The 26 October 1942 Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands is mainly remembered as Admiral William "Bull" Halsey's gamble that cost the USS Hornet (CV-8). Halsey, the U.S. Navy's aggressive South Pacific commander, risked two aircraft carriers, the Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV-6), in a fight against a superior Japanese carrier force. The Hornet, however, did not go down easily, absorbing 7 bombs, 16 torpedoes (9 fired by U.S. ships trying to scuttle her), and 2 plane crashes before slipping below the waves. While almost all the Japanese carrier planes concentrated on the biggest U.S. ships in the battle, one enemy torpedo plane sought out one of the American force's smallest vessels, the USS Smith (DD-378). The Mahan-class destroyer's subsequent struggle to survive and keep fighting is as amazing as the Hornet's fight to stay afloat.
Showdown off the Santa Cruz Islands
The Japanese, frustrated with their inability to expel the Americans from Guadalcanal after nearly three months of fighting, planned a coordinated army-navy operation for late October 1942. On the ground, while a diversionary attack struck the U.S. Marines' western flank, the crack Sendai Division would capture the island's key objective: Henderson Field. A strong Imperial Japanese Navy force would then sweep in and ambush any U.S. Navy warships coming to the assistance of the island's defenders. The Japanese fleet included 4 carriers—the Shokaku, Zuikaku, Zuiho, and Junyo with a combined total of about 212 aircraft—4 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 28 destroyers.
While this armada was waiting some 300 miles north of Guadalcanal for word of the army's capture of the airfield, Admiral Halsey ordered the Enterprise and Hornet carrier groups, Task Forces 16 and 17, respectively, to sortie north of the Santa Cruz Islands, about 300 miles east of Guadalcanal. They were then to steam southwest to intercept any enemy forces heading toward the island. As part of Destroyer Squadron 5, the Smith was assigned to help protect the Enterprise—a tough job given the large number of Japanese carrier aircraft likely to attack. The "Big E's" task force also included one battleship, one heavy and one light cruiser, and seven other destroyers.
On the morning of 26 October, general quarters sounded on board the Smith at 0500 (no matter what the situation, all ships of the U.S. Navy set condition I [general quarters] at both sunrise and sunset, when visibility conditions were rapidly changing and enemy attack was most probable). Starting at 0605, the destroyer steamed "on various courses and various speeds in aircraft operations" as the Enterprise launched 16 SBD Dauntless scouts to determine accurately the Japanese fleet's location. After those planes were on their way, eight F4F Wildcat fighters were sent aloft to establish a defensive combat air patrol (CAP). At 0620, with the aircraft safely aloft, the Smith's crew secured from general quarters and awaited the search results. Some of the patrol planes did find the Japanese carriers; in fact, a pair of SBD pilots hit the Zuiho with 500-pound bombs. The search planes returned to the Enterprise, and both American carriers launched strikes against the enemy flattops.
At 0810 Task Force 16's course changed, and speed kicked up to 27 knots from 23. Twenty-five minutes later, general quarters sounded on the Smith for the second time that day; American pilots had spotted incoming Japanese planes. The destroyer immediately became a beehive of activity, as crewmen raced to their stations. One of the oldest Sailors on board, Chief Machinist's Mate Bruce Thatcher, rushed into the hot, noisy world of the engine room. Passing steam turbines, with their high-pitched whine, and adjusting to the almost deafening sound of the ventilation blowers, he went over to the main throttle board, arrayed with numerous gauges and valve wheels. There, in the bowels of the Smith, Chief Thatcher would carry out his duty during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
Task Force 16 Comes Under Attack
The destroyer's crew stood to their stations for more than an hour, during which time waves of Japanese planes bombed and torpedoed the Hornet, leaving her a burning wreck. Providence, in the form of a rain squall, had temporarily concealed the Enterprise group. But then at 0944 the Smith received the first firm information of Japanese aircraft approaching Task Force 16, and 11 minutes later, the destroyer commenced maneuvering on various courses and at different speeds, conforming to the Enterprise's evasive movements. The next entry in the Smith's war diary was at 1006: "Raid coming in at high altitude bearing 230° T. Estimated altitude 17,000 feet."
