Overnight: 25-26 October
During the night, crews on the Hornet positioned aircraft on the flightdeck if the prospects of a night strike by moonlight made themselves present. In the meantime, PBY Catalina’s, using the first crude airborne radar sets, continued to try to locate the Japanese fleet in the darkness. Shortly after midnight, one PBY successfully located Nagumo’s carriers (Shokaku, Zuikaku and Zuiho) roughly 300 miles from Kinkaid’s forces. Three hours later, a torpedo attack (unsuccessful) by another PBY on Zuikaku forced Nagumo to turn back to the north.
Watching the proceedings from his location in Noumea, COMSOPAC (Halsey) clearly felt here was a chance to deliver a Midway-esque smashing blow to the enemy and issued a terse order: STRIKE. REPEAT. STRIKE.
Onboard Enterprise, the picture was less clear – and illuminates one of the Command and Control problems of the theater. The PBY’s, amphibs though they were, were assigned to Fitch’s shore-based aircraft and as such, made their reports directly to their commanders ashore on Espiritu Santo and thence to Noumea. Those reports were then relayed back to Kinkaid’s command at sea, but given the delays inherent to such a setup, position reports could be as much as 3-6 hours. The resulting area of uncertainty, assuming ships operating at 20+ knots, was such that, absent CV-based organic search aircraft with equivalent radar and reporting capabilities, the probability of success of a strike, much less one launched at night, rapidly diminished with each passing hour. As it was, Kincaid would not receive the position reports until almost 0600 – well after the Enterprise launched her dawn patrol.
Dawn Launch – Enterprise
In the pre-dawn darkness of 26 October, flightdeck crews moved purposefully about the deck, preparing the first launch. Today, Enterprise was the search carrier and Hornet was the primary strike – meaning that Enterprise’s air wing would be launched as scouts to seek out the Japanese forces, report their positions and Hornet would launch a massive combined strike. Enterprise would follow-up with another wave of strikes and conduct post-strike reconnaissance to determine if additional strikes would be necessary.
As the crews of the sixteen Dauntlesses settled into the confines of the venerable dive-bomber, CDR John Crommelin’s speech to the gathered aviators in the wardroom the night before still ran strong in their ears:
“You have all been carefully and thoroughly trained. You know how to drop bombs and get hits – and I damned well expect you to do just that. The safety of the Marines in their long, miserable struggle on Guadalcanal now depends 100 percent on how well Big E’s pilots do your duty.”
“There is no room for waste – no excuse for misses. If you are going to miss you may as well have stayed stateside and given good pilots a crack at the enemy and your bunk.”
“Let me be clear – I hope no one has any illusions about being overworked. You, all of you, are a major part of what stands between the Japanese and Guadalcanal. And on Guadalcanal depends the war in the South Pacific. I’m going to use you however and whenever necessary and the better you are, the better your chances.”
“Now get some rest and let’s knock those sons of bitches off the face of the earth in the morning…”
Coming from a veteran of Midway and on the heels of that evening’s problematic night recovery – the first plane in the recovery crashed and 6 others ditched (most carrier ops even at this pit in the war were daytime with dedicated training for nighttime CVOPS still to come), it was clear that the bar of expectations for Air Wing 10 was set high.
Twenty-three minutes before dawn the scouting force is launched and paired up, the SBDs depart on their search radials to sweep their assigned areas. The first rays of dawn reveal a day marked by the ever-present gentle swell from the northwest and a thin, scattered to broken layer of cumulus clouds varying between 1500 and 2000 ft. Visibility above and below the layer was unlimited. Winds were out of the southeast at six to ten knots and there were the ever-present scattered rain showers, common to the tropics. In other words, it was a perfect day for flying – for both sides.
Six SBDs of VB-10 were to cover the sector 235-282T and the other ten, from VS-10, were to cover sectors 282-345T. All aircraft were armed with a 500lb bomb.
Eighty-five miles out from Enterprise, an SBD from VB-10 spots a Type 97 (Kate), 3 miles out on their starboard wing and slightly below, headed in the opposite direction, intent on its own search. The aircraft pass each other but no action is taken. At 0717L contact is made and identified as “Enemy Task Force 1.” It was composed of 2 battleships, one heavy cruiser and seven destroyers – but no carriers; heading north at 20 knots. Circling the force and dodging into the clouds, the pair reports the force composition, location, heading and speed to Enterprise, and then turns to the north to continue their search out to a point 200 nm from the American task force center. Returning to Enterprise with no carriers sighted, they pass again over the enemy task force, now headed west at 25 knots. This time, the cruiser and several destroyers open fire, but no hits are scored and with the position and speed reported, the two SBDs continue back to Enterprise to recover onboard at 1031L. On that return leg, they again passed the Kate, this time about a mile out on the starboard wing, but took no action nor reported the sighting.
