The Battle for Henderson Field
With Imperial Japanese Army troops still vainly struggling to subdue the beleaguered U.S. Marines who stubbornly clung to the Henderson Field perimeter like a drowning sailor to a preserver, Imperial General Headquarters was loath to leave the situation alone. Strict measures and decisive action would have to be taken to achieve the sort of overwhelming victory at Guadalcanal that morale and strategy required to keep the possibility of final victory open.
It was not surprising what the collective minds of the Imperial General Headquarters at Tokyo, still the top authority on the conduct of the war, and Combined Fleet with its seagoing headquarters on the "Hotel Yamato” in
beautiful and peaceful Truk lagoon, churned out for execution in the three final weeks of October, 1942.
Similar in appearance to the operations that had led to the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, but more extensive and carefully planned, their scheme offered a foolproof method of eliminating any American opposition to Japanese reinforcement runs to Guadalcanal – either by mere threat of force imposed on a weak opponent, or by 0attacking and destroying him if he dared oppose the Imperial Navy.
All operations would be tied to the progress of the 17th Army on Guadalcanal. General Kawaguchi, Commander-In-Chief, would set a time by which his forces would be placed in such fashion as to overwhelm the Americans (who were still considered rather weak in number and by comparison) and bring Henderson Field into Japanese possession. The IJN, with a powerful five-carrier force, would move forward to fall upon the U.S. Navy's flanks if it attempted its own reinforcement runs, evacuation maneuvers, or even tried to employ its carriers in a fleet battle.
The naval operations that would provide Kawaguchi with the necessary additional ground support – artillery pieces, supplies, and most importantly, more men -- would be conducted as two major reinforcement runs and repeated but regular runs of the Tokyo Express.
When Admiral Kondo, in charge of Combined Fleet operations, put to sea at 1330 on 11 October 1942, with two battleships and carriers Hiyo and Junyo, trailing Nagumo's three-carrier 3rd Fleet by three and a half hours, the first of these reinforcement runs was already being executed. It would be an awkward opening for the IJN's most carefully planned campaign. This first reinforcement run, a "singularly important” (-1-) run by a reinforced Tokyo Express, containing seaplane carriers Nisshin and Chitose, would lift heavy artillery, ammunition and men to Guadalcanal, necessary ingredients to General Kawaguchi's recipe for winning on the ground. Accompanying them would be 8th Fleet's CruDiv 6, or better, its three remnants, under Rear-Admiral Goto Aritomo. Their laborious task would be to shell and disable the feared Cactus Air Force and thus open a route for easier reinforcement both day and night. Alas, it did not turn out the way it was intended.
Express, preceding Goto, arrived at Guadalcanal and successfully disembarked
its load. Goto, however, stumbled unprepared into Rear-Admiral Norman Scott
and was soundly defeated in the ensuing battle of Cape Esperance.
It was a heavy blow to Japanese morale, and yet it happened to be only a partial defeat within the global scope of the campaign; the most important part, the safe delivery of Kawaguchi's highly needed reinforcements, was accomplished.
the Japanese reinforced, a small U.S. convoy under Rear-Admiral Richmond
Turner also approached Lunga Roads, carrying the National Guardsmen of
the 164th Regiment of the Americal Division to their first combat duty.
Crowded aboard two freighters were the 2,900 men of the regiment, plus
Turner arrived off Lunga on 13 October and stumbled into the major air offensive preparing for the IJN's second important convoy, this one not a Tokyo Express but a genuine convoy. It was fortunate for Turner that the 11th Air Fleet had not considered a strike at naval forces and chose to hit the runways of Henderson Field instead.
This convoy, called the "High Speed Convoy” by virtue of its comparatively fast movement, consisted of six fast transports and an escort of eight destroyers, and carried 4,500 men and many rounds of ammunition, again vital to the 17th Army on Guadalcanal.
this unit through, Combined Fleet had assigned it powerful support in the
form of two battleships, Kongo and Haruna, under the command
of Rear-Admiral Kurita Takeo, to bombard Henderson Field in the night before
the convoy's arrival. It was obvious that such a heavy shelling would incapacitate
U.S. air power on the island, and together with the carriers now within
supporting distance to the north, any threat to the convoy would be fought
Kurita's arrival at Lunga Roads in the first hours of 14 October was the first and last time that Henderson Field would be subjected to a battleship bombardment; alas, that took nothing away from the savageness of the action.
