Battle of the Eastern Solomons

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Battle of the Eastern Solomons
Part of the Pacific Theatre of World War II

USS Enterprise (centre left), heeling over under aerial attack and afire on August 24, 1942. Anti-aircraft shell bursts directed at the attacking Japanese dive bombers are visible above the carrier.
Date August 24, 1942 – August 25, 1942
Location North of Santa Isabel, Solomon Islands
Result Allied tactical and strategic advantage
United States (U.S.),
Empire of Japan
Robert Ghormley
Frank Jack Fletcher
Isoroku Yamamoto
Chuichi Nagumo
2 fleet carriers,
1 battleship,
4 cruisers,
11 destroyers,
176 aircraft
2 fleet carriers,
1 light carrier,
2 battleships,
16 cruisers,
25 destroyers,
1 seaplane tender,
4 patrol boats,
3 transports,
171 aircraft
1 carrier heavily damaged,
25 aircraft destroyed,
90 killed
1 light carrier,
1 destroyer,
1 transport sunk,
1 light cruiser,
1 seaplane tender heavily damaged,
75 aircraft destroyed,
290+ killed
Guadalcanal campaign
Tulagi – Savo I. – Tenaru – Eastern Solomons Edson's Ridge – Cape Esperance – Henderson Field – Santa Cruz Is.Naval Guadalcanal Tassafaronga – KeRennell I.
Solomon Islands campaign
1st Tulagi – Guadalcanal – Blackett Strait – Cartwheel Death of Yamamoto – New Georgia – Kula Gulf – Kolombangara – Vella Gulf – Horaniu – Vella Lavella – Naval Vella Lavella – Treasury Is. – Choiseul – Empress Augusta Bay – Cape St. George – Green Is. – 2nd Rabaul – Bougainville

The naval Battle of the Eastern Solomons (also known as the Battle of the Stewart Islands and, in Japanese sources, as the Second Battle of the Solomon Sea (第二次ソロモン海戦)) took place on 24- 25 August 1942 and was the third carrier battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II and the second major engagement fought by the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy during the lengthy Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands campaign. As at Coral Sea and Midway, the ships of the two adversaries were never in direct visual range of each other. Instead, all of the attacks by either side were carried out by either carrier or land-based aircraft.

After several damaging air attacks, the naval surface combatants from both the United States of America (U.S.) and Japan withdrew from the battle area without either side securing a clear victory. However, the U.S. and its allies apparently gained a greater tactical and strategic advantage from the battle than Japan because the Allied forces suffered fewer losses than the Japanese, who lost a significant amount of aircraft and experienced aircrews. Also, Japanese reinforcements intended for Guadalcanal were delayed and eventually delivered by naval warships instead of transport ships, giving the Allies more time to prepare for the Japanese counteroffensive and preventing the Japanese from landing heavy artillery, ammunition, and other logistical supplies that would have significantly assisted their forces in the struggle for the island.


On August 7, 1942, Allied forces (primarily U.S.) landed on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida Islands in the southern Solomon Islands. The landings on the islands were meant to deny their use by the Japanese as bases to threaten the supply routes between the U.S. and Australia, and to use them as starting points for a campaign with the eventual goal of isolating the major Japanese base at Rabaul while also supporting the Allied New Guinea and New Britain campaigns. The landings initiated the six-month-long Battle of Guadalcanal.

The Allied landings were directly supported by three U.S. aircraft carrier task forces: TF 11 ( Saratoga), TF 16 ( Enterprise), and TF 18 ( Wasp), their respective air groups, and supporting surface warships, including a battleship, cruisers, and destroyers. The overall commander of the three carrier task forces was Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher who flew his flag on Saratoga. The aircraft from the three U.S. carriers provided close air support for the invasion forces and defended against Japanese air attacks from Rabaul. However, worried over the losses of many of his fighter aircraft in combat with Japanese aircraft, which he felt made this carriers too vulnerable to air attack, and concerned about the Allied defeat in The Battle of Savo Island, Fletcher, claiming a need to fuel, withdrew his carriers to a safer distance between the Solomons and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) islands on August 9. Here, U.S. carriers were charged with guarding the line of communication between the major Allied bases at New Caledonia and Espiritu Santo, supporting the Allied ground forces at Guadalcanal and Tulagi against any Japanese counteroffensives, covering the movement of supply ships to Guadalcanal, and last, but not least, engaging and destroying any Japanese warships, especially carriers, that came within range.

