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The Battle of the Eastern Solomons


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Enaris #1 Posted 28 August 2012 - 12:16 AM

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I realized today that we missed something this last weekend.  The 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (Aug 24, 1942).

I'm not about to try to write a full history of the battle, but thought I'd throw this out as an interesting discussion starter.

Strategic Setting: In an odd way, one part of the story of the Eastern Solomons began in the deserts of North Africa.  With the European War having gone on for nearly three years, the Commonwealth was already heavily committed to action in the ETO.  One important part of that was that many of the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand had already gone to Europe.  With the beginning of the Pacific War, the United States agreed to shoulder a large part of the load in defending Australia and New Zealand, so that the forces of those nations could remain in North Africa.

One of the keys to the defense of Australia was getting supplies there.  Because of the Japanese bases in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands, any troops, war material or supplies that went to Australia already had to make a deep "dog leg" past American Samoa, before turning to approach Australia from the East.

This was important because Japanese bases in the Eastern Solomon Islands (or even worse, in the French colonies in New Caledonia) would threaten that already touchy supply line.  At the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8), the Japanese had put a small seaplane base off the island of Tulagi.  However, they also planned to put a full airfield on the nearby island of Guadalcanal.

After the Battle of Midway, the United States had their first opportunity to take the Strategic Initiative in the Pacific.  When intel reports came in of the Japanese work on a base at Guadalcanal, the decision was made to take the Island before the Japanese could complete the work.

To say that the invasion of Guadalcanal was on a shoestring would be a fairly major understatement.  The United States was still in the early stages of the military buildup which would drive the Japanese from the Pacific.

In any case, on August 7, the American forces landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi, quickly taking the latter island.  However, the invasion of Guadalcanal grabbed the area around the half finished Japanese airbase (which was renamed Henderson Field, after the Marine Air Group commander at Midway).  The Japanese launched a major aerial counterattack from their base at Rabaul. Likewise, a Japanese Cruiser Squadron sailed towards Guadalcanal and won the Battle of Savo Island.  However, while they did manage to cause some losses to the invasion fleet, it was going to take ground troops to drive the Americans off the island.

By late August, the Japanese were ready to try to land the reinforcements they confidently expected to crush the invasion.  They had decided to have their Carrier Fleet drive off the US naval forces and neutralize Henderson Field, to allow the reinforcements to land on the Island.

Balance of Forces
Much like Coral Sea and Midway, this was shaping up to be a Carrier Battle.  While both sides had a number of surface ships, the carriers were the key.

The United States had three aircraft carriers in the vicinity.  The Enterprise, Saratoga and Wasp.  However, the carriers had been on station for an extended period, and the US commander (Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher) was concerned about their fuel status.  Thus, the day before the battle, he detached the Wasp and her escorts to refuel further south.  Thus, the US entered the battle with the two fleet carriers.  Likewise, they had a few aircraft at Henderson Field, as well as some long range PBY Catalina scout bombers based at Ndeni.

The Japanese also had three Carriers.  The Shokaku,Zuikaku and the light carrier Ryujo (which was operating independently).  They did have land based air units at Rabaul, but they did not have the range to attack much past Guadalcanal.

The Action:
The Japanese forces approached the Solomon Islands from the north.  In the meantime, the US carriers were ESE of the Solomon Islands.

The first action of the day was an attack from the Ryujo on Henderson  Field.  As the Ryujo didn't have a large air group, this attack was largely unsuccessful, the Cactus Air Force able to inflict signifigant losses on the Japanese Air Group.

The US forces were hampered all day long by major communications glitches.  The seaplane tender USS Mackinac was at Ndeni, and got spotting reports from her aircraft.  However, it literally took hours for those spotting reports to get to Fletcher.  Thus, he lacked timely information on the Japanese positions.  However, Fletcher did have a solid spotting on the Ryujo group.  Fletcher, mindful of how he had attacked the wrong target at Coral Sea (the Shojo, as opposed to the Fleet Carriers) delayed sending a strike at the light carrier.  However, as the day went on without firm sighting reports on the Japanese fleet, he did eventually launch a strike on the exposed light carrier, which ended up sinking her.

