Anti-aircraft shell bursts, fired at attacking Japanese aircraft, fill the sky above USS Enterprise (center left) and her screening ships during the battle on October 26, 1942.
Although the Japanese had originally considered the occupation of Guadalcanal subsidiary to the advance on Port Moresby, at the end of August they made the recapture of Henderson Field their prime objective. On 18 September, they further determined that their troops in New Guinea, now within 30 miles of Port Moresby, would go onto the defensive and begin a slow withdrawal, so that all available reinforcements could go to Guadalcanal. During early October, the ‘Tokyo Express’ duly brought them to the island; Lieutenant General Hyakutake personally arrived on the 9th.
It had been planned that a ‘Tokyo Express’ should set ashore a particularly large reinforcement of men and equipment, including heavy artillery pieces, on the night of 11/12 October. Its approach was detected and Rear Admiral Norman Scott, commanding a task force of cruisers and destroyers, some of them fitted with new, improved radar sets, attempted to intercept it, only to encounter instead an enemy covering force of similar strength to his own.
The resulting clash, known as the Battle of Cape Esperance after the north-west point of Guadalcanal, provided the delighted and relieved Americans with their first victory in a night action. The Japanese commander, Rear Admiral Aritomo Goto who had led the Port Moresby Close Support Force at Coral Sea, was killed and his flagship, heavy cruiser Aoba, was badly damaged. Heavy cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubuki were sunk and next morning, aircraft from Henderson Field sent two more destroyers, Murakumo and Natsugumo, to the bottom. Several of Scott’s vessels suffered considerable damage but only destroyer, Duncan, was lost.
While Scott’s success dramatically lifted American spirits, however, it seemed merely a temporary irritation to Hyakutake. By 15 October, he had 22,000 men under his command, the majority of them fresh troops. The Americans could muster a thousand more but many of them were far from fresh and suffering from a variety of ailments. Hyakutake’s target was Henderson Field for he rightly regarded American control of the air as a crucial factor in deciding the ownership of the island.
To assist him in attaining his aim, Hyakutake was strongly supported by the Imperial Navy. A carrier force hovered some 300 miles north of Guadalcanal to prevent any American attempt at reinforcement or evacuation and meanwhile to deliver strikes on targets of opportunity; one such on 15 October sank destroyer Meredith with the loss of 185 men. Japanese surface vessels were instructed to neutralize Henderson Field by bombardments. In the early hours of 14 October, the greatest of these was delivered by battleships Kongo and Haruna, while on the nights of both the 14th/15th and the 15th/16th, pairs of heavy cruisers poured their 8-inch shells onto the aerodrome.
Yet despite the damage and casualties inevitably caused, the ‘Cactus Air Force’ was never subdued. On 15 October, its aircraft so damaged three Japanese transports that these were forced to beach, ultimately becoming total losses. On 25 October, they repulsed another attempted bombardment, this time in daylight, and left light cruiser Yura crippled and on fire; her destruction was completed by Flying Fortresses. The defenders of the airfield proved equally steadfast. Starting in the afternoon of 23 October, the Japanese made a whole series of attempts to capture it. By the early hours of the 26th, the last of these had failed with immense losses. Hyakutake accepted that he must await further reinforcements before he could renew his attempts to secure Guadalcanal. Admiral Yamamoto ordered his warships to reverse course to the north.
That, sadly, was not the end of the story. On 18 October, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, had replaced Vice Admiral Ghormley with Vice Admiral William Halsey, an extremely determined and pugnacious character whose nickname – bestowed by the newspapers; no one who knew him ever called him this – was ‘The Bull’. His appointment was received with delight throughout the South Pacific and gave notice to friend and foe alike that however long and hard the Guadalcanal campaign might be, the Americans would see it through to the end.
Unfortunately Halsey’s virtues were weakened by one great defect: his corroding hatred of his foes often prevented him from appreciating what brave and dangerous enemies they were. So now when the Japanese had accepted that their plans had failed and their ships were interested only in retiring, he insisted on bringing about a naval battle under very disadvantageous circumstances that could well have resulted in the loss of America’s only two serviceable fleet carriers.
