Hornet’s initial strike group of fifteen VS-8 and VB-8 SBD dive bombers, led by Lieutenant Commander William J. “Gus” Widhelm, had been in the air about a hour and fifteen minutes on the morning of 26 October 1942, searching for the Japanese carrier task force, when Widhelm turned the group north to avoid several Japanese Zeros he could see attacking Hornet’s escorting fighters. Five minutes later, after passing through a cloud bank, he spotted some ship wakes and billowing smoke to his left, about twenty-five miles off. He had sighted the Japanese carrier Shōkaku and its still-burning companion, the light carrier Zuihō.
As Widhelm and his SBDs were overtaking the larger carrier from astern, a Zero from the carrier Zuikaku, that was flying combat air patrol, made an overhead firing pass that punctured the leader’s aircraft in the left wing, the tail, and the engine. Even as Widhelm attempted to keep formation, his now overheated engine seized up, and he was forced to drop away. He successfully ditched the aircraft, and he and his rear gunner ARM1c George D. Stokely were able to get into their life raft before the plane sank. But it was a close call. As he later told an audience of workers at the Brewster Aircraft plant, “My plane sank 15 seconds after it hit the water but the rear gunner and I got out on a life raft. The entire Jap force steamed right by us. One time we had to paddle with our hands to avoid being run down by a destroyer.” Nevertheless, the two men had a front row seat to see several of the planes of his strike group put three thousand-pound bombs into Shōkaku’s flight deck, setting off fires that crippled her ability to handle flight operations.
Three days later, Gus Widhelm and George Stokely were rescued by a PBY patrol plane. For his courageous leadership at the Battle of Santa Cruz, Widhelm was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Cross. A 1932 graduate of the Naval Academy, Gus Widhelm went on later in the war to command the first Navy night-fighting squadron in the South Pacific and to serve as Operations Officer for Carrier Task Force One during campaigns in the Central Pacific.