Solving the Mysteries of Santa Cruz

By John Prados

The course of the subsequent bitterly fought battle can be very briefly summarized. During the night before the main action, U.S. PBY Catalina search planes sighted some of the key Japanese fleet units and loosed glancing blows. The enemy took precautions and turned away while Admiral Kinkaid aggressively sought to close with him. From his headquarters at Nouméa, New Caledonia, SOPAC commander Halsey famously signaled, “ATTACK. REPEAT. ATTACK.”

The morning air searches by the Enterprise on 26 October found the main Japanese carrier force—Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s Kido Butai , or Striking Force—and scout bombers made immediate attacks that put the light carrier Zuiho out of action. Japanese scouts had almost simultaneously found Kinkaid’s ships, and the sides exchanged air strikes. Passing near each other, some of the strike formations’ planes mixed it up. American aircraft went on to sideline a second enemy carrier and to damage a heavy cruiser. The Japanese meanwhile damaged the Enterprise and crippled the Hornet .

The “Big E” managed to restore her flight deck sufficiently to resume air activities and maintained combat air patrols through the day as a succession of Japanese strike waves hit, inflicting more damage on the Hornet . Brave sailors fought the Hornet’s fires and kept her afloat, but late in the day the crew of the grievously wounded carrier was ordered to abandon ship. Admiral Kinkaid already had withdrawn from the battle area. That night Japanese torpedoes sank the Hornet , a task that “fish” and shellfire from U.S. destroyers had been unable to do before the “tin cans” were forced to retreat.

Japanese attacks also had damaged the South Dakota, the heavy cruiser Portland (CA-33), the antiaircraft cruiser San Juan (CL-54), and the destroyers Mahan (DD-364) and Smith (DD-378). What was likely an errant U.S. torpedo sank the Porter (DD-356). American strikes had hit the carriers Shokaku (Nagumo’s flagship) and Zuiho and the heavy cruiser Chikuma . By percentage, plane losses on each side were nearly equal. But in number, the IJN lost 99 aircraft against 80 American planes, and Japanese aircrew losses were substantially greater.

Many more-in-depth narrative histories of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands have been written. Nevertheless, certain elements of the action continue to be poorly understood or remain virtually unknown. So rather than repeat the efforts of previous historians, what follows is an exploration of some the battle’s enduring mysteries.

Locating the Japanese Fleet

While Ultra’s code-breakers furnished crucial insights into the Japanese navy’s intentions and maneuvers, Allied intelligence was not omniscient. Pacific Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chester W. Nimitz at Pearl Harbor and Admiral Halsey at Nouméa based their plans on weekly intelligence estimates of Japanese fleet dispositions that were compiled by the F-16 Section of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in Washington. During the weeks before the Santa Cruz battle the estimates were consistently inaccurate, leading commanders to believe IJN forces to be weaker than they were.

Based on Ultra, Nimitz warned of a Japanese naval offensive as early as 17 October. But U.S. radio direction-finding and traffic analysis placed only two Japanese aircraft carriers in the battle area, and the ONI estimates located three of the five enemy flattops in home waters when all of them were at sea. Four Japanese flight decks would be at Santa Cruz compared with two American. The disparity would have been even worse save that the Japanese carrier Hiyo , crippled by mechanical failure, was sent away for repairs. The day after the battle, ONI still estimated that an enemy carrier division that had fought at Santa Cruz was in Japan.

The intel record with respect to other warships was equally poor. That was partly because of assessments that both of the Aoba -class heavy cruisers had already been sunk and partly because Rear Admiral Norman Scott, who won a surface victory off Guadalcanal at the 11–12 October Battle of Cape Esperance, had overestimated enemy losses in that fight. He initially claimed three Japanese cruisers and four destroyers had sunk, but the IJN had actually lost only one heavy cruiser and one destroyer. The exaggerated losses were then scored to units other than Japan’s Cruiser Division 6, which had the Aoba -class ships and had been the main opponent at Cape Esperance. This had the effect of minimizing Japanese heavy-cruiser strength. When the cruisers Myoko and Maya bombarded Guadalcanal on 15 October, U.S. intelligence believed the former was in Yokosuka and the latter at Palau.

