OUR AIR GROUPS ATTACK
0830 Hornet launches first attack wave. 0900 Enterprise launches attack group. 0915 Hornet launches second attack wave. 0930 Enterprise torpedo planes surprised by Zeros. 1040 Enterprise scout bombers attack Kongo class BB of Enemy Task Force No. 1. Scout bombers of Hornet's second wave score four 1,000-pound bomb hits on CA Chikuma of Tone class. Torpedo planes of same group make five 500-pound hits on another Tone class CA and one 500-pound hit on a CL or large DD. 1050 Scout bombers of Hornet's first wave register four to six 1,000-pound bomb hits on CV Shokaku. VT's of same group make three probable torpedo hits on CA Myoko, a Nachi class cruiser.
Upon receipt of the search planes' report of contact with enemy carriers, Admiral Kinkaid ordered an attack group launched to strike the Shokaku and what was thought to be the Zuikaku, now steaming about 210 miles to the northwest of Task Force KING. Beginning at 0830, the Hornet launched two waves of planes. The first consisted of 15 SBD-3's of Bombing Squadron EIGHT and Scouting Squadron EIGHT, 6 TBF-1's of Torpedo Squadron SIX, and 8 F4F-4's of Fighting Squadron 72.
The second Hornet wave, which began taking off at 0915, was made up of 9 SBD-3's and 9 TBF-1's, with 7 F4F-4's as escorts. The Group Commander, Comdr. Walter F. Rodee, took off with this flight in a TBF.
In the meantime, at 0900, the Enterprise began launching 3 SBD-3's of Bombing Squadron TEN, 8 TBF-1's of Torpedo Squadron TEN, and 8 F4F-4's of Fighting Squadron TEN. Lt. Comdr. Richard K. Gaines, the Enterprise Air Group Commander, also took off with this flight in a TBF.14
In order to save time and fuel, each of the three waves of planes proceeded toward the target independently. Thus, while the course of all planes was approximately 304° T., the attack group was strung out through several miles. At 0920 the first Hornet wave, which was in the lead, had progressed about 60 miles from the Task Force. The Enterprise aircraft were slightly behind to starboard, with 4 fighters on either bow about 1,000 feet above. Suddenly, without warning, about 12 Type 2
Zeros attacked the Enterprise planes, from out of the sun.15 Several Zeros engaged the 4 fighters on the right flank. Our four fighters never recovered from the initial disadvantage at which they found themselves, although they managed to account for at least two Zeros. Only one of our pilots, Ens. Willis B. Reding, returned. His plane was badly shot up, with the guns and radio out of commission. Lt. (ig) John A. Leppla, Ens. Albert E. Mead, and Ens. Raleigh E. Rhodes were shot down.
The pilots of the four fighters on the left flank, who were executing a weaving turn, did not observe the enemy attack until it was well under way. When the leader, Lt. Comdr. James H. Flatley, became aware of the situation, he saw a Zero preparing to make a run on the torpedo planes from below and ahead. He immediately led his group in an attack which destroyed the enemy.
The torpedo planes, however, fared badly. Lt. Comdr. James D. Collett, the Squadron Commander, was shot down in flames almost at once. Two other planes, piloted by Lieut. Marvin D. Norton and Lt. (jg) Richard K. Batten, also were lost,16 and a fourth was forced to turn back soon afterward because of engine trouble. Torpedo plane gunners claimed three Zeros.
Pilots of both the first and second Hornet waves observed the attack by enemy fighters but did not deviate from course. Torpedo planes of the latter group literally flew through the center of the melee. About 24 Japanese bombers and torpedo planes were seen in the vicinity of the dogfight, and several of our pilots reported their position and course to our fleet. Although no reply was heard, the carriers received the warnings.
First "Hornet" wave.
When the brief air skirmish was over, our striking group, which had lost 8 planes, became further disorganized. The Hornet's first wave split in two, with the dive bombers climbing to about 17,000 feet and the torpedo bombers remaining at about 800 feet. Four fighters accompanied each section.
