A small article about the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands:
A small article about the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands:
From October 25-26, the Japanese and American carrier forces engaged each other around the Santa Cruz Islands as part of the Guadalcanal campaign. The battle formed a vital element of the third major Japanese attempt to recapture Henderson Airfield on Guadalcanal and annihilate the American forces on the island. Eager to achieve victory after the two failed attempts revealed the strength of the American ground opposition on the island the Japanese developed an ambitious plan with the still considerable resources at its disposal. In turn, the Americans struggled to hold with their limited resources although that was beginning to change as reinforcements arrived from the US west coast to strengthen the forces in the area. This eventually led to the Battle of Henderson Field for the land forces and the Battle of Santa Cruz for the naval forces. Though the Americans triumphed in the Battle of Henderson Field, it might not have mattered if the Japanese won spectacularly at the Battle of Santa Cruz. In reality, Santa Cruz was a repeat of Coral Sea in terms of the Japanese winning a tactical victory while losing the strategic one. The carrier battle, which in retrospect was Japan’s last chance to win a decisive carrier engagement, shredded an enormous portion of the highly trained pre-war Japanese carrier air groups that opened the war with Pearl Harbor. In addition, the results of the battle ensured that the Americans would continue to hold the island until decisive month of November.
Nearly eight months after Pearl Harbor and two months after sinking four of Japan’s largest carriers in the victory of Midway, the US Navy went on to the offensive against Imperial Japan. Choosing the Solomon Islands as the first target under the name of Operation Watchtower, the US Navy planned to hit the island of Tulagi. However, in response to discovering the Japanese constructing an airfield on an island called Guadalcanal with the potential to threaten supply lines to Australia, the US Navy switched most of its focus to the larger island instead. The invasion of the island, which took place on August 7, 1942, surprised the Japanese as they were instead busy with operations in New Guinea. Although they turned to focus on the threat, the Japanese reacted at first in a mediocre fashion, particularly on the ground as they sent in penny packets of troops against a large US ground force. Despite that, it did lead to several bruising battles between both sides on both land and sea. Eventually the struggle involved the carrier forces of both sides as they engaged each other in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. In that battle, the US Navy defeated a Japanese naval offensive by sinking a light carrier the IJN Ryujo along with several smaller warships. In return, the Japanese lost many carrier planes and pilots while only moderately damaging USS Enterprise.
After the failure of the August and September ground battles, the Japanese army and navy held a conference at the large naval base at Truck on October 1942 to hammer out a new strategy to defeat the Americans. At first, both the army and navy clashed on how to proceed with the army demanding large convoys for the supply operations and the navy sticking to the use of destroyers due to the fear of air attacks. Soon the arguments heated up to the point that the commander of the Japanese 17th Army, Harukichi Hyakutake, promised to go to Guadalcanal and die there if he had to.
When informed the results of the meeting from an army official, Admiral Irosoku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, promised the support of the entire fleet to retake the island. He would quickly make good that promise as the Japanese army and navy began to throw a large portion of their resources into the struggle for the island and its vital airfield. Despite interference by the US Navy and US airpower on Guadalcanal, the Japanese successfully poured troops and supplies onto the island. In turn, the Japanese navy attempted to weaken the American presence on the island with air attacks, shelling by ground artillery and naval bombardments, which proved at times devastating to the American defenders. By the time the ground buildup was complete in mid-October, the Japanese had 20,000 troops on the island facing 23,000 US marines and army troops. With a large initial force of five carriers under their command, Vice-Admiral Nobutake Kondo and Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo had orders to provide air cover for the ground assault. If any American naval forces rushed in to assist their ground forces on Guadalcanal, they would blunt all attempts and destroy them. Many Japanese commanders, including Yamamoto, believed that with the forces deployed in the battle zone, the Japanese would be able to avenge their disgraceful defeat at Midway.