U.S. carriers Wasp (foreground), Saratoga, and Enterprise (background) operating in the Pacific south of Guadalcanal on August 12 1942
U.S. carriers Wasp (foreground), Saratoga, and Enterprise (background) operating in the Pacific south of Guadalcanal on August 12 1942

Between August 15 and August 20, the U.S. carriers covered the delivery of fighter and bomber aircraft to the newly opened Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. Henderson Field and the aircraft based there soon began having a telling effect on the movement of Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands and in the attrition of Japanese air forces in the South Pacific Area. In fact, Allied control of Henderson Field became the key factor in the entire battle for Guadalcanal.

Taken by surprise by the Allied offensive in the Solomons, Japanese naval (under Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto) and army forces prepared a counteroffensive, with the goal of driving the Allies out of Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The counteroffensive was called Operation Ka (Ka comes from the first syllable for Guadalcanal as pronounced in Japanese) with the naval portion having an additional objective of destroying Allied warship forces in the South Pacific area, specifically the U.S. carriers.



A convoy containing 1,500 Japanese troops, loaded on three slow transport ships, left Truk (Chuuk) on August 16 and headed towards Guadalcanal. The transports were guarded by light cruiser Jintsu, eight destroyers, and four patrol boats, led by Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka (flag in Jintsu) Also departing from Rabaul to help protect the convoy was a "Close Cover force" of four heavy cruisers, commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa. These were the same cruisers that had defeated an Allied naval surface force in the earlier Battle of Savo Island. Tanaka planned to land the troops from his convoy on Guadalcanal on August 24.

Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo
Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo

On August 21, the rest of the Japanese Ka naval force departed Truk, heading for the southern Solomons. These ships were basically divided into three groups: the "Main Body" contained the Japanese carriers — Shōkaku and Zuikaku, light carrier Ryūjō, plus a screening force of one heavy cruiser and eight destroyers, commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo in Shōkaku; the "Vanguard Force" consisted of two battleships, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and three destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe; the "Advanced Force" contained five heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, six destroyers, and a seaplane carrier ( Chitose), commanded by Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo. Finally, a force of about 100 IJN land-based bomber, fighter, and reconnaissance aircraft at Rabaul and nearby islands were positioned to support. Nagumo's Main Body positioned itself behind the Vanguard and Advanced forces in order to more easily remain hidden from U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.

The Ka plan dictated once U.S. carriers were located, either by Japanese scout aircraft or an attack on one of the Japanese surface forces, Nagumo's carriers would immediately launch a strike force to destroy them. With the U.S. carriers destroyed or disabled, Abe's Vanguard and Kondo's Advanced forces would close with and destroy the rest of the allied naval forces in a warship surface action. The Japanese naval forces would then be free to neutralize Henderson Field through bombardment while covering the landing of the Japanese army troops to retake the islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

In response to an unanticipated land battle fought between U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal and Japanese forces on August 19–20, the U.S. carrier task forces under Fletcher headed back towards Guadalcanal from their positions 400 miles (740 km) to the south on August 21. The U.S. carriers were to support the Marines, protect Henderson Field, and to combat and destroy any Japanese naval forces, especially carriers, that arrived to support Japanese troops in the land battle on Guadalcanal.

U.S. Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher
U.S. Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher

Both the Allied and Japanese naval forces continued to head towards each other on August 22. Although both sides conducted intense aircraft scouting efforts neither side located the other. Due to the disappearance of at least one of their scouting aircraft (shot down by Enterprise aircraft before it could send a radio report of what was happening), the Japanese strongly suspected the presence of U.S. carriers in the area. The U.S., however, was unaware of the disposition and strength of approaching Japanese surface warship forces.

