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H-011-3: Guadalcanal: Santa Cruz (Japanese Pyrrhic Victory), 26 October 1942

Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands
Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands: Ships of Task Force 17 maneuver to avoid Japanese air attack, 26 October 1942. Taken by a USS Hornet (CV-8) plane. Hornet is at left with the cruisers San Diego and Juneau close together at right. Several aircraft are visible in the center (80-G-304510).

H-Gram 011, Attachment 3
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
October 2017 

As the Japanese army maneuvered on Guadalcanal for a division-sized assault on the Marine lines with the intent to capture Henderson Field, the Imperial Japanese Navy planned for a concurrent major push to be timed with the capture of Henderson Field. The U.S. Marines (and by now a number of U.S. Army troops) were challenged and spread thin to defend their perimeter, which included Henderson Field and a new fighter strip. The Japanese only had to concentrate their forces at a single point along the perimeter to have a good chance of breaking through. However, in order to do so required the under-supplied Japanese troops to hack their way through miles of virtually impenetrable jungle and swamps. In a previous major attempt (the Battle of Bloody Ridge in mid-September), Japanese units had become separated in the jungle, resulting in uncoordinated piecemeal attacks that were repulsed with extremely high Japanese casualties. The same would be true for the next push in late October, except on an even larger scale of carnage for the Japanese. The Japanese army kept delaying the onset of the attack, resulting in the Japanese navy burning up massive quantities of scarce fuel while waiting for the army to mount their attack, and one medium carrier, Hiyo, had to withdraw to the Japanese stronghold at Truk due to an engine room fire. The Japanese ground commander was so confident of success that he reported that Henderson Field had fallen, which triggered the naval operation, before he had even launched his attack. By the time the Japanese navy learned Henderson had not fallen, it was too late, and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was on.

U.S. naval intelligence and code breakers had significantly recovered from Japanese operational security countermeasures that had adversely affected U.S. ability to accurately predict Japanese intentions in the early part of the Guadalcanal campaign. The new commander of the South Pacific area, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, was well aware that a major Japanese naval offensive was imminent, and also had an accurate assessment of Japanese naval forces that would be involved, including the carriers and aircraft. What intelligence was unable to provide was precise timing, mostly because even the Japanese navy didn’t know, dependent as they were on the actions of the Japanese army. Not being one to sit around and wait for the Japanese to get their act together, Halsey issued orders to Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commander of the U.S. carrier task force, to seek out the Japanese in the waters north of the Solomon Islands chain. Kinkaid didn’t exactly move as fast as Halsey would have liked, but he was already on the move looking for the Japanese when their navy commenced their operation.

The U.S. forces were significantly outnumbered by the Japanese in almost all categories. The Japanese force, under the overall command of Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, was organized into a typically complex Japanese formation of multiple task groups. The primary offensive capability was Carrier Division One, under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, consisting of the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the light carrier Zuiho. A fourth carrier, the medium carrier Junyo, provided cover for the Advanced Force. The Japanese carriers embarked about 200 operational aircraft, consisting of Zero fighters, Val dive bombers, and Kate torpedo bombers. All told, the Japanese task groups included a total of four battleships, eight heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, 25 destroyers, and 16 submarines. An additional 158 land-based aircraft could reach Guadalcanal, but except for long-range reconnaissance seaplanes, could not reach the battle area.

The Japanese still retained an overall qualitative edge in pilots, despite losses at Midway, and virtually all of them were combat veterans. The attrition of experienced U.S. aviators in the opening months of World War II was also very high. Enterprise’s new air group in particular (and Hornet’s torpedo squadron) consisted of very many “green” pilots, led by a few (and relatively junior) experienced pilots. Although Hornet’s lack of combat experience showed clearly at Midway, that experience in combat showed in greatly improved performance at Santa Cruz.

On the U.S. side, Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid was dual-hatted in command of Task Force 61, the combined carrier task force, and Task Force 16, the task force centered on the recently repaired USS Enterprise (CV-6.) Rear Admiral George D. Murray was in command of Task Force 17, centered on the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8.) The American carriers embarked 136 operational aircraft (63 Wildcat fighters, 47 SDB Dauntless dive bombers, and 26 new TBF Avenger torpedo bombers—still carrying the unreliable Mk 13 torpedo, though). Additional U.S. forces included one battleship, USS South Dakota (BB-57). The new South Dakota and the repaired/refitted Enterprise each carried 16 (four quad mounts) of the new Bofors 40-mm anti-aircraft guns, which would prove very effective in the battle. Three heavy cruisers (Portland, Northampton, and Pensacola), three anti-aircraft cruisers (San Juan, San Diego, and Juneau), and 14 destroyers rounded out TF 61. A separate surface action force (TF 64), under the command of Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee and centered on the new battleship USS Washington (BB-56), operated south of Guadalcanal but was not a factor at Santa Cruz, although a couple of Japanese submarines tried to torpedo Washington after the battle.

