The Battle of Santa Cruz
The campaign for Guadalcanal was one of the most intensely fought battles in World War II, where all the elements of modern warfare—land, sea, and air—played important roles in the eventual outcome. From the perspective of naval aviation, land-based squadrons operating from Henderson Field provided close air support to Marines fighting on the ground, battled the Japanese for control of the air, attacked Japanese ships attempting to resupply and reinforce their forces on the island, and evacuated casualties. At sea, the embattled waters off Guadalcanal were the scene of two of the four carrier vs. carrier engagements fought by between the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy during the first year of World War II. The final one, the Battle of Santa Cruz, occurred on October 26, 1942.
In most of the naval actions around Guadalcanal, a Japanese offensive on land occurred in conjunction with events at sea and such was the case in the Battle of Santa Cruz. In October 1942, with all previous attempts to regain control of the island having failed, the Japanese high command initiated plans for major assault on Guadalcanal, sending powerful naval forces to the area to land additional forces and support a major assault against the Marines defending Henderson Field. Having recently relieved Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley as Commander, South Pacific Force and South Pacific Area, Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey infused his aggressive fighting spirit into the command, directing his only carriers—Enterprise (CV 6) and Hornet (CV 8)— into position to intercept these Japanese ships approaching Guadalcanal.
On October 25th, Enterprise, which had only recently returned to the South Pacific after hasty repairs to battle damage suffered during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons the previous August, joined Hornet in launching searches in an attempt to find Japanese ships. Their efforts, along with those of a PBY Catalina flying boat, yielded results by the next day with the spotting of an enemy ships, including the carriers Zuiho, Shokaku, and Zuikaku, the latter two flattops part of the force that had attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Over the course of the morning hours, the American and Japanese carriers each launched strike groups seeking out the other, with Hornet dive-bombers en route to their targets actually passing a Japanese strike group heading in the opposite direction. Over the enemy carriers, the American pilots and gunners found heavy resistance from the ships’ antiaircraft guns as well as defending Japanese Zero fighters. Nevertheless, they pressed home their attacks, scoring hits on Shokaku and Zuiho, the heavy cruiser Chikuma, and two destroyers.
Arriving over the American ships, Japanese pilots damaged Enterprise, the battleship South Dakota (BB 57), and the cruiser San Juan (CL 54), but focused most of their attention on Hornet. With the enemy executing a perfectly coordinated dive-bombing and torpedo attack, the ship shuddered from both underwater blows and bombs raining down from above. “The leader of 15 dive-bombers, his plane on fire, bore in, hitting us with three bombs,” recalled Rear Admiral Francis D. Foley, who as a lieutenant commander was air operations officer in Hornet during the battle. “One detonated on the flight deck, another as his plane plummeted into the stack, and the third was a heavy dud that penetrated to the gallery deck. The shattered signal bridge, just over my head, suffered 12 killed or wounded and was aflame from a gasoline fire.” All told, 135 men lost their lives on board the carrier before the end of the day.
When the sun began to set on October 26th, the battle of Santa Cruz was over for all but one ship. Hornet, her crew having abandoned ship, refused to surrender to the sea, even as American destroyers fired torpedoes into her in attempts to send her to the bottom. It took torpedoes fired from Japanese ships that arrived on the scene after U.S. ships had retired to deliver the last blows of the Battle of Santa Cruz, a tactical victory for the Japanese, but in a strategic sense a victory for the United States in its disruption of the ultimately failed Japanese offensive to seize control of Guadalcanal.