Operation Battle of the Eastern Solomons

The 'Battle of the Eastern Solomons', which is also known as the 'Battle of the Stewart Islands' and, to the Japanese, as the '2nd Battle of the Solomon Sea', was fought between Japanese and US naval forces as the third carrier battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II and the second major engagement between the Imperial Japanese navy and the US Navy during the Guadalcanal campaign (24/25 August 1942).

As in the 'Battle of the Coral Sea' and the 'Battle of Midway', the ships of the two adversaries were never within sight of each other. Instead, all attacks were carried out by aircraft, either carrierborne or land-based.

After several damaging air attacks, the warships of the Japanese and US withdrew from the battle area. Although neither side secured a clear victory, the USA and its allies gained a tactical and operational advantage. Japan’s losses were greater and included dozens of aircraft and their experienced and effectively irreplaceable aircrews. Moreover, the Japanese reinforcements intended for Guadalcanal were delayed and eventually delivered by warships rather than transport ships, giving the Allies more time to prepare for the Japanese counter-offensive and preventing the Japanese from landing heavy artillery, ammunition and other supplies.

On 7 August, in 'Watchtower' Allied forces, comprising mainly units of the US Marine Corps, landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi and the Florida islands of the Solomon islands group. The landings were designed to deny their use by the Japanese as bases from which to threaten the strategically vital maritime supply routes between the USA and Australia, and to secure the islands as the launching points for a campaign with the eventual goal of isolating the major Japanese base area at Rabaul on New Britain while also supporting the Allied land campaign in New Guinea. The 'Watchtower' landings triggered the six-month Guadalcanal campaign.

The Allied landings were directly supported by three US task forces each based on a single fleet carrier: TF11 based on Saratoga, TF16 based on Enterprise and TF8 based on Wasp, the striking power of each being vested in its air group. Support was provided by other surface warships, including one battleship, four cruisers and 11 destroyers. Not all of the ships were US warships, for attached to TF18 was TF44, commanded by a British officer, Rear Admiral V. A. C. Crutchley, which included the Royal Australian Navy’s heavy cruisers Australia and Hobart. The overall commander of the three carrier task forces was Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who flew his flag on Saratoga. The aircraft of the three carriers provided close air support for the invasion forces and defended against Japanese air attacks from Rabaul. After a successful landing, the carriers remained in the South Pacific Area charged with four main objectives: guarding the line of communication between the major Allied bases at New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo islands; providing support to Allied ground forces on Guadalcanal and Tulagi against possible Japanese counter-offensives; covering the movement of supply ships aiding Guadalcanal; and engaging and destroying any Japanese warships that came within range.

Between 15 and 20 August, the US carriers covered the delivery of fighter and bomber aircraft to the newly opened Henderson Field on Guadalcanal: this small airfield was a critical point in the entire island chain, and both sides knew that control of the air base offered the potential for control of the local airspace. In fact, Henderson Field and the aircraft based there soon limited the movement of Japanese forces in the Solomon islands group and in the attrition of Japanese air forces in the South Pacific Area. Therefore Allied control of Henderson Field became the key factor in the entire battle for Guadalcanal.

Surprised by the Allied offensive in the Solomon islands group, Japanese naval forces, commanded by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and army forces prepared a counter-offensive to drive the Allies off Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The counter-offensive was designated 'Ka' (ii), from the first syllable in the Japanese name for Guadalcanal. The naval forces had the additional objective of destroying Allied warship forces in the South Pacific Area, specifically the US carriers.

The naval forces were elements of Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet in the form of Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s 2nd Fleet and Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s 3rd Fleet.

