Operation Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands', sometimes known as the '3rd Battle of the Solomon Sea', was the fourth aircraft carrier battle fought between the Japanese and American naval forces in the Pacific War (25/27 October 1942).

The battle was also the fourth major naval engagement between the US Navy and the Imperial Japanese navy during the Guadalcanal campaign following the US 'Watchtower' landing on that strategically important island. As in the 'Battles of the Coral Sea', 'Battle of Midway' and 'Battle of the Eastern Solomons', the ships of the two adversaries were rarely in sight or gun range of each other, so almost all of each side’s attacks were undertaken by carrierborne or land-based aircraft.

In an attempt to drive the Allied forces from Guadalcanal and nearby islands of the Solomon islands group and thereby bring to an end the stalemate that had prevailed since September 1942, the Imperial Japanese army planned a major ground offensive on Guadalcanal for 20/25 October 1942. In support of this offensive, and with the hope of engaging Allied naval forces, a force of Japanese aircraft carriers and other major warships moved into a position to the south-east of the southern part of the Solomon islands group, a location from which the Japanese naval forces hoped to engage and decisively defeat any Allied (primarily US) naval forces, especially carrier forces, which responded to the ground offensive. The Allied naval forces also hoped to meet the Japanese naval forces in battle, with the same objectives of breaking the stalemate and decisively defeating their opponent.

The Japanese ground offensive on Guadalcanal was under way as the 'Battle for Henderson Field' while the naval warships and aircraft from the two adversaries confronted each other on the morning of 26 October 1942 in the area just to the north of the Santa Cruz islands group. After an exchange of carrierborne aircraft attacks, the Allied surface ships retreated from the battle area after the fleet carrier Hornet had been sunk and the fleet carrier Enterprise had been severely damaged. The participating Japanese carrier forces also retired as a result of their high losses of aircraft and aircrew, as well as significant damage to the fleet carrier Shokaku and the light carrier Zuiho.

The 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands' was thus was a tactical victory and a short-term strategic victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk and damaged, and control of the seas around Guadalcanal. However, Japan’s loss of many veteran and therefore irreplaceable aircrews proved to be a long-term strategic advantage for the Allies, whose aircrew losses in the battle were relatively few and quickly replaced. Japan hoped for and needed a larger and more decisive victory, and the fact that the naval battle was won just after the land battle had been lost meant that the opportunity to exploit the victory strategically had already passed.

It was on 7 August 1942 that Allied forces, predominantly of the USA, had made their 'Watchtower' landing on the Japanese-occupied Guadalcanal, Tulagi and Florida islands in the Solomon islands group. The landings on the islands were meant to deny the Japanese their use as bases for threatening the supply routes between the USA and Australia, and to secure the islands as starting points for a campaign with the eventual goal of neutralising the major Japanese base at Rabaul in New Britain island while also supporting the Allied campaign on New Guinea. The landings initiated the six-month-long Guadalcanal campaign.

After the 'Battle of the Eastern Solomons' on 24/25 August, in which the fleet carrier Enterprise was heavily damaged and forced to depart for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, for a month of major repairs, three US carrier task forces remained in the South Pacific area. The task forces were based on the fleet carriers Wasp, Saratoga and Hornet plus their respective air groups and supporting surface warships, including battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, and were primarily stationed between the Solomon and New Hebrides island groups. In this area, the carriers were charged with guarding the line of communication between the major Allied bases on New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo islands, supporting the Allied ground forces at Guadalcanal and Tulagi against any Japanese counter-offensives, covering the movement of supply ships to and from Guadalcanal, and engaging and destroying any Japanese warships, especially carriers, that came within range. The area of ocean in which the US carrier task forces operated was known as 'Torpedo Junction' by the US forces because of the high concentration of Japanese submarines in the area.

On 31 August, Saratoga was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-26, and was out of action for three months as she was repaired. On 15 September, Wasp was hit by three torpedoes fired by the Japanese submarine I-19 while supporting a major reinforcement and resupply convoy to Guadalcanal and almost engaging the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, which withdrew just before the two adversaries came into range of each other’s aircraft. With power unavailable as a result of the torpedo damage, Wasp's damage-control teams were unable to contain the large fires, and Wasp was abandoned and scuttled.

