BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA
EVENTS OF 8 MAY 1942
The American and Japanese Carrier Forces make Contact and Battle is joined
Before dawn on 8 May 1942, the commanders of the American and Japanese carrier forces launched scout aircraft to search for the enemy's carriers. Between 8.15 and 8.20 am, the American and Japanese scouts located the enemy's carriers. Rear Admiral Fletcher began launching his strike aircraft shortly after 9.00 am, and then turned over tactical command to Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch who had more experience of aircraft carrier operations. At about the same time, the Japanese launched their strike aircraft towards the American carriers.
The USS Lexington is shown in 1941. Built on a battle-cruiser hull, Lexington was one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world at this time. The "Lady Lex" was one of the best loved ships in the US Navy.
At this time, Yorktown and Lexington were operating under clear skies whereas Admiral Takagi's carriers were partially concealed by low rain clouds. Owing to the poor weather conditions over the Japanese carriers, the strike forces launched from Yorktown and Lexington , comprising in total twenty-one Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, forty-six Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and seventeen Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, were only able to locate the fleet carrier Shokaku . Rear Admiral Takagi had skilfully exploited a rain squall to screen his other fleet carrier Zuikaku from Admiral Fletcher's aircraft. The American aircraft attacked Shokaku and the dive bombers inflicted heavy damage on its flight deck. Unable to launch aircraft, Shokaku was withdrawn from the battle and headed for its base at Truk in Japan's Caroline Islands. Shokaku's airborne aircraft were transferred to Zuikaku.
The Devastator torpedo aircraft launched torpedoes, but caused no damage to Shokaku. None of the air-launched torpedoes that struck Shokaku exploded. The failure of twenty-one American torpedo bombers to inflict any damage on Shokaku should have alerted the American naval leadership to the very real possibility that the Devastators were armed with defective torpedoes, and produced swift action to resolve this serious problem. However, those responsible for this grave deficiency in American naval weaponry took no action to correct it before the great naval battle at Midway in early June 1942.
The Loss of the "Lady Lex" - USS Lexington
While the American carrier aircraft were attacking Shokaku, and searching for Zuikaku, Admiral Takagi's aircraft found Lexington and Yorktown steaming under clear skies. Admiral Fletcher had only a small number of fighters left to defend his two carriers when sixty-nine Japanese carrier aircraft pressed home their attack at 11.18 am. The slower and heavily outnumbered American Wildcat fighters were overwhelmed by the Japanese Zero fighters, and were unable to play any significant role in the defence of the American carriers.
Despite an intense anti-aircraft barrage from the American carriers and their escorting warships, the Japanese pilots resolutely pressed home their attack. Shigekazu Shimazaki, commander of Zuikaku's air strike, described the intensity of the anti-aircraft fire:
"When we attacked the enemy carriers, we ran into a virtual wall of anti-aircraft fire. The carriers and their supporting ships blackened the sky with exploding shells and tracers. It seemed impossible that we could survive our bombing and torpedo runs through such incredible defences . . I had to fly directly above the waves to escape the enemy shells and tracers. In fact, when I turned away from the enemy carrier, I was so low that I almost struck the bow of the ship, for I was flying below the level of the flight deck. I could see the crewmen of the ship staring at my plane as it rushed by."
From Chris Coulthard-Clark, "Action Stations Coral Sea", Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991 page 119.
The USS Lexington is rocked by a massive explosion after the Japanese attack.
Stanley Johnston, newspaper correspondent aboard USS Lexington, described the Japanese attack from his own perspective:
"The forward 1.1 battery has the range on that first Jap. I see their shells, bright crimson tracers, tearing through the wings and fuselage. This plane wavers, begins a slow roll to its left and veers off just enough to pass in an inverted position just under our bow. As it glides by, I see flames coming from the tail, and the machine smashes itself into the water fifty feet off our starboard bow. The port forward 5-inch battery manned by marines concentrates its fire on the second Jap. As this plane zooms to cross almost directly over these guns, they hit it squarely with a shell. The explosion blows it to bits, its engine plunging into the water almost at the foot of the battery. Shreds of its wlngs and tail surfaces slither along the carrier's deck like sheets of paper swept in front of a gale."
From Stanley Johnston, "Queen of the Flat-Tops", E.P. Dutton & Co (1942), at page 222.
By skilful manoeuvring, the smaller carrier Yorktown was able to evade several air-launched torpedoes. The Japanese dive bombers then took their turn to attack Yorktown, and an 800 pound (362 kg) bomb penetrated to the carrier's fourth deck. The blast and resulting fires killed and injured dozens of crewmen. Yorktown was severely damaged by the bomb hit, but the fires were quickly brought under control and the carrier remained fully operational.
Although skilfully handled also, Lexington was attacked by torpedo bombers from both sides simultaneously. Her evasive manoeuvres were hampered by her greater size, and she was struck by two air-launched torpedoes and two bombs.
The Japanese attack was over by 11. 27 am, and despite severe damage and the loss of many lives, it appeared at first that Lexington would remain operational. A seven degree list caused by the torpedo hits was corrected by shifting oil ballast, and her returning aircraft were recovered safely. However, at 12. 47 pm a large explosion caused by petrol vapour rocked the Lexington and spread fires throughout the ship.
