Pacific War 17 – Japan’s Last Victory

Pacific War 17 – Japan’s Last Victory

Bleeding around Guadalcanal continued. Neither side could gather enough strength to push back the other. Attack was followed by counterattack, which was followed up by a counter-counterattack. While individual battles could be one-sided indeed, there was no real result, only mounting losses. Both sides created imaginative new surprises for the enemy, and the fate toyed with both.

For the Japanese, the particular issue was the Henderson Field air base. This American air base was located at Guadalcanal itself, in immediate proximity to the battlefield. From here, US aircraft could constantly attack the Japanese troops, transport ships and warships. As a result, there were many attacks mounted against it. Japanese heavy bombers regularly bombed it from 10 000 meters, but the engineering troops regularly repaired the runways on the same day.

During the night of 14th October 1942., Japanese battleships Kongo and Haruna suddenly appeared off the island. Their 16 14-inch guns bombarded the air field with high explosive projectiles, causing massive destruction. Half the aircraft at the air field were destroyed, and fires consumed nearly the entire fuel supply. Despite all the efforts of the engineering crews, the air field was incapable of operations the next morning, just in time for the Japanese convoy to deliver supplies. And the next night, the hell came again: Japanese heavy cruisers Chokai and Kinugasa, under command of admiral Mikawa, came to deliver the next blow. Over 700 large-calibre projectiles rained on the airfield over the night.

Japanese heavy cruiser Chokai

Next morning, Japanese transport ships again came to deliver supplies to Tassafaronga. American garrison worked frantically to repair at least a narrow takeoff strip and collect whatever fuel could be found for the few remaining aircraft. Aircraft could not receive the full fuel supply, but this was not necessary as the Japanese ships were only 20 kilometers away. Soon their bombs were falling among the Japanese ships, followed by the attack by heavy four-engined bombers.

By the evening three of the transport ships had to be beached by their own crews to avoid sinking, while remaining three escaped during the night. Transport aircraft delivered the bare necessary fuel supplies to the Henderson Field airfield. Next night the Japanese ships fired over 1500 projectiles at the air field. Then the American aircraft destroyed 12 Japanese seaplanes in one bay. The days dragged on in this manner, and the Americans modified a submarine to carry 40 tons of avgas as any other means of resupply were being blocked by the Japanese.

The days dragged on with nothing good in sight. Massive effort, hard life and heavy losses with nothing to show for were the rule. No success came as a reward for all this effort. But soon came the good news. Admiral Halsey has recovered and reinforcements were on the way. Aircraft had been dispatched, and 24 submarines had been sent. Several cruisers had also been transferred from the Atlantic, but the most significant reinforcement was a new, fresh off the slipway battleship Indiana. She was of the same type as North Carlina, displacing 35 000 tons and armed with nine 16-inch guns.

A few days later, strong US squadron set sail towards the area of operations. By the 25th October it was already in the area of operations. The squadron included new fast battleship South Dakota, aircraft carriers Hornet and Enterprise, two heavy cruisers, three light antiaircraft cruisers, and 14 destroyers. Admiral Halsey was not present in person on any ship, but rather commanded from Noumea on New Caledonia, some 600 miles southwards of the area of operations.

US High Command wanted to intensify the operations, and thus invited the Great Britain to attack with its Indian Ocean fleet, but this invitation was rejected. Meanwhile the American aircraft had sunk the Japanese light cruiser Yura of 5200 tons when she attempted to bombard the Guadalcanal. Japanese command too wanted a decisive action instead of bleeding in place. To achieve this, Admiral Yamamoto moved with his largest ship to an area closer to the area of operations. He also amassed powerful surface and submarine forces as well as 220 land-based aircraft. Most important Japanese ships had also recently received radar. Admiral Yamamoto ordered his ships to “Find and destroy the American naval forces”.

Plan was to first attack the Henderson Air Field with ground troops in order to prevent the American air attacks, after which the Japanese fleet would strike. But an incorrect message notifying Admiral Yamamoto that the air field had been taken changed the events. Having received the message, Yamamoto sent into action all his forces in the area, and many scout aircraft were sent to search for the US fleet.

Henderson Air Field

But the enemy had disappeared. No aircraft could find anything – the seas were empty. American maneuver, by which they had withdrawn their ships to open sea behind the Santa Cruz island, succeeded – the Japanese had not expected American fleet could be there and so did not scout in that direction.

American scout aircraft were also busy searching. Japanese movements were expected, because action in the last few days was intense. Americans got lucky and discovered a small Japanese fleet formation, some 360 nautical miles from their own squadron. Rear Admiral Kinkaid, commanding the Enterprise battlegroup, immediately ordered attack squadrons to take off. These had 41 aircraft in total, while the remaining aircraft remained behind.

