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Battle of the Coral Sea 

29 April–8 May 1942

Publication cover image, World War II 75th Anniversary Commemorative Series Combat Narratives: Battle of the Coral Sea
Battle of the Coral Sea Combat Narrative, 75th Anniversary Edition (Click image to download PDF, 3.4 MB)

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first time since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that the enemy’s seemingly relentless advance into the Pacific was checked. It was also the first major U.S. Navy fleet action against Japan and the first naval engagement in history in which the participating ships never sighted or fired directly at each other.

Death of the Shoho
“Scratch one flattop!” Aflame from stem to quarter, the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho falls victim to U.S. Navy dive and torpedo bombers on 7 May 1942 during the Battle of Coral Sea. Death of the Shoho, painting, oil; by Robert Benney; 1942. NHHC accession #: 88-159-AI as a Gift of Abbott Laboratories.

The battle’s strategic background was set by the Japanese plan formulated in early 1942 that saw the country’s forces advance south and southeastward from the Bismarcks and Solomons, with the capture of Tulagi in the Solomons and Port Moresby, New Guinea, as immediate objectives. Secondary objectives were the central Pacific island of Nauru and Ocean (Banaba), in the Gilberts chain northeast of the Solomons, for their phosphate resources, essential for Japanese agriculture.

Over 29 April–4 May, Japanese forces successfully attacked, invaded, and occupied Tulagi, although several of their warships were surprised and sunk or damaged by aircraft from USS Yorktown (CV-5). Alerted to the presence of U.S. carriers, the Japanese Carrier Strike Force advanced toward the Coral Sea with the intention of finding and destroying the Allied naval forces. Beginning on 7 May, the two sides exchanged air strikes over two consecutive days.

Photo #: NH 95571 USS Yorktown (CV-5)
USS Yorktown (CV-5) Bombing Squadron Five (VB-5) SBD-3 Dauntless scout bombers spotted forward on the flight deck during operations in the Coral Sea, April 1942.

Photo #: 80-G-16569 Battle of Coral Sea, May 1942
USS Lexington (CV-2) during the action, seen from USS Yorktown (CV-5), 8 May 1942. Large number of planes on deck and low sun indicate that the photo was taken early in the morning, prior to launching the strike against the Japanese carrier force. Yorktown has several SBDs and F4Fs on deck with engines running, apparently preparing to take off. Lexington, whose silhouette has been altered by the earlier removal of her 8-inch gun turrets, has planes parked fore and aft, and may be respotting her deck in preparation for launching aircraft. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

Photo #: 80-G-17031 Battle of Coral Sea, May 1942
Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku under attack by Yorktown aircraft during the morning of 8 May. Flames are visible from a bomb hit on her forecastle.

Photo #: 80-G-16802 Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942
The end of Lexington on 8 May 1942. View on the flight deck at about 1500 hrs. The ship's air group is spotted aft, with Grumman F4F-3 fighters nearest the camera. SBD-3 scout bombers and TBD-1 torpedo planes are parked further aft. Smoke is rising around the aft aircraft elevator from fires burning in the hangar deck.

Photo #: 80-G-16811 Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942
View from the carrier’s island onto the flight deck at about 1700 hrs. as the crew prepares to abandon ship following a series of explosions that produced uncontrollable fires and brought the ship to a stop. USS Minneapolis (CA-36) is faintly visible in the center, crossing Lexington's bow.

Photo #: 80-G-7398 Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942
A destroyer maneuvers alongside the carrier as she is abandoned. Note crewmen sliding down lines on Lexington's starboard quarter. Of her crew, 216 were lost and 2,735 rescued.

The resulting maneuvers and clashes between two U.S. Navy task forces and a combined U.S.­Australian cruiser force with the Japanese Carrier Strike Force and supporting units resulted in a Japanese tactical victory. The Japanese Imperial Navy sank USS Lexington (CV-2), USS Sims (DD-409), and USS Neosho (AO-23), and damaged Yorktown. The Japanese only lost one small carrier (Shoho) and suffered damage to a fleet carrier (Shokaku). Allied forces were forced to withdraw from the operational area. However, with their air groups too battered to support a further advance, the Japanese were brought to a standstill. Although the Japanese had managed to capture Tulagi, Port Moresby remained in Allied control. Shokaku had been hit so severely that she could not join the Midway force. Due to losses of pilots and planes, another carrier (Zuikaku) also did not take part in that operation. Thus, Coral Sea reduced Japanese carriers available for Midway by a third. Eminent U.S. Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison notes that “so many mistakes were made by both sides in this new mode of fighting that it might be called the Battle of Errors; but more were made by the enemy, and he failed to profit by them.”

Four Medals of Honor were awarded at Coral Sea:

  • Lieutenant John J. Powers (Yorktown, VB-5) for actions while attacking Shoho on 7 May at Tulagi, and on 8 May in while attacking Shokaku (killed in action)
  • Lieutenant Milton E. Ricketts (Yorktown), engineering repair party, on 8 May (killed in action)
  • Lieutenant William E. Hall (Lexington, VS-2) for his attack on Shoho on 7 May and interception of Japanese torpedo planes (too few available fighter aircraft forced the use of dive/scout bombers as low-level interceptors) on 8 May (survived)
  • Chief Water Tender Oscar V. Peterson (Neosho) for his heroism in the ship's engineering spaces on 7 May (died of wounds)

Douglas SBD
The gunner of a Douglas SDB-2 or 3 Dauntless scout bomber. Configuration of the single .30-caliber machine gun and the aircraft’s finish date this photo to early 1942. The Battle of the Coral Sea saw the ascendancy of U.S. Navy aviation.

Additional links of interest:

Significant commanders:

Two noteworthy entries in The Sextant, the NHHC blog:


Robert J. Cressman, The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD/Washington, DC: Naval Institute Press/Naval Historical Center, 1999.

Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. IV—Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942–August 1942. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950.

Published: Thu Feb 27 12:23:56 EST 2020