The Battle of the Coral Sea did not occur by accident. By early April 1942, Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, knew from intelligence that the Japanese intended to launch a major operation against Port Moresby New Guinea, which would constitute a serious threat to the northeast coast of Australia. By April, Nimitz had gained substantial confidence in his intelligence organization. During the course of the first months of the war, U.S. carriers had conducted multiple raids on the periphery of Japanese occupied ocean areas. The raids were not conducted at random, but were based on intelligence that indicated Japanese carriers would not be present to oppose the raids. The raids had multiple purpose, besides a need to “do something” to attack the Japanese; they also provided useful combat experience for U.S. forces in a relatively low-risk environment (although Japanese land-based bombers nearly made that a bad assessment on several occasions), but each raid generated a flurry of Japanese communications (and communications security violations) that greatly helped U.S. Naval Intelligence break ever more of the Japanese naval operating code and to more accurately refine communications “traffic analysis” capability. As a result, by mid- April, Admiral Nimitz had a good idea of the Japanese plan, the forces committed, and the timing. Nimitz wanted to commit all four operational carriers (Lexington, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet—Saratoga was still in repair after being torpedoed by a submarine) but Enterprise and Hornet were already committed by Washington to the Doolittle Raid, and although they attempted to get to the battle area, were unable to do so in time. Although Nimitz didn’t fully realize it, given the capability of Japanese naval aviation, committing two U.S. carriers against two to three Japanese carriers was quite audacious. Nevertheless, as at the subsequent Battle of Midway, the U.S. carriers at Coral Sea would theoretically have the advantage of surprise, thanks to Intelligence, but that advantage would be squandered.
On the Japanese side, the Port Moresby Operation (Operation “MO”) was the result of a messy compromise. By early March 1942, with the exception of isolated U.S. forces valiantly holding out on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines, the Japanese had achieved all their pre-war objectives, over three months ahead of schedule. What to do next resulted in massive infighting between the Japanese army and navy and also internal to the Navy. The Japanese army, tied down in its endless war on the mainland of China and prudently keeping a very large force in Manchuria (after they had suffered a couple nasty defeats in clashes with Soviet forces in 1939), did not want to commit any of its 2,000,000 or so men to capturing any more islands in the Pacific, and they especially did not want any part of trying to invade Hawaii (which the army viewed, probably rightly, as a high-cost loser).
The Japanese Navy General Staff wanted to exploit their success; some planners wanted to capture Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and hopefully provoke an uprising against the British in India (then a British Crown Colony) while others wanted to drive across the Pacific to Fiji and Samoa, to cut the lines of communication to Australia, and still others wanted to capture the Aleutian Islands to prevent them from being used by long-range U.S. bombers against the mainland of Japan. Admiral Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, believed that the primary objective at this point should be to draw out and defeat the U.S. Navy carriers. Even before the Doolittle Raid, Yamamoto had decided that Midway Island was the place to spring a trap on the U.S. carriers, and the Raid only hardened his resolve and enabled him to beat down army and Navy General Staff resistance. When all the dust settled, Yamamoto had with great reluctance approved splitting his carrier force (“Kido Butai”) and sending CARDIV 5 (Shokaku and Zuikaku) to support an amphibious assault on Port Moresby, New Guinea in early May (which the army had very reluctantly agreed to support), with the intent that CARDIV 5 return to participate in the Midway Operation in early June. After Port Moresby was captured, and after the U.S. carriers were defeated at Midway, and the Aleutians taken in an operation concurrent with Midway, then the Japanese Navy intended to drive across the south Pacific. The problem was that there was no margin for error if the Port Moresby operation went bad for any reason, which it did, because of the unexpected opposition from U.S. carriers. Also, although the Shokaku and Zuikaku were the newest Japanese carriers, their air wings were the least experienced and viewed by the rest of the Kido Butai as the Japanese term for “B team” and Yamamoto may have felt they needed some additional practice. Nevertheless, both carriers were very experienced, formidable and capable foes.