After a long flight these squadrons arrived over the area – and found only empty seas. Japanese ships were nowhere in sight. Americans were unaware that the Japanese had noticed the scouting aircraft and concluded that it would inform the US squadron of their position. Thus they used thick cloud cover and rain showers to lose the scout aircraft. Once out of sight, the Japanese turned around and sailed in the opposite direction. While US aircraft searched for them based on the reported heading, the Japanese ships were far away and getting farther.

American pilots continued their fruitless search while their fuel reserves were dwindling. Lack of fuel and darkening skies finally forced the search to be aborted. Most managed to reach the carrier, but there were losses. Six aircraft were forced to ditch into the sea, and one crashed while attempting to land in the dark.

During the night the American squadron continued cruising at 20 knots. Aircraft were ordered on the decks ready to take off as soon as the light allowed, thus attempting to gain the first strike. Aware of the importance of attacking first, Americans sent out a large number of reconnaissance aircraft from land bases. Especially important were the large Catalina seaplanes, which flew deep into the Japanese territory. Around midnight reports started coming in – Japanese ships were some 300 miles distant.

PBY Catalina

It was still the dark night when carrier crews were woken up and called to a strong breakfast. This was over by 5 in the morning, and takeoff preparations immediately began. Admiral Kinkaid wanted his scouts to take off early and reach the area where Japanese warships were expected to be at the first light. This way he would be able to strike first. Thus, 16 Dauntless aircraft were ready for takeoff.

As the dawn slowly rose, Dauntless torpedo bombers took off one after another. Pale light in the east slowly strenghtented into intense red, and the skies were clear. Sun itself appeared at 5:23, by which time all 16 scouts were already in the air. Splitting into eight pairs, the scouts flew off in different directions to seek out the Japanese fleet. Seaplane that had been sent out into night reconnaissance had reported Japanese ships to be some 200 miles away.

Weather was calm, yet after two hours there were no news received. Hornet was some eight miles to south of the Enterprise. It was just in 7:30 that first reports from the scouts had been received. Lieutenant Walch reported two battleships, one cruiser and seven destroyers. Half an hour later, another of Enterprise’s scouts, squadron commander Lee, reported two aircraft carriers with empty decks, and that he was under attack by Zeroes.

This news, while very important, pointed to a very dangerous situation. Japanese had already launched their strike and will be attacking first. Kinkaid immediately sent 10 fighters, 10 torpedo bombers and 10 dive bombers into attack. His suspicions were correct. Japanese had been informed of Kinkaid’s position already around 6:30 and had launched the attack full 20 minutes before they were spotted, with the Americans being none the wiser.

First Japanese wave consisted of 65 aircraft. Zero fighters, Kato dive bombers and Val torpedo bombers were racing towards the enemy. As soon as the first American scouts had appeared, Admiral Nagumo immediately ordered a smoke screen to be laid down. Hidden behind his destroyers’ smoke screen, Nagumo changed direction of sailing while eight Zeroes attacked the Dauntlesses. Americans shot down three Zeroes and escaped into the clouds. Only ten minutes later another pair of Dauntlesses ran across the Japanese squadron, following the report of the first pair. These two aircraft snuck up through the clouds before diving towards the light carrier Zuiho. Before the Japanese could do anything, two bombs fell onto the deck. They created large holes, destroyed anti-aircraft guns on the stern and prevented takeoff and landing of the aircraft. Ship was in flames, but it was too late as its aircraft were already on the way towards Kinkaid’s squadron.

SBD Dauntless over Enterprise and Saratoga

Meanwhile the attack group from Enterprise was flying towards the Japanese squadron. It was soon followed by a strike group from Hornet, and then by another group from Enterprise. These squadrons numbered a total of 73 aircraft, but lack of fuel prevented them from concentrating into a single strike group – instead, three groups flew towards the Japanese individually and with a significant distance between them. This had devastating consequences, as on the way they encountered the Japanese aircraft flying towards the Enterprise. Japanese were in a dense formation, and their fighters shot down full half of aircraft from the Enterprise group without suffering any losses themselves.

On Enterprise, they were yet unaware of the events. Scout aircraft started returning at around 9 in the morning, and then it was silence. Half an hour later a damaged fighter from the strike group essentially crash-landed onto the carrier. Pilot, heavily wounded, reported that they were attacked by the Japanese fighters, that several American aircraft had been shot down and that he barely escaped.

