Santa Cruz Islands

Relief map of Santa Cruz Islands

The Santa Cruz Islands are a small group north of the New Hebrides and east of the Solomons. Their only significant product was Kauri pine. These volcanic, jungle-clad islands were strategically located for the Guadalcanal campaign, but were completely lacking in facilities. Furthermore, the islands hosted so virulent a strain of malaria (cerebral malaria) that the American attempt to build a base at Ndeni had to be abandoned. The islands were quite literally uninhabitable by Westerners.

Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The Japanese won a naval victory on October 26, 1942, near the Santa Cruz Islands. Japanese carrier forces were stationed in the area in anticipation of flying their air groups to Henderson Field, on Guadalcanal, once it was captured by Japanese Army units. Kinkaid received code breaker intelligence of the move and tried to interfere.

First contact came on 23 October when a Catalina spotted one of the Japanese carriers. A torpedo strike by Catalinas that night failed to find the enemy. Contact was lost again the next day. On 25 October the American carrier forces were north of Ndeni and the Japanese some 350 miles northwest of the Americans, when at noon two more Catalinas spotted the Japanese. The weather was poor and the contact could not be held. Search aircraft from the American carriers failed to pick up the Japanese, who had reversed course when they knew they had been detected. However, in the early hours of 26 October, another Catalina torpedo strike came very close to hitting Zuikaku. At this time, the Japanese were milling around north of the Solomons, awaiting the outcome of the Guadalcanal land offensive.

At 0512, Kinkaid received word that a Catalina had spotted the Japanese 200 miles to the northwest of his position, and at about the same time Halsey sent out the order "Attack -- repeat -- attack!" Minutes earlier Kinkaid had ordered the launch of eight pairs of Dauntless scouts. At 0650 a pair of scouts spotted Nagumo's carriers less than 200 miles to the northwest. In the meanwhile, at 0658 a Kate had spotted Kinkaid's group, and Nagumo launched a 65-plane strike. Preparations to launch a second wave of 44 aircraft commenced.

At 0740 a pair of scouts dove on Zuiho, scoring two bomb hits that wrecked her flight deck and started fires. The dive bombers escaped, claiming two Zeros on their way out. However, Zuiho had already launched her strike.

The American strikes were slow to launch and not well coordinated. A first wave of 21 strike aircraft and 8 fighter escorts was launched at 0730 and a second wave of 11 strike aircraft and 8 fighters was launched half an hour later. At 0815 a third wave of 18 strike aircraft and 7 fighters began climbing into the air. Because the targets were at rather long range, each wave headed off immediately rather than attempting to form up with the other waves. The Japanese and American strikes spotted each other on their way out, and one of the American waves, from Enterprise,  lost six strike aircraft to the escorting Zeros of the Japanese strike. This cost the Japanese three Zeros.

Kinkaid had 38 Wildcats stacked over his force, but the Enterprise fighter directors were inexperienced: Halsey had taken the veteran fighter director with him to Noumea when he assumed command of the South Pacific. The Japanese strike was not identified on radar until 0857, when it was 45 miles away. The American air cover was too low and too close to the American carriers for effective interception. At 0900 Enterprise entered a rain squall and the first Japanese wave concentrated on Hornet. One bomb hit the flight deck and two others scored very near misses. More damage was inflicted by a crippled Val that crashed through the flight deck. Two torpedo hits in the engineering spaces left Hornet crippled, and she soon collected three more bomb hits and was crashed by another crippled aircraft. The Japanese lost 25 aircraft.

Meanwhile, at 0925, eleven Dauntlesses of Hornet's strike penetrated the Japanese defenses and planted at least three bombs on Shokaku's flight deck, destroying her hangars and starting intense fires. Shokaku would be out of the war for the next nine months. Hornet's torpedo bombers missed the Japanese group entirely. Enterprise's strike group, already reduced by its encounter with the Zeros escorting the Japanese strike, failed to hit any targets. The second wave from Hornet also missed the carriers, but badly damaged cruiser Chikuma.

