Battle of Santa Cruz Islands

26 October 1942

Tone-class cruiser in Battle of Santa Cruz


Chart: Battle of Santa Cruz Islands



Enemy naval losses in the Battle of Cape Esperance on the night of 11 October appeared to have been the heaviest since Midway. Indeed, it might reasonably have been anticipated that the Japanese High Command would pause to resurvey the situation in the South Pacific before committing itself to further attempts to recapture Guadalcanal.

As it turned out, the lull lasted only 48 hours, during which some 6,000 United States Army troops were landed without opposition. From that time until 26 October, enemy land, air, and sea power made strenuous efforts to cut our communications and to put Henderson Field out of commission so that contemplated full-scale amphibious operations would not face land-based air opposition. In the final stage of neutralization, the Japanese expected their ground troops to capture the field, making it available as a staging point for the carrier planes which would support the final mopping up of our forces.

The initial phase of this plan enjoyed a measure of success. The drive to take Henderson Field, however, ended in bloody failure. With it, as a sort of by-product, came the carrier action known as the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands.

First evidence that the enemy's determination had not been shaken came shortly before midnight on 13 October, when a Japanese force of two battleships, one light cruiser, and eight destroyers began a furious bombardment of Henderson Field which lasted an hour and 20 minutes. Casualties to personnel were light, but most of our planes were destroyed. The next night, cruisers and destroyers again shelled the field, and in the morning only one dive bomber was able to take to the air to oppose a Japanese landing being made from six transports west of Kokumbona. Other dive bombers were flown in from Espiritu Santo, and with the help of Army B-17's they destroyed at least three of the transports, set


others afire, and damaged a heavy cruiser which, with two light cruisers and four destroyers, was acting as screen. Nevertheless, considerable equipment and about 10,000 enemy troops had been put ashore.1 Another bombardment took place that night, and air raids occurred almost daily. Under cover of darkness, smaller hostile units and additional supplies were debarked, and the strengthened Japanese ground forces began intensive probings of our positions along the Matanikau river, where we had established our western line in anticipation of a general enemy offensive.

Simultaneously with the beginning of Japanese pressure on Guadalcanal, large numbers of merchant and combat vessels assembled in the Upper Solomons-New Britain area. At the same time troops and aircraft began a steady procession from the Netherlands Indies, the Philippines, and other strongholds toward the vicinity of the impending conflict.

A growing number of enemy submarines began to harry our Espiritu Santo-Guadalcanal supply line. On 20 October, one of them torpedoed the heavy cruiser Chester, inflicting extensive damage. On the 15th, planes from the converted carriers Hitaka and Hayataka attacked a convoy en route to Guadalcanal, sinking the destroyer Meredith.

Estimating the situation as the third week of October opened, CINCPAC concluded that the enemy intended to launch simultaneous land and sea attacks, sending in carrier planes to support his gains. Available carriers and battleships were expected to attempt to contain or destroy any surface forces which we might send to intervene. It was anticipated that 23 October would be the Japanese "zero day." As it developed, zero day" was apparently postponed repeatedly because the Japanese were unable to maintain a breach in the Marine defenses and thus did not reach their Henderson Field objective.


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1 Estimated as 16,000 by General Vandegrift.

Last updated: June 28, 2003

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation