The Battle of Eastern Solomon Islands, also known as the Battle of Stewart Islands occurred on 24 and 25 August 1942. This battle was the third carrier battle in the Pacific during WW2. As at the first two carrier battles, the ships of the American and Japanese navies were never in sight of each other. All of the attacks were conducted by aircraft from both sides.
By the end of this battle, two senior American Naval Officers will have been relieved of command.
The Americans had taken the airfield on Guadalcanal and named it Henderson airfield. The Japanese wanted it back and designed a counteroffensive to re-take the airfield and Tulagi while destroying any American naval forces in the area. The counteroffensive was named Operation Ka, Kana Ka is the root of kana ga, the first syllable in Gadarukanaru, the Japanese name for Guadalcanal.
United States – Vadm Frank Jack Fletcher (Fleet Commander)
Task Force 11 – Vadm Frank Fletcher
USS Saratoga (flagship for Fletcher) Capt. DeWitt Ramsey – 36 F4F Wildcat fighters, 18 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, 18 SBD Dauntless scout bombers and 15 TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. Two heavy cruisers (Minneapolis and New Orleans) Five destroyers (Phelps, Farragut, MacDonough, Worden, and Dale.
Task Force 16 – Radm Thomas C. Kinkaid (The Fighting Admiral)
One fleet carrier: USS Enterprise (flagship for Kinkaid) Capt. Arthur C. Davis – 36 F4F Wildcat fighters, 18 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, 18 SBD Dauntless scout bombers, 15 TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. One battleship (North Carolina) One heavy cruiser (Portland) One AA light cruiser (Atlanta) Six destroyers (Balch, Grayson, Monssen, Maury, Benham, and Ellet
Task Force 18 – Radm Leigh Noyes
One fleet carrier: USS Wasp (flagship for Noyes) Capt. Forrest P. Sherman – 28 F4F Wildcat fighters, 36 SBD Dauntless scout bombers, 15 TBF Avenger torpedo bombers. Two heavy cruisers (Salt Lake City and San Francisco) One AA light cruiser (San Juan) Seven destroyers (Selfridge, Aaron Ward, Buchanan, Lang, Stack, Sterett and Farenhoit)
Task Force 63 – Radm John S. McCain
The “Cactus Air Force” at Guadalcanal, Henderson Airfield and all land-based aircraft in the South Pacific Force.
Empire of Japan – Vadm Chuichi Nagumo (Fleet Commander)
Advance Force – Vadm Nobutake Kondo
Five heavy cruisers (Atago, Maya,Takao, Myoko and Haguro) One light cruiser (Yura) Eight destroyers (Asagumo, Yamagumo, Kuroshio, Oyashio, Murasame, Harusame, Samidare and Hayashio) One battleship (Mutsu) One seaplane tender (Chitose)
Striking Force – Vadm Chuichi Nagumo
Two fleet carriers: Flagship for Nagumo – Shokaku (Capt. Masafumi Arima) – 26 A6M “Zeke fighters, 14 Aichi D3A “Val” dive bombers, and 18 B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers. Zuikaku (Capt. Tameteru Notomo) – 27 A6M “Zeke” fighters, 27 Aichi “Val” dive bombers and 18 B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers. Six destroyers (Akigumo, Yugumo, Makigumo, Kazegumo, Shikinami, and Uranami).
