The battle of the Eastern Solomons (24-25 August 1942) was the second battle in the series of six naval actions linked to the fighting on Guadalcanal and was a carrier battle that ended as a minor American victory.
After their first small-scale counterattacks on Guadalcanal had failed the Japanese began to move reinforcements to the island. A force of fast transports, cruisers and light cruisers under Rear-Admiral Raizo Tanaka was allocated to this task. Tanaka's force soon became known to the Americans as the 'Tokyo Express' and it would continue to operate for most of the Solomon Islands campaign. Tanaka's first run was a success, and 815 men were landed on Guadalcanal on the night of 18-19 August. Although these troops were quickly lost in battle the Japanese decided to repeat the exercise and send another small force
The Japanese decided to try and combine two operations. While Admiral Tanaka carried out the reinforcement of Guadalcanal, a second fleet, complete with three aircraft carriers, would operate to the north of the Solomon Islands and try and draw the nearby American fleet into a major battle.
Admiral Tanaka's force consisted of the transport Kinryu Maru (converted from a light cruiser), four destroyer transports, the seaplane carrier Chitose and Destroyer Squadron 2, led by the light cruiser Jintsu.
The main force was built around the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. It also included eight battleships, four heavy cruisers and the light carrier Ryujo, which was to serve as bait. The Japanese hoped that the Americans would find the Ryujo but not the larger carriers, and would attempt to attack her.
The main American fleet, under Admiral Fletcher, included the carriers Saratoga, Enterprise and Wasp, the new battleship North Carolina, four cruisers and ten destroyers (Task Force 61). The Wasp only played a minor part in the battle, and was sent off to refuel before the fighting on 24 August.
Admiral Tanaka's transport ships and his escort group were spotted by American patrol aircraft on 23 August, when they were still 350 miles from Guadalcanal. US aircraft were sent to attack, but bad weather and a temporary Japanese retreat meant that they didn’t find their targets.
Early on 24 August American patrols found the Ryujo and Admiral Fletcher ordered his fleet towards her. Once the carriers were within range a scouting force of 29 aircraft was sent out to find her, followed at 13.45 by a main attack force of thirty dive bombers and eight Avenger torpedo bombers. At about the same time the Japanese launched their aircraft in an attack on Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.
At about 14.20 the aircraft heading for Henderson were intercepted by Marine fighters from VMF-223 and their attack was broken up.
The American scouting force discovered the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, but an attempt to divert the main force to attack them instead of the Ryujo failed. The American aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the Ryujo. The light carrier was set on fire and sank.
The Japanese had now detected the two American carriers, and Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a massive attack in two waves. The Saratoga managed to avoid this attack, but the Enterprise wasn't so luck. Her fifty-one Wildcat fighters managed to fight off the Japanese torpedo bombers, but their dive bombers weren't detected and were able to make an uninterrupted attack on the Enterprise. Heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Enterprise and her escorts, and in particular from the battleship North Carolina, accounted for many of the Japanese aircraft, but the Enterprise still suffered three direct hits and four near misses. Seventy five men were killed and another ninety five were wounded, but greatly improved American damage control measures meant that the Enterprise was able to recover her own aircraft.
While the Enterprise was fighting off the Japanese carrier aircraft, Saratoga was able to launch an attack on Tanaka's seaplane carrier Chitose. The Chitose was set on fire and forced to retreat from the area.
At the end of 24 August all of the surviving aircraft carriers retired from the area. On 25 August the Japanese continued to withdraw, while Fletcher returned to the area. Although he couldn't find his main targets Admiral Tanaka's transport fleet was still heading for Guadalcanal and they came under attack from aircraft based at Henderson Field.
At around 6am on 25 August Tanaka's fleet was hit. The Jintsu was damaged as was the transport Kinryu Maru. Tanaka was briefly knocked unconscious and when he recovered he transferred his flag to a destroyer and attempted to continue with his mission.
The damage to the Kinryu Maru was more serious than first believed. The transport ship caught fire, and the troops had to be evacuated from here. The destroyer Muzuki went alongside, but soon had the misfortune to be one of the few warships sunk at sea by heavy bombers. A force of B-17s from the 11th Bombardment Group on Espiritu Santo attacked while the Muzuki was involved in the rescue attempt. The immobile Japanese destroyer was hit by bombs from the heavy bombers and sank. Her crew then had to be rescued, while another two destroyers rescued the man from the Kinryu Maru, which was now sinking. Finally with his main transport ship lost, his flagship damaged and a destroyer lost Admiral Tanaka admitted defeat and retired.
The Japanese had failed to land their reinforcements, had lost a carrier and a fast transport ship and suffered damage to several other warships. They largely abandoned daylight operations in the Solomon Islands, but retained control of the seas at night.
On the American side the Enterprise was out of action until mid-October, but she returned in time to take part in the fourth of the Guadalcanal naval actions, the battle of Santa Cruz (24-26 October 1942).