As for battleships, the 20 October ONI estimate carried as “possibly damaged” one of Admiral Takeo Kurita’s vessels that had smashed Henderson Field on 13 October, placed the Yamato and Mutsu as possibly at Rabaul, and credited the enemy fleet in the Solomons as, again, “possibly” including the Ise, which was in Japan. At Santa Cruz, the Japanese surface fleet chased Kinkaid’s task force as the Americans retired from the scene. If the pursuit had resulted in a gunnery engagement, the mistaken appreciations would have come home to roost.

Who Owned Henderson Field?

The Imperial Japanese Navy’s offensive was to be triggered by notice that the Japanese army had captured Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The army demanded repeated postponements of a schedule that had called for the event to occur on 22 October. Had that schedule been kept, not only would the Japanese fleet have had more plentiful fuel stocks but the U.S. Navy would have swung into action before the Enterprise had joined up with the Hornet . For Halsey, who believed that carriers together were worth double what they were individually, that made a big difference. Japan’s army faced huge obstacles on Guadalcanal, but the degree of its cooperation is open to challenge.

That is true for the army’s information as well. In August, during the sequence of actions that led to the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the army had falsely reported success to the IJN. Wanting surety this time, the navy set up an observation post on Guadalcanal to supply direct reports to the Combined Fleet flagship, the superbattleship Yamato at Truk.

On the night of 24–25 October the Japanese army duly reported it had taken Henderson Field. Naval observers indicated that fighting raged in the airfield’s vicinity. In the morning, Japanese naval aircraft flew down to Guadalcanal to verify Henderson’s status. One plane even tried to land. The scouts found the field safely in American hands. That night the army again attacked, and it again failed to capture the key American airbase. This time even the army’s chain of command confirmed that its ground attacks had failed. The navy nevertheless chose to proceed.

The IJN had been repeatedly frustrated by the army’s inaccurate reporting and warned more than once that diminishing fuel supplies would oblige it to withdraw from Solomons waters. Why it proceeded with its offensive is an enduring mystery. Only conjecture is possible. Japanese naval officers, from Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto on down, were chagrined at the Allies’ ability to prevent the IJN from effectively supplying Japanese forces on Guadalcanal. Faced with desperate conditions at the front—Japanese on Guadalcanal nicknamed the place “Starvation Island”—Yamamoto determined to persist despite every obstacle.

Japanese Timing

Imperial Japanese Navy veterans, from Kido Butai Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka to destroyer skipper Tameichi Hara, noted in postwar writings that principal commanders were influenced by several elements, including very limited information on the presence of American aircraft carriers, staff officers’ observations that 27 October was Navy Day in the United States, and reports in the American press of an impending major battle in the South Pacific.

Kido Butai commander Admiral Nagumo behaved cautiously precisely because of the thin intelligence. The other two factors have long been obscure, but there is evidence supporting both points. Since 1922, when the Navy League of the United States organized the first observance, 27 October has been celebrated as Navy Day in America. The date was the birthday of President Theodore Roosevelt, father of the Great White Fleet and a staunch American navalist. The event acquired some significance among IJN commanders because calendar dates were of special importance to the Japanese, who indulged themselves in a sense of fateful consequence.

Meanwhile, the idea of an impending major battle in the South Pacific was current in the United States. The Associated Press reported on 16 October that the battle for Guadalcanal was shaping up to be “one of the decisive engagements of the war.” The next day the Chicago Tribune headlined, “COURSE OF WAR AT STAKE!” The story quoted Secretary of the Navy Frank J. Knox claiming in the Nelsonian tradition, “I don’t want to make any predictions, but every man out there, afloat and ashore, will give a good account of himself.” Reporting on Guadalcanal a few days later, the Associated Press explicitly forecast an imminent surface naval battle off Guadalcanal.

On 19 October, the United Press, another major news wire service, alluded to the same idea of a surface action but added carrier fighting for good measure, reporting that experts expected “the outcome . . . would hinge on the naval struggle” and the United States would combine the kinds of tactics used at the Battle of the Java Sea with those of “Coral Sea–Midway.” Similarly, military correspondent Hanson W. Baldwin commented in a 23 October New York Times article that “we cannot fight a protracted delaying action in the Pacific; we must, it is felt, hit Japan continuously and without respite.”

Such press reporting was grist for the mill of shortwave news that was broadcast to the Pacific from San Francisco, and listening in was routine for friend and foe across the South Pacific. On Guadalcanal, Marine commander Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift listened to the broadcasts every night before bed, and they were also staples on board the flagships of the Combined Fleet, the Kido Butai , and Rear Admiral Kakuji Kakuta’s Carrier Division 2.

Rear Admiral Kusaka of Nagumo’s staff used the Navy Day date and the sense of impending battle in a dispatch to the Combined Fleet, suggesting that Admiral Yamamoto order the Japanese advance for 27 October. Instead, holding to his Henderson Field–hinged timetable, Yamamoto insisted on immediate action. And by the 27th, the battle for Santa Cruz was over.

What Happened to the American Air Strikes?

At Santa Cruz, scout bombers in the U.S. Navy’s dawn search succeeded in damaging the Japanese light carrier Zuiho . Later, Hornet dive bombers busted up the flight deck of the fleet carrier Shokaku . After those surprise bombings, throughout a long day’s battle, no Japanese flattop was again attacked. Yet the Hornet got off two strike waves (totaling 24 SBD Dauntless dive bombers and 13 TBF Avenger torpedo planes) before she was damaged, and the Enterprise hurled a strike wave of her own (with three SBDs and nine TBFs), necessarily small because she had used many planes in the air search. Thus the main enemy force was barely engaged by the major U.S. strike missions.

The “battle of the air groups” that took place as the adversaries’ strike groups flew past each other on reciprocal courses does not account for this phenomenon. During the clash, Japanese fighters reduced the Big E’s torpedo planes by about half, but none of the American formations turned back, and except for escort fighters, attack strength was not further affected. One of the Hornet squadrons, possibly disoriented in the melee, shifted its vector, but that too was not determinate.

The long range at which the battle took place and the disposition of the Japanese fleet were the main reasons the U.S. attacks miscarried. Historians have almost uniformly castigated IJN operational doctrine for its practice of dividing forces into numerous fleet units—Striking Force, Vanguard Force, Advance Force, Main Body, and so on—in effect, diluting available strength. But at Santa Cruz the tactic worked to Japanese advantage.

The Vanguard Force, sailing dozens of miles ahead of Nagumo’s flattops, was the first enemy the American planes encountered. Some U.S. aircraft immediately attacked; others pressed on to the limit of their range in hopes of finding the Kido Butai and then returned to strike the Vanguard. This was where the cruiser Chikuma suffered her damage. Because Kinkaid’s carriers lost their flight decks early in the day, and the Enterprise , once she restored service, was preoccupied with maintaining combat air patrols, there were no follow-up air strikes.

The Japanese Aviation Code

Embarked on board the Enterprise was a so-called “mobile radio detachment,” a unit of the signals-intelligence fraternity. It furnished Admiral Kinkaid with decrypts that circulated on the communications-intelligence network as well as tactical information from its own radio monitoring. The detachment in the Big E was led by a Marine, Captain Bankston T. Holcomb. His unit was instrumental in the survival of the Enterprise , for Holcomb provided Kinkaid with his earliest warnings of some of the incoming Japanese air strikes, helping the carrier to position combat air patrols even before the enemy was acquired on radar. According to a postwar history of the mobile radio detachments, in the midst of the battle Holcomb had gained extraordinary access to Japanese aircraft message traffic because he was handed a copy of the IJN aviation code, salvaged from one of the attacking enemy aircraft that had crashed.

