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Battle of the Coral Sea: 8 May 1942, 09:00

Battle of the Coral Sea: 8 May 1942, 09:00


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The Coral Sea 1942: The First Carrier Battle, Mark Stille, Campaign 214. A useful account of the battle of the Coral Sea and the thinking and events that led up to it, supported by some effective '3D' diagrams showing the series of aerial attacks on enemy carriers that were the most important aspect of the fighting. [read full review]


What was destroyed during the Battle of Coral Sea?

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought from 4 May &ndash 8 May 1942. It was a major naval battle fought, about 500 miles northeast of Australia, between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States and Australia. In May 1942, the Japanese planned to invade Port Moresby and then to bomb Australia from there.

Beside above, when did the Battle of Coral Sea End? May 8, 1942

Just so, what ships were in the Battle of Coral Sea?

  • USS Yorktown (CV-5) (photo collection)
  • USS Lexington (CV-2) (photo collection)
  • USS Astoria (CA-34) (search)
  • USS Minneapolis (CA-36) (search)
  • USS New Orleans (CA-32) (search)
  • USS Portland (CA-33) (search)
  • Dewey (DD-349) (search)
  • USS Phelps (DD-360) (search)

How did the Battle of the Coral Sea affect Australia?

May 4-8, 1942 - The Battle of the Coral Sea was a major air and naval engagement during World War II, fought between the Americans, Australians and Japanese on May 7-8, 1942. It marked a major turning point in the Pacific war because it effectively stopped the Japanese advance to the south towards Australia.


Peter Sweeney – Battle of the Coral Sea, 4-8 May 1942

The Military History Society of New South Wales Incorporated presents

Battle of the Coral Sea, 4-8 May 1942

By Peter Sweeney, Battlefield Guide

Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō is bombed and torpedoed by U.S. carrier aircraft.
(Photographed by a USS Lexington (CV-2) plane crew – Official U.S. Navy photograph 80-G-17026, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives, Public Domain)


The Battle of the Coral Sea was a series of naval engagements off the north-east coast of Australia between 4 and 8 May 1942. It was fought by United States and Australian forces against the Japanese. It was the first aircraft carrier battle ever fought, and the first naval battle in which the opposing forces of surface ships at no stage sighted or fired at each other.

All attacks were carried out by aircraft. It is also the largest naval battle that has ever been fought off Australia’s shores. The battle was significant for two main reasons: it was the first time in World War 2 that the Japanese experienced a defeat in a major military operation and it was the battle stopped the Japanese sea-borne invasion of Port Moresby. For some people this was also the ‘battle that saved Australia’, although others may debate this.

Come and hear Battlefield Guide Peter Sweeney’s detailed and well researched account of this major battle. Peter Sweeney is a retired army reserve infantry Lieutenant Colonel, awarded the Reserve Force Decoration for service. He is a military historian, battlefield guide and speaker on Australian military history and is currently completing a Master’s Degree in Military History through the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Peter is an Associate member of the UK based International Guild of Battlefield. He is also a co-owner of Battle Honours Australia Pty Ltd which explores Australian military history through talks, trips and tours, as well as an enrichment speaker on military history on Cruise ships to the South West Pacific Ocean.

Saturday 7th April 2018, 2.00pm – 3.00pm

Carmichael Room, Level 1, Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (SMSA), 280 Pitt Street, Sydney CBD

Entry is free. RSVP is essential by Wednesday 4th April 2018 as numbers are restricted.


The Battle of Coral Sea

Just like the Axis forces in Europe, the Japanese were quite successful in the Far East. By the beginning of May 1942, they controlled Malaya, Burma, Philippines and the Dutch East Indies and suffered far lower casualties than expected. However, the Japanese officers were not sure what to do next. Some supported a continuation of territorial expansion in the Far East, while some wanted to strike the final blow to the American aircraft carriers in the region and eliminate the American threat. The commander of Japan's Combined Fleet, Isoroku Yamamoto who supported the latter group proposed an attack on the Midway atoll to force the US Navy into a decisive battle which he thought Japan would win. The Japanese high command, however, ordered an attack on Port Moresby in southeastern New Guinea and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands in order to isolate Australia and cut the supply lines between Australia and the United States as well as to be able to use New Guinea as a base to attack Samoa and Fiji. On May 5, Yamamoto was given a green light for the attack on the Midway Island in early June. Meanwhile, however, the Japanese fleet was already fighting with the American Navy in the Coral Sea.

