Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

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The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, also known as the Battle of Santa Cruz, was a naval and aerial battle between Japanese and American forces in late October. It was part of the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II, and the fourth carrier battle of that war. Two Japanese aircraft carriers were damaged, but the American carrier USS Hornet was lost and the Enterprise was damaged.

The Americans had landed on Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, capturing the airfield under construction there. They completed the airfield, now dubbed Henderson Field, and had been grimly hanging on to it ever since. Japanese and American carriers had already clashed over Gaudalcanal in late August in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, in which the USS Enterprise was damaged and had to go to Pearl Harbor for repairs. On August 31, the carrier USS Saratoga was damaged by a Japanese submarine attack, and on September 15, Japanese submarines scored again, sinking the aircraft carrier USS Wasp and damaging the battleship North Carolina.[1] This left the USS Hornet the sole operational US aircraft carrier in the area. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned to send his carriers to Guadalcanal to sink the Hornet, achieve local naval superiority, and support a planned offensive on Henderson Field.

The Japanese fleet, under Vice-Admiral Nagumo, included four carriers (fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the smaller carriers Junyo and Zuiho), four battleships (the Hiei, Kirishima, Kongo, and Haruna), and almost forty cruisers and destroyers. Opposing them were the Hornet, the recently returned Enterprise, the battleship South Dakota, 6 cruisers, and 14 destroyers, all under the command of the aggressive Vice-Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. The Americans could also call on the services of the 60-odd aircraft at Henderson Field.

On the early morning of October 26, both sides had scout planes in the air, and hit pay dirt almost simultaneously. The Americans were able to attack immediately, however, as their scout planes, SBD Dauntless dive bombers, carried one 500 lb bomb each. When two Dauntlesses from the Enterprise found the fleet, they attacked the nearest Japanese carrier, the Zuiho, and scored two direct hits. The Zuiho didn’t sink, but the holes in her flight deck left her unable to launch or recover planes. Both bombers escaped. When strike planes arrived 2 hours later from the Enterprise and Hornet, they put five bombs into the Shokaku, heavily damaging her. A second strike group from the Hornet also damaged the cruiser Chikuma.[2]

The first Japanese strike arrived over the American carriers at about 0900. The Enterprise was under a rainsquall, so the Japanese concentrated on the Hornet. The Japanese took fearful losses, but hit the carrier with 4 bombs, 2 torpedoes, and 2 Japanese planes that were hit and intentionally flew into her. A second wave came later that morning, and hit the Enterprise with three bombs, in addition to scoring hits on the South Dakota and the cruiser San Juan.[3]

Although Hornet was badly hurt, it looked like she could be saved, and was taken under tow. However, the Japanese attacked again, with planes from the Zuikaku and Junyo, and hit the carrier with a torpedo and two bombs. The damage was now too much and the decision was made to abandon the carrier. American destroyers attempted to sink her, but she proved too resilient, and the fleet was forced to withdraw before finishing the job. The Hornet was finally sent to the bottom by torpedoes launched by Japanese destroyers.

With the sinking of the Hornet and the withdrawal of the Enterprise for repairs, the U.S. was left without an operational carrier in the area. Fortunately, the Imperial Navy had lost so many planes (almost 100, vs. 70 on the American side[4]), that it was unable to take advantage of the situation. Japanese and American carriers wouldn’t face each other again until the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 20 months later.

The battleships Hiei and Kirishima were later sunk in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

References

  1. Submarine Warfare, An Illustrated History, by Antony Preston, Thunder Bay Press, 1998
  2. Santa Cruz: October 26, 1942
  3. A History of War at Sea, by Helmut Pemsel, Naval Institute Press, 1975
  4. Oxford Guide to World War II, ed. by I.C.B. Dear, Oxford University Press, 1995

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