Who remembers the Battle of the Eastern Solomons?
It's not an every day topic of conversation. I rather doubt it ever gets mentioned in history class. I know it never came up in the college history courses I took, not even in the WWII specific ones. Those who paid attention in class learned that WWII went like this: Pearl Harbor-Midway-Okinawa-Hiroshima/Nagasaki. With some stuff in between.
Eastern Solomons was some of the stuff in between.
Task Force 61, including the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, left Pearl Harbor in the middle of July, 1942, en route to the South Pacific to support America's first effort to take back territory captured by Japan. On August 8 the First Marine Division landed on the Solomon Islands. It was a vicious fight, and for the first two weeks TF-61 supported the landings and secured sea lines of communication southwest of the Solomons.
On August 24 a strong Japanese force approached and was attacked by aircraft from TF-61. In the ensuing fight at sea, which came to be known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Japanese light carrier Ryūjō was sunk, and the Japanese troops intended for Guadalcanal were forced back.
|USS Enterprise (CV-6) burns after being struck by Japanese bombs on August 24, 1942, during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Wikimedia Commons.|
|A near miss sends a column of water high in the air off the starboard quarter of USS Enterprise (CV-6) during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.|
|What may be the same near miss, taken from the opposite side. Wikimedia Commons.|
|A Japanese Val dive bomber shot down in flames over USS Enterprise (CV-6) during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.|
|One of the most iconic images of the carrier war in the Pacific. A Japanese bomb detonates on the Enterprise flight deck aft of the island structure during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.|
|The damage caused by the explosion in the image above, taken after the initial air attack during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.|
|A bomb exploding in the hangar bay cause the flight deck of Enterprise to bulge. This image taken at Pearl Harbor in September, 1942, weeks after the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Wikimedia Commons.|
|Damage control teams fight a fire in the main deck 5-inch gallery on USS Enterprise during the the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Wikimedia Commons.|
|After the battle. Wikimedia Commons.|
|The 5-inch gallery after the battle. Wikimedia Commons.|
It's rather a haunting little book. The first chapter is entitled Gold Star Boys. The list includes Keith L. Childers. He Joined the Navy in May, 1941. He served in USS Enterprise (CV-6) as an Aviation Machinists Mate, and fell at Eastern Solomons on August 24, 1942.
Childers is not a "local" name. It's a name that seems "kinda" familiar to a few folks, but none of the well established keepers of Kimball lore can place him or his family with any certainty. He joined the Navy before Pearl Harbor, which sets him apart from most of the locals who served. With only a couple of exceptions, Kimball's other WWII vets all joined or were drafted later in the war.
At a slight tangent, the war was particularly hard on those Kimball men who joined the Navy before Pearl Harbor. In addition to Childers, Robert Bickel fell in USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. Charles Lanning fell in USS Minneapolis at the Battle of Tassafaronga on November 30, 1942, near Savo Island.
I think most of us realize that the price of our freedom was paid for, in part, with the lives of men and women we've never met, or even heard of. There are other costs of course, and the Americans who served in battle are not solely responsible for our good fortune. But they did sacrifice a lot for us. Some gave all. Keith Childers died in Enterprise sometime during that hellish rain of bombs on August 24, 1942. Few (if any) Kimball residents remember Keith or his family. I certainly don't. But I can mark his existence and the gift he made to all of us. Thank you Keith Childers. May you rest in peace.
The next morning, August 24, a Monday, twenty three Enterprise SBDs fanned out on 200 mile search legs, across a wide arc of ocean north of the Big E's Task Force 16. Hours of tedious searching uncovered no enemy force. Other reconnaissance flights, however, had more success. Around 1000, PBYs reported a carrier, a cruiser and destroyer escort some 200 miles northwest of the American force. The carrier was the light carrier Ryujo, escorted by the cruiser Tone, sent in advance of the main Japanese strike force to cover the transports approaching from Rabaul. Then, fighters from Saratogaintercepted and downed another enemy flying boat, this one only twenty miles from the task force. Early in the afternoon, another Saratoga airman brought down still another enemy scout, this one within visible range of the American ships.
There was no question now that the Japanese knew the location of the American carriers, but with the exception of Ryujo, the Americans could only guess the position of the Japanese. Shortly after 1300, twenty three fighters and dive bombers rumbled down Enterprise's flight deck, launched on 250 mile search legs north and west of the task force.
