The End of the Beginning of the War in the Pacific – The Battle of the Coral Sea

USS Lexington (CV 2) burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 8, 1942. Note planes parked aft, where fires have not yet reached. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

USS Lexington (CV 2) burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 8, 1942. Note planes parked aft, where fires have not yet reached. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

 

By Ed Furgol, Ph.D., National Museum of the U.S. Navy

The Battle of the Coral Sea has a claim for an eminent place in the history of Naval Aviation. The closing stages of the action witnessed the first combat between two fleets solely by carrier plane. Furthermore, the battle was the first time, following the outbreak of war on Dec. 7, 1941 that the Japanese advance in the Pacific was halted. Finally, the clash provided the U.S. Navy, in particular its Naval Aviation, with its initial victory against the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The potential for action arose from Japanese plans in Spring 1942 to advance south and southeastward from the Bismarcks and Solomons in the South Pacific. The immediate objectives of the offensive were the capture of Tulagi in the Solomons and Port Moresby, New Guinea, with a second phase plan for the capture of the Nauru and Ocean islands. Tulagi would be developed as a seaplane base to cover the flank of the advance on Port Moresby and to support later seizures of islands astride the American-Australian supply lines, such as New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. Port Moresby was the most important prize; its possession would secure Japanese bases on New Guinea and at Rabaul, New Britain; would provide the Japanese with the ability to neutralize north Australian airfields; and would anchor the western flank of next offensive in the South Pacific. Nauru and Ocean, which contained rich phosphorous deposits essential for Japanese agriculture, were vital to increase food production – as great a strategic weakness for Japan as its lack of iron ore, oil and rubber.

Following standard Japanese practice, the fleet units assigned to the operation were divided into several groups. Two units – the Port Moresby and Tulagi Invasion Groups — carried the ground forces. A light carrier, cruisers, and destroyers formed Support and Covering Forces, protecting the Port Moresby Group. The Striking Force, the most powerful element, consisted of just two aircraft carriers and their escorts. The Japanese, busy reequipping the remainder of Admiral Nagumo’s carriers for the decisive attack against Midway, believed the Allies would offer little resistance and thought that such a small carrier group was sufficient.

An infographic of The Battle of Coral Sea, the first air-sea battle in history.

An infographic of The Battle of Coral Sea, the first air-sea battle in history.

 

Given the string of Japanese victories since Pearl Harbor, there was no reason to suspect the offensive would fail. However, far behind the battlefront, the Americans had already scored a devastating victory that provided the possibility of thwarting Japanese intentions. Several months after the war’s start, Navy cryptologists, primarily at Station Hypo, Pearl Harbor broke the Japanese naval code by analyzing traffic patterns and decoding 10 to 15 percent of the messages received, Station Hypo gave Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz an accurate picture of Japanese designs. By mid-April he knew of the enemy’s plans to attack Port Moresby. Nimitz had learned that two enemy carriers were on the way to Rabaul, and he had sound information on Operation MO (Port Moresby-Tulagi) forces. Consequently, he dispatched carrier Lexington (CV-2) to join Yorktown (CV-5) in the Coral Sea.

Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, USN photographed Sept. 17, 1942. A little more than four months earlier, as a Rear Admiral, Fletcher commanded a task force that included carriers Lexington and Yorktown at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, USN photographed Sept. 17, 1942. A little more than four months earlier, as a Rear Admiral, Fletcher commanded a task force that included carriers Lexington and Yorktown at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

