Battle of The Coral Sea - May 4-8, 1942
"Australia and New Zealand are now threatened by the might
of the Imperial forces and both them should know that any resistance is
futile. If the Australian government does not modify her present attitude
their continent will suffer the same fate as the Dutch East Indies."
- Hideki Tojo, Japanese Prime Minister, 12 March 1942.
By the Spring of 1942, the Japanese have taken the
Philippines, Malaysia, and the Dutch East Indies. Australia is virtually
defenseless. Her four all volunteer divisions are engaged in North Africa
and Malaysia. Britain is expelled from her colonies and the main Allied
supply line extends across the Pacific from America to Australia and New Zealand.
Japan's military planners are split over the need to invade Northern
Australia or simply isolate Australia and engage the American fleet. The
Doolittle raid against mainland Japan crystallizes in the minds of
the high command the need to neutralize the American aircraft carriers. To
isolate Australia and draw the American fleet into battle the Japanese
commanders approve a three prong operation.
| 1. Occupy Tulagi in the southern Solomon Islands in order to establish a
naval air base to control the northern part of the Coral Sea. Follow this
with a landing at Port Moresby in southeast New Guinea so as to bring
Northern Australia in to range of Japanese aircraft. This stage of the
plan is "Operation MO" so called because the first two letters of the Japanese name for
Port Moresby are MO.
|2. Carry out an overwhelming attack on Midway and occupy strategic points
in the Aleutian Islands to trigger a decisive naval battle.
|3. Once these two operations are complete the Japanese will overrun
the Fiji and Samoan Islands in order to cut off the life line from the United
States to Australia.
The bulk of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) fleet is to be used in the
Midway and Aleutian Island operations. Vessels used in Operation MO are
expected to join with the Midway operation forces.
The threat to Australia's supply line from North America is confirmed by
American cryptologists, who are able to read bits and pieces of the IJN JN-25
naval code. With this intelligence, Admiral Nimitz, Commander
in Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), orders three task forces, TF17,
TF11 and TF44 to join and oppose the IJN operations.
II. Organization of Forces
A. IJN forces.
The main elements of the IJN force are the
Covering Forces and the Striking Forces for the invasions of Tulagi and
Port Moresby. Task force, task group or task unit designations are not
used by the IJN as does the U.S. Navy. Instead, they use the ideograph
"Tai" and sometimes "Butai," which could be any group of ships except for
"Combined Fleet," which are "Rengo Kantai." "Tai" is usually translated as
"force" or "body."
|Carrier Striking Force
Rear Admiral Takagi
Carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku (IJN's newest carriers)
Heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro
Destroyers Ariake, Yugure, Shigure, Shiratsuyu, Ushio and Akebono
Tanker Toho Maru
|Port Moresby Landing Force
Rear Admiral Abe
Minelayer Tsugaru, twelve transports,
and auxiliary craft.
Rear Admiral Kajioka
Light cruiser Yubari; Destroyers Oite, Uzuki, Asamagi, Mutsuki, Yunagi and Yayoi. One patrol boat
and auxiliary craft
Close Support Force
Rear Admiral Goto
Light carrier Shoho; Destroyer Sazanami
Support Force Main Body
Rear Admiral Goto
Heavy cruisers Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa, and Furutaka
Close Cover Force
Rear Admiral Marumo
Light cruisers Tenryu and Tatsuta; Seaplane Tender Kamikawa Maru; Gunboats Keijo Maru, Seikai Maru and Nikkai Maru; Minelayer Tsugaru
|Tulagi Landing Force
Rear Admiral Shima
Destroyers Kaikuzuki and Yuzuki; Minelayers Okinoshima, Koei Maru; Transport Asuman Maru
B. USN forces.
|Task Force 17 (TF17)
Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher
In Yorktown (CV-5)
|Task Group 17.2 (Attack Group)
Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid
Cruisers Minneapolis (CA-36), New Orleans (CA-32), Astoria (CA-34), Chester
(CA-27) and Portland (CA-33); Destroyers Phelps (DD-360), Dewey (DD-349), Farragut (DD-348), Aylwin
(DD-355) and Monaghan (DD-354)
|Task Group 17.5 (Carrier Group)
Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch
Carrier Yorktown (CV-5), Carrier Lexington (CV-2)
formerly (TF11) joined with Yorktown on 1 May
1942. Destroyers Morris (DD-417), Anderson (DD-411), Hammann (DD-412) and Russell
|Task Group 17.3 (Support Group)
Rear Admiral J. C. Crace, RAN
Cruisers Australia (RAN), Hobart (RAN) and Chicago (CA-29); Destroyers Perkins(DD-377) and Walke (DD-416). Joined TF17 on 1 May 1942, formerly TF44.
