On 19 August, the Japanese launched a major ground attack against Henderson Field but failed to take it. The next day, Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka dispatched to Guadalcanal a convoy from Rabaul with 1,500 reinforcements, escorted by the light cruiser Jintsu and six destroyers. To provide air cover for the landing, Yamamoto ordered Admiral Kondo Nobutake to steam from Truk with a task force centered on the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the light cruiser Ryujo. Also on 20 August, the Marines at Henderson Field received 31 aircraft from the escort carrier Long Island.
Although the Japanese had changed their codes after Midway, their radio traffic indicated something was in the offing, and on 21 August, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific (CINCPAC), ordered Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher, commanding the Wasp, Saratoga, and Enterprise task forces, to contest the Japanese. On 22 August, U.S. patrol bomber (PBY) Catalina aircraft spotted Japanese submarines, prompting an air strike from the Saratoga, which failed to locate the Japanese fleet. The following day, Nimitz received faulty intelligence indicating that the Japanese attack force remained at Truk, and Fletcher released the Wasp to refuel.
On 24 August, a PBY spotted the Japanese light carrier Ryujo, and Scout Bomber Douglas (SBD) dive-bombers from the Enterprise reported 15 Zeros and six Kate torpedo planes from the carrier headed toward Guadalcanal. The Saratoga then launched a strike on the Ryujo. The American SBDs located the carrier and scored three hits, setting her on fire. During the attack, a PBY located the main Japanese task force, centered on the Shokaku and Zuikaku under Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi. Fletcher then ordered the planes attacking the Ryujo to strike instead the larger Japanese carriers, but this message never reached the attacking aircraft, which went on to sink the Ryujo. They also badly damaged the Japanese heavy cruiser Tone, a specially modified aircraft cruiser armed with 8 x 8-inch guns and carrying eight seaplanes.
Meanwhile, U.S. radar revealed the incoming strike of aircraft from the Shokaku and Zuikaku, heading toward the American carriers. The Enterprise and Saratoga were operating independently, and the Japanese first located the Enterprise, which launched its F-4 Wildcat fighters in defense. Soon, 30 Japanese Val dive-bombers began attacks on the Enterprise. Their bombs pierced her flight deck in three places, seriously damaging her. Fires soon raged below deck, and the crew of the Enterprise fought valiantly to save their ship. The Saratoga escaped, in part thanks to highly effective antiaircraft fire provided by the battleship North Carolina.
On 25 August, Tanaka's convoy bound for Guadalcanal came under attack by U.S. B-17 bombers from Espiritu Santo and aircraft from Henderson Field. U.S. dive-bombers scored two hits on one of the transports, which later sank. For the first time in the campaign, the B-17s also scored a hit on a Japanese escorting destroyer and sank it. The convoy, far from its objective and vulnerable, now returned to Rabaul.
The Battle of the Eastern Solomons was a U.S. victory, securing, for the time being, the American position on Guadalcanal. The Japanese lost 1 light carrier, 1 light cruiser, and 1 transport along with 75 aircraft, and the United States lost 25 planes. The Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor and was repaired within a month. Fletcher was slightly wounded, and Nimitz selected Vice Admiral William Halsey to replace him. One of the great "what-ifs" of the Pacific war involves Yamamoto's failure to employ the giant battleship Yamato off Guadalcanal. She was available, and her guns might have made a difference in the fight for Henderson Field, but Yamamoto was unwilling to risk such a powerful national symbol. Robert W. Serig
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New York: Penguin, 1990.; Griffith, Samuel B. The Battle for Guadalcanal. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963.; Hammel, Eric. Guadalcanal: The Carrier Battles. New York: Crown Publishers, 1987.; Merillat, Herbert C. Guadalcanal Remembered. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1982.
Robert W. Serig