As Task Force 11 (Lexington) and Task Force 17 (Yorktown) under overall command of Rear Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher waited in the Coral Sea for the Japanese invasion force to commence operations against Port Moresby, the Japanese sent a small force to capture Tulagi and Gavutu Islands and establish a seaplane reconnaissance base across the sound from Guadalcanal (a name which at the time meant nothing to anyone). Thinking Lexington was still engaged in refueling (she wasn’t, but radio silence was affecting U.S. command and control), Fletcher took Yorktown north and attacked the Japanese landing force on 4 May 1942, catching it without air cover and essentially defenseless. In three waves over the course of the day, including 76 dive bomber sorties and 23 torpedo bomber sorties from Yorktown, U.S. pilots continued a trend observed in earlier raids of grossly overestimating the size, type, and number of Japanese ships present, as well as the number damaged and sunk, claiming several cruisers sunk (no cruisers were present) and several destroyers (one was present). The actual result of a huge expenditure of ordnance was that one Japanese destroyer was damaged and later beached, three small minesweepers and four landing barges sunk, and probably most importantly, all five H6K4 Type 97 “Mavis” flying boats present were destroyed, which adversely affected Japanese search capability at a critical point. The Japanese carriers, operating in radio silence as well, north of the Solomon Islands, were engaged in refueling and could not react fast enough to launch a counter-strike on Yorktown; they were, however, alerted to the presence of at least one U.S. carrier.
On the 5th and 6th of May, both U.S. and Japanese carrier forces tried to locate each other without success. Expecting the Japanese carriers to be supporting the invasion force that would have to round the eastern tip of New Guinea, U.S. carrier aircraft concentrated searches to the northwest, to no avail. Meanwhile, the Japanese carriers had rounded the eastern side of the Solomon Islands and entered the Coral Sea from the east, unbeknownst to the United States. Although Intelligence had provided a good strategic situation to Fletcher, Japanese tactical communications security was superb (Fletcher also didn’t trust his own radio intelligence capability even when it was accurate). However, Japanese commander Rear Admiral Takagi, believing he was in position to surprise and trap the Americans (and he was) opted not to use his own carrier aircraft initially for search (so as not to give away his presence) relying on long range land-based and flying boat reconnaissance, much of which had been significantly depleted at Tulagi, and one was shot down by a Wildcat fighter. Fletcher was not helped by inaccurate reports from General MacArthur’s aircraft flying out of Australia that reported multiple carriers in company with the invasion force (and a lot else that wasn’t there). The brand-new Japanese small carrier Shoho (18 operational aircraft) was in the vicinity of the invasion force, which confused matters. The result was that both commanders had lost situational awareness by 7 May.
Rear Admiral Fletcher made one of his most controversial decisions of the battle early in the morning on 7 May by detaching TG-17.3, under the command of Rear Admiral Crace, Royal Navy (consisting of the Australian cruisers HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart, the U.S. heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29), two U.S. destroyers, plus an additional attached U.S. destroyer). The heavy cruisers Minneapolis (CA-36), New Orleans (CA-32,) Astoria (CA-34,) Chester (CA-27), and Portland (CA-33) and nine destroyers remained with TF 17. Crace’s mission was take his ships toward New Guinea and block the Japanese invasion force, which was covered by four heavy cruisers and other escorts. This action removed about a third of TF-17’s escorts (and a third of its AAA defenses, which were not very effective to begin with), and without air cover, Crace’s force was potentially vulnerable to the 40 or so Japanese land-based bombers operating out of Rabaul. It is believed that Fletcher based his decision on pre-war exercise experience, during which opposing carrier forces usually neutralized each other very early in the “battle” leaving surface ships to accomplish the mission, in this case, preventing the invasion of Port Moresby. In fact, Crace’s force was attacked later in the afternoon by two waves (about 30 aircraft total) of land-based twin-engine “Nell” bombers, in one of the more dismal performances in Japanese aviation history. The first wave of 12 Nells attempted a torpedo attack; five were shot down and no torpedoes hit. The second wave contented itself with a high altitude level bombing attack, with the usual results for that kind of attack, nothing. Displaying even worse ship recognition skills than U.S. pilots, the Japanese claimed to have sunk a California-class battleship, an Augusta-class cruiser, and damaged a Warspite (British)-class battleship, none of which were even remotely present. In reality, Crace’s ships dodged over a hundred bombs with no hits due to skillful ship handling, although there were seven casualties on Chicago resulting from a strafing attack. Crace’s ships were then attacked by three U.S. Army Air Force B-26 bombers from Australia; fortunately their bombing proficiency was even worse than the Japanese. Crace termed the B-26’s accuracy as “disgraceful” (and a good thing for him).