Twenty minutes after the first enemy task force was reported, the CO of Scouting 10 reported finding two large carriers – Shokaku and Zuikaku, 200 nm northwest of the American task force. A third carrier, the light carrier Zuiho, was present but unsighted. Reporting the position of carriers, LCDR Lee and his wingman, ENS Johnson, maneuvered to attack the carriers, but were met by a swarm of Zeros. Dodging the defenders, the two SBDs managed to survive and in the process, down three of them. As this was taking place, other aircraft form Scouting 10 arrived on the scene. LT Strong and his wingman, ENS Irvine located the Zuiho and in almost perfect position, diving with the bright sun at their backs from 14,000 ft, planted two 500lb bombs on Zuiho’s flight deck scoring a mission kill as her flightdeck was taken out of action with a 50-ft hole blasted in it.
Unfortunately, while it would be months before Zuiho’s flightdeck would be operational again, her strike had already been launched and was on its way to the American task force. Planes from the Shokaku had located Enterprise and Hornet around 0740L and at 0818L, a 65-plane raid was enroute to their positions. Other Scouting 10 SBDs attempted to attack the carriers, but by now the opposition was so fierce that the SBDs were turned back, though not without claiming more Zeros downed.
Back at the American task force, beginning at 0830, the Hornet launched two waves of planes. The first consisted of 15 SBD-3’s of VB-8 and VS-8, 6 TBF-1’s of VT-6, and 8 F4F-4’s of VF-72. The second Hornet wave, which began taking off at 0915, was made up of 9 SBD-3’s and 9 TBF-1’s, with 7 F4F-4’s as escorts. CAG, CDR Rodee, took off with this flight in a TBF. In the meantime, at 0900, the Enterprise began launching 3 SBD-3’s of VB-10, 8 TBF-1’s of VT-10, and 8 F4F-4’s of VF-10. At once, instead of a combined raid of aircraft from both carriers, the Americans ended up with a stream raid of three groups, two from Hornet, one from Enterprise. In part, this was due to a desire to conserve fuel and time that might otherwise be wasted waiting for the large gaggle of aircraft to rendezvous and proceed outbound. But along with that consideration was the urgency to get to the Japanese carriers and sink them. The sad reality, as will soon be seen, is that it set up the strike for unnecessary losses enroute.
Forces Engaged: Air Combat
By 0910L Hornet had completed her launches and Enterprise had completed hers by 0902L. The Japanese had completed theirs at roughly the same time and were inbound almost on a reciprocal of the US strike. All things considered, the near simultaneity of the strikes should not be surprising given the limiting requirements of distance, available light (for search), launch times and transit. Both carrier groups launched searches around dawn (recall the SBDs from Enterprise passing within 3 miles of the Kate headed in the opposite direction) and, given discovery of their respective targets of interest at almost the same time, it follows that the strikes would be launched at the same time.
The balance was thus: two carriers and 169 planes versus four Japanese carriers (albeit with one damaged) and 212 aircraft. Surface forces were correspondingly outnumbered with 1 battleship and six cruisers versus four battleships and eight cruisers. It was Midway, again, except that the US side was one carrier shy.
At o935L, LCDR Jimmy Flately’s Wildcats of VF-10 were having to perform a weave to remain on pace with the slower Avengers. Turning back to their charges he was stunned to see an Avenger enveloped in flame enter a spin towards the sea below. In the blink of an eye, nine Zeros had dropped out of the sun on the unsuspecting Avengers passing below the Japanese strike force. Three aircraft were immediately lost and a fourth forced to turn back due to damage. Caught at an altitude disadvantage, Flately nevertheless rammed the throttle to the firewall and began a max power climb with his flight to meet the Zeros. Three Zeros were shot down and a fourth forced back, but VT-10 had lost half of its aircraft and its CO in the one-sided fight. Hornet’s strike groups witnessed the exchange, but pressed on to their targets. At one point the American and Japanese strike groups passed through one another, but neither engaged the other in substantial measure. Warnings were passed back to the task force (and presumably by the Japanese aviators as well), and though received, they were not acknowledged.
