The Battle of the Coral Sea - May 1942

By John Dudek 26 May 2015 0

Following on from last week’s review of Order of Battle: Pacific we thought we’d bring you a historical piece that links in with it. In this instalment John Dudek take a look at The Battle of the Coral Sea which, with the hindsight we have, proved to be something of a turning point in the war in the Pacific in World War 2.


Around 1032 hours on the rainy South Pacific morning of 8 May 1942, the aircraft carrier YORKTOWN's dive bombers found the Japanese aircraft carriers SHOKAKU and ZUIKAKU and the other ships of their task force 120 miles east of Rossel Island.  The Americans paused only long enough for their much slower torpedo bombers to arrive and line up into attack formation far below before executing a simultaneous attack.  As the dive bombers winged over into their near terminal dives, they dodged Japanese flak gun fire all the way down as they tried to line up on the frantically maneuvering SHOKAKU.  The radically moving carrier weaved, jinked and circled erratically at over 30 knots like a scared mouse in order to throw off its attackers aim. Most of the American bombs landed in the ocean around it, throwing up massive towering waterspouts skyward.  However, two 1,000 lb. bombs ripped into the carrier's flight deck and forecastle, causing huge fires to break out on the hangar deck below and leaving the ship unable to operate its aircraft.  The SHOKAKU's sister ship ZUIKAKU located over 10,000 yards away was far more fortunate as she was able to avoid the U.S. air attacks by hiding under a heavy rain squall.  LEXINGTON's dive bombers now arrived and concentrated their full fury on the SHOKAKU to hit her with an additional 1,000 lb. bomb adding yet more insult to injury.  For the American warship crews waiting back aboard their carriers, they were treated to the welcome oration of hearing their fighter and bomber pilots exaltedly speaking over their radios that crackled with static electricity.  These wise cracking pilots had earlier been warned about their injudicious use of language during the fight, but the excited young men, chock full of adrenalin, were unable to restrain themselves.  "Get away from that Zero Jack, she's all mine!" Another fighter pilot intoned to his mates.  "Where are you guys?  I've got three Nakajimas cornered here fair and square!" A dive bomber pilot now shouted joyfully while referring to the flaming SHOKAKU.  “Look at that big bastard burn!"  With three solid bomb hits into the one Japanese carrier, the American pilots broke off their attack to return to their ships leaving behind three of their fighters and two dive bomber along with their crews as lost.  None of the US torpedoes struck any of the Japanese warships.

In the weeks and months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military were able to seize and conquer an unprecedented huge and rich new empire encompassing much of the world's surface, extending from the South Pacific through much of the Asian mainland.  In doing so they vanquished the old, traditional European colonial powers to break their long time holds over their former colonies.  French Indo-China, today's Vietnam and much of Cambodia were occupied by the Japanese in July 1941.  The independent kingdom of Siam, today's Thailand, soon allied itself to Japan.  Much of China along with all its seaports was already in Japanese hands.  The oil and gas rich Dutch East Indies fell to the Japanese after a series of amphibious invasions on 9 March 1942.  The rich British colony of Malaya with its jewel seaport of Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on 31 January 1942. The British colony of Burma, today's Myanamar, was largely overrun by the Japanese invader who kept up a hot pursuit of the retreating British Army along its long thousand mile withdrawal westward to the very gates of India. By May 1942 the Japanese occupied virtually the entire country of Burma.  The United States lost its Philippine Islands commonwealth to Japanese invasion after a six month struggle and by May 1942, that nation too felt the Japanese aggressor's boot upon its neck as the entire region was now under complete enemy occupation.  American Wake Island and the Marianas island of Guam were invaded and taken.  The long tentacles of the Japanese octopus seemed to stretch out in every direction, taking everything into its grasp.  By April 1942 the Japanese were overunning the British Solomon Islands and its key base at Rabaul while preparing to move further south and further conquests. Everywhere in the Pacific the Allies were in retreat. Even worse, after fighting a number of naval battles against the Allied powers since the start of the war in the Pacific, the Japanese had not lost a single major warship in any of the fighting.  At the same time, the Japanese had sunk or badly damaged nearly a dozen Allied battleships, two aircraft carriers and a large number of cruisers and destroyers. In six months time the Japanese Empire was able to amass more conquered world territory under its direct control and sphere of influence than Nazi Germany was able to after nearly three years of war in Europe.  The Imperial Japanese Empire and its military were now clearly in the ascendency and nothing seemed able to stop them.  The Japanese now seemed poised to invade and conquer New Guinea.



