Battle of the Eastern Solomons, View from a Japanese Dive Bomber

During the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Japanese Navy Observer, Keiichi Arima had a front row seat to the third carrier battle of the Pacific War.

The Beginning

Keiichi Arima, was the son of a Tokyo business man. As a teenager, he was impressed by an older cousin who was serving in the Imperial Japanese Navy and decided to enlist. Arima entered the Japanese Naval Academy at seventeen in 1933, one of just 160 young men selected that year. Training was tough and physical demands were high. At the Naval Academy, students learned sumo, kendo, rhythmic gymnastics and judo. On weekends they climbed mountains or rode horses. Graduating in 1937, Arima went on a six month training cruise going to Southeast Asia, Turkey, France and Italy.

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Keiichi Arima in flight gear

After returning to Japan, Arima was assigned to the aircraft carrier Sōryū and worked in the communications section. In 1938, he was chosen for flight training and went to Kasumigaura to learn to fly. While training at Kasumigaura, Arima elected to become an aerial observer as he noticed there were few officers training for that position.

In October 1939, he was assigned to the 12th Kōkūtai in central China where he piloted the Type 96 “Susie” biplane and flew in the Type 99 D3A”Val” dive bomber as an observer. Flying up to four missions a week, Arima’s squadron had no specific targets and attacked the Chinese Army wherever they could find them. Arima and his squadron mates operated at altitudes of around 200 feet, attacking targets of opportunity around the Yangtze River with impunity since there were no Chinese airplanes in the area to oppose them. Arima gained valuable experience in combat and returned to Japan in November 1940.

When Japan and America went to war in December 1941, Keiichi Arima was serving as a land based instructor with the Japanese Navy Squadron Suzuka Kōkūtai. He would soon find himself heading for sea duty in the Eastern Solomons against the American Navy.

The Battle of the Eastern Solomons

On June 25, 1942, Keiichi Arima was assigned to the aircraft carrier Shōkaku as an observer in their dive bombing squadron. Shōkaku had been heavily damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea and was under repair in dry dock. On July 16th, Shōkaku was reassigned to Striking Force, 3rd Fleet, Carrier Division 1. On August 7, 1942, American Forces landed at Guadalcanal, Tulagi and the Florida Islands in the Solomon Islands. The Americans needed to capture these strategic islands from the Japanese who were using them to threaten US supply routes to Australia. On August 21, 1942, the Japanese counterattack force was given orders to sail to the Eastern Solomons with the aircraft carriers Shōkaku, Zuikaku and Ryūjō sailed from Truk Island to do battle with the US Navy.

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          Japanese Aichi D3A Dive Bomber

Expecting a Japanese attack, the Americans had spent the morning of August 24th searching in vain for the main Japanese battle fleet. Their reconnaissance planes had located the light carrier Ryūjō which was sent ahead of the main task force but they knew the main threat was still lurking somewhere out there. More alarming for the Americans was that they had shot down a Japanese scout planes within 20 miles from their fleet. The Japanese knew where they were and could attack at any time. At 1300, with no luck finding the main Japanese fleet, the American commander, Admiral Frank Fletcher ordered a strike on the Ryūjō, sending aircraft from the USS Saratoga to attack her. Thirty minutes after Saratoga launched her planes, the American’s located the Japanese main battle fleet 200 miles to the north moving at 30 knots and in position to attack the American fleet. Because of poor radio communication and the poor discipline of American pilots who cluttered the airwaves with unnecessary talk, it took time before Fletcher learned the main Japanese battle fleet had been located. When he finally received the news, Fletcher tried to redirect his planes already in the air and gassed and armed all available aircraft remaining on the carriers Saratoga and Enterprise.

At 1450, Keiichi Arima took off from the deck of Shōkaku as part of a strike force of twenty seven D3A’s dive bombers and ten A6M Zero fighters. The D3A’s flew in V formation and were split into three sections of nine planes under the overall command of Lieutenant Commander Mamoru Seki. Arima’s plane, flown by Petty Officer First Class Kiyoto Furuta, flew lead in the vertex of the left rear formation. The Japanese strike force flew at 24,000 feet, higher than usual, in hopes of avoiding American fighters.

