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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

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A complex and bitterly fought engagement, Santa Cruz bore some similarities to the Battle of Midway, fought nearly five months earlier. In fact, Vice Admiral Halsey, still disappointed at missing Midway (he was recovering from a severe skin rash at the time), sought a similar opportunity at Santa Cruz, and might well have succeeded were it not for an unfortunate communications snafu.

Enterprise Launches Strike
"PROCEED WITHOUT HORNET": Enterprise's 0900 strike is told not to join up with Hornet's planes. In another two hours, this message (on the signboard held by man in center) would acquire greater meaning.

Anticipating the Combined Fleet would make a move towards Guadalcanal, Halsey ordered Kinkaid's Task Force 61 - consisting of Enterprise's TF 16 and Hornet's TF 17 - on an aggressive sweep northwest of the Santa Cruz Islands, hoping to outflank the Japanese fleet as it steamed southwards from Truk.

The first sign that Halsey's prediction might bear out came shortly after noon, on October 25. Flying from Espiritu Santo, Vice Admiral Aubrey Fitch's PBYs reported a Japanese carrier force steaming southeast at 25 knots, 360 miles northwest of Kinkaid's TF 61. After closing range for two-and-a-half hours, Kinkaid seized the initiative and launched a dozen Enterprise Dauntlesses, to search on 200 mile legs, west to north. An hour later, at 1530, Enterprise launched a strike - 12 Dauntlesses and 6 Avengers, covered by 11 Wildcat fighters - though the exact position of the Japanese carriers was not known.

In fact, Japanese Admiral Nagumo, spooked by the snooping PBY, had turned his forces north, evading Enterprise's strike altogether. By the time the planes returned to the task force it was dark, and the still-inexperienced pilots of Air Group 10 were forced to make night-landings. The first plane crashed on Enterprise's deck. Most of the remaining planes made it aboard safely, but three Dauntlesses and three Avengers ditched, costing the life of LT Frank Miller.

Steaming northwest into the night at 20 knots, Kinkaid and his men settled in to wait for further contact reports from Fitch's PBYs. Hornet's men, eager to make up for disappointing results at Midway, spotted a full strike on her deck, should a moonlit attack be ordered.

Eleven minutes after midnight, the PBYs found Nagumo's carriers again, 300 miles from Kinkaid and TF 61. Three hours later, PBYs found the carrier Zuikaku and her escorts, alarming the Japanese by launching torpedoes at the carrier and a destroyer. Nagumo, perhaps suspecting a trap, again ordered his fleet north, away from the probing enemy planes.

In Noumea, Halsey suffered no such timidity. The latest PBY reports put the Nagumo's carriers within range of Hornet and Enterprise's planes, the Japanese flank exposed to the prowling American carriers, just as it was at Midway. Here was a chance to deliver a smashing blow against the Combined Fleet. With three terse words, Halsey ordered TF 61 to deliver it: "STRIKE-REPEAT-STRIKE".

Kinkaid's reaction to Halsey's electrifying signal was not recorded, but it's fair to say that had Kinkaid known the position of the enemy carriers, he would scarcely have needed Halsey's prodding to go into action. But Kinkaid did not know. The PBYs reported directly to their base on Espiritu Santo - not to the carriers - and by the time their contact reports were relayed to TF 61, Kinkaid had already launched patrols of his own.

Enterprise and TF 61 went to general quarters at 0550 on October 26. Fifteen minutes later, just before sunrise, Enterprise launched 16 Dauntless scouts, 500 lb bombs slung under their bellies, to patrol in pairs on 200 mile legs from the southwest to due north. A few minutes after the last SBD cleared the Big E's deck, the sun rose to reveal a gorgeous tropical day: long gentle swells, breeze from the southeast at 6 to 10 knots, puffy cumulus clouds and occasional rain squalls. With the exception of the squalls, however, the weather favored the enemy: the scattered clouds offered shelter for approaching bombers, while the light wind would force Enterprise and Hornet to turn away from the Japanese to launch or land their planes.