Kurita's sixteen 14” guns loaded with Type 3 bombardment shells(-2-) took to hitting Henderson Field for an hour and a half, and when Kurita departed, most of the Cactus Air Force had been obliterated, along with the greater part of its fuel reserves.
There had been light casualties overall, but the command staff of VMSB-141 and most of its planes had been destroyed, severely limiting Henderson Field's striking power on the last day it could possibly intervene with the High Speed Convoy's approach. Yamamoto hurried his forces south to engage a now-coverless U.S. fleet and win the campaign. However, Yamamoto was a bit over-ecstatic: Henderson, while severely hit, was in fighting spirits. The Americans scraped together every flyable plane to hit back at the convoy, which they did throughout the afternoon of 14 October. Their tireless efforts did little to decelerate the convoy's advance, but it was a vital feeling of doing something that would help efforts on the 15th. Imperial command units were in high spirits. Their important convoy anchored off Tassafaronga at midnight on the 14th, and commenced unloading immediately. A Tokyo Express added another 1,100 men to the landed troops, and Admiral Mikawa dropped another 700 8” shells within the Henderson Field perimeter, an effort which meant little to the Marines after Kurita's shelling the previous night.
2nd Fleet's carriers provided cover for the still-unloading convoy on the next morning, but several relays of attackers, first piecemeal, then coordinated, hit at the transports and forced three to beach themselves. One more transport was completely unloaded and retired, but Admiral Takama, in charge of the operation, abandoned the disembarkation and headed north of Savo, to maneuver his ships more effectively -- and never returned when the night, under a full moon, brought no relief from Henderson's constant attacks.
That night, yet another 8” bombardment, this one by cruisers Myoko and Maya, hit Henderson, but it neither turned the tide of operations. Henderson remained more or less operable, although the amount of planes it housed had considerably decreased.
On 16 October, the renewed aerial offensive cost the U.S. a destroyer, but finally, the Americans were reasonably close to offering the Japanese resistance at sea. Carrier Enterprise left the homely waters of the Hawaiian Islands, where she had been receiving extensive if rushed repairs for the past month, and headed south to reinforce the only carrier then available, Hornet. With her Air Group 10, the U.S. might actually be in a position to move against any further operations of the IJN. But while Enterprise proceeded on her seven-day journey from Pearl Harbor to the Solomons, the Japanese experienced further trouble. Though the reinforcements had been landed largely as scheduled, an early-morning bombardment by destroyers Aaron Ward and Lardner had laced the freshly stocked ammunition dump near the debarkation area of the previous convoy; 2,000 5” shells burst into the area and ignited the greater part of the vital stocks.
Accordingly, General Kawaguchi was unable to conduct his attack as planned (difficulties in moving his large forces also played into this decision), and he decided to postpone his move from the 20th to the 22nd – a move which the Navy only barely found out about.
The Imperial Navy had problems of its own. With all its major forces deployed at sea, fuel was getting critically low – so low that one of the supporting tankers had to return to Truk and take aboard fuel from battleships Yamato and Mutsu, for no other reserves were left at this advance base.
It was on 18 October 1942 that the campaign took its most sharp turn for the Allies when Admiral Nimitz, tired of Vice-Admiral Ghormley's (COMSOPAC) cautiousness (some said, timidity) and obvious disorganisation, with the approval of Admiral King relieved Ghormley and replaced him with Vice-Admiral William F. "Bull” Halsey. It was Halsey's finest hour. A stocky, tough-looking individual with a gritty face and personal manner that fit his nickname, this former Naval Academy boxer and football player was preceded by his reputation as a fiercely attack-minded fighter who cared little for formula but much for performance. His mere presence lifted American spirits and his first acts in office did likewise – he ordered neckties removed from Navy uniforms and moved the headquarters from pleasant but remote Auckland to the closer Nouméa.
The IJN, meanwhile, paid another price for the continuous delays in the opening of the ground campaign -- which had been postponed to the 24th -- when Hiyo, one of 2nd Fleet's carriers, suffered an engine breakdown on the 21st that could not be fixed at sea, forcing her to retire to Truk, leaving behind several of her planes that were transferred to Junyo.
