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Santa Cruz Islands

Relief map of Santa Cruz Islands

The Santa Cruz Islands are a small group north of the New Hebrides and east of the Solomons. Their only significant product was Kauri pine. These volcanic, jungle-clad islands were strategically located for the Guadalcanal campaign, but were completely lacking in facilities. Furthermore, the islands hosted so virulent a strain of malaria (cerebral malaria) that the American attempt to build a base at Ndeni had to be abandoned. The islands were quite literally uninhabitable by Westerners.

Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The Japanese won a naval victory on October 26, 1942, near the Santa Cruz Islands. Japanese carrier forces were stationed in the area in anticipation of flying their air groups to Henderson Field, on Guadalcanal, once it was captured by Japanese Army units. Kinkaid received code breaker intelligence of the move and tried to interfere.

First contact came on 23 October when a Catalina spotted one of the Japanese carriers. A torpedo strike by Catalinas that night failed to find the enemy. Contact was lost again the next day. On 25 October the American carrier forces were north of Ndeni and the Japanese some 350 miles northwest of the Americans, when at noon two more Catalinas spotted the Japanese. The weather was poor and the contact could not be held. Search aircraft from the American carriers failed to pick up the Japanese, who had reversed course when they knew they had been detected. However, in the early hours of 26 October, another Catalina torpedo strike came very close to hitting Zuikaku. At this time, the Japanese were milling around north of the Solomons, awaiting the outcome of the Guadalcanal land offensive.

At 0512, Kinkaid received word that a Catalina had spotted the Japanese 200 miles to the northwest of his position, and at about the same time Halsey sent out the order "Attack -- repeat -- attack!" Minutes earlier Kinkaid had ordered the launch of eight pairs of Dauntless scouts. At 0650 a pair of scouts spotted Nagumo's carriers less than 200 miles to the northwest. In the meanwhile, at 0658 a Kate had spotted Kinkaid's group, and Nagumo launched a 65-plane strike. Preparations to launch a second wave of 44 aircraft commenced.

At 0740 a pair of scouts dove on Zuiho, scoring two bomb hits that wrecked her flight deck and started fires. The dive bombers escaped, claiming two Zeros on their way out. However, Zuiho had already launched her strike.

The American strikes were slow to launch and not well coordinated. A first wave of 21 strike aircraft and 8 fighter escorts was launched at 0730 and a second wave of 11 strike aircraft and 8 fighters was launched half an hour later. At 0815 a third wave of 18 strike aircraft and 7 fighters began climbing into the air. Because the targets were at rather long range, each wave headed off immediately rather than attempting to form up with the other waves. The Japanese and American strikes spotted each other on their way out, and one of the American waves, from Enterprise,  lost six strike aircraft to the escorting Zeros of the Japanese strike. This cost the Japanese three Zeros.

Kinkaid had 38 Wildcats stacked over his force, but the Enterprise fighter directors were inexperienced: Halsey had taken the veteran fighter director with him to Noumea when he assumed command of the South Pacific. The Japanese strike was not identified on radar until 0857, when it was 45 miles away. The American air cover was too low and too close to the American carriers for effective interception. At 0900 Enterprise entered a rain squall and the first Japanese wave concentrated on Hornet. One bomb hit the flight deck and two others scored very near misses. More damage was inflicted by a crippled Val that crashed through the flight deck. Two torpedo hits in the engineering spaces left Hornet crippled, and she soon collected three more bomb hits and was crashed by another crippled aircraft. The Japanese lost 25 aircraft.

Meanwhile, at 0925, eleven Dauntlesses of Hornet's strike penetrated the Japanese defenses and planted at least three bombs on Shokaku's flight deck, destroying her hangars and starting intense fires. Shokaku would be out of the war for the next nine months. Hornet's torpedo bombers missed the Japanese group entirely. Enterprise's strike group, already reduced by its encounter with the Zeros escorting the Japanese strike, failed to hit any targets. The second wave from Hornet also missed the carriers, but badly damaged cruiser Chikuma.

