The Solomons Campaign: The Battle of Santa Cruz (III)

Though a later shot, this picture gives an ida of the relationship of El#2 to the landing area.

Though a later shot, this picture gives an idea of the relationship of El#2 and the landing area

Staggered, Bloodied but Unbowed

After the morning’s attacks Enterprise had suffered significant damage, but still able to put up a fight defensively and conduct air ops.  The number two elevator, aft most on the flightdeck, was temporarily stuck in the down position, leaving a large, square hole just forward of the arresting gear.  Forward, just aft of the forward elevator, the forward hangar bay was a riot of flame, smoke and destroyed aircraft.  Burning avgas was siphoning down into the forward elevator pit. Two decks below that was more smoke, fire, severed electrical cables, sprung hatches and a grotesquely sweet smelling mixture of oil, seawater and blood, camouflaging decks scattered with jagged metal and shattered bodies.  Smoldering storerooms were separated from avgas and bomb bunkers by watertight bulkheads that had, thus far, remained intact.

Under direction from Central Control, damage control parties fanned out to repair Big E and keep her in the fight.  Many had been below decks when the first bombs struck but there wasn’t a man unaware of the stakes involved.  They didn’t need to be on the bridge or in combat to understand that failure at their jobs meant loss of the ship and by now word had passed that Hornet was lost.

Enterprise maneuvers to avoid attack

Topside, it was time to bring the aircraft back onboard.  Despite the hole left by El#2, “Paddles” LT Robin Lindsey, began guiding the broken, low fuel aircraft onto the deck.  As the flightdeck heeled and pitched as Enterprise conducted emergency maneuvering with reports of periscopes and torpedoes in the water (which later turned out to be porpoises), one after another the planes dropped from the sky and to the deck, thence to be taxied forward of El#2.

At 1221L twenty more of Nagumo’s divebombers arrived and began their attacks.  Twisting, turning the Enterprise manged to avoid more hits as sprays of water washed across the island and deck from the columns of water caused by near misses.  The gunners, becoming ever more proficient and aided by the relatively shallow approach of the Vals, continued to swat them from the sky.  Linsdsey himself, ran from the LSO platform to a nearby Dauntless and jumping in the empty gunner’s position, fired on the attackers until he was out of ammo.  One bomb glanced off the exposed starboard side of Enterprise, just below the waterline. Its ricochet carried it out about eight feet from Big E and it detonated about fifteen feet below the surface, dishing in the side and flooding two voids.

The extremes of the battle called for extraordinary measures.  With the maneuvering and recoil from hits and near-hits, the big CMAX-1 radar antenna had come to a stop.  Without the radar, Enterprise would have to rely on sightings forwarded by lookouts, themselves hampered by losses, severed communication lines, thickening clouds, dazzling sun and ship’s maneuvers.  LT Brad Williams, the first officer to be designated a radar officer in the Navy, grabbed a toolkit and began working his way aloft to fix the big antenna.  While the ship continued to maneuver violently, Williams lashed himself to the mast to repair the drive motor for the antenna.  Below him was a hell of fire as the 5″/38, 40mm and 20mm weapons all pointed almost straight up, fired continuously.  Tracers flew past as he pressed home on the repair.  Even as he finished, the ordeal wasn’t over as technicians in the radar room, seeing the radar was back online, commenced to rotate with Williams still strapped to the radar.  His efforts weren’t for naught though.  For there, seventeen miles away, was another strike, inbound to Enterprise.

Near-hit: USS Enterprise (CV 6) Battle of Santa Cruz Islands

When You’re out of Fighters — There’s Still AAA

The earlier strike of torpedo aircraft and divebombers had exhausted the CAP of fuel and ammo, so they cleared the area to hold and await recovery onboard there wouldn’t be anywhere else to go except to ditch.  The fate of Enterprise now lay fully in the hands of her escorts and own ship’s gun crew.

