During the lull that followed the first attacks on the Hornet, the Northampton maneuvered to take the crippled carrier under tow. Several miles away, in Task Force 16, Admiral Kinkaid learned of the Hornet’s ill fortune when the word reached him that his flagship, the Enterprise, was to land all returning planes, including those from the Hornet. The Big E was preparing another air strike at the time, her ordnancemen loading bombs onto racks, pulsing fuel hoses everywhere. If an enemy attack arrived in that vulnerable window, it could be disastrous. As it happened, it was an American plane that drew first blood from the Enterprise task force.
It was the fluky kind of thing that only seems to happen in wartime. Just before 10 a.m., the pilot of a damaged Avenger was waved off from his first approach on the Enterprise. Unable to circle for another landing attempt, he ditched near the destroyer Porter. As he and his crew scrambled into the life raft, the destroyer approached them and stopped. The deck force was preparing to take the flight crew aboard when a lookout yelled, “Torpedo wake on the port bow!” Pilots overhead spotted the missile, tracing a counterclockwise circle ahead of the Porter. They dove down and made two strafing passes in an effort to detonate the weapon short of the ship, but onward it churned, finally striking port side amidships. The blast killed fifteen sailors and left the ship fit only for scuttling. Though another destroyer would report a suspicious periscope as she was maneuvering to recover survivors, in fact the torpedo had come from the very plane that the Porter was racing to save. It jarred loose on impact with the water.
Just minutes later, the Japanese strike reached the Enterprise group. From high above the six-thousand-foot cloud ceiling, from astern the Enterprise, fell a waterfall of Vals, unopposed by U.S. fighters.
The newly outfitted South Dakota, the heaviest ship in the Enterprise’s screen, joined by the antiaircraft cruiser San Juan and the heavy cruiser Portland, put up a staggering volume of fire. “As each plane came down,” an American pilot reported, “a veritable cone of tracer shells enveloped it. You could see it being hit and bounced by exploding shells.”
Radar-directed five-inch gunfire was lethal. The South Dakota and the San Juan led the screen in downing a total of thirty-two enemy planes bearing down on Task Force 16. An officer on the Junyo was stunned by the paltry number of aircraft that returned. “The planes lurched and staggered onto the deck, every single fighter and bomber bullet-holed.… As the pilots climbed wearily from their cramped cockpits, they told of unbelievable opposition, of skies choked with antiaircraft shell bursts and tracers.” A bomber squadron leader would return to the Junyo “so shaken that at times he could not speak coherently.” But no defense could be perfect. Between ten seventeen and ten twenty, the Enterprise took three bombs through her flight deck. It was only by deft shiphandling that her new captain, Osborne B. Hardison, who had replaced Captain Arthur C. Davis just three days before the battle, evaded the deadlier missiles released by the torpedo planes. Good work by firefighting and damage-control crews prevented the bomb explosions from burning the carrier beyond salvation.
At ten twenty, a pilot returning from attacking the Japanese fleet crash-landed his damaged Avenger near the South Dakota. Mistaking the aircraft’s stout, cylindrical fuselage for a surfacing submarine, gunners on the battleship and nearby destroyers took the plane under fire. The destoyer Preston, maneuvering to rescue the pilot and his crew, had to veer away to escape being raked by fire from the battleship’s secondary guns.
No feat of shiphandling that day surpassed the one turned in by the captain of the destroyer Smith. During the air attack, a stricken Japanese torpedo plane, hotly pursued by a Wildcat, fell smoking toward the ship and crashed into her forecastle. As the flames engulfed the entire forward part of the destroyer, her skipper, Lieutenant Commander Hunter Wood, steered his burning vessel into the voluminous spray thrown up by the wake of the fast-stepping South Dakota ahead of him. The cascades of froth washed over the decks, bringing the fires under control.
The stricken Hornet’s chances were not helped by a signal that her captain had issued around noon via blinker light: “GO TO ENTERPRISE.” Her commander had intended the signal for the many American pilots overhead who were looking for a place to land. When the Northampton’s signal department repeated the signal, the Juneau’s commander, Captain Lyman K. Swenson, believed the message was meant for him. At once the antiaircraft cruiser turned out of formation and rang up full speed to join Task Force 16 over the horizon. Task Force 17 badly needed the Juneau’s heavy antiaircraft battery. In the thirteen-minute-long air attack that morning, her gunners claimed credit for a dozen of the many Japanese planes that were seen to fall around the task force.
