Battle of the Eastern Solomons

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The Battle of the Eastern Solomons was a battle between Japanese and American aircraft carriers in World War II. One Japanese carrier was sunk, and an American carrier, the USS Enterprise, was damaged. It was part of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Americans had landed on the island of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, and established a toehold on a small area on the north side of the island. This toehold included Henderson Field, an air field that served as a base for Army and Marine Corps airplanes. The area was also covered by the aircraft carriers Enterprise, Saratoga, and Wasp, supported by the battleship North Carolina and four cruisers. The goal of Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of Japan’s naval forces, was to sink the American carriers and deprive Henderson Field of their protection.

On August 23, a Japanese fleet under Vice-Admiral Nagumo entered the area. This fleet included four transports loaded with troops, three battleships, and most importantly, three aircraft carriers. The Shokaku and Zuikaku, both fleet carriers and veterans of Pearl Harbor, were to provide the main striking force, and the light carrier Ryujo, a veteran of the Japanese campaign to capture the Aleutian Islands, was to act as bait, drawing American air power away from the main body.

Early the next morning, a 27-aircraft strike force from the Ryujo attacked Henderson Field, but did no serious damage and was met by Marine Corps Wildcat fighters. Sixteen Japanese aircraft were shot down (three by famed Marine ace Marion Carl) in exchange for three Wildcats.[1] American reconnaissance planes found the little carrier later in the day, and planes from the Saratoga and Enterprise were sent after her. (The American commander, Admiral Frank Fletcher, had sent the Wasp to be refueled, so it played no part in the battle.) The strike found Ryujo and sank her.

At the same time, planes from the Shokaku and Zuikaku attacked the Enterprise. Her defending Wildcat fighters were able to ward off the torpedo planes, but some of the dive bombers got through, and she suffered three bomb hits, which resulted in fires, at least one secondary explosion, and a list. However, the fires were soon brought under control, and the Enterprise was able to recover her planes and get underway. Aircraft losses were 20 American planes and 70 Japanese, including the 37 based on the Ryujo.[2]

On the 25th, land-based aircraft, some of them from Henderson Field, attacked the Japanese fleet, sinking a destroyer and a transport and damaging a cruiser. Facing the almost certain prospect of further air attacks, the Japanese turned back, abandoning the operation.[3]

The U.S. Navy had stolen Yamamoto’s bait. More significantly, the Americans had prevented the Japanese from landing their reinforcements at Guadalcanal. The most important long-term effect was the loss of even more hard-to-replace Japanese air crew. The Enterprise had to leave for repairs (after sending some of her bombers and fighters to Henderson Field to reinforce the Marines), but was able to make Pearl Harbor under her own steam. She was back in a few weeks, in time for the Battle of Santa Cruz.[4]

References

  1. Semper Fi in the Sky: The Marine Air Battles of World War II, by Gerald Astor, Presidio Press, 2005
  2. Oxford Guide to World War II, ed. by I.C.B. Dear, Oxford University Press, 1995
  3. A History of War at Sea, by Helmut Pemsel, Naval Institute Press, 1975
  4. The Illustrated Directory of the United States Navy, by Chester G. Hearn, Salamander Books, 2003

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