From the outset, problems had intervened to throw the Japanese plans into confusion. The ground forces had struggled to get into position through nearly impassable terrain and had asked for several delays. At first, the navy reluctantly agreed but eventually ordered the army to get on with the attack, as the Japanese fleet could not remain on station indefinitely. This resulted from a fuel shortage that came out from deploying so much of the Japanese fleet at sea. In fact, the situation became so critical that Japanese tankers had to draw fuel from the super-battleship Yamato and the battleship Mutsu at Truk and transfer it to the rest of the fleet. To add to the trouble, one of the Japanese carriers, the Hiyo, returned to Truk after she developed engine trouble, which reduced the number of carriers available for an immediate battle from five to four.
When the army attacked on October 23, it moved in to engage at staggered intervals with attacks from the east, south and then west of the American perimeter. After 3 days of heavy fighting and strikes from Japanese artillery and airpower, the American forces held their ground. The problems of coordination also extended to the navy as it dispatched a small surface action group to support the assault after having mistakenly received word that the ground forces had taken the airfield. At first, they had success as they ran into miscellaneous US surface units and dispatched them in short order. However soon they ran into trouble as US artillery damaged the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki and forced the rest to withdraw. As they headed towards relative safety, US air attacks from Henderson Field eventually sank the Japanese light cruiser Yura.
With the failure of the ground attack, Nagumo attempted to head north as he felt that remaining in the area with the Americans in control of Henderson field was exceptionally dangerous. After PBYs spotted him and the memory of Midway on his mind, he had further incentive to do so. However, orders from his superiors forced Nagumo back down to the south but he headed back north again, a process that repeated itself several times. Eventually Yamamoto intervened and ordered Nagumo to engage the US carriers at all costs.
On the American side, the US Pacific Fleet rushed reinforcements to the area despite the agreed strategy of defeating Nazi Germany first. Already they had rushed in ground reinforcements, air units, several major warships and submarine units into the area and more were on their way thanks to orders from US president Franklin D. Roosevelt despite the German First strategy. In addition at the same time, Admiral Nimitz, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, replaced the main commander in the region, the cautious Admiral Ghormley, with the redoubtable Admiral Halsey, a move that immediately raised morale amongst US forces as they all knew his reputation as a fighter. After he received an update on the situation from the commanders on the ground, Halsey promised that the Navy would do whatever it could to help the Marines on the island.
Unfortunately, in terms of the number of carriers available, the Japanese outnumbered their American counterparts. In September, Japanese submarines achieved revenge for the loss in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons by damaging the USS Saratoga and sinking the USS Wasp. After the destruction of the Wasp, and with Enterprise and Saratoga in Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had an immediate advantage of 5 to 1 in terms of carriers over the Americans who only had the USS Hornet. By the time of the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, the odds changed in favor for the Americans as the repaired Enterprise rushed back in to join up with the Hornet. Still though, the Japanese outnumbered the Americans 2 to one in carrier numbers. In terms of carrier planes, the Japanese carriers carried 199 planes against the 136 American planes though the skills of their pilots were not as high as earlier in the war. The two America carriers had impressive support vessels such as the battleship USS South Dakota and the light anti-aircraft cruiser USS San Juan along with the all-important Henderson Field and the airbase at Espiritu Santo to meet the next Japanese offensive. However, they had problems of their own in the fact that most of the American pilots were still inexperienced and that they still could not coordinate an effective carrier airstrike. Furthermore they would have problems in fighter control as it was run from Enterprise and had she had inferior radar equipment and inexperienced personnel to coordinate fighter defense. Despite their foes outnumbering them in carriers and aircraft and despite lacking trained pilots, the Americans were also eager to engage the Japanese. In fact, when he learned of the presence of Japanese carriers in the area, Admiral William F. Halsey transmitted a simple order to his carrier forces, “Strike, repeat Strike”. It was an order the fleet welcomed and would soon get a chance to follow up on.