At 09:50 on August 23, a U.S. PBY Catalina aircraft, based at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands, sighted Tanaka's convoy. By late afternoon, with no further sightings of Japanese ships, two aircraft strike forces from Saratoga and Henderson Field took-off to attack Tanaka's convoy. However, Tanaka, knowing that an attack would be coming his way after being sighted, reversed course once the Catalina left the area, and both the Saratoga and Henderson Field aircraft were unable to locate his ships. After Tanaka reported to his superiors that he had lost time due to his turn to the north to avoid the Allied air attacks, the landings of his troops on Guadalcanal was pushed back to August 25. By 18:23 on August 23, with no Japanese carriers sighted, and no new intelligence reporting their presence in the area, Fletcher detached Wasp, which was getting low on fuel, and the rest of TF18 for the two-day trip south towards Efate to refuel. Thus, Wasp and her escorting warships wouldn't take part in the upcoming battle.

Carrier action on August 24

U.S. Navy map from 1943 showing approximate paths and actions of Japanese (top) and Allied (bottom) naval forces in the battle from August 23 through August 26, 1942.  Guadalcanal is the large, roughly oval-shaped island in the center-left of the map. (Click on map to see a larger image.)
U.S. Navy map from 1943 showing approximate paths and actions of Japanese (top) and Allied (bottom) naval forces in the battle from August 23 through August 26, 1942. Guadalcanal is the large, roughly oval-shaped island in the centre-left of the map. (Click on map to see a larger image.)

At 01:45 on August 24, Nagumo ordered the light carrier Ryūjō, along with the heavy cruiser Tone and destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze, to proceed ahead of the main Japanese force and send an aircraft attack force against Henderson Field at daybreak. The Ryūjō mission may have been intended by Nagumo as a decoy to divert U.S. attention so that the rest of the Japanese force could approach the U.S. naval forces undetected as well as to help provide protection and cover for Tanaka's convoy. Most of the aircraft on Shōkaku and Zuikaku were readied to launch on short notice if the U.S. carriers were located. Between 05:55 and 06:30, the U.S. carriers (mainly Enterprise), augmented by Catalinas from Ndeni, launched their own scout aircraft to search for the Japanese naval forces.

At 09:35 a Catalina made the first sighting of the Ryūjō force. Several more sightings of Ryūjō and ships of Kondo's and Mikawa's forces by carrier and other U.S. reconnaissance aircraft followed later that morning. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, U.S. aircraft also sighted several Japanese scout aircraft and submarines, leading Fletcher to believe that the Japanese knew where his carriers were, which, however, was not yet the case. Still, Fletcher hesitated to order a strike against the Ryūjō group until he was sure there weren't other Japanese carriers in the area. Finally, with no firm word on the presence or location of other Japanese carriers, Fletcher launched a strike of 38 aircraft from Saratoga at 13:40 to attack Ryūjō. However, he kept aircraft from both U.S. carriers ready just in case any Japanese fleet carriers were sighted.

At 12:20, Ryūjō launched six "Kate" bombers and nine A6M Zero fighters to attack Henderson Field in conjunction with an attack by 24 "Betty" bombers and 14 Zero fighters from Rabaul. However, unknown to the Ryūjō aircraft, the Rabaul aircraft had encountered severe weather and returned to their base at 11:30. The Ryūjō aircraft were detected on radar by Saratoga as they flew towards Guadalcanal, further fixing the location of their ship for the impending U.S. attack. The Ryūjō aircraft arrived over Henderson Field at 14:23, and tangled with Henderson's fighter aircraft while bombing the airfield. In the resulting engagement three Kates, three Zeros, and three U.S. fighters were shot down and no damage was done to Henderson Field .

At 14:25, a Japanese scout aircraft sighted the U.S. carriers. Although it was shot down, its report was transmitted in time, and Nagumo immediately ordered his strike force launched from Shōkaku and Zuikaku. The two Japanese carriers' first wave of attack aircraft, 27 "Val" dive bombers and 15 Zeros, was off by 14:50 and on its way towards Enterprise and Saratoga. About this same time, two U.S. scout aircraft finally sighted the Main force containing the Japanese fleet carriers. However, due to communication problems, these sighting reports never reached Fletcher. The two U.S. scout aircraft attacked Shōkaku before leaving the area, causing negligible damage. A second wave of 27 Vals and nine Zeros was launched by the Japanese carriers at 16:00 and headed south towards the U.S. carriers. Abe's Vanguard force also now surged ahead in anticipation of meeting the U.S. ships in a surface action after nightfall.