At dawn on 7 May, neither the U.S. carrier force nor the Japanese carrier force knew where the other was, and both were searching in the wrong directions (in effect, both forces had gotten “behind” the other). Giving up on land-based reconnaissance, the Japanese launched carrier aircraft to search. A Japanese plane misidentified the oiler USS Neosho (operating well “behind” the U.S. carriers) as a carrier, and her escort, the USS Sims (DD-402) as a cruiser. Rear Admiral Takagi (a surface officer, and victor in the Battle of the Java Sea in Feb 1942) turned over tactical command to Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara (an aviator) who immediately launched a full strike from both carriers (not standard Japanese doctrine—which was to launch half from each carrier, with the second half from each carrier for reserve/contingency) at what he thought was a U.S. carrier. A 78-plane strike (18 fighters, 24 torpedo bombers, and 36 dive bombers) rolled in on the luckless Neosho and Sims. The Japanese strike commander astutely recognized the error and diverted his torpedo bombers onto a fruitless search (but at least didn’t waste torpedoes.) Four Val dive bombers hit Sims with three bombs, which sank quickly with high loss of life; the rest pummeled Neosho with seven hits and 15 near misses. Neither ship was able to radio a distress signal, so Fletcher remained clueless to the real location of the Japanese carriers. Initially abandoned, Neosho refused to sink—half her crew was able to get back on board and valiantly fought to save the ship, until she finally had to be scuttled on 11 May.
In the meantime, the U.S. carriers had combined into a single task force (17), with the carriers operating together instead of independently (in keeping with the tradition of the U.S. Navy ignoring our own doctrine) on the advice of Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch (an aviator) to whom Fletcher delegated tactical control during air operations. An SBD dive bomber conducting a scout mission from Yorktown erroneously reported two carriers operating in the vicinity of the Japanese invasion force (the pilot used the codeword for carriers when he meant cruisers) in clear weather. Based on that incorrect report, the U.S. launched a full strike from each carrier (93 aircraft total…50 from Lexington and 43 from Yorktown.) Fletcher learned of the error after the launch, and opted not to attempt a recall (something that hadn’t really been done before anyway) figuring that there were enough ships in the vicinity of the Japanese invasion force that there had to be something worth sinking, plus Fletcher still expected to find the Japanese carriers there anyway.
At about 1040, Lexington’s air group found the small carrier Shoho. Fifty Lexington aircraft executed what was perhaps the best coordinated U.S. carrier attack of the entire war. The dive bombers rolled in just ahead of the torpedo planes (the preferred sequence so that the dive bombers would draw fighters away from the more vulnerable torpedo planes and the bombs would disrupt Japanese AAA). Shoho was attempting to launch a strike with her limited assets against TF-17. Shoho’s combat air patrol (one Zero and two older A5M “Claude” fighters) gamely tried to disrupt the attack, succeeding in shooting down only one SDB after bomb release. Nevertheless, despite her limited defensive capability, Shoho managed to dodge the first 13 bombs dropped. Two bombs then hit and ignited massive fires. Lexington’s torpedo planes executed a near perfect “anvil” attack (from port and starboard bow, so that no matter which way the target turns, a beam aspect is presented to one of the attacking sections). Nine torpedo hits were claimed (at least five did hit, which were fatal). At about 1125, Yorktown’s air group arrived and pounded the already burning stem-to-stern, listing, dead-in-the-water and sinking Shoho with another 19 or so bombs, and somewhere between two and ten more torpedoes. Not surprisingly, Shoho sank quickly with heavy loss of (203 of 834 survived). Meanwhile, none of the other Japanese cruisers, destroyers, and transports in the vicinity were scratched (some of which inflicted severe losses on U.S. ships in the later Solomon Islands campaign).
Given the number of U.S. carrier aircraft that attacked the Shoho, Rear Admiral Takagi was able to deduce that two U.S. carriers were involved as well as their approximate location. In a gamble that would have gone down in history as a brilliant move, had it worked, Takagi ordered a dusk attack on the American carriers, knowing that it would require night recovery in deteriorating weather on his carriers, something that neither navy did on purpose except rarely. The dangerous mission consisted of volunteers from among the very best Japanese pilots in 15 torpedo bombers and 12 dive bombers. The strike overflew the U.S. carriers, hidden below the clouds. After jettisoning their ordnance, and transiting back toward their carrier, one flight of Japanese aircraft was detected by radar from the U.S. carriers, and with just enough light left, was ambushed by Wildcats out of the undercast; six torpedo bombers and one dive bomber were shot down at a cost of three Wildcats. The loss of the torpedo bombers would prove critical the next day. The remainder of the Japanese flight arrived over the U.S. carriers in darkness, mistook them for their own carriers, and attempted to recover on the Yorktown. One was shot down on approach (the ultimate “wave off”) and the others got the message. At the time the U.S. and Japanese carriers were about 40–60 miles apart. Eighteen of the 27 Japanese planes managed to recover on their own carriers.