On 16 August, a Japanese convoy of three slow transport ships loaded with 1,411 men of the 28th Regiment, as well as several hundred naval troops of the 5th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force, together with four patrol boats, departed the major Japanese base at Truk in the Caroline islands group and headed toward Guadalcanal. This Transport Force was escorted by the Convoy Escort Force comprising the light cruiser Jintsu[ and the destroyers Kagero, Mutsuki, Yayoi, Isokaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Umikaze and Uzuki under the command of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, who flew his flag on the light cruiser. Also departing, in this instance from Rabaul, to aid in the protection of the convoy, was a Close Cover Force of four heavy cruisers from the 8th Fleet under Mikawa’s command: these were Chokai, Aoba, Kinugasa and Furutaka, which were the same, relatively old cruisers which had defeated an Allied naval surface force in the earlier 'Battle of Savo Island', less Kako that had been sunk by a US submarine on her journey from that battle to her base. The four heavy cruisers of Mikawa’s group left the Shortland islands group on 23 August and become tangentially involved, using their floatplanes to drop bombs on Henderson Field during the following nights. Tanaka planned to land the troops from his Transport Force convoy on Guadalcanal during 24 August.

On 21 August, the rest of the 'Ka' (ii) naval force departed Truk and headed toward the southern part of the Solomon islands group. As was typical of Imperial Japanese navy practice, these ships were divided into separate groups. The 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body comprised the fleet carriers Shokaku (flag) and Zuikaku, and the destroyers Kazagumo, Yugumo, Makigumo, Akigumo, Hatsukaze and Akizuki under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. The 3rd Fleet, Detached Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body comprised the light carrier Ryujo, the heavy cruiser Tone and the destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze under the command of Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara. The Vanguard Force, Close Support comprised the battleships Hiei and Kirishima, the heavy cruisers Kumano, Suzuya and Chikuma, the light cruiser Nagara and the destroyers Nowaki, Tanikaze and Maikaze under the command of Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe. The Support Force, Main Body comprised the seaplane tender Chitose, the heavy cruisers Atago, Maya, Takao, Myoko and Haguro, the light cruiser Yura and the destroyers Kuroshio, Oyashio, Minegumo, Hayashio, Natsugumo and Asagumo under Kondo’s command. The Support Force for the fleet train comprised the battleship Mutsu and the destroyers Harusame, Samidare and Murasame also under Kondo’s command. The Standby Force comprised solely the converted carrier Junyo.

Longer-range heavy support was provided by the Support Force, Main Body comprising the super-battleship Yamato, the escort carrier Taiyo and the destroyers Akebono and Yushio.

Finally, a force of about 100 Imperial Japanese navy land-based bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft at Rabaul and nearby islands was sited for operational support.

Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body positioned itself behind the Vanguard Force Close Support and the Support Force, Main Body in an attempt to avoid location by US reconnaissance aircraft.

The 'Ka' (ii) plan dictated that once US carriers had been located, either by Japanese scout aircraft or an attack on one of the Japanese surface forces, Nagumo’s carriers would immediately launch an attack force to destroy them. With the US carriers destroyed or disabled, Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support and Kondo’s Support Force, Main Body would close with and destroy the remaining Allied naval forces in a surface action. This would then allow Japanese naval forces the freedom to neutralise Henderson Field through bombardment while covering the landing of the Japanese army troops to retake Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

In response to an unanticipated land battle fought between US Marines and Japanese forces on Guadalcanal during 19/20 August, the US carrier task forces under Fletcher reversed course and headed back toward Guadalcanal from their positions 460 miles (740 km) to the south on 21 August. The US carriers were to support the marines, protect Henderson Field, engage the Japanese and destroy any Japanese naval forces which arrived to support the Japanese army in the land battle on Guadalcanal.

Both the Allied and Japanese naval forces continued to converge on 22 August and both flew intense aircraft scouting efforts, but neither side spotted its opponent. At least one Japanese scout aeroplane was shot down by aircraft from Enterprise before it was able to send a radio report, and this caused the Japanese to reach a strong suspicion that US carriers were in the immediate area. The US forces were unaware of the disposition and strength of the approaching Japanese surface warship forces.