In preparation for a showdown with American carriers, the Japanese fleet split their forces into three groups named the Advanced, Main Body, and Vanguard. The Advanced Force, under the direct command of Kondo had large surface assets as well as the carrier Junyo among them. The Main Body, commanded by Nagumo, consisted of the three remaining carriers: Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Zuiho, which operated some distance behind Kondo. The Vanguard Force, under the direct command of Rear-Admiral Hiroaki Abe, would also deploy forward of the main Japanese carriers and would assist Kondo in drawing some of the American fire away from Nagumo. Created immediately after the battle of Midway as an attempt to make the aircraft carrier a true centerpiece of the Japanese Combined Fleet, some Japanese naval commanders perhaps hoped unintentionally that disposition of the battleships and cruisers would divert fire away from the carriers. In the particular case of this battle, they would not be disappointed.
Both sides started the battle by launching scout planes to search for the other while getting their main attack groups ready. For the Americans, Enterprise launched several groups of two SBD Dauntless armed with 500 pound bombs on the off chance that they could get in quick hits when they found the enemy. They would not be disappointed as two groups of such bombers found the Japanese as they finished launching their planes for the attack on the US carriers. Although the Zeros of the CAP (combat air patrol) dealt with one group, another group which arrived over the area an hour later took advantage of the hole in the Japanese air defenses to target the Zuiho and shut down her flight operations with two bomb hits on her flight deck
However the Enterprise’s scout planes were too late as the Japanese scout planes found their targets and soon both the opposing carrier fleets rushed to get their air groups into the sky. Remembering well the mistakes of Midway, the Japanese still managed to beat their counterparts by 20 minutes as they launched 110 aircraft in two strike waves (62 in the first wave from all three carriers and 48 in the second wave from Shokaku and Zuikaku) against their American counterparts. In turn, the American launched 73 planes but they headed towards their targets in a piecemeal fashion of three airwaves. As the opposing air groups came across each other, several of Zuhio’s fighters peeled off from the main force and took revenge for the damage on Zuhio by downing a substantial number of Enterprise’s planes and forcing others to return to the carrier. However the actions of Zuhio's fighters reduced the fighter cover for the Japanese strike force.
When the American airstrike approached the Japanese fleet, a swarm of Japanese Zeros rose up to greet them. Quickly breaking through the small American fighter cover, the Zeros savaged the bombers. Soon the anti-aircraft fire from Japanese ships added another obstacle that the Americans had to overcome to get to the carriers. The resistance that the Americans encountered became so fierce that when the battleships and cruisers came into their view, some of the American strike aircraft began to break formation and engage targets of opportunity. However, Hornet’s SBD Dauntless held on long enough to engage the Japanese carriers, scoring between four to six bomb hits on Shokaku and knocking her out of the battle. Another group of Hornet’s bombers arrived over the Japanese fleet and flying towards any target of opportunity damaged the cruiser Chikuma with three bombs, forcing her away from the battle as well. Enterprise fared badly as her planes suffered heavy casualties and although they engaged the Japanese fleet, Enterprise’s planes scored no hits on Japanese warships.
Like the Americans, the Japanese air strikes ran into a hail of resistance from the AA defenses as well as a large number of American fighters. Still the four airstrikes that the Japanese carriers launched that day inflicted tremendous damage on the Americans. The mishandling of the American fighter control did not help much as it placed the American fighter cover mostly in the wrong locations and altitude as the Japanese arrived. Those F4F Wildcat fighters that did arrive in the correct sector found themselves facing a staggering number of Japanese planes. They did what damage as they could but were eventually overwhelmed as the Japanese attack force broke through and engaged their main targets with only the American anti-aircraft gunners as well as ship captains to stop them.
