On this day in 1942, the last U.S. carrier manufactured before America’s entry into World War II, the Hornet, is damaged so extensively by Japanese war planes in the Battle of Santa Cruz that it must be abandoned.
The battle for Guadalcanal was the first American offensive against the Japanese, an attempt to prevent the Axis power from taking yet another island in the Solomon chain and gaining more ground in its race for Australia. On this day, in the vicinity of the Santa Cruz Islands, two American naval task forces had to stop a superior Japanese fleet, which was on its way to Guadalcanal with reinforcements. As was the case in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the engagement at Santa Cruz was fought exclusively by aircraft taking off from carriers of the respective forces; the ships themselves were not in range to fire at one another.
Japanese aerial fire damaged the USS Enterprise, the battleship South Dakota, and finally the Hornet. In fact, the explosions wrought by the Japanese bombs that rained down on the Hornet were so great that two of the Japanese bombers were themselves crippled by the blasts, and the pilots chose to dive-bomb their planes into the deck of the American carrier, which was finally abandoned and left to burn. The Hornet, which weighed 20,000 tons, had seen battle during the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo (its commander at the time, Marc Mitscher, was promoted to admiral and would be a significant player in the victory over Japan) and the battle of Midway.
While the United States losses at Santa Cruz were heavy, the cost in aircraft to the Japanese was so extensive—more than 100, including 25 of the 27 bombers that attacked the Hornet—that they were unable finally to reinforce their troops at Guadalcanal, paving the way for an American victory.
Footnote: The Hornet lost at Santa Cruz was the CV-8; another Hornet, the CV-12, launched August 30, 1943, led a virtually charmed life, spending 52 days under Japanese attack in many battles in the Pacific, with nary a scratch to show for it. That is, until June 1945, when it was finally damaged—by a typhoon.