South Dakota was near and ready to engage when a bomb struck her forward turret, with shrapnel subsequently seriously wounding her captain that steering was shifted aft to the XO in aux conn.  Momentarily without comms, South Dakota was suddenly headed directly for Enterprise and on Enterprise, CAPT Hardiston managed to get Big E turned in time to avoid collision.  Over on San Juan, a bomb had passed through her hull and detonated underneath so severely shaking the ship that circuit breakers for her steering popped, putting her in a high-speed starboard turn.  Yet through all of this, a withering field of fire was put up by Enterprise and her task force escorts.  One after another, the silver flash of a Val, pitching over into a dive was soon ended in a smear of orange and black as it was shot from the sky.  Back on Enterprise, Chief turret Captain Wilson directed his 5€ on a damaged aircraft circling back to crash into Enterprise.  The ensuing destruction of the plane undoubtedly saved Enterprise from further grievous harm.

Twenty-four minutes after the previous attempt at recovery, with the skies now free from Japanese aircraft, Enterprise began recovery operations again.  Many aircraft were low on fuel and the fighters and Dauntlesses were brought aboard first as they were in the direst of straits.  Still, may aircraft ended up ditching when they ran out of fuel.  Clam seas and speedy destroyers rescued the fliers, returning them to Enterprise.  The aircraft could and would be replaced the by now combat experienced aviators, less so.  Though both sides lost considerable numbers of aircraft today, it wasthe Americans who came out on top having recovered large numbers of their fliers who would live to fight and teach others to fight, another day.

Miles away, salvage attempts on Hornet had come to a sorrowful end.  While her fires had been put out, three boilers lit off and steam pressure beginning to be raised, a small, 15-plane attack launched from Junyo arrived and commenced the attack.  Northampton, towing Hornet, dropped the tow and began defensive fire.  However, lacking ownship defenses, Hornet was an easy target.  While Northampton managed to avoid several torpedoes, one found Hornet on her starboard side, flooding her engine room and increasing list to 14 degrees. A second, bomber attack twenty minutes later failed to add to her damage, but at this point she was listing 18 degrees and the decision was made to abandon Hornet.  Later that evening, Japanese surface forces, sent south by Yamamoto to engage the Americans, came across the derelict Hornet and sent her to the bottom with a spread of torpedoes.

Kinkaid, in the meantime, was well off to the south, anticipating such a move and endeavoring to protect the remainder of his forces.  There would be no more engagements between the American and Japanese carriers on the 26th or 27thEnterprise was bound at best speed for repairs at Noumea.  A night torpedo attack by PBYs on the 27th combined with their own devastating loss of aircraft and crews had convinced the Japanese to withdraw from the scene.

Fifteen days after the battle of Santa Cruz, a hastily repaired Enterprise was back on station rearmed, and ready to fight.

Final Recovery – 26 Oct


Santa Cruz is assessed to have been a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk vs. damaged.  Shokaku and the Zuiho had suffered substantial damage and would be out of action for many months, while the US had lost one of its only two available carriers.  Both sides lost substantial numbers of aircraft the US with 74, the Japanese with 92.  Most importantly though, the US lost only 33 airmen to the Japanese with nearly 70.  Combined with the losses at Midway four months earlier, the IJN’s naval aviation arm was eviscerated.  Without planes and the combat experienced crews to fly and fight them, the carriers were useless, save as decoys to draw off American forces.  Japanese surface forces retained a substantive punch and were very much a threat but lacking the air cover their carriers could have provided and absent shore-based air, the measure of their life expectancy was beginning to be taken.

Like Midway, there were several lessons —  some learned, others not so.