The 8th of May, 1942, played out just like numerous pre-war fleet exercises in both navies. Both sides’ airborne scouts found each other about the same time, both sides attacked each other about the same time, and both sides effectively neutralized each other’s carriers about the same time. Unlike the pre-war exercises, however, there was no Battle Fleet to clean up afterwards (the Japanese hadn’t brought any battleships either).
At dawn on 8 May 1942, TF17, the Lexington and Yorktown, with 117 operational aircraft (31 fighters, 65 dive bombers, and 21 torpedo bombers) faced off against Carrier Division 5, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, with 96 operational aircraft (38 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 25 torpedo bombers). Although the U.S. had numerical superiority, the weather favored the Japanese, as a front moved over the Japanese carriers hiding them under clouds, while the U.S. carriers were under mostly clear skies.
Japanese search aircraft launched at 0615. U.S. search aircraft launched at 0635. Yorktown’s radar gained first contact on a Japanese scout but the Wildcats missed the intercept, and the scout issued a contact report on two U.S. carriers at 0822, confirmed by radio intelligence on both Yorktown and Lexington. At 0820, a U.S. SBD scout located and reported the Japanese carriers. The U.S. launched first at 0900, with 39 Yorktown aircraft (six fighters, 24 dive bombers and nine torpedo bombers). At 0907, Lexington began launching 36 aircraft (nine fighters, 15 dive bombers, and 12 torpedo bombers). The two air-groups proceeded independently to the target. Shortly after, Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a 69-plane strike (18 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 18 torpedo bombers) in a single integrated strike package which pushed at 0930. At 1100, Yorktown dive bombers commenced their attack on the Shokaku. Zuikaku ducked under clouds and was not seen by any attacking aircraft. Lexington’s aircraft would arrive at the target about 30 minutes later. At about 1115, the combined Japanese strike commenced its attack on both Yorktown and Lexington simultaneously.
At 1100, seven VS-5 (Yorktown) SBD Dauntless dive bombers attacked the Shokaku; harassed by Japanese fighters, all seven missed due to fogged windscreens and bombsights. At 1103, 17 VB-5 SBD’s attacked the Shokaku with multiple misses due to the fogging problem. One bomb hit almost at the bow and started a fire. A second bomb, dropped by Lieutenant John Powers, at the cost of his own and his gunner’s lives, hit near the island and started severe fires on the flight deck and in the hanger deck. Shokaku was unable to operate aircraft for the remainder of the battle due to this hit (Powers would be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor). As VB-5 concluded its attack, the nine TBD torpedo bombers of VT-5 commenced their attack. Fighter escort kept the Zeros off the TBD’s, but Shokaku, despite burning furiously, was able to avoid or outrun all the torpedoes. At 1130 part of Lexington’s air group arrived over the Shokaku, but the remainder could not find the target due to the deteriorating weather. Four of Lexington’s command group dive bombers scored one hit on Shokaku. Eleven Lexington (VT-2) torpedo planes attacked Shokaku but no torpedoes hit. Two Lexington Wildcats were shot down while successfully protecting the torpedo bombers from Japanese fighters. The final tally: Shokaku was hit by three bombs, and unable to operate aircraft but still able to make 30Kts on her own. The cost to the U.S. was two SBD Dauntless and three Wildcats. An additional Wildcat and two SBD’s (including the Lexington air group commander, Commander William Ault) disappeared returning to the carrier.
