The Battle of the Coral Sea



On 4 May 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea opened as TF 17 (RADM Frank Jack Fletcher) attacked the Japanese Tulagi Invasion Force (RADM Shima Kiyohide) at Tulagi. Elements of the Japanese 3d Kure Special Landing Force had gone ashore there (as well as on neighboring Gavutu) to establish defenses between 29 April and 2 May.

Dauntlesses and Devastators (VB 5, VS 5, VT 5), supported by Wildcats (VF 42) from Yorktown (CV-5) carried out three strikes against the Japanese ships. They sank the destroyer Kikuzuki, the minesweeper Tama Maru and the auxiliary minesweepers Wa 1 and Wa 2 and damaged the destroyer Yuzuki, the minelayer Okinoshima, the transport Azumasan Maru, and cargo ship Kozui Maru. LT John J. “Jo Jo” Powers of VB 5 participated in all three strikes, receiving credit for one direct hit, two close-misses, and a persistent low-level strafing attack.

The Yorktown Air Group suffered two Wildcats and one Devastator lost, due to navigational errors and fuel exhaustion. The destroyer Hammann (DD-412) rescued the two downed Wildcat pilots from Guadalcanal, but the destroyer Perkins (DD-377), however, sent to retrieve the downed Devastator crew south of the island, did not locate the missing men. The pilot and his radioman (the usual third crewman was not carried on this torpedo, vice high-level bombing, mission), though, ultimately reached the New Hebrides in a schooner with a Chinese crew.

That same day (4 May 1942), Japanese transports sailed from Rabaul, bound for Port Moresby to carry out Operation MO.



7 May 1942

The Battle of the Coral Sea resumed as RADM Fletcher’s force turned north to engage the Japanese Carrier Strike Force (VADM Takagi Takeo).

That day, Japanese land attack planes carrying torpedoes (4th Kokutai) or bombs (Genzan Kokutai) attacked the Support Group (RADM John G. Crace, RN) detached to intercept the Port Moresby Invasion Force (RADM Abe Koso); the destroyer Farragut (DD-348) was damaged by friendly fire while engaged in repelling the air attack. Later, mistaken for the Japanese Port Moresby Invasion Force, Crace’s ships were bombed by USAAF B-26s that straddle the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (flagship) and near-missed the heavy cruiser Chicago (CA-29) and the destroyer Perkins.

Meanwhile, Dauntlesses and Devastators (VB 2, VB 5, VS 2, VS 5, VT 2, VT 5) from Yorktown and Lexington (CV-2) attacked the Japanese Close Support Force (RADM Goto Aritomo) and sank the small carrier Shoho in Coral Sea, off Misima Island. During the action off Misima, LT “Jo Jo” Powers and LT (j.g.) William E. Hall, USNR (VS 2) skillfully and determinedly pressed home their attacks. That night, Powers (VB 5’s gunnery officer), lecturing his squadron on point of aim and diving technique, advocated a low-level release point to ensure accuracy, a philosophy he had demonstrated in the attack on Shoho.

Elsewhere that day, mistaken at the outset for a carrier and a cruiser, however, the oiler Neosho (AO-23) and destroyer Sims (DD-409), detached and operating independently from the U.S. carrier force, came under attack by Japanese planes, although the enemy recognizes the mistake in time to avoid expending torpedoes. Neosho was damaged by bombs and a crashing dive bomber, and Sims was sunk. On board the crippled Neosho, CWT Oscar V. Peterson, although badly wounded, risks his life to close bulkhead stop valves, receiving severe burns.

In the waning daylight, the Japanese attempt to find TF-17 ran afoul of bad weather. Some of their carrier bombers actually entered the landing pattern for Yorktown, but are driven off by antiaircraft fire and fighters. The operational losses of Japanese planes in the unsuccessful mission to find the Americans, however, lessen the number of effective aircraft they can employ the next day.