The American command’s insistence on operating its carriers separately doomed the Hornet to a lonely death. At 1:35 p.m., having recovered his returning strike aircraft, Kinkaid elected to withdraw south with Task Force 16. The Enterprise, with the South Dakota and her other escorts, turned southeast. This was bad news for the Hornet, for nearly an hour ago, Japanese pilots had spotted her and reported a target of opportunity. The Enterprise departed the scene, taking her protective umbrella of fighter aircraft with her; another Japanese strike, this one launched by the Junyo, arrived later. With the appearance of more enemy planes, the Northampton cast off her towing wire to the Hornet in favor of renewed evasive maneuvering. With a fifteen-degree list and a rudder jammed to starboard, the Hornet was a poor candidate for salvage in any event. Adrift, she faced yet another attack.
“With our air cover gone, the Japs had it pretty much their own way,” gunner’s mate Alvin Grahn recalled. “Dive-bombers and torpedo planes, like I say all mixed up. There were destroyers and cruisers zig-zagging all over the place and firing their guns like mad, and the Jap torpedo bombers had trouble trying to line up on the Hornet with so many other vessels in the way. The torpedo planes finally were able to find an opening along our starboard side and that’s when we really caught hell. One of them dropped a torpedo and then swooped up and over the flight deck. Somebody hit him good and he caught fire. Just a mass of flames, with the landing gear falling off and all. The pilot layed his plane right over and made a tight circle and came back and smashed into the port side.… The plane’s engine and fuselage penetrated four or five staterooms and kept right on going and ended up in the forward elevator pit. All this punishment left us without power or water pressure, dead in the water and fighting fires with bucket brigades.”
The Enterprise task force came under a final attack, too. For all the withering resistance their brothers had met over the American carrier task forces, the pilots who flew on Kondo’s final strike of the day, launched by the late-arriving Junyo, braved the gauntlet once again. They put a five-hundred-pound bomb into the San Juan that penetrated her thin decks and exploded beneath her, wrecking her rudder. Another bomb hit the forward turret of the South Dakota. Exploding atop the heavily armored roof, this blast had nowhere to go but up and out.
Every officer on the battleship’s bridge except one hit the deck. That officer was Thomas Gatch. The ship’s captain was standing on a catwalk forward of the conning tower, watching the Enterprise ahead of him through the evening mist. The popular commander, who prized a certain kind of honor from studying Napoleon’s wars, the literature of Shakespeare, and the history of the War Between the States, would say later that “it was beneath the dignity of a captain of a U.S. man-of-war to duck for a Japanese bomb.” The reward for his bravado was a spray of shrapnel that nicked his jugular vein. As the chief quartermaster hastened to pressure the wound, the ship’s doctor made his way to the bridge. Rumors flew that Gatch was near death. For him, readiness to do battle put everything else belowdecks. Spit and polish—out. Regimentation for its own sake—out. Discipline as a means of encouraging anything other than fighting efficiency—out. His medical condition was the chief topic among the crew for days.
As the Hornet foundered and listed, her fires out of control, carrying 111 dead, two American destroyers were detailed to ease her into death. The Mustin and the Anderson trained out their torpedo batteries on the carrier and fired, but each failed to put her under. The destroyers then turned to their guns, popping five-inch rounds into the Hornet’s waterline. After several hundred rounds, her fires were all the hungrier, but still she refused to go. It was after the Americans had left her to the night—around 1:30 a.m., with fires raging so badly that she would be of little use even if the Japanese seized her as a war prize—that Kondo’s men-of-war closed with the hulk. It was Japanese destroyers that finally put the Hornet under with their torpedoes.
The foregoing, evidently, was enough drama for one day. Disliking his chances with one damaged flattop against two unscarred enemy carriers—the Zuikaku and Junyo were at large and dangerous, and he knew nothing of the shredded state of their air groups—Kinkaid continued retiring. He would face stern second-guessing for his decision to abandon the Hornet.
Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe, the commander of the Vanguard Force, would be censured for caution, too. He elected not to pursue Kinkaid’s withdrawing Enterprise task force as night fell on October 26. The decision couldn’t have been for lack of motivation. He had been present at the Battle of Cape Esperance, where his lifelong friend Aritomo Goto had fallen. He had heard tell of Goto’s dying profanities—“Bakayaro!” (idiots!)”—as the cruiser Aoba was smashed by forces he had believed were friendly.
As their ship slugged south in the company of the battered Enterprise, the crew of the South Dakota turned to the ceremonies by which they honored their dead. After dark, Captain Thomas Gatch ordered the engines slowed and came to a stop so that a proper burial at sea could be conducted for her first two dead. The night was black, and a feeling of gloom pressed down like a weight. The chaplain, Commander James V. Claypool, kept a strong grip on the belt of the nearest pallbearer, lest he stumble and fall overboard as he intoned the words. “Forasmuch as the spirit of the departed has returned to God who gave it, we therefore commit his body to the depths of the sea.… ” Captain Gatch was belowdecks and for all the celebrants knew he might well be next off the slab. Untold hundreds of men lay dead on other ships or were already within the sea’s embrace. As the South Dakota’s attending crew performed the committal, raising one end of the burial slab so that the bodies could slide into the sea, Claypool read the benediction. “May the Lord bless thee and keep thee.… ” As he spoke, the moon shone through a break in the clouds, illuminating the decks of the great ship. Claypool thought it was a signal of immortality awaiting all who believed.
