In the far-flung Pacific Theater of the Second World War, there are some battles and events so momentous that it is immediately clear to the antagonists that their aftermath portends major shifts in the status quo; that conditions following will be forever different from what came before. Midway is such an event. With others, their true significance is often realized only in retrospect, as study of the results and decisions in the aftermath of those events is required to reveal how pivotal they truly were. The Battle of Santa Cruz, which occurred seventy-two years ago today, is one of those largely hidden events. A tactical and operational success for the Japanese, the battle was a pyrrhic victory for the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Powerful Japanese naval forces under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo had been tasked with supporting the efforts of the Japanese 17th Army in what was finally a major attempt to capture Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field and unhinge the position of the First Marine Division on that island. The glacially slow and piecemeal reaction of General Hyukatake, commanding 17th Army, had allowed the Americans to build a force of more than 20,000, replete with a fully operational airfield and complete complement of supporting arms, by the time of the October counteroffensive. Even in October, Hyukatake badly underestimated US ground strength and fighting qualities, believing only some 7,500 garrisoned Guadalcanal. The Japanese ground effort, including a combined tank-infantry attack, was once again poorly coordinated, and it came to grief against the lines of the First Marines and under the howitzers of the Eleventh Marines along the Matanikau River before either fleet engaged each other at Santa Cruz. (Inexplicably, the Japanese Army units reported erroneously that they had captured Henderson Field when in reality they had nowhere threatened breakthrough of the Marine lines.)
At sea, Admiral Kondo’s force greatly outnumbered the Americans under Thomas Kinkaid. For the IJN, two large and two small carriers, six battleships, and ten heavy and light cruisers, with almost 250 aircraft significantly outweighed the two American fleet carriers (Enterprise and Hornet), the lone battleship (South Dakota), a half dozen cruisers, and around 170 aircraft.
Each fleet’s scout aircraft found the other almost simultaneously, and launched strikes simultaneously. In fact, the strike forces passed each other on their respective headings, with fighters from each side briefly and inconclusively engaging the enemy’s formations. The Japanese air strikes exacted a heavy toll from the US ships. Enterprise was struck with at least two bombs, jamming a flight deck elevator and causing extensive splinter and blast damage in the hangar decks, while near-misses stoved in her side plates. Enterprise was seriously hurt, but somehow maintained flight operations. Hornet was struck by three bombs and at least two torpedoes, wrecking her engine rooms and bringing the carrier to a halt.
Despite the heroic efforts to save Hornet, a well-placed torpedo from a Japanese submarine put paid to the effort. The incident was eerily similar to the fate of Yorktown at Midway 4 1/2 months earlier. Like her sister, Hornet stayed stubbornly afloat despite shells and torpedoes expended to scuttle her. Eventually, the Japanese sank Hornet with two Long Lance torpedoes. Battleship South Dakota was credited with shooting down 26 Japanese aircraft, but was struck on B Turret with a 550-pound bomb. Additionally, two US destroyers were damaged.
In turn, the US Navy strikes crippled the light carrier Zuiho, wrecked the flight deck of Shokaku, and inflicted heavy damage with a bomb strike on heavy cruiser Chikuma. The most consequential losses for the Japanese had been among the superbly trained veteran aircrews that had been the scourge of Allied pilots and surface vessels since Pearl Harbor. Despite the fact that Kondo’s task force had inflicted considerably more damage to the American ships than Kinkaid’s flyers had managed, and despite the relatively even losses of aircraft (each side lost roughly the same percentage of aircraft to all causes), the loss of pilots and trained air crewmen was disproportionately heavy for the IJN. US losses amounted to fewer than thirty aircrew, while the Japanese lost almost one hundred and fifty pilots and aircrew. This represents a significantly greater loss than that suffered at Midway. With a training pipeline that could not begin to replace such losses, the most fearsome weapon of the Kido Butai, its deadly naval air power, was blunted permanently. Japanese carrier aviation was all but eliminated from the rest of the fight for the Solomons, and began a steady decline into oblivion that would culminate in the frightful massacre at the Philippine Sea twenty months later.
For Admiral Halsey at SOPAC, Santa Cruz could not have appeared to have been anything except another costly reverse. In the preceding six months, the US Navy had lost Lexington at Coral Sea, Yorktown at Midway, Wasp off Guadalcanal in September, and now Hornet at Santa Cruz. Not only that, but Saratoga had taken a torpedo in August and was stateside for repairs, and Enterprise was more heavily damaged in this battle than could be repaired at forward bases. The IJN still outnumbered the US Navy in the Pacific in numbers of carriers and aircraft, and in surface combatants. Additionally, after Santa Cruz, Kinkaid had retired with Nagumo on his heels.
Yet, despite the Japanese tactical victory, Santa Cruz represented the beginning of the end of the fearsome striking power which had wrecked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and had run amok for the six months that Yamamoto had predicted before December of 1941. If the Americans did not realize it, at least Nagumo did. He informed Naval Headquarters that without decisive victories, the industrial might of the United States would render the Japanese defeat in the Pacific inevitable.