Back aboard Enterprise, the emerging air picture was rapidly becoming untenable. Although radar[i] was providing advance warning of a raid, it was difficult to interpret. Trying to pick out friend from foe on the A-type indicators, the sheer number of aircraft and operator unfamiliarity led to delays in launching the CAP with predictably dire
- CXAM-1 Radar Installation on Enterprise
results. Complicating the matters was the inexperience of the air controller who kept the CAP of 38 F4Fs low and close to the task force, rather than pushing them out to intercept the Japanese as they closed the force, now at 45 nm.
First to engage were fighters from the Hornet, which brought down two bombers at 20 nm from the force. Enterprise fighters claimed another two, but despite these efforts, an overwhelming force of 22 Val dive-bombers ad 18 Kates made for Hornet (Enterprise had managed to screen herself in a nearby rainsquall at 0957L). The first strike on Hornet occurred following a miss by a Val, which subsequently crashed (deliberately) into the flightdeck at the base of the island. The 100lb bomb it carried exploded (the 550 lb did not), showering the signal bridge with flaming avgas.
Approaching from the rear, two Kates launched a torpedo strike that blew open two 15 ft x 30 ft holes in the starboard rear quarter, flooding the aft fire room and forward engine room. The forward half of Hornet then erupted in flame as three more dive bombers found their mark and another plane struck the port gun gallery, scattering flaming wreckage into the forward elevator pit.
Hornet was mortally wounded and had come to a stop with all power lost. Almost immediately, the destroyers Russell and Morris came alongside to fight the fires and rescue her crewmen. Despite those efforts, it was clear Hornet was out of action.
Ten miles away, Enterprise emerged from the rainsquall. There in the distance lay Hornet, Enterprise’s partner in most of the operations since Pearl Harbor. The carrier she had escorted while carrying Doolittle’s raiders to their appointment with Tokyo. The carrier whose airwing suffered such grievous loss at Midway. Who’d survived other attacks, but now lay burning and listing on the near horizon. By nightfall she would be resting in the cold, dark depths of the Pacific.
And now there was only one carrier to hold the line against the Japanese. The crew of Enterprise knew it and it was a sure bet the Japanese did too – and they would be back to try and finish the job.
- IJN Chikuma under attack
As Enterprise was emerging from the rainsquall to behold a burning Hornet, Hornet’s second wave was rolling in on the Vanguard force while her first wave was searching out the Japanese carriers. At 1030L, LT Lynch led nine Hornet Dantlesses in an attack on the heavy cruiser Chikuma, scoring between 2 and 4 hits with their 1000-pound bombs. Though not sunk, Chikuma was a wreck. Avengers from the same attack tried to bomb the cruiser Tone, but could only muster near misses.
In the meantime, LT Widhelm had found Nagumo’s carriers – and the carrier’s CAP of Zeros had found him. A savage, twenty-, minute dogfight ensued, including Hornet’s Wildcats, with three Dauntlesses (including Widhelm) lost along with several Zeros. The remaining Dauntlesses found themselves over Shokaku and the damaged Zuiho and commenced to attack Shokaku. Scoring three hits with their 1000lb bombs, Shokaku marked heavy damage to her flightdeck and hangar bay – enough to preclude flight
- Shokaku flightdeck damage
operations. Like Zuiho, she wasn’t sunk, but would be out of action for several months – another mission kill.
The remains of the strike group from Enterprise had somewhat less success. The swirling dogfight that began with the Avengers being jumped by Zeros, had pulled most of the aircraft down to lower altitudes. Low on fuel, they attacked the first target of opportunity which turned out to be the force centered on two battleships – Kirishima and Hiei. Once again and as at Midway, the torpedo attacks failed due to faulty weapons. The other attacks netted only near misses.
At the end of the opening rounds of battle on 26 October, it was beginning to appear that the Japanese, while suffering heavy blows to two of their carriers, were nonetheless up on the Americans. Enterprise had lost a significant number of her Avengers in the attack and of course, Hornet was out of commission and a platform kill. From 1030 to 1100 Enterprise recovered her scouts sent at dawn as well as her CAP and that of Hornet while preparing for another strike. An already tight flightdeck was made all the more so with Hornet’s additional planes. Flight deck crews scrambled to re-fuel, rearm, patch what they could and what they couldn’t, went overboard.
It still wasn’t enough though as another wave of Japanese aircraft appeared on radar and the fighters scrambled aloft to try and intercept.
(l) USS South Dakota (r) Bofors 40mm mount (as seen on CV-12)
For the next fifteen minutes, the badly out of position fighters tried to intercept the Japanese despite poor vectors and disadvantages in altitude. In close company with Enterprise was South Dakota, optimized for AA. Both she and Enterprise had the latest AA gunnery with the Bofors 40mm guns. With exceptional range and volume of fire, the 40mm could and would over the span of the next 30 minutes put up a withering wall of fire.