The 15 dive bombers, slightly in the lead, sighted several enemy ships. At 1015, about 150 miles out, they noted 2 heavy cruisers and several
destroyers to starboard.17 Some 20 miles farther on they saw Enemy Task Force No. 1, now consisting of 2 battleships, 1 heavy cruiser, 1 light cruiser, and 7 destroyers. This group was to their left. Over the force were 9 Zeros which attacked the dive bombers and were promptly engaged by their covering fighters and by those accompanying our torpedo bombers. In the ensuing dogfight we lost 2 fighters piloted by Lieuts. Thomas C. Johnson and John C. Bower. Our bombers proceeeded without escort.
The dive bombers flew on for about 15 minutes and at 1030 sighted an enemy formation of one large carrier, one converted carrier, one light cruiser, and four destroyers. The smaller carrier, which, as has been pointed out, was probably the Zuiho, was smoking, so the bombers deployed for an attack on the other (the Shokaku). At this juncture they were intercepted by a large number of Zeros. Lt. Comdr. William J. Widhelm, leader of the first Hornet wave, was shot down a short distance from the Japanese carriers.18 Soon afterward, Lt. (jg) Philip F. Grant was shot down. Two other pilots had to turn back because of wounds or damage.19 By maintaining a tight formation and turning no farther into the attacking Zeros than was necessary to permit their free guns to bear, the remaining 11 SBD's reached their push-over point after a running fight which lasted 10 minutes or more. Though the Zeros followed the bombers down in their dives, attacking before and after the pull-out, and in spite of heavy antiaircraft fire, our bombers scored at least four 1,000-pound bomb hits on the Shokaku.20 The enemy carrier was badly damaged and probably retired to the northward soon thereafter, possibly under tow.
The SBD's were attacked by Zeros for several minutes after they had dived on the Shokaku, but escaped further damage by a quick rendezvous and close-up. Fire from their fixed and free guns was reported to have accounted for approximately 15 Zeros.
Upon sighting the enemy carriers, Lt. Comdr. Widhelm had repeatedly broadcast their position. The Enterprise flight leaders heard him, but
those, in the second Hornet wave did not. The 6 torpedo bombers in the Hornet's first wave also failed to get the information.
The TBF's had continued their low approach unmolested. However, they lost sight of the dive bombers after observing them under attack by Zeros, and upon reaching the end of their leg at 1015 sighted several cruisers and destroyers but no carriers.21 Lieut Edwin B. Parker, Jr., leading the flight of torpedo planes reported that after sighting the cruisers and destroyers he "scouted an area 50 miles to the north and west. Upon failure to locate the enemy carriers, I led my division back to the vicinity of the enemy cruisers and destroyers, searching an area of rain squalls that extended for 30 miles. Since I sighted no better target and because I was unable to establish radio communication with anyone who might have sighted a carrier, I proceeded to lead my 6 torpedo planes in an attack on a Nachi class heavy cruiser."
Active antiaircraft opposition was encountered, but our planes gained an attack position with three planes deployed on either side of the cruiser's bow. Three torpedo hits were probably scored, two on the port side and one on the starboard side, but the Nachi does not appear to have been seriously crippled.
The dive bombers and torpedo planes of the Hornet's first wave returned independently. On the way back each type fell in with several of the escort fighters from which they had become separated in the dogfight going out.
The six torpedo planes reached the Hornet at 1155, found her dead in the water, and were directed to the Enterprise by the Northampton. They arrived in the vicinity of the Enterprise at 1205 and were circling to land when an enemy air attack materialized. They flew clear, but one plane then disappeared and two others made forced landings when their fuel ran out. The remaining three were safely taken aboard the Enterprise.
The 11 dive bombers returned somewhat later and were handled by the Enterprise without incident.
