Prologue: Attacking „Cactus“
At Imperial General Headquarters, realization of the true American strength at Guadalcanal was slow to come, and accordingly, few Japanese leaders appreciated the difficulty of the situation they were presented with.
The necessity of reinforcing Guadalcanal’s garrison had been seen by Admiral Mikawa, Commander, 8th Fleet, as soon as the information of the landing had reached him. But the relief effort, a mere transport with 500 men of lightly armed men, insufficent in the first place, had not even reached Guadalcanal: the US submarine S-38 had caught the lumbering vessel off Cape St. George a mere two days after the ship had set sail.
There was now the opportunity to land troops and wipe the Allies off - Vice-Admiral Frank Fletcher had moved his carriers away from Guadalcanal on the 8th, and the new airstrip, christened Henderson Field after a Marine dive-bomber major killed at Midway, was not yet operatable.
However, above cited failure to accurately determine enemy strength defeated the Japanese in the two weeks from Savo Island to the Eastern Solomons. Army leaders at Rabaul still preferred their Buna operation, destined to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea, by way of crossing the towering Owen-Stanley-Mountains. For Guadalcanal, they could spare little more than Colonel Ichiki Kiyoano’s 900-men „detachment“, actually the on echelon of the 28th Infantry Regiment, originally destined to capture Midway, but now sitting uselessly at Truk, Japan’s Caroline Islands base. Rear-Admiral Tanaka Raizo, soon-to-be destroyer-wizard, was supposed to give them lift to Guadalcanal on six destroyers.
While the resources of the immediate area where drawn on to aid Japanese efforts at holding Guadalcanal, the Combined Fleet analysed the situation presenting itself at ist south-eastern flank, and drew the conclusion that Combined Fleet attention was warranted on August 8th, issuing orders to the fleet anchored in the Inland Sea.
August, Vice-Admiral Nagumo Chuichi bade farewell to the commander-in-chief,
and sortied with carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku and Ryujo, battleships Hiei
and Kirishima, and heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma, and their destroyer
support. The main body of the Second Fleet, under Vice-Admiral Kondo Nobutake,
Cruiser Divisions 4 and 5, with five heavy cruisers, their destroyer escorts
and the seaplane tender Chitose, were ordered to deploy toward Truk as
A day later, the rest of the Combined Fleet, including Admiral Yamamoto and his flagship, battleship Yamato, set sail for Truk at a leisurely pace that would not allow them to arrive in time for battle.
Preparations on the Japanese side were poor: little had been decided before the sortie regarding strategy or tactics.
14th, Admiral Tanaka had taken out his six destroyers for the dash south,
and landed Ichiki’s 915 men on Guadalcanal on the sixteenth, moving off
before anybody could interfere. Ichiki’s landing force was, however, not
able to appreciate the firm ground under their feet after the destroyer
voyage for long; in the Battle of the Tenaru, 800 of them died at the hands
of General Vandegrift’s Marines.
There was, however, still another attempt running to reinforce the island, 1500 men of the second echelon of Ichiki’s regiment, and the 5th Yokosuka Special Landing Force. Once more, the audacious Tanaka would be called upon to bring the forces to Guadalcanal, though this time, he would have three transports carrying the forces, and a cover of a light cruiser, the Jintsu, and eight destroyers.
Nagumo’s forces for one moved at a leisurely pace of 18 knots toward their objective, destined to arrive at Truk on the 20th of August, there to meet Kondo and outline plans to disrupt the enemy ground forces. However, upon receiving the news of Ichiki’s defeat, Yamamoto ordered the Nagumo force to proceed directly to Guadalcanal, eliminating any chance for coordination of efforts beyond pure luck.(- 1 -)
Compared with Yamamoto’s problems of not knowing the enemy strength, not knowing his intentions, and being late in sortieing, American problems were almost delightfully small. There was no need to act - the Japanese would be certain to act, and American forces could place high hopes in their intelligence, which up to now had placed US forces on the advantage at the Coral Sea and at Midway. Furthermore, Vice-Admiral Frank Fletcher had a mighty array of naval vessels at his disposal, stronger than the force he had had at Midway. His three flattops, Saratoga, Enterprise and Wasp, were protected by the new fast battleship North Carolina, seven cruisers, and eighteen destroyers. Between them the carriers had 217 planes, forty-four more than Nagumo. Further strength was added by Marine Air Group 23 at Henderson Field, having flown in from the escort carrier Long Island on the 20th.