The disabled Ryujo (just right of center) being bombed on August 24, 1942 from high level by B-17 bombers. The destroyer Amatsukaze (center bottom) is moving away from Ryujo at full speed and Tokitsukaze (faintly visible, center right) is backing away from the bow of Ryujo in order to evade the B-17's falling bombs
The disabled Ryujo (just right of centre) being bombed on August 24, 1942 from high level by B-17 bombers. The destroyer Amatsukaze (centre bottom) is moving away from Ryujo at full speed and Tokitsukaze (faintly visible, centre right) is backing away from the bow of Ryujo in order to evade the B-17's falling bombs

About this same time, the Saratoga strike force arrived and began their attacks on Ryūjō, hitting her with three to five bombs, perhaps one torpedo, and killing 120 of her crew. Heavily damaged, Ryūjō abandoned ship at nightfall and sank soon after. Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze rescued Ryūjō's survivors as well as the aircrews from her returning strike force, who ditched their aircraft in the ocean nearby. During this time, several U.S. B-17 bombers attacked the crippled Ryūjō, but caused no additional damage (see photo at left). After the rescue operations were complete, both Japanese destroyers and Tone rejoined Nagumo's Main force.

At 16:02, still waiting for a definitive report on the location of the Japanese fleet carriers, the U.S. carriers' radar detected the first incoming wave of Japanese strike aircraft. Fifty-three F4F Wildcat fighters from the two U.S. carriers were directed by radar control towards the approaching Japanese aircraft. However, communication problems, limitations of the aircraft identification capabilities of the radar, primitive control procedures, and effective screening of the Japanese dive bombers by their escorting Zero fighters, prevented all but a few of the U.S. fighters from engaging the Vals before they began their attacks on the U.S. carriers. Just before the Japanese dive bombers began their attacks, Enterprise and Saratoga cleared their decks for the impending action by launching the aircraft that they had been holding ready in case the Japanese fleet carriers were sighted. These aircraft were told to fly north and attack anything they could find, or else to circle outside the battle zone, until it was safe to return.

A Japanese "Val" dive bomber is shot down by anti-aircraft fire directly over Enterprise.
A Japanese "Val" dive bomber is shot down by anti-aircraft fire directly over Enterprise.

At 16:29, the Japanese dive bombers began their attacks on the U.S. ships. Although several of the Japanese aircraft attempted to set-up to attack the Saratoga, they quickly shifted back to the nearer carrier, which was Enterprise. Thus, Enterprise was the target of almost the entire Japanese air attack. Several Wildcats followed the Vals into their attack dives, in spite of the intense anti-aircraft artillery fire from Enterprise and her screening warships, in a desperate attempt to disrupt their attacks. As many as four Wildcats were shot-down by U.S. anti-aircraft fire, as well as several Vals.

Due to the effective anti-aircraft fire from the U.S. ships, plus evasive maneuvers, the bombs from the first nine Vals missed Enterprise. However, at 16:44, an armor-piercing, delayed-action bomb penetrated the flight deck near the after elevator and passed through three decks before detonating below the waterline, killing 35 men and wounding 70 more. Incoming sea water caused Enterprise to develop a slight list, but it wasn't a major breach of hull integrity.

Just 30-seconds later, the next Val to attack planted its bomb only 15-feet away from where the first bomb hit. The resulting detonation ignited a large secondary explosion from one of the nearby 5-inch gun's ready powder casings, killing 35 members of the nearby gun crews, and starting a large fire.

The third and last bomb hits Enterprise, causing minor damage.  Smoke from the first two bomb hits can be seen in the upper left of the picture
The third and last bomb hits Enterprise, causing minor damage. Smoke from the first two bomb hits can be seen in the upper left of the picture

About a minute later, at 16:46, the third and last bomb hit Enterprise on the flight deck forward of where the first two bombs hit. This bomb exploded on contact, creating a 10-foot hole in the deck, but caused no further damage. Four Vals then broke-off from the attack on Enterprise to attack the U.S. battleship North Carolina, but all of their bombs missed. The attack was over at 16:48 and the surviving Japanese aircraft reassembled in small groups and returned to their ships.

Both sides thought that they had done more damage to each other during the attack than had actually occurred, due to many factors, but probably mainly due to the confused and complex nature of the engagement. The U.S. claimed to have shot down 70 Japanese aircraft in the attack, even though only 42 Japanese aircraft actually participated. Actual Japanese losses, from all causes, in the engagement were 25 aircraft, with most of the crews of the lost aircraft not being recovered or rescued. The Japanese, for their part, mistakenly believed that they had heavily damaged two, instead of just one, U.S. carrier. The U.S. lost six aircraft in the engagement, with most of the crews being rescued.

