Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Battle of the Coral Sea - 70 Years - May 3-8, 1942

Japan scored early victories across the Pacific from December 1941 into early 1942. The Imperial Japanese Navy under its Commander-in-Chief Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, looked southwest for their next conquests. For both strategic and tactical reasons, the Japanese had to cut off the British dominions of Australia and New Zealand off from their supply routes to the United States.

Yamamoto's plan was codenamed "Operation MO", "MO" standing for Port Moresby in New Guinea. The Japanese began their New Guinea and Solomon Islands operations in early March with their invasion of Lae-Salamaua. This attack was launched without any air cover from the IJN's carriers; the Japanese didn't think the United States Navy would have any carriers of their own in the area to oppose the operation. They were wrong. The raid launched by our Navy was the first effective offensive strike against a Japanese task force and resulted in 28 Navy Crosses being awarded to the heroic Naval Aviators who flew the attack mission. The surprise response of American aircraft meant that the Japanese planners for Operation MO had to include air cover for the rest of the New Guinea campaign. The Fifth Carrier Division, consisting of the aircraft carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku, was allocated to the mission.

All told, the Japanese sent the two fleet carriers, a light carrier (Shōhō) nine cruisers, and fifteen destroyers as the combatants to escort the invading force and get them ashore. The force had 127 carrier aircraft aboard. (Order of Battle) The Japanese thought they'd achieve complete surprise. They thought that the Allies wouldn't be able to respond to the attack in time. They were wrong again.

In early March, cryptologists and intelligence analysts for both the United States Navy and British forces in Australia and New Zealand had begun to break Japanese coded naval radio traffic. The impact of Allied code breaking and the intelligence it produced can not be underestimated in the outcomes of the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway a month later in June 1942. Not only did the Allies learn in advance that Operation MO would occur, they correctly deduced the main target of Port Moresby, learned what the Japanese forces' secondary objectives were, and knew what the enemy's order of battle would be.

The new Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, saw the Japanese plans for the invasion of New Guinea as an incredible opportunity. Since he knew when and where the enemy would attack, he could marshall enough power to try to both repel and defeat them. He dispatched four American carriers to the fight, but because two of the four - USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8) - were returning from the Doolittle Raid in mid-April, only two would actually make it to the Coral Sea south of New Guinea in time to fight.

The Allied forces would sail under the overall command of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher's Task Force 17 (TF17). Fletcher, himself a Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipient for his courage earlier in his Naval career, and Task Force 17 would stack up against the Japanese agressors essentially unit for unit. Fletcher's force consisted of:
For the Battle of the Coral Sea, two other task forces came under Fletcher's command: Task Force 11 with the Lexington and Task Force 44 comprised of cruisers Australia, Chicago, and Hobart (units listed above). In the instances where they operated independently, I may refer to them as TF11 and TF44. Now, to the events of the battle.

May 3, 1942

The Japanese invasion of the island of Tulagi, just north of Guadalcanal in the Solomons, begins. Admiral Fletcher received a sighting report of the Japanese attackers late in the day at 1700. He immediately sent Yorktown north to a position where they could launch air strikes against the Japanese force. Yorktown went alone as Fletcher didn't want to risk discovery by breaking radio silence to alert TF11 and Lexington.

May 4, 1942

The Japanese ships anchored at Tulagi were completely unsuspecting that an American carrier was in the area. Yorktown launched her strike consisting of 12 TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from VT-5 and 28 SBD Dauntless dive bombers from VB-5 and VS-5 at 0701 from about 100 miles south of Guadalcanal. They arrived at Tulagi at 0850 and caught the Japanese completely by surprise.

Yorktown's planes were successful in sinking the Japanese destroyer Kikuzuki and sunk or damaged several other ships in the first strike and two follow-on attacks later in the morning. They didn't stop the invasion of the island, but drew vital blood. The Japanese now knew that Operation MO would be challenged.

The Japanese carrier force of Shōkaku and Zuikaku sent search planes to the east believing that's where they'd find Fletcher's force. As they were to the south, they remained undetected.