  • Surveillance: The Achilles heel of carrier warfare in the Pacific was the lack of an organic, all weather, day/night surveillance capability.  Such capability could only be achieved with radar and as it became available later in the war, the inherent flexibility and striking power of the CV was dramatically advanced.
  • Command and Control: Problems here ranged from the broader aspects of the latency in reports from the PBYs to Kincaid’s staff to something as elemental as how to control CAP using radar vectors;  and we’re only looking within the Navy lifelines.  As previously mentioned, absent both a dedicated radar-search/surveillance aircraft from the carrier and dedicated training for night operations, had Kincaid received reports of the Japanese carriers earlier in the night, he still probably would not have launched a night strike.  Still, with that knowledge, and knowing the Japanese were lacking similar capabilities, a larger strike might have been positioned to arrive over the Japanese force at dawn, enabled by a more aggressive positioning of the Hornet and Enterprise.  In doing so, much of the delay in launching scouts, plus the loss of the enterprise’s Avengers as the two strikes crossed each other’s paths may have been avoided.  More so, it would have provided a massed attack on the carriers, which may have netted greater damage if not a platform kill or two, early in the exchange. Still, not long after the Solomons Campaign and following her refit in 1943, Enterprise and her airwing spearheaded nighttime intercept and attack operations.  Much of that again, reaping benefits of combat experienced aircrew rotated back stateside for training.
  • Damage Control: Not enough can be said about the efforts of the US crews on the carriers and escorts in mitigating and repairing the damage inflicted during the strikes and emerging ready to continue to fight.  This narrative does poor justice in relating that effort.  The reader would be well served to read the relevant chapter “Ordeal Off Santa Cruz€ in Edward Stafford’s “Big E.€  Even our most sophisticated shore-based simulators today can only give a hint at the real carnage and desperation inherent in modern naval warfare and shipboard damage repair. It not only requires strength and endurance, it also requires patience, knowledge of the ship and all her systems, and a spirit of never say die.  Also of note were the forward-based repair facilities at Noumea that got Enterprise back to the Solomons in such short order.  It was experience that would be well served in the coming Central Pacific campaign.

A-scope view – radar return is on top, IFF on bottom

  • Radar: Santa Cruz showed both the good and the bad of American advances in radar.  Fighter director inexperience and the heat of the battle led to vector calls being based on the ever-changing heading of the ship entirely useless to an F4F on CAP some ten miles away at 14K ft.  Using A-scopes for fighter direction and control is another exceptionally difficult task. The net result is the fighter director has to look at the A-scope and a time-lagged vertical plot, then go through a series of mental calculations to determine a vector for intercept preferably to bring a fighter into position in trail of the enemy, unseen, with an advantage in altitude.  It isn’t easy.  Having had the benefit of “old school€ air controllers train me in my early days as a replacement NFO in the Hawkeye, I learned the tricks of building and concluding an intercept with a few grease pencil marks on the radar screen while using raw radar video while mentally calculating the angles for an intercept. Those techniques were directly traceable to the lessons learned from Santa Cruz and similar encounters during the war.  Despite some of the operational failures, the advantage of early warning provided by the long-range radar was priceless, and efforts were well underway back Stateside to expand that envelope far over the horizon. 
  • Supporting/Defensive fire: By the time Santa Cruz rolled around, Enterprise had undergone several updates in AA from her prewar fit.  Among the most significant were radar to direct her 5″ guns and 40mm Bofors to replace or supplement the 20mm Oerlikons.  In the case of the former, the radar was supposed to provide precise directional control to the guns to ensure as close to a “one-shot-one-kill” metric as possible, in any weather, under any conditions.  Yet at a crucial time, when her CAP was unavailable, the radar didn’t “see” the incoming raid, with fall back to crew-directed fire based on visual observation.  Volume of fire was another critical factor and the addition of the 40mm filled a critical gap in range and volume between the 5″ and 20mm weapons.  Increased overall numbers of guns also was an improvement over pre-war fit as some hits took out gun positions.  Not to be overlooked either, was the contributory effect of escorts, especially South Dakota.  Fast and optimized for AA, South Dakota kept close aboard Enterprise in her most vulnerable moments, displaying a singularly magnificent feat of seamanship in the heat of combat.  Escorting Destroyers braved attacking aircraft, randomly running torpedoes and shrapnel from friendly and hostile fire to rescue downed airmen, provide fire-fighting assistance and crew rescue, oft times while sustaining severe, if not mortal damage.  The destroyer Smith had a Kate crash into her forward mainmount after being chased by a pair of Wildcats through the flak.  With fire enveloping her forward of the mainmast, aggravated when the Kate’s torpedo cooked off, she buried her bow int he wake of the South Dakota, eventually making the bridge and forward part of the ship habitable again. 
  • Intangibles:

Weapons:  Again, as at Midway, aircrews were sacrificed to no good end with the failure of the torpedoes dropped to strike and sink their targets.  The borderline criminal malfeasance associated with this failure (and the ongoing failures for the submarine force) were a crippling blow to the striking power of the airwing.  Like the sub force, fixes would be made and later in the war, US air-launched torpedoes would finally make their mark but at what cost?