Although the US now had only one operational carrier, Hornet, in the South Pacific, the Allies still maintained air superiority over the south-eastern part of the Solomon islands group through their aircraft based at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. However, at night, when aircraft were not able to operate effectively, the Japanese were able to operate their ships around Guadalcanal almost at will. Thus, a stalemate in the battle for Guadalcanal developed: the Allies delivered supplies and reinforcements to Guadalcanal during the day, and the Japanese did the same by 'Tokyo Express' warships at night. Neither side was able to deliver sufficient troops to the island to secure a decisive advantage, and by the middle of October the two sides had approximately equal numbers of troops on the island. The stalemate was briefly interrupted by two major warship actions. On the night of 11/12 October, a US naval force intercepted and defeated a Japanese naval force en route to bombard Henderson Field in the 'Battle of Cape Esperance'. Just two nights later, however, a Japanese force that included the battleships Haruna and Kongo successfully bombarded Henderson Field, destroying most of the US aircraft there and inflicting severe damage on the field’s facilities.

The US now made two moves to try to break the stalemate in the battle for Guadalcanal. First, repairs to Enterprise were expedited so that she could return to the South Pacific as soon as possible. On 10 October, Enterprise received her new Air Group 10, on 16 October the repaired carrier departed Pearl Harbor, on 23 October arrived back in the South Pacific and on 24 October made rendezvous with Hornet and the rest of the Allied South Pacific naval forces at a location some 315 miles (505 km) to the north-east of Espiritu Santo island. Second, on 18 October, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commanding the US Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Ocean Areas, replaced Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley with Vice Admiral (from 26 November Admiral) William F. Halsey as the commander of South Pacific Area: this position controlled the Allied forces involved in the Solomon islands campaign. Nimitz felt that Ghormley had become too pessimistic to lead Allied forces effectively in the struggle for Guadalcanal, while Halsey was respected throughout the US Navy as a 'fighter'. Upon assuming command, Halsey immediately began making plans to draw the Japanese naval forces into a battle, writing to Nimitz that 'I had to begin throwing punches almost immediately.'

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Japanese Combined Fleet was at this time also seeking to draw Allied naval forces into what was hoped to be a decisive battle. Two fleet carriers, Hiyo and Junyo, together with the light carrier Zuiho, arrived from Japan at the main Japanese naval base at Truk atoll in the Caroline islands group at a time early in October and joined Shokaku and Zuikaku. With five carriers carrying full air groups, as well as its numerous battleships, cruisers and destroyers, the Combined Fleet was confident that it could make up for its catastrophic defeat it had suffered in the 'Battle of Midway'. Apart from two air raids on Henderson Field in October, the Japanese carriers and their supporting warships remained in the north-western area of the Solomon islands group, out of the battle for Guadalcanal and waiting for a chance to approach and engage the US carriers. With the Imperial Japanese army’s next planned major ground attack on Allied forces on Guadalcanal set for 20 October, Yamamoto’s warships began to move towards the southern part of the Solomon islands group to support the offensive and to be ready to engage any Allied ships, especially carriers, that approached to support the Allied defence of Guadalcanal.

On or around 11 October a large Japanese naval force comprising aircraft carriers, battleships and their escorts departed Truk atoll for an extended sortie in support of the land force’s Guadalcanal offensive. On the same day a major reinforcement convoy reached Guadalcanal, but a force of supporting heavy cruisers was prevented from bombarding Henderson Field and turned back in the 'Battle of Cape Esperance'. What followed were three heavy bombardment missions by battleships and heavy cruisers between 13 and 16 October (this was the heaviest naval attack on the airfield in the entire campaign), the first and third of these undertaken by vessels detached from Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force. From 00.00 on 14/15 October, another major convoy, consisting of four transport vessels, unloaded the bulk of their cargo, including tanks and heavy artillery. On 15 October, the US destroyer Meredith was spotted and sunk by aircraft from Zuikaku and Shokaku. On 17 October Hiyo and Junyo launched an attack force to strike at US transports off Lunga Point, but caused no damage. The large body of Japanese warships would remain in the waters around Guadalcanal until after the 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands', and returned to Truk at the end of October. Only recently commissioned, the carrier Hiyo was originally part of the fleet, but a fire in her engineering room on 21 October forced her to retire to Truk for repair. On 25 October, six bombers and 12 fighters from Junyo attacked Henderson Field, but caused little in the way of damage.