About two hours later, a second large explosion tore through the aircraft hangar deck and produced fires that raged out of control. At 5. 07 pm the crew were ordered to abandon their beloved " Lady Lex", and they did so, although reluctantly. The fires were now roasting torpedo warheads stored in the hangar, and shortly after Lexington's commander, Captain Frederick C. Sherman, left his blazing ship at 5.27 pm, the warheads detonated in a massive explosion. The stricken Lexington could not be saved, and the great carrier was sent to its grave on the bed of the Coral Sea by torpedoes fired from an American destroyer. 216 dead crew members accompanied their ship on her last journey.
The doomed USS Lexington after massive explosions have blasted the carrier. The "Lady Lex"would soon be resting on the bed of the Coral Sea with 216 dead crew members who accompanied their ship on her last journey.
A number of American aircraft failed to return to their carriers. Some were shot down; some ran out of fuel, or lost their way home to their carriers across the trackless ocean. Their sad farewells were heard by crewman Mervyn Johnston aboard HMAS Australia:
"We could hear..... the comments of various pilots . . . (who) in some cases were running out of fuel or could not land on the Lexington or the Yorktown as they were either damaged or on fire. Many messages were goodbyes to friends or loved ones."
From Chris Coulthard-Clark, "Action Stations Coral Sea", Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991, page 125
With his task force reduced to one damaged fleet carrier, Rear Admiral Fletcher decided that Yorktown should be withdrawn from further action in the Coral Sea. The damaged Yorktown set course for Pearl Harbor, where it would be quickly repaired and would play a vital role in the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
Vice Admiral Takagi breaks off the action and withdraws to the north
The Japanese strike leader, Lieutenant Commander Kakuichi Takahashi, had reported at 11.25 am that the Japanese had sunk a Saratoga class carrier (he was actually referring to the Lexington) and severely damaged a Yorktown class carrier. However, the cost to the Japanese in lost aircraft and experienced pilots had been very high. When the survivors of the Shokaku and Zuikaku air strikes landed on the flight deck of the still unscathed Zuikaku, Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara found to his horror that he could only muster thirty-nine operational aircraft for a second strike, and twenty-four of these were Zero fighters. Faced with a serious shortage of operational strike bombers, and a critical fuel situation, Vice Admiral Takagi decided at 3.00 pm to break off the action and retire to the north to refuel his ships. There is no evidence to suggest that Takagi had any intention at this stage to resume the battle.Back at Rabaul, Vice Admiral Inoue rejoiced at the news that one American carrier had been sunk and a second one crippled. Although the path to Port Moresby appeared to be now blocked only by Rear Admiral Crace's cruiser squadron (mistakenly reported to Inoue as including a battleship), Inoue decided on the evening of 8 May to postpone Operation MO entirely. His decision was influenced by the loss of Shoho, the heavy damage to Shokaku, and the serious shortage of strike bombers left on Zuikaku. He felt that the MO invasion force would be too vulnerable to attack by Allied land-based bombers without adequate carrier support.
The Japanese withdrawal produces the first major Allied naval victory in the Pacific War
By nightfall on 8 May, the withdrawal of all Japanese naval forces from the Coral Sea left Rear Admiral Crace's Australian-American Support Group (three cruisers with destroyer escorts) in sole possession of the battlefield. A powerful Japanese invasion force had been repulsed and Port Moresby had been saved. Japan had suffered its first major defeat in the Pacific War.
Crace's cruiser force continued to faithfully block the Jomard Passage until it was recalled to Australia on 10 May.
Despite clear evidence that Japan suffered a major defeat at the Battle of the Coral Sea, some writers of naval history have suggested that the outcome was inconclusive or an American tactical defeat. These views are wrong, and I will explain why this is so in the next section.
A furious Admiral Yamamoto demands that Takagi pursue and destroy the Allied warships
When the withdrawal of Zuikaku from the battle and the cancelling of Operation MO were reported to Admiral Yamamoto late on 8 May, he was furious. At 10.00 pm, he tersely ordered Inoue to "destroy the enemy". When he gave this order, Yamamoto was not aware that Vice Admiral Takagi had lost almost two thirds of his aircraft or that his task force was desperately short of fuel when he withdrew from the battle. It took all of 9 May for Vice Admiral Takagi to refuel his carrier task force, and by the time his ships returned to the Coral Sea and began the hunt for Allied warships, Yorktown and her escort warships were well beyond his reach on their way to Tongatapu in the Friendly Islands. When Takagi reported that his air patrols could find no Allied warships in the Coral Sea, Admiral Yamamoto accepted the postponement of Operation MO and recalled his ships on the afternoon of 10 May.
Admiral Yamamoto appears to have been far more concerned about the escape of Allied warships than about Vice Admiral Inoue's postponement of the capture of Port Moresby. However, this could well be explained by Yamamoto's preoccupation with destruction of the US Pacific Fleet. He intended to achieve this at Midway in early June 1942, and Admirals Inoue and Takagi had already deprived him of the carriers Shokaku and Shoho for that major naval operation.
Historical Source Material:
The Naval Historical Center, at http://www.history.navy.mil/index.html