Vice Admiral John Madison Hoskins (October 22, 1898 – March 30, 1964) was an officer and aviator in the United States Navy. Four years after graduating the United States Naval Academy, Hoskins entered flight school and served his entire career in naval aviation, eventually commanding aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Despite losing his right foot in an explosion aboard USS Princeton (CVL-23) in 1944, Hoskins refused retirement and went on to serve as the first commanding officer of the new USS Princeton (CV-37). After the war, Hoskins became a leading proponent of jet aircraft on carriers, was assigned to training command of the first naval aviators designated for carrier assignment, and himself flew as commanding officer of the flight demonstration which convinced the Department of the Navy that jet aircraft should be a part of the aircraft carrier's fixed-wing complement.
In the early days of the Korean War, Hoskins's was the first carrier group on station following the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula; the naval flight group under his command based on USS Valley Forge was the first to give airborne support to retreating South Korean army units. While he was commanding officer of Valley Forge, the carrier and her aircraft were twice deployed to the war zone to repel advances by the enemy and were major contributors to the successful Inchon landings. Before his retirement, he was made the subject of a 1955 biographical film by Republic Pictures entitled The Eternal Sea with Sterling Hayden and Alexis Smith portraying Hoskins and his wife Sue.
Hoskins was born on October 22, 1898, to Thomas Jefferson and Lucy Renfro Hopkins in Pineville, Kentucky, the county seat of Bell County. The youngest of six children, Hoskins only completed one year of high school and had a difficult time gaining entrance to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, having to take the written entrance examinations three times and physical examination four times before gaining entrance one month shy of his 19th birthday.
Hoskins had a hard time getting through his first year at the academy, ranking 299 out of 300 classmates academically. He also lagged behind his classmates physically, needing continuing special instruction to pass swimming tests. Hoskins improved his class ranking to 201 by the end of his senior year but also accumulated 123 demerits. Classmates remember cadet Hoskins as being "the loudest and most obnoxious snorer", but was saluted by classmates in the Academy yearbook as a ladies' man, "He can convince any femme that she is the best friend he has in the world ... any chaperone that her presence is unnecessary".
Hoskins graduated from the Naval Academy on June 2, 1921, and was appointed as ensign. His first assignment was aboard the USS Nevada, a World War I-era battleship. Over the next four years, Hoskins served at sea and shore duties, after which he requested flight training and became a Naval Aviator. After attending a Navy football game with a number of his nieces and nephews, his Navy colleagues started calling him "Uncle John" and the sobriquet stuck with him for a number of years. Hoskins served aboard USS Memphis during its June 1927 cruise from Cherbourg to Washington, D.C. transporting Charles Lindbergh and his plane the Spirit of St. Louis after his solo successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Hoskins participated in the expedition to find the missing aviator Amelia Earhart after she failed to arrive at Howland Island as scheduled on July 2, 1937 during her second attempt to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by air. As part of USS Lexington's air group, Hoskins commanded a squadron of nine SU-4 aircraft in the unsuccessful search.
During World War II, Hoskins first served as Air Officer and Executive of USS Ranger. In 1943, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. and was later Chief of Staff to the commander of Fleet Air, Quonset Point, Rhode Island, where both American and British pilots were trained in carrier flight techniques and tactics. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service at Quonset Point.
Promoted to captain in 1944, Hoskins was ordered to take over command of USS Princeton; he arrived to relieve his friend Capt. William H. Buracker just as the Battle of Leyte Gulf was commencing, and postponed taking command due to the hostilities. At roughly 10:00 on October 24, Princeton was attacked by a Yokosuka D4Y "Judy" which dropped its single bomb directly through the flight and hangar decks, igniting gasoline stores, disabling fire suppression systems and causing secondary explosions. After battling the fires for some hours, Buracker ordered Princeton abandoned, leaving behind only a salvage crew; Hoskins offered to stay behind. At 15:24, a massive explosion of ordnance stores blew off a large section of the carrier's stern, killing many and severing Hoskins's right leg just above the ankle.
Hoskins refused to allow his wound to force his premature exit from the Navy, asserting his fitness to visiting friend Admiral William Halsey: "... the Navy doesn't expect a man to think with his feet. That blast didn't knock off my head." Recovering in the Naval Hospital Philadelphia, Hoskins's rank allowed him to choose the location of his hospital bed, which he selected for its view of the naval shipyard where the next USS Princeton was being laid down. While rehabilitating, he received both the Purple Heart and Navy Cross for his actions aboard Princeton. Fitted with a prosthetic foot, Hoskins started a vigorous exercise program, including paying visits to the shipyard to oversee construction of the new Essex-class carrier. When Princeton was commissioned in November 1945, Hoskins became her first commanding officer. A year later, he was promoted to rear admiral and given command of Carrier Division Seventeen. Air Group 81, formerly from Princeton, asked Walt Disney to design a mascot patch, "a saber-slinging pirate with an aircraft carrier under one arm and a peg leg firing ammunition like a machine gun", and were for a time known as Peg-Leg Petes.