Fletcher’s forces had been at sea since the landing at Guadalcanal, staying well south-east of Guadalcanal. In the next days, however, Fletcher was to experience some of the most discomforting hours of his career, especially since the vaunted US intelligence services did not serve their purpose as they had done in the past.
Although the obvious indication of the sailing of the Nagumo Force, a radio black-out, had been noted in Pearl Harbor, the right conclusion was not drawn, and it was not until 22nd that the daily CinCPAC intelligence summary carried Nagumo’s Shokaku and Zuikaku „en route“ to Truk, where in reality, those two ships were long past the atoll, refueling from tankers, and preparing for battle, only two days away.
Vice-Admiral Robert Lee Ghormley meanwhile had his own interpretations of the CinCPAC intelligence communications, and advised Fletcher that enemy attacks were considered imminent, and that it was considered „highly likely“ that enemy carriers were with the opposition. What he could not provide Fletcher with, however, was a count of the enemy and his intentions. Those would be evident soon.
22nd, Ghormley adviced Fletcher one last time before the battle: he was
to fuel as soon as possible, and Fletcher, having August 25th as the date
on which the Japanese were to attack, detached Rear-Admiral Leigh Noyes’
Wasp task force to fuel south of the other forces on August 23rd. His remembrance
of the Wake relief, with the order to fuel as often as possible, must have
made him anxious to get the fueling done quickly, and his intelligence
didn’t point to any date before August 25th, so little was there to say
against fueling Wasp immediately - unfortunately, it deprived hapless Fletcher
of almost a third of his strength.
One last act had to be played before the stage was set for the great showdown.
The Battle of the Eastern Solomons
As the forces steamed toward each other, the elaborate net spread out by search planes of both sides once more extended over the approaches to Guadalcanal. On the U.S. side, Rear-Admiral McCain, COMAIRSOPAC, had planes at Guadalcanal (MAG23), at Espiritou Santo (PBYs and B-17s), and a small force of six PBYs on the island of Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands. One of these planes made contact on the 23rd around 0950 with Admiral Tanaka’s Reinforcement Group, and at 1445, Saratoga turned into the wind and flew off 31 dive bombers and 6 torpedo planes to strike at the enemy, supported by eleven dive bombers and their fighter escort from Guadalcanal.
Luck was not with the Americans that day. The redoubtable Tanaka, knowing he had been sighted, turned his forces north to avoid attack, and did so well. On his move, in order not to confuse their plans, Nagumo and Kondo turned 180° at 1800 as well, maintaining this course for twelve hours before starting south again. Tanaka had already changed his course at Midnight, now once more moving toward his objective.
flight accompanied the Henderson-based planes back to their base, spending
the night in the mud of the newly ready airfield, their visit enlivened
by a short-timed shelling of the airfield by Imperial Navy destroyer Kagero.
The next day once more saw the tentacles of search planes spread their fingers toward the unknown enemy. At 0200 on August 24th, light carrier Ryujo, heavy cruiser Tone, destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze detached from the Nagumo force, heading south at 24 knots under the command of Rear-Admiral Hara Chuichi, Commander, Cruiser Division 7. A two-fold mission was to be accomplished by her, the first a strike on Henderson Field, the second the covering of the convoy (- 2 -).
