The battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (26 October 1942) was an indecisive carrier battle during the Guadalcanal campaign that ended with one American carrier sunk and two Japanese carriers damaged, but that had little impact on the fighting on the island.
In mid-October the Japanese launched a rare coordinated attack on Guadalcanal. The Army launched a divisional counterattack against the American lines, and put the airfield at Henderson Field under real pressure. The Japanese Navy brought together a powerful fleet, built around the carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku, Junyo and Zuiho, with eight battleships, eight cruisers and twenty-eight destroyers.
This fleet, which was to operate in the waters north and north-east of the Solomon Islands, had two tasks. It was to protect against any attempt by the US Navy to interfere with the fighting on Guadalcanal, and it was to wait for the capture of Henderson Field and then fly a powerful air group into the new Japanese base. This fleet, under Vice-Admiral Kondo, had been in the area since 22 October. On 24 October Kondo had considered withdrawing to resupply, but early on 25 October he received a message from Guadalcanal announcing that victory was imminent.
The Americans were outnumbered at sea. They had two carriers groups in the area, built around the recently repaired Enterprise and the Hornet, but those two groups only joined up on 24 October. The Enterprise group (Task Force 16, Admiral Kinkaid) also contained the battleship South Dakota, one heavy cruiser, one light antiaircraft cruiser and eight destroyers. The Hornet group (Task Force 17) also contained two heavy cruisers, two light antiaircraft cruisers and six destroyers.
The Americans also had a new commander in the South Pacific. Admiral William Halsey, who had an aggressive reputation, replaced Admiral Ghormley. On 24 August Halsey lived up to his reputation when he ordered Kinkaid to take his fleet and sweep around the Santa Cruz Islands (250 miles to the south-east of the Solomon Islands) and search for any Japanese ships.
At noon on 25 August Catalina flying boats found the Japanese fleet 360 miles to the north-west of Kinkaid, who was then to the east of the Santa Cruz Islands. The Japanese ships were reported to be heading south-east. Kinkaid sent out scout planes and a strike force, but the Japanese reversed course before they arrived, and there was no contact. Kinkaid headed north-west, and at midnight on 25-26 August the Japanese were found 300 miles to his north-west. This time the Japanese were heading south, to bring themselves within range of the expected victory at Henderson Field.
The Japanese fleet was split into three formations. On the morning of 26 August all three were steaming south, and were in the seas to the north of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Nearest to the Americans was the Vanguard Group of the Striking Force, under Read-Admiral Hiroaki Abe. This contained two battleships, three cruisers and a screen of destroyers.
About sixty miles to the north was Admiral Nagumo's Striking Force. This contained the large aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, the smaller carrier Zuiho, a cruiser and eight destroyers. Nagumo's flagship was the Shokaku. He had a mixed force of Zeroes and strike aircraft prepared for action on his three carrier decks at dawn on 26 August.
Admiral Kondo was another 120 miles to the north-west, with the new carrier Junyo, two battleships and four cruisers. Kondo's flagship was the cruiser Atago.
At 6.30am two scout bombers from the Enterprise found the Vanguard Group, and at 6.50am two more scouts found the main carrier group. The Japanese discovered one of the American carriers at about the same time, and at 6.58 Nagumo ordered his aircraft into the air. The Japanese attack of around 125 aircraft was away by 7.10am. A second attack wave of 44 aircraft was in the air by 8.22am.
Soon after this the scout bombers justified their name, when the two that had found the aircraft carrier carried out a surprise attack on the Zuiho. Both scored hits and blew a hole in her flight deck. Although she wasn't critically damaged, the Zuiho was now out of the battle.
The Americans now launched their first attack waves. Hornet was quickest to respond and by 7.30 she had fifteen dive bombers, six Avenger torpedo-bombers and eight Wildcats in the air. The Enterprise was slower, and her force of three Dauntless dive bombers, eight Avengers and eight Wildcats wasn't in the air until 8.00. The Hornet sent off a second wave of nine dive-bombers, nine torpedo-planes and nine fighters at 8.15.
At this point in the war the Japanese were still better at carrier warfare. All three of their active carriers were able to combine their aircraft into a single major strike force, while the American aircraft were split into three separate small forces (29 aircraft in the first, 19 aircraft in the second and 27 in the third)
The American strike was weakened before it even reached the Japanese carriers. The two forces were on opposite courses, and the Japanese spotted the nineteen aircraft from the Enterprise. Twelve Zeros intercepted them in mid-journey, and four Avengers and four Wildcats were shot down in exchange for three Zeroes. This left three dive bombers, four Avengers and four Wildcats in the Enterprise group.