After two years as chief of staff to Commander, Naval Air Forces Pacific Fleet, Hoskins was ordered to command Carrier Division 3, centered around another Essex-class carrier USS Valley Forge, and deployed to the South China Sea. Valley Forge was anchored in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong when on June 25, 1950 Hoskins was notified of the North Korean Army's massive attack across the 38th parallel precipitating the Korean War. Hoskins quickly moved his force to Naval Station Subic Bay for fueling and resupply and by July 3 was launching the first carrier-based air strikes of the conflict. He used Douglas AD Skyraiders and Vought F4U Corsairs to attack Pyongyang airfields, using his Grumman F9F-2 Panthers for fighter cover, suppressing North Korean air power and supporting the retreating South Koreans as U.S. ground forces arrived and deployed. By mid-August, Valley Forge's air groups were averaging 80 sorties each day, using every minute of sunlight to hit "everything from oil refineries to horse carts."
Life magazine sent correspondents to the conflict and on August 14, 1950 put "Uncle John" Hoskins on the cover and profiled his career at some length. The article made much of Hoskins's "homely" language, his excellent relationship with the officers and men serving under him, and his pragmatic and dogmatic approach to the mission. Hoskins complimented the extraordinary interservice teamwork: "You can't say enough about the fine cooperation and coordination we have with the Air Force." He also praised the efforts of his carrier division, saying "It's wonderful to manage a team when every player gets a hit every time he comes to the plate."
After helping to protect the Pusan perimeter, Hoskins and his carrier division were instrumental in the success of Douglas MacArthur's end-around amphibious assault on Inchon a month later. On September 4, fighters of Valley Forge's Fighter Squadron 53 (VF-53) shot down a Soviet Air Force A-20 Havoc bomber after it opened fire on them while flying towards the gathering naval task force in the Yellow Sea. During the invasion at Inchon from September 14 until September 19, Hoskins's Air Group 5 made hundreds of daily strikes on enemy targets. Between July 3 and November 19, Valley Forge aircraft flew 5,000 sorties and delivered 2,000 tons of rockets and bombs.
Valley Forge was slated for overhaul and was heading towards its base in San Diego when Hoskins was notified of the Second Phase Offensive launched in the last week of November by the Chinese Army in support of the North Korean effort. After arriving on the west coast of the U.S. on December 1, Hoskins was directed to resupply and steam back to Korea as soon as possible. Valley Forge spent five days restocking and embarking a new air group. She departed for Korea on December 6, arrived on the 22nd, and began air operations in support of the UN retreat the next day. By the time Valley Forge ended its second deployment in March 1951, its air groups had flown 2,580 sorties and dropped another 1,500 tons of ordnance.
Hoskins returned Valley Forge for overhaul in April 1951, and found himself assigned to the Air Force's Military Air Transport Service, coordinating logistics by air transport for all branches of service where he served until April 1954. During his command, MATS operated for 36 months and over 75 million passenger miles without a single fatality.
Hoskins was later decorated with the Distinguished Service Medal for his command efforts at the outset of the Korean War and the Silver Star (Army award) for his "gallantry and intrepidity" as commander of his division during the Inchon-Seoul operation.
Hoskins returned again to Quonset in April 1954, this time as Commander Fleet Air and served until retired in 1957. During his command at Quonset, Hoskins chaired the board of inquiry into the May 26, 1954 disaster on the USS Bennington (CV-20). Upon retirement, Hoskins was promoted to vice admiral. He later served for five years as director of the Office of Declassification Policy in the Department of Defense, managing the activity of declassifying formerly classified materials for public release.
In 1955 Republic Pictures released The Eternal Sea, a biopic taken from Hoskins's life and written by Allen Rivkin after a story by William Wister Haines. The film featured Sterling Hayden as Hoskins, Alexis Smith as his wife Sue, Dean Jagger as his friend Thomas Semple, Hayden Rorke as William Buracker and Virginia Grey as Dorothy Buracker. The New York Times noted John H. Auer's "deceptively simple direction". The reviewer especially praised "... some of the best and most unobtrusive photography of aircraft carrier scenes ever made".
Hoskins suffered a heart attack and died at his home in Falls Church, Virginia, on March 30, 1964. His funeral was held at the chapel at Fort Myer and he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Hoskins and his wife Sue (née Waters) had two sons and one daughter.