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The Enterprise takes a bomb hit during the battle of Santa Cruz on October 26, 1942

The Attack

At 1632, while the Americans were preparing to launch their strike against the main Japanese force, their radar picked something up 88 miles out, bearing 320 degrees. 18,000 feet above, Arima had spotted the light blue wakes of the American ships. Below Arima was the US Navy’s Task Force 16, six Destroyers, the Battleship North Carolina and the Cruisers Portland and Atlanta forming a protective ring around the most valuable ship, the aircraft carrier Enterprise. The American fleet in the Eastern Solomons were facing a worst case scenario, their carrier deck were full of airplanes, gasoline, bombs and torpedoes and an enemy strike force was only minutes away. The American’s knew what would happen if a bomb hit their gassed and armed planes on the flight deck, they saw it at the Battle of Midway when they caught the Japanese fleet in the same situation and sank four enemy carriers.

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A bomb explodes on the USS Enterprise during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons

At 1655, just as the Japanese were about to dive, F4F wildcat fighters from Enterprise’s Combat Air Patrol smashed into them. Kiyoto Furuta saw an F4F rise in their formation and set a D3A on fire. The American fighter turned and got another D3A on as it began its dive. Furuta lead his section into the clouds to avoid the fighters. Furuta knew the F4F Wildcats were not a major threat. Their speed was about the same as the D3A and would have trouble catching up to them.

As the action raged in the skies above, the Enterprise began launching the planes on her deck, desperate to get them and their ordnance off the ship. The last plane took off at 1708 when radar reported the enemy was right overhead.

At 1712, Furuta dipped his plane into a 45° angle, screaming down on the Enterprise from 20,000 feet. From the observer’s position, Arima watched as the American carrier grew bigger in his window. The plane gained speed, pushing Arima back in his seat as they fell thousands of feet. The skies exploded with black puffs of anti-aircraft fire, filling the cockpit with the smell of cordite. Furuta released his bomb at 1,500 feet and flew low over the American fleet. Behind them, Arima saw the Enterprise engulfed in smoke as the rest of the D3A’s pushed home their attack. The sky was black with cannon fire and streams of orange tracer bullets. The ocean erupted in white geysers as the heavy ships fired their five-inch guns into the sea hoping the splash of water would engulf and destroy the Japanese planes.

In the distance, Furuta and Arima saw four planes closing fast, probably Zeroes wanting to guide them back to the Shōkaku. As the planes approached, Arima realized they were actually American F4F Wildcats. The Wildcats opened fire and  Furuta took his plane to 30 feet above the water. Splashes from machine gun bullets peppered the water around them as the D3A took turned evasive action and skidded all over the sky. In the rear of the D3A, Arima opened up on the Wildcats with his 7.7 machine gun hoping to drive them away. Furuta flew into the setting sun, hoping to blind the pilots behind him. It was twilight by the time the Americans had given up the chase. After a harrowing mission, Furuta and Arima finally landed their D3A safely on Shōkaku. A moment after their plane touched down, their engine quit from lack of fuel.

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A Japanese D3A dive bomber believed to be piloted by Yoshihiro Iida from the Shokaku is shot down over the enterprise on August 24,1942

The bomb from Kiyoto Furuta and Keiichi Arima’s D3A Val was the first of three bombs to hit the Enterprise that day. Their bomb went through the number three elevator and exploded between the second and third decks killing thirty five men.

Of the twenty seven D3A Val’s launched that day, seventeen were shot down and two more ditched with their crews rescued.

What Happened After

After the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Keiichi Arima and his pilot Kiyoto Furuta came up against the Enterprise again on October 26, 1942 at the Battle of Santa Cruz. Surviving intense anti-aircraft fire, they again scored a hit on the Enterprise and brought their badly damaged airplane home. After the Battle of Santa Cruz, Keiichi Arima was transferred back to Japan where he became an instructor on navigation and communication, ending the war a Lieutenant Commander. His pilot, Kiyoto Furuta also survived the war and the two remained lifelong friends.

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For More About The  Battle of the Eastern Solomons and Guadalcanal Read:

Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal

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