The Battle of the Coral Sea


   The Battle of the Coral Sea is one of the most well known naval battles in world history. Not because of any resounding victory for freedom, but for how the United States and Australian navy lost to the Imperial Japanese navy.

   At this point in time, the United States had been at war with the Axis powers for five months. With much of its fleet still suffering from the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii the United States was in no position to make an offensive against the Japanese navy.

   The Japanese, realizing the great opportunity that was presented to them, made plans to launch an invasion into the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. Their aim was to isolate Australia from the rest of the world, preventing anything from entering or leaving the country.

   The Imperial might of the Japanese had already captured several key islands in the Pacific, including the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies to the northwest of Australia, New Britain to the north, and Gilbert Islands to the northeast, inflicting severe casualties to the Allied powers in the process.

   The Japanese plan was to capture the port of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and Port Moresby in New Guinea. These ports would be used as staging grounds to capture the Islands of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, thus cutting the supply lines between Australia and the United States.

   In preparation for the invasion, the Japanese sent three aircraft carriers along with nine carriers and fifteen destroyers to support the ground forces when they made their landing. The Japanese Admiral set in command of the Japanese fleet would be Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, who had over thirty years of military experience.

   Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the United States had deciphered Japanese communications for quite some time, and knew where the Japanese would strike next. President Roosevelt, with his Pacific Fleet still in ruins, risked it all in a last ditch attempt to halt the Japanese war machine and dispatched two U.S. aircraft carriers along with eight cruisers and fourteen destroyers. The two aircraft carriers were the only two available in the U.S. Pacific Fleet; losing them would all but ensure Japanese naval supremacy.

   Admiral Frank J. Fletcher was given overall command of the Allied navy. He had served in both the Mexican Revolution and WW1 and had received the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. Fletcher commanded his combined U.S. and Australian force south of New Guinea and into the Coral Sea.

   On May 3 and 4, Japanese forces successfully landed and occupied the Port of Tulagi; however, several supporting ships were sunk by a series of surprise attacks from the U.S.S. Yorktown. Admiral Inoue knew he could not allow the U.S. naval forces to escape him and made orders to advance to the Coral Sea, where he would hunt down and destroy the opposing fleet.

   On May 6, both fleets came within 81 miles from each other, but neither of them knew of the other’s presence. Both commanders used this time to draw up battle plans to prepare for a proper battle.

   On May 7, the Japanese launched twelve Nakajima torpedo planes at 0600 hours. The cruisers Kinugasa and Furutaka launched four Kawanishi floatplanes to search for Fletcher’s fleet. Each side prepared the rest of their aircraft once the other was spotted.

   At 0722 hours, the Japanese planes spotted American naval vessels, believing that they had located the Yorktown, along with one destroyer and three cruisers.

   In reality, they had seen the oil tanker Neosho and the Destroyer Sims, who were on their way to a southern rendezvous point.

   Believing that they had sighted the U.S. fleet, the Japanese launched 78 total aircraft, including 18 Zero fighters, 36 Aichi dive bombers, and 24 torpedo planes.

   At 0820 hours, a Japanese aircraft had spotted Fletcher’s carriers and had radioed in their position. Conflicted by the reports of the real position of the U.S. fleet, they continued the attack on the ships to the south, but turned their ships to the northwest towards the second sighting.

   Meanwhile, the Allied fleet had also spotted the Japanese fleet. At 0815 hours, an SBD Dauntless plane spotted the Japanese fleet, reporting that he had spotted two carriers and four heavy cruisers. Fletcher concluded that the Japanese fleet had been sighted, launching 93 aircraft, including 18 Grumman F4F Wildcats, 53 SBD Dauntless dive bombers, and 22 TBD Devastator torpedo planes.

   At 0915 hours, the Japanese planes had reached the location of the Sims and Neosho, and searched for the U.S. fleet. Finding nothing, the Japanese realized that Allies were now to their north, and were in between them and the invasion force.

   Four Japanese dive bombers attacked the Sims, with the rest of the attack planes focusing on the Neosho. The destroyer took three bombs and split in half, killing all 14 of her crew. The Neosho took seven bombs and shot down one plane which crashed into the ship. The Neosho slowly sank, but before they lost power, crew members were able to notify Fletcher of their position.

