USS Saratoga planes sink the Ryujo

The U.S. aircraft carriers USS Saratoga (CV-3) (foreground) and USS Enterprise (CV-6) are underway with aircraft spotted for launch, circa August 1942.

After the United States landed on the Solomons on the 7th August the Japanese moved rapidly to respond. The Japanese troops that had since been landed on Guadalcanal had been comprehensively decimated on the 21st. Now there was another clash between two carrier groups of the opposing sides as the Japanese sought to land more troops.

Once again there were difficulties with planes locating their targets over the wide expanse of ocean. Once again there were issues with planes being available to defend their carriers when they were needed. What became known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons began on 23 August, when a force of Japanese troop transports was detected.

Saratoga and the other carriers launched an air raid against the Japanese ships, but their aircraft were unable to find the enemy and, running low on fuel, they had to spend the night at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. When these aircraft returned on the next day, the first contact report with an accurate location of enemy aircraft carriers was received from scouting forces sent out at dawn. Two hours later, Saratoga and her companions launched a strike targeting the Japanese light aircraft carrier ‘Ryūjō’.

Tameichi Hara was the Captain of the Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze, which together with the Tone and the Tokitsukaze, was escorting the Ryujo:

It was about 1400 and Ryujo was turning into the wind to launch aircraft when scores of American dive-bombers attacked. I watched Ryujo anxiously. Other Japanese carriers could clear their decks of readied fighters in a matter of a few minutes. But not Ryujo.

I had many other things to do. My ship was moving out to a 5,000-meter distance from Ryujo, just as were Tone and Tokitsukaze, to fight the oncoming enemy planes. Ryujo radioed the 21 planes which had struck Guadalcanal, ordering them to go to Buka, midway between Rabaul and Guadalcanal, instead of returning to the carrier.

Why didn’t it call back some of these 15 fighters for interception? I had no more time to speculate. The enemy SBD Dauntless bombers and Grumman fighters were pouncing on the sluggish carrier. At least two dozen American bombers spilled their deadly charges around Ryujo, and fighters swooped low over the ship, machine-gunning everything in sight.

Ryujo’s 12 antiaircraft guns fired sporadically without downing any of the attackers. Two or three enemy bombs hit the ship near the stern, piercing the flight deck. Scarlet flames shot up from the holes. Ominous explosions followed in rapid order. Several more bombs made direct hits.

Water pillars surrounded the carrier, and it was engulfed in thick, black smoke. This was no deliberate smoke screen. Her fuel tanks had been hit and set afire. Was she sinking? Had she sunk?

The enemy planes now turned from the carrier and headed against the other three of us. All guns opened fire as the planes swooped on us. My ship was making 33 knots and zigzagging frantically. Tremendous bow waves kicked up by the speeding destroyer drenched me on the bridge. Amatsukaze weathered the 30-minute attack.

Some of the bombers had saved their “eggs” for us. None hit my ship, but there were several near misses. I breathed deeply as the enemy planes pulled away. Now I turned my eyes in the direction of Ryujo.

The black smoke was beginning to dissipate, and the carrier emerged. Through binoculars I could see that Ryujo, in her death throes, had stopped all forward motion and was sinking! A heavy starboard list exposed her red belly. Waves washed her flight deck. It was a pathetic sight. Ryujo, no longer resembling a ship, was a huge stove, full of holes which belched eerie red flames.

See Tameichi Hara: Japanese Destroyer Captain

Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Ryūjō – with 9,800-ton standard displacement. Her light displacement was intended to exploit a loophole in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. Under the Treaty, aircraft carriers under 10,000-ton standard displacement were not regarded as “aircraft carriers”.

The damaged and immobile Japanese aircraft carrier Ryujo (center) photographed from a USAAF B-17 bomber, during a high-level bombing attack in the battle of the Eastern Solomons on 24 August 1942. The destroyers Amatsukaze (center left) and Tokitsukaze (faintly visible, center right) had been removing her crew and are now underway. The fingerprints are in the original picture.

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