On the other hand, the Japanese did have a firm spotting report on the US carriers, and at about 4:30 in the afternoon, the Japanese Strike hit the Enterprise.  Three Dive Bombers scored hits, leaving the Enterprise burning and unable to operate aircraft.

As the battle was so late in the day, the Japanese were unable to launch a followup strike. That night, both sides withdrew (the Japanese withdrew because of serious air group losses).

The next day, the Japanese did try to bring reinforcements to the island, only to find out that the air group on Guadalcanal was still capable of making itself felt.

Final Analysis:
Of the major Carrier Battles of the War, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons seems to be the "least important".  The only carrier lost was the light carrier Ryujo.  However, the first Japanese attempt to gain sea superiority in the Solomon Islands had been turned back.  The US would continue to be able to resupply the Marines on the Island.  In the meantime, the Japanese started using destroyers as fast transports to send supplies and reinforcements to the Island.  There were still major battles to be fought (including another major carrier battle, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands), but by keeping the invasion of Guadalcanal on track, the United States won.

Enaris #2 Posted 28 August 2012 - 12:26 AM

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Oh, may as well throw out the must have books for this battle. (Note, any inaccuracies in the above are all mine. I didn't take the time to get them out when I wrote this. That's one reason it's short on operational details.  It's meant as a discussion starter, not a discussion ender after all).

Carrier Clash by Eric Hammel.  Interesting,but the weakest of the  books I'll be listing to my own mind.  It does have an interesting discussion about the initial Japanese air attack on the day of the invasion.

Guadalcanal by Richard Frank  An absolute must. Covers both the land and naval aspects of the campaign.

Black Shoe Carrier Admiral by John Lundford.  This is a "command biography" of Admiral Fletcher, and gives excellent detail on the battle, as well as the kind of thought processes that Fletcher went through at the battle.

First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign  also by Lundford.

Neptune's Inferno by James Hornfischer.  I've heard good things about this book, but I haven't had time to read it yet. (I've got other projects going in my life, so my ability to read many naval books is limited)

Ariecho #3 Posted 28 August 2012 - 12:35 AM

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Good job!  I started writing about it, as I had it covered in my weekly "naval history" thread but I never found the time to finish it.


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Jumarka #4 Posted 28 August 2012 - 02:43 AM

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Very nice article.
The airgroup losses of the japanese carrier force would be a major point scored for the US for the next battles.
Japan lost many good pilots that would never recover, while the US Navy was starting to go foward on all the fields.
"Tickle us, do we not laugh? Prick us, do we not bleed? Wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

Around 23:53, KIRISHIMA and ATAGO illuminate SOUTH DAKOTA with their searchlights and then open fire, followed by TAKAO. Within the next few minutes KIRISHIMA fires a total of 117 14-inch shells (68 Type 3 incendiaries, 22 Type 0 Common and 27 Type 1 APC), scoring multiple hits with secondary and main guns. One Type 1 APC explodes against SOUTH DAKOTA's No. 3 turret's barbette.

Enaris #5 Posted 28 August 2012 - 02:49 AM

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View PostJumarka, on 28 August 2012 - 02:43 AM, said:

Very nice article.
The airgroup losses of the japanese carrier force would be a major point scored for the US for the next battles.
Japan lost many good pilots that would never recover, while the US Navy was starting to go foward on all the fields.

That was an enormous issue in the entire Solomons campaign (and really, the entire war).  The  prewar Japanese pilot training methods were slow and intense.  They trained good pilots, but not many of them, and not nearly quickly enough for wartime.  They did eventually begin to speed up the pipeline, but likely swung too far in the opposite direction.  Further, the fact that they didn't rotate pilots home kept them from teaching the knowledge of those experienced pilots.

It was really a long trainwreck of things.  The light construction of Japanese planes meant they had a higher rate of pilot losses.  Then, they lost lots of pilots because of the long (400ish miles) from Rabaul to Guadalcanal.  That's a long return flight if damaged or wounded.  The epic flight of Saburo Sakai from Guadalcanal to Rabaul after getting ripped up by the tail gunners of a TBF flight was incredible (especially when he lost an eye along the way).