By 1000 the fires on Hornet were coming under control, but propulsion was still out. Northampton took the carrier under tow, but the arrival of the second Japanese wave delayed the towing efforts. A single Val dove on Hornet and missed, while the remainder of the strike went after Enterprise.

The Enterprise force had already lost destroyer Porter, likely torpedoed by I-21. The ship was evacuated and scuttled. The Japanese dive bombers of the second wave arrived ahead of the torpedo bombers and attacked without waiting for the Kates. Although the strike had been detected 55 miles out, the Wildcats failed to intercept effectively, and the defense was left to the antiaircraft gunners. South Dakota shot down at least 27 aircraft, but Enterprise suffered two hits and a near miss. One hit near the bows did relatively little damage, but the second bomb jammed the forward elevator and did considerable damage below decks. Half an hour later the Kates arrived. About 14 broke through the Wildcats and nine succeeded in launching torpedoes. Sharp maneuvering by Captain Hardison prevented any hits on Enterprise, but a Kate crashed into destroyer Smith and badly damaged her.

At 1101 South Dakota picked up a strike of 29 aircraft from Junyo. Confusion with returning Dauntlesses prevented effective interception, but the weather was unsettled enough that Enterprise suffered nothing worse than another near miss. However, South Dakota and San Juan each suffered a hit. Enterprise resumed flight operations, but at a much reduced pace, due to the damaged forward elevator.

By 1330 Hornet was under tow while most of her crew were being evacuated from the ship. Meanwhile the Japanese had sent Zuiho and Shokaku hurrying north and out of the battle. The Japanese had lost almost 100 aircraft. But at 1315 Junyo had got off another strike, which caught Hornet without air cover and hit her with another torpedo and a bomb. Her aft engine room rapidly flooded and her list became 14 degrees. The ship was doomed and the order to abandon her was given at about 1550. At 1702 a final small strike from Junyo scored an additional bomb hit. By dark the ship was totally abandoned, and Mustin was sent in to deliver the coup de grace. Eight torpedoes scored just three hits, and Hornet refused to sink. Anderson then closed in, scoring six hits with eight torpedoes. Hornet still stayed afloat. The two destroyers pumped some 430 shells into the hulk without effect, other than to set the carrier ablaze from bow to stern. It was left to the Japanese to finish the ship when they arrived, destroyers Makigumo and Akigumo from Abe's surface force delivering the final blows at 0135 on 27 October.

By daybreak on 27 October Kinkaid was retiring to Noumea, while Lee's surface group, which had not yet engaged, was attacked by a submarine that narrowly missed Washington. As a result of this incident, Halsey decided that he would no longer operate capital ships for long durations at sea where they were torpedo bait, and Lee also withdrew.

The battle was clearly a serious tactical defeat for the Americans. Hornet and a destroyer were sunk and Enterprise damaged in exchange for damage to two Japanese carriers and a cruiser. On the other hand, the Japanese Army offensive on Guadalcanal had failed, foiling the Japanese aircraft ferry mission, and the Japanese failed to exploit their naval advantage by raiding Espiritu Santo or Noumea. Thus, strategically, the Japanese could claim no better than a draw. Worse, the Japanese tactical victory was a Pyrrhic one, costing 148 aircrew, including 23 flight leaders. American fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners discerned a noticeable loss in skill on the part of Japanese pilots, indicating that fatal attrition was already setting in, but the Americans still had much to learn about fighter direction and long-range search.