Between 20 and 25 October, the Japanese land forces on Guadalcanal attempted to capture Henderson Field with a major attack on the US defenders, but were decisively defeated with heavy losses. Wrongly believing that their land forces had succeeded in capturing Henderson Field, however, the Japanese sent warships from the Shortland islands group toward Guadalcanal on the morning of 25 October to support their ground forces on the island. Aircraft from Henderson Field attacked the convoy throughout the day, sinking the light cruiser Yura with some help from Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engined heavy bombers operating from Espiritu Santo, and damaging the destroyer Akizuki.

Despite the failure of the Japanese ground offensive and the loss of Yura, the rest of the Combined Fleet continued to manoeuvre near the southern end of the Solomon islands group on 25 October in the hope of engaging Allied naval forces. The Japanese naval forces now comprised two large, one medium and one light aircraft carriers, Hiyo having departed, with a combined aircraft complement roughly equal to that of three Shokaku class fleet carriers.

The Japanese naval force was divided into three groups. Commanded by Kondo, the 2nd Fleet, Advance Force, Main Body comprised Cruiser Division 4 with the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao; Rear Admiral Sentaro Omori’s Cruiser Division 5 with the heavy cruisers Myoko (flag) and Maya; Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka’s Destroyer Division 2 with the light cruiser Isuzu (flag) and the destroyers Makinami, Naganami, Kawakaze, Suzukaze and Umikaze; Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta’s 2nd Fleet, Air Group Force with Carrier Division 2 with the light carrier Junyo (flag) carrying 20 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen 'Zero' single-engined fighters, 17 Aichi D3A 'Val' single-engined dive-bombers and seven Nakajima B5N 'Kate' single-engined torpedo bombers, all screened by the destroyers Kuroshio and Hayashio, and 12 submarines; and Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita’s 2nd Fleet, Close Support Force with Battleship Division 3 with the fast battleships Kongo (flag) and Haruna, and the destroyers Oyashio and Kagero.

Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body comprised the fast battleships Hiei (flag) and Kirishima, Rear Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s Cruiser Division 7 with the heavy cruiser Suzuya, Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara’s Cruiser Division 8 with the heavy cruisers Tone (flag) and Chikuma, and Rear Admiral Susumu Kimura’s Destroyer Squadron 10 with the light cruiser Nagara (flag) and the destroyers Makigumo, Kazagumo, Yugumo, Akigumo, Urakaze, Tanikaze and Isokaze.

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force comprised the fleet carrier [Shokaku with 20 A6M fighters, 21 D3A dive-bombers and 24 B5N torpedo bombers, the fleet carrier Zuikaku with 20 A6M fighters, 23 D3A dive-bombers and 20 B5N torpedo bombers, the light carrier Zuiho with 20 A6M fighters and six B5N torpedo bombers, the heavy cruiser Kumano, and the destroyers Hatsukaze, Yukikaze, Maikaze, Hamakaze, Amatsukaze, Tokitsukaze, Arashi and Teruzuki.

There was also a fleet train of four oilers escorted by the destroyer Nowaki.

As well as commanding the 2nd Fleet, Advance Force, Kondo acted as the overall commander of the three Japanese forces.

Under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, the US naval element was divided into Task Force 16 and TF17. Under Kinkaid’s immediate command was TF 16 with the fleet carrier Enterprise carrying 34 Grumman F4F Wildcat single-engined fighters, 34 Douglas SBD Dauntless single-engined dive-bombers and nine Grumman TBF Avenger single-engined torpedo bombers. The carrier was screened by the battleship South Dakota, Rear Admiral Mahlon S. Tisdale’s Cruiser Division 4 with the heavy cruiser Portland and the light cruiser San Juan, Destroyer Squadron 5 with the destroyer leader Porter and the destroyer Mahan, and Destroyer Division 10 with the destroyers Maury, Cushing, Preston, Smith, Conyngham and Shaw.

Rear Admiral George D. Murray’s TF17 was based on the fleet carrier Hornet carrying 38 F4F fighters, 31 SBD dive-bombers and 15 TBF torpedo bombers. The carrier was screened by Rear Admiral Howard H. Good’s Cruiser Division 5 with the heavy cruisers Northampton (flag) and Pensacola, the light cruisers San Diego and Juneau, and Destroyer Squadron 2 with the destroyers Morris, Anderson, Hughes and Mustin.