The Americans knew about the Japanese plan to capture Port Moresby and Tulagi thanks to the intelligence information and decided that an eventual Japanese success would leave Australia too vulnerable. Chester Nimitz, the commander of Allied forces in the Pacific and Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the U.S. Army Forces Far East agreed that they must prevent the Japanese from capturing Port Moresby. From the information they received from the broken Japanese naval codes, they knew that the Japanese Navy will have to cross the Coral Sea. Since the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier (it was damaged in early 1942 by a deep-running torpedo) was still being repaired and the other two carriers Enterprise and Hornet would need at least five days to prepare for the battle, Nimitz ordered carriers Lexington and Yorktown to intercept the Japanese fleet. The command over the forces was entrusted to Frank J. Fletcher who was aboard the Yorktown. Nimitz also gave Fletcher free hands in developing the strategy to defeat the enemy fleet.

Fletcher reached the Coral Sea before the enemy fleet, however, it was too late to prevent the fall of Tulagi. On May 3, Fletcher was informed that the island was captured by the Japanese. Early in the morning on May 4, he ordered his pilots to attack the Japanese ships at Tulagi. By the end of the day, they severely damaged one destroyer, sank two minesweepers and four landing barges but failed to inflict any serious damage to the enemy fleet.

The next day, Fletcher rejoined Lexington and Australian cruisers which were commanded by Rear Admiral John Gregory Grace and prepared for an assault on the Japanese fleet which started to enter the Coral Sea. On May 6, Fletcher decided to attack the Japanese fleet that was expected to enter the Jomard Channel on May 7 or 8. However, the Japanese were by now aware that there are American aircraft carriers are in the area and early in May 7, the American positions were found by the Japanese spotter plains. The Japanese returned with bomber planes and sunk the destroyer Sims and severely damaged oil tanker Neosho. They failed, however, to hit the Fletcher's carrier Yorktown. Later in the same day, the Japanese bombers attacked the Australian cruisers but Fletcher moved his carrier away on time. The Australian fleet took another aerial attack that day when it was bombed by the American aircraft mistaking it for the Japanese fleet.

Early in the morning of May 7, three spotter planes from Yorktown reported that they have located the Japanese carriers. But what they have located were not carriers but the Support Group with two light cruisers. The planes from Lexington, however, did spot the Japanese carrier Shoho and sank it before noon. The Japanese Admiral Takeo Takagi answered with night attack which, however, failed. In addition, the Japanese admiral lost 21 of his best pilots who failed to return.

On May 8, the American bombers attacked the Japanese carrier Shokaku and put it out of action because the carrier could not launch any planes due to the damage on the flight deck. Shokaku was attacked for the second time later that day but it managed to stay on the surface although it lost over 100 men. The Japanese planes managed to locate and hit Lexington and Yorktown as well. Yorktown suffered only a minor damage, while Lexington was damaged beyond repair. Fletcher ordered withdrawal.

Despite the fact that Fletcher withdrew, the Japanese commander of the Operation Mo (codename for invasion of New Guinea), Shigeyoshi Inoue called off the invasion. He feared that there may be more American carriers in the area, while the heavy aircraft loses prevented him from proving the planned invasion operation a satisfactory aerial support. Tactically, the Japanese won the Battle of Coral Sea because the loss of the Shoho was less "painful" than the loss of the Lexington. However, the Battle of Coral Sea was a strategic victory for the Allies as their main goal was achieved – preventing the Japanese from capturing Port Moresby. The battle also lifted the Allied morale because after series of defeats against the Japanese, they forced them to abandon their operation for the first time since the opening of the Pacific theater.

Yamamoto ordered Inoue to turn around his ships and carry out the Operation Mo. The Japanese Admiral, however, refused to cancel the recall of the invasion of New Guinea and ordered Takagi and the commander of the Main Body Support, Aritomo Goto to pursue the Allied ships in the Coral Sea. Takagi and Goto obeyed and returned to the Coral Sea to find Fletcher's forces but they were already too far on the way out of the area. For failing to carry out the Operation Mo, Inoue was relieved from his position in October 1942.

The Battle of Coral Sea had a major influence on the Battle of Midway and Yamamoto's failure to establish Japanese naval supremacy in the Pacific. He erroneously thought that two carriers were sunk in Coral Sea. The carrier Yorktown was damaged in the battle but the ship was back in the Pacific fully operational before the Battle of Midway. The Japanese commander of the Combined Fleet also missed the carriers Enterprise and Hornet which could join the defense of Midway. Combined with the land-based aircraft at Midway, Yamamoto no longer enjoyed numerical superiority over the Americans as he thought he would.

The results of the Battle of Coral Sea, however, were not clear immediately because both sides underestimated their loses and exaggerated with the loses of the other side. Thus the Australian and US troops in Australia were initially disappointed with the outcome of the battle because they were convinced that the Japanese did not give up the plan to invade New Guinea but only postponed it. They were right and the Japanese indeed made another attempt to capture Port Moresbay in July 1942, however, due to the loses they suffered during the Battle of Midway they were unable to invade from the sea. Instead, they launched a land offensive along the Kokoda Track but the Allies who meanwhile reinforced their positions in New Guinea repulsed the Japanese attack.