Several minutes later the loudspeakers were already giving pre-battle orders. Japanese aircraft were 50 miles away, and antiaircraft guns were prepared for action. Kinkaid was concerned: the reports were not good. In a carrier duel, successful first strike before enemy carrier launches aircraft was the only way to ensure victory. If that failed, the only hope was that fighter screen would stop the enemy attack. Should they fail, probability of one’s own carriers escaping undamaged was low.

First tool had failed. Now the second remained: Enterprise was being protected by a combat air patrol (CAP) of 38 fighter aircraft. But the officer tasked with organizing fighters was new, and fighters were too close to the ships they were protecting. They entered combat too late, and so fighting happened in the most unfavorable place – right over the ships themselves.

The only benefit from the heavy losses of the Enterprise attack group was that the American ships received timely warning of the incoming attack. Aircraft were removed from the decks, avgas piping was emptied and filled with oxygen dioxide, watertight doors were closed and guns prepared for action. In the kitchens, cooks prepared large quantities of cold food so that crews could eat should opportunity present itself. Ships increased speed to 28 knots.

Enterprise suddenly received a bit of luck. Dark cloud, which had been hanging overhead, suddenly released a downpour. This was just a local shower, but just so happened to conceal the Enterprise and her escorts for nearly 15 minutes. As luck would have it, this time happened to be decisive – first Japanese wave arrived but failed to notice the Enterprise in her shower. Instead, they overflew her and attacked Hornet – just eight miles distant, but enough for her to have clear skies.

Enterprise left the shower just as the Japanese aircraft were beginning their attack on the Hornet. At this close distance it was easy to see the attack and the heavy anti-aircraft fire put up by Hornet and her escorts, the flashes and the clouds of air bursts. Soon, deep rumble of explosions could also be heard. Two minutes later, a massive flame burst from Hornet, followed by the dense black smoke.

Hornet was in a difficult position. Bombs were falling in close proximity, and it was not long before a bomb hit the deck at the stern. Several Japanese aircraft were shot down, and one pilot, mortally wounded, directed his aircraft to hit carrier’s smokestack. Aircraft’s bombs exploded on the deck, leaving behind devastation. Confusion was exploited by the Japanese torpedo bombers, which dropped their torpedoes. Two of these hit the Hornet, right into the machinery spaces. The ship ground to a halt, electric power was lost and all internal communications were made impossible. Immobile and surrounded by a thick cloud of fog and steam, large carrier slowly listed to starboard.

USS Hornet under attack

Bombs kept falling. Further three direct hits created even more devastation, and then an aircraft with full bomb load crashed into ship’s bow. Attack lasted only ten minutes, but the damage was done. Some 25 Japanese aircraft had been shot down, but Hornet was devastated, fires were raging across the ship and large number of lower compartments had been flooded. While the crew was fighting to save the ship and the Japanese aircraft returning to their own carrier squadron, American aircraft reached it from all sides. Massive, confused brawl ensued, through which several American dive bombers managed to reach the Japanese carriers.

Light carrier Zuiho was still smoking from the hits received that morning. Nearby was large carrier Shokaku. American bombers now focused at it, and the carrier received four full hits. Heavy damage was compunded by a massive fire which broke out thanks to Japanese lack of proper damage control. It took nine moths of shipyard work for Shokaku to be repaired from the damage sustained in this battle. Both Shokaku and Zuiho turned to withdraw, and another group of American aircraft attacked the heavy cruiser Chikuma. She too received heavy damage, with devastated superstructure and damaged machinery, and so was forced to reduce speed. All three ships withdrew from combat.

Shokaku on fire during the Santa Cruz island battle

Combat continued, and the next blow was struck by the Japanese. Second wave of the Japanese aircraft attacked the Enterprise which was no longer concealed by the rain. First Japanese aircraft appeared over the ship at around 11:13. Enterprise was an escort short – destroyer Porter had been sunk by the Japanese submarine I-21 not long before.

But the Japanese attackers did not have as easy time as they did attacking Hornet. Enterprise was far better defended. During recent repair at Pearl Harbor, both Enterprise and South Dakota had received significant number of new 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns. These ships could now raise Hell in a radius of some 5 000 meters. Unfortunately for the Japanese, new guns proved themselves extremely satsifactory, as did new anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan.

Without such a heavy defense, the Enterprise will have been blown into pieces because Nagumo had sent every available aircraft to sink her. But heavy anti-aircraft fire criscrossed the sky with tracers and projectiles. Aircraft fell one after another, with at at least 26 Japanese aircraft being shot down in total. Under such conditions, their targeting could not have been accurate either. Despite the heavy attack, Enterprise received only two hits, causing some damage and minor fires that were quickly managed.

