ALAMEDA All night, we wandered through narrow, pitch-black hallways, felt the chill on drafty decks, wobbled while descending vertiginous chain-link ladders, listened to the ship creak and groan like an arthritic old duffer rising from a lawn chair.
It was, we must admit, starting to get a little creepy aboard the USS Hornet.
Maybe it was the dank and musty milieu, or the power of suggestion, or the knowledge that more than 300 deaths had occurred on board and 668 Japanese planes were shot down by its servicemen during World War II, but halfway into our four-hour tour of this decommissioned aircraft carrier at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, we needed to revisit our initial steadfast skepticism.
Is the ship haunted? Nah, can't be, we thought when we met our docent for the Hornet's History Mystery After Hours Tour, a straight-talking, straight-laced and seemingly non- hallucinatory gentleman named Bob Friedmann. We told Friedmann straightaway: We're too rational to believe in ghosts and spirits and all that paranormal claptrap. We also don't believe in the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny. (We're still on the fence about Santa.)
Friedmann, showing infinite patience and endless decorum, smiled a smile of the knowing, of the true believer. He's heard such skepticism before.
"That's fine," he said. "No problem. All we ask is that you keep (the skepticism) to yourself. If people make skeptical comments during the tour, we end up getting no activity all night because they don't want to deal with you."
They, meaning the many ghosts said to inhabit this historic 990-foot-long vessel that fended off 59 enemy attacks in 15 months of action during World War II and also did tours in the 1950s and during the Vietnam War before being decommissioned in 1970.
Ship stays busy
Since docking in Alameda in 1998 and opening as a museum, the Hornet has staged many popular activities: annual New Year's Eve swing-band bashes, overnight stays for Scout troops, special tributes to Greatest Generation members.
But much of its recent renown has come from its reputation as a sanctuary for spirits, a veritable poltergeist portal. Paranormal groups, electromagnetic field gizmos in hand, often flock to the ship to ferret out metaphysical activity. All the popular cable TV shows "Ghost Hunters," "Ghost Adventures," "Ghost Trackers" have made pilgrimages, hoping apparitions will be in their dress whites and ready for their close-ups.
Perhaps taking his lead from the professional ghost watchers, Friedmann whipped out a K2 meter, a device used by electricians to determine whether electromagnetic current is leaking from wiring. The K2's use in this context, Friedmann explained, is to determine if a "presence" is in our midst in areas where there is no manufactured electronic activity.
Which is why he and other docents admonished us to put our iPhones and Androids on "airplane mode," so as not to skew the readings.
All righty, then
"Just sit back, watch and listen," Friedmann added, sensing our disbelief. "Keep an open mind. Who knows what might happen? Could be nothing. Could be interesting. This ship has seen a lot of death, you know. Not just from battles and accidents on the flight deck," but suicides, too.
He paused, letting the notion sink in. Then he lightened his mortician-tinged tone, perhaps sensing that his audience needed reassurance.
"It's an aircraft carrier; it's dangerous anywhere," he said. "But it's a great ship with a great history. If nothing else, it's just nice to tour the ship."
True. The great thing about the History Mystery Tour is that visitors see all aspects of the ship, from the catapult that launched jet fighters, to the crew's mess hall, from the admiral's cabin to the corpsman bunks, from the sick bay to the fo'c'sle (a.k.a. forecastle), where the 30,000-pound anchor chains are housed.
But the two dozen visitors didn't fork over $35 for just a history tour. They wanted to experience some hauntings, maybe even get the bejesus scared out of them. What better way, after all, to spend a Friday night?
Katie Coy, 17, and her parents came from Chicago to tour the Hornet. Come summer, Coy will be going to Navy boot camp, so this trip was a combination spring break and graduation present.
Will she be a little freaked out if the ghosts appear?
"Freak me out? Not at all," she said. "I'm very into the paranormal."
Likewise, tourgoers Julia Berger and Martin Azevedo, Alameda residents, were hoping for a tete-a-tete with the otherworldly.
"I grew up in Alameda and, well, there's a lot going on, paranormally speaking," Berger said. "There are a lot of very old houses, and a lot of stories from people living in old houses. So "
The tour begins
So, as we set off on the tour, with the ship nearly dark save a few safety bulbs, we seemed the only holdouts. But, as instructed, we held our tongues while many of the others held hands and girded themselves for paranormality.
First stop was the captain's quarters, where Friedman pointed the K2 at a photo of the ship's first captain, Miles R. Browning. The meter stayed at a single green light, meaning no electrical activity.
Even after Friedmann told some juicy tidbits from Browning's time on the Hornet "He wasn't well liked. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer. He allegedly had an affair with an officer's wife" the K2 meter didn't budge.
Next, we stepped into the admiral's cabin and sat at a long, oaken conference table that we figured must have been used for many strategy sessions. On that table sat a box the size of a bagel. It was an Olivus, explained Kate Sterns, another docent in our group. It is a "speech synthesis device" that utters words based on EMF waves. It's said to be popular in the paranormal world.
Sterns wanted to turn it on. Friedmann didn't.
