The fighting around Guadalcanal steadily intensified. Nearly every night, more Japanese soldiers were landed on the island, and the daily air raids and nighttime bombardments from Rabaul-based planes and ships continued. The attacks were not made with impunity: between October 16-25 alone, Marine and Navy pilots downed 103 enemy planes and sank a cruiser, losing only 14…. [T]he night of October 11-12… Rear Admiral Norman Scott, having drilled his force in night combat techniques for weeks, blasted a Japanese cruiser and destroyer force off Cape Esperance, west of Savo Island…. [T]he U.S. positions on Guadalcanal came under severe shelling from Japanese battleships and cruisers the nights of October 14 and 15. Over half of the 90 planes at Henderson field were destroyed, and the aviation fuel was practically gone. Japanese control of the area was so complete that on the 15th they were able to land nearly 4500 troops in broad daylight….
In desperation, transport planes were called on to ferry fuel from Espiritu Santo to Guadalcanal, each flight carrying just enough aviation fuel to keep a dozen fighters aloft for an hour…. [O]n October 15 Admiral Nimitz wrote:
It now appears that we are unable to control the sea in the Guadalcanal area. Thus our supply of the positions will only be done at great expense to us. The situation is not hopeless, but it is certainly critical….
Nimitz choose a man known throughout the Pacific for his fighting spirit: Vice Admiral William F. Halsey. Though Halsey departed Pearl Harbor on the 14th for Noumea, he didn't know until he stepped off the plane there what his orders were….
Two days after Halsey's departure from Oahu, Enterprise cast away her lines, joined the fast, new battlewagon South Dakota BB-57, and raced southwest for the Solomons. All signs pointed to another major Japanese offensive. Sure enough, on October 20 the western perimeter of the American position on Guadalcanal came under assault…. Take the airfield now, or the Combined Fleet will not have the fuel to support you, Yamamoto bluntly told General Hyakutake.
On October 23, as the Marines and Americal soldiers repelled a second violent Japanese assault, the Big E and her task force rendezvoused with Hornet east of Espiritu Santo, forming Task Force 61, under Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Halsey, anticipating a Japanese move into the waters northeast of Guadalcanal, ordered Kinkaid to sweep north of the Santa Cruz islands - a small, malaria-infested chain 700 miles north of New Caledonia - to engage the Japanese fleet.
The next night, in heavy rain, the Marines and the Americal regiment fought off still another Japanese assault. In the confusion of battle, a Japanese lookout mistakenly reported green-white-green flares, signaling that the Japanese had captured the airfield. Hyakutake, mindful of Yamamoto's impatience, immediately radioed Rabaul, which in turn notified Yamamoto…. Yamamoto had ordered the Combined Fleet, under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, to sail southeast and "annihilate" any and all American naval forces it found.
Dawn on October 25, then, found the Combined Fleet and Task Force 61 steaming aggressively towards each other, closing range at close to 30 miles every hour….
Eleven minutes after midnight [on the 26th], the PBYs found Nagumo's carriers…. Nagumo, perhaps suspecting a trap, again ordered his fleet north, away from the probing enemy planes. In Noumea, Halsey suffered no such timidity. The latest PBY reports put the Nagumo's carriers within range of Hornet and Enterprise's planes…. With three terse words, Halsey ordered TF 61 to deliver it: "STRIKE-REPEAT-STRIKE"….
Enterprise and TF 61 went to general quarters at 0550 on October 26…. Scouting Ten commander James R. Lee and his wingman ENS William E. Johnson found two big Japanese carriers - Shokaku and Zuikaku - 200 miles northwest of the American force….
Hearing Lee's report, LT Stockton Strong and his wingman ENS Charles Irvine cut short their search leg, and set course for Lee's reported position…. The sun to their backs, and the Zeros drawn away by other Scouting Ten planes, the two Enterprise Dauntlesses plunged unopposed on Zuiho, releasing their 500 lb bombs 1,500 feet over her deck. Both bombs hit, blasting a 50-foot hole in Zuiho's aft flight deck. It would be months before Zuiho could conduct air operations again….
The two carriers and the 169 planes they carried faced four Japanese carriers - the now-damaged Zuiho, as well as Shokaku, Zuikaku and Junyo - packing 212 aircraft, and accompanied by a potent surface force including four battleships and eight heavy cruisers…..
Despite the best efforts of the CAP, 22 Val dive-bombers and 18 Kates made it through, to focus their fury on Hornet… the third hit the aft starboard flight deck… two Kate torpedo planes made good their drops: their fish blew a pair of 15' x 30' foot holes in Hornet's hull….Three more dive-bombers scored hits on the crippled ship's flight deck, setting off more fires on her forward half; a second plane crashed into Hornet's forward port gun gallery, the fuselage tumbling into the forward elevator pit. Within minutes, Hornet lost power and propulsion…. Ten miles to the northeast, Enterprise emerged from the rain squall which had hidden her from the attacking planes. Hornet - burning and adrift - was clearly visible from Enterprise….