When Halsey took up his post, he had only one carrier under his command but by 26 October, Enterprise, her repairs hastily completed, had returned to the South Pacific and joined forces with Hornet north of the Santa Cruz Islands, which in turn lay well to the east of Guadalcanal. Both of them were placed under the tactical control of Rear Admiral Kinkaid and were ordered to steam north-westward to engage the Japanese fleet. This put them outside the range of the ‘Cactus Air Force’ and they were further deprived of the support of a force built around battleship Washington that Halsey decided to retain in the vicinity of Guadalcanal to guard against another attempted bombardment. Halsey later came to appreciate his mistake, declaring that he would never again allow the Japanese to ‘suck’ his ‘flat-tops’ away to the north.
Furthermore, unlike Midway where, contrary to myth, the Americans had had larger numbers of ships and aircraft available in the actual combat-zone, at the Battle of Santa Cruz it was the Japanese who held these advantages. As usual their fleet was divided into a number of separate formations, the most important being Nagumo’s Striking Force containing Shokaku, Zuikaku, light carrier Zuiho, a heavy cruiser and eight destroyers. Junyo, whose lack of speed made it difficult for her to operate in close company with the other Japanese carriers, was stationed to the north-west, screened by a couple of destroyers. In advance of Nagumo steamed the Vanguard Group of Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe with battleships Hiei and Kirishima, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and seven destroyers. The oddly entitled Advance Group – battleships Kongo and Haruna, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and twelve destroyers under the overall commander, Vice Admiral Kondo – in fact brought up the rear.
The ships in these various formations considerably outnumbered those with the American carriers that, as at the Eastern Solomons, formed the centres of two separate groups about 10 miles apart. Enterprise was guarded by battleship South Dakota, one heavy and one light cruiser and eight destroyers; Hornet by two heavy and two light cruisers and six destroyers. In aircraft, Nagumo could bring fifty-seven Kates, sixty-eight Vals and eighty-seven Zeros against Kinkaid’s seventy-two Dauntlesses, twenty-nine Avengers and seventy Wildcats. In addition, Enterprise carried a new Air Group, the first to be formed after Pearl Harbour, the pilots of which were mostly very inexperienced, having only just completed their training. A large proportion of American aircraft losses at Santa Cruz would be the results of accidents unrelated to combat.
As so often seems to be the case, the stronger force had most of the luck. Enterprise at 0512 sent out sixteen Dauntlesses flying in pairs on armed reconnaissance but it was not until 0650 that two of them, flown by Lieutenant Commander Lee and Ensign Johnson, sighted Nagumo. A Japanese reconnaissance machine had discovered Hornet 20 minutes earlier, and though both sides prepared for action, Nagumo had the priceless advantage of being able to strike first. At 0710, a total of eighteen Kates, twenty Vals and eighteen Zeros from Shokaku and Zuikaku, plus nine Zeros from Zuiho, set out to strike at Kinkaid.
Nagumo then made ready for another raid, but at 0740, two more of Enterprise’s scouts appeared. They dived on little Zuiho, their bombs striking her near the stern and tearing a jagged 50-foot hole in her flight deck that prevented her from conducting any further flying operations. Though pursued for miles by the furious Combat Air Patrol, Lieutenant Strong and Ensign Irvine made good their escape, their gunners downing two Zeros for good measure. Nonetheless, Nagumo was able to get a second strike of twelve Kates, twenty Vals and twelve Zeros airborne at 0822, while Junyo contributed eighteen Vals and eleven Zeros soon after 0900.
Meanwhile Kinkaid was also sending out his airmen but in accordance with the then American beliefs and mindful of the need to recover lost time, they flew, as usual, in separate groups. The first of these, fifteen Dauntlesses, six Avengers armed with bombs and eight fighters, left Hornet at 0730, but the inexperienced Air Group on Enterprise could not launch its raid of three dive-bombers, eight torpedo-planes and eight fighters for another half-hour. Nine more Dauntlesses, nine bomb-carrying Avengers and seven Wildcats from Hornet followed at 0815.