The ships of TF16 and TF17 swept around to the north of the Santa Cruz islands group on 25 October in search of the Japanese naval forces. The US warships were deployed as two separate carrier groups, separated from each other by about 12 miles (18.5 km). A Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engined reconnaissance flying boat of the US Navy, based in the Santa Cruz islands group, located the Japanese Main Body carriers at 11.03. However, the Japanese carriers were about 410 miles (660 km) distant from the US force, and thus just beyond carrierborne aircraft range. Hoping to close the range to be able to execute an attack that day, Kinkaid steamed his force toward the Japanese carriers at maximum speed and, at 14.25, launched 23 aircraft. But the Japanese, knowing that they had been located by US aircraft and not knowing the location of the US carriers, turned to the north to remain out of range of the US carrierborne aircraft. The US attack force therefore returned to its carriers without finding or attacking the Japanese warships.

At 02.50 on 26 October, the Japanese reversed direction and the Japanese and US naval forces thus closed the distance between them until by 05.00 they were only 230 miles (370 km) distant from each other. Each side launched search aircraft and prepared its remaining aircraft to deliver an attack as soon as the other side’s ships had been located. Although a radar-equipped Catalina had sighted the Japanese carriers at 03.10, the report did not reach Kinkaid until 05.12 when, believing that the Japanese ships had probably changed position during the intervening two hours, he decided to withhold launching an attack force until he had received more current information on the location of the Japanese ships.

At 06.45, a US reconnaissance aeroplane sighted the carriers of Nagumo’s 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force. At 06.58, a Japanese scout aeroplane reported the location of TF17. Each side now raced to launch the first attack. The Japanese were first to get an attack strike into the air, this group of 64 aircraft including D3A2 dive-bombers, 20 B5N2 torpedo bombers, 21 A6M3 fighters and two B5N2 contact aircraft, and the package was on its way toward Hornet by 07.40. This initial attack wave was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Shigeharu Murata, while the fighter cover was led by Lieutenants Ayao Shirane and Saneyasu Hidaka. Also at 07.40, two SBD-3 scout aircraft, responding to the earlier sighting of the Japanese carriers, arrived and dived on Zuiho. The Japanese combat air patrol was absent as it was chasing off other US aircraft, so the two US aircraft were able to hit Zuiho with both their 500-lb (227-kg) bombs, causing heavy damage and denying the carrier’s flightdeck the ability to land aircraft.

Meanwhile, Kondo ordered Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body to steam at high speed in order to attempt to intercept and engage the US warships. Kondo also brought his own 2nd Fleet, Advance Force forward at flank speed so that Junyo's aircraft could join the attacks on the US ships. At 08.10, Shokaku launched a second wave of attack aircraft, in the form of 19 dive-bombers and five fighters, and Zuikaku launched 16 torpedo bombers and four fighters some 30 minutes later. The leader of this second attack force was Lieutenant Commander Mamoru Seki, while the fighter cover was led by Lieutenant Hideki Shingo. By 09.10, therefore, the Japanese had 110 aircraft on their way to attack the US carriers.

The US attack aircraft were about 20 minutes behind those of the Japanese. Believing that a speedy attack was more important than a massed attack, and because they lacked the fuel capacities to spend time assembling before the attack, the US aircraft proceeded in small groups rather than forming into a single large force. The first group, comprising 15 SBD dive-bombers, six TBF torpedo bombers and eight F4F fighters, led by Lieutenant Commander William J. Widhelm from Hornet, was on its way by about 08.00. A second group, comprising three SBD dive-bombers, nine TBF torpedo bombers and eight F4F fighters from Enterprise, had lifted off by 08.10. A third group, comprising nine SBD dive-bombers, 10 TBF torpedo bombers and seven F4F fighter from Hornet, was in the air by 08.20.

At 08.40, the opposing aircraft formations passed within sight of each other. Hidaka’s nine fighters from Zuiho surprised and attacked Enterprise's group, delivering their attack out of the sun on the US aircraft as they climbed toward cruising altitude. In the resulting engagement, four A6M fighters, three F4F fighters and two TBF torpedo bombers were shot down, with another two TBF and one F4F machines forced to turn back to Enterprise with damage. Zuiho's remaining A6M fighters, had exhausted their ammunition and withdrew.

