The Battle of Coral Sea 4-8 May 1942
By David H. Klaus
SBD-3, LTJG Stanley "Swede" Vejtasa, VS-5, USS Yorktown Battle of the Coral Sea, May 4th-8th, 1942
(Note: Click on any image to see a larger version)
What the Battle Meant to the War Effort
The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought from May 4th-8th, 1942, was the first naval engagement in history where the opposing ships neither saw nor directly fired on each other. It also marked the end of Allied defensive-only activity, and paved the way for future Allied offensive operations.
This was the first of six battles between opposing aircraft carrier forces during the war. This battle resulted from American and Australian naval and air forces thwarting a Japanese amphibious operation intended to capture Port Moresby in New Guinea. A Japanese air base there would have threatened northeastern Australia and strategic sea lanes, possibly forcing Australia out of the war and certainly enhancing the strategic defenses of Japan's oceanic empire and further Japanese expansion into the Pacific.
The Japanese scored a tactical victory by sinking the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, heavily damaging the carrier USS Yorktown, and sinking a destroyer and an oiler. Against those losses, the Americans managed to achieve their first substantial kills against the Japanese Navy by sinking the light carrier Shoho and severely damaging the Shokaku, as well as damaging other smaller ships.
In truth the battle was an operational and strategic defeat for the Japanese--the first major check on their offensive sweep begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor.
First, the invasion of Port Moresby was thwarted, boosting Allied chances in the bitterly fought New Guinea campaign, and fending off a threat to the supply lines running between the US and Australia. Second, the Japanese were denied the services of their two newest carriers on the eve of the Battle of Midway a month later. Historians have argued whether these two Japanese carriers would have actually been used at Midway; regardless, had these two carriers been available at Midway, things might well have turned out very differently for the Americans.
Elsewhere in the War
To put the importance and timing of this battle in context, we need to take a quick look at what else was happening in late April - early June 1942:
- April 23rd was the beginning of the Luftwaffe's air attacks against the British cathedral cities.
- On May 1st, General Carl Spaatz was designated commander of the Eighth Air Force, which had not yet left for England and was still Stateside at Bolling Field, Washington, DC.
- On May 4th, US Navy aircraft attacked the Japanese invasion fleet at Tulagi Island, the first shots in what developed into the Battle of the Coral Sea.
- Corregidor Island in the Philippines surrendered to the Japanese invaders on May 6th, ending US resistance in the Philippines.
- May 7th marked the sinking of the Japanese light carrier Shoho by US Navy dive bombers, while the Japanese sank a US oiler and destroyer, mistaking them for a US carrier and cruiser. US Army Air Force bombers mistakenly attacked US ships, but caused no damage. During the day, the Japanese invasion force headed for Port Moresby turned back towards Rabaul.
- May 8th was the day the US Navy lost the USS Lexington (much more on this below).
- May 8th was also the day the Germans began their Crimean offensive in Russia.
- It was not until five days after the end of Coral Sea combat that the first 8th Air Force bomber squadron, minus its aircraft, reached England (May 13th).
- June 4th-7th was the pivotal Battle of Midway, which truly turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
The Forces Involved and the Timeline
The Japanese campaign included two seaborne invasion forces, the main one aimed at Port Moresby, and a smaller one targeting Tulagi, in the Southern Solomons. These would be supported by Japanese land-based airpower from bases to the north and by two naval forces containing a small aircraft carrier, several cruisers, seaplane tenders and gunboats. Simultaneously, a powerful screening force built around the big carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku sortied from Truk to prevent interference from any Allied naval forces that might be in the area.
The U.S. Navy, tipped off to the enemy plans by superior communications intelligence and codebreaking, countered with two of its own carriers, plus cruisers (including two Australian cruisers), destroyers, submarines, land-based bombers and patrol seaplanes.
Sunday, May 3rd, 1942
On May 3rd, the smaller of the two Japanese naval forces made an unopposed landing at Tulagi in the southern Solomons. The small force of Australian commandos and airmen who had garrisoned Tulagi evacuated the previous day, having been notified by coastwatchers that the Japanese were en route. (Read a short but fascinating history of the Japanese invasion of Tulagi here).
