BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA
THE EVENTS OF 7 MAY 1942
The American and Japanese Carrier Forces search for each other in the Coral Sea
Rear Admiral Fletcher was aware that the coming battle between the American and Japanese fleet carrier forces could end in the two forces neutralising each other. This would leave the Jomard Passage unguarded, and open the way for the Japanese invasion convoy to reach Port Moreby. To guard against such a disaster, Fletcher decided early on the morning of 7 May to dispatch Rear Admiral Crace's cruiser Support Group to block the southern exit of the Jomard Passage. While Crace was moving his cruiser squadron, which included HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart, USS Chicago, and three American destroyers, to the Jomard Passage, Fletcher's aircraft searched for Rear Admiral Takagi's aircraft carrier strike force which was in fact approaching his own task force under cover of a storm front.
During the morning of 7 May 1942, scout aircraft from the American and Japanese carriers both thought they had found the enemy fleet carriers, but both sides were mistaken.
The Japanese light carrier Shoho is under attack by American carrier aircraft.
Japanese scout aircraft located the American tanker Neosho and its destroyer escort USS Sims well to the south of Fletcher's carriers at about 8.00 am. Reported to Admiral Takagi as "a carrier and a cruiser", Neosho and Sims twice came under attack by Japanese high-level bombers during the morning without a hit being scored. At about noon, however, a formation of Japanese dive bombers attacked the tanker and destroyer. Sims was sunk with heavy casualties and Neosho was reduced to a drifting wreck.
A scout aircraft from USS Yorktown located Rear Admiral Goto's Port Moresby covering force, including the light Japanese carrier Shoho, south of the island of Bougainville. The sighting was incorrectly reported to Admiral Fletcher as a finding of "two carriers and four heavy cruisers". Believing that he had located Takagi's carrier strike force, Fletcher launched massive air strikes from Yorktown and Lexington against Goto's covering force warships. Fifty-three dive bombers, twenty-two torpedo planes and eighteen fighters fell upon Shoho at 11.15 am. The Japanese light carrier received numerous bomb and torpedo hits and sank at 11.35 am. Lt Cdr Robert E. Dixon of Lexington's Scouting Squadron Two (VS-2) recorded the sinking of Shoho with the memorable words: "Scratch one flat-top".
Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher commanded the Allied task forces at the Battle of the Coral Sea and inflicted on Japan its first defeat at sea.
The Allied Cruiser Squadron comes under Attack from both Sides
Having no air cover, the situation facing Rear Admiral Crace's cruiser squadron as it approached the southern exit of the Jomard Passage was precarious. At 12.40 pm, Vice Admiral Inoue had been led to believe that Crace's cruiser squadron was far more powerful than it really was. This belief had been produced by a Japanese seaplane pilot who mistakenly identified Crace's small force as comprising a battleship, two heavy cruisers and three destroyers. Concerned for the safety of his invasion force that was now approaching the northern entrance to the Jomard Passage, Inoue ordered land-based air attacks on Crace's warships.
At about 2.30 pm on 7 May, Crace's squadron was attacked by twelve land-based Japanese torpedo bombers from Rabaul. By skilful manoeuvring, the cruisers evaded all torpedo attacks. Immediately after the torpedo bomber attack, the cruiser squadron was attacked by twenty Japanese high level bombers. The bombing was very accurate, and HMAS Australia was straddled by bombs, which although very close, missed the cruiser. However, the bomb explosions close to the ship produced huge columns of water that crashed down on Australia and hid her briefly from the view of the rest of the squadron. The eruption of water was so massive that other ship commanders believed Australia had been destroyed. The skill of the ship commanders again saved the cruiser squadron from damage.
The next attack on the Allied cruiser force came from three American high-level B-17 bombers whose pilots mistakenly thought that they were attacking Japanese warships. Fortunately, all of the American bombs missed their target. When confronted with the actions of his B-17 pilots, General Douglas MacArthur refused to admit that the bombs had been dropped by aircraft under his command. An eye witness account of these air attacks on the Allied cruiser squadron is provided by Commodore Dacre Smyth, AO at the end of this history of the Battle of the Coral Sea.
With an Allied warship squadron blocking the Jomard Passage and the Shoho sunk, Vice Admiral Inouye became deeply concerned for the safety of his Port Moresby invasion convoy. He ordered the invasion convoy not to enter the Jomard Passage but to withdraw temporarily to the north and await the outcome of the impending carrier battle.