At 08.50, the leading US group from Hornet sighted four ships of the 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body and, pressing on, spotted the Japanese carriers and prepared to attack. Three of Zuiho's A6M fighters attacked the formation’s F4F fighter escorts, drawing them away from the bombers they were assigned to protect. Thus, the dive-bombers in the first group initiated their attacks without fighter escort. Some 12 A6M fighters of the Japanese combat air patrol attacked the SBD formation, shot down two, and forced two more to abort. The remaining 11 SBD dive-bombers began their attack dives on Shokaku at 09.27, hitting her with three to six bombs, wrecking her flightdeck, and causing serious damage to the carrier’s interior. The final SBD of the 11 lost track of Shokaku and instead dropped its bomb near the Japanese destroyer Teruzuki, causing minor damage. The six TBF torpedo bombers of the first attack force, having become separated from the rest of their group, did not find the Japanese carriers and eventually turned back to Hornet. On their way back, they attacked the the heavy cruiser Tone, but missed with all their torpedoes.

The TBF torpedo bombers of the second US attack formation, from Enterprise, were unable to locate the Japanese carriers and instead attacked the heavy cruiser Suzuya of the 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body but caused no damage. At about the same time, nine SBD dive-bombers of the third US attack formation, from Hornet, found Abe’s ships and attacked Chikuma, hitting the heavy cruiser with two 1,000-lb (454-kg) bombs and causing heavy damage. The three SBD dive-bombers from Enterprise then arrived and also attacked Chikuma, causing more damage with one bomb hit and two near misses. Finally, the nine TBF torpedo bombers from the third attack group arrived and attacked the smoking Chikuma, scoring one more hit. Escorted by two destroyers, Chikuma withdrew from the battle and headed toward Truk for repair.

The US carrier forces received word from their outbound attack aircraft at 08.30 that Japanese attack aircraft were headed their way. At 08.52, the Japanese attack force commander sighted the Hornet's task force, the Enterprise's task force being currently hidden by a rain squall, and deployed his aircraft for attack. At 08.55, the US carriers detected the approaching Japanese aircraft on radar about 40 miles (65 km) distant and began to vector the 37 F4F fighters of their combat air patrol to engage the incoming Japanese aircraft. However, the combination of communication problems, mistakes by the US fighter control directors and primitive control procedures prevented all but a few of the F4F fighters from engaging the Japanese aircraft before they began their attacks on Hornet. Although the combat air patrol was able to shoot down or damage several dive-bombers, most of the Japanese aircraft began their attacks relatively unhindered by US fighters.

At 09.09, Hornet's anti-aircraft guns and those of the carrier’s escorting warships opened fire as the 20 untouched Japanese torpedo bombers and the remaining 16 dive-bombers began their attacks on the carrier. At 09.12, a dive-bomber placed its 551-lb (250-kg) semi-armor-piercing bomb right in the centre of Hornet's flightdeck, across from the island, and this weapon penetrated three decks before detonating, in the process killing 60 men. Moments later, a 535-lb (243-kg) high-explosive bomb also struck the flightdeck, detonating on impact to create an 11-ft (3.4-m) hole and kill 30 men. A minute or so later, a third bomb hit Hornet near the point at which the first bomb had impacted, penetrating three decks before detonating, causing severe damage but no loss of life. At 09.14, a dive-bomber was set on fire by Hornet's anti-aircraft guns, and its pilot deliberately crashed his aeroplane into Hornet's stack, killing seven men and spreading burning aviation fuel over the signal deck.

At the same time as the dive-bombers were attacking, the 20 torpedo bombers were also approaching Hornet from two different directions. Despite suffering heavy losses from anti-aircraft fire, the torpedo bombers planted two torpedoes in Hornet's side between 09.13 and 09.17, knocking out her engines. As Hornet came to a stop, a damaged Japanese dive-bomber approached and deliberately crashed into the carrier’s side, starting a fire near the ship’s main aviation fuel tankage. At 09.20, the surviving Japanese aircraft departed, leaving Hornet dead in the water and burning. Some 25 Japanese and six US aircraft had been destroyed in this attack, the total including 12 dive-bombers, 10 torpedo bombers and at least one fighter.