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Australasia 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea

After conquering the East Indies, Japan shifted its focus to cutting Australia's supply line to America. In May, it attempted to send an invasion fleet to occupy Port Moresby, but ran into an American carrier force in the Coral Sea. The ensuing battle was dominated by aircraft carriers, with neither side's ships sighting each other.

Main Events

27 Feb 1942 Battle of the Java Sea▲

The Allied navies of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) engage the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Java Sea in an effort to prevent the Japanese Eastern Invasion Force from reaching Java, the main island in the Dutch East Indies. After a two-hour battle, the Allies are repulsed by the superior Japanese firepower, losing 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, and 2,300 sailors—including the ABDACOM Strike Force commander, Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman—to a Japanese loss of only 36 sailors. in wikipedia

8 Mar 1942 Allied surrender in Java▲

At 09:00, with the Japanese invasion forces advancing rapidly across Java, Hein ter Poorten, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces in the Dutch East Indies, announces the surrender of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in Java. The Dutch Governor, Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, and Lieutenant-General Ter Poorten meet the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Hitoshi Imamura, at Kalidjati that afternoon and agree to the capitulation of all the troops. in wikipedia

8 Mar 1942 Invasion of Salamaua–Lae▲

Japanese forces—supported by 4 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 8 destroyers—landed at Lae and Salamaua, in the Australian Territory of New Guinea. A small detachment of New Guinea Volunteer Rifles and radio staff at Salamaua did not contest the invasion, opting to withdraw into the hills towards Mubo. in wikipedia

12 Mar 1942 US occupation of New Caledonia▲

Forces of the United States of America land on the Free French controlled colony of New Caledonia. Nouméa, the capital, is made the headquarters of the United States Navy and Army in the South Pacific and will be used as the base for the US fleet during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May. Eventually there will be as many as 50,000 American troops on the island, the equivalent of the contemporary population. in wikipedia

18 Apr 1942 Doolittle Raid▲

Sixteen US Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were launched beyond fighter escort range from the US Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the western Pacific Ocean, flying on to bomb the Japanese capital Tokyo and other places on the island of Honshu. Fifteen of the bombers carried on to land in China—landing a medium bomber on an aircraft carrier being impossible—with the 16th landing in Vladivostok, Soviet Union. The success of the mission demonstrated the vulnerability of Japan and was a major morale boost for the US. in wikipedia

4–8 May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea▲

In preparation for Operation MO—the intended Japanese landing at Port Moresby, New Guinea—a Japanese naval force, including two fleet carriers and one light carrier, advanced into the Coral Sea to hunt down US carriers known to be operating there. Over the next few days, they fought the first naval engagement in which neither side’s ships sighted each other, with Japan losing the light carrier Shōhō and taking damage to the fleet carrier Shōkaku, and the US losing the fleet carrier Lexington and taking damage to the fleet carrier Yorktown. Although the US losses were worse, Japan was forced to abandon Operation MO. in wikipedia


The Battle of Coral Sea

The Battle of Coral Sea took place in May 1942. If the Japanese had succeeded at Coral Sea, the way would have been open for the Japanese to have captured New Guinea and leave Australia isolated from Allied help and more open to a Japanese attack. The Battle of Coral Sea was fought entirely by planes – no ship on either side made any visual contact with any enemy ship.

Rear-Admiral Frank Fletcher

The Japanese had made great gains in the Far East by the spring of 1942. By May 1st, the conquest of the Philippines, Burma, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies had cost the Japanese Navy only 23 warships and none had been larger than a destroyer. 67 transport ships had also been lost. The Japanese naval command had expected far greater losses and, buoyed by such success, they looked to expand still further in the Far East. However, the senior officers in the Japanese Navy argued on what was best to do next. One school of thought was for the navy to continue spearheading territorial gains. Admiral Nagano was a keen supporter of this. Others, led by Admiral Yamamoto wanted an all-out attack on America’s aircraft carriers in the Pacific as they feared that these ships were the key to success in the Pacific. Yamamoto believed that the destruction of America’s aircraft carriers would ensure the security of Japan. For this reason, Yamamoto wanted an attack on Midway Island as he believed that such an attack would draw out the American navy into a full-scale battle which he believed the Japanese would win.

The Japanese Army’s high command wanted an attack to be centred on isolating Australia and this would include an attack on New Guinea.