The U.S. started with an advantage when radar-equipped PBY Catalina flying boats located Japanese forces beginning shortly after midnight on 26 October. At 0033, one of the PBYs dropped a torpedo at the Japanese destroyer Isokaze in the Advance Force, which was avoided. At 0250 another PBY surprised the carrier Zuikaku, dropping four bombs which missed by several hundred yards. Nevertheless, communications challenges prevented Kinkaid from receiving several PBY contact reports, including one at 0310 that provided accurate data on the Japanese carrier force location, composition, course, and speed. Other U.S. ships received the message and incorrectly assumed that Kinkaid had as well. The Japanese navy commanders, however, were in even more of the dark, only learning that the attack by the Japanese army’s Sendai Division on Henderson Field had failed (they did not know just how badly it had failed).

At 0415, well before dawn, Japanese float planes were launched from the Advance Force to search for the American carriers that Kondo and Nagumo suspected were in the area, followed by several Kate torpedo bombers from the carriers acting as scouts. At 0450, Enterprise launched 16 SBD dive bombers (in pairs) on search missions.

At 0512, Kinkaid finally received the 0310 PBY contact report. One pair of Enterprise SBDs sighted a Japanese Kate, which confirmed the presence of Japanese carriers in the vicinity. At 0650, the skipper of Enterprise’s Scout Bomber Squadron (VS-10), Lieutenant Commander James R. Lee, sighted Nagumo’s carriers. Lee and his wingman immediately climbed to attack (two planes against the entire Carrier Division One), issuing a contact report received by both U.S. carriers as well as other U.S. scout bombers, which quickly converged on the area. Japanese fighters drove Lee’s section into the clouds, and did the same to a second pair of SBD scout bombers, but this cat-and-mouse game enabled a third pair to get through the Japanese 20-plane fighter combat air patrol. Lieutenant Stockton B. Strong and Ensign C.B. Irvine each dived on the Japanese light carrier Zuiho at 0740, hitting her with one 500-pound bomb aft, which blew a 50-foot hole in the flight deck, preventing her from recovering aircraft. Zuiho’s damage-control teams responded effectively to keep fires under control, but Zuiho was out of the battle.

At 0612, a Shokaku Kate sighted one of the American carriers, but in keeping with Japanese doctrine to avoid revealing the direction of the Japanese carriers, circled around the U.S. force before issuing a contact report at 0658. Nagumo, mindful of the lessons of Midway, immediately commenced launching a strike, and by 0725 a 62-plane multicarrier strike pushed toward the U.S. carriers. The strike consisted of 20 Shokaku Kate torpedo bombers, 21 Zuikaku Val dive bombers, and Zero fighters from all three carriers.

At 0732, Hornet began launching a strike of 15 SBD dive bombers and six TBF torpedo bombers, escorted by eight Wildcat fighters, which pushed at 0750. At 0747, Enterprise began launching a 20-plane strike of three SBD dive bombers and nine TBF torpedo bombers (one armed only with a camera), escorted by eight Wildcat fighters. The Hornet strike did not wait for the Enterprise strike to join up. By 0810, Hornet was launching her second strike of nine SBDs and nine TBFs (armed with bombs rather than torpedoes), escorted by seven fighters.

Meanwhile, at 0810, Shokaku was launching a second strike of 19 Val dive bombers, escorted by five Zeros. At 0840, Zuikaku launched 16 Kate torpedo bombers, escorted by four Zeroes. During the night, under threat of PBY bomb attack and mindful of Midway lessons, all aircraft in the hangar bays had been disarmed. The Vals on Shokaku were re-armed and spotted on the flight deck 30 minutes before the Kates on Zuikaku completed re-arming with torpedoes. This time, Nagumo did not hesitate; he launched the Vals as soon as they were ready, followed later by the Kates, choosing speed over a combined strike.

