The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) and other ships of her screen in action during the Battle of Santa Cruz, 26 October 1942. One bomb is exploding off her stern, while two Japanese dive bombers are visible directly above the carrier and towards the center of the image. A flash from anti-aircraft guns of the battleship USS South Dakota (BB-57) can be seen in the distance.
Henderson Field, using the same general approach for a similarly grim result. General Hyakutake’s infantry, blistered by machine-gun, mortar, and canister fire, was forced to retreat. Japanese deaths were as many as thirty-five hundred. American fatalities in what would be known as the Battle for Henderson Field numbered around ninety.
As Vandegrift’s men held again, the first report from the PBYs reached Kinkaid around midnight and passed to Halsey. Dispatched shortly after 3 a.m. on the twenty-sixth (by a courageous Catalina pilot who doubled down on his luck by trying to bomb the Zuikaku), the report did not reach Kinkaid for two hours. When it finally did, the vintage of the news persuaded him to hesitate. He would not launch his attack until fresher information came.
The Enterprise, as the duty carrier, sent up the dawn patrol to resume searches to the west and north of the task force. At 6:17 a.m., two Dauntlesses working the western search sector spotted battleships, Abe’s Vanguard Force, about eighty-five miles out. But it was the carriers that were prized most highly. Less than thirty minutes later, two other Enterprise aviators hit pay dirt, spying Nagumo’s carriers to the west-northwest of Kinkaid, about two hundred miles away.
Unfortunately for Kinkaid, his decision to await better information before striking took place just as one of Kondo’s scout planes finally located him. As a consequence of the American commander’s delay and his bad luck in being spotted, the Japanese launched their principal attack about twenty minutes ahead of the Americans. At seven thirty-two, the Hornet, operating about ten miles from the Enterprise task force, began launching her first deckload of aircraft.
Because Kondo was heading southeast, directly into the wind, whereas Kinkaid’s carriers were steaming with the wind and thus had to reverse course into the wind in order to launch or recover aircraft, the Japanese were quicker on the draw by about thirty minutes. By seven forty, sixty-four Japanese planes—a nearly even mix of Kate torpedo bombers, Val dive-bombers, and Zero fighters from the Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Zuiho—were airborne and outbound.
The American scout pilots who spotted Nagumo’s carriers were quickly intercepted and driven into the clouds by the enemy combat air patrol. Two other Enterprise Dauntlesses heard the sighting report, navigated to locate the enemy fleet, and winged over into steep dives. Targeting the light carrier Zuiho, Lieutenant Stockton B. Strong and Ensign Charles B. Irvine planted a five-hundred-pound bomb into the after part of her flight deck. The fifty-foot hole would knock her out of the fray, but her strike pilots were already aloft, winging toward Kinkaid’s carriers.
The two American carriers embarked 137 operational planes between them (64 fighters, 47 dive-bombers, and 26 torpedo bombers). Their four Japanese counterparts carried 194 (76 fighters, 60 dive-bombers, 57 torpedo bombers, and a reconnaissance plane). But more important than numbers was the speed with which planes could locate and strike their targets. With this small but telling first blow, which destroyed the Zuiho’s arresting gear and robbed her ability to recover aircraft, the Battle of Santa Cruz was joined.
For commanders making split decisions amid great uncertainty, it was far from clear which approach prudence urged: sending out planes to strike as quickly as they left the carrier deck, or having them gather in strength near their carriers before turning out after the enemy. With the two U.S. task forces operating independently, separated by about ten miles, it was not easy to combine the aircraft formations in any event. The pilots on the Enterprise received conflicting instructions on that score. What ensued was far from an orderly affair.
With the Japanese two hundred miles distant, fuel was too precious to burn circling to rendezvous. The principal strikes from the Hornet and Enterprise were hastily launched and ordered to seek the Japanese as soon as they were airborne. An Enterprise flight deck crewman held aloft a sign—“PROCEED WITHOUT HORNET”—indicating that each carrier’s strike group was on its own. By eight twenty, a gaggle of twenty-seven Dauntlesses, twenty Avengers, and twenty-three Wildcats, loosely organized in three groups, was winging after Kondo.
The leading American planes were airborne for barely thirty minutes when the Japanese strike came within view on a reciprocal flight path. Thus began an impromptu melee as nine Zeros peeled off from escort duty and dove down on the American flight about sixty miles northwest of the U.S. carriers.
The commander of Torpedo Squadron 10, Lieutenant Commander John A. Collett, flying in the leading four-plane section of Avengers, felt his aircraft shudder and his starboard wing dip. As the turret gunner opened up with his fifty-caliber machine gun, Collett’s radioman, Thomas C. Nelson, Jr., got no response from his pilot over the intercom. Collett, forced to abandon his burning cockpit, threw back his canopy and crawled out onto the starboard wing. As Collett was whisked away into the airstream, never to be seen again, Nelson abandoned the radioman’s compartment in the belly of the plane. He was the only survivor. The aerial scrimmage cost the Enterprise air group four Wildcats and four Avengers shot down or forced to turn back. The babel of voices on the pilots’ radio frequency told Admiral Kinkaid in the Enterprise of the fracas that developed as the outbound American and Japanese air strikes ran into each other. Connecting the dots, he sketched a picture of an inbound attack and ordered his carriers, still steaming about ten miles apart, to hustle the rest of their planes into the air.