However, it was the Americans who forced the hand of the Japanese. On April 18th, 1942, America had launched bombers from two American aircraft carriers (the ‘Enterprise’ and the ‘Hornet’) that had bombed Tokyo. This strengthened Yamamoto’s case against the Americans aircraft carriers and on May 5th, Imperial General Headquarters Navy Order 18 was issued which ordered Yamamoto to carry out an attack on Midway Island and other key points in the Western Aleutians – the operation was to take place in early June 1942.

However, the Japanese had decided on a course of action that spilt their forces. The attack on New Guinea had already started and could not be called off as it was too far advanced. Therefore, Yamamoto could not call on all the forces he might have needed for an attack on Midway Island as some Japanese forces were concentrated in the Coral Sea to the south-east of New Guinea.

The attack on Port Moresby in New Guinea was considered important by the Japanese as its success would isolate Australia and New Guinea could then be used as a platform to attack Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa. The Japanese labelled the attack on Port Moresby as ‘Operation MO’ and the force that was to attack it was ‘Task Force MO’.

The Japanese force included the aircraft carriers ‘Shokaku’ and the ‘Zuikaku’. These were to sail from Truk Island and were to intercept any ships sent by America to attack the Japanese. The main part of the Japanese plan was for its invading force (the Port Moresby Invasion Force) to move through the Jomard Passage, to the south-east of New Guinea, unhindered by the Americans, allowing it to attack Port Moresby.

America treated the attack on Port Moresby very seriously. They believed that any attack would leave Australia vulnerable. Both Chester Nimitz and Douglas MacArthur gave the attack on Port Moresby high priority. The Americans had broken the Japanese naval code and had detailed knowledge of their plans. They believed that an attack on Port Moresby was scheduled for May 3rd and that the Japanese forces would have to make a move through the Coral Sea to carry out this task. The Americans may have known about the Japanese plan but they had one problem themselves. The carrier ‘Saratoga’ was still being repaired after torpedo damage while the carriers ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Hornet’ had not returned from the Tokyo raids and would need five days to prepare themselves for any forthcoming battle.

Nimitz knew that the battle that would ensue would involve aircraft and air supremacy. He therefore ordered the carriers Lexington and Yorktown to the Coral Sea along with their respective task force.

Task Force 17 Task Force 11
Yorktown (carrier) Lexington (carrier)
Astoria (heavy cruiser) Minneapolis (heavy cruiser)
Chester (heavy cruiser) New Orleans (heavy cruiser) )
Portland (heavy cruiser)
Phelps (destroyer)
Hammann (destroyer) Dewey (destroyer )
Anderson (destroyer) Farragut (destroyer )
Russell (destroyer) Aylwin (destroyer)
Walke (destroyer) Monaghan (destroyer )
Morris (destroyer)
Sims (destroyer)

Though formidable on paper, both task forces could only provide less than 150 planes for the battle. Nimitz gave Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher complete freedom in tactics on how to defeat the Japanese invasion fleet led by Inouye.

Fletcher started to operate in the Coral Sea on May 1st. The Japanese invasion group left Rabaul on May 3rd – hence Fletcher had the upper hand by being in the projected combat zone before his opponent. On May 3rd, Fletcher was informed that the Japanese had taken Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and he ordered that the ‘Yorktown’ steam north-north-west towards Tulagi to make his first attack. At 06.30 on May 4th, 12 Devastator torpedo-bombers and 28 Dauntless dive-bombers took off from the ‘Yorktown’. Their target were Japanese ships stationed near Tulagi. On their first attack, the planes seriously damaged one destroyer, the ‘Kikuzuki’, and sank three minesweepers. The first attack was over by 09.30 when the planes landed back on the ‘Yorktown’. Two more attacks throughout the day brought little reward – two Japanese seaplanes were destroyed and four landing barges. The return for the pilots endeavours was not great.

“The Tulagi operation was certainly disappointing in terms of ammunition expended to results obtained.”Nimitz

On May 5th, the ‘Yorktown’ and the ‘Lexington‘ joined up at a designated rendezvous. At the same time, the various parts of the Japanese fleet were entering the Coral Sea.

Admiral Takagi’s Striking Force moved down along the Solomons, turned west and passed north of Rennel Island. By early May 6th, Takagi’s force was well into the Coral Sea.

The Port Moresby Invasion Force and the Support Group approached the Jomard Passage.

The Covering Force, led by Marushige, was re-fueling south of Bougainville.

Port Moresby was bombed on this day.