US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz would later write:  "The Japanese wanted Port Moresby in order to safeguard Rabaul and their new positions in New Guinea to provide neutralizing air bases in northern Australia, and in order to secure its flank of their projected advance towards Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa.  They wanted Tulagi across the sound from Guadalcanal in the lower Solomons to use as a seaplane base both to cover the flank of the projected Port Moresby operation and to support their subsequent advance to the southeast.  To the Allies the retention of Port Moresby was essential not only for the security of Australia but also as a spring board for future operations."

One priceless weapon in the Allies arsenal was their ability to decipher the Japanese Imperial Navy's secret codes, especially its "JN-25 B" code.  Both the Americans and British intelligence services labored ceaselessly around the clock towards breaking the code and learning more of Japan's strategic intentions.  By the end of April they were reading nearly 85% of the Japanese codes.  A month earlier, in March 1942, U.S. code breakers intercepted messages referring to the upcoming "MO Operation" but no one knew where MO was.  The British code breakers supplied the key missing information by deciphering a message telling Japanese Admiral Inoue to dispatch two fleet carriers SHOKAKU and ZUIKAKU to the main Imperial Japanese naval base at Truk and await further orders.  The British concluded that Port Moresby was to be the target of MO and passed this information on to the U.S. Navy.  Port Moresby was integral to all future strategic plans for the coming Allied counter offensive in the southwest Pacific and its loss would be sorely felt.  Worse still, its loss to the Japanese would open the way for future naval and air operations against Australia, geared towards knocking that nation out of the war.  American Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz decided to counter the Japanese intentions and mount a major attack upon the Japanese, using all four of the Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers.  He would send them along with their supporting warships to the Coral Sea. He knew full well if the USN task force could elude aerial and naval detection, the Japanese would never see them coming until it was too late.  On 27 April further intelligence intercepts were received by the Allies that removed all doubt as to the Japanese intentions regarding their invasion of Port Moresby, New Guinea.  Nimitz then issued his fleet sponsored counter invasion orders to his three carrier task forces.  Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher with the carrier YORKTOWN, three cruisers and four destroyers were already in the South Pacific after conducting a number of raids against Japanese held islands as well as escorting a regiment of U.S. Marines to Samoa.  They were soon enroute to the Coral Sea.  Task Force 11 under Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch aboard the carrier LEXINGTON, escorted by two cruisers and five destroyers was between New Caledonia and Fiji when they received the fleet order.  TF 16 under Vice Admiral William F. Halsey with his carriers ENTERPRISE and HORNET had only just returned to Pearl Harbor following the Doolittle bombing raid on the Japanese home islands when they received the news of the upcoming operation.  They too were quickly sent south although it was unlikely they would be able to take part in the battle given the length of time needed to travel so great a distance.  In addition there was a fourth joint Task Force 44 of Allied warships under Australian Rear Admiral John Crace.  It consisted of the cruisers HMAS HOBART, AUSTRALIA and USS CHICAGO along with three escorting destroyers.  Nimitz placed Admiral Fletcher in overall command of the Allied naval forces, disregarding the fact that the Coral Sea was under U.S, Army General MacArthur's command.



The Japanese Port Moresby Invasion Force consisted of some 5,500 Imperial Army and Special Naval Landing troops aboard 11 troop transport ships along with one light cruiser and six destroyers escorting them, Their commanding officer of the operation was Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue  Their plans was to execute amphibious landings at Port Moresby on 10 May.  They were to be covered by the light carrier SHOHO, four heavy cruisers and one destroyer.  Overall carrier air support for the Port Moresby operation would come from the fleet carriers SHOKAKU and ZUIKAKU, escorted by two cruisers and six destroyers, commanded by Admiral Takeo Takagi.  They were to set sail from Truk on 1 May.  Their job was to neutralize any Allied air resistance at Port Moresby and attack any Allied naval forces found in the area.  However, their progress was slowed by the need to deliver several fighter planes to their base at Rabaul.  Bad weather prevented them from achieving their mission on time and held them up for two days,

