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    Battle of the Coral Sea  
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USN May 7, 1942

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IJN May 8, 1942

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Japanese postcard c1942

Location
The Battle of the Coral Sea during May 4–8, 1942 happened in the Coral Sea and was the first carrier engagement of the Pacific War and the first naval engagement in history fought without opposing ships making contact. Only carrier and land based aircraft attacked the opposing fleets.

Wartime History
The battle began when the Japanese Navy launched Operation "MO" to capture Tulagi and Port Moresby. The Japanese force was under the overall command of Vice-Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye. The strike group to protect the expedition was commanded by Vice-Admiral Takagi with aircraft carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku plus two cruisers and six destroyers was to sweep through the Coral Sea. A Cover Group, under Rear-Admiral Goto, consisted of Shoho, four heavy cruisers and one destroyer.

On May 3, 1942 a Japanese force arrives in Tulagi Harbor including Okinoshima (flagship of Rear Admiral Shima) escorted by destroyers Kikuzuki and Yuzuki plus Azumasan Maru, minelayer Koei Maru, subchasers Toshi Maru No. 3 and Tama Maru No. 8, special duty minesweepers WA-1 and WA-2, Hagoromo Maru, Noshiro Maru No. 2 and Tama Maru.

On May 4, 1942 at 8:15am, carrier aircraft from USS Yorktown CV-5 including twenty-eight SBD Dauntless dive bombers from VS-5 plus twelve TBD Devastators from VT-5 attacked the landing force. A single torpedo hit is scored against Kikuzuki.

Afterwards, the Japanese force turned to the west to protect the Port Moresby Invasion Group that included eleven transports, carrying both Japanese Army and Naval troops screened by destroyers that were to steam around the eastern end of Papua. Inouye believed he could envelop the Allied fleet with Goto on the west flank and Takagi on the east, while the Invasion Group transports slipped through the Jomard Passage bound for Port Moresby.

The Americans broken the Japanese naval code and possessed accurate and fairly detailed intelligence concerning the Japanese plans. However, the Allies had only limited forces available including Rear-Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch's Task Force 11 (TF-11) including USS Lexington (CV-2) and Rear-Admiral Frank J. Fletcher's Task Force 17 (TF-17) including USS Yorktown (CV-5).

Fletcher was in tactical command of the entire force and ordered to operate in the Coral Sea starting on May 1. Task Force 44, under Rear Admiral Crace, RN, with Australian heavy cruisers HMAS Australia D84 and HMAS Hobart D63 in Sydney and USS Chicago CA-29 and destroyer USS Perkins in Noumea, were ordered to rendezvous with Fletcher in the Coral Sea. Fitch's Lexington force joined Fletcher as planned at 6:30am on May 1. Both aircraft-carriers commenced refueling. Fitch estimated that his refueling would not be completed until May 4, whereas Fletcher only required 24 hours. Fletcher decided not wait for Fitch to refuel or Crace to arrive and steamed west on the 2nd, leaving orders for Fitch to rejoin him by daylight on the 4th.

On the evening of the 3rd Fletcher learned of the landing at Tulagi and set off north to attack next morning. Fletcher rejoined Fitch and Crace at 8:16 on May 5, 1942 and spent most of the day refueling from USS Neosho AO-23. Meanwhile, Takagi's Strike Group had moved down along the outer coast of the Solomons and was well into the Coral Sea by dawn on May 6, 1942.

The Port Moresby Invasion Group was on a southerly course for the Jomard Passage, while Goto's Cover Group began refueling south of Bougainville, completing this task by 08:30 the next morning. Inouye not knowing where the Fletcher was, used most of his aircraft on the 5th in a bombing attack on Port Moresby. On the 6th, USS Neosho, escorted by the USS Sims DD-409 was detached at 1755, and told to head south for the next fueling rendezvous. Fletcher was receiving intelligence reports regarding the movements of Japanese ships and it became fairly obvious that the Japanese invasion force would come through the Jomard Passage on the 7th or 8th. He cut short fueling operations and headed northwest at 19:30 on May 6, to be within strike distance by daylight on May 7.

On May 6, 1942 at 10:30am, B-17s from Australia located and bombed the Shoho south of Bougainville but missed. Aircraft spotted the Goto's Cover Group around noon and later located the Port Moresby Invasion force near the Jomard Passage. Estimating that Fletcher was about 500 miles to the southwest, and expecting him to attack the next day, Inouye ordered that all operations should continue according to schedule. At midnight the transports were near Misima Island ready to enter the Jomard Passage.