With the assistance of the fire hoses of three escorting destroyers, Hornet's crew had brought the carrier’s fires under control by 10.00. Wounded personnel were evacuated from the carrier, and an attempt was made by the heavy cruiser Northampton to take Hornet in tow and move her away from the battle area. However, the effort to rig the towline took some time, and more attack waves of Japanese aircraft were inbound.

Starting at 09.30, Enterprise landed many of the damaged and fuel-depleted fighters of the combat air patrol and returning scout aircraft from both carriers. However, with her flightdeck full, and the second wave of incoming Japanese aircraft detected on radar at 09.30, Enterprise brought landing operations to an end at 10.00. Fuel-depleted aircraft then began ditching in the sea, from which the carrier’s escorting destroyers rescued their crews. One of the ditching aircraft, a TBF of Enterprise's attack force, which had been attacked earlier by A6M fighters from Zuiho, crashed into the water near the destroyer Porter. As the destroyer rescued the TBF’s crew, she was struck by a torpedo, possibly from the ditched aeroplane, causing heavy damage and killing 15 men of her crew. After the task force commander ordered the destroyer to be scuttled, the crew was rescued by the destroyer Shaw, which then sank Porter with 5-in (127-mm) gunfire.

As the first wave of Japanese attack aircraft began to return to their carriers from their attack on Hornet, one of them spotted the Enterprise's task force, which had now emerged from the rain squall, and reported the carrier’s position. The second wave of Japanese attack aircraft, believing Hornet to be sinking, directed their attacks on Enterprise's task force from 10.08. Again, the US combat air patrol had trouble intercepting the Japanese aircraft before they attacked Enterprise, shooting down only two of the 19 dive-bombers as they began their dives on the carrier. Attacking through the intense anti-aircraft fire put up by Enterprise and her escorting warships, Seki’s division attacked first and scored no hits. Next to attack was the division led by Lieutenant Keiichi Arima, and this scored hits on the carrier with two 551-lb (250-kg) semi-armour-piercing bombs. The two bombs killed 44 men and wounded 75, and caused heavy damage to the carrier, including the jamming of her forward elevator in the 'up' position. In addition another bomb was a near miss. Some 10 of 19 Japanese dive-bombers were lost in this attack, however, and two more had to ditch on their return flights.

Some 20 minutes later, Zuikaku's 16 B5N torpedo bombers arrived and divided to attack Enterprise from different directions. One group of the torpedo bombers was attacked by two F4F fighters of the combat air patrol, which shot down three of them and damaged a fourth. On fire, this last machine deliberately crashed into the destroyer Smith, setting the ship on fire and killing 57 of her crew. The torpedo carried by this aircraft detonated shortly after impact, causing more damage. The fires initially seemed out of control until Smith's commanding officer ordered the destroyer to be steered into the large spraying wake of the battleship South Dakota, which helped put out the fires. Smith then resumed her position, firing her remaining anti-aircraft guns at the torpedo bombers.

The remaining torpedo bombers attacked Enterprise, South Dakota and the heavy cruiser Portland, but all of their torpedoes missed or failed. The engagement was over by 10.53 after nine of the 16 torpedo bombers had been lost. After suppressing most of the onboard fires, Enterprise at 11.15 resumed flightdeck operations to begin landing aircraft returning from the morning’s US attacks on the Japanese forces. However, only a few aircraft landed before the next wave of Japanese attack aircraft arrived and began their attacks on Enterprise, forcing a suspension of landing operations.

Between 09.05 and 09.14, Junyo had reached a point within 320 miles (520 km) of the US carriers and launched an attack force of 17 dive-bombers and 12 fighters under the command of Lieutenant Yoshio Shiga. As the Japanese 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body and 2nd Fleet, Advance Force manoeuvred in an effort to link, Junyo readied follow-up attacks. At 11.21, the Junyo's aircraft arrived and dived on the Enterprise's task force. The dive-bombers scored one near miss on Enterprise, causing more damage, and one hit each on the battleship South Dakota and the light cruiser San Juan, causing moderate damage to each ship. Eight of the 17 Japanese dive-bombers were destroyed in this attack, and another three ditched on their return flights.

