Carrier Battles For Control of Guadalcanal
Just as dramatic as the frenetic surface engagements that left steel corpses littering the waters off Guadalcanal were the carrier battles waged to establish air superiority over the island. Two were fought, and although the US Navy received more damage than the Imperial Japanese Navy, the loss of highly trained pilots severely limited later Japanese air operations at sea.
The first carrier battle, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, took place in August after it was clear that the Japanese needed to commit major forces if they hoped to retake Guadalcanal. Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor, led the fleet carriers IJN Shokaku and IJN Zuikaku as well as the light carrer IJN Ryujo against the USS Enterprise and USS Saratoga. The US admiral on the scene opposing Nagumo was Admiral Jack Fletcher, who had led one section of the carriers at the Battle of Midway.
After trading aerial punches both the Japanese and American fleets retired from the field, neither side victorious. Japan lost Ryujo but the Enterprise was struck by several bombs and badly mauled. However, although tactically inconclusive, the Japanese suffered a defeat in that their primary objective of reinforcing Guadalcanal failed.
The second, and more devastating, carrier battle was the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October. There again Admiral Nagumo led the Shokaku and Zuikaku and the new carrier IJN Junyo, backed by the light carrier IJN Zuiho, against the Americans who had repaired the Enterprise and retained the Saratoga and Hornet in their battle line. The carrier Wasp had been torpedoed by a submarine the month before, so this constituted the entire US Pacific carrier force at the time.
The two fleets engaged in a melee of speeding torpedoes, crashing bombs, and vast stocks of anti-aircraft munitions. And when the battle was over, the Hornet was burning and abandoned (later to be torpedoed by Japanese destroyers), Enterprise was badly damaged again, Saratoga was moderately damaged, and many aircraft had been forced to ditch in the sea. No Japanese carriers were lost, although Zuiho was damaged and Shokaku put out of action for months.
Although a victory for the Japanese, the number of elite aviators listed among the Guadalcanal killed in action was cruel. Hundreds of top notch pilots had died in the campaign, never to be replaced. One poignant Guadalcanal quote from Admiral Nagumo indicates that many Japanese naval commanders viewed the loss of these pilots to be a strategic catastrophe for Japan. Indeed, although technically the Japanese had three undamaged carriers available, their dearth of trained pilots meant that they would play no further role in the fight for Guadalcanal.