By shortly after 0900, 110 Japanese aircraft in three groups were heading toward the U.S. carriers, while 75 American aircraft in three somewhat less-organized groups were heading toward the Japanese carriers. The two groups collided when nine Zuiho Zeros escorting the Japanese strike peeled off and jumped Enterprise’s torpedo-bomber group 80 miles from Enterprise, shooting down two of the TBFs, including VT-10 squadron commander Lieutenant Commander John A. Collett, who was killed, and forcing two others to ditch due to damage (the torpedo from one of these ditched aircraft accidentally hit the destroyer USS Porter as she was rescuing the aircrew, knocking out all propulsion and forcing Porter to be scuttled). The Zeros also shot down three of the four escorting Wildcats, and forced the fourth to return with serious battle damage. Four of the surviving U.S. air crewmen would be captured by the Japanese (unlike at Midway, they were not weighted and thrown overboard). The Japanese lost four Zeroes in the engagement and the remaining five expended all their ammunition, leaving the first Japanese strike with only 12 Zeroes for escort. Wildcat pilot Lieutenant John Leppla, who had performed heroically at the Battle of the Coral Sea (Navy Cross,) accepted battle with the Zeroes from a disadvantageous position in a valiant attempt to protect the TBFs, but he was shot down and killed (second Navy Cross, posthumous).

Hornet’s radar detected the inbound Japanese strike at 60 miles out, and launched eight Wildcats to join eight Hornet Wildcats and 21 Enterprise Wildcats already on combat air patrol. At 0855, the Japanese strike group sighted the Hornet, but Enterprise was hidden in a rain squall, so Hornet bore the full brunt of the attack. Once again, as at Eastern Solomons, U.S. radar fighter direction failed and most of the U.S. fighters wound up too low to engage the Vals before they commenced their dives, while the Kates made effective use of cloud cover to conceal their low-altitude approach.

Hornet and her escorts put up an intense barrage of fire, and parts of destroyed aircraft rained down around Hornet, but the attack by 20 Vals was overwhelming. The first bomb hit Hornet at 0912, penetrating the flight deck near the bridge. A minute later, two bombs hit and penetrated the flight deck between the amidships and aft elevators. At 0914, a damaged Val deliberately crashed into the island, before hitting the flight deck, starting a serious fire. Meanwhile, the Kates divided into two groups, trapping Hornet in a near-perfect hammer-and-anvil attack, so no matter which way she turned she could not avoid presenting her beam to one of the groups of Kates. At 0915, Hornet was hit by two torpedoes on her starboard side. Another damaged Val dive bomber crashed into Hornet forward. By the time the attack ended at 0925, Hornet was listing eight degrees to starboard, dead in the water, with multiple serious fires, and with no power, communications, or fire-main pressure. The Japanese paid dearly for their success, losing 38 of 53 aircraft in the strike, including 17 of 21 Vals and 16 of 20 Kates.

As Hornet was being pounded, her first air strike found and attacked the Japanese carrier Shokaku. After several Hornet SBD dive bombers were shot down by fighters or forced to turn back due to damage, 11 Hornet SBDs led by Lieutenant James Vose rolled in on Shokaku at 0927, hitting her at least four and possibly five times and with numerous near misses. This time, Shokaku’s damage-control teams rapidly put out the fires, but with her flight deck completely mangled Shokaku withdrew from the battle (with Nagumo still embarked) under her own power, although Skokaku’s skipper begged to stay so Shokaku could draw bombs and torpedoes away from Zuikaku. Unfortunately, Hornet’s torpedo bombers did not sight the Japanese carriers and attacked—and missed—the heavy cruiser Tone instead, which was leading a charmed life, having avoided bombs from two of the Enterprise SBD scouts earlier that morning.

Enterprise’s strike group also failed to find the Japanese carriers, unsuccessfully bombing an unidentified Japanese “heavy cruiser” and unsuccessfully attempting to torpedo the heavy cruiser Suzuya. Hornet’s second strike may have fallen for Japanese radio deception when it received a message that no Japanese carriers were present. For whatever reason, the entire 20-plane strike rolled in on the heavy cruiser Chikuma (Tone’s much less lucky sister). At least three bombs were direct hits, including one in a torpedo bank, and several near misses, which caused very high casualties—almost 200 killed. Had Chikuma not jettisoned her Type 93 Long Lance oxygen torpedoes as the air strike commenced, she almost certainly would have suffered the same fate as Mikuma at Midway, when a bomb initiated mortal damage from her own torpedoes.