Vanguard Force – Radm Hiroaki Abe
Two battleships (Hiei and Kirishima) Three heavy cruisers (Kumano, Suzuya and Chikuma) One light cruiser (Nagara) Six destroyers (Akizuki, Hatsukaze, Maikaze, Nowaki, Tanikaze and Yukikaze)
Diversionary Force – Radm Tadaichi Hara
One light carrier: Ryujo (Capt. Tadao Kato) (sunk) – 16 A6M “Zeke” fighters and 21 B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers) One heavy cruiser (Tone) Two destroyers (Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze)
Reinforcement Force – Radm Raizo Tanaka
One troop transport (Kinryu Maru – 800 troops) Four patrol boats (#1, 2, 34 and 35 – 700 troops) One light cruiser (Jintsu – flagship for Tanaka) Eight destroyers (Kagero, Mutsuki (sunk), Yayoi, Isokaze, Kawakaze, Suzukaze, Umikaze and Uzuki
Cover Force – Vadm Gunichi Mikawa
Three heavy cruisers (Aoba, Furutaka, and Kinugasa)
Two 1st-class: I-121 and I-123 (sunk on 28 August by destroyer Gamble) One 2nd class: Ro-34
On the night of August 6th and morning of August 7th 1942 – Marines land on Guadalcanal. Marines secure the airfield (name it Henderson airfield) at 1600 on 8 August. Tulagi was secured on 8 August. Gavutu and Tanambogo were secured on 9 August. Three U.S. Carriers (Wasp, Enterprise, and Saratoga) were tasked with protecting Marines and helping to secure Henderson airfield.
During the landing operations on August 7 and 8, Japanese naval aircraft based at Rabaul, attacked the Allied amphibious forces several times, setting afire the transport USS George Elliot (which sank two days later) and heavily damaging the destroyer USS Jarvis. In the air attacks over 7 and 8 August, the Japanese lost 36 aircraft, while the U.S. lost 19 including 14 carrier fighters. After these battles, Fletcher was concerned about the losses to his carrier fighter aircraft strength, anxious about the threat to his carriers from further Japanese air attacks, and worried about his fuel levels, Fletcher withdrew from the Solomon Islands area with his 3 carriers the evening of 8 August to a position 400 miles off Guadalcanal.
On August 8th and 9th, the naval Battle of Savo Island occurred. Three allied Heavy cruisers sunk, 1 heavy cruiser damaged (later scuttled), 2 destroyers damaged, 1,017 killed. For the Japanese: 3 cruisers lightly damaged with 129 killed.
Between 12-19 August several land battles took place on Guadalcanal with loss of life on both sides.
On 15 August, Fletcher moves his 3 carriers closer to Guadalcanal to cover the delivery of equipment and aircraft to Henderson airfield.
On 16 August, a Japanese convoy of 3 transport ships loaded with 1200 army troops and 300 naval troops departed Truk bound for Guadalcanal. These transports were supported by the light cruiser Jintsu (flagship for Vadm RaizoTanaka), 8 destroyers and four patrol boats. Also departing Rabaul at the same time to help protect the convoy was a “Cover Force” consisting of three heavy cruisers commanded by Vadm Gunichi Mikawa. Tanaka’s plan was to land his troops by August 24th.
On 20 August, the U.S. Escort Carrier Long Island delivers 2 squadrons of Marine Aircraft to Henderson airfield on Guadalcanal. The aircraft on Henderson airfield became known as “The Cactus Air Force” after the allied code name (Cactus) for Guadalcanal.
On 21 August, a U.S. Intelligence summary indicated the Imperial Japanese Navy with a large naval force was on the move heading south towards Guadalcanal. Intelligence was correct, the rest of the Japanese naval force, divided into 3 groups, departed Truk bound for the southern Solomon Islands: The “Striking Force”, consisting of three aircraft carriers, Shokaku, Zuikaku, and light carrier Ryujo. A screening force of one cruiser and eight destroyers accompanied the carriers. The “Striking Force” was commanded by Vadm Chuichi Nagumo. The second group, the “Vanguard Force” was commanded by Radm Hiroaki Abe, consisted of two battleships, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and three destroyers. The third group, the “Advanced Force”, commanded by Vadm Nobutake Kondo, consisted of five heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, six destroyers, and the seaplane carrier Chitose. Additionally, 100 IJN land-based bombers, fighters and recon aircraft based at Rabaul and nearby islands were readied for support of the Japanese naval force. Nagumo positioned his carriers behind the Vanguard force and Advanced force to avoid detection by American recon aircraft.