The "Enterprise" wave
After the surprise attack by Zeros which cost them 8 planes, the Enterprise wave not only had lost contact with the first Hornet wave but also was disorganized within itself. The remaining 4 fighters stayed with
the 4 surviving torpedo bombers. The 3 dive bombers proceeded independently on a westerly course until they sighted Enemy Task Force No. 1, identified as 2 Kongo class battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, and 10 destroyers, on course 350°, speed 30 knots. At 12,000 feet the planes pushed over. Lt. (jg) John F. Richey made a near-hit with a 1,000-pound bomb on the starboard bow of one of the battleships. Ens. C. B. Irvine scored a direct hit on No. 2 turret. Lt. (jg) C. G. Estes made a direct hit on the starboard side amidships. There was no antiaircraft fire until after the pull-out. The 3 planes rendezvoused, whereupon Zeros appeared and made one pass. One of them was shot down by the combined fire of all free guns. All 3 United States planes returned safely to the Enterprise.
About 1040 the Enterprise torpedo bombers and fighters sighted the same enemy force, which was identified as 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, what was possibly a third heavy cruiser, 2 light cruisers, and 3 or 4 destroyers.22 Twenty minutes earlier these planes had intercepted Lt. Comdr. Widhelm's broadcast concerning the Japanese carriers. Now, since the force sighted contained no carriers, Lieut. MacDonald Thompson, leader of the TBF's, asked the fighters if they were able to fly 90 miles farther to the reported location of the flat-tops. Lt. Comdr. Flatley, having exhausted excessive fuel in combat, replied in the negative. Accordingly, at 1045, the TBF"s descended rapidly from 6,000 feet through the clouds and launched an attack on a heavy cruiser of the Atago class. The enemy ship turned sharply to the right while throwing up considerable antiaircraft fire which was either below or behind. All our planes made their runs from the port side. One pilot found it impossible to drop his torpedo. Another, Lt. (jg) Raymond G. Wyllie, could not drop on the first run but succeeded in releasing on a second approach. No hits were observed.
The 4 fighters strafed the cruiser during the torpedo attack to divert her fire, perhaps causing some casualties.
No air opposition was encountered. The TBF's returned to the Enterprise at 1425. Two landed aboard, but the other 2 ran out of gas over the Task Force and made water landings. The 4 fighters reached the Enterprise somewhat earlier to find her under attack. While circling clear they were attacked by 3 Zeros. Being low on gas and ammunition
Destroyer removing wounded personnel
Hornet under tow by Northampton
Enemy plane drops torpedo
our planes took avoiding action. When they finally got aboard, none had more than 18 gallons of fuel.
Second "Hornet" wave
As has been noted, planes of the second Hornet wave saw the Zeros attacking the Enterprise torpedo and fighter planes. While watching the dogfight, the Hornet aircraft observed a flight of about 25 Japanese planes with 12 escorting Zeros. The enemy formation was headed on an opposite course at about 16,000 feet, with escorts at 20,000 feet. This was reported to the Task Force, but no acknowledgment was received.
The nine dive bombers of the second Hornet wave, which had taken off before the nine torpedo planes, were overtaken by the latter and by Comdr. Rodee at 1000. About this time snatches of radio conversation were overheard which gave the false impression that Lt. Comdr. Widhelm's flight had failed to locate the enemy carriers.23
The second Hornet wave proceeded out to the end of its leg and observed "a group of enemy cruisers and destroyers." (One pilot described the enemy formation thus: "At 160 miles out an enemy DD was sighted, followed at a great distance by a CA and other forces all strung out heading toward our force.") This again was presumably the section of Enemy Task Force No. 2 which was perhaps screening the Zuikaku's retirement.
After scouting to the north and west beyond this line of ships and finding nothing, our planes concluded that the enemy carriers were out of range. The leader of the dive bombers, Lieut. John J. Lynch, thereupon called the Group Commander and stated that unless otherwise directed he would attack a heavy cruiser of the Tone class which was throwing up considerable antiaircraft fire.
Receiving no reply, Lieut. Lynch pushed over at 1040 and led an attack from 11,500 feet. Four certain and one probable 1,000-pound hits were made on the selected cruiser, which was later identified as the Chikuma. Flames and smoke blanketed the target, but she continued to steam at reduced speed. As the dive bombers retired to the east, the Chikuma was rocked by a heavy explosion.