At 09.50 on 23 August, a Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engined flying boat of the US Navy operating out of Ndeni in the Santa Cruz islands group made the initial sighting of Tanaka’s convoy. By a time late in the afternoon, with no further sightings of Japanese ships, two air attack forces took off from Saratoga and Henderson Field to attack the convoy. Knowing that an attack would be forthcoming following the PBY sighting, Tanaka had reversed course once the flying boat had departed the area, and thus eluded the attack aircraft. After Tanaka reported to his superiors his loss of time by turning north to avoid the expected Allied air attack, the landings of his troops on Guadalcanal was pushed back to 25 August. By 18.23 on 23 August, with no Japanese carriers sighted and no new intelligence reporting of their presence in the area, Fletcher detached Wasp, which was running short of fuel, and the rest of TF18 for the two-day trip south toward Efate island to refuel. Thus Wasp and her escorting warships missed the forthcoming battle.

At 01.45 on 24 August, Nagumo ordered Hara, commanding the light carrier Ryujo, the heavy cruiser Tone and the destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze, to proceed ahead of the main Japanese force and send an aircraft attack force against Henderson Field at daybreak. Ryujo's task was most probably a response to a request from the naval commander at Rabaul, Vice Admiral Nishizo Tsukahara, for the assistance of the Combined Fleet in the neutralisation of Henderson Field. The task may also have been intended by Nagumo as a feint to divert US attention, allowing the rest of the Japanese force to approach the US naval forces without being detected, as well as to help provide protection and cover for Tanaka’s convoy. Most of the aircraft on Shokaku and Zuikaku were readied to launch on short notice if the US carriers were located. Between 05.55 and 06.30, the US carriers, primarily Enterprise, augmented by Catalina flying boats from Ndeni, launched their own scout aircraft to search for the Japanese naval forces.

At 09.35, a Catalina made the first sighting of the force centred on Ryujo. Later in that same morning, several more sightings by carrierborne and land-based US reconnaissance aircraft followed, the ships sighted including Ryujo and ships of Kondo’s and Mikawa’s forces. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, US aircraft also sighted several Japanese scout aircraft and submarines, leading Fletcher to believe that the Japanese knew where his carriers were, which was not yet the case. Fletcher hesitated to order an attack on the Ryujo group until he was sure there were no other Japanese carriers in the area. Finally, with no firm word on the presence or location of other Japanese carriers, at 13.40 Fletcher launched an attack force of 38 aircraft from Saratoga to attack Ryujo. Fletcher kept aircraft in reserve on both US carriers in case any Japanese fleet carriers were sighted.

Meanwhile, at 12.20, Ryujo had launched six Nakajima B5N2 single-engined bombers and 15 Mitsubishi A6M3 Reisen 'Zero' single-engined fighters to attack Henderson Field in conjunction with an attack by 24 Mitsubishi G4M2 'Betty' twin-engined medium bombers and 14 A6M fighters from Rabaul. Unknown to Ryujo's aircraft, the Rabaul aircraft had encountered severe weather and returned to their base at 11.30. Ryujo's aircraft were detected on radar by Saratoga as they flew toward Guadalcanal, further fixing the location of their ship for the impending US attack. Ryujo's aircraft arrived over Henderson Field at 14.23, and tangled with aircraft of the so-called 'Cactus Air Force' based at Henderson Field even as they bombed the airfield. In the resulting engagement, three B5N bombers, three A6M fighters and three US fighters were shot down, and no significant damage was done to Henderson Field.

Almost simultaneously, at 14.25. a Japanese scout aeroplane from the heavy cruiser Chikuma sighted the US carriers. Although the aeroplane was shot down, its report was transmitted in time, and Nagumo immediately ordered his attack force launched from Shokaku and Zuikaku. The first wave of aircraft, comprising of 27 Aichi D3A2 'Val' dive-bombers and 15 A6M fighters under the command of Lieutenant Commander Mamoru Seki, was in the air by 14.50 and was on its way toward Enterprise and Saratoga. About this same time, two US scout aircraft finally sighted the main Japanese force, but as a result of communication problems, these sighting reports never reached Fletcher. Before leaving the area, the two US scout aircraft attacked Shokaku, causing negligible damage but forcing five of the first-wave A6M fighters to give chase, thus aborting their mission. At 16.00 a second wave of nine A6M fighters and 27 D3A dive-bombers, under the command of Lieutenant Sadamu Takahashi, was launched by the Japanese carriers and headed south toward the US carriers. Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support also surged ahead in anticipation of meeting the US ships in a surface action after the fall of night.