On 22 August, the American and Japanese naval forces continued to converge on each other. Both sides had launched scout aircraft but neither side was detected by any of the aircraft. However, one Japanese scout plane was shot down (before it could radio any information) by aircraft from USS Enterprise and the fact that the scout never returned or was heard from alerted Nagumo to the possible presence of the American carriers in the area. The Americans remained unaware of the disposition and strength of the approaching Japanese force. Also on this date, five U.S. Army Bell P-400 Airacobra fighters were delivered to Henderson Airfield.
On 23 August at 0950, a PBY Catalina aircraft located Tanaka’s convoy. By afternoon, without any further sightings of Japanese ships, aircraft strike groups from USS Saratoga and Henderson airfield took off to attack Tanaka’s convoy. Tanaka, knowing an attack was coming after the initial sighting by the PBY, had turned around to escape the attack, eluding the U.S. strike aircraft. Tanaka delayed landing his troops until 25 August.
On 23 August at 1820, with no new sightings of the Japanese fleet and no new intelligence on their location, Fletcher released USS Wasp and TF18 to refuel 2 days away near Efate Island, putting them out of the upcoming battle.
On 24 August at 0145 – Nagumo ordered the Diversionary Group (Ryujo, Tone and 2 destroyers) to proceed ahead of the main group for an attack on Henderson airfield at daybreak. Nagumo believed, in part, that this maneuver would provide a diversion so that his task force could approach the U.S. naval forces undetected. Aircraft aboard Shokaku and Zuikaku were at the ready should the American carriers be located.
At 0555 the Enterprise launched scout aircraft to search for the Japanese naval force. PBY Catalina’s on Ndeni also launched to aid in the search.
At 0935 one of the PBY’s found the Ryujo force. Throughout the morning and afternoon of 24 August, multiple sightings occurred of Kondo, Mikawa, and the Ryujo force. They also sighted several Japanese scout planes and submarines. Fletcher now figured the Japanese knew the location of his carriers, when in fact, the Japanese had not obtained any information on the American carriers.
At 1220 Ryujo launched six B5N2 Kate bombers and fifteen A6M3 Zero fighters for the attack on Henderson airfield, Guadalcanal. Also joining the attack were 24 G4M2 Betty bombers and 14 A6M3 Zero fighters from Rabaul. The strike force from Rabaul was forced to turn back at 1130 due to severe weather but this was not communicated to the Ryujo. The Ryujo strike aircraft were detected by Saratoga’s radar which allowed the Saratoga to get a good position on the Ryujo for the American attack.
At 1340 with no information on the other Japanese carriers, Fletcher launched an attack force of 38 aircraft from Saratoga against the Ryujo group. Additional aircraft from the Enterprise and Saratoga were kept at the ready should the other Japanese carriers be located.
At 1420 the Ryujo strike aircraft arrived over Henderson airfield and commenced their attack. They were met by American aircraft from Henderson Field and the ensuing air battle resulted in the downing of three Kates and three Zeros. Three American fighters were shot down. Only minor damage was done to Henderson airfield.
At 1425 A Japanese scout plane from the cruiser Chikuma located the American carriers. The scout plane was able to radio the positions of the American carriers before being shot down.
At 1440 The Saratoga’s strike aircraft attacked the Ryujo. The Ryujo took five hits from dive bombers and one torpedo hit that flooded the starboard engine and boiler rooms. The bomb hits set the carrier on fire and she listed from the flooding caused by the torpedo hit. Ryujo turned north but her list continued to increase although the fires were put out. The flooding disabled her machinery and caused her to become dead in the water. The order to abandon ship was given at 1515. She capsized and sank at 1755.
At 1450 Nagumo launched his strike aircraft from Shokaku and Zuikaku. The first wave of aircraft involved 27 D3A2 VAL dive bombers and 15 A6M3 Zero fighters. About this same time, two American scout planes located the other two Japanese carriers. Unfortunately, the positions of the Japanese carriers could not be reported back to Fletcher due to communication problems. The two American scout planes attacked Shokaku causing minor damage, but the attack did require several of the Japanese fighters to break off from the strike force to chase them.
At 1600 A second wave of Japanese aircraft involving 27 Val dive bombers and 9 Zero fighters was launched by Nagumo bound for the Enterprise and Saratoga. Vadm Abe’s Vanguard group also pushed south in anticipation of meeting the American force for surface action by dusk.
At 1602 American carriers detected the first Japanese strike aircraft on radar and launched fifty-three F4F Wildcats to intercept them. Because of communication problems, radar control ineffectiveness and the effective protection of the Japanese bombers by the Zero’s only a few of the American fighters were able to attack the incoming strike aircraft. Before the Japanese Vals began their attack all the aircraft at the ready on Saratoga and Enterprise were launched and told to fly North to attack anything they could find.
At 1630 the Japanese dive bombers attacked the Enterprise after not being able to set up for the Saratoga. Four Wildcat fighters followed the Vals into their attack and were shot down by friendly AA along with several Vals. Because of the excellent AA aboard Enterprise and several other ships screening her, the first nine Val attacks missed their target. However, at 1645, a bomb penetrated 3 decks on Enterprise before exploding killing 35 men and wounding 70 men. Almost a minute later the next Val dropped a bomb that hit the ready powder casings of a 127mm gun, causing a secondary explosion that killed 30 men from the nearby gun crews and started a fire.
At 1645 a Val dropped a third bomb on Enterprise’s flight deck causing a ten-foot hole. The damage was considered minor. Seven Vals broke off their attack on Enterprise to attack the American battleship North Carolina. All seven Vals were shot down with no bomb hits on the North Carolina.
At 1648 the attack ended and the surviving Japanese aircraft returned to their carriers. The Japanese lost 25 aircraft and the Americans lost 6 aircraft. The Ryujo was severely damaged and crippled. The Japanese believed they had crippled two American carriers but in fact, only the Enterprise had been damaged. Because of excellent damage control Enterprise was repaired by 1745, one hour after the attack ended, and she was ready for flight operations.
At 1805 the Saratoga strike aircraft returned from the crippling attack on Ryujo and landed safely without incident.
At 1815 the second wave of Japanese strike aircraft approached where they thought the American force was but could not locate them and had to return to their carriers without a single bomb being dropped. Likewise, most of the American strike aircraft, launched right before the Japanese first wave attack, did not find any targets to attack and returned to their carriers without incident. Two SBD Dauntless aircraft did locate the seaplane tender Chitose of the Kondo force and scored two hits which severely damaged her.
At 1900 the American task force turned south to avoid any night action with Japanese ships. Kondo’s Advance force and Abe’s Vanguard force continued south to intercept the American task force.
At 2400 Kondo’s Advance force and Abe’s Vanguard force turned and headed north after not making any visual contact with the American task force. Nagumo’s carriers also turned north after taking heavy losses and being low on fuel.
Because the Japanese believed they had taken the Saratoga and Enterprise out of action with severe damage, Tanaka and his Reinforcement force decided to proceed to Guadalcanal to offload troops and supplies.
On 25 August at 0805 -18 aircraft from Henderson airfield located Tanaka’s reinforcement force and attacked. Jintsu was heavily damaged with 24 crewmen killed in the attack. The attack also injured Vadm Tanaka. Tanaka transferred his flag to the destroyer Kagero. The troop transport Kinryu Maru was also hit and sank later that morning. The destroyer Mutsuki attempted to rescue troops and crew from the Kinryu Maru but was attacked by four B-17 bombers from Espiritu Santo. The B-17’s had 5 near hits/hits which sank the Mutsuki in minutes. Tanaka ordered Jintsu back to Truk and took the reenforcement convoy to the Japanese base in the Shortland Islands.
Later that morning both sides decided to withdraw from the area. The battle was over.
United States – Vadm Frank Jack Fletcher (Fleet Commander)
Casualties and losses:
- One fleet carrier damaged (Enterprise)
- 20 aircraft destroyed
- 90 personnel killed in action
Empire of Japan – Vadm Chuichi Nagumo (Fleet Commander)
Casualties and losses:
- One carrier sunk (Ryujo)
- One destroyer sunk (Mutsuki)
- One Troop Transport sunk (Kinryu Maru)
- One light cruiser damaged (Jintsu)
- One Seaplane Tender damaged (Chitose)
- 75 aircraft destroyed
- 290+ personnel killed in action.
The Americans had achieved a tactical and strategic victory. Japanese troop reinforcement was delayed. Historian Richard B Frank stated: “The Battle of the Eastern Solomons was unquestionably an American victory, but it had little long-term result, apart from a further reduction in the corps of trained Japanese carrier aviators. The (Japanese) reinforcements that could not come by slow transport would soon reach Guadalcanal by other means.”
The Japanese believed they had inflicted more damage than they actually did. In fact, The Japanese military falsely reported publically the IJN had sunk the USS Hornet, thus achieving revenge for the Doolittle Tokyo raid. The Hornet would be sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October.
Beginning on August 29th, the troops in Tanaka’s convoy were placed onto destroyers and delivered over the next several weeks to Guadalcanal without most of their heavy equipment. Several Japanese destroyers were sunk during this time.
USS Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs that were completed on October 15th. Enterprise returned to the South Pacific on October 24th, just in time for the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands and a rematch with the Shokaku and Zuikaku. By the end of the war, USS Enterprise would become the most decorated aircraft carrier of WW2.
AFTERMATH – Fletcher relieved of command.
Fletcher was second-guessed by non-combatant superiors over this battle, and was criticized by Admiral Ernest King, the US Chief of Naval Operations for not pursuing the Japanese Fleet as it withdrew. This criticism affected the decision to relieve Fletcher of his command after his flagship, the carrier Saratoga, was torpedoed and damaged by a Japanese submarine on August 31, 1942. Fletcher himself was slightly injured in the attack and was given his first leave after eight months of continuous combat.
Many of Fletcher’s papers were lost in combat. He declined to reconstruct them from Pentagon archives and declined to be interviewed by Samuel Elliot Morrison, who was writing the “History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II”.
It should be noted that of the three major naval battles that Fletcher commanded (Coral Sea, Midway, and Eastern Solomon Islands), he sank six Japanese carriers, one at Coral Sea (Shoho), four at Midway (Soryu, Kaga, Hiryu, and Akagi), and one at Eastern Solomon Islands (Ryujo). Fletcher lost two American carriers; one at Coral Sea (Lexington) and one at Midway (Yorktown). Fletcher spent all but 51 of the first 289 days of the Pacific war (07 December 1941 to 21 September 1942) at sea, most of it in or near enemy-controlled waters.
Fletcher is the recipient of the Medal of Honor for heroic actions during World War I.
In the 1976 Hollywood movie Midway, Fletcher, played by Robert Weber, was depicted as confused and hesitant during the Battle of Midway on the advice of Navy veterans critical of Fletcher. In his journal, Weber noted that he and Charlton Heston (who played a fictional naval officer assisting Fletcher) tried to make it as subtle as possible.
AFTERMATH – Halsey takes command in the South Pacific
Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Jr., was medically approved to return to duty in September 1942. Halsey was named by Nimitz to command a carrier task force in the South Pacific Area. Since Enterprise was still laid up in Pearl Harbor undergoing repairs following the Battle of Eastern Solomon Islands, and the other ships of Task Force 16 were still being readied, he began a familiarization trip to the south Pacific on October 15, 1942, arriving at area headquarters at Noumea in New Caledonia on October 18th.
Pacific Area Commander Adm Chester Nimitz had decided that South Pacific Area Commander Vice Admiral Ghormley was dispirited and exhausted. Nimitz decided to change the South Pacific Area command while Halsey was en route. When Halsey’s aircraft arrived in Noumea on October 18th, a boat came alongside carrying Vadm Ghormley’s flag lieutenant. Meeting him before Halsey could board his ship, the lieutenant handed over a sealed envelope containing a message from Nimitz:
“YOU WILL TAKE COMMAND OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC AREA AND SOUTH PACIFIC FORCES IMMEDIATELY”
One week after taking command of the South Pacific Area, Halsey would get his first taste of the Guadalcanal campaign in the naval battle of Santa Cruz Islands (Oct 25th-27th).