Hornet survivor talks about ship sinking

By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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Know and Go: What: Tribute to World War II Aviator General James H. ?Jimmy? Doolittle Where: USS Hornet Museum, 707 W. Hornet Ave. Pier 3, Alameda When: Starting at 10 a.m. on May 5 Info: Richard Nowatzki?s quest for adventure as a young man was met after he joined the Navy in 1941. So much so that the now 89-year-old Nowatzki even survived the sinking of the USS Hornet on Oct. 26, 1942. The Lincoln resident will speak about his time on the USS Hornet CV-8 and his memories of the Doolittle Raid on Saturday at the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda. ?Rich was a participant in a crucial American historical event of World War II, the Doolittle Raid (of which there were only a few hundred to start with) and who is now one of the last surviving people to have witnessed it now that we are commemorating the 70th anniversary of its occurrence,? said Bob Fish, a USS Hornet Museum trustee. The Doolittle Raid took place on April 18, Fish said, and Nowatzki stood on the flight deck of the USS Hornet ?when at 8:20 a.m., the first of the 16 Army bombers was launched on the historic mission to bomb military and industrial centers in various Japanese cities.? ?At one point, he even approached Doolittle to ask if he and a buddy could fly on the mission, known by all to be a very daring, highly dangerous, one-way mission,? Fish said. Nowatzki said Doolittle laughed at his request to fly in the mission. ?I got a change to talk to the man before he went on a pressure-filled mission and gave him a great laugh,? Nowatzki said. Nowatzki said he will tell that story and others on Saturday. Joining the Navy at the age of 18, Nowatzki made a career out of it and retired in 1973 as a lieutenant commander. ?I went to work (before the Navy) as an apprentice stationary engineer. My dad told me to keep my nose clean and you?ve got a lifetime job,? Nowatzki said. ?He never should have told me that. I wanted adventure so that?s why I joined the Navy.? The USS Hornet CV-8 was a new aircraft carrier that went into commission in October 1941, according to Fish, and Nowatzki was on the first crew. While on the USS Hornet CV-8, Nowatzki participated in the Battle of Midway and the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands on Oct. 26, 1942, which is where the ship was sunk by the Japanese. The attack happened one year and six days after the ship?s commission, according to Nowatzki. His job on the ship was a site setter for the ship?s guns, which is what he was doing the day the ship sunk. The Hornet was attacked in the morning by three to four bombs, as well as by torpedoes, Nowatzki said. ?There was blood running down the sides of the ship,? he recalled. Nowatzki said other U.S. naval ships ?tried to tow us out but the dive bombers came back. A second attack happened at 2 p.m. ?After the second attack, at about 3 p.m., we were passed word to abandon ship, all hands except the salvage crew,? Nowatzki said. ?I was part of that crew. We watched them abandon ship.? Eventually, Nowatzki and the rest of the salvage and rescue crew were told to abandon ship so he got into the water. While he and other crew members swam away from the ship, it was bombed again. ?They said if you?re in the water while the ship is bombed, to get on your back or stomach,? Nowatzki said. He said the shockwave from the ship being bombed was painful and felt like a ?vise crushing you.? ?After we were in the water, we said, ?Let?s get in the raft but it was full of men so we hung on the side,? Nowatzki said. He and others were eventually rescued by the Barton destroyer crew. Nowatzki said there were 2,000 men on the ship and 300 were lost during the Battle of Santa Cruz. ?I was thrilled I was saved,? Nowatzki said. ?I?ll never forget the first morning I woke up (after the sinking) and was still alive.? The News Messenger asked Nowatzki what it was like being on the ship during the attack and surviving the sinking ship. ?It?s hard to keep your sanity,? Nowatzki said. ?If you don?t keep a tight rein on your mental status, you can go bananas. That was a bad moment. I was only 19.? Nowatzki enjoys living in Lincoln, where he paints stained glass and flies model airplanes with friends in the Associated Modelers of Sacramento club. Doug Kellar, who is in the club with Nowatzki, described him as ?one of the nicest men I have ever met.? ?He should be remembered for this stuff,? Kellar said. ?There are a lot of people out there today who don?t know where Pearl Harbor was and here is a survivor at his age. I think it?s important that people hear about World War II since there are still people alive who fought during that time.?