May 5, 1942

Early in the morning of May 5, Yorktown and TF17 rendezvoused at a pre-determined point 370 miles south of Guadalcanal with Lexington and TF11. Around 0816, some of Yorktown's F4F Wildcat fighters from squadron Fighting FORTY-TWO discovered and shot down a Japanese search plane. The Japanese aircraft hadn't yet found the Americans and wasn't able to send a sighting report before it was destroyed. Nonetheless, when it didn't return the Japanese correctly concluded that it had been shot down by carrier aircraft. The search circle was tightening.

Then, Fletcher received a new intelligence report from Pearl Harbor. Intercepted enemy communications indicated that the Port Moresby attack would happen on May 10 and that the main Japanese carrier force would be close by the invasion fleet.

Task Force 17 began taking on fuel from the oiler Neosho. The fueling operation wouldn't be completed until the next day. It appeared that May 6 would be the day for Fletcher to close with the enemy before attacking on May 7.

May 6, 1942

Fletcher's first act of May 6 was to absorb TF11 and TF44 into TF17, unifying command. TF17 sent scout planes to the north, but they didn't discover the Japanese as the enemy was just out of range.

A Japanese seaplane found Fletcher's force at 1000 hours. Word of the sighting reached the Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi, about an hour later. At this point, Takagi's carriers were sailing west-northwest along the south shore of the Solomons. TF17 was 350 miles to the south, and Takagi assumed that they were sailing south away from presumed danger after the attack against Tulagi Island. He turned his ships and increased speed to try and catch up with the Americans.

Task Force 17 was actually heading along a somewhat parallel course to the Japanese ships. US Army Air Forces' B-17 Flying Fortress bombers from Australia, with a refueling stop at Port Moresby, had sighted the Japanese invasion force northeast of New Guinea accompanied by the light carrier Shōhō. This sighting reinforced Fletcher's opinion that the Japanese carriers were with the invasion force, when in reality Shōkaku and Zuikaku were approaching from the north separate from the ships heading for Port Moresby.

Fletcher's ships finished their refueling and set course WNW towards the Louisiade Archipelago where they assumed the main battle would happen the next day. The oiler Neosho with destroyer Sims as an escort was detached from TF17 and sent south, ostensibly away from danger.

Unbeknownst to both Fletcher and Takagi, their two opposing forces were less than 80 miles from each other at the close of the day. May 7th would see the beginning of the first carrier vs. carrier naval battle in world history, and it would start with both sides looking in the wrong place for their prey.

May 7, 1942

Dawn on the 7th saw Fletcher's Task Force 17 approaching a point about 130 miles south of Rossel Island. Fletcher had a wide area to cover to try and intercept the Japanese approaching their invasion of New Guinea near Port Moresby. He decided to detach Task Force 44 from Task Force 17 to guard the Jornard Passage. This was a risky decision because TF44's three cruisers (Australia, Chicago, and Hobart) and two destroyers (Perkins and Walke) under Australian Rear Admiral John Gregory Chase's command would be exposed without air cover. Furthermore, TF17 would be deprived of the five ships' antiaircraft guns. Fletcher though securing one of the possible enemy approaches to Port Moresby worth the risk.

At this time the Japanese carriers were almost due east of TF17. Fletcher believed them to be to the north-northwest. Admiral Takagi believed that the Americans were south of his position. Both admirals launched their search planes around 0600 - in the wrong directions.

The Japanese sent 12 Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers south at 0600. At 0722, one of the pilots radioed back a sighting report of "one carrier, one cruiser, and three destroyers". They saw ships, but somehow mistook the oiler Neosho and the destroyer Sims for a much larger force. The Japanese believed the American carriers had been discovered, and launched a massive air strike: 18 fighters, 36 dive bombers, and 24 torpedo bombers. Meanwhile, another Japanese reconnaissance plane sighted Task Force 17 further west. Takagi assumed at this point that the American carriers were split and operating independently.

The Japanese air attack arrived at the position of Neosho and Sims at about 0915 and searched for the American carriers which, of course, weren't there. As soon as the identification mistake was realized, Takagi ordered most of his planes back to Shōkaku and Zuikaku to be prepared to strike in the right direction. The 36 dive bombers stayed behind and pounced upon the two American ships.

