On the morning of 26 October 1942, events began to unfold in a manner reminiscent of the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Before dawn, the opposing carrier groups prepared to launch search planes. The Japanese launched first. Seven float planes were catapulted into the pre-dawn darkness at 0415 hours. They were joined by thirteen faster Kate torpedo bombers from Nagumo's carriers at 0445.
At 0450, Enterprise launched a combat air patrol of F4F Wildcat fighters. They were quickly followed by eight pairs of Dauntless SBD scout dive-bombers assigned to search an arc of sea from south-west to due north of task Force 61.
The USS Hornet is shown under attack at Santa Cruz by Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo planes. The Americans had a combat air patrol of 37 Wildcat fighters to defend Hornet, but inept fighter direction from the flagship USS Enterprise left Hornet dangerously exposed to the enemy air strike. A Japanese dive-bomber pilot is about to crash his aircraft into Hornet's island structure. A Kate torpedo bomber is passing above the carrier.
The SBD search commander, Lieutenant Commander James R. Lee, assigned to himself the sector that he believed would provide the best prospect of locating the Japanese carriers. His judgment proved correct. At 0650 hours, he came upon Nagumo's carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Zuiho. They were steaming in a south-easterly direction and were only 200 miles (320 km) from Enterprise. Lee and his wingman barely had time to report the location of the Japanese carriers before Zeros of the combat air patrol attacked, and forced them to seek cover in cloud. Responding to Lee's contact report, two more SBDs arrived, and were also driven into cloud by the swarming Zeros. While the Zeros were distracted in this way, Lieutenant Stockton B. Strong and his wingman Ensign C.B. Irvine arrived at 0740 to find the way clear for them to attack. They were not seen by Japanese lookouts until the two SBDs were already in their dives on the light carrier Zuiho. One 500-pound bomb struck Zuiho, opening up a large crater in the flight deck. Being unable to launch or recover aircraft, Zuiho was forced to withdraw from the battle.
A Kate search plane from Shokaku found the American carriers and reported their location at 0658. Profoundly conscious after Midway of the need to strike first in carrier battles, and in a blistering display of efficiency that Rear Admiral Kinkaid failed to emulate, the Japanese had a strike group aloft and pointed at the American carrier group by 0725. Veteran naval aviator Lieutenant Commander Shigeharu Murata led this first strike group comprising twenty Kate torpedo bombers from Shokaku, twenty-one Val dive-bombers from Zuikaku, and a fighter escort of twenty-one Zeros drawn from each of the three Japanese carriers. Immediately after the first strike group was away, the Japanese readied their second strike group for take-off. At 0810, nineteen Vals from Shokaku headed for the American carriers with an escort of five Zeros. At 0840, a third strike group of sixteen Kates left Zuikaku and headed for the American carriers with an escort of four Zeros. At this stage, there were 110 Japanese warplanes heading for the reported location of the American carriers in three separate strike groups.
Although the Americans had been alerted to the location of the Japanese carriers at 0650 hours by Lieutenant Commander Lee and his wingman, the first American strike aircraft was not launched from Hornet until 0732. The American attack group, comprising sixteen SBD dive-bombers with 1000-pound bombs, six TBF torpedo bombers, and eight Wildcat fighters, formed up and headed for the reported position of the Japanese carriers at 0750, that is to say, one full hour after Rear Admiral Kinkaid received Lee's contact report aboard Enterprise. Lieutenant Commander W. J. Widhelm led the sixteen SBDs away from Hornet with an escort of four Wildcats. The six TBF torpedo bombers flew at a much lower altitude and were escorted by the remaining four Wildcats.
By way of contrast to the tardy American launch, Lieutenant Commander Murata left Shokaku with the first Japanese strike group only twenty-seven minutes after the position of the American carriers was reported to Vice Admiral Nagumo.
As the battle was now beginning to follow the Coral Sea pattern, the delay in the American response probably would not have affected the outcome. I will return to this aspect when dealing with Santa Cruz in retrospect. However, it is reasonable to question the delay by Kinkaid in launching the American strike. Kinkaid had learned of the position of the Japanese carriers eight minutes before the Japanese search plane found and reported the American position. An attack group had been spotted on Hornet's flight deck throughout the night, and Rear Admiral Kinkaid should have been acutely aware of the need to strike first in carrier warfare.
Enterprise began to launch its own first strike at 0747 - fifty seven minutes after receiving the first contact report from Lieutenant Commander Lee and his wingman. With twenty SBDs still absent on search missions, Enterprise was only able to launch three SBDs, eight TBFs, and eight Wildcats as escorts. The small Enterprise attack group did not attempt to catch up with and join the Hornet group.
By 0810, Hornet launched its second attack group, comprising nine SBDs, nine TBFs, and seven escort Wildcats. At this stage, seventy-six American dive-bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters were strung out between the American and Japanese carriers in roughly three groups that lacked the cohesion and tight coordination of the three Japanese strike groups.
The first SBDs from Hornet were only sixty miles (96 km) from their carrier, and still climbing, when they observed Murata's strike group passing above them and heading for the American carriers. The Hornet attack group radioed a warning of an approaching Japanese formation to their carrier. The Japanese pilots did not see the American planes passing below them.
The smaller attack group from Enterprise was not as fortunate. The leader of Murata's Zero fighter escort sighted the Enterprise planes at 0840 and detached a chutai (group) of nine Zeros to attack the American formation. The Zeros came out of the sun and took the American pilots completely by surprise. Concentrating their attack on the torpedo bombers, the Zeros shot down two TBFs and caused sufficient damage to another two that they were forced to return to Enterprise. Three Wildcat fighters were shot down and one badly damaged as they attempted to protect the torpedo bombers. The Japanese lost four Zeros shot down. Having expended all of their ammunition in the brief but fierce confrontation, the five surviving Zeros returned to their carriers.