Having taken off first, the Japanese arrived first. At 0910, their first wave hurtled down on Hornet in a perfectly co-ordinated assault. The Vals had already made a hit on her flight deck aft together with two very near misses, before the most spectacular incident of the raid took place. The aircraft flown by the dive-bombers’ leader, Lieutenant Commander Mamoru Seki who had also led the successful attack on Enterprise at the Eastern Solomons, was fatally hit but, trailing a long column of flame, he deliberately dived into Hornet’s superstructure, then crashed on through the flight deck where two of his bombs exploded, starting a furious fire.
Immediately afterwards, two torpedoes struck Hornet’s starboard side, flooding the forward engine room and two boiler rooms and destroying all power and communications. Next, three more bombs found their mark, two of them penetrating deep into the carrier’s hull before detonating. Finally, a blazing Kate torpedo-bomber with a doomed pilot at the controls came charging on to dash itself into Hornet’s bow close to the forward elevator. The raiders had lost twelve Vals and half-a-dozen Kates, including that of their commander Lieutenant Jiichiro Imajuku, to AA fire, but in ten savage minutes they had left Hornet dead in the water, burning from bow to stern, with 111 of her crew dead and 108 others wounded.
The American airmen continued to have ill luck, particularly those from Enterprise. On the way to their target they sighted and were sighted by the original Japanese strike force. The Zeros from Zuiho attacked out of the sun and at a cost of three of their own aircraft downed four Avengers, including that of the leader, Lieutenant Commander John Collett, and four Wildcats. The survivors attacked Abe’s Vanguard Group, as did the Avengers of Hornet’s first wave that had lost their dive-bombers in cloud, and the whole of Hornet’s second wave. Heavy cruiser Chikuma was damaged by bombs.
Only the fifteen Dauntlesses in Hornet’s first wave located Nagumo – at 0930. They were engaged by some twenty Zeros that shot down one, damaged two more so badly they had to head back to their mothership, one failing to reach her, and forced the Air Group Leader, Lieutenant Commander William Widhelm to ‘ditch’. He and his gunner scrambled into their life raft, from which they watched subsequent events, rather like Ensign Gay at Midway. They were rescued by a Catalina two days later.
Lieutenant James Vose, who now succeeded to the command of the remaining eleven dive-bombers, pressed on unflinchingly. Since lucky Zuikaku, as at Coral Sea, had found a rain squall to shelter under and Vose could see that Zuiho was still burning, Shokaku received the full weight of the Dauntlesses’ attack. Four 1,000-lb bombs struck Nagumo’s flagship, wrecking flight deck, hangars and elevators, starting fires, reducing her speed, causing about 100 casualties and, best of all, putting her out of action for nine months. Not one of Vose’s aircraft was lost.
At this point, honours might be considered even, but the Americans had now struck all their blows, while the Japanese still had two formations airborne. Of Nagumo’s second wave, one Kate had to turn back with engine trouble and one Val became separated from its fellows and attacked Hornet ineffectually, but the remaining warplanes targeted Enterprise on which by further ill fortune, all attention had been directed to a different danger. At 1002, a Wildcat pilot, Lieutenant Albert Pollock, suddenly saw a torpedo, fired by I-21, racing towards destroyer Porter. He dived down, firing, in the hope of detonating it or at least warning the destroyer, only to be shot at by her ungrateful AA gunners. It was a misunderstanding that cost Porter dearly. The torpedo found her boiler room and caused so much damage that the Americans had to sink her.
Consequently, when the Japanese dive-bombers plunged down at about 1015, they caught the Combat Air Patrol by surprise. The anti-aircraft fire, however, especially that from Enterprise and South Dakota, was devastating. At least fifteen Vals were destroyed and their leader, Lieutenant Sadomu Takahashi, was engaged by a Wildcat as he withdrew and subsequently ‘ditched’; he and his gunner were later rescued by a Japanese tanker. Nothing, though, could prevent the Vals from scoring two direct hits and one very near miss; one bomb striking near Enterprise’s forward elevator that it put out of action.