By 1000 the fires on Hornet were coming under control, but propulsion was still out. Northampton took the carrier under tow, but the arrival of the second Japanese wave delayed the towing efforts. A single Val dove on Hornet and missed, while the remainder of the strike went after Enterprise.

The Enterprise force had already lost destroyer Porter, likely torpedoed by I-21. The ship was evacuated and scuttled. The Japanese dive bombers of the second wave arrived ahead of the torpedo bombers and attacked without waiting for the Kates. Although the strike had been detected 55 miles out, the Wildcats failed to intercept effectively, and the defense was left to the antiaircraft gunners. South Dakota shot down at least 27 aircraft, but Enterprise suffered two hits and a near miss. One hit near the bows did relatively little damage, but the second bomb jammed the forward elevator and did considerable damage below decks. Half an hour later the Kates arrived. About 14 broke through the Wildcats and nine succeeded in launching torpedoes. Sharp maneuvering by Captain Hardison prevented any hits on Enterprise, but a Kate crashed into destroyer Smith and badly damaged her.

At 1101 South Dakota picked up a strike of 29 aircraft from Junyo. Confusion with returning Dauntlesses prevented effective interception, but the weather was unsettled enough that Enterprise suffered nothing worse than another near miss. However, South Dakota and San Juan each suffered a hit. Enterprise resumed flight operations, but at a much reduced pace, due to the damaged forward elevator.

By 1330 Hornet was under tow while most of her crew were being evacuated from the ship. Meanwhile the Japanese had sent Zuiho and Shokaku hurrying north and out of the battle. The Japanese had lost almost 100 aircraft. But at 1315 Junyo had got off another strike, which caught Hornet without air cover and hit her with another torpedo and a bomb. Her aft engine room rapidly flooded and her list became 14 degrees. The ship was doomed and the order to abandon her was given at about 1550. At 1702 a final small strike from Junyo scored an additional bomb hit. By dark the ship was totally abandoned, and Mustin was sent in to deliver the coup de grace. Eight torpedoes scored just three hits, and Hornet refused to sink. Anderson then closed in, scoring six hits with eight torpedoes. Hornet still stayed afloat. The two destroyers pumped some 430 shells into the hulk without effect, other than to set the carrier ablaze from bow to stern. It was left to the Japanese to finish the ship when they arrived, destroyers Makigumo and Akigumo from Abe's surface force delivering the final blows at 0135 on 27 October.

By daybreak on 27 October Kinkaid was retiring to Noumea, while Lee's surface group, which had not yet engaged, was attacked by a submarine that narrowly missed Washington. As a result of this incident, Halsey decided that he would no longer operate capital ships for long durations at sea where they were torpedo bait, and Lee also withdrew.

The battle was clearly a serious tactical defeat for the Americans. Hornet and a destroyer were sunk and Enterprise damaged in exchange for damage to two Japanese carriers and a cruiser. On the other hand, the Japanese Army offensive on Guadalcanal had failed, foiling the Japanese aircraft ferry mission, and the Japanese failed to exploit their naval advantage by raiding Espiritu Santo or Noumea. Thus, strategically, the Japanese could claim no better than a draw. Worse, the Japanese tactical victory was a Pyrrhic one, costing 148 aircrew, including 23 flight leaders. American fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners discerned a noticeable loss in skill on the part of Japanese pilots, indicating that fatal attrition was already setting in, but the Americans still had much to learn about fighter direction and long-range search.