On 5 May, TF 17 rendezvoused with TF 11 and TF 44 at a predetermined point south of Guadalcanal. A message from Pearl Harbor notified Fletcher that radio intelligence had learned the Japanese planned to land their troops at Port Moresby on 10 May and their two fleet carriers would likely be operating close to the invasion convoy. Armed with this information, Fletcher directed TF 17 to refuel from his tanker. After the refuelling was completed on 6 May, he planned to take his forces north towards the Louisiades Islands and do battle on 7 May. In the meantime, the Japanese carrier force steamed down the east side of the Solomon’s throughout the day of 5 May, turned west and entered the Coral Sea after transiting between Guadalcanal and Rennell Island in the early morning hours of 6 May. The Japanese began refuelling their ships 180 miles west of Tulagi in preparation for the carrier battle they expected would take place the next day.  That same day a Japanese reconnaissance flying boat sighted the American TF 17 and alerted their headquarters.  Later in the day, long range U.S. B-17 bombers flying out of Australia sighted and began bombing the approaching Port Moresby invasion force ships. They continued to do so several times during the day from high altitude but without success.  However they did report seeing the carrier SHOHO and the other ships of its task force; Admiral Fletcher was immediately alerted and he began to make his battle plans.



Regarding the day's coming battles, U.S. Vice Admiral H. S. Duckworth later wrote: "Without a doubt, Coral Sea was the most confused battle area in world history."  U.S Navy historian Samuel Elliot Morrison later echoed this sentiment by saying "The ensuing action was full of mistakes, both humorous and tragic, wrong estimates and assumptions, bombing the wrong ships, missing great opportunities and cashing in accidentally on minor ones,." It seemed as if erroneous observation sightings were the rule of the day on both sides with a Japanese scout plane from the SHOKAKU mistaking an American oil tanker and its escorting destroyer as an aircraft carrier and a cruiser.  78 Japanese planes began winging their way to attack the two targets, both of which were eventually bombed, torpedoed and destroyed.  At the same time Fletcher was under the mistaken belief that the light carrier SHOHO was part of the main Japanese strike force and immediately sent 93 aircraft to destroy her.  The huge American strike force caught the SHOHO in the vicinity of nearby Misima Island.  They quickly overwhelmed the carrier's combat air patrol of six Zeroes and hit SHOHO with as many as a dozen 1,000 lb. bombs and at least seven torpedoes.  The term "overkill" immediately comes to mind.  As the blazing and utterly devastated carrier blew up and sank with a heavy loss of life, LEXINGTON dive bomber squadron commander Robert E. Dixon exaltedly radioed “Scratch one flat top!"



Utterly shocked at the sheer ferocity and overwhelming number of planes in the American attack that had been sent to destroy a single light carrier, the Japanese withdrew their Port Moresby invasion convoy ships to the north to avoid further air attacks and await future developments.  The invasion landings were postponed until 12 May. By the time the American planes were back aboard their carriers in the early afternoon hours, Fletcher had been notified that SHOHO's task force was not the main body of the Japanese carrier strike force and the location of that main body remained still unknown.  Therefore, he sent out a number of scouting aircraft to find the Japanese carrier strike force while deciding to remain in concealment beneath thick overcast skies and rain squalls.  He turned TF 17 southeast for the remainder of the day and only turned back to the west after darkness had fallen.  His intention was to throw out a 360 degree aerial search after sunrise.  Meanwhile, the Japanese carrier strike force commander Admiral Takagi sent out a search attack of torpedo bombers to find and attack Fletcher's carriers.  They were unable to find the US task force but ran afoul of American combat air patrol Wildcat fighters who had been vectored to counter their approach. The Wildcats quickly splashed nine of the torpedo bombers.  Even worse for the Japanese, in the deepening darkness of night six more of their search planes mistook the YORKTOWN as one of their own carriers and tried to land aboard her.  They were quickly driven off by antiaircraft fire while losing a number of their planes.  Even worse still, the Japanese lost an additional 11 of their precious planes and a number of their irreplaceable air crews while attempting to make night landings on their own carriers.  Takagi now sent his carrier strike force north to be in the best possible position to both protect their Port Moresby invasion convoy from continued American air attacks as well as finding the US aircraft carriers now conclusively known to be in the area.  In the early hours of 8 May, both Japanese and U.S. carrier forces launched scouting aircraft trying to find the location of the other's task force.  Both sides sighted each other's warships within minutes of the other and radioed their positions.  The US carrier task force were now sailing in bright, clear daylight where as the Japanese were under the intermittent rain squalls and low hanging clouds that had shielded Fletcher's ships the day and night before. The opposing forces were about 240 miles away from each other as they scrambled to get the maximum number of strike aircraft into the air.  The Japanese put up 18 fighters, 33 dive bombers and 18 torpedo planes.  The American carriers launched separate strikes with the YORKTOWN launching six fighters, 24 dive bombers and nine torpedo planes.  Meanwhile LEXINGTON flew off 9 fighters, 15 dive bombers and 12 torpedo planes.  After crippling the carrier SHOKAKU with three 1,000 lb. bombs while failing to sight the ZUIKAKU entirely because she was hiding underneath low lying clouds and rain squalls, the U.S planes returned to their carriers.  With the SHOKAKU unable to mount or operate any further air operations due to the heavy damage done to her flight carrier but still able to maneuver at normal speeds, the injured carrier retired to the north along with two escorting destroyers.