"I've never had luck with those things," he said. On it went, though, and out came sporadic, random words in a computer-generated voice.
"Oh, it's just in dictionary mode now," Sterns said. "This always said the word 'Steven' when I was in here. I'd say, 'Hi, Steven.' We found out he liked music and played the Andrews Sisters for him."
Suddenly, the name came squawking out of the box: "Steven."
Sterns perked up.
"Steven, are you there?"
"Is there anyone here tonight? If there is, can you make the green lights light up?" Friedmann interjected.
After an awkward pause in the pitch-dark room, the K2 on the desk momentarily lit up from green to yellow to red.
"Hi, Steven!" Sterns said.
Friedmann: "Are there any admirals here tonight?"
The flashlight standing bulb-up on the desk turned on, sending a steady beam to the ceiling. Neither Friedmann nor Sterns had touched it.
Perhaps there was a short in the battery, or a wire had sparked. A minute later, after the docents lobbed more questions at the beam, the light went off just as capriciously.
We waited in silence a few more minutes, while Friedmann shared some infrared photos he'd taken on previous tours that showed blue orbs that he swears were not there when he took the shot and were not Photoshopped in.
When we finally tired of waiting for "Steven," we went to the next hot spot a room where the pilots used to convene before taking off on missions. We met another group that had just left the room. They spoke excitedly of panel lights mysteriously turning on and the K2 going wild with activity while flashlights went on and off willy nilly.
For us, nothing.
Friedmann tried to engage the void, peppering the blackness with banter such as "Are you enlisted?" and "C'mon, the other group was bragging about you."
Perhaps sensing we were feeling smug in our skepticism, Friedmann confided on the way to the fo'c'sle, "There's no rhyme or reason for when they show. It's not like a Halloween haunted house. It's random."
Flashes in the dark
We still weren't getting any K2 readings as we patted the anchor, but we felt a strange foreboding as we headed for the sleeping quarters, row upon row of bunks with painfully thin mattresses.
"Bunk 11," Friedmann said, voice lowered an octave. "It was here that a young man (hanged) himself after he got a Dear John letter. He used these ropes that hold up the mattress. We've had (paranormal) activity in the past here."
As if on cue, the K2 meter Friedmann placed on the mattress lit up and gave off a sustained glow. Friedmann, heretofore unflappable, got excited, his voice rising in pitch.
"We came up to visit you," he said. "Thank you for your service to our country."
Friedmann, trying to keep the conversational ball rolling, said, "If you're here, can you light up the meter or my flashlight?"
And, wouldn't you know it, the meter flashed once more.
"We don't mean you any harm," Friedmann added.
More flashing of the K2 meter.
Our tour group murmured astonishment. Even we skeptics were wavering as the group bid adieu to the hanged sailor and headed down to sick bay, the brig and, finally, the mess hall.
It was in that last stop, the mess hall, where we stepped into something not unlike a seance. Two other groups had congregated and were talking to a flashlight lying on a desk. The light belonged to docent Susan Martin, who swore she had not rigged it to respond to yes-no questions.
The ensuing dialogue was both comical and a little eerie, truth be told.
"Corpsman," one tourgoer said, "can you turn on Susan's light?"
On it went. A minute later, someone else asked the "corpsman" to turn off the light. And, yup, off it went.
This went on for another 10 minutes. At one point, in the interest of quality journalism, we ambled over and inspected the flashlight. It had neither been tampered with nor had wires leading anywhere. Suppose we could've asked to frisk the docent for remote control devices, but that seemed not in the spirit of the evening.
A half hour later, we disembarked the creaking old ship, not nearly so dead certain in our skepticism as four hours before. As we walked off into the fog-enveloping Alameda night, we could've sworn we heard someone whispering, "Steven."
707 W. Hornet Ave., Pier 3,
Phone: (510) 521-8448
Next History Mystery After Hours Tour: May 24.
The Hornet saw active duty in World War II and the Vietnam War.
Under air attack 59 times, it was never seriously damaged.
Its aircraft destroyed 1,410 Japanese aircraft (668 in the air, 742 on the ground); only the carrier Essex exceeded this record.
Its air groups destroyed or damaged 1,269,710 tons of enemy shipping.
72 enemy aircraft were shot down in one day during the famous "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot."
10 Hornet pilots attained "Ace in a Day" status.
255 aircraft shot down in a month.
30 of 42 VF-2 Hellcat pilots were aces.
Supported nearly every Pacific amphibious landing after March 1944.
Scored the critical first hits in sinking the super battleship Yamato.
Launched the first carrier aircraft strikes in support of the liberation of the Philippine Islands.
In 1945 launched the first strikes against Tokyo since the 1942 Doolittle Raid.
Earned nine battle stars for her service in World War II.
Awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her World War II operations (only nine carriers so cited).
In 1969, recovered the Apollo 11 space capsule and the first men to walk on the moon. A few months later, it recovered the Apollo 12 capsule and its all-Navy crew.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
Hornet opens to the public as an aircraft carrier museum in Alameda in 1998.
USS Hornet is designated a State Historic Landmark in 1999.