OK — entering the homestretch of the Solomons Campaign.  Before we get to the final sea battles of that campaign, we need to go back and capture the Battle of Santa Cruz for the pivotal impact it had on the campaign.  Part I is presented here with II and III to follow in the coming week. – SJS

USS_Hornet_at_Santa_Cruz

. . . And then there was one.

At 1025, Enterprise emerging from a rainsquall turned east to begin recovery of her search aircraft.  Topside, flightdeck crews beheld a sight that made their hearts sink.  There was Hornet, off to the southwest, dead in the water.  Rising above her, like an accusing finger, was a huge column of of thick, black smoke, marking her position to the enemy.  One needn’t be up in the flag plot or bridge to grasp the implications — with Wasp lost to Japanese torpedoes earlier in the month and Saratoga out of action with her own torpedo damage, there was just one carrier left in the southwest Pacific to hold the line.

And the Japanese knew it…

Prologue

The situation at Guadalcanal had become unbearable for the Japanese and over the course of the late summer and early fall forces were gradually landed with a view to remove the Allied presence and reclaim the airfield.  On 13 Oct, a Japanese force of two battleships, a light cruiser and eight destroyers began shelling Henderson field near midnight.  The following night was a repeat.  While there was little in the way of personnel casualties, most of the aircraft on the field were destroyed.  As a result, a subsequent landing by Japanese land forces was only lightly opposed by a single SBD from Henderson and even though SBDs from nearby Espiritu Santo and supporting B-17’s sank three transports, the majority of Japanese forces were able to put ashore.

Over the next two weeks, the Japanese forces pressed their way across Guadalcanal towards the objective at Henderson.  Bereft of most of their heavy gear, they could rely on artillery support from the ships of Yamamoto’s force which held local supremacy over the seas.  In their minds, any other shortfalls would be more than made up by their own warrior spirit in the face of the American defenders whom they knew to be hanging by a slim lifeline of support.

Between the 23rd and 24th of October, Japanese land forces deployed around Henderson Field, looking for one final, overwhelming push to retake the field.  At sea, Japanese naval forces were gathered, centered again around the carriers and in numbers not seen since the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Just as the forces ashore would rid the island of the American invaders, Yamamoto’s naval forces would engage the numerically inferior American Navy and eliminate it as a threat.

The time for confrontation was drawing nigh –

Slide1

Order of Battle – US

In Pearl, Enterprise was wrapping up a hasty repair from her damage during the East Solomons battle.  With a new air wing (Air Wing 10) full of fresh new faces but led by battle hardened veterans like their CAG, CDR John Crommelin, the Big E sped to the southwest, towards Guadalcanal to join up with Hornet and together, try to stave off the Japanese forces.  Joining her would be the new, fast battleship, South Dakota, herself optimized for speed and AA supporting fire.  Changes in task force command were afoot as well as ADM William F. “Bull” Halsey was returning to action as Commander, South Pacific (COMSOPAC).  RADM Kincaid broke his flag on Enterprise while her former CO, RADM Murray was aboard Hornet.

On October 25th, Enterprise joined Hornet with RADM Kincaid assuming command of the combined force:

Enterprise Group (Task Force 16)

  • 1 carrier: Enterprise (Rear Admiral Kinkaid)–CAPT Osborne B. Hardison.
  • 1 battleship: South Dakota–CAPT Thomas L. Gatch.
  • 1 heavy cruiser: Portland (CAPT Mahlon S. Tisdale, Commander Cruisers)–CAPT Laurance T. DuBose.
  • 1 antiaircraft light cruiser: San Juan–CAPT James E. Maher.
  • 8 destroyers:
    • Porter (CAPT Charles P. Cecil, Commander Destroyers)–LCDR David G. Roberts.
    • Mahan–LCDR Rodger W. Simpson.
    • Cushing–LCDR Christopher Noble.
    • Preston–LCDR Max C. Stormes.
    • Smith–LCDR Hunter Wood, Jr.
    • Maury–LCDR Geizer L. Sims.
    • Conyngham –LCDR Henry C. Daniel.
    • Shaw–LCDR W. Glenn Jones.