On May 6th, Fletcher decided to attack the Japanese force. American Intelligence informed him that it was almost certain that the Japanese would come through the Jomard Passage on May 7th or 8th. Fletcher moved his force to be in striking distance by May 7th. Japanese spotter planes reported back the position of some American warships. At 09.00, 15 Japanese bombers attacked the American ships but failed to hit their intended targets. Later attacks hit the ‘Sims’, a destroyer, and it quickly sank with the loss of 379 lives. The oil tanker ‘Neosho’ was also hit but it stayed on the surface to May 11th when 123 men were taken off by the destroyer ‘Henley’. The ‘Neosho’ was scuttled. However, their loss was not in vain as the 56 Japanese planes that attacked these two ships could well have turned their attention to the ‘Yorktown’. Just before 14.00 on the same day, a group of Japanese bombers attacked ships under the command of Rear Admiral J C Crace of the Royal Navy. Fletcher had moved his carrier away from Crace’s group that included the heavy cruisers ‘Australia’ and ‘Hobart’ of the Australian Navy. By doing so, he kept the vital warship ‘Yorktown’ out of the way of Japanese bombers. Crace’s force took the full brunt of an aerial attack – though it proved to be ineffective. By the end of the day, Crace had faced another attack – by American B-26 bombers which mistook his ships for Japanese ships!

At 08.15 spotter planes from the ‘Yorktown’ reported back that they had spotted two Japanese carriers and four heavy cruisers some 225 miles from the ‘Yorktown’. 93 aircraft were launched by the Americans to attack the Japanese. However, in this case the intelligence was incorrect – the ‘force’ was two light cruisers and two gunboats from the Japanese Support Group.

The ‘Lexington’ had better luck. Her planes spotted one Japanese carrier (the ‘Shoho’), three cruisers and some destroyers just 25 miles from the ‘Lexington’. With planes from the ‘Yorktown’ and ‘Lexington’ attacking, the ‘Shoho’ stood little chance. She sank at 11.35 after being hit by 13 bombs and 7 torpedoes.

To destroy the Americans carriers in the Coral Sea, Takagi selected his 27 best pilots for a night time attack against the carrier force. It was a disaster that was not helped by the poor weather. 21 planes failed to return – 11 were lost when they went over the side of the Japanese carriers when they attempted to land.

The battle carried over to May 8th. Both sides had thought about a night time surface engagement, but the weather and general fatigue ruled it out. May 8th became what was essentially a ‘carrier-versus-carrier’ battle. American planes attacked the Japanese carrier ‘Shokaku’. She sustained damage to her flight deck. After the attack, she could recover planes trying to land but could no longer launch any. A second attack was not overly successful – the carrier was not holed below the waterline and fires on board were soon under control. However, the ‘Shokaku’ had lost 108 crewmen.

However, the Japanese had not been idle. Both the ‘Lexington’ and the ‘Yorktown’ were attacked by Japanese planes. The ‘Yorktown’ was hit once by a bomb but it failed to impede the ability of the carrier to function. The ‘Lexington’ was hit by torpedoes and bombs – one of which hit a supply of ammunition. At 12.47, the carrier was shaken by a huge internal explosion when fuel vapours were ignited. A series of other explosions occurred and by 15.00 ‘Lady Lex’ was beyond help. At 16.30, the crew prepared to abandon ship. Various ships were called up to assist in the evacuation which was disciplined and orderly – even the ship’s dog was brought off. The ship’s commander was the last to leave. The destroyer ‘Phelps’ was ordered to finish off the ‘Lexington’, which it duly did with five torpedoes. The ‘Lexington’ sank at 20.00.

The Japanese called off the invasion of Port Moresby fearing that the Americans still had the capacity to destroy many of their landing craft. In numerical terms, the Japanese came out best in the Battle of Coral Sea. The loss of the ‘Lexington’ was great and far outweighed the loss of the ‘Shoho’. The Japanese lost 43 planes to the Americans 33. However, the battle is seen as an American victory simply because it stopped Japan doing what it had set out to do – capture Port Moresby and isolate Australia. In this sense, it was a strategic victory for America. The Battle of Midway was to do the Japanese far more damage.


Battle of the Coral Sea

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought during 4𠄸 May 1942, was a major naval battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II between the Imperial Japanese Navy and Allied naval and air forces from the United States and Australia. The battle was the first action in which aircraft carriers engaged each other, as well as the first in which neither side's ships sighted or fired directly upon the other.

In an attempt to strengthen their defensive positioning for their empire in the South Pacific, Imperial Japanese forces decided to invade and occupy Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands. The plan to accomplish this, called Operation MO, involved several major units of Japan's Combined Fleet, including two fleet carriers and a light carrier to provide air cover for the invasion fleets, under the overall command of Shigeyoshi Inoue. The U.S. learned of the Japanese plan through signals intelligence and sent two United States Navy carrier task forces and a joint Australian-American cruiser force, under the overall command of American Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, to oppose the Japanese offensive.

On 3𠄴 May, Japanese forces successfully invaded and occupied Tulagi, although several of their supporting warships were surprised and sunk or damaged by aircraft from the U.S. fleet carrier Yorktown. Now aware of the presence of U.S. carriers in the area, the Japanese fleet carriers entered the Coral Sea with the intention of finding and destroying the Allied naval forces.