The campaign was divided into two distinct phases – the actions on May 1-7, and the carrier battle on the 8th. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s task force of Lexington, Yorktown, and two cruiser divisions rendezvoused in the southeast Coral Sea. Fletcher divided his forces and steamed north with a task group centered on Yorktown. On the 4th, Yorktown’s planes attacked the Japanese convoy off Tulagi. The carrier launched three strikes with TBD Devastators, SBD Dauntlesses, and F4F Wildcats, which sank four minecraft and some barges, and fatally damaged a destroyer. Nimitz later commented, “The Tulagi operation was certainly disappointing in terms of ammunition expended to results obtained.” The admiral stated that it emphasized “the necessity for target practice at every opportunity.” As would be common throughout the war, the pilots’ eagerness often had the effect of inflating their meager success into a magnificent victory. After recovering his planes, Fletcher spent the remainder of the 4th and all the next day steaming to rejoin Lexington. The Japanese, after successfully taking Tulagi, failed to coordinate their movements. The Port Moresby groups, which steamed on May 4, milled about the Louisiades – off the eastern tip of New Guinea – instead of pressing south. Admiral Takagi’s Striking Force moved with greater purpose assuming that Fletcher would move west to intercept the Port Moresby forces: Takagi maneuvered west and south to cut Fletcher off from American bases to the east. The 7th was a day of confusion, with the Americans gaining the advantage. Once again Fletcher divided his force, sending some of his cruisers under British Rear Admiral John G. Crace to intercept the Port Moresby Invasion Group as it departed from the Jomard Passage. Within the same hour, both Fletcher and Takagi received faulty aerial reconnaissance reports. The Japanese acted first: enemy pilots launched and sped out to strike a carrier and a cruiser only to discover the fleet oiler Neosho (AO-23) and destroyer Sims (DD-409). The latter sank in minutes, but Neosho, although badly battered, survived for four days. WhiIe the Japanese expended their efforts on these targets. American planes hit the Port Moresby Covering Group. Initially, they had followed the wrong course based on an error in the morning aerial reconnaissance report. Discovering the light carrier Shoho, the SBDs and TBDs from Lexington and Yorktown sent her to the bottom within half an hour. The Covering Group now withdrew. Earlier, the Invasion Group had turned north after detecting Crace’s cruisers. In late afternoon, the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, both Pearl Harbor raid veterans, launched a strike force of 27 planes. Poor information and bad weather caused them to miss their targets. Attempting to return to their carriers, several Japanese planes tried to land on the American carriers. Wildcats downed eight of these, with one later ditching as a result of damage; 18 planes landed on the Japanese carriers. The Japanese forces involved in the Port Moresby operation had lost the confidence to advance until they had assurance that Fletcher’s task force was destroyed.

The balance of forces now appeared deceptively even. Both sides had two carriers, with the Americans having a slight advantage in numbers of flyable aircraft. Despite superficial appearances, the Americans were in trouble. The Japanese had numerous advantages: U.S. planes were much slower; the Japanese possessed a better mix of dive-bombers, torpedo planes and fighters in their strike groups; Japanese torpedo squadrons had a longer range and a faster torpedo; the Japanese had more combat experience as a unit than Fletcher’s men, whose high morale could not bridge the gulf; and weather conditions favored Takagi when the American ships headed south into clear skies, while the Japanese remained under the cover of clouds and showers during their advance.

The decisive actions on the 8th all occurred by early afternoon. At dawn, both forces launched scout planes. Discovery of the opposing carriers and launching of the strike groups took place within minutes of each other.  Significantly, Japanese planes received better target direction. Even worse, direction of the US combat air patrol failed miserably, leaving the fighters unable to protect the carriers. The Japanese attacked, quickly scoring hits on both Lexington and Yorktown, starting fires. The former suffered more, but within an hour, damage control efforts apparently had succeeded.

Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku under attack by USS Yorktown (CV-5) planes, during the morning of May 8, 1942. Flames are visible from a bomb hit on her forecastle. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku under attack by USS Yorktown (CV-5) planes, during the morning of May 8, 1942. Flames are visible from a bomb hit on her forecastle. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

 

Meanwhile, the American attack groups had problems. Due to bad weather and faulty intelligence, only two-thirds reached the targets. For about an hour, they attacked Shokaku while Zuikaku remained sheltered under squalls. Perversely, that circumstance may have aided the pilots, who would have dissipated their attacks on two targets. At Coral Sea, they only had a six-percent hit rate: the 28 Dauntless dive bombers scored three hits and the 22 Devastator torpedo planes failed to make any. After 1240, the first battle between naval forces that never made visual contact ended. Following the strikes, both forces began to separate.  Lexington, although sustaining five bomb and torpedo hits, continued in formation and recovered her incoming planes. Fires on the ship forced doctors to work in an atmosphere of poisonous gases. Captain Frederick C. Sherman wrote afterwards, “I must comment on the heroism of the men. It was an inspiration. The first thought of all was for the wounded.” But a torpedo hit had allowed gas vapors to spread within the ship. At 1247, a generator spark ignited these vapors, causing a major internal explosion that rocked the ship. Still, planes continued to land until 1414. At 1445 a second major explosion wreaked havoc on the fire and engine room ventilation system. By 1515, the fire was beyond control and the danger of bombs exploding from overheating was possible. At 1630 with the steam safety valves lifted. Lexington stopped dead in the water. Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch ordered Sherman to abandon ship at 1707. The captain recalled that in the evacuation “there was not the slightest panic and disorder.” Two hours later, a destroyer fired four torpedoes into Lexington, sending her to the bottom. Witnesses commented that her former crew burst into tears as she sank. An officer onboard Yorktown said, “There she goes. She didn’t turn over. She is going down with her head up. Dear old Lex. A Lady to the last.”

USS Yorktown (CV-5) in Dry Dock # 1 at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, May 29, 1942, receiving urgent repairs for damage received in the Battle of the Coral Sea. She left Pearl Harbor the next day to participate in the Battle of Midway. USS West Virginia (BB-48), sunk in the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese air attack, is being salvaged in the left distance. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

USS Yorktown (CV-5) in Dry Dock # 1 at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, May 29, 1942, receiving urgent repairs for damage received in the Battle of the Coral Sea. She left Pearl Harbor the next day to participate in the Battle of Midway. USS West Virginia (BB-48), sunk in the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese air attack, is being salvaged in the left distance. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

 

Coral Sea resulted in tactical and strategic victories for the U.S. Navy. The Japanese sank a fleet carrier, a destroyer, and an oiler, and damaged another fleet carrier.  While the Imperial Japanese Navy lost less than the USN in tonnage — a light carrier, destroyer, and four minecraft — between damage to the fleet carrier Shokaku and losses to the Zuikaku’s airwing, the campaign marked a significant defeat for the Japanese despite American forces’ withdrawal from the area. With air groups too battered to support further advance, the Japanese were brought to a standstill. Port Moresby remained in Allied control; Australia and its supply line to the United States were preserved. The operation to capture the Nauru and Ocean islands, deterred by the May 15 spotting of Rear Adm. Halsey s two-carrier TF-16, was not resumed until three months later, too late to offer much boost to enemy spirits.  At Midway the absence of Shokaku and  Zuikaku meant  the Japanese a carrier superiority of just 4:3 with an airplane advantage of only 17%; Had the carriers not been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea, their presence would have given the Japanese a 2:1 advantage in carriers and 70% more airplanes than the US. With further codebreaking revealing Japanese plans to attack Midway, repairs to Yorktown were rushed and the carrier was patched in time for Midway. American pilots, fighter directors, combat air patrols, aerial reconnaissance, and damage control crews all realized that they needed more schooling in the art of carrier warfare.  (Although the proper execution of tactical attack doctrine during the Battle of the Coral Sea hid the vulnerability of Douglass Devastator torpedo bombers without fighter escorts.)  The Battle of the Coral Sea stabilized the southwest Pacific front and provided the Allies with their first major victory in the Pacific war. It proved a harbinger of things to come in both the carrier battles of the Pacific and the resurgence of the US Navy.  Simply, it was a colossal and dramatic shift of events, ending six months’ of continual Imperial Japanese Navy triumphs.

This story originally ran in the May/June 1992 issue of Naval Aviation News.

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