Battle of Santa Cruz: Conflict & Dates:
The Battle of Santa Cruz was fought October 25-27, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).
Fleets & Commanders
Battle of Santa Cruz - Background:
With the Battle of Guadalcanal raging, Allied and Japanese naval forces clashed repeatedly in the waters around the Solomon Islands. While many of these involved surface forces in the narrow waters around Guadalcanal, others saw the adversaries' carrier forces clash in attempts to alter the strategic balance of the campaign. Following the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in August 1942, the US Navy was left with three carriers in the area. This was quickly reduced to one, USS Hornet, after USS Saratoga was badly damaged by a torpedo (August 31) and withdrawn and USS Wasp was sunk by I-19 (September 14).
While repairs quickly progressed on USS Enterprise, which had been damaged at Eastern Solomons, the Allies were able to retain daytime air superiority due to the presence of aircraft at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. This allowed supplies and reinforcements to be brought the island. These aircraft were not able operate effectively at night and in the darkness control of the waters around the island reverted to the Japanese. Using destroyers known as the "Tokyo Express," the Japanese were able to bolster their garrison on Guadalcanal. As a result of this standoff, the two sides were roughly equal in strength.
The Japanese Plan:
In an effort to break this stalemate, the Japanese planned a massive offensive on the island for October 20-25. This was to be supported by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's Combined Fleet which would maneuver to the east with the goal of bringing the remaining American carriers to battle and sinking them. Assembling forces, command for the operation was given to Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo who would personally lead the Advance Force which was centered on the carrier Junyo. This was followed by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's Main Body containing the carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Zuiho.
Supporting the Japanese carrier forces was Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe's Vanguard Force which consisted of battleships and heavy cruisers. While the Japanese were planning, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, made two moves to change the situation in the Solomons. The first was speeding repairs to Enterprise, allowing the ship to return to action and join with Hornet on October 23. The other to was to remove the increasingly ineffective Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley and replace him as Commander, South Pacific Area with aggressive Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey on October 18.
Moving forward with their ground offensive on October 23, Japanese forces were defeated during the Battle for Henderson Field. Despite this, Japanese naval forces continued to seek battle to the east. Countering these efforts were two task forces under the operational control of Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Centered on Enterprise and Hornet, they swept north to the Santa Cruz Islands on October 25 searching for the Japanese. At 11:03 AM, an American PBY Catalina spotted Nagumo's Main Body, but the range was too far for launching a strike. Aware he had been spotted, Nagumo turned north.
Remaining out of range through the day, the Japanese turned south after midnight and began closing the distance with the American carriers. Shortly before 7:00 AM on October 26, both sides located each other and began racing to launch strikes. The Japanese proved faster and soon a large force was heading towards Hornet. In the course of launching, two American SBD Dauntless dive bombers, which had been serving as scouts, hit Zuiho twice damaging its flight deck. With Nagumo launching, Kondo ordered Abe to move towards the Americans while he worked to bring Junyo within range.
The Battle of Santa Cruz:
Rather than form a massed force, American F4F Wildcats, Dauntlesses, and TBF Avenger torpedo bombers began moving towards the Japanese in smaller groups. Around 8:40 AM, the opposing forces passed with a brief aerial melee ensuing. Arriving over Nagumo's carriers, the first American dive bombers concentrated their attack on Shokaku, striking the ship with three to six bombs and inflicting heavy damage. Other aircraft inflicted significant damage on the heavy cruiser Chikuma. Around 8:52 AM, the Japanese spotted Hornet, but missed Enterprise as it was hidden in squall.
Due to command and control issues the American combat air patrol was largely ineffective and the Japanese were able to focus their attack on Hornet against light aerial opposition. This ease of approach was soon countered by an extremely high level of anti-aircraft fire as the Japanese began their attack. Though they took heavy losses, the Japanese succeeded in hitting Hornet with three bombs and two torpedoes. On fire and dead in the water, Hornet's crew began a massive damage control operation which saw the fires brought under control by 10:00 AM.
As the first wave of Japanese aircraft departed, they spotted Enterprise and reported its position. The next focused their attack on the undamaged carrier around 10:08 AM. Again attacking through intense anti-aircraft fire, the Japanese scored two bomb hits, but failed to connect with any torpedoes. In the course of the attack, the Japanese aircraft took heavy losses. Dousing the fires, Enterprise resumed flight operations around 11:15 AM. Six minutes later, it successfully evaded an attack by aircraft from Junyo. Assessing the situation and correctly believing the Japanese to have two undamaged carriers, Kinkaid decided to withdraw the damaged Enterprise at 11:35 AM. Departing the area, Enterprise began recovering aircraft while the cruiser USS Northampton worked to take Hornet under tow.
As the Americans were moving away, Zuikaku and Junyo began landing the few aircraft that were returning from the morning's strikes. Having united his Advance Force and Main Body, Kondo pushed hard towards the last known American position with the hope that Abe could finish off the enemy. At the same time, Nagumo was directed to withdraw the stricken Shokaku and damaged Zuiho. Launching a final set of raids, Kondo's aircraft located the Hornet just as the crew was beginning to restore power. Attacking, they quickly reduced the damaged carrier to a burning hulk forcing the crew to abandon ship.
Aftermath of Santa Cruz
The Battle of Santa Cruz cost the Allies a carrier, destroyer, 81 aircraft, and 266 killed, as well as damage to Enterprise. Japanese losses totaled 99 aircraft and between 400 and 500 killed. In addition, heavy damage was sustained to Shokaku which removed it from operations for nine months. Though a Japanese victory on the surface, the fighting at Santa Cruz saw them sustain heavy aircrew losses which exceeded those taken at Coral Sea and Midway. These necessitated withdrawing Zuikaku and the uncommitted Hiyo to Japan to train new air groups. As a result, the Japanese carriers played no further offensive role in the Solomon Islands Campaign. In this light, the battle may be seen as a strategic victory for the Allies.