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A visit to the haunted USS Hornet in Alameda

Zoë Ferrigno
The USS Hornet in Alameda.

A visit to the USS Hornet in Alameda is like taking a trip back in time. The ship served in both World War II and Vietnam, and it famously recovered the Apollo 11 astronauts from the Pacific after the 1969 moon landing.
Today, the Hornet’s a museum. Its docents are veterans who served on the ship, or other aircraft carriers like it. And according to them, that it’s not just old artifacts and displays that reveal the Hornet’s history—they say the ship is also haunted.

It’s Friday night on the Alameda waterfront. The sun has just gone down over the bay. I’m standing on the hangar deck of the USS Hornet—it’s essentially an airplane hangar on a ship, and it’s huge. From front to back, it’s the length of three football fields.

I’m here with a group of about twenty other people for one of the museum’s three hour History/Mystery tour. It’s part history lesson—and part paranormal investigation.

My guide for the evening is docent Bill Fee, who served on a sister aircraft carrier, the USS Bon Homme Richard, in Vietnam.

Bill leads us below deck, into the dark. He tells us to stick together and not wander off—unless we want to become ghost stories for the next tour.

Throughout the night, Bill takes us to different parts of the ship, and tells us stories. Bill lives on the Hornet part-time, and one of his first stories is about a night he spent on the Hornet alone.

“One particular Friday night, everybody went home,” he says. “I locked the door, I’m the only one here on the ship.”

Bill was alone with a flashlight, so he didn’t bother turning on any of the red lights that usually illuminate the ship at night.

“But about two thirty in the morning, I woke up, because I heard the click of the nightlight at the end of the passageway. Then I heard the next nightlight click on. So I got up, opened my stateroom door, looked down the passageway, and sure enough, all the red lights were on.”

It sounds creepy, but Bill says he wasn’t afraid. He and the other docents believe that most of the spirits on board are fellow servicemen. The night that all the lights turned on, Bill says the spirits were just trying to help: “They knew I was here, so they turned the lights on for my safety.”

Also in our group is Justin Dimig from the Alameda Paranormal Researchers. In each room we stop in, he sets up K-II meters, devices used by electricians to detect electrical activity in walls. Ghosthunters, on the other hand, use K-II meters to detect the presence of spirits. There’s a row of green lights on the meter; Justin says if a ghost passes by, the lights will flash red.

He and Bill also place Maglite flashlights around each room. They loosen up the battery caps, so it’s easy for spirits to turn them on when they want to communicate.

Throughout most of the tour, there aren’t many signs of paranormal activity. Occasionally one of the K2 meters goes off, or the flashlights turn on. At one point, one of them starts to roll back and forth across a table.

Bill tells us that some nights are more active than others.

“When we first started coming into this area, for doing investigations, one of the ladies in my group was a lieutenant on the San Francisco Homeland Security,” he tells us. “They had just received their new thermal imaging cameras.”

Thermal imaging cameras (also known as infrared cameras) form images of heat. The lieutenant brought the camera with her on the tour, and everyone got to look to look through it. In an old office on the ship, the camera showed heat residue on a lot of the furniture.

“We had a lot of teletype keys that were thermally hot,” Bill says. In another room, “the desk drawer pulls, the chair cushion, and the chair back were all thermally hot.”

It was as if someone had just been in there, working.

Another docent, Mike Gordon, tells me he’s also met spirits on the Hornet. He served on another one of the Hornet’s sister ships, the USS Hancock, and says the first time he came on board, he felt at home.

“You know, it’s thousands of guys over the years. It’s old steam, it’s old oil. It t just smells like an old ship.” The first time he came on board, he says, he took a deep breath in, and asked, “Where do I sign?”
Before then, Mike says he’d never felt the presence of a ghost--that changed once he started working on the Hornet.

One day, he visited the sick bay, or hospital. It’s made up of several rooms, and they’ve all been restored to feel like it’s the 1940s. There are typewriters, old rotary phones, and vintage medic helmets. In one room, there are actual x-rays of a skull and a ribcage hanging on the wall.

Lots of people have had weird experiences down here. Mike had his in one of the old operating rooms.

“I walked in here, and I got to about here, and this where I couldn’t go any further,” he says, showing me around the area. “It was not like a physical presence was pushing on me or anything like that. My body just wouldn’t move forward. I don’t know what it was, I can’t explain it. But I couldn’t move forward.”

The USS Hornet is full of stories like this. People say they see, and hear, and feel strange things on the ship all the time. But for some reason, it doesn’t really feel scary to me. And it doesn’t for anyone else that I talked to, either. Docent Bill Fee has a theory.

“None of our  spirits here are evil spirits,” he says. “They’re all heroes. Some of the spirits that are here, died on this ship. And some of the spirits that we have passed away not during war or battle, but just [of] old age.”

The Hornet, he says, is a safe haven for them. And they’re still here, on the ship.