On May 7, 1942 at 7:36am B5N2 Kate EI-306 and B5N2 Kate EI-302 on a reconnaissance mission reported sighting an aircraft carrier and a cruiser. This evaluation was accepted, the distance was closed and an all-out bombing and torpedo attack ordered. In fact, the sighted vessels were USS Neosho AO-23 and the USS Sims DD-409. Both ships were repeatedly attacked by Japanese aircraft, and at about noon, Sims sank with the loss of 379 lives. The Neosho suffered seven direct hits and drifted until May 11, 1942 when 123 men were rescued and the oilier scuttled.

Meanwhile at 6:45am, Fletcher ordered Crace's support group to push ahead on a north-westerly course to attack the Port Moresby Invasion Group, while the rest of Task Force 17 turned north. A Japanese seaplane spotted the support group at 8:10am and in the afternoon when the ships of Crace's force were south and a little west of Jomard Passage they were successively attacked by land-based single-engined bombers, navy bombers and high-level bombers. A final attack by three bombers flying at 25,000' was later discovered to have been U. S. Army Air Force B-26 Marauders from Townsville. The support group had beaten off all the attacks and Crace had dispelled the Japanese myth that a naval force could not survive repeated attacks from land-based aircraft.

The Japanese Goto's Cover Group including Shoho , had turned south-east into the wind to launch four reconnaissance aircraft and to send up other aircraft to protect the Invasion Group 30 miles to the southwest. By 8:30am Goto knew exactly where Fletcher was, and ordered Shoho to prepare for an attack. Other aircraft had meanwhile spotted Crace's ships to the west. The result of these reports was to make Inouye anxious for the security of the Invasion Group, and at 9:00am he ordered it to turn away instead of entering Jomard Passage, thus keeping it out of harm's way until Fletcher and Crace were dealt with. In fact, this was the nearest the transports got to their target.

At 8:15am one of Yorktown's reconnaissance aircraft reported two carriers and four heavy cruisers about 225 miles to the northwest on the opposite side of the Louisiades. Assuming that this was Takagi's Strike Group, Fletcher launched a total of 93 aircraft between 9:26am to 10:30am. However, no sooner had Yorktown's attack group become airborne than the scout returned and it was immediately discovered that an error in the pilot's coding pad meant the two carriers and four heavy cruisers should have read two heavy cruisers and two destroyers. Fletcher allowed the strike to proceed despite the error in the hope that the invasion force or other profitable targets were in the vicinity.

Carrier aircraft from USS Lexington CV-2 ahead of aircraft from USS Yorktown CV-5 were nearing Misima Island shortly after 11:00am when they spotted an aircraft carrier, two or three cruisers, and some destroyers about 25 miles to the starboard. This was the Shoho with the rest of Goto's Cover Group. As the Shoho was only 35 miles southeast of the original target location, it was a simple matter to redirect the attack groups over the carrier. Under a concentrated attack, the Shoho stood little chance and was soon on fire and dead in the water. The Shoho sank soon after 1135. After the air groups safely landed, Fletcher set a westerly course during the night of 7/8 May. Both sides expected a decision on the 8th with everything depending on locating the enemy as early as possible in the morning.

A scout aircraft from Lexington sighted the Japanese carriers at 0815 and reported that Takagi was 175 miles to the north-east of Fletcher's position. At 9:30am, the Japanese Strike Group was sighted steaming due south in a position 25 miles northeast of the original contact, but about 45 miles north of Takagi's expected position at 9:00am as predicted on the strength of the first contact. The discrepancy was to cause trouble for Lexington's attack group, which by this time was airborne. Fitch had begun launching his strike between 0900 and 0925, the Yorktown group of 24 bombers with two fighters, and nine torpedo-bombers with four fighters, departing ten minutes before the Lexington aircraft. The dive-bombers spotted the Japanese first, at 1030, and took cloud cover to await the arrival of the torpedo-bombers. While Shokaku was engaged in launching further combat patrols, Zuikaku disappeared into a rain squall.

The attack, which began at 10:57am was against only Shokaku. Although the Yorktown pilots coordinated their attack well, only moderate success was achieved. The American torpedoes were either avoided or failed to explode, and only two bomb hits were scored on the Shokaku, one damaging the flight-deck well forward on the starboard bow and setting fire to fuel, while the other destroyed a repair compartment aft. The burning Shokaku could recover but no longer launch aircraft. Only 15 of 37 Lexington aircraft located the target. The torpedoes were again ineffective, but the bombers scored a third hit on the Shokaku. Although 108 of the vessel's crew had been killed, she had not been holed below the water-line, and her fires were soon brought under control. Most of her aircraft were transferred to the Zuikaku before Takagi detached Shokaku at 1:00pm, with orders to proceed to Truk.

