With URR’s excellent weekend posts of covering the turning of the tide of the Solomon’s Campaign at the 1st and 2nd Naval Battles of Guadalcanal, let’s look at another grim moment in the campaign. This one took place three weeks prior, and at the time, was seen as a defeat. Indeed, the battle of Santa Cruz would set the stage that would lead to the November battles URR chronicled.
The pattern of the Solomons campaign was that surface warfare groups of destroyers and cruisers and occasionally battleships would operate daily (or rather, nightly) in the waters east of Guadalcanal, in the famed “Slot” of the Solomon Islands chain. Major operations, such as reinforcement convoys, either US or Japanese, would receive wide ranging support from carrier task forces attempting to provide air superiority. Intelligence services on both sides tended to note when such surges occurred, meaning that if our forces sortied carriers, the Japanese would surge theirs as well.
In late October 1942, while the issue ashore on Guadalcanal was very much in the balance, and the Japanese planned a major offensive by ground forces on the island to pierce the American lines. Supporting the operations ashore, the Japanese planned a major naval effort. The US Navy moved to counter this effort.
On 26 October, 1942, north of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Japanese and American carrier fleets would clash. During the battle, the USS Hornet, the newest carrier in the fleet, would be left a smouldering wreck, to be later sunk by Japanese destroyers.
One of the most amazing aspects of this battle was that the attack on Hornet was actually filmed by Navy combat camera crews.
The other US carrier, USS Enterprise, would be heavily damaged. Of the eight carriers the US Navy built before the war began, only three would survive the war. USS Saratoga, USS Ranger, and USS Enterprise. Ranger was in the Atlantic, readying for the invasion of North Africa, and Saratoga was in drydock for repairs after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in August. USS Enterprise, badly damaged in the Battle of Santa Cruz, was repaired in forward waters. For a brief time, the US simply had no available carriers.
But while the US was losing carriers at an appalling rate, they also had literally dozens of fleet and light carriers under production.
The US Navy grasped that, but that was cold comfort when the Japanese Navy still possessed a force of several excellent fleet carriers.
What the US Navy soon grasped though, was that the heart of Japanese Naval Aviation wasn’t the carriers, but the naval aviators. The US Navy had a stupendously large training establishment that would churn out thousands upon thousands of well trained aviators. The Japanese, on the other hand, had a small, elite cadre of exquisitely trained carrier pilots. Unfortunately for Japan, the sustained operations since Pearl Harbor, and the very heavy losses of the Battle of Santa Cruz had gutted the ranks of aviators. The remaining Japanese carriers simply had no one to fly from their decks.
The Japanese Navy would spend the next 18 months struggling to train aircrews for their carrier fleet. But lacking the investment in training resources the US could apply, they managed to produce numbers, but not quality.
The shortcomings of Japanese training would be apparent when, a year and a half later, the US invaded the Marianas. Officially the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot would see the results of 18 months of training utterly devastated by well trained US carrier air wings in possibly the greatest one sided aerial massacre of all time.
To this day, the US Navy spends a ridiculous amount on training its aviators. And it is worth every penny.