|Solomon Islands or Battle of the Santa Cruz?|
|Carrier action - post first strike actions|
Incorrectly believing that the Japanese army troops had succeeded in capturing Henderson Field, a force of Japanese warships approached Guadalcanal on the morning of October 25 to provide further support for the army offensive. Aircraft from Henderson Field attacked the convoy throughout the day, sinking the light cruiser Yura and damaging the destroyer Akizuki.
On the U.S. side, the Hornet and Enterprise task groups, under the overall command of Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid swept around to the north of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 25 searching for the Japanese naval forces. The U.S. warships were deployed as two separate carrier groups, each centered on either Hornet or Enterprise, and separated from each other by about 10 nmi (19 km). A U.S. PBY Catalina based in the Santa Cruz Islands located the Japanese Main body carriers at 11:03. However, the Japanese carriers were about 355 nmi (655 km) from the U.S. force, 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 14:25, 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. Thus, the U.S. strike force returned to their carriers without finding or attacking the Japanese warships.
Carrier action on October 26 - first strikes
Meanwhile, Kondo ordered Abe's Vanguard force to race ahead to try to intercept and engage the U.S. warships. Kondo also brought his own Advanced force forward at maximum speed so that Junyō’s aircraft could join in the attacks on the U.S. ships. At 08:10, Shōkaku launched a second wave of strike aircraft, consisting of 19 Vals and eight Zeros, and Zuikaku launched 16 Kates at 08:40. Thus, by 09:10 the Japanese had 110 aircraft on the way to attack the U.S. carriers.
At 08:40, the opposing aircraft strike formations passed within sight of each other. Nine Zeros from Zuihō surprised and attacked the Enterprise group, attacking the climbing aircraft from out of the sun. In the resulting engagement, four Zeros, three Wildcats, and two TBFs were shot down, with another two TBFs and a Wildcat forced by heavy damage to return to Enterprise.
At 08:50, the lead U.S. attack formation from Hornet spotted four ships from Abe's Vanguard force. Pressing on, the U.S. aircraft sighted the Japanese carriers and prepared to attack. Three Zeros from Zuihō attacked the formation's Wildcats, drawing them away from the bombers they were assigned to protect. Thus, the dive bombers in the first group initiated their attacks without fighter escort. Twenty Zeros from the Japanese carrier CAP attacked the SBD formation and shot down four of them. The remaining 11 SBDs commenced their attack dives on Shōkaku at 09:27, hitting her with three to six bombs, ruining her flight deck and causing serious damage to the interior of the ship. The final SBD of the 11 lost track of the Shōkaku and instead dropped its bomb near the Japanese destroyer Teruzuki, causing minor damage. The six TBFs in the first strike force, having become separated from their strike group, missed finding the Japanese carriers and eventually turned back towards Hornet. On the way back, they attacked the Japanese heavy cruiser Tone, missing with all of their torpedoes.
The U.S. carrier forces received word from their outbound strike aircraft at 08:30 that Japanese attack aircraft were headed their way. At 08:52, the Japanese strike force commander sighted the Hornet task force (the Enterprise task force was hidden by a rain squall) and deployed his aircraft for attack. At 08:55, the U.S. carriers detected the approaching Japanese aircraft on radar, about 35 nmi (65 km) away, and began to vector the 37 Wildcat fighters of their CAP to engage the incoming Japanese aircraft. However, communication problems, mistakes by the U.S. fighter control directors, and primitive control procedures prevented all but a few of the U.S. fighters from engaging the Japanese aircraft before they began their attacks on Hornet. Although the U.S. CAP was able to shoot down several Vals, most of the Japanese aircraft commenced their attacks relatively unmolested by U.S. fighters.
At the same time that the Vals were attacking, the Japanese Kate torpedo bombers were also attacking Hornet from two different directions. Despite suffering heavy losses from anti-aircraft fire, the Kates planted two torpedoes in Hornet between 09:13 and 09:17, knocking out her engines. As Hornet glided to a stop, a damaged Val approached and purposely crashed into the carrier's side, starting a fire near the ship's main supply of aviation fuel. At 09:20, the surviving Japanese aircraft departed, leaving Hornet dead in the water and burning. Twenty-five Japanese and six U.S. aircraft were destroyed in this first attack on Hornet.
With the assistance of firehoses from three escorting destroyers, the fires on Hornet were under control by 10:00. Wounded personnel were evacuated from the carrier, and an attempt was made by the cruiser USS Northampton to tow Hornet away from the battle area. However, the effort to rig the towline took some time, and more attack waves of Japanese aircraft were inbound.