Another half hour passed with no contacts, other than the PBYs still shadowing Ryujo. Fletcher, after struggling to close the distance between Ryujo and his task forces, grudgingly ordered Saratoga to launch her strike. Just minutes after Saratoga's thirty dive bombers and seven torpedo planes had formed up and struck out towards Ryujo, Navy PBYs and Enterprise scouts unmasked the real threat. Some 200 miles north of Enterprise and Saratoga, Shokaku and Zuikaku were surging southward at 30 knots, preparing to strike a blow against the American carriers. With heavy static disrupting communications on both sides, and inexperienced American pilots cluttering the airwaves with chatter, the reports didn't immediately reach Fletcher.
When they did, he immediately attempted to redirect Saratoga's strike, even as they were lining up the attack which would put Ryujo under the waves by that evening. Every available fighter on both Saratogaand the Big E was gassed, armed and spotted, ready to take off at the first sign of an attack.
The sign came at 1632: on radar, many bogies, range 88 miles, bearing 320 degrees. Saratoga andEnterprise, sailing ten miles apart, turned southeast into the wind and launched their remaining fighters. Aft of Enterprise, matching her 27 knots, steamed the new 35,000 ton battleship North Carolina BB-55; at their flanks the cruisers Portland and Atlanta, with six destroyers in the screen. On all ships, guns were trained skyward, and eyes strained towards the northwest, where - still over the horizon - the enemy was approaching. Overhead circled four-plane fighter sections, fifty-four planes in all.
The first contact with the incoming enemy strike was made at 1655. At 18,000 feet, two miles above the Wildcats scrambling to intercept, were two formations of Japanese Val dive bombers. For almost twenty minutes, Wildcats, Zeros and Vals tangled high over the sea. Afterwards, Enterprise pilots could claim having downed 29 planes: a figure more remarkable because of the inexperience and lack of discipline of the American pilots at that time.
As the aerial battle raged, drifting steadily closer to Enterprise's task force, Enterprise launched her remaining eleven Dauntlesses and six TBFs, on an ultimately fruitless raid against the main Japanese force. The decision to launch the strike, however, suggested by air officer John Crommelin, probably saved Enterprise from a fate like that suffered by the Japanese carriers at Midway. The planes, fully fueled and armed, had been spotted in the same area where, in minutes, three bombs would tear through the Douglas fir planking of Enterprise's flight deck. Had the planes been parked there when the bombs hit, Enterprise likely would not have survived the day.
The last plane lifted off Enterprise's deck at 1708. Her gunners now stood ready to defend the ship. Yet even as Radar Plot reported "The enemy planes are now directly overhead!", task force lookouts could not spot the enemy planes. Worse, the ship's fire control directors failed to pick up the target, depriving the 5" guns the opportunity to fire on the enemy strike group before it could begin its attack. At 1712, as the first of the surviving 30 Val dive bombers nosed over at 20,000 feet, a puff of smoke attracted the attention of 1st Sergeant Joseph R. Schinka (USMC). Commanding the Big E's #4 20mm anti-aircraft battery, Schinka opened fire. Though the enemy planes were still beyond the reach of the 20mm batteries, the gun's tracers guided the fire of other guns. In moments, a thundering barrage of 20mm, 1.1" and 5" fire filled the sky over Enterprise's flight deck, as North Carolina, Portland, Atlanta and the destroyers all came to her defense.
In the clear blue, late afternoon sky, the bombers pitched into their dives, one every seven seconds: five, maybe six planes pressing their attack simultaneously, while others formed up behind them, or sped away low over the waves after releasing their bombs. For nearly two minutes, as Enterprise weaved and bobbed with surprising agility, the heavy anti-aircraft fire took its toll on the attacking planes, Enterprise's guns alone knocking down 15. High overhead, fighters from Saratoga and the Big E made passes at the planes as they prepared for their dives, sometimes even following the Vals during their descent. It wasn't enough. The first bomb to strike Enterprise pierced her flight deck just forward of the aft elevator, plunged through five decks and detonated.
The time was 1714. An elevator pump room team, ammunition handlers, and a damage control team stationed in the chief petty officers' quarters were wiped out by the blast. Thirty five men died instantly. As the explosion spread, it ripped six foot holes in the hull at the waterline: the ship quickly acquired a list to starboard as seawater poured in. The blast tore sixteen foot holes through the steel decks overhead, bulging the hangar deck upwards a full two feet, and rendering the aft elevator useless. The concussion whipped the warship - 800 feet and millions of pounds of wood and steel - stem to stern, first upwards, then side-to-side, hurling men off their feet, out of their chairs, across the gun tubs.
