“Strike – Repeat, Strike.” With those three words, ViceAdm Halsey unleashed the US Navy in the South Pacific to stop the Japanese juggernaut headed southeast down the Solomon chain. Yamamoto was under the mistaken impression that the Japanese Army on Guadalcanal had seized Henderson Field, or at worst, were close enough to prevent the Cactus Air Force from taking off. This was simply not true. And the Tokyo Express paid for it the next day.
Yamamoto sent a vanguard force of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers down the Slot to assist the army in securing the rest of Guadalcanal, and prevent an American evacuation. Ever vigilant Australian coast watchers spotted them, and on the afternoon of 25 October, 1942, the Cactus Air Force sank the cruiser Yura, heavily damaged a destroyer, and forced the remainder to turn around. However, Yamamoto’s staff took the strike as proof that the American carriers were near Guadalcanal, and not that Henderson Field was still in American hands.
Halsey dispatched the cruisers and destroyers of Task Force 64, under Rear Adm Willis Lee and reinforced by the battleship Washington (the indefatigable Norman Scott was 2IC because battleship admirals usually outranked cruiser admirals) to assist the Marines with naval gunfire, and if possible seek out and destroy the Tokyo Express. They wouldn’t get a chance. That left just the Japanese carriers. Nagumo would never risk his carriers in the confined waters of the Slot, which meant that they could only approach from the open seas to the north of the Solomon Islands.
Nagumo’s plan was to bait the American carriers with an advanced force of battleships and the light carrier Junyo. And then destroy them with a strike from his fleet carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, and another light carrier Zuiho. The first commander to launch a strike on his adversary’s fleet carriers was usually victorious. In the waters south east of Guadalcanal, Nagumo knew the Americans would have the advantage in reconnaissance. His plan was for the American first strike to hit his advance force.
Nagumo was right. B-17s and PBYs from Santa Cruz spotted both of the Japanese carrier forces on the afternoon of the 25th. However, unable to reciprocate and find the American carriers, the furious Nagumo prudently turned north and took his ships out of range. During the night, he would close the distance. The move saved his carriers from total destruction. Task Force 61 under Rear Adm Thomas Kinkaid was sprinting north with his own carriers, the Hornet and Enterprise. In the spirit of Halsey, Kinkaid risked a strike which would have caught Nagumo had he not turned around. In the end, it just forced his pilots to land in the dark to the loss of eight planes. As both sides closed the distance that night, the battle would be decided the next day.
On 26 October, 1942, both commanders closed to within 200 miles of each other, and both found each other just after dawn. In fact, their opposing strikes ran into each other heading to their respective targets, causing a furball as the escorting fighters from both sides engaged. Nonetheless, they each eventually found their targets. The American flyers set fire and disabled the Junyo and the Skokaku, and heavily damaged another cruiser. The Japanese pounded the Hornet, which would eventually have to be abandoned (The burning hulk was sunk by Japanese destroyers the following morning). And the Enterprise took a few bombs, but she managed to contain the fires and repair the damage. The Enterprise took on as many of the Hornets pilots as it could. Those that couldn’t land, were sent on to Guadalcanal. (As an aside, with each American carrier sunk, the Cactus Air Force got stronger. To the Marines, it seemed that this was the only way they got new pilots and planes.) At dusk both sides retired out of range. There would be no battle the next day.
In terms of ships sunk, the Battle off of the Santa Cruz Islands was a solid Japanese tactical victory. Nagumo had two carriers damaged, but two more were unscathed. Kinkaid had one sunk, and one damaged and unable to continue operations. However, the fight north of Santa Cruz was the first taste the Japanese pilots got of state of the art anti-aircraft fire. The Japanese planes had a horrible time penetrating the flak put up by the specialized anti-aircraft cruisers, such as the Juneau and San Juan, whom bristled with radar controlled 5” guns. Moreover, these same guns were thick on the carriers and the battleship South Carolina. It was argued later that the only reason the Hornet was hit was because a new ensign in charge of the Hornet’s forward battery accidentally threw the guns into maintenance mode as the first Japanese bomber began its dive, which locked the barrels straight up in the air. Also, several Japanese planes resorted to flying into the American ships, the Hornet especially, whose flight desk was awash in aviation fuel from one proto-Kamikaze.
But the Japanese paid a heavy price. Nagumo lost 100 planes, and 148 aircrew. Kinkaid lost only 37. The Battle off of the Santa Cruz Islands saw more Japanese pilots killed than Midway. Almost 2/3rds of the pilots who participated in the raid on Pearl Harbor were dead. Nagumo turned north that night not for lack of carriers, but for lack of planes and pilots to fly off of them. However, Halsey didn’t know that, and for the next ten days, every workman on Noumea was dedicated to getting the Enterprise, the only remaining American carrier in the Pacific, back in the fight.
But because of the Japanese inability to replace its veteran pilots, there wouldn’t be another carrier battle in the Pacific for 18 months. Though they didn’t know it, from this point on in the Second World War, the Americans had nothing to fear from Japanese naval airpower. The Kido Butai was dead.