Sunday, January 6, 2013

The USS Enterprise: 1775-2012 (Part 3)

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons
Bomb #3 hits the Enterprise
The USS Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor for a month of rest and repairs.  She then supported troop landings in the Solomon Islands and worked to protect communications in the Solomon Island area.
     At 09:50 on August 23rd, a PBY Catalina sighted a Japanese carrier force.  The next day, Japanese dive bombers attacked the USS Enterprise which immediately went into evasive maneuvers.  Due to these maneuvers and heavy anti-aircraft, the first 9 bombers missed the carrier.  At 16:44, however, a bomb hit the Enterprise, killing 35 men, wounding 70, and penetrating the flight deck, exploding below the waterline.  Thirty seconds later,  a second bomb hit 4.6 meters from the first one and started a fire.  A third bomb exploded on impact and created a 3 meter hole in the deck.
Damage control crews worked effectively and with quick repairs, the Enterprise was able to return to harbor under her own power.

In spite of the damage inflicted on the Enterprise, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons is generally considered a victory for the United States.  Planes from the USS Saratoga sank the Japanese carrier Ryujo, and Japan faced more losses in the battle than did the Americans.

The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The Japanese carrier Zuiho
After repairs, the Enterprise returned to the high seas, this time accompanied by the USS Hornet, the only other still operational carrier in the Pacific.

Early in the morning of October 26, 1942, a Catalina sighted the Japanese  force.  At 6:45 a U.S. scout plane sighted the main Japanese carriers.  Thirteen minutes later, a Japanese scout plane sighted the Hornet.  Both sides scrambled to launch their strike aircraft. 

The Japanese planes were in the air first.  By 7:40, they had launched 64 aircraft toward the Hornet.  Meanwhile, U.S. scout aircraft wasted no time in harassing the  Japanese carriers.  While other scouts distracted the Japanese combat air patrol, two U.S. SBD Dauntless scout aircraft dropped their bombs into the carrier Zuiho, heavily damaging it so it could not land planes.
USS Enterprise during the Battle of Santa Cruz
At 08:00 , the Hornet launched its first strike group of 15 dive bombers, 6 torpedo bombers, and 8 fighter planes (Wildcats).  At 8:10,  the Enterprise launched 18 planes.
Also at 8:10, the second wave of Japanese planes took off.
At 8:20, 24 more planes from the Hornet  took off.
 The Japanese third wave was in the air by 8:40 and by 9:10, the Japanese had 110 planes on their way towards the American carrier force.

At 8:40, the Japanese and American aircraft groups passed within sight of each other.  Nine Zeros attacked the group from the Enterprise out of the sun, and in the resulting conflict, 4 Zeros, 3 Wildcats, and 2 U.S. torpedo bombers were shot down. 

Dive bombers from the Hornet hit the carrier Shokaku  with 3 bombs, ruining the flight deck and damaging the interior of the ship.  The torpedo bombers from the Hornet and Enterprise failed to find the Japanese carriers, and caused little or no damage on the ships they attacked.  Other torpedo bombers and dive bombers from the American carriers attacked and severely damaged the heavy cruiser Chikuma, forcing it to turn back for repairs.
A near miss to the USS Enterprise
Meanwhile, the Japanese succeeded in hitting the Hornet with 3 bombs.  A damaged Japanese dive-bomber hit the Hornet’s stack.  Two torpedoes knocked out the engines, and another damaged dive bomber intentionally crashed into the carrier’s side, starting a fire.  Fires were under control by 10:00, and attempts were made to tow the Hornet to safety.

Meanwhile, planes from both carriers landed on the Enterprise.

  The Japanese planes, returning to their carriers, spotted the USS Enterprise and reported her position.  The second wave of Japanese planes attacked the carrier.  Two 250 kg bombs crashed into the Enterprise and another Japanese bomber scored a near-miss.  Twelve of the nineteen bombers were shot down.  Twenty minutes later, Japanese torpedo bombers were sighted, but their attack was ineffectual.  Next, at 11:21, came another wave of dive bombers.  They scored one near miss.  Many were shot down, and the survivors returned to their carriers to tell of “unbelievable opposition, of skies chocked with anti-aircraft shell bursts and tracers.”   
The USS Hornet sinking
At 14:45, the cruiser Northampton began slowly towing the Hornet.  The Hornet’s crew were on the verge of restoring partial power to the ship when at 15:20 another wave of enemy planes arrived.  A torpedo struck the Hornet, destroying the repairs and causing  heavy flooding and a 14 degree list.  The crew abandoned the ship, and all men had lift the ship by 16:27.  Two more bombs hit the ship.  She was scuttled and abandoned, and American forces retreated.

The Japanese had won a tactical victory, but not a strategic victory.  As Historian Eric Hammel put it, “Santa Cruz was a Japanese victory. That victory cost Japan her last best hope to win the war.”

The USS Enterprise was now the only functioning U.S. aircraft carrier left in the Pacific.  Her crew defiantly hung out a banner which read,

“Enterprise vs. Japan”


Part 4: Victory and Enterprise VIII will be posted tomorrow.

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