The first hit registered against the Enterprise group, however, did not come from above but from below. The USS Porter (DD-356) had just rescued the crew of a ditched TBF Avenger when a Sailor on the destroyer spotted an incoming torpedo just before it slammed into the vessel amidships and exploded. The task force immediately assumed a Japanese submarine had launched the fish, but the destroyer was actually the victim of the downed Avenger. The TBF had been unable to jettison its torpedo, which came loose and began running when the plane hit the water. The Porter's surviving crewmen, as well as the rescued airmen, were taken aboard the Shaw (DD-373), which later sank the crippled Porter with gunfire.
According to the Smith's war diary, the Porter was hit at 1108 and seven minutes later Japanese Val dive bombers began attacking Task Force 16. The naval group was then steaming to the southwest, with the escorts roughly encircling the Enterprise—the Smith about 4,500 feet off the carrier's port quarter and the USS South Dakota (BB-57) directly astern the flattop. The guns of the task force immediately opened up, surrounding the Enterprise in a ring of heavy antiaircraft fire.
Two of the enemy planes, however, managed to score hits, their bombs penetrating the carrier's deck. During the attack, the Smith received a report the phantom submarine had surfaced 4,000 yards from the destroyer. With little time to do anything except react to what was happening, the Smith's captain, Lieutenant Commander Hunter Wood Jr., immediately ordered the gunnery officer to shift fire of both the 5-inch and 20-mm batteries to the submarine's assumed location. After ten minutes, the dive bombers were gone, either shot down or headed back to their carriers, and damage-control operations on board the Enterprise shifted into high gear.
Around 1135, however, the carrier's radar detected signs of more incoming planes—17 Kate torpedo planes and four Zero fighters—and nine minutes later, the ship's fighter director warned the CAP of enemy aircraft approaching from the northwest, 15 miles distant. The Japanese bombers divided into two groups, one to attack the starboard bow of the Enterprise—which was still steaming to the southwest—and the other to hit her port side.
Unlike during the Vals' attack, F4Fs were ready to defend the carrier. One of the Wildcat pilots, Lieutenant Stanley Vejtasa, would down five of the torpedo planes. While pursuing and firing on one of the Kates, piloted by Seaman First Class Kiyomi Takei, Vejtasa determined that the enemy plane was in a poor position to damage the Enterprise. Moreover, antiaircraft fire from the South Dakota was bursting around it. As the F4F pilot sheered off, the Japanese torpedo plane burst into flames and began a rapid dive. With no chance of reaching the carrier, Takei aimed for the most convenient target: the Smith.
Catastrophe on the Forecastle
Down in the destroyer's engine room, Chief Thatcher was keeping track of what was happening as best he could. Some information flowed through the sound-powered phones. Other information was inferred by the sound of the ship's guns firing topside. It was natural for the destroyer to shake and shudder when her guns were fired, but 12 minutes before noon, the ship shuddered very unnaturally and phone communication with the bridge was lost. With the chief engineering officer on deck acting as the damage-control officer, Thatcher had command of the engine room.
"Not having received orders," he recalled, "we held our same speed . . . which proved to be the right decision." After being notified that a topside fire was filling the number 1 fire room with smoke, the chief told the Sailors there to secure the boilers and go topside. "I knew we could retain the present speed with the two after boilers," Thatcher said. "We put an extra pump on the fire main to ensure that there was enough water pressure kept on the line. After some ten minutes or so [I] received word that the ship was being steered from after steering. [T]his meant that someone was looking over the side and yelling orders down to the steering engine room."
The crewmen in the main engine room, without communication with the bridge, could only guess at what was going on topside, where a catastrophe had occurred. According to the Smith's 1148 deck-log entry: "A flaming Japanese two place torpedo plane crash dived this vessel landing on the forecastle between #1 and #2 5"/38cal guns."
On impact, gasoline from the Kate exploded into flames and flowed over the deck and down through gashes the crash had ripped in the destroyer. Great volumes of smoke from the burning gasoline engulfed the forward section of the Smith.