Eighty-five miles out from the Big E, two of her SBDs spotted a Japanese "Kate" hurrying in the opposite direction. Intent on finding each other's fleets, the planes passed without incident. Not long after, the Enterprise pilots - LT Vivian W. Welch and LT(jg) Bruce A. McGraw - sighted and reported two enemy battleships, accompanied by a cruiser and several destroyers, later determined to be Rear Admiral Hiroake Abe's Vanguard force. Welch and McGraw continued their patrol, but made no further contacts.

Kinkaid's target, the Japanese carriers, were further north. Twenty minutes after Welch reported the battleships and their escorts, Scouting Ten commander James R. Lee and his wingman ENS William E. Johnson found two big Japanese carriers - Shokaku and Zuikaku - 200 miles northwest of the American force. Though Lee and Johnson didn't see it, a third carrier - Zuiho - was part of the same force. Mindful of Air Officer John Crommelin's exhortation the night before - to let no opportunity go to waste - Lee and Johnson reported the carriers' position, and then maneuvered into attack position. Nagumo's Combat Air Patrol pilots were wide awake, however, and before the Dauntlesses could strike, they were intercepted by eight Zeros. Smart flying and sharp shooting downed three of the Zeros, and the doughty Dauntlesses escaped with only a roughing up.

Scouting Tens' instructions directed the pilots to converge on the Japanese carriers once sighted. Hearing Lee's report, LT Stockton Strong and his wingman ENS Charles Irvine cut short their search leg, and set course for Lee's reported position. Shortly after 0830, Strong and Irvine arrived 14,000 feet above the Japanese, perfectly positioned between the bright sun and Zuiho's vulnerable flight deck. The sun to their backs, and the Zeros drawn away by other Scouting Ten planes, the two Enterprise Dauntlesses plunged unopposed on Zuiho, releasing their 500 lb bombs 1,500 feet over her deck. Both bombs hit, blasting a 50-foot hole in Zuiho's aft flight deck.

It would be months before Zuiho could conduct air operations again, but this morning she had already launched her planes, now well on their way to the American carriers. While Lee and Johnson were evading the Japanese CAP, a Shokaku plane had located and reported the presence of one American carrier. A little earlier, at 0740, another Japanese scout had come across Hornet (misidentified as Saratoga) 185 miles from the Nagumo's force. Any advantages the early morning PBY contacts might have afforded Halsey and Kinkaid were rapidly eroded as the Japanese launched a 65-plane strike at 0818, targeting the American carrier now known to be nearby.

USS South Dakota
The fast battleship South Dakota at Santa Cruz. Note the elevation of the starboard gun batteries.

The first full American strike was launched at 0840, when Hornet launched 29 planes commanded by LT William "Gus" Widhelm. At the same time, Strong and Irvine were engaged in a running fight with angry Zeros after their successful dive-bombing attack. Gunners C. H. Garlow and E. P. Williams each downed a Zero. Remarkably, all 16 Scouting Ten planes returned to Enterprise, despite numerous encounters with Japanese CAP, and after scoring hits on a carrier and a destroyer.

At 0900, Enterprise launched all her remaining planes: eight Wildcats, nine Avengers and three SBDs. This strike and Widhelm's did not join up, and by 0915 there were three American strikes in the air, as Hornet launched another 25 planes towards the reported Japanese position. As the last plane heaved itself off Hornet's deck, the battle achieved a delicate balance.

Enterprise and Hornet steamed in two tight circles of ships: the Big E escorted by battleship South Dakota and cruisers Portland and San Juan, Hornet escorted by cruisers Pensacola, Northampton, San Diego and Juneau. The two carriers and the 169 planes they carried faced four Japanese carriers - the now-damaged Zuiho, as well as Shokaku, Zuikaku and Junyo - packing 212 aircraft, and accompanied by a potent surface force including four battleships and eight heavy cruisers. In the air, three American air strikes had set course for the Japanese carriers, while the Japanese had already launched one big strike, and were within minutes of launching a second.

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