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Solomon Islands or Battle of the Santa Cruz? - Battle

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Battle


Prelude

From October 20 to October 25, Japanese land forces on Guadalcanal attempted to capture Henderson Field with a large-scale attack against U.S. troops defending the airfield. However, the attack was decisively defeated with heavy casualties for the Japanese during the Battle for Henderson Field.

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.

 

Despite the failure of the Japanese ground offensive and the loss of Yura, the rest of the Combined Fleet continued to maneuver near the southern Solomon Islands on October 25 with the hope of encountering Allied naval forces in battle. The Japanese naval forces included four carriers, because Hiyō had suffered an accidental, damaging fire on October 22 that forced her to return to Truk for repairs. The Japanese naval forces were divided into three groups: The "Advanced" force contained Junyō, plus two battleships, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and 10 destroyers, and was commanded by Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo in heavy cruiser Atago; the "Main Body" consisted of Shōkaku, Zuikaku, and Zuihō plus one heavy cruiser and eight destroyers, and was commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo in Shōkaku; the "Vanguard" force contained two battleships, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and seven destroyers, and was commanded by Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe in battleship Hiei. In addition to commanding the Advanced force, Kondo acted as the overall commander of the three forces.

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

At 02:50 on October 26, the Japanese naval forces reversed direction and the naval forces of the two adversaries closed the distance until they were only 200 nmi (370 km) away from each other by 05:00. Both sides launched search aircraft and prepared their remaining aircraft to attack as soon as the other side's ships were located. Although a radar-equipped PBY Catalina sighted the Japanese carriers at 03:10, the report did not reach Kinkaid until 05:12. Therefore, believing that the Japanese ships had probably changed position during the last two hours, he decided to withhold launching a strike force until he received more current information on the location of the Japanese ships.

 

At 06:45, a U.S. scout aircraft sighted the carriers of Nagumo's main body. At 06:58, a Japanese scout aircraft reported the location of Hornet’s task force. Both sides raced to be the first to attack the other. The Japanese were first to get their strike force launched, with 64 aircraft, including 21 "Val" dive bombers, 20 "Kate" torpedo bombers, 21 Zero fighters, and two "Kate" command and control aircraft on the way towards Hornet by 07:40. Also at 07:40, two U.S. SBD Dauntless scout aircraft, responding to the earlier sighting of the Japanese carriers, arrived and dove on Zuihō. With the Japanese combat air patrol (CAP) busy chasing other U.S. scout aircraft away, the two U.S. aircraft were able to approach and drop both of their bombs on Zuihō, causing heavy damage and preventing the carrier's flight deck from being able to land aircraft.

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.

 

The U.S. strike aircraft were running about 20 minutes behind the Japanese. Believing that a speedy attack was more important than a massed attack, the U.S. aircraft proceeded in small groups towards the Japanese ships instead of forming into one large strike force. The first group, consisting of 15 SBD dive bombers, six TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, and eight F4F Wildcat fighters, led by Lt. C. R. Eation from Hornet, was on its way by about 08:00. A second group, consisting of three SBDs, seven TBFs, and eight Wildcats from Enterprise was off by 08:10. A third group, which included nine SBDs, eight TBFs, and seven Wildcats from Hornet, was on its way by 08:20.

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 TBFs of the second U.S. attack formation from Enterprise were unable to locate the Japanese carriers and instead attacked the Japanese heavy cruiser Suzuya from Abe's Vanguard force but caused no damage. At about the same time, the third U.S. attack formation, from Hornet, found Abe's ships and attacked the Japanese heavy cruiser Chikuma, hitting her with two 1,000 pound bombs and causing heavy damage. The three Enterprise SBDs then arrived and also attacked Chikuma, causing more damage with one bomb hit and two near-misses. Finally, the eight TBFs from the third strike group arrived and attacked the smoking Chikuma, scoring one more hit. Chikuma, escorted by two destroyers, withdrew from the battle and headed towards Truk for repairs.

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 09:09, the anti-aircraft guns of Hornet and her escorting warships opened fire as the 20 untouched Japanese Kates and remaining 16 Vals commenced their attacks on the carrier. At 09:12, a Val placed its 250-kilogram, semi-armor-piercing bomb dead center on Hornet’s flight deck, across from the island, which penetrated three decks before exploding, killing 60 men. Moments later, a 242-kilogram "land" bomb struck the flight deck, detonating on impact and creating an 11-foot (3.3 m) hole as well as killing 30 men. A minute or so later, a third bomb hit Hornet near where the first bomb hit, penetrating three decks before exploding, causing severe damage but no direct loss of life. At 09:14, a diving Val was hit and damaged by anti-aircraft fire directly over Hornet. The damaged Val crashed into Hornet’s stack, spreading burning aviation fuel over the signal deck.

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.

 



Last Updated ( Tuesday, 21 April 2009 17:37 )  

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