The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
Following the US Marine landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on August 7-8, 1942, and the shattering defeat of U.S. and Australian cruisers off Savo Island August 9, an uneasy parity existed in the eastern Solomons. Early each afternoon - "Tojo Time" the Marines called it - Japanese bombers from Rabaul raided the Marines' beachhead, and pounded the fledgling airstrip the Marines were struggling to clear on Guadalcanal. At night, enemy cruisers and destroyers regularly raced down "The Slot" - the narrow course from Rabaul southeast through the islands - to hammer away at the Marine positions, withdrawing before daybreak. Less frequently, Allied destroyer-transports would dash into Ironbottom Sound, delivering badly needed supplies and fuel to the 16,000 increasingly beleaguered Marines.
The ships of the "Tokyo Express" as Japan's raiders were called, enjoyed control of the waters north of Guadalcanal, but Enterprise, Saratoga and Wasp lurked to the southeast, waiting and watching for the inevitable Japanese drive to recover the two islands.
The Marine's toehold on Guadalcanal was intolerable for the Japanese. If the Allies were allowed to establish air bases in the eastern Solomons, the Japanese position at Rabaul would be directly threatened. And without control of the entire island chain, the Japanese were powerless to break the Allied supply line, stretching from Hawaii in the east, south through Samoa and the Fiji Islands, and westward to Brisbane, Australia.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, Prime Minister Tojo and Admiral Yamamoto issued orders aimed at wresting control of the Solomons away from the Allies for good. In Rabaul, it was decided to collect the 2500 man force then stationed at Guam, 3500 soldiers deployed at Palau and a 1000 Imperial Marines, and set them against Guadalcanal's defenders. (This speaks volumes about Japanese estimates of the Allied resolve to defend Guadalcanal: the defenders outnumbered attackers 5 to 4, a ratio which normally would practically guarantee the attack's failure.)
The first assault began the night of the 14th, as 500 men of the Special Naval Landing Force came ashore to the east of the Marines' nearly complete airfield. The next night, a 1000 more men landed west of the Marines' position. Their commanding officer, Colonel Kiyano Ichiki, wasted no time declaring the "invasion" a success, and immediately set about executing a pincer movement to grab the airstrip.
Success was short-lived, however. Patrols detected the Japanese approaching through the jungles, and on the 19th and 20th the Marines mauled the outnumbered and outgunned invaders, suffering relatively few casualties - 35 Marines killed - in return. This Battle of Tenura River stunned the Japanese high command, still convinced of its own invincibility. Clearly a more concerted effort was required to dislodge the Marines. But with the completion of the Henderson Field (named after Major Lofton Henderson, a Marine pilot killed at Midway), the U.S. now challenged Japan's operational control of the air over the Solomons.
At Rabaul, more soldiers embarked on transports, casting off on the 20th for Guadalcanal. From the Truk anchorage to the north, Shokaku and Zuikaku - fleet carriers, veterans of Pearl Harbor - sortied southwards. A hundred miles ahead sailed Ryujo, a light carrier, tasked with covering the Japanese transports' approach and softening US positions on Guadalcanal and Tulagi.
Yamamoto's Operation KA - the plan which precipitated the Eastern Solomons battle - had two objectives: to achieve the crushing victory over the American carriers which had escaped him at Midway, and to support the landing of the 3000 men being transported from Rabaul to Guadalcanal. Like the Midway strategy, KA was compromised by being saddled with too many objectives, to be carried out by forces spread across too wide an area.
American intelligence, although struggling with a ten-day backlog of Japanese naval messages, issued an Intelligence Summary on August 21, predicting that a large Japanese force "although still apparently in Empire waters will definitely go south, if not already under way in that direction". Despite the troublesome delays in decrypting Japan's message traffic, the summary was dead on: the Combined Fleet had sortied from Truk on the 21st, the same day the transports and their escorts departed Rabaul.
Nimitz wasted no time acting on this information, ordering Ghormley that same day to concentrate his forces off the Solomon Islands. The following day, Ghormley ordered Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher to send his three task forces north to meet the expected Japanese challenge. Along with the Wasp and Saratoga task forces, Enterprise and her escorts steamed north, watchfully awaiting signs of the enemy's approach.
Shortly before 1100 on the 22 August, an unidentified aircraft appeared on Enterprise's radar, 55 miles southwest of the ship. Although static and communications problems delayed the response, eventually a division of four Wildcats was directed towards the intruder. They encountered a Kawanishi flying boat, a lumbering, four-engine scouting plane: in short order it was driven into the sea in flames.
Early the next morning, as both ships and planes patrolled hostile waters north of the Solomons chain, Enterprise scouts sighted two Japanese subs hurrying south, presaging the approach of powerful enemy surface forces. A few hours later, Navy PBY Catalinas found the Japanese transport convoy east of Bougainville Island (about halfway between Rabaul and Guadalcanal). A strike launched by Saratoga that afternoon failed to find the convoy, which had turned north after being sighted. Forty five minutes later, another Enterprise patrol spotted another Japanese sub on the surface, proceeding south at high speed. The sub was attacked and likely destroyed.
The afternoon of 23 August, CINCPAC intelligence seemed to reverse its earlier assessment, advising that the main Japanese force was still at Truk. Admiral Fletcher, concerned by his ships' fuel situation as action with the enemy neared, decided to take advantage of the "delay", and ordered Wasp and her Task Force 18 south for the oilers. It was a decision he'd soon regret.