At around 1000, the second Japanese strike (Shokaku’s 19 Vals) found the U.S. carriers, bypassing the clearly damaged Hornet and going for Enterprise. Yet again, radar fighter direction flopped, and the 21 Wildcats airborne succeeded in shooting down only two Vals before they dove on Enterprise. The first bomb hit Enterprise at 1017. A minute later another bomb hit, which split in two: One part penetrated the flight deck and destroyed five aircraft in the hangar bay, while another part penetrated deep into the ship, killing 40 men. This was followed by a damaging near-miss that blew a dive bomber over the side. Ten of the 19 Vals were shot down.

Around 1030, Zuikaku’s second strike (16 Kate torpedo bombers) commenced an attack on Enterprise and evaded detection until they were only about five miles out. As the Kates split to attack Enterprise from both port and starboard, an Enterprise Wildcat, flown by Lieutenant Stanley W. Vejtasa, downed four of the Kates. He had to fly into U.S. anti-aircraft fire to knock down the last one, which was also the one that crashed into the destroyer USS Smith (see introduction). The group of Kates approaching from starboard dropped five torpedoes, which the skipper of Enterprise, Captain Osborne Hardison, skillfully avoided. Unfortunately (for the Japanese), the attack by five Kates from port was not perfectly timed with those from starboard, and Enterprise gunners shot down several Kates and Hardison dodged the two torpedoes that were dropped at her. At 1053, the heavy cruiser USS Portland, which was out of control due to a steering casualty, was hit by three torpedoes that missed Enterprise, but all failed to explode (rare for Japanese torpedoes). Ten of the 16 Kates were lost.

Shortly after 1100, the carrier Junyo’s first strike (17 Val dive bombers and 12 Zero fighters), launched at 0914, found the U.S. carriers. Skipping the obviously damaged Hornet, they went after Enterprise, commencing their dives at 1121. While Enterprise was heeled over in a hard turn, one bomb bounced off her exposed below-the-waterline hull and then exploded, which among other damage jammed the forward elevator in the up position. (The amidships elevator was jammed in the down position due to the earlier strike.) Another Val hit the anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan (CL-54) with a bomb on her stern, jamming her rudder hard right and causing her to steam in circles before steering control could be regained. At 1129, several Junyo Vals attacked the battleship South Dakota, achieving several near-misses and one direct hit on the number 1 16-inch turret. No one in the turret was injured (or even knew they had been hit), but fragments sprayed topside, killing two and seriously wounding the skipper, Captain Thomas Gatch, who had refused to dive for cover. A communications breakdown shifting control from the bridge to after control resulted in South Dakota being out of control for a short period, narrowly avoiding a collision with Enterprise. After this attack, Enterprise began recovering her aircraft and those of Hornet, a difficult feat with two of three elevators jammed, completing at 1335. Eleven of Junyo’s 17 Vals were shot down or ditched returning to their carrier following the attack on Enterprise.

While these attacks were going on, Vice Admiral Kondo sent his battleships and other surface ships racing toward the American positions, leaving Junyo behind to join up with Nagumo’s carriers, of which Zuikaku was the only one still operational. With both U.S. carriers damaged, Hornet critically, Kinkaid gave the order for Enterprise to set a course to disengage, an action which deprived Hornet of air cover, but by then Enterprise was not in much condition to be of help. One of Hornet’s escorts, the anti-aircraft cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52), misunderstood the order and followed Enterprise, leaving Hornet with less anti-aircraft fire power.

 As the crippled Hornet drifted without power, three destroyers came alongside to help fight the fires, with some success. The first attempt by the heavy cruiser Northampton (CA-26) to take Hornet under tow was interrupted by a lone Val from Shokaku that came out of nowhere and barely missed the destroyer Morris (DD-417) , which was alongside Hornet. Nevertheless, by 1130, Northampton was towing Hornet at three knots out of the battle area until 1450, when yet another inbound Japanese strike was detected.

At 1520, seven Junyo Kate torpedo bombers, escorted by eight Zeros, commenced their attack on Hornet. Northampton cut the tow line when two of the Kates made for her, and narrowly avoided the torpedoes. Hornet’s anti-aircraft gunners still downed at least two Kates, but one torpedo, dropped from very close range, struck Hornet at 1523 and prevented any possibility of regaining power. At 1550, Vice Admiral Halsey issued an order to Kinkaid to withdraw as radio intelligence relayed from Admiral Nimitz indicated the Japanese battleships were converging on Hornet’s position.

