Battle of Eastern Solomons

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Shigeyuki Sato dives his Aichi D3A “Val” bomber into the USS Hornet on the morning of October 26, 1942.

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In the Battle of Eastern Solomons, second of the six major naval actions fought out in the Guadalcanal campaign which took place on 24 August 1942, we need therefore only consider three groups besides Tanaka’s. One was that of Vice Admiral Nagumo, now flying his flag in Shokaku. Zuikaku accompanied her as usual and between them they carried thirty-six Kates, forty-one Vals and fifty-three Zeros. Battleships Hiei and Kirishima, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and twelve destroyers provided the escort. Then there was the Advance Force of Vice Admiral Kondo who controlled five heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, seaplane carrier Chitose and six destroyers. Finally came a small group consisting only of light carrier Ryujo with sixteen Kates and twenty-one Zeros on board, heavy cruiser Tone and a further pair of destroyers.

This last formation had a task that could only have been required of a Japanese one. It was a sacrificial offering on which it was hoped the Americans would direct their assaults, leaving Nagumo’s carriers untouched and their own position vulnerable. It was anticipated that Ryujo probably, and her escorts possibly, would be sunk but, extraordinary as it appears and despite Ryujo’s previous fine record, Yamamoto was fully prepared to accept this.

On the American side, Wasp had retired to the south to refuel but Fletcher still had seventy-four Dauntlesses, thirty Avengers and seventy-two Wildcats on Saratoga and Enterprise. These were steaming about 10 miles apart, the former protected by two US heavy cruisers, an Australian heavy and an Australian light cruiser and five destroyers; the latter by battleship North Carolina, one heavy and one light cruiser and six destroyers. The Americans were well aware that hostile forces were in the vicinity, for during the morning of the 24th, several Japanese reconnaissance machines were shot down by Fletcher’s Wildcats and a scouting Catalina reported the presence of the Ryujo group. Anxious not to commit his strike aircraft prematurely, Fletcher compromised by sending out sixteen dive-bombers and seven Avengers from Enterprise at 1229, with orders to seek out the enemy and attack any vessels found. At 1345, thirty dive-bombers and eight torpedo-planes led by Commander Harry Felt also took off from Saratoga, this time with a definite target in view.

At 1300, Ryujo had sent a formation to raid Henderson Field. This would do little harm and cost the Japanese three Kates and two Zeros; the defenders lost four Wildcats and three pilots. Since this formation was tracked by Fletcher’s radar operators, he could calculate Ryujo’s position; it was against her that Felt’s men were directed. They sighted her at 1550, and though she evaded the bombs dropped by the first wave of Dauntlesses, Felt’s own bomb struck her in almost the exact centre of her flight deck. Three more hits and four near misses reduced her to a blazing wreck and a torpedo then tore open her side and jammed her steering gear, leaving her pathetically turning in circles. She finally sank at about 2000.

For the Japanese of course, Ryujo’s mission had been successful; she had diverted Fletcher’s strength away from Nagumo. And at 1405, a reconnaissance aircraft had given that officer the Americans’ position before falling victim to the Combat Air Patrol. It seemed that the Japanese had a splendid chance to avenge Midway Island but luckily they showed little of their usual ruthless efficiency. To begin with, they did not send out a single massive raid as at Coral Sea. Instead they dispatched nine torpedo-planes, about twenty dive-bombers and twelve Zeros at 1507, but not until 1600 did they send out a second wave, and this failed to find any target. Meanwhile at 1515, Nagumo was himself attacked by two of the Enterprise Dauntlesses sent out on armed reconnaissance. Lieutenant Davis and Ensign Shaw scored one hit and one very near miss on Shokaku but, alas, the bomb that found her flight deck failed to penetrate it and achieved only minor damage.

On their part, the pilots of Nagumo’s original wave never sighted the Saratoga group, so directed all their attention onto Enterprise. Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid who flew his flag in her took the precaution of launching his remaining strike aircraft as soon as radar detected the enemy, and he already had a strong force of Wildcats aloft. These destroyed at least three Kates and dispersed the rest. The Val dive-bombers also suffered heavily, Warrant Machinist Donald Runyan alone downing three together with at least one Zero. Those that evaded the fighters attacked at about 1640, only to meet a tremendous barrage of anti-aircraft fire, especially from North Carolina, at least three disintegrating in mid-air, while others crashed all around the battleship and Enterprise. Even after the attack, the raiders were engaged by every available American aircraft, one Val being shot down by the Avenger of Enterprise’s Ensign Burnett who was returning from an anti-submarine patrol when he decided to take on the role of interceptor.

Few indeed of the Japanese returned to their carriers but their courage could not be thwarted completely. Three bombs hit Enterprise, two of them striking close to her after elevator and penetrating to lower decks before exploding; these killed seventy-five men and started raging fires. Fortunately constant practice enabled Enterprise’s damage control parties to bring the flames under control and by 1749 her aircraft were again able to start landing on her. She was not yet out of danger, however, for at 1821, the ventilation system to the steering-engine compartment, switched off when the bombs hit, was re-opened. Smoke, water and fire-fighting chemicals poured into the compartment and caused an electric motor to short-circuit, jamming the rudder. For almost 40 minutes, Enterprise remained helpless before Chief Machinist William Smith, though twice overcome by fumes, was able to start an emergency motor and the carrier’s steering control was restored.

Fletcher now withdrew both his carriers southwards – Enterprise ultimately to Pearl Harbour for repairs that deprived the Americans of her services for two crucial months – but not before Saratoga’s airmen had delivered another blow against the enemy. The Dauntlesses of Lieutenant Elder and Ensign Gordon sighted Kondo’s Advance Force at about 1740 and attacked seaplane carrier Chitose, flatteringly identified as a battleship, scoring near misses that flooded her port engine room and forced her to retire with a heavy list. And even after the American withdrawal, Enterprise was able to make an important contribution towards future operations. The eleven dive-bombers that she had sent off as the enemy raid materialized were unable to return to her, so their leader, Lieutenant Turner Caldwell, took them to Henderson Field where they joined the ‘Cactus Air Force’ as the units there were known – after Guadalcanal’s code-name – served with it for a month and all, happily, survived the perils that this entailed.

Though Japan’s fleet carriers were virtually untouched, their aircraft losses had been so great that Nagumo, like Fletcher, had no wish to continue the fight, and he too withdrew. Rear Admiral Tanaka, true to his nickname, had different ideas but next morning his Reinforcement Group was attacked by aircraft from Henderson Field. His flagship Jintsu was badly damaged and troopship Kinryu Maru was brought to a halt in a sinking condition. As destroyer Mutsuki went alongside to rescue her passengers and crew, eight Flying Fortresses appeared. Neither side had much respect for their abilities but this time the big bombers belied their poor reputation. Three direct hits crashed into the luckless Mutsuki, which vanished in a cloud of steam and smoke. Soon afterwards, Tanaka received orders to retire.

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