Some time later torpedo planes arrived. Luckily, damage the Enterprise had received thus far had no consequences on her sailing ability, and she avoided the torpedoes with quick turns. Despite the large number of torpedoes released, she received no hits. In the heat of combat, a torpedo plane with full payload rammed destroyer Smith in the bow. Massive explosion killed 28 men and wounded 23 more, as well as setting the entire forward portion of the ship ablaze. Situation was more than dangerous: if fire reached the magazines, fate of the ship would be sealed.

But destroyer’s commander, Lieutenant Hunterwood, remained calm. He ordered his ship towards the nearby South Dakota. This steel monster of 40 000 tons produced massive waves as she raced through the water, especially with her propellers which raised waves several meters tall. Smith plowed into the battleship’s wake until South Dakota’s stern wave covered destroyer’s deck in water. Before long the fire had been extinguished and destroyer could continue fighting.

USS South Dakota during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Island

Following the lull of 3/4 of an hour, new group of 29 Japanese aircraft from carrier Junio arrived. South Dakota’s radars noticed them at around 11 o’clock at distance of over 70 kilometers. Anti-aircraft batteries were prepared to fire, when suddenly six aircraft appeared from the clouds. All ships opened fire, only to realize these were American planes. Actual attackers came soon after, but they too didn’t fare well. Ten aircraft were shot down in short order, but some bombs still hit the American ships. Enterprise avoided damage this time around. South Dakota got hit by a 250 kg bomb onto one of main artillery turrets, but the heavy armor withstood the explosion without much issue. Second bomb hit the anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan, punching not just through the deck but the entire ship before exiting and exploding below the keel. This damaged the rudder, causing the ship to randomly maneuver throughout the formation.

After the last attack had passed, Enterprise’s deck was quickly repaired to allow the aircraft to land. It was at the last moment, because American aircraft had been forced to remain in the air for much longer than expected due to combat and had seriously depleted their fuel reserves. Several aircraft were forced to land in the sea, with destroyers rescuing their crews.

During the last few hours, Enterprise and her battlegroup had lost the sight of Hornet. Hornet had been left heavily damaged by that morning’s attack, with raging fire slowly consuming the ship. Admiral Murray transferred to cruiser Pensacola, and all wounded and nonessential personnel had been transferred to destroyers. Out of 1440 men of her crew, some 560 were left on the ship. Heavy cruiser Northampton took the carrier into tow and began towing her at speed of 3 knots. Japanese did not like this, and between 3 and 5 in the afternoon waves of the Japanese aircraft repeatedly attacked the carrier. Several hits were scored and Hornet was already listing by 14 degrees. Decision was made to scuttle her. Entire crew except for the 140 dead was transferred to other ships.

Hornet was still a giant flaming torch. Massive flame was burning from bow to stern, and there was no point in trying to save her. Destroyer Houston launched eight torpedoes from a distance of about a mile. Low quality of guidance systems in the Mark 14 torpedo meant that only three torpedoes actually hit their target. When Hornet still refused to sink, second destroyer launched eight torpedoes, six of which hit. When this wasn’t enough either, both destroyers opened fire at the carrier, firing some 430 projectiles, but the arrival of Japanese ships forced them to withdraw. During the night the Japanese attempted to take Hornet under tow, but when this didn’t succeed, they hit the ship with four more torpedoes. Only then this resillient ship finally surrendered to her fate.

USS Hornet sinking

Japanese spent some more time chasing the American ships that were retreating, before withdrawing themselves. This ended the battle of the Santa Cruz island. The battle was Japanese tactical success because Americans had lost aircraft carrier Hornet, destroyer Porter and 75 aircraft, with several ships heavily damaged. Japanese had lost a light cruiser and 100 aircraft, and several ships were damaged. American ships withdrew towards the Espiritu Santo island. Again the fighting resulted in heavy losses and minor successes, without either side achieving a decisive success. Attrition fighting continued, with both sides bringing in reinforcements and ships bombarded the shores.

American naval forces in the area were, for a time, significantly weaker due to the losses they had taken whereas the Japanese navy had major forces. But the Japanese failed to exploit this advantage. During the first half of November 1942. the Japanese delivered troops and supplies during night, two times with cruisers and 65 times with destroyers. There was individual combat and some losses of transport ships, with one case being interesting because Japanese pocket submarine was towed to the area of operations and sank American munitions ship. Americans for their part also brought in reinforcements. They were also hurrying to repair their damaged ships, especially the Enterprise. In the Tulagi bay, not even 20 miles away from Japanese positions on Guadalcanal, they set up a base for torpedo boats. A larger number of 45 ton torpedo boats were deployed and concealed here, allowing Americans to utilize them in fights in heavily islanded region, as well as intercept Japanese coastal craft.


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