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

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Sixty miles from the Big E, planes from the opposing strikes began passing each other. The first few groups of planes flew on without incident; then nine Zeros dove out of the sun, slashing at the Enterprise's plodding Avengers. Within moments, three Avengers were downed, and a fourth forced to return. The Avenger's escorts, commanded by LCDR James Flatley, initially were unaware of their plight as the Wildcats had turned away, weaving back and forth to match their forward progress with the slower Avengers. Swinging back, Flatley and his airmen snapped into action at the sight of smoking TBFs falling away, fending off one attacking Zero, and sending three others into the sea. Well short of halfway to the Japanese carrier's, Big E's strike had been considerably weakened, but Hornet's planes continued on at full strength.

USS Hornet Under Attack
USS Hornet CV-8 under attack at Santa Cruz, a Japanese dive bomber immediately overhead.

Minutes later, Enterprise's radar operators belatedly identified the incoming strike, due to the confusion caused by the many groups of planes now northwest of the force. With the enemy planes only 45 miles from Task Force 61, the Combat Air Patrol - 38 Wildcats, controlled by Enterprise - had little time to react. The CAP was further hindered by the inexperienced air controller on Enterprise; positioned too low and too close to the Task Force, only a few of the fighters could grapple with the incoming dive bombers which began their attack at 0955.

Four Hornet planes made first contact, downing two Japanese bombers 20 miles from the force. Minutes later, Enterprise pilots LT Albert D. Pollock and ENS Steve G. Nona each downed a bomber. As other fighters struggled to gain altitude and advantage over the incoming strike, at 0957 Enterprise turned and headed for a rain squall, where she took shelter.

Despite the best efforts of the CAP, 22 Val dive-bombers and 18 Kates made it through, to focus their fury on Hornet. This was the first time Hornet had come under concerted attack, and her CO, Captain Charles P. Mason, sensed it would be bad. At 1008, Hornet's loudspeakers blared "Stand by for dive-bombing attack", and four minutes later it began.

The first two Val dive-bombers missed the big ship, but the third hit the aft starboard flight deck, before the squadron commander guided his damaged plane right into her, bouncing off the stack, crashing into the flight deck, detonating a 100-lb bomb (the other bomb the plane carried, 550-lbs, did not explode), and showering the signal bridge with burning gasoline.

From the rear, two Kate torpedo planes made good their drops: their fish blew a pair of 15' x 30' foot holes in Hornet's hull on the starboard side, flooding the aft fireroom and forward engine room. Three more dive-bombers scored hits on the crippled ship's flight deck, setting off more fires on her forward half; a second plane crashed into Hornet's forward port gun gallery, the fuselage tumbling into the forward elevator pit. Within minutes, Hornet lost power and propulsion. Destroyers Morris and Russell pulled alongside her to help fight her fires, but it was clear she was out of action.

Ten miles to the northeast, Enterprise emerged from the rain squall which had hidden her from the attacking planes. Hornet - burning and adrift - was clearly visible from Enterprise:

At 1020 HORNET appeared to be hit. Fires observed on island structure. At 1024 our aircraft reported there were 17 planes in attack on HORNET - Enterprise Deck Log, 26 October 1942

With Hornet disabled, Enterprise was now the last American carrier left to fight in the Pacific.

Despite the tremendous damage she'd sustained, Hornet still had a last punch to throw. While she was under attack, her first strike had overflown a Japanese surface force - LCDR Gus Widhelm wanted to find the carriers - but her second strike chose to give the enemy cruisers special attention. Led by LT J. J. Lynch, at 1030 nine Hornet Dauntlesses dove on the heavy cruiser Chikuma and scored 2-4 direct hits with 1000 lb bombs (accounts vary), and several near misses: Chikuma survived the attack but barely. Bomb-carrying Avengers from the same strike later attacked the cruiser Tone, but could do no better than a near miss.

By this time, however, Widhelm had found Nagumo's carriers. Shortly after flying over the force the second strike attacked, Widhelm's Dauntlesses were jumped by Zeros. A running dogfight ensued, with the Wildcat fighter escort joining in. Twenty minutes later, three Dauntlesses were downed (including Widhelm's, who survived), along with several Zeros, and the remaining bombers found themselves over the carrier Shokaku and the damaged Zuiho. Ignoring the damaged carrier, the 11 SBDs dove on Shokaku - Admiral Nagumo's flagship - and staggered her with at least three 1000 lb. bombs (the Japanese reported four hits, and other observers reported as many as six). Shokaku was saved by the fact that her planes were gone and her fuel lines empty. Her flight and hangar decks were destroyed, however, and she would be out of action for nine months. Hornet's "big guns" had nearly evened the score.

Enterprise's strike, weakened by its encounter with the enemy Zeros, had mixed results. As the fighter planes were low on fuel from the earlier scrape, the strike attacked the first enemy ships they encountered. This turned out to be a force centered on the battleships Hiei and Kirishima. Dauntless pilots LT(jg) Henry Ervin, ENS John Richey and LT(jg) George Estes reported two hits on Kirishima, but Japanese documents later noted only near misses. Simultaneously, the five Avengers attacked a cruiser, but none of their torpedoes scored hits. What Enterprise lacked in offensive punch today, however, she would make up for in her own defense.

At 1030, ten minutes after emerging from her protective rain squall, Enterprise turned into the wind to recover Scouting Ten, and both her and Hornet's Combat Air Patrol. A second strike, to be led by LCDR James Thomas, was being prepared for launch. This strike never took off, as at about 1100, enemy planes appeared on radar, dangerously near and closing fast. For long minutes, the Big E struggled in her attempts to fend off the attack. As was the case during the attack on Hornet, the fighters on CAP were badly positioned to intercept, and given nonsensical bearings by the inexperienced controller who reported the incoming enemy position relative to the carrier ("Bogey ahead 20 miles"). As the enemy bombers grew near, technicians struggled to find them using new 5"-guns' fire control radar, until at last - at 1115 - an Enterprise lookout reported the Vals directly overhead.

A 1000 yards off Enterprise's starboard quarter, the 45,000 ton South Dakota held her position at 27 knots, and stayed there as the Big E maneuvered radically to evade the bombers. Encircling the two ships, two cruisers and eight destroyers trained their guns on the two dozen Vals overhead, and waited for the command to fire. In moments, it came. One Fighting Ten pilot, flying over the cruiser San Juan, was startled to see the ship apparently explode stem to stern: in fact she had opened fire with every gun she could bring to bear. On Enterprise and South Dakota, the new 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns dropped enemy planes before they could release their bombs.

Enterprise Under Attack
On fire from previous hits, Enterprise heels over as she turns violently to evade attacking planes.

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.

At 1159, the Big E finally steadied her course, and prepared to begin landing the Hornet and Enterprise planes collecting overhead. After a momentary disruption caused by South Dakota gunners mistakenly opening fire on six friendly Dauntlesses, Landing Signal Officer LT Robin Lindsey began guiding planes in. Only a few planes had landed, however, when the Task Force guns roared back to life. A third attack had begun.

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