After a considerable hiatus because of work on Bay of Bengal and the second edition standard rules of Solomon Sea, I finally managed to get on with the sequence, playing Eastern Solomons as the next battle.
Playing solo implies that I keep more notes, and also that some finer points of play can be analysed that would not be possible in a non-refereed 2-player game. To enable readers to filter this out from the battle narrative if they choose, all text referring to game mechanisms and in particular solitaire play specific mechanisms will be formatted like this.
To determine the status at the start of the battle, let's remember what happened before. In the battle of the Coral Sea, Lexington and Zuikaku were sunk. Yorktown ended with a final damage status of one ENG hit (after heroic efforts of the damage control crews - the chance of saving her was less than 10%), and Shokaku with one DECK and one ENG hit. Shokaku limps back to Japan, while Yorktown proceeds to Pearl Harbor, where she turns up just in time to have her damage patched up and participate in the Battle of Midway. There, the USN springs a trap on the Japanese with all its remaining carriers. Yorktown is lost in the battle, but the cream of the Japanese carrier fleet is destroyed as four carriers go to the bottom. Emboldened by this success, the Americans have conducted an amphibious landing in the Solomons. It is now the duty of the Imperial Navy to defeat their fleet so the intruders can again be driven off the ground that the Japanese had captured earlier in the year.
I used the normal "Midway Happens" rule (not having Victory at Midway with me at the time of playing). Yorktown's remaining damage is removed using the Emergency Repair rule. As a result, Yorktown is "normally" present at Midway and the Midway rule proceeds normally. Yorktown and the historical four Japanese carriers are considered sunk.
Shokaku is available again after 9 weeks repair time (repair DR was 4). As the Battle of the Eastern Solomons is separated from the Battle of the Coral Sea by 14 weeks, she will be available for the upcoming battle. Of course the sinking of Zuikaku means that the Japanese have significantly less strike power on the ground (or on the sea as it happens), but after the almost successful landing in Port Moresby that, while not securing New Guinea, continues to be a thorn in the Allied side, they do have a strategic advantage. (Leading in points 101 to 70.)
0100 Both sides launch long range aircraft. While their positions are unknown to each other at this time, Admiral Fletcher has set a westerly course to close with the enemy, and Admiral Nagumo is coming to meet him. Both sides have placed their goal markers in the enemy setup area. Since both leaders are Cautious, that doesn't mean they are storming blindly into battle, there is considerable latitude to choose their speed of advance. But unless either of the two changes goals they will eventually collide.
0430 The Emilys out of Shortlands sight both the Enterprise and Saratoga task forces, as do the Japanese cruiser floatplanes. The Japanese transports are also sighted. The Japanese carriers are out of the land-based search coverage, but are found by the dawn SBD search from Saratoga. A PBY report on the Support force is not passed on. Both sides are still too far apart to exchange strikes.
As carriers were detected, goal marker shifts could occur, but neither side moves their goal marker (the US marker is actually west of the Japanese position while the Japanese marker is between the carrier forces of both sides). This is fine on the US side but on the Japanese side with its lower carrier strength soon turns out to be a problem - if you are weaker, you do have to dance like a butterfly, and the goal marker is really the way you react to changes in the tactical situation - you use it like a piece of string that you lead the carrier forces on.
At the end of the turn, search status of all found TFs is degraded to F-1.
0800 With both sides now aware that the enemy is in the vicinity, the Americans decide to hang back a bit and wait for Wasp to close the range.US moves first and choose Wasp. This is actually an excellent ploy as now the Japanese have to move next and have to move into the maw of the US carriers or maintain position. The carriers maintain distance, and the US carriers move closer. In the Search Placement Phase the placement limitations come into play as neither side can place another ship-based short range search right were the carriers are (the exact locations are blocked by S-1 markers). Both sides decide to search towards the north with the maximum two hex overlap. The US place a SBD search north of the Japanese carriers. The Japanese place a CAV search to the north of the US carriers. The Japanese send a group of scouts from their recon cruisers northwards as this sector was not previously searched. This will give them coverage over the Enterprise Task Force, but the location of Saratoga is not covered by this search and the Japanese will not obtain new information about her (she will remain at F-1 level).
The PBYs flying out of Ndeni are actually passing over the Japanese carrier TFs but do not report in. However, the Americans have launched a SBD search and the scouts on the southern edge of the search pattern do find the Japanese carrier TFs and the Vanguard Force again. Likewise the IJN floatplanes find the Enterprise TF again.
The Japanese decide that it's better to go for a full strength strike on the one carrier they have found and then try to fade into the woodwork, rather than spread out and be rendered ineffective of doing damage. There are two Japanese strikes (one from Shokaku, 9 Zero, 18 D3A, 27 B5N [12 steps total], and one from Ryujo, 18 D3A [4 steps total], that both find their target, TF16.
The US carriers send two waves each (the first consisting of 18 F4F s and 18 TBF's, the second of 36 SBD's for Enterprise and 27 for Saratoga). All of them find their way to the target. They all had to roll 4-10 to arrive (the first wave gets +1 for the F4F's, the second +1 because it is the second wave).