The South Dakota had taken aboard the survivors of the Porter, the destroyer lost that day to the crashing Avenger’s wayward torpedo. The survivors were given clothes, smokes, bedding, and anything else they needed. Several of that ship’s engine room crew, badly burned in the fire from the torpedo, died in the battleship’s sickbay. The captain of the Porter asked Claypool to do the rites as the destroyer’s crew gathered aft. “In their borrowed clothes they stood in a horseshoe on the fantail of our ship, listening to the words of hope and love spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ. They wiped away tears with the sleeves of their dungarees, but they left the burial service with shoulders straightened and heads high. Watching them, I thought I heard a bugle sounding the thrilling Navy call, ‘Carry on!’ ” Claypool wrote.
When the ship returned to Nouméa after the October 26 battle, the wounded men sent away to hospital ships begged to be allowed to return, but only if Gatch remained in command. Was he alive? they wanted to know. All too well, the SOPAC medical corps would tell them. He was said to be a difficult patient. Chaplain Claypool kept him on the straight and narrow. Gatch followed a British tradition that required the captain to read the Scripture lesson at Mass. The captain’s faith no doubt empowered his chaplain, who thought that organized religion was a natural thing for a Navy to promote. “Men have to have something in their heads,” he would write. “If they don’t have religion, superstition rushes to fill the vacuum.… They don’t stand up under fire. In the Navy, we take along religion as we take along ammunition.” The South Dakota had loaded that particular magazine to capacity while en route to the theater. Crossing the International Date Line, Claypool was pleased to find himself with back-to-back Sundays, thanks to the change in time zones.
The Japanese wasted no time making the most optimistic claims about the performance of their fliers that day. “I wish we had as many carriers as they claim to have sunk,” Nimitz wrote to Catherine the following day. But no tall tales were needed to claim a material victory. “Numerically or tactically, it was a Japanese victory,” Tameichi Hara, an IJN destroyer captain, would write, echoing American opinion at least with respect to ship losses. “The enemy [the Americans] had entered the fray with a tactical and psychological advantage, but complacence had cost them a high price. The enemy was able to strike at times and places of his choosing. To his surprise, the head and tail of the Japanese opponent were versatile and flexible—contrary to Midway—and they struck back effectively with what force they had.”
Though the losses of aircraft were about equal—ninety-seven Japanese planes were lost against eighty-one U.S.—it was in personnel casualties that America gained its most striking if seldom-appreciated victory. In Japan’s first concentrated exposure to state-of-the-art antiaircraft fire, 148 pilots and aircrew died—a third more than at Midway (110). Fully half of Nagumo’s dive-bomber flight crews were lost. American squadrons suffered twenty dead on the day, plus four more rescued by the enemy and taken prisoner. The leadership in the IJN’s squadron ready rooms took a severe blow; twenty-three squadron and section leaders were lost. By sundown that day, more than half of the pilots who had hit Pearl Harbor on December 7 had been killed in action. The carriers Zuikaku and Junyo, though not seriously damaged, were forced home to Japan for want of men to fly their planes. With the evisceration of its naval aircrews, the Japanese suffered a critical deficit that they would never make up. Captain Hara’s assessment was a profound understatement: “Considering the great superiority of our enemy’s industrial capacity, we must win every battle overwhelmingly. This last one, unfortunately, was not an overwhelming victory.”
The battle took a heavy toll from the Japanese carrier force, and also from its long-time commander, Chuichi Nagumo. Haggard and old, appearing to friends to have aged twenty years in less than a year of action, Nagumo was relieved in command of the carrier striking force by Jisaburo Ozawa, a destroyerman whose abilities as a task force commander were unknown to his peers.
After the Battle of Santa Cruz, the United States would have not a single operable carrier task force in the South Pacific until the Enterprise could be repaired at Nouméa and placed back into service. Task Force 17 was dissolved with the sinking of the Hornet. And with the Enterprise going to the yard for repairs, the South Dakota was sent to join the Washington in Task Force 64.
Having exhausted their carrier forces in the seas east of Guadalcanal on October 26, the opposing fleets returned to their bases to regroup. With Halsey’s and Yamamoto’s carriers sidelined for now, the question to be answered in the parry and thrust of the coming weeks was: Which side’s surface combat fleet would step up and control the seas by night? No matter how gallantly men might fight on land, they would not hold on long if their Navy finally failed them. In a few short weeks, the greatest challenge yet to the American position on Guadalcanal would loom in the dark waters of Savo Sound.