Comdr. T. H. Winters, target co-ordinator for the strike, led the group northward, passed over the crippled ships without pausing, then pushed ahead with his wingman to locate the main body of undamaged ships. Winters found the Zuikaku, the light carrier Zuiho, one of the battleships, a cruiser, and three destroyers, all apparently undamaged, steaming northward at twenty knots. He reported his discovery to Mitscher, who ordered him to “sink the carriers,” the undamaged ones.
After checking the speed and course of the targets, Winters ordered the Lexington and Langley groups to combine on the two carriers. This time there was a light film of cumulus clouds over the targets, of which the bombers took advantage in making their approach. Gaudily colored antiaircraft fire rose from the ships, together with white bursts of phosphorus with long tentacles, and a new shell that sent whirling spring-like brass wires into the air. One of the Essex planes flamed and went down under the barrage, while several others took hits.
Twelve Lexington bombers armed with half-ton armor-piercing bombs dived on the Zuikaku and planted several hits along her flight deck. These were followed shortly by nine Essex Helldivers similarly armed, which claimed additional hits on the large carrier. The results of the torpedo plane attack on the same ship were variously reported, though it seems probable that a few hits were scored. Large fires were started on the light carrier Zuiho by bombing attacks.
Winters directed the planes from Davison’s carriers to delay their dives until he went down to investigate the results of the first attacks. Once under the cloud cover he found the Zuikaku burning, smoking heavily, almost dead in the water, and listing twenty degrees to port. While she seemed about done for, the light carrier Zuiho had extinguished her fires and was floating normally. Winters climbed back “upstairs,” with shrapnel damage to his plane, and directed the Franklin, Enterprise, and San Jacinto planes, which had been awaiting their turn aloft, to attack the light carrier. The attack of these groups started up the fires on the Zuiho again, but as the planes left for their base she was still headed north under her own steam.
Waiting for a new strike group to arrive over the targets, Winters made a ten mile circle around the new cripples, during which he sighted a battleship and two cruisers between ten and twenty miles south of the main body headed north. He informed Mitscher of the contact and returned to the scene of the last air strike.
Winters arrived over the main enemy group just in time to witness the death throes of the Zuikaku. Mitscher’s pilots had settled some long-standing scores with their strikes of the 25th, for the Zuikaku had earned an impressive name in the Pacific. She was the last survivor of the six Japanese carriers which attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. During the three years that followed she drew blood from our airmen at Coral Sea, in two Solomons actions, Stewart Island and Santa Cruz, and again in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. She had a hand in the sinking of two of our finest carriers. The last of Japan’s prewar first-line carriers and the last ship of CarDiv One, pride of the Imperial Fleet, the Zuikaku had run through her luck. At about 1430 Winters watched her roll over slowly to starboard and sink without any explosion. She was flying “a battle flag of tremendous size, perhaps fifty feet square,” he said.
Thirty minutes later the first elements of the fourth strike of the day, a small one this time consisting of a series of minor attacks, arrived under the co-ordinating direction of Comdr. Malcolm T. Wordell. At about 1500 several half-ton bombs and two torpedoes finished off the crippled Zuiho, thus evening the score for the old Hornet, which the Zuiho had assisted in sinking in the Battle of Santa Cruz. Japanese destroyers maneuvered to recover survivors of the two carriers. There were now three carriers down and one to go — the cripple left far to the south and deserted by her screening vessels.