Ship and crew had just thirty seconds to recover before the second bomb struck. Detonating on impact, just fifteen feet from where the first bomb had punched through the deck, it obliterated the aft starboard 5" gun gallery and its crew, the violence of the explosion amplified by the ignition of powder bags in the gun tub. Thirty eight men, ten of whom were never positively identified, died that moment. The guns of the aft starboard quarter fell silent, their crews dead or wounded; heavy black smoke poured from newly ignited fires.
Trailing smoke, taking on water, Enterprise drove forward at 27 knots. Below decks and across the flight deck, damage control teams scrambled to bring the fires and flooding under control, to pull survivors from the slippery and torn decks and compartments, to restore power and flush holds of explosive vapors. As the ship twisted away from under the continuing assault, her remaining guns resumed fire, rejoining the barrage thrown up by North Carolina and the other ships in the task force. For almost ninety long seconds the task force fought back against the aerial assault, protecting the precious flat deck at its center.
Just two minutes after the first hit, a third bomb slammed into Enterprise's flight deck, just forward of the number 2 elevator. A smaller, 500 lb., bomb, this one was defective: still, it punched a ten foot hole through the flight deck, disabling the No. 2 elevator, killing and wounding more men.
As the assault tailed off, Enterprise - on fire, listing, spilling black smoke over the water - kept her place in the task force. Within an hour, the damage control parties had brought the fires under control, patched over the hole blown in the flight deck by the third bomb, counterflooded to correct the ship's starboard list, and improvised plugs for the waterline holes with lumber and mattresses. While the Wildcats overhead harassed the departing Japanese bombers, Enterprise's returning scouts circled, waiting anxiously for an opportunity to land, some breaking off to lend the CAP a hand. Enterprise signaled the task force that she could continue unassisted, and as evening came on began recovering her planes, still making 24 knots despite her extensive injuries.
An hour before the Vals had begun their attack, the Japanese commander Chuichi Nagumo, assuming the sacrifice of Ryujo had drawn off the American planes, had launched a second strike. These planes now probed the Pacific, seeking the American ships. They were just appearing on task force radar when Enterprise lost steering control.
Below decks, the steering room had been effectively sealed off immediately after the first bomb hit, to prevent the small compartment and its crew of seven from being overwhelmed by thick smoke. Between the fires encircling the compartment, and the heat generated by the powerful electric steering motors inside, the temperature inside the compartment rose steadily, from 120 degrees to 150, and then to 170. Both men and machinery failed. Enterprise's rudder swung right, swung left, swung right again and 1850, jammed hard over.
While radar now showed the incoming strike at fifty miles, Enterprise narrowly missed slicing the destroyer Balch in two. Her four great bronze screws were thrown in reverse, pulling her speed down to ten knots, as a breakdown flag was run up her truck. The rudder was jammed so far over that not even going forward on the starboard screws and reversing the port could straighten her course. She circled helplessly, an easy target for bombers and submarines alike.
An anxious thirty-eight minutes passed while damage control teams and engineers fought their way into the steering compartment, first pulling to safety the men collapsed inside, and then starting the second of the two steering motors. On radar, the Japanese squadrons passed fifty miles south of the task force, reversed course to the northwest, and missed the ships entirely. With night coming on, Enterprise had survived to fight another day.
Despite the severe damage Enterprise received, the Eastern Solomons were an American victory, tactically and strategically. Yamamoto's Operation KA had cost the Japanese the light carrier Ryujo. Worse, 71 planes and their aircrews from Shokaku and Zuikaku had been lost - over a hundred experienced airmen that the Japanese would never be able to replace. In comparison, fewer than 20 planes were lost between Enterprise and Saratoga. The human cost on Enterprise, however, was grim. For 74 men the attack of the 24th marked the last 45 minutes of their lives, and 91 others were wounded.
On the 25th, Yamamoto cancelled Operation KA: the first major Japanese attempt to recapture Guadalcanal had failed. That same same day, Enterprise departed for Pearl Harbor, where repair crews worked on her 24 hours a day, from September 10 until October 16. When she reappeared off New Caledonia on October 23, the situation on Guadalcanal, and in the South Pacific, had reached the point of crisis.