Beginning at 1540, Zuikaku’s third strike of the day (two Vals, six Kates and five Zeros—the best that Carrier Division One could muster after the morning’s losses and damage) attacked Hornet. The two Vals achieved a near-miss on Hornet and another near-miss on the anti-aircraft cruiser San Diego (CL-53). The six Kates followed a few minutes later, executing a horizontal bombing attack (apparently Zuikaku was out of torpedoes), one of which hit Hornet with minor damage. By this time, Hornet’s list had reached 18 degrees, and Captain Charles P. Mason gave the order to abandon ship. Mason was the last off at 1627.

At 1703, Junyo’s third strike arrived (four Vals and six Zeroes). Hornet’s escorts still put up a barrage of fire, but one of the Vals hit the now-abandoned Hornet with yet another bomb, which exploded in the hanger bay. Hornet’s escorts rescued the great majority of Hornet’s crew, but 118 were killed or would die from wounds.

At 1810, as the entire American force commenced a high-speed withdrawal, Rear Admiral Murray (CTF 17) having shifted his flag from Hornet to the heavy cruiser Pensacola (CA-24), ordered Hornet scuttled. The destroyer Mustin (DD-413) fired eight carefully aimed torpedoes at Hornet, and provided a demonstration of just how unreliable U.S. torpedoes were; five hit Hornet, but only three detonated. One other exploded prematurely, while the other two ran erratically and completely missed. The destroyer Anderson (DD-411) was then ordered to sink Hornet. Around 1915, Anderson hit Hornet with six of eight torpedoes fired, and still she refused to sink. Mustin (DD-413) and Anderson then fired hundreds of 5-inch rounds into Hornet, with little apparent affect, an action observed by Japanese float planes from the cruisers Suzuya and Isuzu.

At 1920, Admiral Ugaki (Admiral Yamamoto’s chief of staff) sent an order to try and capture and tow Hornet; the message was intercepted, broken, and passed to Admiral Nimitz. By 1945, Kondo’s battleships were steaming at high speed toward Hornet, and Rear Admiral Tanaka’s destroyers even faster. At 2040, Mustin and Anderson, dogged by Japanese float planes, gave up trying to sink Hornet when radar detected inbound Japanese ships. By 2100, two Japanese destroyers arrived close to Hornet and determined that it would not be possible to tow her. After milling about for a while, each Japanese destroyer fired two Long Lance torpedoes (which all worked), and even then it took until 0135 before Hornet finally went down.

By 2400, Kondo was convinced that the Americans were in high-speed retreat, an assessment confirmed by several Japanese submarines in the pre-dawn hours. With his fuel already at a critical state, Kondo determined there was no need for further pursuit and he commenced a return to Truk. During the night, the radar-equipped PBY Catalinas dogged the Japanese. At 0055 one of the PBYs bombed, hit, and damaged the destroyer Teruzuki, while at 0130 another attempted unsuccessfully to torpedo the carrier Junyo.

After the battle, the Japanese initially claimed to have sunk three carriers, a battleship, a cruiser, a destroyer, and a submarine. Imperial General Headquarters inflated the claim further, to four U.S. carriers sunk and more than 200 aircraft downed. The real tally of Hornet sunk, Enterprise badly damaged, and destroyer Porter sunk by a U.S. torpedo, was bad enough. The U.S. lost 81 aircraft (including 28 aboard ship and 28 ditched, and 25 shot down by fighters or anti-aircraft fire). Twenty-four U.S. pilots and aircrew were lost, including one squadron commander and four POWs. U.S. ships lost 240 killed or missing.

The U.S. Navy did not claim to have sunk any Japanese ships at Santa Cruz, nor did they. They did claim to have shot down 115 Japanese aircraft. The real total was 97, including 65 shot down, 29 ditched due to damage, and three lost aboard ship. Only 86 aircraft remained flyable of the 102 that survived the battle (out of 199 operational aircraft at the start). Most critically, the Japanese lost 148 pilots and air crewmen, including two of three dive-bomber leaders, three torpedo squadron leaders, and almost all section leaders. Over half the Japanese aircrew who attacked Pearl Harbor was now dead, including an even higher percentage of squadron and senior leaders. Japanese naval aviation would never recover. Vice Admiral Nagumo’s reward for his victory was to be consigned to shore duty.

On the American side, the new 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns proved their worth, accounting for the majority of lost and damaged Japanese aircraft; the lesson as written by Kinkaid was that there cannot be too many 40-mm and 20-mm guns on any type of ship. In the following months and years, U.S. ships would be carpeted with such guns. The failure of fighter radar direction resulted in intensive study of how to better integrate radar, sensors, and communications into a coherent battle picture. Within a few months the result would be something close to a modern combat information center (CIC).

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Published: Fri May 03 15:04:25 EDT 2019