At 11.35, with Hornet out of action, Enterprise heavily damaged, and the Japanese assumed to have one or two undamaged carriers in the area, Kinkaid decided to withdraw Enterprise and her escorts from the battle. Leaving Hornet, Kinkaid directed the carrier and her task force to retreat as soon as they were able to do so. Between 11.39 and 13.22, Enterprise recovered 57 of the 73 airborne US aircraft as she retreated. The remaining US aircraft ditched, and their crews were rescued by escorting warships.

Between 11.40 and 14.00, the two undamaged Japanese carriers, Zuikaku and Junyo, recovered the few aircraft that returned from the morning’s attacks on Hornet and Enterprise, and prepared follow-up attacks. It was now that the devastating losses sustained during these attacks became apparent. Only one of Junyo's bomber leaders returned from the first attack, and upon landing he appeared 'so shaken that at times he could not speak coherently'.

At 13.00, the ships of Kondo’s 2nd Fleet, Advance Force and Abe’s 2nd Fleet, Vanguard Force, Main Body together headed directly toward the last reported position of the US carrier task forces and increased speed to try to intercept them for a gun battle. The damaged carriers Zuiho and Shokaku of the 3rd Fleet, Carrier Strike Force, Mobile Force, Main Body, with Nagumo still on board, retreated from the battle area, leaving Kakuta in command of Zuikaku's and Junyo's aircraft forces. At 13.06, Junyo launched her second attack package of seven B5N torpedo bombers led by Lieutenant Yoshiaki Irikiin, which were escorted by eight A6M fighters led by Lieutenant Shirane. At the same time, Zuikaku launched her third attack package of seven B5N torpedo bombers, two D3A dive-bombers and five A6M fighters under the command of Lieutenant Ichiro Tanaka. Most of the torpedo bombers were armed with a single 1,764-lb (800-kg) armour-piercing bomb. At 15.35, Junyo launched the last Japanese attack package of the day, comprising four D3A dive-bombers and six A6M fighters, again under the command of Lieutenant Shiga.

At 14.45, after several technical problems had been overcome, Northampton finally began towing Hornet out of the battle at a speed of just 5 kt. Hornet's crew was on the verge of restoring partial power when, at 15.20, Junyo's second wave of attack aircraft arrived, and the seven torpedo bombers attacked the almost stationary carrier. Although six of the torpedo bombers missed, at 15.23 one torpedo struck Hornet amidships, and this proved to be the fatal blow. The torpedo’s detonation destroyed the repairs to the carrier’s power system, and caused both heavy flooding and a 14 list. With no power to pump out the water, Hornet was deemed irrecoverable and her crew was instructed to abandon ship. The third attack force from Zuikaku attacked Hornet during this time, in which B5N level bombers hit the sinking ship with one 1,764-lb (800-kg) bomb. All of Hornet's crew had left the ship by 16.27. During the last Japanese attack of the day, a dive-bomber of Junyo's third attack dropped one more 551-lb (250-kg) semi-armour-piercing bomb on the sinking carrier at 17.20.

After being informed that the Japanese forces were approaching and that the towing effort was no longer feasible, Halsey ordered that Hornet be sunk. While the rest of the US warships retired to the south-east to get out of range of Kondo’s and Abe’s oncoming forces, the destroyers Mustin and Anderson attempted to sink Hornet with a number of torpedoes and over 400 shells, but the destroyed carrier still remained afloat. With advancing Japanese naval forces only 20 minutes distant, the two US destroyers abandoned the blazing Hornet at 20.40. By 22.20, the rest of Kondo’s and Abe’s warships had arrived at Hornet's location, and the destroyers Makigumo and Akigumo then finished Hornet with four 24-in (610-mm) Type 93 'Long Lance' heavyweight torpedoes, and at 01.35 on 27 October Hornet finally sank.

Several night attacks by radar-equipped Catalina flying boats on Junyo and Teruzuki, knowledge of the head start the US warships had in their retreat from the area and a critical fuel situation apparently caused the Japanese to reconsider further pursuit of the US warships. After refuelling near the northern part of the Solomon islands group, the Japanese ships returned to their main base at Truk on 30 October. During the US withdrawal from the battle area towards Espiritu Santo and New Caledonia, while manoeuvring to avoid the attentions of a Japanese submarine, South Dakota collided with the destroyer Mahan, which was severely damaged.