Although Enterprise was heavily damaged and on fire, her damage-control teams were able to make sufficient repairs for the ship to resume flight operations at 17:46, only one hour after the engagement ended. At 18:05, the Saratoga strike force returned from sinking Ryūjō and landed without major incident. The second wave of Japanese aircraft approached the U.S. carriers at 18:15, but was unable to locate the U.S. formation due to communication problems and had to return to their carriers without attacking any U.S. ships, losing several aircraft in the process due to operational mishaps. Most of the U.S. carrier aircraft launched just before the first wave of Japanese aircraft attacked failed to find any targets. However, five TBF Avengers from Saratoga sighted Kondo's Advanced force and attacked the seaplane tender Chitose, scoring two near misses which heavily damaged the unarmored ship. The U.S. carrier aircraft either landed at Henderson Field or were able to return to their carriers after dusk. The U.S. ships retired to the south to get out of range of any approaching Japanese warships. In fact, Abe's Vanguard force and Kondo's Advance force were steaming south to try to catch the U.S. carrier task forces in a surface battle, but turned around at midnight without having made contact with the U.S. warships. Nagumo's Main body, having taken heavy aircraft losses in the engagement, plus being low on fuel, also retreated from the area towards the north.

Actions on August 25

Believing that two U.S. carriers had been taken out of action with heavy damage, Tanaka's reinforcement convoy again headed towards Guadalcanal and, by 08:00 on August 25, was within 150 miles of their destination. At 08:05, 18 U.S. aircraft from Henderson Field attacked Tanaka's convoy, causing heavy damage to Jintsu, killing 24 crewmen, and knocking Tanaka unconscious. The troop transport, Kinryu Maru, was also hit and eventually sank. Just as the Japanese destroyer Mutsuki pulled-alongside Kinryu Maru to rescue her crew and embarked troops, she was attacked by four U.S. B-17s from Espiritu Santo which landed five bombs on or around Mutsuki, sinking her immediately. A revived but shaken Tanaka ordered the convoy to retreat. Both the Japanese and U.S. elected to completely withdraw their warships from the area, ending the battle. The Japanese naval forces hovered near the northern Solomons, out of range of the U.S. aircraft based at Henderson Field, before finally returning to Truk on September 5.


The burned-out 5 inch (127 mm) gun gallery on Enterprise, photographed after the battle
The burned-out 5 inch (127 mm) gun gallery on Enterprise, photographed after the battle

The battle is generally considered to be more or less a tactical and strategic victory for the U.S. due to the fact that the Japanese lost more ships, aircraft, and aircrew and Japanese troop reinforcements for Guadalcanal were delayed. Summing up the significance of the battle, historian Richard B. Frank states,

Battle of the Eastern Solomons
The Battle of the Eastern Solomons was unquestionably an American victory, but it had little long-term result, apart from a further reduction in the corps of trained Japanese carrier aviators. The (Japanese) reinforcements that could not come by slow transport would soon reach Guadalcanal by other means.
Battle of the Eastern Solomons

The U.S. lost only seven aircrew members in the battle. However, the Japanese lost about 100, hard-to-replace, veteran aircrew members. The troops in Tanaka's convoy were later loaded onto destroyers at the Shortland Islands and delivered piecemeal, without most of their heavy equipment, to Guadalcanal beginning on August 29, 1942.

Emphasizing the strategic value of Henderson Field, in a separate reinforcement effort, Japanese destroyer Asagiri was sunk and two other Japanese destroyers heavily damaged on August 28, 70 miles (130 km) north of Guadalcanal in the " The Slot" by U.S. aircraft based at the airfield. The Japanese effort to retake Guadalcanal continued as the battle for the island settled into a two-month long stalemate, punctuated by a large surface naval engagement at Cape Esperance on October 11-12, 1942.

Enterprise traveled to Pearl Harbour for extensive repairs which were completed on October 15, 1942. She returned to the South Pacific on October 24, just in time for the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands and her rematch with Shōkaku and Zuikaku.

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