At 10:55, LEXINGTON'S radar detected the inbound Japanese aircraft at a range of 78 miles and vectored nine Wildcats to intercept. Expecting the Japanese torpedo bombers to be at a much lower altitude than they actually were, six of the Wildcats were stationed too low, and thus missed the Japanese aircraft as they passed by overhead.  Because of the heavy losses in aircraft suffered the night before, the Japanese could not execute a full torpedo attack on both carriers. Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki, commanding the Japanese torpedo planes, sent 14 to attack LEXINGTON and four to attack YORKTOWN. A Wildcat shot down one and 8 patrolling YORKTOWN'S SBDs (Scout Bomber Douglas) destroyed three more as the Japanese torpedo planes descended to take attack position. Four SBDs were shot down in turn by Zeros escorting the torpedo planes.

The Japanese strike aircraft gave both American carriers a thorough working over, hitting LEXINGTON with two bomb hits to her flight deck.  After evading the first four Japanese torpedoes fired at her, LEXINGTON was struck by two others moments later but seemed at first to shrug off the damage.  Originally designed as a battle cruiser and able to take such punishment, the "LADY LEX" had been converted to an aircraft carrier as had her sister ship SARATOGA in the early 1920's following the Washington Naval Treaty.  The torpedo hits while serious, did not in any way impede continued air operations aboard ship and she was still able to steam at 24 knots.  Meanwhile, YORKTOWN easily evaded the four Japanese torpedoes fired at her, but took a 550 lb. bomb hit in the middle of her flight deck that exploded two decks down, causing severe structural damage.  In addition, 12 near miss bomb explosions damaged her hull below the waterline and she began shipping water until emergency repairs could be effected.  After losing an additional 11 fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes to American combat air patrols and ship borne flak gunfire, the Japanese withdrew believing they'd badly damaged two U.S. aircraft carriers.  However, YORKTOWN and LEXINGTON'S battle damage was quickly patched up and their flight decks repaired so that they were soon operating aircraft normally.




The strike forces, with many damaged aircraft, reached and landed on their respective carriers between 12:50 and 14:30. In spite of damage YORKTOWN and LEXINGTON were both able to recover aircraft from their returning air groups. During recovery operations, for various reasons the U.S. lost an additional five SBDs, two TBDs, (Torpedo Bomber Douglas) and a Wildcat, and the Japanese lost two Zeros, five dive bombers, and one torpedo plane. Forty-six of the original 69 aircraft from the Japanese strike force returned from the mission and landed on ZUIKAKU. Of these, three more Zeros, four dive bombers, and five torpedo planes were judged damaged beyond repair and were immediately jettisoned into the ocean.

By mid afternoon, Admiral Fletcher had received an overall battle assessment of the day's action.  He knew his flyers had heavily damaged one Japanese aircraft carrier, but there was still another undamaged one out there.  In addition, Fletcher had lost a large number of his fighter planes.  Lastly, his ships were running short of fuel.  He reluctantly gave the order for Task Force 17 to withdraw, in order to lick its wounds and see how the Japanese would react.  At about the same time Admiral Takagi learned that only 8 of his dive bombers, four torpedo planes and twenty four Zero fighter planes aboard his single remaining carrier remained undamaged and ready to fight.  Knowing full well he no longer had the means to support and protect the Port Moresby invasion with his remaining aircraft; Takagi postponed the operation and ordered all of the Japanese ships to withdraw to Rabaul as SHOKAKU departed for Japan and a lengthy stay in a repair shipyard.  Just when it seemed the Americans had won an overwhelming strategic and tactical victory over the Japanese Navy, tragedy struck.  High octane aviation gas fumes from the LEXINGTON'S damaged fuel tanks spread throughout the ship and a spark from an unattended generator caused a huge explosion and uncontrollable fires to break out throughout the ship.  There was no saving the now blazing and beloved "LADY LEX" and she was scuttled by U.S Navy destroyer torpedoes.  That same night, Fletcher received the welcome news that B-17 bombers had attacked the Japanese invasion convoy and reported that they were continuing to retire to the northwest.  The Battle of the Coral Sea, the first naval battle in history where both groups of combatant ships never caught sight of the other was over. A major sea change in naval warfare had taken place during and immediately following this battle and nothing would ever be the same again.  Big gun warships would still have their place in fleet actions for a few more years yet, but the increasing and unstoppable wave of the future would now increasingly revolve around aircraft carrier operations and its aircraft. An entire revolution and evolution in naval tactics was now quickly taking shape in all aspects in both the Allied and Imperial Japanese navies, but nowhere more so than in all of the two fleet's air arms.  Japanese carrier air crews and their planes performed better than their U.S. counterparts during the Coral Sea Battle but this was to be temporary at best.