Happily for Enterprise, Takahashi’s men, in their eagerness, had not waited for their torpedo-planes. By the time eleven dark-green Kates appeared the Wildcats were ready – and annihilated them. Lieutenant Stanley Vejtasa alone was credited with having downed six, including that of the veteran Lieutenant Commander Shigeharu Murata who had led the torpedo-bombers at Pearl Harbour. It was one of his victims, however, that achieved the raid’s only success; it flew on into the forecastle of destroyer Smith, turning this into a mass of flames. Fortunately these were mastered by her damage control personnel, aided by the initiative of Lieutenant Commander Hunter Wood who put his ship’s bow close behind South Dakota, where the battleship’s foaming wake helped to subdue the fires. At 1121, the raiders from Junyo also attacked. They made bomb-hits on South Dakota and light cruiser San Juan inflicting little damage, achieved only one near miss on Enterprise, and lost twelve Vals including their leader Lieutenant Masao Yamaguchi.
Nonetheless, Enterprise was still in a vulnerable position. Aircraft from both US carriers returning from their own raids had to land on her and the resulting confusion, aggravated by her inoperative elevator, made future operations very difficult. Since it was known that the Japanese still possessed two undamaged carriers, Kinkaid had little choice but to withdraw to the south-east, which he did at 1400.
Meanwhile, Hornet, her fires brought under control and most of her crew taken off, was being towed slowly towards safety by heavy cruiser Northampton. Her plight had become known to her enemies and Rear Admiral Abe’s Vanguard Group was heading towards her at high speed, ready for a surface action. Yamamoto even hoped that she might be captured as reassuring evidence of the Imperial Navy’s superiority. And at 1515, nine Kates and five Zeros from Junyo renewed the air-attacks on her. Seven of the Kates, including their leader Lieutenant Yoshiaki Irikiin, were lost but a torpedo, tearing open her starboard side, sealed Hornet’s fate. The remainder of her crew was ordered to leave her.
Though this decision was unquestionably correct, Hornet now proved embarrassingly durable. The bulk of her escorts retired but left a couple of destroyers to finish her off. They put nine more torpedoes into her but at this stage of the war American torpedoes were not famed for their effectiveness and she remained afloat. They then fired 430 5-inch shells at her, reducing her to a furnace, but she was still afloat when at 2040, the approach of Abe’s ships forced them to retire. At least there was now no question of her falling into enemy hands and at 2100, she was finally sent to the bottom by four ‘Long Lances’.
It cannot be disputed that Santa Cruz was an American defeat and one that left them with only a single crippled fleet carrier ready for service. Such was their concern that, in response to urgent requests, HMS Victorious was sent to Pearl Harbour. Here, though, she had to re-equip with American machines and train her airmen in their use, as otherwise she would have been unable to make good any losses suffered, and by the time this had been completed, the crisis had passed.
Yet if the Americans had lost more ships, the Japanese had lost more airmen – a reversal of the situation after Midway. While seventy-four US aircraft had been destroyed most of these were the victims of accidents caused by inexperience; only twenty had fallen in combat. By contrast, sixty-nine Japanese warplanes had been shot down, twenty-three more had ‘ditched’ and about 140 irreplaceable veteran airmen were dead, among them, as will have been noticed, almost all the Val and Kate formation commanders. So great were the losses that Zuikaku, as after Coral Sea, was temporarily inoperable for lack of aircrews to man her.
It seems indeed that while the Imperial Navy in general was lifted by its victory, those concerned with its naval aviation were much less elated. Nagumo was not asked to bring his carriers into action again and like his old antagonist Fletcher, he would be found later only in less important posts. Though carrier Junyo was still fit for action and was now joined by her sister-ship Hiyo, they remained well to the north-west of Guadalcanal and accordingly, unlike Enterprise for all her jammed elevator, they had no influence on the next, most decisive of the six savage sea-fights that were the highlights of the campaign.