When the USS Hornet was attacked by Japanese airplanes in 1942, James Gardner raced to fill out a gun crew after one of his shipmates was killed.
He shot down at least two airplanes before everyone aboard the aircraft carrier was ordered to abandon ship near the Santa Cruz Islands in the South Pacific.
He didn’t think he’d survive.
“I had to go overboard after I shot them down,” said Gardner, now 98 and living in a Norfolk, Virginia, nursing home. “I stayed in the water for about three hours.”
The memory is one of many that came flooding back after the Hornet’s final resting place was discovered at the bottom of the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands in late January and announced to the world a few weeks ago. The Hornet is of particular historic significance: The aircraft carrier launched the first bombers against the Japanese homeland during the famous Doolittle Raid, which provided a significant morale boost after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the Hornet’s discovery, nursing home staff showed Gardner a copy of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper that included a story and underwater photographs of his ship. It lit a spark in his mind. He couldn’t stop talking about the Hornet.
“For days,” Maria Turnage, an activity assistant at Thornton Hall Nursing and Rehab Center, said with a laugh.
“At the end of the day, it’s a piece of American history,” she said. “This is something everyone should know about. We are lucky to be with him every day and see him be J.J. He’s a charmer and keeps us all on our toes.”
The stories come back to Gardner in bits and pieces. He has difficulty hearing and parts of his memory are foggy. But his career is well documented.
After finally being rescued from the water, he was offered a bunk aboard the cruiser USS Juneau until he could get ashore to be treated for his injuries. The sailor who offered his bunk was one of the five Sullivan brothers — he can’t remember which one — who were all killed during the Battle of Guadalcanal about three weeks after the Hornet was sunk; they are memorialized by the destroyer USS The Sullivans.
'A charmed life'
In 1943, Gardner was featured in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot for receiving a citation from Adm. William Halsey, then commander of the South Pacific Forces, for heroism on the Hornet. He had also received one from Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chester Nimitz for his role as an aviation machinist’s mate during the Battle of Midway, where the pilot he supported shot down four aircraft.
“The Norfolk youth apparently bears a charmed life, for he once served on the cruiser Vincennes, which was sunk early last August in the Solomons with two other American and an Australian cruiser,” the Pilot wrote in 1943. “After the Hornet was sunk, he was rescued by a destroyer and transferred to the light cruiser Juneau, lost with many officers and men, only a short time later.”
Turnage spends every day with Gardner and is a history buff. But even she was stunned to learn everything he said happened really did.
“I didn’t really think it was 100 percent true,” Turnage said of the stories she began hearing a few years ago. “But it’s true.”
Gardner still has the citation from Halsey.
He also has a citation for a Bronze Star issued in 1946 for gallantry during landing assaults against Japanese positions in 1942 and a document from 1995 signed by Navy Secretary John Dalton commemorating his role in the Doolittle Raid.
“These raids were an enormous boost to the morale of the American people in those early and dark days of the war and a harbinger of the future of the Japanese High Command that had so foolishly awakened ‘The Sleeping Giant,’ “ the citation says. “These exploits, which so inspired the servicemen and women and the nation live on today and are remembered when the necessity of success against all odds is required.”
Usually, Gardner wears one of the four Navy hats he owns. But for all of his excitement about the Hornet and his role in naval history, he wasn’t always so talkative.
His son, Jay Gardner, 63, said he never heard war stories when he was growing up.
“He actually never talked about his military service,” the younger Gardner said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he lives. “Which I think is a shame. It wasn’t until the last 15 or 20 years that he started talking about it. Part of it is because most of his shipmates had passed away at that point. We were really surprised about some of the things he told us about.”
When he did open up, Jay said, his father told stories of seeing some of his Hornet shipmates eaten by sharks. He said he was made a chief petty officer at 19 after entering the Navy just two years earlier.
When he heard on the news that his father’s ship was discovered, he said he “was floored.”
“I was excited for my father. I’m hoping that he gets some more information about it from the people that discovered it. I don’t know how many of his old crew members are still alive,” he said. “I imagine most of them have passed.”
Lessons for today
What researchers, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, found more than three miles beneath the surface is a damaged, but largely intact, warship. There are pictures of weapons and a hole in the Hornet’s hull.
The discovery also resonates with today’s sailors.
“As America’s Navy once again takes to the sea in an uncertain world, Hornet’s discovery offers the American Sailor a timeless reminder of what courage, grit, and commitment truly look like,” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran said in a statement. “We’d be wise as a nation to take a long, hard look.”
That sentiment is one of the things Noel Lumanog, Gardner’s friend, wants young people to know, too.
Lumanog is an Air Force veteran who has regularly visited Gardner ever since Gardner’s other son, who lived locally, died about two years ago.
“If we were to lose World War II, we wouldn’t have had a United States to come back to,” Lumanog said. “It’s very important that the younger generation know that and honor these World War II veterans.
Gardner no longer has family in the area, and Lumanog serves as an advocate for him through his role at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and is still trying to get him disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for injuries he suffered during the attack on Hornet — including his hearing and knees.
He said when Gardner first learned about the Hornet’s discovery he went on and on talking about the Battle of Santa Cruz, where it sank.
“He was real excited,” Lumanog said. “His eyes lit up.”
Gardner’s son said his father retired from the Navy about 1960. And while he spent time on other ships — including as an original crew member of the battle-hardened World War II aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La — it was the USS Hornet reunions that he remembers his father attending in Norfolk after he left the Navy.
If there was any doubt how important the Hornet was to him, Gardner gives a quick response to a question about what his favorite ship was.
“CV-8,” he says.
That’s the Navy’s ship designation and hull number for the sunken Hornet.
Always a sailor. Even at 98.