Task Force 58
An account of Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 80 year ago this week
This week’s excerpt comes from Task Force 58: The US Navy's Fast Carrier Strike Force that Won the War in the Pacific, a new (2021) study of the Pacific War focusing on the huge armada of ships that the US Navy produced in response to Pearl Harbor. At its peak this strike force - of over 100 ships and 100,000 men afloat - had stupendous fire power. Seventeen fast carriers each carrying over 100 aircraft would seize the initiative and take the war to Japan.
This is an excellent single volume account of the Pacific War told from the naval perspective with lucid blow by blow accounts of the action, well illustrated with both contemporary photographs and modern maps.
In 1942 as the struggle for the seas around the Solomon Islands began, the US Navy only had two fast carriers available - the USS Enterprise and the USS Saratoga. As the US Marines fought it on Guadalcanal the Japanese sought to land enough troops to confront them. The following excerpt covers the battle in more detail than I was able to give in context on the 24th August:
Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24-5 August 1942
Some two weeks after the initial [Japanese] landings, on 23 August, long-range US patrol planes from Guadalcanal spotted four troop transports escorted by destroyers, elements of an apparent occupation force, 250 miles to the north - on a southerly course.
The Japanese intended to land troops on Guadalcanal on 24 August, covered by air support from the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku,the light carrier Ryujo and the sea planetender Chitose. A strong Japanese naval force was also spotted 100 miles to the east- and reported as consisting of 8 battleships, 6 cruisers and 21 destroyers.
Although Wasp had withdrawn to the south and would not be involved, the third great carrier versus carrier battle of the Pacific campaign was about to begin. At 0415 on 24 August, search planes were sent out from the Japanese carriers - and at 1250, a search plane reported sighting Saratoga and Enterprise. Although the plane was shot down before it could give the exact position, Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a first strike of 27 Aichi D3A2 Val dive-bombers and 15 Zeros.
About an hour later, a second wave of 27 Vais and nine Zeros lifted off from the carriers - heading south towards Enterprise and Saratoga. Meanwhile, the light carrier Ryujo launched her aircraft for 2 strikes on Henderson Field.
‘As Japanese aircraft were inbound to strike the 2 US fast carriers, at about 1400, Saratoga aircraft located Ryujo. Consequently, 30 US dive- bombers and 8 torpedo-bombers attacked the light carrier, scoring 4 bomb hits, 1 torpedo hit and numerous near misses.’
As Japanese aircraft were inbound to strike the 2 US fast carriers, at about 1400, Saratoga aircraft located Ryujo. Consequently, 30 US dive- bombers and 8 torpedo-bombers attacked the light carrier, scoring 4 bomb hits, 1 torpedo hit and numerous near misses. Such was the damage, that at 1755, the stricken light carrier capsized on the surface and sank stern first.
The Val dive-bombers and Zero fighter escorts from Shokaku and Zuikaku closed Saratoga and Enterprise and began their own attacks at 1440. The Enterprise became the focus of attention, taking 3 direct bomb hits and 4 near misses that started fires, killed 74 and wounded 95. Despite being badly damaged, with a lOft-wide hole in her flight deck after effective damage-control repair work, she was able to withdraw and begin a long limp back to Pearl under her own steam for repair.
Enterprise was however out of the war for the time being and would remain at Pearl from 10 September until 16 October 1942. That evening aircraft from Saratoga damaged the seaplane tender Chitose whilst Japanese destroyers were able to shell Henderson Field before turning to run north to join the Occupation Force convoy.
The US warships then retired to the south - to get out of range of any approaching Japanese warships. It was a prudent decision as the Japanese battleship group was in fact steaming south to try and engage the US carriers in a surface battle. But in darkness, at midnight, when no contact had been established with US units, they gave up the chase and turned around.
The battle continued into the following morning of 25 August. Suspecting that the two US carriers engaged the previous day had been taken out of the battle by heavy damage, the Japanese group of troop transports moved towards Guadalcanal - and by 0600, the occupation convoy was just 150 miles to the north.
Just after 0600 however eighteen US aircraft flying from Henderson Field attacked the Japanese convoy - hitting the 9,310-ton armed merchant cruiser Kinryu Maru, which was carrying troops, with a 1,0001b bomb amidships in her aftship that started fires and caused ammunition to cook off in a large explosion. The 475ft-long ship began to sink, forcing her embarked troops to be evacuated to destroyers and patrol boats before she was scuttled at 0835 by a torpedo from the destroyer IJN Mutsuki. The 5,477-ton transport Boston Maru was damaged by a near miss whilst a 1,0001b bomb hit the light cruiser IJN Jintsu at her fo'c'sle, killing twenty-four crew. Fires were started, that led to her forward magazines being flooded to avoid her munitions cooking off.
By now, the Japanese had lost dozens of valuable aircraft, with their experienced aircrew, from Shokaku and Zuikaku. With those losses, allied to the loss of the light carrier Ryiljo, the troop transports and naval units, the landing of reinforcement troops was cancelled at 0730 - and both sides withdrew to lick their wounds. Land-based B-17 Flying Fortress bombers from Espiritu Santo however then appeared and at 0944 hit and sunk the stationary destroyer Mutsuki as she was embarking troops from the Kinryu Maru.
Although Saratoga had survived the battle, seven days later she was sighted and torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Such was the damage that she had to withdraw from her area of operations for repair for three months. Both Enterprise and Saratoga were now out of action, albeit temporarily.
This excerpt from Task Force 58: The US Navy's Fast Carrier Strike Force that Won the War in the Pacific appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.