This account now appears to be more complicated than it originally did. The Japanese air group and squadron commanders—the pilots most likely to have possessed copies of the aviation code—either did not crash aboard the Enterprise , or their aircraft were completely consumed while doing so. In addition, it is known that documentary material was recovered from a different Japanese aircraft, a plane that crashed aboard the destroyer Smith.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class Thomas Powell, a gunner with “Torpedo 10” on board the Enterprise , recalled a provenance for the codebook, which was related to him by Admiral Kinkaid himself. In port some weeks after the battle, Kinkaid told Powell and some other sailors that the codebook had indeed been captured on the Smith. The Big E’s after-action report does not mention the destroyer or indicate the Enterprise came to a stop during the battle to receive materials from another vessel. If true, this suggests that the Japanese aviation codebook could only have changed hands after Santa Cruz. Captain Holcomb’s assistance to Kinkaid in the heat of battle derived from more conventional radio-monitoring techniques.

What About the Enterprise ?

Many arguments about the outcome at Santa Cruz hinge on the notion the sides’ postbattle carrier forces were somehow equal. Once the Japanese sent the Zuikaku home to train a new air group, equality in literal terms did exist. But the status of the Enterprise , the flattop on the American side of this equation, is poorly understood. The combination of bomb hits and near misses that the carrier sustained at Santa Cruz did more than jam one elevator in place on her flight deck, thereby slowing flight operations. Captain Osborn B. Hardison, the ship’s skipper, soon learned that damage was more serious than thought.

Two near misses had sprung rivets or deflected plates—in places as much as 2½ feet inward—opening fuel tanks to the sea along almost 100 feet of hull. In one area, all the frames, floors, and bulkheads had buckled. Leaks threatened. The Enterprise ’s stem was laced with fragment holes, a few up to a foot wide, and she was taking water, down four feet by the bow. On the hangar deck, the floor of a 50-foot section near the No. 1 elevator was heavily damaged, the decks below blown out. Crewmen in one compartment were actually trapped by flooded spaces above them. Two bomb hoists were questionable. The bridge gyroscope had failed. Several radios and a direction-finding loop were out.

Some repairs could only be made in port. Although the Big E could launch and recover aircraft, she was not truly combat-ready and in a renewed engagement would have been gravely disadvantaged. Battle speeds and even stormy seas might have threatened her seaworthiness. Captain Hardison’s damage-control parties—plus every spare hand—bent superhuman efforts to enable the ship to make speed despite her damage.

For 11 days after the carrier arrived at Nouméa she was completely incapacitated, as Admiral Halsey added every engineer and repairman to those already working over the ship. Hull breaches were repaired, but the aircraft elevator jam awaited drydocking in the United States. When the Enterprise went to sea again, Pearl Harbor privately estimated that the carrier was operating at 70 percent of her combat efficiency. Meanwhile, the IJN decision to return the Zuikaku to Japanese Empire waters was entirely voluntary, based on a plan to regenerate for another Guadalcanal offensive timed for January 1943. She just as easily could have been retained in the South Pacific.

Who Won?

American observers take a variety of positions on the outcome at Santa Cruz. Marine General Vandegrift termed the battle a “standoff.” Theater commander Admiral “Bull” Halsey wrote that “tactically, we picked up the dirty end of the stick but strategically we handed it back.” Similarly, official Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison rated the battle a Japanese tactical victory that gained precious time for the Allies. And aviation historian John Lundstrom, author of the most detailed examination of the aerial exchanges, wrote of a “supposed” Japanese decisive victory and followed this with an analysis that, while not actually saying so, framed the outcome as Japanese defeat. Robert Sherrod, chronicler of Marine aviation in the war, said Santa Cruz was a case in which “the box score is deceptive.”

Guadalcanal campaign expert Richard Frank made no direct assessment but approvingly quoted Admiral Nimitz’s opinion, penned some weeks after the battle, which declares that the Japanese were turned back and their carrier air groups shattered on the eve of critical battles. Commander Edward P. Stafford, author of the authoritative history of the Enterprise , termed the battle “a bloody draw . . . which had been a U.S. victory only because it had momentarily thwarted a Japanese attempt at recapture.”

Popular authors parse their meanings too. Naval historian E. B. Potter concluded that the Americans “had got the worst of the battle” but had the solace of inflicting very heavy aviation losses. Edwin P. Hoyt called Santa Cruz “an American loss, but not one that made it impossible . . . to hold on to Guadalcanal,” while Eric Hammel termed the battle “technically a Japanese victory.” Carrier warfare authorities James and William Belote scored it a Japanese win, “a victory won at nearly intolerable cost.” And Kenneth I. Friedman pictured a tactical defeat that “forestalled a total and catastrophic debacle.”