Her first mission Ryujo was bound to complete, but all signs stood that she would not be in for an easy ride. Around 0920 +/-15, one more of the ubiquitous Catalina flying boats from Ndeni sighted Hara’s light carrier proceeding southward. Another contact was made with the Advanced Force under Kondo and the Vanguard Force under Abe, basically the major part of the carriers’ screening vessels arrayed ahead of the carriers, at unspecified times (- 3 -).
rate, Fletcher faced a tough problem. With Ryujo sighted, Fletcher
could hardly ignore her, but where there was one carrier, there would likely
be others more, and Fletcher could not risk jumping at Ryujo under
Thus, Fletcher ordered Enterprise to launch a search. Rear-Admiral Kinkaid commanding Enterprise’s TF complied with these orders, launching sixteen SBDs and seven TBFs on a search out to 250 nautical miles at 1315 (- 4 -).
Several contacts were made with other Japanese vessels around 1400, including an aledged carrier, and Kondo’s surface forces, but already at 1345, Fletcher decided that enough certainly was enough and launched his strike group from Saratoga against Ryujo. One and a half hours earlier, Ryujo had made its first and only contribution to this battle, launching fifteen A6M2 Zero fighters and six B5N Kate torpedo planes (or, per IJN designations, Type 97 carrier attack plane) against Guadalcanal. A further eight fighters and three torpedo planes remained back aboard the carrier, but it was not going to be of any use (- 5 -).
Ryujo had already been bombed by a B-17 from Espiritou Santo, but remained unhit. However, her missing combat air patrol left the ship wide open to attack. At 1536, Lt.-Comdr. Harry D. Felt’s Saratoga air group found Ryujo, immediately commencing their attack. For all his failings in handling his CAP, Captain Tadeo Kato of Ryujo handled his ship well, and escaped the majority of bombs launched against him. However, his luck was about to run out when Felt himself took on the vessel, scoring the first of three hits on the light carrier. Supportingly, a TBF put a torpedo into the carrier’s soft underbelly. There was no chance of survival for the bombed and burning ship, going under at 2000.
In the meantime, however, Fletcher found he had been tricked. At 1430, Nagumo’s force had been located by Catalinas, but Fletcher was left without major reserves. Only thirty strike planes remained to him, though over fifty fighters would be covering his ships. He desperately tried to raise the Ryujo strike group in an effort to change their target, but the cluttered air waves did not permit him to. The carriers had to prepare for the worst.
better had. Nagumo had known the location of the U.S. forces since a Chikuma
floatplane had snooped on the Enterprise formation at 1430.
Though downed by the Enterprise CAP, Nagumo’s staff easily calculated
from the planes final transmission its location, and at 1455 Shokaku
and Zuikaku flew off their first strike since the Battle of
the Coral Sea.
A small intersection here is needed to warrant the exploits of the Enterprise search. This probably most busy reconnaisance flight of the war brought Enterprise’s planes contacts and attacks on the Ryujo; the Advance Force; the carrier force; and the seaplane tender Chitose, badly damaged in an attack by two dive bombers.
itself, however, was in for the roughest time in her life up to then. At
1600, the first glimpse of enemy planes was caught on radar, estimated
at 85nm out, twelve thousand feet („Angels 12“). Enterprise lost
track for thirty minutes, but then, contact with the enemy was re-established,
the enemy heading straight in, at 25nm distance. F4F-4 Wildcat fighters
scrambled and headed out, engaging the enemy. Claims ran high, and certainly
losses on both sides were severe; but the American fliers could not stop
the approaching enemy. Both U.S. carriers turned their guns skyward, both
carrier forces headed south-eastward. At 1642, the chilling message was
heard, „Enemy planes directly overhead“. Enterprise saw them first,
silvery-gray Val dive bombers, with their large wings and fixed undercarriage.