The Enterprise CAP manages to jump the bombers and shoots down 9 B5N torpedo bombers (2 steps) at the cost of 9 F4F's that fall to the escorting Zeroes. [J 2 A 2]
North Carolina's AA Fire hits another 5 B5N's. The remainder swoop in on Enterprise and manage to hit her broadside with a torpedo. Then the dive bombers come and score one near miss after the other until the very last group manages to plant bomb hits on the carrier as well. A smoking Enterprise drops out of formation while the damage control crews go to work, but things look dire. [J 20 A 1]
Meanwhile, the separate waves of American torpedo and dive bombers approach the Japanese task forces. As it happens the waves do not meet before encountering targets and end up attacking separately, and separate targets. The torpedo bombers (with the fighter escort) end up attacking the Vanguard Force, while the dive bombers attack the Shokaku force. On arrival in the target hex, each of the US waves has to roll a die for target selection. There are two carrier TFs (each worth twice as much) and one surface TF, all at F (Found) status, thus 1-4 yields the Shokaku TF, 5-8 the Ryujo TF, and 9-10 the Vanguard force as the target.
AA fire from the Vanguard force shoots down 4 TBF bombers. The others send out a crisscrossing network of torpedo tracks that envelop the two battleships, violently maneuvering at 30 knots, but in the end do not manage to score a single hit. [J 1]
Over the Carrier Force, the 18 Zeroes on CAP savage the incoming bombers, shooting down 14 SBDs [J 3]. However, AA fire is ineffective as the remainder dive on the twisting and turning carrier. More than 40 bombs drop around it, throwing great geysers of water into the air. Near misses dent the hull, and it is inevitable that eventually bombs hit, and they do. Multiple bomb hits pierce the flight deck, stop the engines, and set the carrier aflame from stem to stern. (Three hits were rolled, total.) [A 20]
Both great carriers are progressively enveloped by the flames and scuttled by destroyers, 200 miles apart but within an hour of each other.
In the damage control phase, Enterprise will roll with -5 (2+ ENG hits) and -1 (a DECK hit) for a total of -6. Shokaku, hit 3 times by dive bombers, has -5 (2+ ENG hits), -3 (-3 for the DECK hits) and +1 (for being Shokaku class) for a total of -7. In the event, Enterprise rolls a 6 (reduced to 0) and Shokaku a 1 (reduced to -6), giving an 'F' result for both.
Both sides now have to deal with available flight deck space suddenly being dramatically restricted. On the US side, roughly 40 planes (9 steps) have to be ditched, on the Japanese side, the number is 50 (11 steps). The Americans gain more deck space to avoid even higher losses by flying Saratoga's CAP off to Henderson Field. [J 4 A 5 for the ditching]
This has certainly been one of the more bloody exchanges. Both TF16 and the "Carrier Force" have suddenly been converted to Escort missions. Nagumo's immediate reaction is to gain some breathing space, while Fletcher decides that it makes sense to keep close to the Japanese. After the conclusion of air strikes, goal markers can be moved as TF commanders reevaluate the situation. The Ryujo marker is shifted to move westwards, and the TF17 marker is shifted to follow.
1130 Nagumo debates with his staff. While the young firebrands suggest to "go for it" like Yamaguchi at Midway, he decides that even right now, with only 40% of the number of carrier planes at his disposal that is still available to the Americans, he does not really stand a chance. Tomorrow, of course, Wasp will arrive and give the Americans a 3:1 advantage in carrier planes; the disparity in bombers is even greater. Therefore, Nagumo decides to withdraw from the battle (declares Abort for all TFs). The Carrier Force's ships are merged with the Vanguard Force. Everyone moves westwards. The Japanese floatplanes find the pursuing TF16 and 17, but there are no planes ready to attack them.
1500 The Japanese retreat continues. The Ryujo force and Vanguard Force pull away from the battle at full speed. Saratoga now has all her planes readied. A search group of 9 SBDs is sent ahead but does not manage to find the Japanese carriers, although they find the Vanguard Force. With the Japanese about ready to escape and a further search in the vicinity will not be possible on the next turn. Therefore the ready strike planes are launched against the Vanguard Force. However, they fail to find the Japanese and turn around. Nine planes are lost or fail to land in the gathering darkness. [J 2]
1800 The Americans decide they will go on the long pursuit towards Truk, in the hope of catching up with the fleeing Ryujo.
August 24, 1942
0100 As both sides plan their searches for the day, Admiral Fletcher realizes two things: although he has three times the strike planes on board Saratoga that Nagumo has left on Ryujo (54 vs 18), they have to use some of theirs for scouting, whereas Ryujo's companions still include the floatplane equipped cruisers. Waiting for Wasp to arrive will essentially let the Japanese get away. Also, whereas no Allied land-based aircraft reaches within 300 miles of their position, Japanese search aircraft from both Rabaul and Shortlands can reach them. Lastly, 27 G4M medium bombers are waiting at Rabaul for them to come into range, and they would be accompanied by no less than 36 Zeroes. Fletcher is mindful of the fact that a key question is to conserve his forces against the attrition they may face in the future. Risking another carrier just to catch small Ryujo is not really worth it. The Americans decide to abort as well.
Total outcome: J 28 A 23
The pivotal decision in the battle was probably at 0430 on the first day when I decided to keep the US goal marker where it was, despite having the option (because Fletcher's search planes had found Nagumo) to pull back and wait for Wasp. Overall, the Japanese have managed to hold their own against a superior American presence and in fact came out very slightly ahead on the attrition curve due to higher US plane losses. However, the price for this was the loss of the last of Japanese prewar fleet carrier. In subsequent battles the Japanese will have to rely on their CVLs and the converted liners Junyo and Hiyo to serve as the carrier arm until new carriers come on line late in 1943.
Sequence intermediate outcome: J 129 A 93