Shortly before nine o’clock, the inbound Japanese strike was bathed in the transmissions of the air-search radar of the heavy cruiser Northampton, assigned to escort the Hornet in Task Force 17. Somehow neither the Hornet’s nor the Enterprise’s electronic eyes ever saw the bogeys. The Northampton’s skipper, not knowing this, relayed word to the Hornet in a leisurely way, by signal flags rather than by a faster but less secure radio broadcast. As a result, the Enterprise never received word at all. Worse, the Enterprise’s inexperienced fighter director officer, responsible for guiding the combat air patrol to its targets, whiffed completely. He reported the angle of approach of the Japanese strike with reference to the relative heading of his ship. Such a pole star was of little use to any pilot who couldn’t see the reporting vessel. And so on that cloudy day most of the thirty-seven Wildcat jockeys flying combat air patrol failed to intercept the attack before it was already over their carrier. Fortunately for the Enterprise, she found concealment in a rain squall. As a result, the first Japanese air strike fell on the perpetrator of the Doolittle raid, the Hornet.
As the Hornet’s outbound strike group left its task force behind, some of the pilots saw the black puffs of flak dotting the skies behind them. That’s when they knew the Japanese had found their ship. A flight of twenty-one Val dive-bombers from the Zuikaku, under command of Lieutenant Sadamu Takahashi, were the first to attack the Hornet.
To the dismay of the carrier’s crew, half of her powerful five-inch antiaircraft battery was effectively disabled when the young officer who supervised the after five-inch battery “drove the guns into the stops,” freezing them in a horizonal elevation just as the first enemy dive-bomber appeared overhead. “Believe you me, the gun captains took this very, very personal. All his training, everything, right out the window,” gunner’s mate first class Alvin Grahn remembered. “Five of our most lethal guns now sat with their barrels locked in place. They would have made mincemeat out of that plane.”
As the Wildcats on combat air patrol tangled with the escorting Zeros, the Japanese dive-bombers concentrated on their target, hitting the Hornet with three bombs. A Val struck by antiaircraft fire fell burning and crashed into the island superstructure in a wash of flames. The plane penetrated several decks, spreading fire as it went, straight down into a squadron ready room one deck below the flight deck. Its five-hundred-pound bomb was found later, unexploded and rolling around in a passageway outside. As the Vals were doing their work, torpedo bombers from the Shokaku were down low on the water, closing on the Hornet from two directions, off the starboard bow and the port quarter. The textbook “anvil” attack would expose the carrier to torpedoes from one group of Kates or the other, no matter which way she turned. In short minutes, two torpedoes were crashing into the carrier’s starboard side, flooding both fire rooms and snuffing out her propulsion and power. The time was 9:15 a.m.
Several hundred miles to the north, Admiral Nagumo was in no place to celebrate. Overhead, pilots from the Hornet’s two Dauntless-equipped squadrons had found his carriers.
As the commander of Scouting Squadron 8, Lieutenant Commander William “Gus” Widhelm, surveyed the fleet below, four Zeros from the Shokaku piled in to intercept. Cagey and determined, the American dive-bombers, no match for Japanese fighters in air-to-air combat, avoided the slashing head-on passes and high-side runs of the Japanese combat air patrol. When the leader of the Japanese fighter section dove on Widhelm from twelve o’clock high, the American pulled back his stick and turned loose with his fifties. If a dive-bomber seldom beat a fighter in an aerial duel, a veteran could occasionally pick his spot. The converging planes were just a short football field apart when the Zero’s engine caught fire and exploded. Widhelm flew through the debris and continued closing with the Shokaku ahead.
As Zeros and Dauntlesses engaged in their murderous dance, a Japanese pilot lined up Widhelm’s plane and pulled a burst from his twenty-millimeter cannons. As Widhelm’s squadron mates were hurtling down upon the Shokaku in seventy-degree dives, heads hunched forward peering into their bomb sights, dive brakes gripping the air, it was a sure mark of their spirit that as Widhelm’s engine coughed smoke and died, his comrades found their hearts on fire listening to his Navy-grade cussing about the lack of effective help from the Hornet’s fighters as he guided his smoking aircraft into the sea. Surviving the crash landing, Widhelm would be left to observe the exploits of his comrades from a bobbing yellow life raft.
It wasn’t long before Lieutenant James E. “Moe” Vose, the leader of the Hornet’s second flight of Dauntlesses, from Bombing Squadron 8, found Nagumo’s carriers. Radioing a sighting report, they pushed over on the Shokaku and piled in. Dauntlesses flying search or “scouting” missions carried a half-sized five-hundred-pound bomb, the better to extend their range. Dauntlesses armed for strikes carried a thousand-pound egg. Vose’s aviators were loaded for bear. As they dove down on the speeding, swerving Shokaku, the veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack gamely skidded out of the path of the first three or four big bombs. The next few, all of them thousand-pounders, scored heavily, shattering the carrier’s flight deck and destroying her center elevator. By nine thirty, with fires sweeping through her hangar deck, the Shokaku was no longer capable of flight operations. She could still make thirty-one knots, but she, like the Zuiho before her, was out of the fight.
The heavy cruiser Chikuma, less valuable than the Shokaku but an important naval asset nonetheless, took a couple of bombs from Hornet Bombing Squadron 8 aviators, and two near misses from Enterprise Dauntless jockeys, and was left battered and burning but navigable, with almost two hundred dead.
Thirty minutes after the U.S. attack pilots first set upon their targets, they were finished with their attacks and bound for home.