Four planes dove on Sims and released their bombs. Three hit and exploded. The destroyer broke in half and sunk almost instantly with the loss of 178 of her crew of 192. The remaining planes attacked Neosho. She was struck by seven bombs. Her antiaircraft fires caused one of the Japanese aircraft to crash into the ship, causing further massive damage. Neosho was aflame and sinking, and her crew tried valiantly to save her. An attack report was radioed to Admiral Fletcher, but Neosho gave an incorrect position and incomplete details as to how they were attacked. TF17 was still in the dark as to where the Japanese carriers were as the Japanese bombers returned to their ships.

Neosho's crew performed heroically in their damage control efforts. They managed to keep her afloat for the next four days until the survivors were picked and the oiler scuttled by gunfire from one of the rescuing destroyers lest she fall into enemy hands. Of her crew of 304, 123 men survived. One, Chief Watertender Oscar V. Peterson, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his courage in trying to save their ship. At least two others aboard received the Navy Cross.

Meanwhile, Fletcher had dispatched 10 SBD Dauntless dive bombers north from TF17 at 0619 to find the Japanese ships. At 0815, the American planes sent their own erroneous sighting report back to their ships: two carriers and four heavy cruisers. Fletcher, believing that this was his primary target, ordered a maximum effort strike to attack: 53 SBD bombers and 22 TBD torpedo planes with 18 F4F fighter escorts. At 1012, Army B-17s from Australia made their own sighting report of an aircraft carrier, 16 warships, and 10 transports - also in error. Even though the original sighting report was corrected at 1019, Fletcher was still certain he had launched his strike at the right target.

The American planes arrived over the Japanese ships at 1040. They found a carrier, but it was the light carrier Shōhō and not the fleet carriers Fletcher hoped to attack. Lexington's planes were the first to strike, hitting the Japanese flat-top with at least two 1,000-pound bombs and five torpedoes. Shōhō was likely already mortally wounded when Yorktown's aircraft delivered their final blow. An additional 11 bombs and two torpedoes ripped the ship apart and sent her to the bottom. Of Shōhō's 834 crew, 203 lived to be rescued.

Lexington and Yorktown recovered their planes and by mid-afternoon had rearmed them for a strike against the rest of the Japanese fleet to the northwest. Admiral Fletcher, now doubting that the main Japanese carrier force was in that direction, held the strike back. After learning of Shōhō's sinking, the Japanese turned around the Port Moresby invasion force lest they be attacked again. For the first time in the war, Allied action had caused the Japanese to turn around, albeit for just a short delay.

At 1240, TF44's cruisers and destroyers were spotted by a Japanese search plane. The enemy commanders ordered an attack on the formation using land-based aircraft from Rabaul. They struck at 1430, but achieved no hits on Admiral Chase's ships. The fog of war affected the Japanese though as the attacking pilots both misidentified the ships they struck and overstated the damage caused. They reported that they had sunk a California-type battleship and damaged another battleship and a cruiser. Chase radioed Fletcher that he'd be unable to continue his mission without air support. Fletcher, still maintaining radio silence, didn't reply. TF44 withdrew to the south to allow them to still partially perform their assigned mission while increasing the range between themselves and potential further air attack.

The Japanese did attempt one strike in the afternoon against TF17. The Japanese planes were detected by radar and the American fighters beat the attackers away. Nine enemy planes were destroyed to just three Americans shot down.

For the rest of the afternoon of May 7, both navies continued their searches for their primary targets - each other's aircraft carriers - with no success. Both commanders expected to find their quarry early on May 8. They were both right.

May 8, 1942

Both opposing forces began the morning with 360-degree air searches to find the enemy. At 0820 an SBD Dauntless spotted the Japanese carriers. Two minutes later, a Japanese plane found TF17. The long awaited carrier vs. carrier battle was on.

By 0920, both sides had launched their strikes. Yorktown and Lexington sent their planes independently: 6 fighters, 24 dive bombers, and 9 torpedo planes from Yorktown; 9 fighters, 15 bombers, and 12 torpedo bombers from Lexington. Japanese carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku combined their planes into one strike with 18 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 18 torpedo planes.

