on a beach in New Caledonia.
He said the experience aboard the carrier made him appreciate life.
“A saying came up after that. Every time someone would complain, we’d say ‘but at least you’re still alive,’” he said.
In all, Smith spent six years in the Navy. After he was discharged, he returned to Georgia, where he met his wife, Anne. They will celebrate their 70th anniversary in January. He worked for Borden Dairy for 35 years, retiring in 1985.