Meanwhile, fully expecting to be attacked, TF-17 launched a heavy CAP of 8 Wildcats and 18 SBDs (in an anti-torpedo plane role). Upon radar detection of the inbound Japanese strike, nine more Wildcats and five more SBDs were launched. It did little good, despite radar fighter direction. The Japanese torpedo bombers escaped in the clouds, and the dive bombers were not intercepted until they began commencing dives. Lieutentant (j.g.) William E. Hall, flying a Lexington SBD Dauntless dive bomber in an anti-torpedo bomber role, was credited with downing three Japanese aircraft, despite being severely wounded, for which he was awarded a Medal of Honor. However, with only three of 18 Kate torpedo bombers shot down, nine attacked the Lexington and four went after the Yorktown (this is where the loss of torpedo bombers the previous night would prove crucial). The four that attacked the Yorktown all missed and two were shot down. The nine other torpedo bombers executed a doctrinal anvil attack on Lexington, which avoided the first five torpedoes but could not avoid the four coming from a different direction; two went under without exploding and two hit. The first torpedo hit was fatal, although it would take several hours before that would become apparent. Among other damage, the port aviation fuel tank was cracked, and volatile gasoline vapors began to seep throughout the ship.
Nineteen Val dive bombers then attacked Lexington and 14 attacked Yorktown. Zeros successfully defended the dive bombers, so all 33 dropped on target. Perhaps unfairly justifying CARDIV 5’s “B-team” status, just three direct hits were scored, along with numerous near misses (although that matched the U.S. total on Shokaku—at Midway, Hiryu’s A-team scored three serious hits and two damaging near misses on Yorktown with only seven dive bombers.) Two bombs hit Lexington, which caused minimal damage. One bomb hit Yorktown, which penetrated deep in the ship, causing significant damage, but Yorktown was quickly able to resume flight operations (this damage was repaired in time for Yorktown to participate in the battle at Midway; had she been hit by a torpedo, that would not have been the case). Lieutenant Milton Ernest Rickets was officer-in-charge of the Engineer Repair Party, which was decimated by the bomb. Despite being mortally wounded, Rickets immediately manhandled a hose and prevented the spread of the fire before “dropping dead beside the hose,” for which he was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor, and directly contributed to Yorktown’s presence at the subsequent Battle of Midway.
The Japanese lost five dive bombers and eight torpedo planes in the attack on the Lexington and Yorktown; however, damage was extensive and seven more were forced to ditch on the way back to the Zuikaku, and another 12 had to be pushed over the side due to damage and as Zuikaku struggled to take aboard the remains of both Zuikaku and Shokaku’s air groups. Yorktown fighters, returning from the strike on Shokaku, shot down two more Japanese aircraft returning from the strike on the U.S. carriers; one was the Shokaku’s air group commander, and the other was the pilot who had first located the U.S. carriers and dodged U.S. fighters for over two hours, providing a steady stream of accurate positional reporting in probably the best scouting mission by either side in the war. The U.S. lost three Wildcats and five SBD’s defending the carriers.
At first it appeared that the U.S. carriers had gotten off surprisingly light from the Japanese air attack. However, at 1247, the gasoline vapors seeping through Lexington were ignited when they reached motor generators, resulting in a massive explosion. The fires quickly got out of control as numerous lesser and two more major explosions devastated the ship throughout the afternoon. At 1707 Captain Frederick “Ted” Sherman gave the order to abandon ship, and in what was arguably the most orderly and successful abandon ship in the history of the U.S. Navy, all personnel who were not killed in the air attack or the subsequent explosions were safely rescued.
At the end of the day, Yorktown had only 12 SBD dive bombers and eight TBD torpedo bombers still operational, and only seven torpedoes left. The situation was even worse on the Zuikaku; of 46 aircraft recovered on board, only nine were operational. Since 6 May, the Japanese had lost about 69 aircraft from Shokaku and Zuikaku, along with Shoho’s entire complement of 18 aircraft. Over 1,000 Japanese had been killed, most on Shoho. U.S. losses included 81 aircraft (including 35 that went down with the Lexington) and 543 dead aboard Lexington, Neosho and Sims. Both Fletcher and Takagi decided that the best course of action was to clear out as fast as possible. Takagi was blasted by Yamamoto for his decision and returned to the battle area (by then most of his embarked aircraft were repaired and operational) in a vain search. Nimitz had not second-guessed Fletcher, and TF17 was long gone. The Japanese attempt to invade Port Moresby was “postponed,” never to be attempted again, at least by sea.
(There are numerous books on the Coral Sea, but one relatively recent one (2009), The Coral Sea 1942 by Mark Stille, has exceptionally good graphics depicting each carrier attack, along with all the best photos of the battle, in a very concise but thorough text.)
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