While Tulagi was being occupied, the main force of the Japanese Fourth Fleet was completing its final preparations for the amphibious invasion of Port Moresby, which was scheduled to start on May 10th.
Monday, May 4th, 1942
The USS Yorktown, which had been refueling at Espiritu Santo, ran north and launched three air strikes against the Japanese shipping in Tulagi Harbor, hitting a destroyer and several small boats. It then returned southward to rejoin the Lexington.
Yorktown SBD aircraft return to their carrier after striking Japanese shipping in Tulagi harbor
Koei Maru (center) is straddled by bombs while at anchor in Tulagi harbor during the attacks by Yorktown aircraft
Meanwhile, long range, land-based bombers from General MacArthur's SWPA command were combing the seas for the Japanese convoy approaching Port Moresby, but failed to locate it either that day or the next.
Tuesday, May 5th, 1942
Allied intelligence reported that Port Moresby was the main enemy objective and that landings could be expected any time between May 5th and May 10th. B-17s and B-26s of the SWPA stood by for an attack order, while other planes carried out neutralizing raids to keep Japanese land-based air power from participating in the coming battle.
Wednesday, May 6th, 1942
It was not until late on the 6th, however, that three AAF B-17s finally located the Japanese invasion force headed for the Jomard Passage and the Louisiade Islands. US Rear Admiral Frank "Jack" Fletcher, Commander of the Allied Fleet, dispatched a group of cruisers and destroyers to cover the Jomard Passage, and moved north with his carrier force to contact and close with the main enemy fleet.
Thursday, May 7th, 1942
SBD-3, LTJG William E. Hall, VS-2, USS Lexington Battle of the Coral Sea, May 7th-8th, 1942
The opposing commanders, Admiral Fletcher and Japanese Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi and Rear Admiral Tadaichi Hara, endeavored to strike the first blow, an essential tactic for victory (and survival) in a battle between heavily-armed and lightly-protected aircraft carriers.
However, both sides suffered from inadequate efforts by their scouts and launched massive air strikes that sank relatively unimportant secondary targets, while leaving the most important enemy forces untouched.
That morning, American scout planes reported sighting an enemy carrier, which proved to be the Shoho, and four heavy cruisers off Misima Island. Unfortunately, they were misreported as "two carriers and four heavy cruisers".
Ten B-17s were immediately sent to attack at high level. They were unsuccessful, but were able to start a fire on one cruiser. More important, by throwing the Japanese formation into complete disorder they caused the carrier to reverse its course.
Yorktown and Lexington sent a huge strike force of fifty-three scout-bombers, twenty-two torpedo planes and eighteen fighters. They caught the Japanese unprepared, with few planes in the air and with their carrier headed away from the wind. Nine bomb hits and four torpedoes sank the Shoho within five minutes after the first blow was struck.
A second strike aimed at the retiring enemy force was readied but not ordered aloft because the other Japanese carriers had not yet been located.
The undiscovered Shokaku and Zuikaku were meanwhile to the northeast, frantically searching for the American aircraft carriers. Japanese scouting planes from these two ships spotted the American oiler USS Neosho (AO 23) and her escort, the destroyer USS Sims (DD 409), before 8 AM, far to the south of Admiral Fletcher's carriers.
Misreported as a "carrier and a cruiser" by the Japanese scouts, the two ships were attacked twice by high-level bombers, but escaped unscathed.
However, about noon a large force of dive bombers appeared overhead, and they did not miss. Sims sank with very heavy casualties and Neosho was reduced to a drifting wreck whose survivors were not rescued for days. Admiral Fletcher did not learn of this attack until dusk, too late to take any effective counteraction.
Compounding the Japanese misunderstanding of the situation, Japanese land-based torpedo planes and bombers struck the force of Australian and American cruisers far to the west of Admiral Fletcher's carriers. Skillful ship handling prevented any damage to the Allied ships.
Adding to the general confusion, several Australia-based U.S. Army B-17s also arrived over the Allied ships and dropped their bombs, fortunately without hitting anything.
All this had one beneficial effect: the Japanese ordered their Port Moresby invasion force to turn back to await developments.