Meanwhile, both USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Lexington (CV-2) came under attack in the interval between the strikes of their respective air groups on the Japanese aircraft-carriers. The Japanese had begun launching at about the same time as the Americans, but their attack group of 18 torpedo-bombers, 33 bombers, and 18 fighters was larger, better balanced, and more accurately directed to the target. Although the American radar picked them up 70 miles away, Fitch had far too few fighters to intercept successfully, and was forced to rely mainly on his AA gunners for protection. At 11:18 hours the Japanese aircraft commenced their attack. The Yorktown, with a smaller turning circle than the Lexington, successfully avoided eight torpedoes launched on her port quarter. Five minutes later she came under dive-bomber attack but escaped unscathed until 1127 when she received her only hit, an 800-pound bomb which penetrated to the fourth deck, but did not impair flight operations. During this time, the evasive maneuverer gradually drew the American aircraft-carriers apart and, although the screening vessels divided fairly evenly between them, the breaking of their defensive circle contributed to Japanese success.

USS Lexington CV-2 had a larger turning circle than USS Yorktown (CV-5) and despite valiant maneuverer received one torpedo hit on the port side at 1120, quickly followed by a second opposite the bridge. At the same time a dive-bombing attack commenced from 17,000'. During the attack, D3A Val dive bombers scored two bomb hits on USS Lexington CV-2. A list of 7° caused by the torpedo hits was corrected by shifting oil ballast, while her engines remained unharmed. To her returning pilots she did not appear to be seriously damaged, and the recovery of the air group went ahead. At 12:47, a tremendous internal explosion, caused by the ignition of fuel vapors by a motor generator which had been left running, shook the whole ship. A series of further violent explosions seriously disrupted internal communications. Yet another major detonation occurred at 1445, and the fires soon passed beyond control. The destroyer Morris came alongside to help fight the blaze but the need for evacuation became increasingly apparent. At 1630 hours the Lexington had come to a dead stop, and all hands prepared to abandon ship.

At 1710 the Minneapolis, Hammann, Morris, and Anderson moved to evacuate the crew. The destroyer Phelps fired five torpedoes at 1956 and the Lexington sank at 2000. The Battle of the Coral Sea was now over. The Japanese pilots had reported sinking both American aircraft-carriers, and the acceptance of this evaluation influenced Takagi's decision to detach the Shokaku for repairs, as well as Inouye's order that the Strike Group should be withdrawn. Even though he thought that both American aircraft-carriers had been destroyed, the cautious Inouye still deemed it necessary to postpone the invasion, apparently because he felt unable to protect the landing units against Allied land-based aircraft. Yamamoto did not agree with this decision and, at 2400 hours, countermanded the order, detailing Takagi to locate and annihilate the remaining American ships. But, by the time Takagi made his search to the south and east, Fletcher was out of reach.

Outcome
The Japanese had achieved a material victory but despite their losses, the Americans were able to repair the Yorktown in time for the Battle of Midway less than one month later where the war decisively turned against Japan. The Coral Sea was a decisive strategic American victory. The Japanese operation to capture Port Moresby was thwarted and the Australian eastern coast was not attacked (other than air raids and shelling). The battle was of great significance in the development of naval warfare since, for the first time, fleets had fought one another without direct visual contact. The aircraft carrier had replaced the battleship as the backbone of the fleet. Air Force bombers join the battle but their effect was limited; several bombers attack Allied vessels by mistake.

Claims
The Japanese claimed 144 enemy aircraft shot down.

Losses
Allies: The U. S. Navy (USN) lost USS Lexington CV-2, USS Neosho AO-23 and USS Sims DD-409 plus 33 aircraft (15 from Lexington plus 35 when it sank and 16 from Yorktown). The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) lost Catalina A29-18 (POW, executed) and Catalina A29-20 (POW/MIA).

Japanese: The Japanese Navy lost Shoho plus 43 aircraft lost including A6M2 Zero ditched Nivani and G4M1 Betty 2271 (crew rescued, several died) and F1M2 Pete RI-6 (abandoned)

USS Sims (DD-409)
Sunk May 7, 1942 by Japanese aircraft

USS Neosho (AO-23)
Damaged May 7, 1942 scuttled on May 11, 1942

Shōhō
Sunk May 7, 1942 by U. S. Navy aircraft

USS Lexington (CV-2)
Damaged May 8, 1942 at 11:00am by Japanese aircraft, scuttled later that day.

SBD-3 Dauntless "CLAG" 4679
Pilot Ault MIA May 8, 1942

References
NARA Office of Naval Intelligence "The Battle of the Coral Sea" page 22 mentions Powers
Naval History and Heritage Command "Battle of the Coral Sea"

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Last Updated
January 11, 2018

 

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May 4-8, 1942
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