All of these assessments, however, suffer from hindsight. We now know how the Guadalcanal campaign turned out and the importance of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in reducing the ranks of experienced Japanese pilots and aircrews. The climactic surface actions off Guadalcanal during November, in which the Japanese follow-up disintegrated, are also known. Admiral Nimitz, for example, issued his celebrated opinion of Santa Cruz after the November battles. But on Navy Day—27 October—1942, SOPAC was in the direst of circumstances. From Pearl Harbor Nimitz directed Halsey to complete arrangements for the defense of rear bases in the South Pacific. Both admirals asked authorities in Washington to request the loan of a British aircraft carrier for service in SOPAC. Meanwhile, Halsey set all hands to work in a race against time to repair the Enterprise, the only U.S. aircraft carrier left in the Pacific.

By many reasonable measures the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands marked a Japanese victory—and a strategic one. The Imperial Japanese Navy had pursued Kinkaid’s retiring fleet, indeed forced it away from the battle zone. The day after the action, the Japanese possessed the only operational carrier force in the Pacific. In addition to having sunk more ships­­­­­—of greater combat tonnage—the Japanese had more aircraft remaining and were in physical possession of the seas. Although a big share of credit goes to Japanese aviators and even American destroyermen, the sinking of a U.S. fleet carrier, the Hornet , by surface torpedo attack was also a notable achievement. Arguments based on aircrew losses or who owned Guadalcanal are about something else—the campaign, not the battle. Admiral Yamamoto and the Combined Fleet failed to exploit the success at Santa Cruz, but the fact that the naval effort later went sideways cannot diminish the Imperial Japanese Navy’s achievement on 26 October 1942.

Sources include:

After-Action Reports, USS Enterprise , 10 November 1942; USS Hornet , 30 October 1942, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

James H. Belote and William M. Belote, Titans of the Seas: The Development and Operation of Japanese and American Carrier Task Forces during World War II (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

Georges Blond, Le survivant du Pacifique: l’Odysée de l’ “Enterprise” (Paris: Fayard, 1957).

Chicago Tribune .

Richard B. Frank, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle (New York: Random House, 1990).

Kenneth I. Friedman, Morning of the Rising Sun: The Heroic Story of the Battles for Guadalcanal (self-published, 2007).

William F. Halsey and J. D. Bryan III, Admiral Halsey’s Story (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947).

Eric Hammel, Carrier Strike: The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, October 1942 (St. Paul, MN: Zenith, 2004).

Edwin P. Hoyt, Guadalcanal (New York: Jove, 1983).

John B. Lundstrom, The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994).

Herbert C. Merillat, Guadalcanal Remembered (New York: Avon, 1990).

Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 5, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943 (Boston: Little Brown, 1949).

The New York Times .

E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976).

E. B. Potter, Bull Halsey (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985).

John Prados, Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II (New York: Random House, 1995).

Robert Sherrod, History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II (Washington, DC: Combat Forces Press, 1952).

Ronald H. Spector, ed., Listening to the Enemy: Key Documents on the Role of Communications Intelligence in the War with Japan (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1988).

Edward P. Stafford, The Big ‘E’: The Story of the USS Enterprise (New York: Ballantine, 1962).

Alexander A. Vandegrift, with Robert B. Asprey, Once a Marine: The Memoirs of General A. A. Vandegrift (New York: Ballantine, 1966).

John Winton, Ultra in the Pacific: How Breaking Japanese Codes & Cyphers Affected Naval Operations Against Japan, 1941–45 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).


Mr. Prados is a senior fellow with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. The author of numerous books and articles, he is also among the "Old Guard" of gaming, having designed numerous board games. In terms of disclosure, it should be noted that Mr. Prados has published games with Avalon Hill Game Company, Simulations Publications, Game Designers' Workshop, TSR Hobbies, Operational Studies Group, Clash of Arms, Avalanche Press, GMT Games, Decision Games, Against the Odds, and Harper & Row, among others.

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