U.S. order of battle

South Pacific Force (Halsey; at Noumea)     

 
Task Force 16 (Kinkaid)


 
CV Enterprise
Damaged


 
Air Group 10




 
1 TBF-1 Avenger





VF-10: 34 F4F-4 Wildcat





VB-10: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless





VS-10: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless




VT-10: 12 TBF-1 Avenger


BB South Dakota
Damaged


Screen (Tisdale)




CA Portland




CLAA San Juan Badly damaged



DD Porter
Sunk



DD Mahan




DD Cushing




DD Preston



DD Smith Damaged



DD Maury




DD Conyngham



DD Shaw

Task Force 17 (Murray)



CV Hornet Sunk



Air Group 8





1 TBF-1 Avenger




VF-72: 36 F4F-4 Wildcat




VB-8: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless     





VS-8: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless




VT-6: 15 TBF-1 Avenger


Screen (Good)




CA Northampton




CA Pensacola




CLAA San Diego




CLAA Juneau



DD Morris




DD Anderson



DD Hughes



DD Mustin



DD Russell



DD Barton


Task Force 64 (Lee)
Did not engage


BB Washington



CA San Francisco



CL Helena



CLAA Atlanta


DD Aaron Ward


DD Benham



DD Fletcher



DD Lansdowne


DD Lardner


DD McCalla

Task Force 63 (Fitch)



Henderson Field




26  F4F-4 Wildcat



6 P-400




6 P-39 Airacobra




20 SBD Dauntless 




2 TBF Avenger


Espiritu Santo




24  F4F-4 Wildcat



39 B-17 Flying Fortresses




12 Hudson
RNZAF



32 PBY Catalina




5 OS2U  Kingfisher




AV Curtiss




AVP Mackinac



New Caledonia




46 P-39 Airacobra



15 P-38 Lightning




16 B-26 Marauder




13 Hudson RNZAF

Japanese order of battle

Combined Fleet (Yamamoto)     

 
BB Yamato (at Truk)


Guadalcanal Supporting Forces (Kondo)     


 
Advance Force (Kondo)     


 
Cruiser Division 4




 
CA Atago





CA Takao



Cruiser Division 5 (Omori)





CA Myoko





CA Maya



Screen (Tanaka)





CL Isuzu





DD Naganami





DD Makinami




DD Takanami




DD Umikaze





DD Kawakaze    





DD Suzukaze



Air Group (Kakuta)
Also included Hiyo, but she suffered an engineering casualty and did not participate in the battle.




CV Junyo





 
24 A6M Zero






21 D3A Val






10 B5N Kate





Screen






DD Kuroshio






DD Hayashio



Support Group (Kurita)





BB Kongo





BB Haruna




DD Oyashio




DD Kagero




DD Murasame




DD Samidare




DD Yudachi




DD Harusame


Striking Force (Nagumo)




Carrier Group (Nagumo)




CV Shokaku
Badly damaged





18 A6M Zero





20 D3A Val





23 B5N Kate




CV Zuikaku





27 A6M Zero





27 D3A Val





18 B5N Kate




CVL Zuiho
Badly damaged





18 A6M Zero





6 B5N Kate



Screen





CA Kumano





DD Amatsukaze




DD Hatsukaze




DD Tokitsukaze




DD Yukikaze




DD Arashi




DD Maikaze




DD Teruzuki





DD Hamakaze



Vanguard Group (Abe)





BB Hiei




BB Kirishima




Cruiser Division 8 (Hara)






CA Tone






CA Chikuma Badly damaged




Cruiser Division 7 (Nishimura)






CA Suzuya





Screen (Kimura)






DD Kazagumo






DD Makigumo





DD Yugumo





DD Akigumo





DD Tanikaze





DD Urakaze





DD Isokaze



Supply Group





AO Kokuyo Maru





AO Toho Maru




AO Toei Maru




AO Kyokuto Maru




DD Nowaki

Land-Based Air Force (Kusaka; at Rabaul)     
About 220 operational aircraft.


25 Air Flotilla
67 A6M Zero


26 Air Flotilla
64 G4M Betty
27 D3A Val

Advanced Expeditionary Force (Komatsu)     



CL Katori



Force "A"




SS I-4




SS I-5




SS I-7




SS I-8



SS I-22



SS I-176


Force "B"




SS I-9



SS I-15



SS I-21



SS I-24



SS I-174



SS I-175

References

Frank (1990)

Morison (1949)

Rottman (2002)

Spector (1985)



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