Also at this time, Saratoga's attack force arrived and attacked Ryujo, hitting and severely damaging her with three to five bombs and perhaps one torpedo, and killing 120 of her crew. Also during this time, several Boeing B-17 four-engined heavy bombers of the USAAF attacked the crippled Ryujo but inflicted no additional damage. Her crew abandoned the heavily damaged Japanese carrier at nightfall, and the light carrier sank soon after this. Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze rescued Ryujo's survivors and the aircrews from her returning attack force, who had no option but to ditch their aircraft in the sea. After the rescue operations had been completed, both Japanese destroyers and Tone rejoined Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body.

At 16.02, as Fletcher and his senior commanders still awaited a definitive report on the location of the Japanese fleet carriers, the radars of the US carriers detected the first incoming wave of Japanese attack aircraft. Some 53 Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat single-engined fighters from the two US carriers were directed by radar control toward the attackers. Communication problems, limitations of the aircraft identification capabilities of the radar, primitive control procedures, and effective screening of the Japanese dive-bombers by their escorting fighters combined to prevent all but a few of the US fighters from engaging the D3A dive-bombers before they began their attacks on the US carriers. Just before the Japanese dive-bombers began their attacks, Enterprise and Saratoga had cleared their decks for the impending action by launching the aircraft that they had been holding ready in case the Japanese fleet carriers were sighted. These aircraft were told to fly north and attack anything they could find, or else to circle outside the battle zone until it was safe to return.

At 16.29, the Japanese dive-bombers began their attacks. Although several attempted to target Saratoga, they quickly shifted back to the nearer carrier, Enterprise, which thus became the target of almost the entire Japanese air attack. In a desperate attempt to disrupt their attacks, several Wildcat fighters followed the D3A dive-bombers into their attack dives, despite the intense anti-aircraft fire from Enterprise and her screening warships, and as many as four Wildcat fighters were shot down by US anti-aircraft fire, as too were several D3A dive-bombers.

Because of the effective anti-aircraft fire of the US ships and evasive manoeuvres, the bombs from the first nine D3A dive-bombers missed Enterprise. The second division, which was led by Lieutenant Keiichi Arima, managed to score three hits. Initially, the lead D3A, flown by Petty Officer Kiyoto Furuta, scored a hit with a 551-lb (250-kg) semi-armour-piercing, delayed-action 'ordinary' bomb that penetrated the flightdeck near the after elevator and passed through three decks before detonating below the waterline, killing 35 men and wounding 70 more. Inrushing sea water caused Enterprise to develop a slight list, but the damage did not represent a major breach of hull integrity.

Just 30 seconds later, the next D3A, flown by Petty Officer Tamotsu Akimoto, planted its 534-lb (242-kg) high-explosive 'land' bomb only 15 ft (4.6 m) from the impact point of the first bomb. The resulting detonation ignited a large secondary explosion from one of the nearby 5-in (127-mm) guns' ready powder casings, killing 35 members of the nearby gun crews and starting a large fire.

About one minute later, at 16.46, a third and final bomb, which was also a 534-lb (242-kg) 'land' bomb, dropped by Petty Officer Kazumi Horie, hit Enterprise's flightdeck forward of where the first two bombs had hit. This bomb detonated on impact, creating a 10-ft (3-m) hole in the deck, but caused no further damage. Seven D3A dive-bombers (three from Shokaku and four from Zuikaku) then broke off from the attack on Enterprise as a result of anti-aircraft fire or the attentions of US fighters. The attack was over at 16.48, and the surviving Japanese aircraft reassembled in small groups to returned to their carriers.