The Japanese learned of the sinking of the Shoho as their planes were returning from the attack on the tanker group, and at dusk about twenty-seven bombers and torpedo planes again left the Shokaku and Zuikaku in another effort to locate and sink the Lexington and the Yorktown.
After a long and fruitless search, the planes were forced to jettison their bombs and torpedoes and head back to their ships. During the return flight, these planes passed over the United States carriers at night and some landings were actually attempted before the Japanese pilots realized their mistake.
Almost none of the aircraft successfully returned to their carrier--a huge and wasteful loss of combat crews and aircraft.
Friday, May 8th, 1942
Before dawn on May 8th, both the Japanese and the American carriers dispatched scouting planes to locate their opponents. These made contact a few hours later, by which time the Japanese strike force was already airborne. The US aircraft launched soon after 9 AM, and task force commander Admiral Fletcher turned over tactical command to Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, who had more carrier experience.
Each side's planes attacked the other's ships at about 11 AM. While the Japanese ships were partially concealed by heavy weather, the American ships were operating under clear skies.
Planes from Yorktown hit the Shokaku, followed somewhat later by part of USS Lexington's air group. These attacks left Shokaku unable to launch planes, and she left the area soon after to return to Japan for repairs. Her sister ship, Zuikaku, was steaming nearby under low clouds and was not molested.
In addition to reconnaissance and preparatory raids against enemy air installations, Army Air Force land-based aircraft from the SWPA continued to support the action of the naval forces by flying some forty-five sorties against the enemy fleet. Bad weather intervened, however, and frustrated all attempts to bomb the crippled Shokaku, which succeeded in escaping to the sanctuary of Rabaul.
The "Lady Lex" Goes Down
The Japanese struck the American carriers in a fast and violent action, scoring torpedo hits on Lexington and with bombs on both carriers.
Lexington was struck by a torpedo to port. Moments later, a second torpedo hit to port directly abreast of the bridge. Simultaneously, she took three bomb hits from enemy dive bombers, and may have received as many as seven bomb and torpedo hits in all. These attacks left her with a 7 degree list to port and several raging fires.
By 1 PM her damage control parties had brought the fires under control and returned the ship to even keel; making 25 knots, she was ready to recover her air group. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Lexington was shaken by a tremendous explosion, caused by the ignition of gasoline vapors below decks, and again fire raged out of control.
At 4 PM, Capt. Frederick C. Sherman, fearing for the safety of his men working below decks, secured salvage operations, and ordered all hands to the flight deck. Admiral Fitch ordered "abandon ship" a few minutes after 5 PM, and the men began going over the side into the warm water to be immediately rescued by nearby cruisers and destroyers. This effort was so well executed that no additional sailors were lost in the rescue.
The now mortally wounded Lexington blazed on, flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air. Finally, the destroyer USS Phelps (DD 361) closed to 1500 yards, fired two torpedoes into the carrier's hull and the "Lady Lex" slid beneath the waves. (Please note the 1935 official US Navy photo of the Phelps below shows a different hull number.)
The Battle of Coral Sea Ends
As May 8th drew to a close, both sides retired from the immediate battle area. In addition to the carriers and other ships lost, both sides experienced heavy aircraft losses. The US losses totaled 66 and postwar interrogations of Japanese survivors of the battle put Japanese aircraft losses much higher than 100.
Zuikaku returned to the area for a few days, even though her aircraft complement was badly depleted, but as the invasion of Port Moresby had been called off, she withdrew on May 11th. At about the same time USS Yorktown was recalled to Pearl Harbor. After receiving quick repairs, she would play a vital role in the Battle of Midway less than a month later.
The Battle of the Coral Sea prevented the Japanese from occupying Port Moresby by sea and temporarily delayed their plans to capture Guadalcanal and occupy the Solomons.
The Allies gained time in their race to improve defenses in New Guinea and northeastern Australia.
Truthfully, the American victory was purely defensive. Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific were still unable to launch a major offensive. The Japanese had lost an important battle, but the strategic initiative still remained in their hands--at least until the pivotal Battle of Midway just a month away.
Author's Note: I am indebted to historians at the US Navy and US Army historical centers and the National Archives, as well as many others, for the information and photos in this article.
If you have any photos or data you would like to contribute, please contact Michael Benolkin. All comments and suggestions are welcome!