The Hornet got the worse lot as the Japanese launched their most lethal attack on a carrier during the entire war. In a combined assault four bombs, two torpedoes and even two planes, still armed with their payloads, crashed into the carrier. Though badly damaged, the Hornet and her escorts made the Japanese pay heavily for their success as they lost 30+ planes out of the first strike wave. After the first wave departed, repair crews swarmed back on board in an attempt to save the carrier. The second and third Japanese strike waves soon followed on behind and after seeing Hornet burning badly, they turned and headed towards Enterprise, which had managed to hide in a squall during the attack on the Hornet. While Enterprise suffered damage with two bombs and several more near misses as well as torpedoes that nearly missed her, she avoided the combined attacks that devastated Hornet. Despite the damage, she still managed to recover her own planes as well as those from her sister carrier. To add to the carnage the Americans suffered thus far, a freak accident on a heavily damaged American TBF Avenger that crashed into the water let loose its torpedo. It quickly slammed into the American destroyer USS Porter with heavy damage and in short order; the American task force commander scuttled her. The South Dakota and the San Juan along with two destroyers suffered damage but they put up strong anti-aircraft fire and helped in inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese airstrikes aimed at Enterprise. With the situation of her sister carrier critical and badly damaged herself, Enterprise immediately evacuated from the battle zone. Hornet would eventually not escape the carnage of the day as the undamaged carriers Zuikaku and Junyo launched their remaining planes in two more airstrikes. Though they were small in comparison to the three previous airstrikes, they scored two more bombs and one more torpedo hit on the carrier, forcing the Americans to abandon her. Two American destroyers attempted to scuttle Hornet with 400 rounds of 5in gunfire and 16 torpedoes to no success. They fled from the Hornet as darkness and Japanese surface forces closed in and eventually two Japanese destroyers sank the carrier with four of their own torpedoes.
With the loss of the Hornet and the damage to the Enterprise, the US Navy retired rapidly from the battle zone. The Japanese attempted to pursue but a combination of heavy aircraft losses and very low fuel on the ships persuaded them to retire from the battle as well with a night-time torpedo attack by PBYs adding extra incentive to do so.
Although the battle was a clear tactical victory for the Japanese, they paid heavily with the loss of 90+ aircraft and more importantly their well-trained pilots. A large portion of the losses was squadron and section leaders and some of them were of the quickly dwindling pool of Pearl Harbor veterans. One of the most important examples in this case was Lieutenant Commander Shigeru Murata who led the torpedo bombers during the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the Americans, although they only had, the Enterprise left in action and lost between 70 and 80 aircraft (although a large portion of the crews survived); they held the supply line to their forces on Guadalcanal. Temporary repairs at Nomuea allowed Enterprise to return to action in early November, where her planes contributed to the heavy losses the Japanese suffered in the decisive surface battles that took place. The two remaining undamaged Japanese carriers suffered horrendous losses in planes, which knocked them out of combat in the immediate future. Juyno did return to action in early November where she provided air cover for the November surface battles though she did not find Enterprise. When the other Japanese carriers finally returned to action in January 1943, the battle for Guadalcanal ended with a Japanese strategic defeat with the Japanese carriers providing distant cover for the Japanese ground forces from the island. From this point on, the long hard march towards Tokyo was on with an increasingly powerful American carrier force, fueled by American industry, leading the way. The USN and IJN would fight one more carrier battle at the Philippine Sea in June 1944, which proved to be the end of the Japanese carrier force. By the end of 1944, Enterprise would play her part in destroying the Zuikaku and Zuhio at Leyte Gulf while Shokaku fell to American submarines at the Philippine Sea and Junyo would end the war badly damaged at Sasebo Naval base.
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Morrison, Samuel Elliot. The Two Ocean War: a short history of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Boston: Little, Brown, 1963
Parshall, Jonathan; Tully, Anthony. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books. 2005.
Reynolds, Clark G. The Carrier War. Alexandria, Virgina. Time Life Books, 1981.
Stille, Mark. Imperial Japanese Navy Aircraft Carriers 1921-1945. Oxford. Osprey Publishing, 2005.
Stille, Mark. US Navy Aircraft Carriers 1921-1945: Prewar classes. Oxford. Osprey Publishing, 2005.
Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Enterprise, 1936-1945. New York: Random House, 1961
Selected further information on the web.
- The Battle of Santa Cruz, October 25th, 1942
A description of the battle. It served as one of my starting points on learning about the battle.
- USS Enterprise CV-6
The most decorated ship of the Second World War, Enterprise changed the very course of a war she seemed to have been expressly created for.
- Nihon Kaigun
A website that focuses on the Japanese Imperial Navy of World War II.
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