Boatswain's Mate First Class Lee English, on the main deck, felt the impact of the crashing plane and saw debris fly over the mainmast. When he looked toward the fire and smoke engulfing the forecastle he could see some grotesquely burned survivors from the forward guns. A slowly burning cord dangled from a set of headphones one of the Sailors was still wearing. Motor Machinist's Mate Second Class Pat Cosgrove was stationed topside at a 20-mm antiaircraft gun when the plane hit. In addition to the nightmarish image of the crash, he saw a panicked officer shout "Abandon ship!" and then lead several crewmen into the water where a nearby destroyer passed over them. The group was never picked up.
The bridge and the gun director were immediately abandoned; smoke and flames rendered the positions untenable. Lieutenant Commander Wood raced to the secondary conning station in the aft deckhouse, which was designed for such an emergency. Steering control was temporarily taken over by the chief quartermaster in the steering engine room. As long as the phone connections between that room and the secondary conning station were intact, the captain could relay steering orders from topside.
The destroyer's situation, however, was about to worsen. Kiyomi Takei had crashed his bomber into the Smith without having released his torpedo, and while most of the plane's burning fuselage fell overboard and sank, the torpedo apparently remained in the conflagration on the forecastle. At 1153 the deck log noted that the topside crew heard and saw a large explosion forward—the torpedo warhead detonating because of the fire's heat. The blast showered the ship with sparks, which ignited canvas and signal flag material on the bridge, and was followed by a series of smaller explosions, as ready-service ammunition at the forward gun positions blew up.
About the same time the warhead exploded, the surviving Japanese torpedo planes flew out of range of Task Force 16's guns. None of the enemy torpedoes had hit the Enterprise, and eight of the Kates were shot down. During the attack, the Smith had not left her station and maintained speed, due to Chief Thatcher and the fact that she was only making about 27 knots. Her after guns, moreover, had continued to fire at the attacking planes. Soon after the torpedo planes departed, Commander Wood, still at the secondary conning station, carefully changed the Smith's position within the task force, maneuvering his destroyer into the wake of the South Dakota. The fires on the Smith had every possibility of raging out of control. By placing his ship directly behind the 680-foot battleship, Wood was able to take advantage of the turbulent waters produced by the behemoth's propellers. As the Smith's pitching motion increased, water surged onto the forecastle and aided in extinguishing the fires.
All this time, the crew struggled to care for the wounded and fight for the ship's life. Smoke filled the wardroom and forced the Smith's doctor, attending wounded there, to shift to the aft battle-dressing station. At 1158 the forward magazines were flooded as a precaution against fire possibly detonating ammunition there. As an additional precaution, the four torpedoes in the forward torpedo tubes were jettisoned. When a fire-hose team succeeded in putting out the fire in the number 1 gun-crew shelter, it also sprayed water down the ammunition hoists to extinguish any fires inside. The crew then began throwing hot ammunition over the ship's side. Below deck, at 1245 crewmen re-entered the forward fire room and built steam pressure back up in the number 1 and number 2 boilers.
Four minutes earlier, the task force had once again come under dive-bomber attack, and the Smith opened fire with her after guns. She continued firing for eight minutes during which time the number 3 5-inch gun jammed in train, but was cleared in about 45 seconds. During this attack, a near miss caused some damage to the Enterprise, a bomb exploded on top of the South Dakota's number 1 16-inch turret, and a third bomb cut through the stern of the USS San Juan (CL-54).
Recovering from Disaster
At 1325, after raging an hour and 37 minutes, the fire on board the Smith was finally extinguished. Steering control was shifted back to the bridge at 1345. About an hour later, the Enterprise completed recovery of her own and the Hornet's aircraft, and Task Force 16 began withdrawing to the southeast. That afternoon, Japanese planes put another torpedo and two more bombs into the heavily damaged Hornet. In an attempt to scuttle the burning hulk, U.S. destroyers launched 16 torpedoes at her, only nine of which exploded, and pummeled the carrier with more than 300 5-inch rounds. But the stubborn Hornet would not go down until Japanese destroyers hit her with four Long Lance torpedoes that night.