The Japanese suffered much higher losses to their carrier aircrews, however, losing ninety aircrew killed in the battle compared with thirty-five for the Americans. Japan's cadre of highly skilled carrier aircrews with which it began the war were, in effect, irreplaceable because of an institutionalized limitation in its training programs and the absence of a pool of experienced reserves or advanced training programs for new airmen. Coral Sea started a trend which would result in the irreparable attrition of Japan's veteran carrier aircrews by the end of October 1942.

While USN aircrews initially did not fly and fight as effectively as their Japanese foes, they would continue to improve and learn from their mistakes while profiting and growing from continued battle experience.  This new information and battle experience would be imparted to younger generations of pilots then still in state side flight schools. Meanwhile, newer generations of faster and deadlier aircraft were now going from the designer’s drawing boards to full production status.  The Japanese could never hope to keep up with US war production and its technology and all too soon things would go terribly wrong for the Sons of Nippon.  In addition, carrier tactics and equipment, including strike coordination, torpedo bombers, and defensive strategies, such as anti-aircraft artillery, which contributed to better results in later battles. Radar gave the Americans a limited advantage in this battle, but its value to the U.S. Navy would increase over time as the technology improved and the Allies learned how to employ it more effectively. Following the loss of LEXINGTON, improved methods for containing aviation fuel and better damage control procedures were implemented by the Americans. Coordination between the Allied land-based air forces and the U.S. Navy was poor during this battle, but this too would improve over time. 

The Battle of the Coral Sea was undeniably a Japanese tactical victory when weighed in the light of losses of US war ships, yet at the same time it was also an Allied strategic victory that saw the prevention of a Japanese invasion of Port Moresby.  For the first time in six months of war, the Japanese came, saw, but did not conquer.  This did wonders for Allied morale still smarting from half a year's worth of disastrous land and naval defeats.  The Japanese high tide of victory would hereafter begin to ebb ever quicker in the coming months and years.  Even though the Japanese Navy focused solely on the tactical results of the Coral Sea battle and continues to see it as but a temporary setback to their plans, the writing was on the wall.

One of the grave but none the less important after effects to the Battle of the Coral Sea was the loss of the use of the Japanese carriers ZUIKAKU and SHOKAKU in the upcoming battle of Midway the following month.  This showed the utter rigidity of thought in the Japanese naval doctrine. SHOKAKU would be in a repair yard for another couple months, although its air group remained relatively intact.  At the same time, ZUIKAKU'S presence would not be felt at Midway because of the heavy losses it took in aircraft and their crews during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Common sense would suggest taking SHOKAKU's planes and crews and place them aboard their sister ship ZUIKAKU so she could take part in the battle, but the Japanese Navy did not think this way. (In addition, the sunken carrier SHOHO was also to have been used at Midway, supporting the invasion there.)  At the same time, the bomb damaged carrier USS YORKTOWN, upon its arrival at Pearl Harbor was patched up sufficiently over a three day period to take part in the Midway Battle the following month. Although remaining largely unrepaired and still trailing a slight oil slick after the Battle of the Coral Sea, YORKTOWN would go on to fight heroically and effectively at Midway from start to finish with its planes being instrumental in the sinking for four Japanese aircraft carriers.  In addition, she would also find a watery grave there.  The Battle of the Coral Sea remains an important and pivotal “learning battle" of WWII and one the US Navy greatly profited from through the lessons gained by its end results.



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