Hornet Group (Task Force 17)

  • 1 carrier: Hornet (Rear Admiral Murray)–CAPT Charles P. Mason.
  • 2 heavy cruisers:
    • Northampton (F, Rear Admiral Howard H. Good, Commander Cruisers)–CAPT Willard A. Kitts, III.
    • Pensacola–CAPT Frank L. Lowe.
  • 2 antiaircraft light cruisers:
    • San Diego–CAPT Benjamin P. Perry
    • Juneau–CAPT Lyman K. Swenson.
  • 6 destroyers:
    • Morris (CDR Arnold E. True, Commander Destroyers)–LCDR Randolph B. Boyer.
    • Anderson–LCDR Richard A. Guthrie.
    • Hughes–LCDR Donald J. Ramsey.
    • Mustin–LCDR Wallis P. Petersen.
    • Russell–LCDR Glenn R. Hartwig.
    • Barton–LCDR Douglas H. Fox.

Between the two CV’s were about 170 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, TBF Avenger torpedo bombers and F4F Wildcats.

Order of Battle: Japan

Yamamoto’s forces consisted of three groups – Advanced, main Body and Vanguard:

Advanced

Commander: Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo in CA Atago (also overall commander)

  • CV- Junyo
  • 2 x Battleships (BB)
  • 4 x Heavy Cruisers (CA)
  • 1 x Light Cruiser (CL)
  • 10 x Destroyers (DD)

Main Body

Commander: Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo in CV Shokaku

  • 3 x CV: Shokaku, Zuikaku and Zuiho
  • 1 x Heavy Cruiser
  • 8 x Destroyers

Vanguard

Commander: Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe in BB Hiei

  • 2 x Battleships
  • 3 x Heavy Cruisers
  • 1 x Light Cruiser
  • 7 x Destroyers

Available aircraft: ca. 200

GuadBattleOct20-25

Preliminary Action

On the beach, Japanese forces began their attacks on Henderson Field on the 24th.  Despite their overwhelming numbers, with all but one battalion making contact with the Marines, the Japanese assault still fails.  Lack of artillery, jungle terrain and heavy rain showers with approaching darkness all conspired to prevent synchronization of the attacks.  Still, at that, the determined defense of Henderson was on.  Because of the inability to synchronize attacks, the fighting degraded into a series of smaller unit encounters, all in the dark.  On one side of the field, most of one Japanese Army company is destroyed when it became entangled in heavy barbed wire placed in front of the Marine lines and then hit with everything the Marines had.

Henderson Field (Aug 1944)

Henderson Field (Aug 1944)

By early morning of the 25th, the Marines, recognizing a major assault was underway, brought up reinforcements in the form of Army National Guard troops.  Despite the ongoing rain and the darkness, the National Guard troops were successfully integrated with the Marines before daybreak.  The Japanese attacked again, and this time the lines were penetrated and a salient emplaced.  It would not last long however and by day on the 25th, had been eradicated with Marines and ANG troops hunting down the remnants of the infiltrators.

At 0500L, in the confusion of the battle, the Japanese forces at Henderson erroneously transmit that they had successfully overun the airfield.  That call stirred the waiting Japanese fleet into action. The light cruiser Sendai and three destroyers were patrolling west of Guadalcanal to interdict any Allied ships that tried to approach the island.  A First Assault Unit with three destroyers and a Second Assault Unit with the light cruiser Yura and five destroyers approached Guadalcanal to attack any Allied ships off the island’s north or east coast and to provide gunfire support for Hyakutake’s forces.

Yura

HIJN Yura

At 1014 on the 25th, the First Assault Unit arrived off Lunga Point and chased away two old U.S. destroyers converted to minesweepers, Zane and Trevor, which were delivering aviation fuel to Henderson Field. The Japanese destroyers then sighted and sank the U.S. tugboat Seminole and patrol boat YP-284 before beginning their bombardment of the U.S. positions around Lunga Point. At 10:53, a Marine shore gun hit and damaged one of the destroyers, Akatsuki and all three Japanese destroyers withdrew while being strafed by four Cactus Air Force (CAF) F4F Wildcats.