   At 1040 hours, the U.S. strike force spotted the Japanese carrier Shōhō off the coast of the Misima Island. Protecting the carrier were six Zeros and two Mitsubishi fighters. The rest of the carrier’s aircraft were below decks being prepared for a strike against the U.S. carriers.

   The U.S. planes attacked the Shōhō with direct hits from two 1,000 lb. bombs and five torpedoes. This caused severe damage to the ship, leaving it stationary. Eleven more 1,000 lb. bombs and two more torpedoes would hit the Shōhō, tearing it apart in the process and causing it to sink at 1135 hours.

   The Japanese destroyer Sazanami was sent to the wreck to recover any survivors. Only 203 of the 834 crew were recovered. All remaining aircraft were lost below decks, and all but three of the pilots along with it.

   Fletcher concluded he would not be able to locate the other carriers before nightfall and held off from sending out any other planes. He used a thick overcast to conceal his ships.

   During the night, the winds brought the low overcast over the U.S. carriers drifting north and east and covering the Japanese carriers. Around 1900 hours, Japanese dive bombers encountered the U.S. carriers Yorktown and Lexington, but mistook them for their own carriers and prepared to land before being driven away from destroyer escorts.

   On May 8, a U.S. scout plane spotted the Japanese carrier group at 0820 hours through a hole in the clouds. Two minutes later, a Japanese scout plane spotted the U.S. carrier group. Both sides rushed to launch their planes.

   The U.S. carrier planes arrived at the Japanese carrier group at 1130 hours and began their attack. They hit the Shōkaku with two bombs, causing severe damage to the ship. The remaining planes could not locate the carrier because of the thick fog. The Shōkaku was forced to withdraw from the battle due to the damage that the bombs had caused.

   Meanwhile, with the Allied fleet, the Japanese were also beginning their attack. Fourteen Japanese dive bombers attacked the Lexington with four more attacking the Yorktown. All four of the planes targeting Yorktown missed their targets; however, the Lexington did not get off easy. Two torpedoes hit the Lexington due to its larger size. Higher in the sky, 33 Japanese dive bombers were preparing to begin their attack on the carriers. Nineteen dive bombers targeted the weakened Lexington, with the remaining fourteen targeting the Yorktown. The Lexington was hit with two bombs, causing fires to burn on the deck.

   One of these bombs pierced four decks before exploding, causing severe structural damage. Two of the dive bombers were shot down and destroyed by Wildcats that were launched by the Yorktown.

   The Japanese, believing that they had inflicted severe damage to both ships, began their withdrawal. As they returned to their fleet, they encountered several Wildcats and SBD Dauntlesses. In the ensuing battle, five Japanese planes were destroyed with the U.S. losing six.

   Both the strike groups ran into each other and another air battle ensued. The Japanese lost an additional two planes in this battle. As both strike groups returned, several more planes were lost.

   Fuel was a concern for both sides of the battle. The Neosho was supposed to refuel the Allies’ fleet so they could continue. With heavy fighter losses and severe damage inflicted on the Yorktown, Fletcher withdrew his fleet from the battle.

   The Japanese fleet had suffered severe damage. With only 37 planes remaining and two operational carriers, they were in no position to continue the battle. The Japanese cruisers were also at 50% fuel, and some of their destroyers had only 20% fuel remaining.

   At 1417 hours, a spark inside of the Lexington ignited gasoline fumes, killing 25 men and causing a large fire to break out. Another explosion would break out at 1442 hours, causing a second severe fire to engulf the ship. A third explosion would render the fire as uncontrollable. At 1707 hours, the ship was abandoned, taking 216 men down with it.

   Who won the battle could be argued for either side. The Japanese had achieved their original objectives and captured the ports, but with a cost: one cruiser, one destroyer, three minesweepers, one aircraft carrier, about 97 airplanes, and 966 men. Looking at these numbers, it could be argued that the Allied powers won the battle, but they did not prevent the Japanese naval invasions like they originally intended to. The Allied powers also lost one of the three carriers in the Pacific fleet, along with a second one needing major repairs. They also lost 69 aircraft in the battle, a major blow to the U.S. war effort. A total of 656 U.S. and Australian servicemen also gave their lives in the battle.