U.S. order of battle

South Pacific Force (Halsey; at Noumea)     

Task Force 16 (Kinkaid)

CV Enterprise

Air Group 10

1 TBF-1 Avenger

VF-10: 34 F4F-4 Wildcat

VB-10: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless

VS-10: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless

VT-10: 12 TBF-1 Avenger

BB South Dakota

Screen (Tisdale)

CA Portland

CLAA San Juan Badly damaged

DD Porter

DD Mahan

DD Cushing

DD Preston

DD Smith Damaged

DD Maury

DD Conyngham

DD Shaw

Task Force 17 (Murray)

CV Hornet Sunk

Air Group 8

1 TBF-1 Avenger

VF-72: 36 F4F-4 Wildcat

VB-8: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless     

VS-8: 18 SBD-3 Dauntless

VT-6: 15 TBF-1 Avenger

Screen (Good)

CA Northampton

CA Pensacola

CLAA San Diego

CLAA Juneau

DD Morris

DD Anderson

DD Hughes

DD Mustin

DD Russell

DD Barton

Task Force 64 (Lee)
Did not engage

BB Washington

CA San Francisco

CL Helena

CLAA Atlanta

DD Aaron Ward

DD Benham

DD Fletcher

DD Lansdowne

DD Lardner

DD McCalla

Task Force 63 (Fitch)

Henderson Field

26  F4F-4 Wildcat

6 P-400

6 P-39 Airacobra

20 SBD Dauntless 

2 TBF Avenger

Espiritu Santo

24  F4F-4 Wildcat

39 B-17 Flying Fortresses

12 Hudson

32 PBY Catalina

5 OS2U  Kingfisher

AV Curtiss

AVP Mackinac

New Caledonia

46 P-39 Airacobra

15 P-38 Lightning

16 B-26 Marauder

13 Hudson RNZAF

Japanese order of battle

Combined Fleet (Yamamoto)     

BB Yamato (at Truk)

Guadalcanal Supporting Forces (Kondo)     

Advance Force (Kondo)     

Cruiser Division 4

CA Atago

CA Takao

Cruiser Division 5 (Omori)

CA Myoko

CA Maya

Screen (Tanaka)

CL Isuzu

DD Naganami

DD Makinami

DD Takanami

DD Umikaze

DD Kawakaze    

DD Suzukaze

Air Group (Kakuta)
Also included Hiyo, but she suffered an engineering casualty and did not participate in the battle.

CV Junyo

24 A6M Zero

21 D3A Val

10 B5N Kate


DD Kuroshio

DD Hayashio

Support Group (Kurita)

BB Kongo

BB Haruna

DD Oyashio

DD Kagero

DD Murasame

DD Samidare

DD Yudachi

DD Harusame

Striking Force (Nagumo)

Carrier Group (Nagumo)

CV Shokaku
Badly damaged

18 A6M Zero

20 D3A Val

23 B5N Kate

CV Zuikaku

27 A6M Zero

27 D3A Val

18 B5N Kate

CVL Zuiho
Badly damaged

18 A6M Zero

6 B5N Kate


CA Kumano

DD Amatsukaze

DD Hatsukaze

DD Tokitsukaze

DD Yukikaze

DD Arashi

DD Maikaze

DD Teruzuki

DD Hamakaze

Vanguard Group (Abe)

BB Hiei

BB Kirishima

Cruiser Division 8 (Hara)

CA Tone

CA Chikuma Badly damaged

Cruiser Division 7 (Nishimura)

CA Suzuya

Screen (Kimura)

DD Kazagumo

DD Makigumo

DD Yugumo

DD Akigumo

DD Tanikaze

DD Urakaze

DD Isokaze

Supply Group

AO Kokuyo Maru

AO Toho Maru

AO Toei Maru

AO Kyokuto Maru

DD Nowaki

Land-Based Air Force (Kusaka; at Rabaul)     
About 220 operational aircraft.

25 Air Flotilla
67 A6M Zero

26 Air Flotilla
64 G4M Betty
27 D3A Val

Advanced Expeditionary Force (Komatsu)     

CL Katori

Force "A"

SS I-4

SS I-5

SS I-7

SS I-8

SS I-22

SS I-176

Force "B"

SS I-9

SS I-15

SS I-21

SS I-24

SS I-174

SS I-175


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