The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
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The third strike was a flight of 18 Val dive bombers escorted by 12 Zeros, commanded by LT Maseo Yamaguchi from the carrier Junyo. On an earlier pass, Yamaguchi had not seen Enterprise - most likely she was hidden in a squall - and had radioed his intent to attack a cruiser instead. By now, however, radio traffic had alerted the Japanese to the presence of second American carrier, and Junyo ordered Yamaguchi to find it and attack. This second carrier was Enterprise, and Yamaguchi led his men in on a glide-bombing attack at about 1220.
The persuasive power of South Dakota's and the Big E's 40mm Bofors AA guns seemed to gaining notoriety: they brought down four Vals - including Yamaguchi's - early in the attack, and a number of the remaining planes dropped their bombs as much as 500 yards distant the Big E's flight deck. Still several planes pressed on, one scoring a very near miss on the starboard side, again whipping the whole carrier along her length and opening several empty compartments to the sea. Another hit South Dakota's Number One turret, killing one man and wounding 50, including Captain Thomas Gatch, whose seamanship had held the massive battleship 1000 yards off Enterprise's starboard quarter, even as the nimble carrier veered wildly at as much as 28 knots. A third bomb pierced the anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan from deck to bottom, but failed to explode.
It is nearly impossible now to reconcile the various accounts of the number of planes downed in this engagement. Enterprise's Fighting Ten claimed 17 enemy planes, at a cost of seven Wildcats and four pilots. Hornet's VF-72 claimed 28 planes, against a loss of ten Wildcats and five pilots. South Dakota's gunners are generally credited with downing 26 planes; Enterprise - planes and gunners combined - is credited with 63. The Japanese logs hint at the magnitude of their losses: only nine Zeros returned from the second Japanese strike in serviceable condition, only two of the 27 planes to attack Hornet returned, period.
The debate about exactly how many planes South Dakota and Enterprise shot down continues to this day. There is a mutual respect, however, between Enterprise's men and those of South Dakota and North Carolina (which defended Big E at the Battle of the Eastern Solomons). Perhaps author Steve Ewing has best identified the bottom line:
Regardless of who is correct - and we'll never know for obvious reasons - Enterprise gunners shot down more planes at Eastern Solomons in 15 minutes and at Santa Cruz in 25 minutes than did the vast majority of all battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers throughout the entire war. - USS Enterprise (CV-6): The Most Decorated Ship of World War II
At 1235, after fending off a unsuccessful fourth attack by 15 Vals, Enterprise again turned into the wind to take on planes. By this time, the sky was crowded with fighters critically short of fuel and ammunition, Enterprise's scout and attack sections, and planes from Hornet seeking the only operating flight deck available. (And that barely: one near miss had jammed Enterprise's #1 elevator in the up position, and the #2 elevator was stuck in down position.) LSO Robin Lindsey brought in the CAP first, followed by the Dauntlesses and TBFs circling the ship. As the planes landed, they were hurriedly pushed past the #2 elevator to make room for the many planes behind them. Despite being ordered to stop, Lindsey continued to bring planes in, and eventually 95 planes were packed aboard Enterprise, the last dozen or so having to catch the first or second arresting wire to stop short of the planes jamming the deck.
In this condition, Enterprise was exceedingly vulnerable to further air attack, so an hour after landings started, Admiral Kinkaid ordered the task force south and out of the battle area. In the meantime, Hornet's men were working furiously to save her.
With the assistance of destroyers Morris and Russell, Hornet's fires had been brought under control, and the cruiser Northampton had moved in close to take her in tow. The first attempt - made while the Big E was fending off Yamaguchi's Vals - failed when Northampton's tow line parted. A second try with Hornet's heavier tow line succeeded however, and by the middle of the afternoon Northampton was easing Hornet to safety at 3-4 knots. With heroic effort, Hornet's men raised steam pressure in three boilers, and by 1600 were prepared to restart the ship's generator.
Twenty minutes later, however, a small 15-plane strike launched from Junyo attacked. Northampton hurriedly dropped her tow line; with no CAP for defense, the small force's gunners were all that could protect Hornet. Northampton handily dodged several torpedoes, but one caught Hornet on the starboard side, flooding the engine room and increasing her list to 14 degrees. A small bomber attack twenty minutes later did no damage, but as Hornet's list increased to 18 degrees, it was clear she was doomed. Captain Mason ordered "abandon ship", and over the next several hours the destroyers and cruisers were kept busy picking up the men - most of whom were in remarkably high spirits - and fending off the small attacks which continued through the afternoon, scoring two more hits on the battered ship. Perhaps what was most notable about these late afternoon strikes was their small size. For the final strike, the carrier Zuikaku could launch only four Vals.
Informed of Hornet's condition, from Noumea Admiral Halsey ordered her sunk, to keep her out of enemy hands. Destroyers Mustin and Anderson first fired 16 torpedoes at her, with only three hits, and then pummeled her with over 400 5" shells, setting her afire along her entire length. Alerted to the Japanese surface forces fast approaching, Hornet's escorts abandoned her and fled south. When the Japanese found her at about 2230, they tried and failed to take the burning hulk in tow, finally sinking her with four Long Lance torpedoes.
Though the Japanese initially hoped to pursue the remaining American forces, a night PBY torpedo attack on the October 27th, and their own devastating plane losses, convinced them otherwise, and early in the afternoon of October 27 they were ordered back to Truk.
At the cost of Hornet, the destroyer Porter (torpedoed during the first attack on Enterprise), 74 planes, and over 400 men killed or wounded, the American fleet had turned back a superior Japanese force and severely weakened Japan's remaining carrier air forces.
Though tactically Santa Cruz was a draw, strategically it was a narrow victory for the Americans. Nagumo's carriers and Kondo's battleships had been turned away from Guadalcanal, giving the Marines and soldiers there some much needed relief. Perhaps more importantly, the destruction of the best Japanese naval aircrews, begun in earnest at Midway, culminated at Santa Cruz. Though plane losses were high on both sides - 74 American and 92 Japanese - the loss of airmen pointed to a Japanese catastrophe. Nearly 70 Japanese aircrews - including a number of squadron leaders - never returned to their carriers at Santa Cruz, while all but 33 American airmen did.
The first hint of the damage done to Japan's naval airpower was seen the day of the battle, in the feeble afternoon strikes at Hornet. A more telling sign came on November 11, when Enterprise - after quick patching by Sea Bees and the repair ship Vulcan - sortied from Noumea, a full air group on her flight deck, ready to fight. The only Japanese carriers in the area - Hiyo and Junyo, both slow converted ocean liners - were well north of Guadalcanal, carefully staying clear of the American planes there. Without planes and the crews to fly them, the enemy's fleet carriers were impotent. Although Enterprise and her task force faced significant threat from ground-based air forces and submarines, the simple fact was this: 15 days after Santa Cruz, an American carrier stood off the Solomons, battered but ready for action, and not a single enemy carrier came forth to challenge her.