For the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Battle of Santa Cruz was one of those battles that was looked back on with downcast eyes, heavy sighs, and lots of phrases that began with “If only we…” and “It almost…” and “We just about…”. Fought to the northest of the Santa Cruz Islands (several hundred miles east of the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal), it was a one-day encounter (with postscripts on the preceding and subsequent days) in which they spanked their U.S. Navy counterparts in all areas except one…the one that mattered most.
For the U.S. Navy, that same battle, fought mostly on October 26, 1942, was probably one of those battles that was looked back on with pretty much one single thought…“We dodged a bullet.” And indeed they had.
To the west on Guadalcanal, the Japanese 17th Army was just finishing up being pounded to a bloody pulp in its attempt to retake Henderson Field. But reports sent back to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto were far more positive than reality made them, leading the Navy to believe that Henderson had actually been captured. So the fleet was sent south to assist the Army in mopping up. Of course, when aircraft from Henderson harassed the Japanese fleet (actually sinking a cruiser), it didn’t take long for Yamamoto to become suspicious of the reports.
On the U.S. Navy side, Admiral William Halsey (known simply as “Bull”) had just replaced Ghormley as commander and, as usual, Halsey was ready to fight right away. But his force of 2 carriers, 1 battleship (the South Dakota), and a handful of cruisers and destroyers left him at a tremendous disadvantage when compared with Admiral Kondo’s array of 4 carriers, 4 battleships, and many cruisers and destroyers. The carriers were the biggest problem as they carried 200 aircraft.
And as I mentioned, the battle on the 26th went almost completely Japan’s way. The carrier USS Hornet was plastered (and eventually scuttled the next day by Japan). And the USS Enterprise (shown above) was heavily damaged and forced to retreat. The Japanese suffered heavy damage to the carriers Zuiho and Shokaku and the cruiser Chikuma.
At this point, Admiral Kondo and the Japanese were presented a golden opportunity. The U.S. Navy was down to one (one!) carrier in the entire South Pacific…the damaged Enterprise. Here was the chance to continue south with the force’s 2 remaining carriers and wreak havoc on the U.S. Navy. And that’s precisely what Kondo intended to do…
…until the carrier planes began not returning. The one area where Japan could not afford heavy losses was the one in which they were hit the hardest. Half their carrier aircraft were lost in this one-day action, and there simply weren’t enough to mount any kind of solid attack. The U.S. Navy had actually lost a higher percentage of their planes, but only 26 aircrews. With both carriers out of action, they had no ability to do anything but retreat. The Japanese Navy had been presented with a decisive victory on a silver platter, and couldn’t take it. But it gets worse…
The Battle of Santa Cruz cost the Japanese nearly 150 aircrews, including nearly every squadron or flight leader that took to the air. More than half of the Japanese pilots that had flown over Pearl Harbor were now dead, and Japan had no way to quickly replace them. By the time they were replaced (months later), American naval assets were being produced in numbers that simply overwhelmed the Japanese.
In a couple of weeks, the naval engagement off Guadalcanal would wrest from the Japanese any solid hope of hanging on to the Solomon Islands. The Battle of Santa Cruz and its losses in aircraft cost the Japanese the best shot at that “decisive all-in battle” they so desperately wanted with the U.S. Navy.
Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal: The Carrier Battles – If you can find a copy, get it.