Edited by Enaris, 28 August 2012 - 03:14 AM.


Jumarka #6 Posted 28 August 2012 - 02:59 AM

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The epic flight of Saburo Sakai! Yes, he lost an eye, a lot of blood, and still managed to make safely to Rabaul land his Zero and report to his superior officer before colapsing.
Both a miracle and a test of streng and determination.

If Iam not mistaken he flew again, as an instructor first an later as part of the desperate fight to defend Japan from the allied bombers.
"Tickle us, do we not laugh? Prick us, do we not bleed? Wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

Around 23:53, KIRISHIMA and ATAGO illuminate SOUTH DAKOTA with their searchlights and then open fire, followed by TAKAO. Within the next few minutes KIRISHIMA fires a total of 117 14-inch shells (68 Type 3 incendiaries, 22 Type 0 Common and 27 Type 1 APC), scoring multiple hits with secondary and main guns. One Type 1 APC explodes against SOUTH DAKOTA's No. 3 turret's barbette.

Enaris #7 Posted 28 August 2012 - 03:05 AM

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It's been years since I read his autobio.  I think his last flight was at Iwo Jima (not the invasion, one of the earlier raids).  He was able to keep a flight of F6F from getting him, but was kept too busy to do anything to them.

xthetenth #8 Posted 28 August 2012 - 04:41 AM

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View PostEnaris, on 28 August 2012 - 02:49 AM, said:

That was an enormous issue in the entire Solomons campaign (and really, the entire war).  The  prewar Japanese pilot training methods were slow and intense.  They trained good pilots, but not many of them, and not nearly quickly enough for wartime.  They did eventually begin to speed up the pipeline, but likely swung too far in the opposite direction.  Further, the fact that they didn't rotate pilots home kept them from teaching the knowledge of those experienced pilots.

It was really a long trainwreck of things.  The light construction of Japanese planes meant they had a higher rate of pilot losses.  Then, they lost lots of pilots because of the long (400ish miles) from Rabaul to Guadalcanal.  That's a long return flight if damaged or wounded.  The epic flight of Saburo Sakai from Guadalcanal to Rabaul after getting ripped up by the tail gunners of a TBF flight was incredible (especially when he lost an eye along the way).

They also tended to be very sick and weak after a few years. Exposure to the tropical climate and the draining pace of flight operations eroded the aviators' edge as well, so it's not even like the Japanese were getting full combat use out of them.

Crag_r #9 Posted 28 August 2012 - 10:32 AM

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View PostEnaris, on 28 August 2012 - 12:16 AM, said:

I realized today that we missed something this last weekend.  The 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons (Aug 24, 1942).
Strategic Setting: In an odd way, one part of the story of the Eastern Solomons began in the deserts of North Africa.  With the European War having gone on for nearly three years, the Commonwealth was already heavily committed to action in the ETO.  One important part of that was that many of the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand had already gone to Europe.  With the beginning of the Pacific War, the United States agreed to shoulder a large part of the load in defending Australia and New Zealand, so that the forces of those nations could remain in North Africa.

We did have some forces deployed to Papua New Guinea, resulting in the Famous Kakoda Track campaign... speaking of which someone remind me to make a thread on the 16 of Nov about it,


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PanzerjagerVPanther #10 Posted 28 August 2012 - 11:13 AM

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Beautiful article man! At least u admit to errors! o7

Enaris #11 Posted 28 August 2012 - 01:58 PM

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View PostCrag_r, on 28 August 2012 - 10:32 AM, said:

We did have some forces deployed to Papua New Guinea, resulting in the Famous Kakoda Track campaign... speaking of which someone remind me to make a thread on the 16 of Nov about it,

Yep, and didn't mean to imply otherwise (thought I'd said most were in Africa, not all).  Sorry if I did.  The Owen Stanley Mountains.. that's some serious stuff there.

Ariecho #12 Posted 23 September 2012 - 03:54 AM

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Please move the thread to naval battles.  Thank you!


Discussing with a British officer: "You French fight for money, while we British fight for honour." "Sir, a man fights for what he lacks the most."
Robert Surcouf (French Corsair)





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