It so came that 24 October would be the most important day for the Santa Cruz campaign. That morning, the Japanese launched their offensive on Henderson Field. In a battle lasting three days and nights, the Sendai Division hurled itself into the southern side of the U.S. perimeter, while IJN forces moved into support range to Guadalcanal's north, expecting the battle to be successful and hoping for a crack at the elusive U.S. Navy forces.
Those forces had met that same day some 850nm north of Guadalcanal. Hornet and her consorts under Rear-Admiral George Murray, and Enterprise with battleships South Dakota and her escorts under Rear-Admiral Thomas Kinkaid rendezvoused, the largest assembly of naval power the U.S. had in the Pacific and, but for Rear-Admiral Willis Lee's Washington surface action group, the only.
With Kinkaid in charge of tactical maneuvering, the U.S. had an able leader, but Enterprise lacked the elaborate fighter-direction offices of her younger sister, making Kinkaid's decision to control every element of the battle from the Big E a weak point in the plan.
In most other respects, as well, Kinkaid's position was less than enviable. Though he possessed two powerful carriers, his total air strength was less than the of the IJN, and his air crews, especially Enterprise’s Air Group Ten, were not up to the abilities of their counterparts. The confusion within the IJN's seagoing commands had not been helped by the repeated delays in the 17th Army's advance. Admiral Nagumo, after the second delay, and the second time he had to turn back out of his ongoing support operations, refused to go south again by the same course, considering it most likely that he would be detected early. From Truk came the stern reply of Vice-Admiral Ugaki – continue according to plan. Nagumo would be forced south whether he liked it or not.
when on the 24th the Army finally advanced to the attack, Nagumo and Kondo
took their units down their scheduled routes and sought out contact with
Kinkaid's weaker forces. The IJN was in high spirits and confident, and
a false report that Army forces had captured the airfield did not help
to leaven its anxiety to engage.
25 -- 27 October 1942
It was as Nagumo had predicted, however: just after noon on the 25th, one of the ubiquitous PBY Catalina flying boats snooped on Nagumo, and reported him back to Kinkaid and Halsey. From the latter, the very simple order went out: "Attack, Repeat, Attack”. The Battle of Santa Cruz was about to start.
Though Yamamoto was subsequently informed of the falsity of the Army's report of the capture of Henderson Field, the IJN continued to go charging down toward Guadalcanal. The IJN's disposition for this battle had considerably changed from how it had fought the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. No longer would surface forces sail behind the all-important carriers, waiting for the decisive surface engagement. Yamamoto had arrayed his surface forces, under Vice-Admirals Kondo and Abe, to take station some 60 miles ahead and to the flanks of Admiral Nagumo Chuichi's vital carriers.
Their task would be to draw search planes and attackers onto themselves, thus preventing damage to the carriers. They would perform rather well in this role. As both sides closed the prospective arena for their fight, both sides had to cope with different problems. Nagumo had his carriers detected at 0250 on the 26th, and the passing Catalina lost no time dropping a stick of bombs behind Zuikaku. Nagumo turned hard and moved north, Abe and Kondo corresponding to his moves. At 20 knots, the forces maintained this course until their first rendezvous with the enemy. Admiral Kinkaid had a strike group spotted on Hornet throughout the night in hopes of making use of a Catalina report within the first hours of the new day, but his hopes were not fulfilled. No contacts warm enough to warrant their pursuit were left, and thus Kinkaid ordered Enterprise to launch her own search-strike force, successive groups of two Dauntless dive bombers, each lugging a 500-lb. bomb. Eleven such pairs were in the air by 0500 on the 26th, and their search would bear fruit soon. First, a pair detected Admiral Abe's Vanguard Force, but at 0650, 200nm to the northwest of Kinkaid, two Dauntlesses had located Nagumo's carriers and carefully noted their position, speed and heading, before being chased off by Zeros. Kinkaid received this report quickly enough. So did two other Dauntless dive bombers, whose pilots made out Nagumo at 0740 and placed a bomb on the aft flight-deck of light carrier Zuiho, putting her out of the action.
Kinkaid ordered his planes to strike. From Hornet at 0730, twenty-nine planes lifted off, followed by nineteen from Enterprise at 0800, and eventually twenty-five more from Hornet at 0815. By the time these strikes were in the air, however, Nagumo had already cast his dice.
search, scout planes from cruisers and B5N Kate carrier attack planes from
Zuikaku, had succeeded in locating Kinkaid's barely separated carriers,
but although a sighting contact had been made by 0612, the aircrew did
not report this until 0658 and misidentified itself in the course of its
report; but although serious doubts were entertained by Nagumo and his
staff as to the quality of the report, they decided they could not ignore
it. At 0725, 62 planes from all three carriers of Nagumo's force had assembled
and were heading to the position indicated in the report of the scout.
Immediately, the three carriers re-spotted their remaining planes, but Zuiho's unhappy experience reduced the second wave to just Zuikaku's and Shokaku's planes – a further 48 planes to add to the first strike.
It was most unfortunate for the Americans that both Japanese and American aircraft had to pass through the same space of air. A mere 60nm from its home, the Enterprise strike was bounced by the incoming Japanese strike's escorts and lost eight planes without being able to effect sufficient retribution. The Americans informed their vessels; in both Hornet and Enterprise, action was taken to brace the ship for damage. The Japanese came into radar range not long after their struggle with Enterprise’s airstrike; they headed for Hornet.
to intercept them, but it was to little avail, since the Enterprise
Fighter Direction Officer completely failed to deliver effective information
to the fighters.
Hornet and her escorts increased speed and tightened distances, and when dive bombers were spotted overhead, Captain Mason started swinging his command around. But although he was able to avoid a good part of the bombs launched at him, three bombs smashed into his deck, and one more crashed into her accompanied by its mother plane, testimony of the deadliness of Hornet's defensive fire – as were the wrecks of another sixteen aircraft strewn around the carrier. But the hits were severe, and the simultaneous attacks by B5N Kates didn't help either. While two torpedoes smashed into her starboard side, another D3A Val dive bomber crossed her deck diagonally and plowed into the deck and forward elevator well.
Fifteen minutes had transformed Hornet into a blazing wreck, motionlessly sitting on the ocean with thick black smoke belching from her innards. She had taken 38 of 52 Japanese with her; but her future looked exceedingly bleak. Meanwhile, the Hornet attack group had, at 0918, detected 3rd Fleet's carrier force, distinctively marked by the smoking Zuiho, but lacked power since its poorly organized strike had lost cohesion on the flight. One Dauntless was brought down by defending Zeros, and two quit their attack runs after damage, but the remaining eleven scored a total of four bomb hits from stem to stern on the carrier, leaving her badly aflame and out of the battle for good. Almost two years would pass before she would ever launch offensive strikes again.
Nagumo, now with two of his three carriers out of action and Zuikaku's air group fully committed, retired to the north awaiting the results of his strikes, while on the other side, Hornet's damage control crews worked frantically to restore that carrier's fighting power.
Kinkaid had knocked out two carriers for the price of one, though Enterprise’s small strike had not found a flattop and had elected to strike elements of the Vanguard Force, failing to damage anything. Hornet's second strike had had no luck either, finding only the heavy cruiser Chikuma and plastering her with four bombs, it left her in a moderately damaged condition. In Enterprise, the day's actions had not spelled much luck for the newly arrived carrier. A freak torpedo accident involving a TBF torpedo released by the ditching plane caused heavy damage to destroyer Porter, and Kinkaid ordered the destroyer sunk, expecting further action and not wanting the complications of having his screen weakened. The airborne ambush of her strike group was not a good luck sign either, and now, at 1000, the greenish pips of airborne contacts appeared on the screens in Enterprise’s radar compartment. Once more, her Fighter Direction sprang into action, moving divisions of blue Wildcat fighters around the sky to bounce the bogeys and save the invaluable flight deck of America's last Pacific carrier, but their efforts were largely in vain.
Enterprise's guns, including sixteen of the new and deadly 40mm Bofors, and those guns of her escorts that could provide even the slightest aid in protecting the flattop, were brought to bear on an as yet invisible enemy. Enterprise's fire-control radar failed her; and it was the naked eyes of her topside lookouts that caught the first glimpse of the shiny-gray dive bombers that came hurtling through an empty sky devoid of anti-aircraft fire, at 1015.
from the screen and Enterprise's gun galleries came the sudden burst
of gunfire that in carrier battles marked the beginning of swift action
with critically important results. AA cruiser San Juan and battleship
South Dakota seemed as if dyed in the red of fire and gray of smoke
as their powerful five-inch batteries opened up simultaneously. The continuous
rattling of 20mm and 40mm artillery added yellow tracers that pointed at
the incoming strike planes, and on her open bridge, Enterprise’s
Captain Osborne Hardison shouted the helmsmen steering orders for maneuvers
designed to fool the Imperial Navy's assault pilots. It was not until 1017
that the first bomb caught Enterprise on her flight deck's overhang
and exploded in the air off-board her port bow. Almost at the same instant,
another bomb penetrated near her forward elevator and blew up below, igniting
fires and wiping out a repair party. Another violent near-hit shook the
entire ship at 1019, wrecking the plating of two oil tanks and causing
the entire ship to flex up-and-downward for several seconds.
||Enterprise was in bad condition, but she had been spared the coordinated attacks that had gotten Hornet. The B5N strike of torpedo planes followed only twenty minutes later, first coming into sight at 1044. Captain Hardison moved to comb the wakes of three launched torpedoes, then swerved around his command to bring her out of the danger of hitting destroyer Shaw and a fourth torpedo. More torpedo tracks were avoided, and when the last Kate had pointed her spinner for home, Enterprise was steaming at 27 knots, South Dakota off her starboard quarter, having defiantly withstood two separate attacks.|
||In shallow runs forced upon them by the closing squall, several Vals were blasted apart by the combat-experienced gunners of Enterprise and the new but eager gun crews of South Dakota. One bomb came reasonably close to hitting the carrier, but did not; she would stay unharmed through the attack. Other Vals chose other targets, South Dakota and San Juan being their most appreciated targets. Neither sustained serious harm, although both were hit and temporarily lost their steering control. Enterprise, her center elevator down and her forward elevator locked involuntarily in the "Up” position, recommenced landing her planes. It was largely due to the brilliance of Enterprise's LSO, Lt. Robin Lindsay, waving the paddles at his station on the starboard side of the flight deck, that 57 planes were recovered by 1500.|
Kakuta had scraped the bottom of his plane contingent, assembling seven
B5N Kates with as many Zeros as escorts, and found the wounded carrier
at 1520. Put into a corner, unable to move, Hornet fought back with
the ferociousness of a wounded animal, but her electricity had not returned,
and all she could provide for her own defense were the 20mm guns, hand-held
and –aimed, along her starboard side. Two Kates were shot down; two pointed
themselves at Northampton; two torpedoes missed – but at 1523, one
scored within feet of the first torpedo hit that day, and finished the
carrier. Without the slightest chance of regaining her own forward
momentum, with her engine rooms wrecked and unable to escape the coming
onslaught of surface action groups surely heading for her, Admiral Murray
ordered her abandoned, a decision to which Zuikaku's last, third
strike could add little.
Murray, aboard Pensacola, ordered destroyer Mustin to sink the derelict carrier, which she attempted with her eight torpedoes. Hornet refused to go under, and destroyer Anderson coming on the scene couldn't help the process either, although she added eight more torpedoes . When Hornet stubbornly clung to her life, both destroyers pumped five-inch shells into her until the presence of Japanese ships suggested a swift retirement. It was two IJN destroyers that with four Type 93 torpedoes ended Hornet's agony at 0135 on 27 October.
Aftermath and Results
The morning of 27 October saw Enterprise in bad condition. Her forward elevator was stuck in the "Up” position, no one daring to move it for fear of having it stuck in the "Down” position. Her task force was in good condition, but she would be severely handicapped for several weeks to come. The loss of Hornet was a serious blow to American strategic planning.
It was fortunate indeed that the IJN, on recovering its carrier planes, found that it had lost the larger part of them. None of the four fighting airgroups had enough planes left to continue operations; with the shot-down planes, many hundreds of Japan's last highly trained aviators had perished. The rapier that Evans and Peattie pointed the IJNAF out to be, the brittle weapon of a range fighter, had been thrust against the hardened steel of the USN and had shattered, leaving the IJN with but a dagger. The Imperial Army's failure to capture Henderson Field, and the destruction of so many fine planes and pilots, all combined to make the outcome of Santa Cruz, thoughan immediate Japanese tactical victory, a critical strategic defeat. The Americans were still stubbornly tied to the airfield, and Enterprise, though reduced in capabilities, still formed a potent weapon. It would be up to the next month to decide who had come out the victor of this engagement, for it set the stage for the coming succession of surface battles.