As the Second Assault Unit approached Guadalcanal through Indispensable Strait, it was attacked by five CAF SBD Dauntless dive bombers. Bomb hits caused heavy damage to Yura, and it reversed course to try to escape. More CAF air attacks on Yura throughout the day caused further damage, and the cruiser was abandoned and scuttled at 21:00 that night.

Meanwhile, 82 Japanese bombers and fighters from the 11th Air Fleet and from the aircraft carriers Junyō and Hiyō attacked Henderson Field in six waves throughout the day and were engaged by CAF fighters and Marine anti-aircraft guns. By the end of the day the Japanese had lost 11 fighters, 2 bombers, and one reconnaissance aircraft along with most of the aircrews in the downed aircraft. Two CAF fighters were destroyed in the day’s fighting but both pilots survived. The Japanese air attacks caused only light damage to Henderson Field and the American defenses. The Americans later referred to this day as “Dugout Sunday” because the continuous Japanese air, naval, and artillery attacks kept many of the Lunga defenders in their foxholes and shelters throughout the day.

Naval Forces – First Encounters

Despite the failure of the Japanese ground offensive and the loss of Yura, the rest of the Combined Fleet continued to maneuver near the southern Solomon Islands on October 25 with the hope of encountering Allied naval forces. Search planes, shore- and sea-based, stretched their patterns over the vast ocean reaches, looking for traces, however faint, of the other’s ships and aircraft.

U.S. PBY Catalina based in the Santa Cruz Islands located the Japanese Main body carriers at 1103L. However, the Japanese carriers were about 355 nm from the U.S. force, and just beyond carrier aircraft range. Kinkaid, hoping to close the range to be able to execute an attack that day, steamed towards the Japanese carriers at top speed and, at 1425L, launched a strike force of 23 aircraft. But the Japanese, knowing that they had been spotted by U.S. aircraft and not knowing where the U.S. carriers were, turned to the north to stay out of range of the U.S. carriers’ aircraft.  With evening and the loss of daylight for search, the U.S. strike force returned to their carriers without finding or attacking the Japanese warships.

During the night, both sides planned and maneuvered their forces to gain advantage in the coming fight.

IH020700

Article Series - Solomon Islands Campaign Blog Project

  1. The Solomons Campaign: Geographical and Political Background
  2. The Solomons Campaign: Status of the United States Fleet and Plans After Midway
  3. The Imperial Japanese Navy after Midway
  4. The Solomon Islands Campaign: Prelude to the Series
  5. The Solomons Campaign: WATCHTOWER — Why Guadalcanal?
  6. The Solomons Campaign: Guadalcanal 7-9 August, 1942; Assault and Lodgment
  7. The Solomons Campaign: Unleashing the Assassin’s Mace
  8. The Solomons Campaign: Execution at Savo Island
  9. The Solomons Campaign: The Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24-25 August 1942
  10. The Solomons Campaign: Strategic Pause and Review – Japan’s Last Chance for Victory?
  11. The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part I
  12. The Solomons Campaign: THE BATTLE OF GUADALCANAL, Part II
  13. The Solomons Campaign: Cactus Air Force and the Bismarck Sea
  14. The Solomons Campaign: Operation Vengeance – The Shootdown Of Yamamoto
  15. The Solomons Campaign: Ground Action – The New Georgia Campaign, June 20-November 3, 1943
  16. The Solomons Campaign: The Bougainville Invasion, November – December 1943(Part I)
  17. The Bougainville Invasion: November – December 1943 (Part 2)
  18. The Bougainville Invasion (Part 3): December 1943 – March 1944
  19. The Bougainville Invasion (Part 4): March 1944 – May 1944
  20. The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (Part I)
  21. The Solomons Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (II)
  22. Solomon Islands Campaign: Battle of Santa Cruz (III)
  23. Flightdeck Friday – MIA Edition: WWII Navy Aircrew Returns Home