During their return the SBD's encountered 8 enemy planes, in pairs, on opposite course. Attempts to make runs on them were futile because
the Japanese resorted to superior speed and fled each time our aircraft began such a maneuver. The dive bombers reached the Hornet at 1225, found her dead in the water, and proceeded to the Enterprise. They had just started to circle for a landing when an enemy attack developed. The SBD's moved out of antiaircraft range, and several of them attacked enemy planes, reporting three bombers and one torpedo plane probably shot down. All 9 SBD's got aboard the Enterprise about 1330.
The TBF's saw the SBD's attack the Chikuma but elected to search farther, although they, too, were not very hopeful of finding the Japanesc carriers. While flying over and around the long line of enemy ships, they were subjected to heavy but ineffective antiaircraft fire.
Just beyond the enemy formation, the torpedo planes encountered "a large group of Zeros at our altitude." However, only one enemy fighter attempted to attack, making two opposite-course runs which took him right through our formation. After this the Zeros disappeared.
Ten-minute searches to the north and northwest disclosed nothing further. The TBF's returned to the force previously sighted, singled out a sister ship of the Chikuma (Tone class), and attacked with their 500-pound bombs, of which each plane carried four. Several pilots experienced mechanical difficulties and were able to drop their bombs in salvo only. Consequently, with the exception of one plane, only the one attack was delivered, which scored five hits.24 The exception was Lt. (jg) Humphrey L. Tallman, who, after unsuccessfully attacking the heavy cruiser, dived on a destroyer without results and eventually obtained a direct hit on the fantail of an unidentified light cruiser or large destroyer.
On returning to the Hornet at 1210, these aircraft also were directed to the Enterprise because of their own carrier's condition. They found the Enterprise under attack and had to stay clear until the enemy planes had left. Lieut. Ward F. Powell, leader of the flight, landed first at 1420. Three other pilots also got aboard, but the remaining three made water landings after exhausing their fuel.25
Little information has been discovered regarding the activities of the seven fighters which served as escorts for the second Hornet wave. According to Lt. Comdr. Flatley's report, they "joined up on the rendevoused attack group and returned to the Hornet. Upon return to this
[Enterprise] area the VF aircraft augumented the Combat Air Patrol and succeeded in shooting down several planes."
14 Lt. Comdr. James A. Thomas, leader of VB-10, was to have taken off around 1100 with an attack group tentatively including nine other SBD-3's of that squadron, but the enemy attack forestalled their departure.
15 The Zeros obviously were part of the enemy attack group which hit the Hornet several minutes later.
16 Norton and Batten, with their crews, were rescued by destroyers.
17 This group perhaps was covering the Zuikaku which was presumably retiring to the northwest after launching her planes. See chart, p. 28.
18 Lt. Comdr. Widhelm and his gunner were rescued from their rubber raft by a PBY 3 days later.
19 Lt. (jg) Kenneth B. White, shot through the hand and shoulder, reached the Enterprise despite the fact that his left aileron had been torn off. Lt. (jg) Clayton E. Fisher made a forced landing in the water.
20 Lieut. James E. Vosc, Jr., who led the SBD's after Lt. Comdr. Widhelm was shot down, observed four hits. Lt. Comdr. Widhelm reported six hits.
21 In all probability these cruisers and destroyers were the ones sighted by the SBD's on their starboard hand which were perhaps covering the Zuikaku's retirement.
22 This was the description given by the leader of the TBF's. The leader of the fighters reported "2 battleships, 3 or 4 heavy cruisers, and several destroyers."
23 One pilot reported overhearing this radio remark addressed to Lt. Comdr. Widhelm: "No carriers in sight out here; let's return."
24 Two amidships to starboard, one on the fantail, one on the stacks, one abaft the stacks to port. Presumably this cruiser was the Tone, since there are only 2 ships listed in the class.
25 The report by Commander Hornet Air Group was not available when this was written. It is assumed that he was able to land on the Enterprise.
Last updated: June 29, 2003Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation