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South Pacific:
Eastern Solomons,
Scenarios and History

Sometime in the last couple of years, I re-discovered why I like designing wargames. I like doing the research and I like showing those conclusions in game form. At some point I’d forgotten that, and never actually realized that as publisher, I can also indulge that impulse to meld history and game play together.

Second World War at Sea: South Pacific is the centerpiece of the Second World War at Sea game series. It’s focused on the naval war in the South Pacific during the Solomons campaign, from the American invasion of Guadalcanal in August 1942 through the campaign’s last naval battle at Cape St. George in November 1943.

While the Solomons naval campaign is probably best remembered for the fearsome night surface battles in Ironbottom Sound, it was also the background for two of the four carrier battles fought during the Pacific War (the others being Coral Sea and Midway, each of which gets its own Second World War at Sea game).

The first of these, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons took place in late August 1942. The Americans had landed on Guadalcanal a little more than two weeks previously, and their aircraft carriers provided support and most importantly protected the vulnerable transports bringing reinforcements and supplies. The Japanese aimed to disrupt this traffic, and drive off or destroy the carriers providing air support.

Eastern Solomons is an interesting battle, because while the Japanese had studied the lessons of Midway and drafted new doctrine based on those conclusions, they had not yet implemented them. A courier plane delivered the new fighting instructions to the carrier commander, Chuichi Nagumo, as they steamed toward the battle area. Nagumo, who amazingly kept his job after the debacle at Midway, appears to have leafed through them, but had no time to implement any of the changes.

Instead, Operation Ka went forward as one of the hyper-complicated Japanese operations that marked the early months of the war. Nagumo was charged both with finding and destroying the American carriers operating off Guadalcanal and at the same time running a troop convoy safely to the island. To accomplish this, he had Japan’s two remaining heavy carriers (Shokaku and Zuikaku) while a light carrier (Ryujo) directly covered the transports and a fourth carrier (Junyo) stayed behind at Truk for lack of planes.

The Americans, led by Frank Jack Fletcher, had three aircraft carriers: Enterprise, a veteran of Midway, and Saratoga and Wasp, both of which had arrived on the scene at Midway a few days after the battle. He also had a battleship (North Carolina, assigned to protect Enterprise) and a screen of cruisers and destroyers for each carrier. Like the Japanese, the Americans retained their pre-Midway methods and each carrier formed the core of its own unique task force, which meant that each carrier would launch airstrikes separately from the others.

While the Americans began the battle with a significant edge in striking power, just before it began Fletcher detached Wasp and her escorts to return to New Caledonia and refuel. That gave the Japanese a slight edge in the air, though neither side realized this.

And so in South Pacific we study the battle through the game scenarios, just as we did in Eastern Fleet, Coral Sea and Midway. Eastern Solomons is a more “concentrated” battle than Midway or Coral Sea, with the action taking place in a fairly short window of time. So the main event scenario in the game pretty much tells the whole story: Saratoga smoked Ryujo with a single strike, with Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a combined strike that pressed through heavy anti-aircraft fire to cripple but not sink Enterprise. That defensive fire (that gave North Carolina her “Showboat” nickname) devastated the attackers and flamed a few Wildcats of Enterprise’s Combat Air Patrol as well.

On the next day, American land-based aircraft attacked and drove off the reinforcement convoy, which had continued forward even as Nagumo withdrew. The Japanese surface elements that had pressed forward through the night hours in hopes of intercepting the American carrier forces also turned around. Meanwhile, Wasp and her escorts charged forward at the prompting of Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor who appears to have believed either Shokaku or Zuikaku to have been damaged (neither had been struck) and signaled “Let’s finish off those carriers.” Wasp failed to locate the Japanese, which may have been a good thing for her crew.

Those actions allow us to play out a day-after scenario, with Wasp trying to find the Japanese and Enterprise trying to escape the area under Saratoga’s protection. And we can see how Hiroaki Abe’s Vanguard Force with its two battle cruisers would have fared against North Carolina’s death-star-like firepower.

Wargames also allow us to explore possibilities, and so we have an alternative Eastern Solomons scenario introducing post-Midway Japanese practice early enough to have an effect on this battle. The Japanese had made some adjustments already, increasing the allotment of fighter planes to both Shokaku and Zuikaku to allow them to fly a heavier Combat Air Patrol. Since Japan did not have a reserve of pilots and planes, these came chiefly from Junyo, which is why she was left behind at Truk. They also stripped some aircraft from Hiyo and Zuiho, the other two surviving carriers, which remained in home waters.

In the alternative scenario Ryujo operates with the two heavy carriers, with an air group consisting solely of fighter planes. Her job is to fly CAP and protect the big ships. But the real problem faced by the Japanese is that they started this war at all. It was a war of choice, not necessity, and it was driven by the Navy’s carrier faction which had no excuse to not have realized its terrible weakness.

The Japanese replacement system did not produce new pilots in any quantity, and the reforms intended to replenish the squadrons (put in place after Pearl Harbor, even before the Midway disaster) would not bear fruit until 1943. Even worse, the Japanese did not rotate individual pilots and aircrew; “they won’t let you go home unless you die” became the pilot’s lament. Exhausted pilots died before they could impart their experience to new recruits at home.

Further, Japanese industry had interrupted its assembly lines to produce new models and the Navy faced a shortage of planes as well as pilots. Japanese tactical doctrine exacerbated this problem, as a carrier’s primary protection came from its fighter planes. Her escorts were intended to defend against enemy surface ships, not against enemy aircraft, and their anti-aircraft batteries only fought off attacks directed against them and not the carrier. When Japanese carriers went into battle without their full air group, they were even more vulnerable than an American carrier in a comparable situation.

So we also take a look at what the Japanese might have achieved with a more robust system to provide planes and pilots, which fills the decks of all four carriers (Junyo as well as the three actual participants). The Americans get to use Wasp, which makes things about even. Even odds were about the best the Japanese could expect at this stage of the war.

And that’s the approach I took to the Eastern Solomons chapter of South Pacific. Next time we’ll look at a different chapter.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is deeply read in the history of barking.