Each side claimed victory in the 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands'. The Americans stated that two Shokaku class fleet carriers had been hit with bombs and eliminated from the reckoning. Kinkaid’s summary of claimed damage to the Japanese included hits on one battleship, three heavy cruisers and one light cruiser, and possible hits on another heavy cruiser. In reality, Shokaku, Zuih and Chikuma were the only ships hit during the battle, and none of these sank. For their part, the Japanese asserted that their forces had sunk three US carriers, one battleship, one cruiser, one destroyer and one 'unidentified large warship', whereas the actual US losses comprised the carrier Hornet and the destroyer Porter, and damage to the carrier Enterprise, the battleship South Dakota, the light cruiser San Juan and the destroyer Smith.

The loss of Hornet was a major blow for the Allied forces in the South Pacific, leaving Enterprise as the one operational, albeit damaged, Allied carrier in the entire Pacific Ocean theatre. Enterprise received temporary repairs at New Caledonia and, although not fully restored, returned to the area of the southern Solomon islands group just two weeks later to support Allied forces during the 'Naval Battle of Guadalcanal', in which she played an important role in what turned out to be the decisive naval engagement in the overall campaign for Guadalcanal, for her aircraft sank several Japanese warships and troop transports during the naval skirmishes around Henderson Field. Their shortages of carriers pressed both the USA and Japan to deploy battleships in night operations around Guadalcanal, one of only two actions in the entire Pacific War in which battleships fought each other: South Dakota was again damaged and two Japanese battleships were lost.

Although the 'Battle of Santa Cruz' was a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk, this success came at a high cost for their naval forces, as Junyo was left as the only fully operational carrier left to challenge Enterprise or Henderson Field for the remainder of the Guadalcanal campaign. Despite being undamaged and having recovered the aircraft from the two damaged carriers, Zuikaku returned to the Japanese home islands via Truk for training and aircraft ferrying duties, returning to the South Pacific only in February 1943 to cover the 'Ke' (i) evacuation of Japanese ground forces from Guadalcanal. Both damaged carriers were forced to return to Japan for extensive repairs and refitting. After repair, Zuiho returned to Truk late in January 1943, while Shokaku was under repair until March 1943 and did not return to the front until July 1943, when she was reunited with her sister ship Zuikaku at Truk.

The most significant losses for the Japanese were not to their ships, however, but to their aircrews. The USA lost 81 of the 175 aircraft were available at the start of the battle: of these losses, 33 were fighters, 28 dive-bombers and 20 torpedo bombers. Only 26 pilots and aircrew members were lost, however. The Japanese fared much worse, especially in airmen: in addition to losing 99 of the 203 aircraft involved in the battle, they lost 148 pilots and aircrew, including two dive-bomber group leaders, three torpedo bomber squadron leaders, and 18 other section or flight leaders. The most notable casualties were the commanders of the first two strikes attacks, namely Murata and Seki. Some 49% of the Japanese torpedo bomber aircrews were killed, along with 39% of the dive-bomber crews and 20% of the fighter pilots. The Japanese lost more aircrew in the 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands' than they had lost in each of the three previous carrier battles at Coral Sea (90 men), Midway (110 men), and the Eastern Solomons (61 men). By the end of the 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands', at least 409 of the 765 elite and highly experienced Japanese carrier airmen who had been involved in the 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor were dead. After losing so many of its veteran carrier aircrew, and with no quick way of replacing them, as a result of the institutionalised and limited capacity in its naval aircrew training programmes and an absence of trained reserves, the undamaged Zuikaku had been ordered to return to Japan. Junyo remained in the South Pacific and provided air support during the 'Naval Battle of Guadalcanal', and Zuikaku returned just in time to cover the 'Ke' (i) withdrawal of the forces from Guadalcanal.

Nagumo was relieved of command shortly after the battle, reassigned to shore duty in Japan, and conceded that his victory in the 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands' had been incomplete.

Thus, despite being a tactical victory, the 'Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands' effectively ended any hope the Imperial Japanese navy might have had of scoring a decisive victory before the industrial might and superior training programmes of the USA placed that goal out of reach.