America’s Forgotten Carrier Battle: The Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands

Yamamoto was shocked and dismayed at the destruction of Ichiki’s detachment on Guadalcanal, mostly because his staff told him there were only about 2000 US Marines on the island (there were 11,000). In response, Yamamoto planned to combine the next operation to reinforce the island with a naval strike by the two remaining Japanese fleet carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku led by Adm Nagumo (who, despite Midway, was still Japan’s best carrier admiral).
Yamamoto’s plan, Operation Ka, called for the light carrier Ryujo to act as bait, and draw the American carriers into launching a strike. While they were occupied with sinking the Ryujo, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, which would be following behind, would sink the Enterprise, Wasp, and Saratoga. At the same time, Tanaka’s destroyers would escort heavy transports and a sea plane carrier with heavy equipment to Guadalcanal. It almost worked.
On 24 August, 1942, American scout planes spotted the Ryujo. Fletcher suspected his bigger brothers were in the area, and initially declined to attack. Several hours later, after the Ryujo launched its planes against Guadalcanal (which were turned back by the Cactus Air Force), Fletcher launched his attack which promptly set the Ryujo afire, whom consequently sank a bit later. Fletcher did eventually spot Nagumo’s fleet carriers, but by then he was already committed. Nagumo pounced.
The Saratoga and Enterprise were in two escort groups about ten miles from each other (the Wasp was out of the area refueling), but they were separated by a squall line. Nagumo’s scouts spotted both carriers and the battleship USS North Carolina, but because of the clouds masking the Saratoga, Nagumo’s strike aircraft only found the Enterprise, and the full weight on the strike fell on her.
This was actually very fortunate for the Americans: the Enterprise group contained the North Carolina, which bristled with anti-aircraft guns after the debacle at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the Enterprise was escorted by the brand new anti-aircraft cruiser USS Atlanta, whose 12 radar controlled 5” guns, and 8 dual 40mm Bofors and 16 20mm Oerkilon anti-aircraft guns, more than evened the odds against Nagumo’s planes. And lest we forget, the Enterprise put up nearly her full complement of fighters.
It is a testament to the determination of Nagumo’s pilots that they still managed to put three bombs into the Enterprise through the swarms of fighters and walls of accurate flak that they had to fly. Still, it could have been worse: one bomb damaged the Enterprise’s steering and forced her into a slow uncontrollable circle. Fortunately the steering took the ship in the opposite direction than the Japanese fliight leaders expected, and many of the second strike only found the escorts. Additionally, the previous nine months had taught the US Navy hard lessons about damage control aboard aircraft carriers, and these paid off that afternoon and evening. The steering on the wounded Enterprise was eventually repaired by a courageous damage control party who braved the 170 degree heat in the steering control room. She limped back to New Caledonia for repairs, and her planes transfered to the Saratoga or onto Guadalcanal, where they’d become a welcome addition to the Cactus Air Force.
The Saratoga wasn’t idle while the Enterprise wasn’t frantically maneuvering and fighting for her life a mere ten miles away. Tanaka’s not so sneaky run was spotted even though it was not down the Slot, but east of it, and his seaplane carrier was mistaken for one of the fleet carriers. The Saratoga launched everything, and most anticlimactically, the seaplane carrier was only seriously damaged and forced back up the Slot.
Once again the Japanese assumed the ship they struck had sunk, and were mistaken. This time Nagumo reported that he had won a great victory when he sunk the USS Hornet and avenged the Doolittle Raid, which was obviously not correct. Also, Nagumo was concerned with his plane losses, and most disconcertingly, the lost element of surprise, so important and integral to Japanese operations. He would sink the other US carrier another time. That night, Nagumo took his carriers and sailed back to Truk, defaulting victory to Fletcher…again.
The next morning, while Fletcher was nervously failing to find Nagumo’s carriers, the reinforced Cactus Air Force (with the Enterprise’s planes) pounded Tanaka’s slow convoy attempting to reach Guadalcanal. They sank his flagship, the light cruiser Jintsu, from underneath him and seriously damaged a transport. A destroyer pulled alongside to assist the stricken ship, and then an event akin to the sighting of a unicorn happened – A high altitude level bomber dropped a bomb and struck the destroyer, sinking it.
B-17s from the 11th Bombardment Group from Espiritu Santo attacked the immobile duo of ships, and one bomb struck the unfortunate destroyer, IJS Muzuki. In the six years and millions of tons of bombs dropped from heavy bombers, such as B-17s, B-26’s, B-29’s or Avro Lancasters etc, during World War Two, only two singular bombs had ever struck a ship at sea: one on 25 August 1942 into the poor Muzuki, and on 24 April 1944 on the Tirpitz in Norway. Just two, that’s all.
With his air cover departed, his flagship and a destroyer sunk, seaplane carrier fled, and 1/3 of his charges on fire and sinking, Tanaka withdrew back to the northern Solomon’s to his base on the island of Bougainville. The Japanese abandoned further attempts to reinforce Guadalcanal in the day light. The Tokyo Express would be a strictly nighttime affair from then on.

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