As the Japanese attack pressed in closer to Enterprise, South Dakota opened up with all of her batteries, prompting one of the overhead CAP to think she’d been hit as “it looked like she was on fire from bow to stern.” The narrative from the CV6 homesite best describes the subsequent action:
Half of the attacking planes never escaped the American guns and fighters, but the remainder pressed home the attack. Bombs raised geysers around Enterprise, before first bomb plunged through the forward flight deck at 1117 and reemerged to explode in the air, just off the ship’s bow. Shrapnel peppered Enterprise with 160 holes between the waterline and forecastle; the blast set one Dauntless on fire, and knocked another overboard, taking with it Sam Presley AMM 1/c, who was manning the 30mm guns in the plane’s rear seat.
Seconds later, a second bomb struck just aft of the forward elevator, and broke in two. One half exploded on the hangar deck, destroying seven planes. The other half detonated two decks below, wiping out a repair party and a medical party, killing forty men, and setting bedding on fire.
Two minutes after the first bomb hit, as survivors struggled out of the shattered compartments and damage control parties went into action, a third bomb exploded very near to starboard, rocking the entire ship, caving in hull plating by three inches, and breaching two empty fuel tanks. The jarring blast knocked a second Dauntless overboard; another plane shimmied over the side of the flight deck and tumbled into the gun galleries. Despite her wounds and starboard list, Enterprise maintained speed and position, her gunners pounding away, until the order to stop firing came at 1120.
For 15 minutes, the men of Task Force 16 caught their breath, as the CAP chased away the last of the bombers. Over 20 bombs had been targeted for Enterprise; only two hits and a near miss had caused damage. From Enterprise’s bridge, seven enemy planes had been observed to crash “in the immediate vicinity”; a total of fifteen enemy planes downed in this attack alone.
At 1135 – just after a false periscope report – a second attack came in. This time it was fifteen Kate torpedo planes commanded by LCDR Shigeharu Murata. Enterprise’s CAP, in particular the fighter section led by LT Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa, pounced. Vejtasa knocked down two Vals speeding away after their diving attacks on the Big E, and then climbed to 13,000 feet, vectored towards the incoming Kates. Ten miles from the task force, Vejtasa and and his wingman LT Dave Harris spotted the Kates low over the ocean, racing towards their targets at 250 knots. Plummeting on the Kates from above, the two men downed six planes before running out of ammunition; other fighters accounted for another three planes. In total, Vejtasa could claim seven planes shot down on this single day.
One damaged torpedo plane headed for the destroyer Smith and plowed into her forecastle, killing 28 and wounding 23. Smith’s officers adeptly guided the destroyer through the speeding task force and buried her burning bow in South Dakota’s wake; minutes later her gunners were adding to the force’s anti-aircraft flack.
At 1144, the remaining torpedo planes lined up on Enterprise, preparing for a classic “anvil” attack. The Kates to starboard dropped first; Enterprise’s Captain Osborne Hardison ordered full right rudder and neatly combed the torpedoes – one by just ten yards – before ordering full left to avoid the burning Smith and a second spread of torpedoes. Moving at 28 knots, the carrier’s stern shuddered violently with each radical turn, finally coming into line with five more Kates, forcing them into a long turn to get into launching position. Three of the five were shot down before launch by the force’s anti-aircraft barrage. Another made a desperate attempt to launch from a stall off Enterprise’s stern: both torpedo and plane fell harmlessly into the sea. Only one of the five made a good drop; Hardison calmly conned Enterprise to parallel the fish, and it passed by without incident.
By noon, with the attackers gone and Enterprise finally steady on a recovery course, the aircraft from the two carriers that had been holding out of the way (and anxiously watching their fuel gauges, began to land aboard Enterprise.
Any illusion, however, about being able to conduct a normal recovery was shattered by the task force’s AA guns as they opened fire again – for now a third attack on Enterprise was underway…
[i] The Enterprise’s main search radar was the CXAM-1 search radar. This UHF (200 MHz) radar was developed in 1937 from the Naval Radiation Lab’s XAF and manufactured by RCA. Installed on carriers and battleships beginning in 1939, primarily owing to the size of its yaggi-array design, the CXAM demonstrated the ability to track aircraft at ranges up to 48 nm and ships, at up to 10 nm. There was no height finding function associated with the CXAM, nor was there an IFF. The addition of a rotating (vice operator controlled) antenna and a PPI (Plan Position Indicator) display significantly improved operator use of the radar and led to the SK designation.