Pacific War timeline, with POD set in October 1942: Japanese carriers establish naval supremacy around Guadalcanal.
By October 1942, the 1st Marine Division, supported by the fleet of the United States Navy, had secured a large portion of the island of Guadalcanal, including the strategic airbase at Lunga Point known as Henderson Field. But Japanese Army and Navy units were putting the Americans under constant stress, and disease was taking its toll upon the Marines. During August 1942, in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, an American carrier task force led by Vice Admiral Jack Fletcher repulsed a Japanese attack led by Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto. On the ground, Major General Kiyo Kawaguchi’s attack in September at the Battle of Bloody Ridge ended in disaster.
Japanese brass planned another attempt to knock the Americans off of Guadalcanal, involving a land offensive and a sea attack simultaneously. The ground attack, led by Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakatuke, failed in its main objectives. However, the naval attack plan went ahead.
Yamamoto had five aircraft carriers at his disposal: the Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Zuihō, Hiyō, and Junyō. Many surface ships had also been amassed. With a combined total of over two hundred aircraft, many of which were crewed by the most highly trained and experienced aviators in the Japanese Empire, the task force seemed very capable.
Yamamoto, for the first time in many months, felt optimistic. The Americans only had two aircraft carriers in the area. The American forces on Guadalcanal were wearing thin. If Yamamoto could eliminate American naval forces and bombard Henderson Field, transport ships could safely pass through “The Slot” in the Solomon Islands and reach Guadalcanal with fresh soldiers, supplies, and equipment, enabling the Japanese Army to start a renewed offensive. Moreover, if the American carriers were put out of action, Guadalcanal could be isolated and blockaded.
The battle plan was as follows. Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo would act as the overall leader of the entire task force in addition to commanding the “Advanced” force consisting of the Junyō, two battleships, four heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and ten destroyers. Rear Admiral Hiroake Abe’s “Vanguard” force included two battleships, three heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and seven destroyers. The bulk of the striking power would be contained in the “Main Body” force, with the Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Zuihō, a heavy cruiser, and eight destroyers commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. (Hiyō had been damaged in an accident and was under repair at Truk.) The ships would proceed southeast until they could engage the American fleet operating in the area.
Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, meanwhile, commanded the carriers USS Hornet and USS Enterprise along with one battleship, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and fourteen destroyers. On October 25, a PBY Catalina flying boat sighted the Japanese fleet. Kinkaid hurriedly launched a strike force of twenty-three aircraft, but the Japanese knew they had been sited and quickly reversed direction to evade the strike.
Then at 06:45 the next day, an American scout aircraft sited the aircraft carriers of the Japanese fleet. The radio operator quickly tried to send a report to the American fleet, but the radio did not work. After several minutes of frustration, the pilot resigned to fly back to the fleet.
Then at 06:58, a Japanese scout aircraft located the Hornet and successfully relayed its coordinates. Immediately, Kondo authorized a strike. By 07:40, 64 Japanese aircraft from the three Main Body carriers were in the air.
Simultaneously, Kondo ordered the Vanguard force, as well as his own Advanced force, to move ahead at full speed towards Kinkaid’s ships. The Junyō, Shōkaku, and Zuikaku later launched additional aircraft.
It was not until 07:49 that a second American scout aircraft sighted the Japanese fleet. Since the aircraft arrived in between the first and second waves, the Americans had no indication that the Japanese were launching aircraft. Kinkaid ordered the Hornet and Enterprise to launch their aircraft.
At 08:52, the Japanese air commander sighted the Hornet and began preparing his flight for an attack. It was not until 08:55 that the Americans spotted the incoming attackers and vectored all nearby F4Fs on combat air patrol (CAP) against the Japanese. However, faulty communications and mistakes muddled the defense efforts. Several Wildcats managed to reach the dive bomber formation and shot down several, but the majority of the Japanese aircraft were unharmed.
It was at this point that the Japanese pilots realized that they had caught the Americans in the act of launching their own strike force.
The Japanese air commander could not believe his good luck. He immediately ordered fourteen Zeros to attack the climbing American aircraft. The Japanese fighters swooped in and began tearing apart the formation of low, slow American aircraft with cannon fire. The remaining aircraft attempted to get off of the Hornet as quickly as they could, but wreckage on the deck impeded takeoff operations.
The one-sided dogfight that was developing around the Hornet interfered with the planned dive bombing attack, so it was not until 09:14 that the 18 D3A “Val” dive bombers nosed down over the Hornet. At 09:16, a 250kg semi-armor piercing bomb struck the Hornet amidships, penetrating three decks before exploding. Moments later, a second Val planted another bomb near the stern. At 09:19, the Hornet was hit a third time. Fire and smoke billowed into the sky.
Meanwhile, torpedo bombers began to make their run. At 09:14 and again at 09:18, the Hornet was torpedoed and subsequently lost power. With fuel and ammunition causing secondary explosions, the Hornet was dead in the water.
Meanwhile, the American strike force had suffered heavy losses. Out of the original 29 aircraft, 15, including the aircraft of Commander R. Eaton, were shot down. The Japanese lost eight Zeros and three Vals. As the Japanese aircraft began returning to their carriers, they spotted the Enterprise, so the next wave of Japanese aircraft attacked the Enterprise.
The American aircraft from Enterprise, comprising 18 aircraft, were unable to locate the Japanese carriers. Instead, they moved to attack the heavy cruiser Chikuma and scored one bomb and one torpedo hit. They were also intercepted by Japanese fighters, however, and six American aircraft were destroyed for the loss of five Zeros.
The few surviving aircraft from the Hornet were more successful, however, and a formation of dive bombers managed to reach the Shōkaku relatively unmolested while the fighters and torpedo bombers were engaged by the Zeros on BARCAP. Only one bomb hit the Shōkaku, but it penetrated two decks and caused 81 casualties. Another bomb hit the water very close to the hull, causing additional damage.
After the Japanese aircraft departed, Kinkaid decided to withdraw his fleet, as both of his carriers were damaged and incapable of mounting large-scale air operations. He also believed that the Japanese had two to three undamaged carriers in the area. At about 09:13, the Junyo and the Zuiho launched 19 Zeros and 25 Vals towards Kinkaid’s fleet. They then scored a hit each on the Enterprise, the battleship South Dakota and the light cruiser San Juan. The Japanese also dropped two bombs very close to the Enterprise, causing further damage. The Enterprise caught fire, and several secondary explosions worsened the situation.
By this time the Enterprise was too damaged to keep up with the fleet, and the Hornet was so severely battered that she had to be towed by the cruiser Northampton. At 15:20, more aircraft from the Junyō arrived, and strikes from the Zuikaku and Zuiho soon followed. By 16:19, the Hornet had been abandoned, and the Enterprise was dead in the water. Kinkaid, aware that more Japanese strikes were probably on their way, ordered his remaining ships to depart and scuttled the Enterprise. The Japanese launched several more strikes, but none managed to reach the American ships. The Chikuma left for Truk for repairs while the Shōkaku, Zuikaku and Hiyō had to leave for Japan for repairs as well as to training and delivering more planes and aircrew, while the bulk of the remaining Japanese fleet returned to Rabaul to refuel.
Overall, the Japanese suffered one carrier and one heavy cruiser damaged, but the Americans lost two carriers, while a battleship, a light cruiser, and two destroyers also suffered damage.