Late on the afternoon of 7 May, Admiral Takagi launched a strike group of twelve Val dive bombers and fifteen Kate torpedo bombers to search for and attack Admiral Crace's cruiser squadron which was still blocking the southern exit of the Jomard passage. It was a serious error of judgment by Takagi. The Japanese strike group was picked up on Yorktown's radar while on route to its target, and Wildcat F4F fighters from Yorktown and Lexington were sent to intercept. Having no radar at this stage of the war, the Japanese pilots were taken by surprise when the Wildcat fighters pounced on them. Takagi's strike group was not escorted by Zero fighters, and the Japanese bomber pilots responded to the sudden American attack by abandoning their mission and dispersing in all directions.
The dispersal in panic of the Japanese strike group led to one of the bizarre incidents of the Pacific War. With night approaching fast, the disoriented Japanese pilots lost their way and found themselves over the American carrier task force. The pilot of the leading Japanese plane failed to appreciate that these were the enemy and he signalled Yorktown that he was about to land. He only realised his mistake as he was drifting in to land on the carrier's flight deck. When he saw that he was about to land on an American carrier, the horrified Japanese pilot frantically veered away, and was followed by the other Japanese pilots. Having already ditched their bombs when they abandoned their mission, the Japanese pilots were unable to extract a measure of honour from an embarrassing situation by attacking the American task force. Some nervous American gunners responded to the incident by firing at any aircraft above the task force, including friendly returning Wildcat fighters.
One of the Japanese pilots involved in this attempted landing on USS Yorktown gives his account of the incident:
"Our aircraft soon fell victim to the delusions and 'mirages' brought on by exhaustion. Several times the pilots, despairing of their position over the sea 'sighted' a friendly aircraft carrier. Finally, a carrier was sighted, and the remaining eighteen bombers switched on their signal and blinker lights as they swung into their approach and landing pattern.
"As the lead aircraft, with its flaps down and speed lowered, drifted toward the carrier deck to land, the pilot discovered the great ship ahead was an American carrier! Apparently the Americans also had erred in identification, for even as the bomber dropped near the carrier deck, not a single enemy gun fired. The Japanese pilot frantically opened his throttle, and at full speed, swung away from the vessel followed by his astonished men.
"Our aircrews were disgusted. They had flown for gruelling hours over the sea, bucked thunder squalls and, finally, had lost all trace of their positions relative to their own carriers. When finally they did sight the coveted American warship, cruising unsuspecting beneath eighteen bombers, they were without bombs or torpedoes.
"Only eighteen out of the twenty-seven planes that had flown out that afternoon made it back. All the dead were veteran pilots, and could not be easily replaced by the Japanese."
Bill Surgi was aboard USS Yorktown at the time and he recalls this very unusual incident:
"It happened at sunset. There was light in the western skies, and it was dark to the east. We on Yorktown were preparing to land our CAP (Combat Air Patrol) of F4F Wildcat fighters when a group of aircraft circled the task force sending blinker light signals that we did not recognise. This group of aircraft joined our landing pattern. Our LSO (Landing Signal Officer) would have been expecting to bring aboard the F4Fs of our CAP because they were the only aircraft expected at this time. The F4Fs had close in, retractable landing gear. The LSO sees an aircraft with wide spread, fixed landing gear coming into the landing pattern. It was a Japanese Aichi Type 99 "Val" dive bomber, so he waves it off, and the Japanese pilot took the wave off. Our skipper, Capt. Buckmaster, passed the word 'stand by to repel boarders'. As the Japanese plane went by the port side, and the "meat ball" * was seen, all guns took him on. It was like fireworks, with tracers going into any aircraft that went by. I guess they got the idea we were not theirs! It was unusual to say the least, and we were on edge. In the general confusion, some of the F4Fs of our CAP flew through friendly fire. Ensign William. W. Barnes landed with his oil cooler shot up. He was ready to fight the plane handlers, wanting to know why we shot at him."
* Service slang for the Japanese national insignia on aircraft.
Otis Kight was also aboard Yorktown at this time and he recalls:
"I remember there were two Japanese aircraft I personally saw trying to land on us. Our F4F fighters were preparing to land on Yorktown at the same time. I can recall extremely colorful language - even for an experienced sailor- from our Yorktown pilots (VF-42) concerning getting the crap shot out of them by our own gunners. This all happened within the space of about twenty minutes. It was almost at sunset. They (the Japanese) both made it the heck out of there. I don't remember anyone trying to claim credit for shooting them down. Maybe up, but not down!"
Nine Japanese aircraft were either shot down or lost their way back to their own carriers in the darkness. Three Wildcats failed to return to the American carriers.
At 8.40 pm on 7 May, Vice Admiral Inoue responded to confusing reports that he had received concerning the strength and locations of enemy warships by postponing the Port Moresby landings from 10 May to 12 May. Admirals Fletcher and Takagi spent that night preparing their respective carrier forces for battle on the following morning.