By this time, however, Widhelm had found Nagumo's carriers…. 11 SBDs dove on Shokaku - Admiral Nagumo's flagship - and staggered her with at least three 1000 lb. bombs (the Japanese reported four hits, and other observers reported as many as six). Shokaku was saved by the fact that her planes were gone and her fuel lines empty. Her flight and hangar decks were destroyed, however, and she would be out of action for nine months…. Enterprise's strike… attacked… a force centered on the battleships Hiei and Kirishima…. Japanese documents later noted only near misses….
At about 1100, enemy planes appeared on radar, dangerously near and closing fast. For long minutes, the Big E struggled in her attempts to fend off the attack…. A 1000 yards off Enterprise's starboard quarter, the 45,000 ton South Dakota held her position at 27 knots, and stayed there as the Big E maneuvered radically to evade the bombers. Encircling the two ships, two cruisers and eight destroyers trained their guns on the two dozen Vals overhead…. Half of the attacking planes never escaped the American guns and fighters, but the remainder pressed home…. [F]irst bomb plunged through the forward flight deck at 1117 and reemerged to explode in the air, just off the ship's bow… a second bomb struck just aft of the forward elevator, and broke in two. One half exploded on the hangar deck, destroying seven planes. The other half detonated two decks below, wiping out a repair party and a medical party, killing forty men, and setting bedding on fire… a third bomb exploded very near to starboard, rocking the entire ship, caving in hull plating by three inches, and breaching two empty fuel tanks….
At 1135 - just after a false periscope report - a second attack came in. This time it was fifteen Kate torpedo planes commanded by LCDR Shigeharu Murata….
At 1159, the Big E finally steadied her course, and prepared to begin landing the Hornet and Enterprise planes collecting overhead…. Only a few planes had landed, however, when the Task Force guns roared back to life. A third attack had begun…. 18 Val dive bombers escorted by 12 Zeros, commanded by LT Maseo Yamaguchi from the carrier Junyo…. The persuasive power of South Dakota's and the Big E's 40mm Bofors AA guns seemed to gaining notoriety: they brought down four Vals - including Yamaguchi's - early in the attack, and a number of the remaining planes dropped their bombs as much as 500 yards distant…one scoring a very near miss on the starboard side…. Another hit South Dakota's Number One turret, killing one man and wounding 50, including Captain Thomas Gatch…. A third bomb pierced the anti-aircraft cruiser San Juan from deck to bottom, but failed to explode…. The debate about exactly how many planes South Dakota and Enterprise shot down continues to this day. There is a mutual respect, however, between Enterprise's men and those of South Dakota and North Carolina….
At 1235, after fending off a unsuccessful fourth attack by 15 Vals, Enterprise again turned into the wind to take on planes. By this time, the sky was crowded with fighters critically short of fuel and ammunition, Enterprise's scout and attack sections, and planes from Hornet seeking the only operating flight deck available…. Lindsey continued to bring planes in, and eventually 95 planes were packed aboard Enterprise, the last dozen or so having to catch the first or second arresting wire to stop short of the planes jamming the deck.
In this condition, Enterprise was exceedingly vulnerable to further air attack, so an hour after landings started, Admiral Kinkaid ordered the task force south and out of the battle area….
[A]s Hornet's list increased to 18 degrees, it was clear she was doomed. Captain Mason ordered "abandon ship", and over the next several hours the destroyers and cruisers were kept busy picking up the men…. [F]rom Noumea Admiral Halsey ordered her sunk…. Alerted to the Japanese surface forces fast approaching, Hornet's escorts abandoned her and fled south. When the Japanese found her at about 2230, they tried and failed to take the burning hulk in tow, finally sinking her with four Long Lance torpedoes….
At the cost of Hornet, the destroyer Porter (torpedoed during the first attack on Enterprise), 74 planes, and over 400 men killed or wounded, the American fleet had turned back a superior Japanese force and severely weakened Japan's remaining carrier air forces.
Though tactically Santa Cruz was a draw, strategically it was a narrow victory for the Americans. Nagumo's carriers and Kondo's battleships had been turned away from Guadalcanal, giving the Marines and soldiers there some much needed relief. Perhaps more importantly, the destruction of the best Japanese naval aircrews, begun in earnest at Midway, culminated at Santa Cruz. Though plane losses were high on both sides - 74 American and 92 Japanese - the loss of airmen pointed to a Japanese catastrophe. Nearly 70 Japanese aircrews - including a number of squadron leaders - never returned to their carriers at Santa Cruz, while all but 33 American airmen did.
The first hint of the damage done to Japan's naval airpower was seen the day of the battle, in the feeble afternoon strikes at Hornet. A more telling sign came on November 11, when Enterprise - after quick patching by Sea Bees and the repair ship Vulcan - sortied from Noumea, a full air group on her flight deck, ready to fight. The only Japanese carriers in the area - Hiyo and Junyo, both slow converted ocean liners - were well north of Guadalcanal, carefully staying clear of the American planes there. Without planes and the crews to fly them, the enemy's fleet carriers were impotent…. 15 days after Santa Cruz, an American carrier stood off the Solomons, battered but ready for action, and not a single enemy carrier came forth to challenge her.