Spirit of attack: At the height of battle, the two forces were less than 200 nm from one another.  Given the superior numbers and firepower for the IJN surface forces, one is forced to wonder at why at least a portion weren’t dispatched as soon as the US forces were located, at high speed to engage the US forces either in concert with or independent of air strikes.  By the late morning the Japanese knew the US was down to one carrier and that the surface forces were smaller than their own.  As it might have been at Midway, a superior IJN surface force encountering a reduced American one, retreating in the twilight of dusk might have brought about a markedly different outcome.  Instead, Japanese forces withdrew.

While Midway may have been the beginning of the end of Japanese naval airpower, Santa Cruz utterly crushed it insofar as experienced crews were concerned and therein lies the value of the exchange.   The homesite for the Enterprise Association perhaps sums it up best:

The first hint of the damage done to Japan’s naval airpower was seen the day of the battle, in the feeble afternoon strikes at Hornet. A more telling sign came on November 11, when Enterprise – after quick patching by Sea Bees and the repair ship Vulcan – sortied from Noumea, a full air group on her flight deck, ready to fight. The only Japanese carriers in the area – Hiyo and Junyo, both slow converted ocean liners – were well north of Guadalcanal, carefully staying clear of the American planes there. Without planes and the crews to fly them, the enemy’s fleet carriers were impotent. Although Enterprise and her task force faced significant threat from ground-based air forces and submarines, the simple fact was this: 15 days after Santa Cruz, an American carrier stood off the Solomons, battered but ready for action, and not a single enemy carrier came forth to challenge her.

A corner was turned — on land and at sea.  There was a significant amount of fighting still to come, but it would be to the American’s advantage.


Combat narrative of the Battle of Santa Cruz: located at

Narrative of Santa Cruz at CV6 Association:

Stafford, Edward P., The Big E – The Story of the USS Enterprise

Early US Navy Shipboard Radar:

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. The Solomons Campaign: The Battle of Santa Cruz (III)
  23. Flightdeck Friday – MIA Edition: WWII Navy Aircrew Returns Home


  1. Bill K

    The account of LT Williams was absolutely amazing!

    I am a bit puzzled by the contradictory behavior of the Japanese – on one hand showing extreme bravery “walking over their own dead” mentioned earlier in your series, and on the other hand your analysis under “spirit of attack” that the Japanese failed to press their advantage when their odds and logic favored such a course. Granted, we’re talking different individuals, but you seem to echo a fundamental illogic I have encountered in other readings that their “Bushido” spirit made for great personal sacrifice yet failed at a higher level when ships were involved. Why kamikaze a plane, but not the Shokaku, if the odds of success make the latter highly likely to succeed? Why the failure of nerve at the higher level?

  2. Good question — and one which puzzles me as well. Why would the japanese, after successfully demonstrating the striking power of combined forces up through Pearl Harbor, suddenly split their forces at Midway? Why not, after superior results at Savo and Tassafaronga, pursue a surface action against the remnant of US forces the evening of 26 Oct? Was there a belief, based on a sense of denial, that they could outlast the Americans in a war of attrition?
    – SJS

  3. Bill K

    The only partial answer I can come up with regarding avoidance of ship-sacrifice, which you mentioned earlier, was that Japanese ships were regarded as “personal property of the Emperor”. But I wonder two things: 1) Your hypothesis that they may have believed they could out-attrit the Americans seems opposite to Yamamoto’s phrase about awakening a sleeping giant. I wonder the opposite: In view of Yamamoto’s influence, did the Japanese lose courage among leadership early in the war? This also seems unlikely, given their militaristic culture and public statements. But perhaps they could not acknowledge what they really believed in their hearts. And/or 2)Even if the vessel captains believed they had no right to sacrifice the emperor’s property, couldn’t they have rationalized going ahead on tactical grounds as equivalent to sacrificing a knight in chess to gain a queen? I would love to read a summary of the memoirs of their top commanders for hints as to the reasons behind their tactics if I knew where such might be found.

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