Heavy anti-air fire took to the skies, directed at the bombers now approaching
the empty Enterprise, her air group having flown off to hit the
derelict Ryujo. Captain Arthur C. Davis tried his best to keep his
carrier intact, but there were 25 Vals overhead, meaning 25 bombs. He evaded
22 of them; but three crashed into his carrier. The first scored on the
forward elevator, followed seconds later by a second in the same general
area. The third bomb, like the first but unlike the second, exploded on
impact on the flight-deck aft of the bridge, wiping away an AA battery,
blocking the second elevator, but being far from its maximum capacity.
Quite astonishingly, Enterprise’s damage control had no problems with this superficial damage. Her speed unreduced, Enterprise headed off, making 24 knots.
However, at 1821, she suffered a serious problem: due to the damage, ventilation to the steering compartment had been shut down, and the increasing heat down below had knocked out the men there. Then, with half the crew unconcious, ventilation was restored, sucking foam and water down into the compartment, where the fluids damged the electric motors controlling the rudder. Enterprise staggered helplessly around, and the approaching evening seemed to spell doom for the carrier: radar picked up 30 bogies, Shokaku and Zuikaku’s second strike, at 50 miles.
Fortune held her hand over the carrier that day, as she would do numerous times in the future. Shokaku and Zuikaku’s air groups missed their prey, and Enterprise crewmen got the rudder working in time. The coming of night signalled an end to the battle, as both forces retired toward their respective rear-areas. Enterprise planes landed on Henderson Field or Saratoga. Nagumo had lost seventy planes, and once more, the heavy carriers were out of the fight because of lacking air strength. Ryujo had been lost; and the strategic objective had not been achieved.
Epilogue: Convoy Hunt on 25th August
After some wandering around, Rear-Admiral Tanaka was ordered at Midnight 24th August tohead south and comply with his reinforcement orders. He received three destroyers in support before daybreak on the 25th, but by then, had already been detected by a PBY at night. The first planes to attack were eight SBDs from Henderson Field, one of their bombs penetrating deep into the light cruiser Jintsu, Tanaka’s flagship, knocking out two guns, killing many men, and ruining Tanaka’s conciousness. A second, a former Enterprise plane, hit the transport Kinryu Maru, threatening with immediate destruction: the freighter carried much needed ammunition for the Guadalcanal garrison. Tanaka, upon regaining his senses, turned north contrary to orders but quite reasonably, sending three destroyers to aid the wrecked transport, and detaching his flagship for the Shortlands, shifting his flag to destroyer Kagero. Tanaka’s care for the Kinryu Maru was not to be honored by the gods of war. Shortly after 1025, B-17 appeared on the scene, sighting the destroyer Mutsuki alongside the freighter. Her captain refused to head away, disdaining the use of heavy bombers on ships. The Army planes honored his belief with a 500 pound bomb penetrating his engine room, killing forty, and rendering the ship unsalvageable. Kinryu Maru also sank.
Upon this news, Tanaka was ordered to retire and was provided cover from the carrier Zuikaku.
of the battle amounted to a strategic victory for the U.S., and certainly
a tactical draw if not victory on the tactical level. Enterprise headed
back to Pearl Harbor for a quick repair, by way of Tongatabu. Her air group
found refuge on Guadalcanal. Essentially, the US had only lost the maneuverability
of their air group, and for no longer than a month. It was a small price
to pay, for at any rate, the enemy would have to fight at a place of U.S.
choosing, comfortably near Guadalcanal. On the other hand, the loss of
Ryujo deprived the Japanese of the service of yet another carrier
to cover approaches to Guadalcanal. Shokaku and Zuikaku were
out of the battle for another month. On the other side, Enterprise was
replaced with Hornet having hurried down from Hawaii, and with Wasp
back on the line, America retained all advantages. The Battle of the
Eastern Solomons had given the Allies valuable time to build up and breath
|Carrier Strike Force,
Mobile Fleet, Main Body, Vice-Adm. Nagumo:
Vanguard Force, Close Support, Rear-Adm. Abe:
Support Force (Advanced Force), Vice-Adm. Kondo:
11 Vice-Adm. Fletcher:
CA New Orleans
TF 16 Rear-Adm. Kinkaid: