Key Point: The U.S. victory in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons softened Japanese resolve to commit further resources to the fight.
Lieutenant David C. Richardson spotted the four-engined flying boat silhouetted against the ocean by the late morning sun. The Japanese plane, code-named Emily by the Allies, was only about 20 miles from Richardson’s carrier, USS Saratoga, right where the carrier’s fighter director officer said it would be. As was the usual practice, Richardson split his section of four Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters into two groups—two fighters to attack the enemy reconnaissance aircraft from ahead, and two to come in from behind.
The Emily’s pilot really did not have much of a chance to evade the four fighters. Richardson’s Wildcats made their runs, put several bursts of .50-caliber machine-gun bullets into the big seaplane, and sent it flaming into the sea. When the kill was reported to Saratoga, the news produced a small celebration. It was the first time that a radio-vectored fighter attack from the ship had brought down an enemy aircraft.
Saratoga’s captain, DeWitt C. Ramsey, did not join in the festivities. He was certain that the Emily’s crew had radioed his position back to base and that a Japanese air strike would soon follow. The enemy had been searching for Saratoga and the other two carriers of Task Force 16, Enterprise and Wasp, for the past several days. Now, it looked as though Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, had found what he was looking for.
Actually, Captain Ramsey was wrong; the Emily’s crew did not have enough time to radio Saratoga’s position. But it would only be a matter of time before the enemy spotted Task Force 16. That day, August 24, 1942, had been designated by Admiral Yamamoto for the recapture of Guadalcanal. But before this could take place, the American force would have to be found and destroyed.
“A Typhoon of Enemy Reaction”
The American landings on August 7 “generated a typhoon of enemy reaction,” according to U.S. naval historian Samuel Eliot Morrison. Japanese Army, Navy, and air forces were determined that the Marines occupying portions of the island would either be forced to evacuate or annihilated.
The Japanese Navy had already flexed its muscle in the waters around Guadalcanal. In the Battle of Savo Island on August 9, which was one of the most disastrous defeats ever suffered by the U.S. Navy, three American cruisers and one Australian cruiser were sunk, while the Japanese suffered minimal damage. Japanese supply and troop convoys soon began nightly runs down the channel between the islands of the Solomons, known as The Slot. These convoys were dubbed the Tokyo Express by the Americans.
Admiral Yamamoto was confident that the Marines would be forced to surrender by the end of August. An offensive code-named Operation Ka was undertaken on August 16 as a regiment of more than 1,400 army troops along with a contingent of Marines departed Truk in the Caroline Islands bound for Guadalcanal. The three slow transports carrying the troops were escorted by a screen of cruisers and destroyers. A naval task force also departed Truk for Guadalcanal five days after the troop transports. At the heart of the naval force were the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, both veterans of both Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea, and the light carrier Ryujo.
According to the Japanese plan, bombers and torpedo planes from the carriers would sink any American aircraft carriers in the Guadalcanal area. Following this, cruisers and destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Hiroaki Abe, would destroy all U.S. surface warships. After the American naval units had been disposed of, Henderson Field—Guadalcanal’s unsinkable aircraft carrier—would be put out of action. With American naval and air support neutralized, the troops would be put ashore on August 24. Guadalcanal and its airfield would be back in Japanese hands by September.
Allied forces in the Solomons were on the alert for a major Japanese offensive. Vice Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, commander of American forces in the South Pacific, ordered Task Force 16 to protect Guadalcanal and its sea approaches. The carrier USS Hornet and her escorts left Pearl Harbor for the Solomons on August 17, and the battleships Washington and South Dakota departed the East Coast of the United States for the Pacific. Admiral Ghormley wanted to be well prepared for the coming Japanese offensive. But first, he would have to rely on his reconnaissance to tell him about the enemy’s approach—which ships were coming, and how many.
The two naval forces converged on Guadalcanal. Although both sides strongly suspected the presence of enemy warships in the area, neither had any solid intelligence. Neither Yamamoto nor Ghormley knew the location of his enemy or the makeup of its forces.
Detaching the Wasp from the Fleet
On the morning of August 23, a U.S. Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat finally made contact, spotting the Japanese troop transports heading southeast toward Guadalcanal. The Japanese carriers and the other warships still had not been located. An air strike was planned to attack the transports as soon as possible. Saratoga sent 37 bombers and torpedo planes to the northwest, and Henderson Field added 23 land-based aircraft an hour and a half later.
But the commander of the transports and their escorts, Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka, was not about to keep a steady course while the enemy strike approached. He knew that his ships had been spotted and reversed course to the northwest, back toward Truk, at 1 pm, keeping his transports beyond American bomber range.
When Saratoga’s planes arrived where Tanaka was supposed to be, they found nothing but open sea. The planes from Henderson field had no better luck.
Vice Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, commander of Task Force 16, still had no idea where the enemy was or how many aircraft carriers he had. Admiral Fletcher had another problem as well. The carrier Wasp’s screening destroyers were running low on fuel. Because he had no information regarding the Japanese carriers, he reached the conclusion that it would be safe to detach Wasp and her group. Fletcher ordered the carrier south to Efate for a refueling stop, which was a two-day trip.
Fletcher has been severely criticized for this move. By sending Wasp out of the area, he reduced his own strength by 16 aircraft. One-third of the American force would not be positioned to take part in the upcoming battle.
Throughout the night of August 23, the two sides closed with one another. Tanaka’s transport group had reversed course once again and was back on course for Guadalcanal, still undetected by American aircraft. At 9:35 am on the 24th, a Catalina based at Ndeni in the Santa Cruz Islands caught sight of Ryujo and her escorts. The Japanese ships were about 250 miles north of Guadalcanal, steaming southward.
Mistakes on Both Sides
Although the battle had not yet begun, both sides had already made mistakes. Fletcher’s order detaching Wasp turned out to be unnecessary. The logs of all seven U.S. destroyers accompanying the carrier indicated that they had sufficient fuel. Fletcher was by nature a cautious and conservative person and had spent much of his naval career serving aboard cruisers. When he detached Wasp from the task force, his unfamiliarity with carrier operations showed.
On the Japanese side, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the Third Fleet, made a similar mistake. Nagumo ordered Ryujo to leave the main fleet and attack Henderson Field with her air group instead of keeping her bombers and torpedo planes for the strike against the American carriers. Nagumo’s order may have been intended to divert the Americans from Shokaku and Zuikaku.
The same plan had been used at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, when the light carrier Shoho distracted aircraft from the American carriers Lexington and Yorktown away from the main Japanese carrier force—again, Shokaku and Zuikaku. Shoho was sunk, while the big carriers went undetected, although Shokaku was later found and badly damaged.
Admiral Yamamoto has also been criticized for endangering his precious carriers in the defense of such a small landing operation. However, neither the Japanese high command nor Yamamoto considered the retaking of Guadalcanal a small operation. Yamamoto loved to gambling and card games, especially bridge and poker, and was willing to take any risk he saw as calculated.
Yamamoto and Nagumo may have been calculating, but Fletcher was cautious. Even though he knew Ryujo’s position, he hesitated to order an attack against the carrier. He suspected that other enemy carriers were somewhere near Guadalcanal, even though he did not have any definite information. Fletcher had been at Coral Sea and remembered that Shoho had been used as a decoy. Finally, at 1:40 pm, he ordered an air strike launched from Saratoga including 30 Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers and eight Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.
Turning in Circles “Like a Waterbug”
By that time, Ryujo had sent an air strike of her own, six Nakajima Kate bombers escorted by 15 Mitsubishi Zero fighters, to bomb and strafe Henderson Field. They were supposed to have rendezvoused with 24 twin-engined Mitsubishi Betty medium bombers and 14 Zeros from Rabaul, but bad weather intervened and forced the land-based planes to return to base.