The wounded Smith, meanwhile, was able to make her escape with the rest of Task Force 16. The forward third of the ship was heavily damaged, and the steering circuits there had remained intact through sheer luck. The torpedo plane's impact and the subsequent fire and explosions had damaged much of the destroyer's equipment as well as her structure. Both forward 5-inch guns were wrecked, the fire-control system was no longer functioning, flames had gutted several areas in the forward part of the ship, lighting and power circuits had been shorted out, and there was some flooding below deck.
The Smith had also sustained some damage from strafing. In the forward fire room a machine-gun round pierced the side of the ship and punctured the casing of number 1 boiler. If a steam pipe, water tube, or steam drum had been punctured, high-pressure super-heated steam would have filled the fire room and quickly scalded to death the crewmen there. As it was, only the boiler casing had been pierced. The only danger Sailors there had to deal with was draft blowers drawing smoke from the topside fire below. Overall, however, the crew suffered a heavy blow. The ship's casualties totaled 69, of which 51 were fatalities (22 were confirmed as killed in action; another 29 were listed as missing in action).
Strategic Victory at a High Cost
Measured in tonnage lost, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was a substantial American defeat. The U.S. Navy lost an aircraft carrier and a destroyer while failing to sink a single Japanese ship (two imperial navy carriers were damaged). Even more sobering were the facts that the enemy had nearly sunk the Enterprise and, for the time being, she was the only U.S. aircraft carrier afloat in the area. On the other hand, the Japanese lost 97 aircraft versus 81 for the U.S. Navy, and Japanese aircrew losses were extremely severe: 148 aviators killed compared with only 24 American fliers killed or captured. The combination of the air losses and the Japanese Army's failure to capture Henderson Field render the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands an American strategic victory. According to Samuel Eliot Morison, the battle "gained priceless time for the Americans—days in which to reinforce and prepare."
The Enterprise's survival was due in large part to her escorting ships' antiaircraft fire, and the Smith deserves a share of the credit for remaining in the fight. She survived a blow unimagined by her Mahan-class designers back in the mid-1930s. After an overhaul at Pearl Harbor, the destroyer was back at sea in February 1943 and fought through the end of World War II.
From Commander Wood down, the Smith's crew performed admirably. For their actions during the crisis, 9 crewmen earned Navy Crosses, 13 were awarded Silver Stars, and 2 received Bronze Stars. Captain Laurence A. Abercrombie, a destroyer division commander during the Guadalcanal campaign, wrote that Wood "showed about as much quickness and presence of mind as anyone I ever heard of, getting off that bridge in time to conn his ship from the after steering station."
The Smith's experience at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands foreshadowed the horrendous destruction Japanese kamikazes would inflict on U.S. Navy vessels in 1944 and 1945. It also proved that, when combined with a good dose of luck, a sound warship manned by a well-trained crew could not only survive a Japanese suicide attack but also continue to fulfill her mission. Though the Smith's part at Santa Cruz was relatively small, she showed how naval tactics, hardware, and human effort can triumph when pushed to their limit.
Report from Destroyer Tender USS Whitney concerning war damage report for USS Smith for damage received on 26 October 1942, Modern Military Records (NWCTM). Textual Archives Services Division. RG 19, Bureau of Ships General Correspondence Files, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereinafter referred to as NARA).
Deck Log of USS Smith, 26 October 1942, Modern Military Records (NWCTM). Textual Archives Services Division, NARA.
War Diary of USS Smith, 26 October 26 1942, Modern Military Records (NWCTM). Textual Archives Services Division, NARA.
Captain L. A. Abercrombie and Fletcher Pratt, My Life to the Destroyers (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1944).
Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle (New York: Random House, 1990).
Eric Hammel, Guadalcanal The Carrier Battles (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1987).
John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994).
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Struggle for Guadalcanal August 1942—February 1943, vol. 5, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1949).
Commander Edward P. Stafford, The Big E: The Story of The USS Enterprise (New York: Random House, Inc., 1962).
Bruce S. Thatcher, "A Portion of Autobiography," unpublished memoir in the possession of former USS Smith crewmember Warren Stanek.