Beginning on 7 May, the carrier forces from the two sides exchanged airstrikes over two consecutive days. The first day, the U.S. sank the Japanese light carrier Shōhō, while the Japanese sank a U.S. destroyer and heavily damaged a fleet oiler (which was later scuttled). The next day, the Japanese fleet carrier Shōkaku was heavily damaged, the U.S. fleet carrier Lexington was critically damaged (and was scuttled as a result), and the Yorktown was damaged. With both sides having suffered heavy losses in aircraft and carriers damaged or sunk, the two fleets disengaged and retired from the battle area. Because of the loss of carrier air cover, Inoue recalled the Port Moresby invasion fleet, intending to try again later.

Although a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk, the battle would prove to be a strategic victory for the Allies for several reasons. Japanese expansion, seemingly unstoppable until then, was turned back for the first time. More importantly, the Japanese fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku – one damaged and the other with a depleted aircraft complement – were unable to participate in the Battle of Midway, which took place the following month, ensuring a rough parity in aircraft between the two adversaries and contributing significantly to the U.S. victory in that battle. The severe losses in carriers at Midway prevented the Japanese from reattempting to invade Port Moresby from the ocean. Two months later, the Allies took advantage of Japan's resulting strategic vulnerability in the South Pacific and launched the Guadalcanal Campaign that, along with the New Guinea Campaign, eventually broke Japanese defenses in the South Pacific and was a significant contributing factor to Japan's ultimate defeat in World War II.

Location: œoral Sea, between Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands


Battle of the Coral Sea, 7-8 May 1942 Overview

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and eastward from New Guinea, was the first of the Pacific War's six fights between opposing aircraft carrier forces. Though the Japanese could rightly claim a tactical victory on "points", it was an operational and strategic defeat for them, the first major check on the great offensive they had begun five months earlier at Pearl Harbor. The diversion of Japanese resources represented by the Coral Sea battle would also have immense consequences a month later, at the Battle of Midway.

The Coral Sea action resulted from a Japanese amphibious operation intended to capture Port Moresby, located on New Guinea's southeastern coast. A Japanese air base there would threaten northeastern Australia and support plans for further expansion into the South Pacific, possibly helping to drive Australia out of the war and certainly enhancing the strategic defenses of Japan's newly-enlarged oceanic empire.

The Japanese operation included two seaborne invasion forces, a minor one targeting Tulagi, in the Southern Solomons, and the main one aimed at Port Moresby. These would be supported by land-based airpower from bases to the north and by two naval forces containing a small aircraft carrier, several cruisers, seaplane tenders and gunboats. More distant cover would be provided by the big aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku with their escorting cruisers and destroyers. The U.S. Navy, tipped off to the enemy plans by superior communications intelligence, countered with two of its own carriers, plus cruisers (including two from the Australian Navy), destroyers, submarines, land-based bombers and patrol seaplanes.

Preliminary operations on 3-6 May and two days of active carrier combat on 7-8 May cost the United States one aircraft carrier, a destroyer and one of its very valuable fleet oilers, plus damage to the second carrier. However, the Japanese were forced to cancel their Port Moresby seaborne invasion. In the fighting, they lost a light carrier, a destroyer and some smaller ships. Shokaku received serious bomb damage and Zuikaku's air group was badly depleted. Most importantly, those two carriers were eliminated from the upcoming Midway operation, contributing by their absence to that terrible Japanese defeat


Battle of the Coral Sea

The Battle of Midway is well known as the turning point in the Pacific war. However, if not for the Battle of the Coral Sea a month earlier, the three American carriers at Midway would have faced six Japanese carriers of the type that had devastated Pearl Harbor five months prior, instead of only four — and the Battle of Midway might have ended differently.

Coral Sea was the world’s first all-carrier battle, and the first sea battle in which neither side could see the other. Both the U.S. and the Japanese navies thought they understood how to fight using carriers. Both discovered they were wrong. At the end of this painful learning experience, the United States had lost the 41,000-ton carrierLexington, while Japan had lost only the 11,000-ton carrier Shoho.

The battle was a strategic victory for the United States. The Japanese invasion fleet turned back, saving the region that a Japanese air base at Port Moresby would have dominated. More importantly, Japan’s two newest carriers,Shokaku and Zuikaku, were damaged so much that they could not participate in the Battle of Midway. Their absence might have been a decisive factor.

After the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese army continued to press south, but the Australians beat them back twice in New Guinea, and the U.S. held them off at Guadalcanal.


