BATTLE OF THE SANTA CRUZ ISLANDS
26 OCTOBER 1942
STRATEGIC OVERVIEW AND COMPARISON OF OPPOSING FORCES
The Japanese prepare a major campaign to recapture Henderson Field
In October 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy appeared to be narrowly winning the battle for control of the seas around Guadalcanal. The well honed night warfare skills of the Japanese Imperial Navy, and its choice of the hours of darkness to carry out important naval activity, placed the United States Pacific Fleet at a grave disadvantage during night-time actions against the Japanese. On Guadalcanal, the critical factor in favour of the United States was the resolute defence by US Marines of a captured Japanese airstrip, now called Henderson Field after one of the marine heroes who lost his life in the Battle of Midway. No matter what the Imperial Japanese Navy achieved during the nights, its gains were largely cancelled by intrepid US Marine pilots of the "Cactus Air Force" flying out of Henderson Field during the days.
LEFT: Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo. At Santa Cruz, Kondo showed that he had learned well the lessons of Midway. His tactical skills were superior to those of Rear Admiral Kinkaid.
To end this drain on their military resources and recapture the vital Henderson Field, the Japanese concentrated 20,000 troops on Guadalcanal in preparation for an all out, two-pronged assault on the marine defenders of Henderson Field scheduled to begin on the night of 23/24 October 1942. This assault would be directed by Lieutenant General Masai Maruyama.
Under the overall direction of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto aboard battleship Yamato at Truk naval base in the Carolines Mandate, a major portion of Japan's Combined Fleet had been deployed on 11 October 1942 to support Lieutenant General Maruyama's land attack on the marines defending Henderson Field. Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, with a task force comprising four battleships, four fleet aircraft carriers (Shokaku, Zuikaku, Hiyo, and Junyo), one light carrier (Zuiho), eight heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and twenty-seven destroyers would stand poised off Bougainville to the north-west of Guadalcanal ready to intercept and defeat any attempt by the US Pacific Fleet to support the beleaguered marines dug in at Henderson Field. Kondo's powerful task force was backed by four cruisers and sixteen destroyers of Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa's Outer South Seas Force.
The Japanese fleet was deployed in the form of a triangle with Admiral Kondo's "Advanced Force", comprised of Carrier Division 2, two battleships, five cruisers and twelve destroyers, occupying the western corner of the triangle. After the loss of Japan's four best carriers at Midway, Carrier Division 2 now comprised the carriers Junyo and Hiyo and their escort warships. These two carriers were conversions of large passenger liners.
About one hundred miles (160 km) to the east of Kondo's force was Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's Carrier Division 1, which comprised the fast modern fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, the light carrier Zuiho, and escorting warships. Nagumo's powerful carrier force wore the descriptive label "Main Body".
Operating about seventy miles (112 km) south of Nagumo's force, and occupying the southern corner of the triangle, was Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe's "Vanguard Force". Abe's force comprised two battleships, four cruisers and seven destroyers.
RIGHT: Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid. Tactical errors and communication failures blighted any prospect of the Americans defeating an opponent who had the advantage of more carriers, more aircraft, and more experienced aircrews.
Against this powerful Japanese naval force, Task Force 61 of the US Pacific Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, was able to field only two fleet aircraft carriers (Enterprise and Hornet), one battleship (South Dakota), three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. The overwhelming odds in favour of the Japanese were only slightly reduced by the forced withdrawal of the carrier Hiyo to Truk on October 21.
Admiral Kondo also enjoyed a significant numerical superiority over the Pacific Fleet in operational aircraft. He could deploy from his carriers eighty Mitsubishi "Zero" fighters, sixty-one Aichi "Val" dive-bombers, and fifty-seven Nakajima "Kate" torpedo bombers -a total of 198 fighting aircraft. Admiral Kinkaid could field only sixty-three Grumman F4F "Wildcat" fighters, forty-seven Douglas SBD "Dauntless" dive-bombers, and twenty-six Grumman TBF "Avenger" torpedo bombers - a total of 136 fighting aircraft.
The Japanese also enjoyed a significant qualitative advantage in their air groups. Most pilots and aircrew members were veterans of Japan's lengthy and brutal war against China, and many had participated in the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, and the succession of Japanese victories that followed. On the other hand, many of Enterprise's air group were fresh out of training courses. Hornet's fighter and dive-bomber pilots were experienced, but the torpedo squadron was largely manned by inexperienced aircrews.
A failure of communications blights the prospect of an American victory
Shortly after midday on 25 October 1942, a patrolling PBY "Catalina" flying boat reported a sighting of two Japanese carriers to the north of the Solomon Islands. The carriers were steaming on a south-easterly course 355 miles (568 km) west-north-west of Task Force 61. Rear Admiral Kinkaid turned his ships towards the reported position of the Japanese carriers and increased speed.
Appreciating the importance of striking the enemy first in carrier warfare, and despite having received no further information from search planes on the location of the Japanese carriers, Kinkaid decided to take a gamble and launch an attack group from Enterprise at 1520 hours to search for the Japanese.
After his attack group had disappeared from sight, Kinkaid received word from a search PBY that the Japanese carriers had turned north. Owing to imposition of strict radio silence, Kinkaid was unable to recall his attack group. The attack group commander, keen to locate and attack the Japanese carriers, exceeded his orders and went beyond the distance that would enable his aircraft to return to Enterprise in daylight. When the attack group finally returned to Enterprise, it was dark and eight aircraft and two lives were lost through inexperience in night landings. Added to four aircraft lost in a deck crash earlier that day, Enterprise was down twelve of its complement of aircraft before the enemy had even been engaged.
Admirals Kinkaid and Nagumo were both expecting to engage the enemy on the following day. Conscious of the need to hit the enemy first, Kinkaid kept an attack group spotted on the flight deck of Hornet throughout the night of 25 October. However, an opportunity for the crucial first strike and victory was denied to the Americans by a communication failure aboard Kinkaid's flagship, the Enterprise. A PBY Catalina reported the position and course of the Japanese carriers at 0310 hours on 26 October. Other ships in Task Force 61 received the vital transmission and appear to have assumed that Kinkaid also received the signal but declined to act on it. Unfortunately, Enterprise failed to receive the contact report from the PBY search plane, and the Americans lost the opportunity for a pre-dawn launch by their air groups and the opportunity to strike the Japanese carriers while their flight decks were packed with aircraft being readied for take-off.
From the constant shadowing of his carriers by PBY Catalinas, Nagumo suspected that an American carrier task force was searching for him. Throughout the night of 25 October, the Japanese readied their attack groups for battle.