The Japanese airplanes attacked TF17 at 11:13. Fletcher's ships were sailing very close together to allow for mutual antiaircraft support, but many of the Japanese planes regardless got through. Lexington, being larger and less maneuverable than Yorktown, couldn't evade all the torpedoes dropped by the Japanese attackers and took two hits in the port side. The torpedoes caused significant damage to Lexington. The port water main was fractured which forced her engineers to shut down half the ship's boilers, reducing her speed. The other caused Lexington's aviation gasoline tanks to buckle. The shaken tanks, undetected, began leaking gasoline fumes into unoccupied compartments.

Lexington was also struck by two Japanese bombs and received shock damage from several near misses. The fires produced by the bomb hits were quickly put out, and the damaged carrier remained in action and able to conduct flight operations.

Yorktown evaded all of the torpedoes fired at her and All but one of the bombs flung at her missed, some close enough to cause significant shock damage to the carrier's hull. The lone bomb that hit was enough, and nearly cost the United States an aircraft carrier. The 250-pound armor piercing bomb sliced through her flight deck, transited the hangar, and exploded another two or three decks below. The damage was enormous, and large fires broke out quickly. The one bomb and resulting damage may have been a fatal wound were it not for the superhuman efforts of Yorktown's crew in damage control. One of her engineering officers, Lieutenant Milton Ricketts, was leading a damage control team immediately adjacent to where the bomb exploded. Even though most of his team was killed, and he was mortally wounded, he activated a fire hose and held back the conflagration until he died. Milton Ricketts earned the Medal of Honor for his acts, and his one courageous act may well have saved the Yorktown to fight another day.

Both American carriers licked their wounds, remained in action, and awaited the return of their planes from their attack on the Japanese carriers. The Japanese already thought them both sunk - an enormous miscalculation that would have a significant impact on future battles. Lexington's hull though, contained a ticking "time bomb".

As the Japanese planes were nearing TF17 on their attack, the American planes found themselves overhead Shōkaku and Zuikaku at 1032. They paused briefly to allow the slower TBD Devastator torpedo planes to catch up, then they struck.

Zuikaku had concealed herself in a rain squall and the Americans couldn't find her; she escaped unscathed. Shōkaku wasn't as lucky.

Yorktown's bombers were the first to find Shōkaku, and they slammed two bombs into the Japanese carrier's foredeck, wrecking the flight deck and making it impossible for the ship to conduct flight operations. Lexington's dive bombers scored an additional hit. Shōkaku didn't sink, but her critical damage meant that she had to withdraw from combat and return all the way to Japan for repairs. She would be out of action for months.

American bomber pilot John James Powers, the flyer who delivered the final blow to Shōhō the day before, was last seen diving below a safe level to insure that his bomb impacted Shōkaku. Whether he was shot down or couldn't pull out of his dive in time to escape the explosion of the bomb he dropped isn't known, but his incredible flying during the battle was recognized with the Medal of Honor. A second aviator, William Hall, was also decorated with the Medal for his courage during May 7-8.

The battle was essentially over when disaster struck the Lexington at 1247. The leaking gasoline fumes were ignited by sparks from an unattended electric motor and exploded, killing 25 crewmen outright and starting another large fire aboard the ship. As the damage control teams tried to bring this under control, Lexington was rocked by two more explosions. Her crew did everything they could, but by 1538 the fire fighting teams had reported that they were losing control of the situation. At 1707, the order to abandon Lexington was given. After her surviving crew escaped into the sea, one of the escorting destroyers put the stricken carrier out of her misery with five torpedoes at 1915. Over 2,700 of the ship's crew - nearly everybody still living at that point - was rescued.

Admiral Fletcher, with one carrier sunk and the other damaged, plus the real problem of dwindling fuel supplies with the loss of Neosho, chose to retire from battle. The Japanese attempted to locate the Americans until May 10, when they also withdrew.


On paper, the Battle of the Coral Sea was a clear loss for the United States Navy. One carrier sunk and the other severely damaged was an unfair trade for one Japanese light carrier sunk and one fleet carrier damaged. Strategically, it was a major victory - the scale of which wouldn't be known for some time.

This has probably gone on long enough, and if you've stuck through this entire post, well, I'm so appreciative of my readers! I'll leave a full "after action" for the Battle of the Coral Sea to a later post.

Suffice to say though, the sinking of Shōhō and the major damage to Shōkaku - and the saving of Yorktown would have an indelible impact on the upcoming battle that Yamamoto intended to be the decisive showdown of the Pacific: Midway.

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