Japan’s Plan

Early in 1942, Japan decided to block the Allies from setting up bases in Australia. Operation MO would send a large invasion force to Port Moresby, the capital of New Guinea. From Port Moresby, the Japanese would be able to project air power beyond the northern tip of Australia and establish bases even further south (Hearn).

The Port Moresby landing force sailed with about a dozen transports filled with troops, several cruisers and destroyers, and a half-size carrier, Shoho (Bennett, Hearn). A smaller invasion force would move down the Solomons, which lay on New Guinea’s eastern flank. The specific target in the Solomons was Tulagi, which was the colonial capital. To protect these two invasion fleets, Zuikaku and Shokaku would lead a separate covering force to create a blanket of air protection (Bennett).

The U.S. Prepares

By March 1942, the United States had cracked part of the current Japanese Naval (JN) code, JN-25. However, U.S. intelligence could intercept only about 60 percent of all Japanese transmissions and had the resources to analyze only about 40 percent of the messages it did intercept (Parshall and Tully). Even then, code breakers typically could read only 10 to 15 percent of the code groups in a message (Parshall and Tully). U.S. intelligence primarily used direction-finding equipment to learn where many Japanese ships were and where they were heading (Parshall and Tully).

Beginning on April 16, U.S. intelligence began using this spotty information to piece together an understanding of a Japanese plan to move south with carriers (Parshall and Tully). On April 17, Nimitz ordered the carrier Lexington to join Yorktown in the Coral Sea (Bennett). If Halsey had been able to move Enterprise and Hornet there too, the U.S. might have been able to destroy the Japanese fleet. But Enterprise and Hornet needed refitting after the Doolittle raid of April 18, 1942, and could not get there in time for the fight (Parshall and Tully).

Japan Moves

On May 4, 1942, Japan’s Tulagi invasion force landed and began to build a seaplane base (Bennett). The next morning, Yorktown’s air group hit Tulagi (Hearn). This attack should have alerted the Japanese to U.S. carriers in the area, but it did not — nor did a sighting of the U.S. fleet by a Japanese reconnaissance bomber because the covering force was never notified (Hearn).

Balancing this, a U.S. Army Air Forces patrol bomber spotted the Port Moresby invasion force, but the USAAF failed to notify the Navy (Hearn). For the next two days, bad weather kept the two forces from finding each other, despite the fact that they were only about 70 miles apart (Bennett).

May 7: “Scratch One Flattop”

On May 7, Japanese searchers reported the position of a U.S. carrier and a cruiser (Bennett). This was really the U.S. tanker Neosho and its escort destroyer (Bennett). The Japanese sank the two vessels, wasting their force on a minor target.

The U.S. soon equaled Japan in poor intelligence and the selection of a minor target. An SBD scout plane reported sighting two carriers and four cruisers. This was a coding error. The report should have read two cruisers and four destroyers (Bruning). Yorktown and Lexington launched 93 aircraft at this “carrier force.”

Fortunately, the SBD pilot quickly discovered his coding error, and an Army bomber luckily found Shoho. The U.S. aircraft were redirected to the small carrier (Bruning). When the strike teams reached Shoho, they sunk it in a barrage of dive bombs and torpedoes (Bruning). In triumph, Lt. Commander Robert E. Dixon radioed back, “Scratch one flattop! Dixon to carrier, scratch one flattop (Bruning)!” Japan had lost its first carrier.

Alerted by Shoho’s sinking, Shokaku and Zuikaku sent 15 B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers and 12 D3A “Val” dive bombers to find and attack the American carriers (Hearn). The force did find the U.S carriers at dusk, but the Japanese strike group was mauled by U.S. fighters and did no damage.

In this highly confused battle, two separate groups of Japanese planes tried to land on Yorktown, thinking it was a Japanese carrier (Hearn). Only six of the 27 Japanese aircraft made it back to their carriers (Hearn).

Overall, May 7, 1942, was a good day for the United States, but not a spectacular one. The next day would be the big event.

May 8: The Main Battle

The next morning, the main carrier fleets found each other almost simultaneously. Yorktown’s SBD dive bombers arrived first, sighting Zuikaku and Shokaku at 10:32 a.m. (Hearn). Amazingly, the carriers had no air cover (Hearn). Instead of attacking, however, the dive bombers hovered for 20 minutes, per doctrine, to wait for the slow Yorktowntorpedo bombers to arrive for a coordinated strike (Bruning, Hearn).

By the time torpedo bombers arrived, the Japanese carriers were covered by a storm (Bruning, Hearn). Eventually, the clouds parted long enough to reveal Shokaku. Hampered by bombing sights that fogged up in the humid weather (Hearn), the Yorktown dive bombers hit Shokaku with only two bombs (Bennett). A few minutes later, Lexington’sdive bombers also located Shokaku and hit it with a third bomb (Hearn).