The American attacks didn't go well. The survivors of the Enterprise group and the second Hornet group both attacked the Vanguard Group, which lacked carriers. Most of the fighters and the torpedo-bombers from the first Hornet group also made the same mistake. The last of these attacks damaged the cruiser Chikuma.
The dive bombers from the first Hornet attack were the only ones to find their intended targets. They spotted the smoke from the Zuiho, flew towards it and discovered the main Japanese carrier force. They concentrated their efforts against the Shokaku. Heavy Japanese gunfire and the efforts of their Zeroes shot down or damaged four of the fifteen dive bombers, but the rest of the group carried out a successful attack and hit the Japanese carrier with at least three 1,000lb bombs. They exploded in her hangers and caused damage that took nine months to repair.
The Japanese attacks were more successful. Their first wave found the two American carriers operating in separate groups ten miles apart. The Japanese focused on the Hornet, which had the smaller escort group. American fighters managed to intercept many of the Japanese aircraft but fifteen dive-bombers and twenty torpedo-bombers broke through the fighter screen. American gunfire then accounted for twelve of the dive-bombers and at least ten of the torpedo bombers, but the surviving Japanese aircraft inflicted heavy damage on the Hornet.
The first bomb hit her on the starboard side. Next came two bombs carried by the Japanese squadron leader. His aircraft had been badly damaged by gunfire, and he used what control he had left to fly into the flight deck where the two bombs exploded. This was followed by two torpedo hits in the engineering spaces, which made any efforts at saving the ship much harder. The Hornet was now dead in the water, and suffered three more bomb hits. One exploded on the flight deck but two penetrated deep into the ship, with one exploding on and one below the fourth deck. Finally another damaged Japanese aircraft, this time a Nakajima B5N 'Kate' that had been set on fire, flew into her forward gun gallery and exploded.
The Hornet was now on fire and critically damaged. At this point the second Japanese attack wave arrived, but chose to attack the undamaged Enterprise. The Enterprise's fighters were unable to stop the Japanese dive bombers. Anti-aircraft guns were more effective, but two Japanese bombs hit near the forward elevator, which was knocked out of service. The Enterpriseremained under full control, and was able to avoid nine torpedoes. The flight deck was quickly repaired and she was soon loaded with her own aircraft and survivors from the Hornet.
A third Japanese strike wave, made up of 29 aircraft from the Junyo was next to attack. This time the South Dakota suffered the worst damage, taking a bomb to her forward turret. The cruiser San Juan was also damaged.
Efforts to save the Hornet went on all day, but had to be abandoned. The Americans then attempted to sink her with torpedoes and gunfire, but without success. On the night of 26-27 October the Japanese reached the area and completed the job, sending the Hornet to the bottom.
The Americans also lost the destroyer Porter (DD-356), which was hit by a torpedo that was dislodged from a crashed American aircraft. She was badly damaged and had to be abandoned by her crew and finished off by the Shaw.
By the end of the day both fleets had left the area. Kinkaid pulled back because he no longer had any operational carriers and thus couldn't hope to damage the Japanese fleet. The Japanese withdrew because the last major attack on Guadalcanal had failed, and there was thus no reason for them to stay.
On the face of it the Americans suffered the worse losses during the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands. The Hornet was sunk and the Enterprise knocked out of operations. This meant that there were no longer any operational American aircraft carriers in the South Pacific. The Americans had also lost 20 aircraft to enemy action and 54 to other causes.
None of the Japanese carriers had actually been sunk, but two had been badly damaged. The Skokaku would take nine months to repair, so would be unavailable for the rest of the campaign on Guadalcanal and the start of the American offensive in mid 1943. Zuiho also needed major repairs. Of more long term significance was the loss of 100 aircraft and their experienced crews. The Japanese lacked the training facilities to make up these serious losses. They had enough experienced crews to equip the smaller carriers Junyo and Hiro, but the undamaged Zuikaku would be out of action until fresh aircrews could be found. This meant that the Japanese wouldn't have any aircraft carriers available during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (13-15 November 1942), the largest and most important of the six naval battles around that island.