8 May 1942

The Battle of the Coral Sea concluded after a Dauntless pilot (VS 2) from Lexington sighted the Japanese Carrier Strike Force (VADM Takagi) formed around the large carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. As VB 5’s pilots quit the ready room on board Yorktown to man their planes, LT Powers exhorted his squadronmates: “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it [his bomb] on their flight deck.” Dauntlesses from Lexington and Yorktown damage Shokaku and force her retirement. LT Powers scored a direct hit on Shokaku, pressing home his attack to a perilously low altitude of 200 feet but failing to recover from his dive. For his heroism on that day (as well as on the previous day and on 4 May), Powers is awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously.

At the same time, Japanese carrier bombers and attack planes hit TF 17. The comparatively few fighters on hand compelled the continuation of the use of Dauntlesses as a stop-gap anti-torpedo plane patrol. In the valiant effort, LT Hall (VS 2), whose performance of duty the previous day as a dive bomber pilot had elicited favorable notice, distinguished himself as a fighter pilot in attacking the Japanese planes pressing home their assault on his ship. Although Hall is badly wounded, he brings his damaged Dauntless, and his radioman, back to Lexington having participated in the destruction of at least three torpedo planes, bravery and skill recognized later with the Medal of Honor.

Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes, however, penetrated the screening aircraft and ships and damaged carriers Lexington (bombs and torpedoes) and Yorktown (bombs). On board Yorktown, LT Milton E. Ricketts, a classmate of “Jo Jo” Powers and a “plankowner” who has served in the carrier since she was commissioned in 1937, in charge of an engineering repair party, was mortally wounded when a bomb passed through and exploded just beneath his compartment, killing, stunning or wounding all of his men. Ricketts, despite his wounds, opened the valve on a nearby fire plug, partially led out the hose, and directed water into the burning compartment before he died. For his extraordinary heroism, he is awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously.

Lexington, further damaged when gasoline vapors are ignited, triggering massive explosions, was later abandoned when fires blazed out of control. She was then scuttled by the destroyer Phelps (DD-360).



11 May 1942

The Japanese cancel Operation MO in the wake of the Battle of the Coral Sea.



11 May 1942

In the wake of the battle, the oiler Neosho, damaged and adrift since 7 May and deemed beyond salvage, was scuttled by torpedoes and gunfire of the destroyer Henley (DD-391), which rescued the survivors from Neosho and Sims. Among those men is the badly injured CWT Peterson, who dies of his wounds. For his extraordinary heroism and distinguished gallantry on board Neosho during her ordeal on 7 May, Peterson was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously.

That same day [11 May 1942] the submarine S-42 (SS-153) torpedoed the Japanese minelayer Okinoshima (damaged by Yorktown Air Group planes at Tulagi on 4 May) west of Buka Island, Solomons.



12 May 1942

The submarine S-44 (SS-155), sister ship of S-42, torpedoed and sank the Japanese repair ship Shoei Maru 15 miles southwest of Cape St. George, and survived counterattacks by her victim’s escort. Shoei Maru had been en route to try and salvage the damaged minelayer Okinoshima. The attempt to save Okinoshima (damaged the previous day by S-42), by transport Kinryu Maru and destroyer Mochizuki, failed, and the doomed minelayer sank, essentially the last ship casualty of the Battle of the Coral Sea.



Summing-Up

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first engagement in modern naval history in which opposing warships do not exchange a shot; all damage was inflicted by carrier aircraft. In halting the Japanese push southward and blunting the seaborne thrust toward Port Moresby, Coral Sea proves a strategic victory. American carrier aircrews prove their mettle, and deprive the Japanese of three carriers (Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Shoho) earmarked for the planned Midway Operation. The Japanese failure to take Port Moresby by sea forces them to adopt an overland strategy that ultimately proved disastrous.

Although the enemy believes her to have been sunk, Yorktown was made seaworthy and given an air group to enable her to join Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8), deployed to surprise a Japanese carrier task force (VADM Nagumo Chuichi) at Midway.



For further information and links to related resources, see: Battle of Midway Showcase.





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