Each side thought that it had inflicted more damage than was the case. The USA claimed to have shot down 70 Japanese aircraft, even though there were only 37 aircraft in all. The actual Japanese losses, from all causes, in the engagement were 25 aircraft, with most of the crews of the lost aircraft being neither recovered nor rescued. The Japanese, for their part, mistakenly believed that they had heavily damaged two US carriers rather than just one. The USA lost six aircraft, together with five pilots.

Although Enterprise was severely damaged and on fire, her damage-control teams were able to make sufficient repairs for the ship to resume flight operations at 17.46, only one hour after the engagement had come to an end. At 18.05, Saratoga's attack force returned from sinking Ryujo and landed without major incident. The second wave of Japanese aircraft approached the US carriers at 18.15 but was unable to locate the US formation because of communication problems, and had therefore to return to their carriers without attacking any US ships: this wave of aircraft lost five of its number from operational mishaps. Most of the US carrier aircraft launched just before the attack of the first wave of Japanese aircraft failed to find any targets, but two SBD dive-bombers from Saratoga sighted Kondo’s Support Force, Main Body and attacked the seaplane tender Chitose, achieving two near misses which heavily damaged the unarmoured ship. The US carrier aircraft either landed at Henderson Field or were able to return to their carriers after dusk. The US ships retired to the south to get out of range of any approaching Japanese warships. In fact, Abe’s Vanguard Force, Close Support and Kondo’s Support Force, Main Body were steaming to the south to try to catch the US carrier task forces in a surface battle, but turned back at about 00.00 without making contact with the US warships. Having taken heavy aircraft losses in the engagement and now short of fuel, Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body also fell back to the north.

Believing that two US carriers had been taken out of action with heavy damage, Tanaka’s Transport Force again headed toward Guadalcanal, and by 08.00 on 25 August was within 170 miles (280 km) of its destination. At this time, Tanaka’s convoy was joined by five destroyers which had shelled Henderson Field the night before, causing slight damage. At 08.05, a force of 18 US aircraft from Henderson Field attacked Tanaka’s convoy, causing heavy damage to Jintsu, killing 24 men of her crew, and knocking Tanaka unconscious. The 9,310-ton troop transport Kinryu Maru was also hit and eventually sank. Just as the destroyer Mutsuki pulled alongside to rescue her crew and embarked troops, she was attacked by four B-17 heavy bombers from Espiritu Santo, which landed five bombs on or around the destroyer, sinking her immediately. An uninjured but shaken Tanaka transferred to the destroyer Kagero, sent Jintsu back to Truk, and took the convoy to the Japanese base in the Shortland islands group.

Both the Japanese and the Americans elected to withdraw their warships from the area, thus ending the battle. The Japanese naval forces lingered near the northern end of the Solomon islands group, out of range of the US aircraft based at Henderson Field, before finally returning to Truk on 5 September.

The 'Battle of the Eastern Solomons' is generally considered to be a tactical and operational victory for the USA as the Japanese lost more ships, aircraft and aircrew, and Japanese troop reinforcements for Guadalcanal were delayed.

While the USA lost only seven aircrew in the battle, the Japanese lost 61 veteran aircrew, who were hard for the Japanese to replace because of the limited capacity in their naval aircrew training programmes and an absence of trained reserves. The troops in Tanaka’s convoy were later loaded onto destroyers at the Shortland islands group and delivered piecemeal from 29 August to Guadalcanal, albeit without most of their heavy equipment. The Japanese claimed considerably more damage than they had inflicted, including that Hornet , not in the battle, had been sunk, thus taking revenge for this carrier’s part in the 'Doolittle raid'.

Emphasising the strategic value of Henderson Field, in a separate reinforcement effort, the Japanese destroyer Asagiri was sunk and two other Japanese destroyers were heavily damaged on 28 August, 81 miles (130 km) to the north of Guadalcanal in New Georgia Sound by US aircraft based at the airfield.

The damaged Enterprise steamed to Pearl Harbor for extensive repairs, which were completed on 15 October, and returned to the South Pacific on 24 October, just in time for the 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands' and her rematch with Shokaku and Zuikaku.