Shokaku’s flight deck was wrecked (Bruning). Zuikaku was not hit, but the battle had taken a terrible toll on air groups of both carriers. Only 39 aircraft from the two-carrier air group had survived the battle (Hearn). WhenShokaku and Zuikaku limped home, they had to be taken out of service for two months — long enough to keep them out of the Battle of Midway. The Japanese attacked Midway with only four carriers.

One of the two Yorktown hits bears special mention (Bruning). When Yorktown’s VB-5 SBDs began their attack, Zeros swarmed on them. One SBD, piloted by Lt. John Powers, was hit and set on fire. But Powers continued his dive, scoring a direct hit on Shokaku. Powers’ Dauntless exploded moments later, crashing into the sea next to its target. Powers received the Medal of Honor posthumously.

The Japanese quickly found the U.S. fleet, this time in clear weather (Hearn). The Japanese attacked the two carriers with torpedo bombers and dive bombers. Lexington had a difficult time maneuvering to avoid being hit (Hearn). The Japanese were able to slam Lexington with two torpedoes and then seven bombs (Bennett, Bruning).

Yorktown, having only half the displacement of Lexington, was more nimble. It dodged a gauntlet of torpedoes and bombs for several minutes (Hearn). Finally, however, a single bomb hit Yorktown, causing significant damage (Bennett). After the attack ended, the badly damaged Lexington managed to make way and seemed to be safe (Hearn). But a spark ignited fuel vapor that had spread throughout the ship (Bennett).

Lexington was lost, but nearly all crew members survived and were removed safely (Hearn). In the end, Lexingtonhad to be sunk by a destroyer (Hearn).

Lexington was one of America’s best carriers, and its loss was devastating. Yorktown was badly damaged and limped back to Pearl Harbor with 50 surviving aircraft from the two air groups (Hearn). In only three days, the minimally repaired Yorktown was out again, bound for the Battle of Midway (Hearn). There, it would play a critical role in the attack — but would itself be sunk.

Aftermath

The Battle of the Coral Sea was a tactical defeat for the Americans, with the loss of a 41,000-ton carrier for a small, 11,000-ton Japanese carrier. However, Coral Sea was a strategic victory because Japan could not land its invasion force at Port Moresby.

The Japanese did not give up their push south into New Guinea and the adjacent Solomons, but had to do it without carrier support (Willmot). On July 27, the Japanese began to push toward Port Moresby from recently conquered Buna on the northern side of New Guinea (Willmot).

The Japanese picked a route over the Owen Stanley Mountains, along the Kokoda Track, which proved to be a treacherous single-file track unfit for moving people, much less heavy equipment. The Japanese slowly pushed toward their objective against Australian forces, but on Sept. 24, the tenacious Australians stopped the Japanese and then began to drive them back toward Buna (Willmot). The Kokoda Track battle continued for months, but Port Moresby was safe from invasion.

Realizing that Kokoda was not going well, the Japanese moved against Port Moresby a different way (Willmot). On Sept. 25, they landed an army invasion force at Milne Bay, near the southeastern tip of New Guinea. After the bay, Japan planned to invade along New Guinea’s relatively hospitable southern coastline. Instead, the Australians stopped the Japanese landing force cold and then pushed the invaders back into the water. Kokoda and Milne Bay were the first defeats for the Japanese army, which no longer seemed invincible. The Japanese had failed strategically, and they had been beaten head-to-head in the field.

While the New Guinea battles were underway, the Japanese also began to consolidate their hold over the Solomon Islands on the eastern flank of New Guinea. In late July, Japan started to build an air base on Guadalcanal, which is a little south of Tulagi. On August 7, however, the U.S. landed on Guadalcanal and captured the airbase. Although it took the Allies months to defend their conquest, Japan failed to retake Guadalcanal.

Although no one knew it at the time, Kokoda Track, Milne Bay, and Guadalcanal marked the end of Japan’s push to the southeast. With its army stopped by these battles and the its navy heavily defeated at Midway, Japan spent the rest of the war trying to stop the Allied advance.


Aftermath

Damage to the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Shokaku sustained on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The battle was effectively over, but at what cost?

Between planes shot down and those that had to be ditched because they could not land on the Shokaku, the Japanese lost 80 planes, while the Americans lost 66. 900 Japanese sailors and flyers were dead, compared with 543 Americans.

Escaping fuel caused two massive explosions on board the Lexington. As fires spread, the crew abandoned ship, and she was finally sunk by torpedoes from an American destroyer.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was a ground-breaking action but did little to turn the tide of war. Neither side suffered significantly greater losses in men and planes, and both saw carriers crippled. The invasion fleet was turned back but not destroyed. The advance on New Guinea would continue.


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