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World War II: Battle of the Eastern Solomons

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World War II: Battle of the Eastern Solomons

A bomb strikes USS Enterprise during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons.

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Battle of the Eastern Solomons - Conflict:

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons was fought during World War II.

Battle of the Eastern Solomons - Date:

American and Japanese forces clashed on August 24-25, 1942.

Fleets & Commanders:

Allies

Japanese

  • Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
  • Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo
  • 2 fleet carriers, 1 light carrier, 2 battleships, 16 cruisers, 25 destroyers

Battle of the Eastern Solomons - Background:

In the wake of the Allied landings on Guadalcanal in August 1942, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and the Japanese high command began planning Operation Ka with the goal retaking the island. As part of this counter-offensive, a troop convoy was formed under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka with orders to proceed to Guadalcanal. Departing Truk on August 16, Tanaka steamed south aboard the light cruiser Jintsu. This was followed by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's Main Body, centered on the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, as well as the light carrier Ryujo.

Battle of the Eastern Solomons - Forces:

Both of these were supported by Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe's Vanguard Force consisting of 2 battleships, 3 heavy cruisers, and 1 light cruiser and Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo's Advance Force of 5 heavy cruisers and 1 light cruiser. The overall Japanese plan called for Nagumo's carriers to locate and destroy their American counterparts which would allow Abe and Kondo's fleets to close and eliminate the remaining Allied naval forces in a surface action. With Allied forces destroyed, the Japanese would be able to land reinforcements to clear Guadalcanal and retake Henderson Field.

Opposing the Japanese advance were Allied naval forces under Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher. Centered around the carriers USS Enterprise, USS Wasp, and USS Saratoga, Fletcher's force returned to the waters off Guadalcanal on August 21, to support US Marines in the wake of the Battle of Tenaru. The following day both Fletcher and Nagumo launched scout planes in an effort to locate each other's carriers. Though neither had success on the 22nd, an American PBY Catalina spotted Tanaka's convoy on August 23. Reacting to this report, strikes took off from Saratoga and Henderson Field.

Battle of the Eastern Solomons - Exchanging Blows:

Aware that his ships had been sighted, Tanaka turned north and successfully evaded the America aircraft. With no confirmed reports about the location of the Japanese carriers, Fletcher released Wasp south to refuel. At 1:45 AM on August 24, Nagumo detached Ryujo, along with a heavy cruiser and two destroyers, with orders to attack Henderson Field at dawn. As the light carrier and its escorts sailed away, Nagumo had the aircraft aboard Shokaku and Zuikaku prepared to launch immediately upon receiving word about the American carriers.

Around 9:35 AM, an American Catalina spotted the Ryujo force en route to Guadalcanal. Through the rest of the morning, this report was followed by sightings of Kondo's ships and a cover force sent from Rabaul to protect Tanaka's convoy. Aboard Saratoga, Fletcher was hesitant to launch an attack, preferring to husband his aircraft in case the Japanese carriers were located. Finally at 1:40 PM, he ordered 38 planes from Saratoga to take off and attack Ryujo. As these aircraft roared off the carrier's deck, the first strike from Ryujo arrived over Henderson Field. This attack was defeated by planes from Henderson.

At 2:25 PM a scout plane from the cruiser Chikuma located Fletcher's flattops. Radioing the position back to Nagumo, the Japanese admiral immediately began launching his aircraft. As these planes were taking off, American scouts spotted Shokaku and Zuikaku. Reporting back, the sighting report never reached Fletcher due to communication problems. Around 4:00 PM, Saratoga's planes commenced their attack on Ryujo. Hitting the light carrier with 3-5 bombs and possibly a torpedo, the American planes left the carrier dead in the water and on fire. Unable to save the ship, Ryujo was abandoned by its crew.

As the attack on Ryujo was beginning, the first wave of Japanese planes was detected by Fletcher's force. Scrambling 53 F4F Wildcats, Saratoga and Enterprise began evasive maneuvers after launching all of their attack aircraft with orders to seek targets of opportunity. Due to further communication issues, the fighter cover had some difficulty intercepting the Japanese. Commencing their attack, the Japanese focused their assault on Enterprise. Over the next hour, the American carrier was struck by three bombs which caused heavy damage, but failed to cripple the ship. By 7:45 PM Enterprise was able to resume flight operations. A second Japanese strike failed to locate the American ships due to radio issues. The final action of the day occurred when 5 TBF Avengers from Saratoga located Kondo's force and badly damaged the seaplane tender Chitose.

The next morning the battle was renewed when aircraft from Henderson Field attacked Tanaka's convoy. Heavily damaging Jintsu and sinking a troop ship, the strike from Henderson was followed by an attack by B-17s based at Espiritu Santo. This raid sank the destroyer Mutsuki. With the defeat of Tanaka's convoy, both Fletcher and Nagumo elected to withdraw from the area ending the battle.

Battle of the Eastern Solomons - Aftermath

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons cost Fletcher 25 aircraft and 90 killed. In addition, Enterprise was badly damaged, but remained operable. For Nagumo, the engagement resulted in the loss of Ryujo, one light cruiser, a destroyer, a troop ship, and 75 aircraft. Japanese casualties numbered around 290 and included the loss of valuable aircrews. A tactical and strategic victory for the Allies, both commanders departed the area believing they had won a victory. While the battle had few long-term results, it did force the Japanese to bring reinforcements to Guadalcanal by destroyer which severely limited the equipment that could be transported to the island.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1900-Today
  6. World War II
  7. World War II at Sea - Pacific
  8. Battle of the Eastern Solomons - World War II Battle of the Eastern Solomons

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