|Task Group 17.6 (Fueling Group)
Captain John S. Phillips
Oilers Neosho (AO-23) and Tippecanoe (AO-21); Destroyers Sims (DD-409) and Worden (DD-352)
Task Force 16, consisting of the carriers Hornet (CV-8) and Enterprise
Rear Admiral Halsey, are unavailable while engaged in delivering Colonel
Doolittle, and his Mitchell B-25's to the raid on mainland Japan.
|1-3 May 1942
TF-17 refuels from Neosho (AO-23).
|4 May 1942
Action begins on 4 May with a dawn strike on Tulagi by the carrier
Yorktown's Air Group Five (VF-42, VB-5, VS-5 and VT-5). At 0630 Yorktown
launches 11 TBD-1 Douglas Devastator torpedo aircraft and 28 SBD Douglas Dauntless dive bombers.
Six F4F Grumman Wildcat fighters follow the strike aircraft and 18 fighters are
retained in defense of the force. The SBD dive bombers of VB-5
surprise the IJN and damage the destroyer Kikusuki and two mine
sweepers. The TBD-1 torpedo aircraft (VT-5) arrive second and score one hit
on the mine sweeper Tara Maru from eleven torpedoes fired. All aircraft
from the first strike return and are safely recovered.
A second strike is launched to Tulagi as soon as the
returned aircraft are refueled and rearmed. This time 27 Dauntless
dive bombers and 11 Devastator torpedo planes make the trip. The second strike
yields one patrol boat damaged and two seaplanes destroyed
on the water. The Japanese are alert and destroy one TBD-1 Devastator by anti
In the early afternoon a third raid is launched
consisting of four F4F Grumman Wildcats. Three moored seaplanes are
destroyed and the destroyer Yuzuki is strafed killing the ship's captain
and others but not disabling the ship. Two Wildcats are hit
and make forced landings on the south coast of Guadalcanal. Both
pilots are rescued by the destroyer Hammann (DD-412).
A fourth strike is ordered by Admiral Fletcher
consisting of 21 SBD Dauntless dive bombers which succeeds in destroying several landing craft.
Debriefings after the four strikes convince Admiral
Fletcher that little has been accomplished even though the enthused
American pilots report spectacular successes. Consideration is given
to ordering surface strikes by the heavy cruisers Chester (CA-27) and Astoria
cancelled when General McArthur's Headquarters in Australia reports B-25
Mitchell bombers have located Admiral Goto's force south of Bougainville.
|5 May 1942
Admiral Takagi's IJN Striking Force enters the Coral Sea while Rear
Admiral Fletcher sails northwest toward the probable route of the IJN Port Moresby
Landing Force. Neither admiral has any idea as to the
size or position of his opponent's fleet.
At 0815 the Lexington and Yorktown task groups join.
Yorktown's radar detects an unidentified aircraft at 1100 but due to low
visibility American fighters are unable to make visual contact with the
enemy aircraft. For the first time in the Pacific Theater an
American fighter is vectored by the ship's radar to intercept and destroy
an aircraft. The H6K Kawaniski Mavis four engine seaplane is from
Rabaul and not under the command of the nearby Japanese naval force, and
not report the American presence to the nearby afloat IJN forces.
|6 May 1942
Both fleets close to within seventy miles of each other yet are unaware of the
other's position as weather hinders their reconnaissance planes. Refueling
is the order of the days for both forces. Admiral Goto's force is
attacked by Army B-17's from Australia. The Flying Fortresses drop
twelve bombs near the carrier Shoho but are driven off by A6M Mitsubishi Zeke's
|7 May 1942
Based on incorrect reconnaissance reports, both admirals launch major air
attacks. Takagi sends a large force to the south-southeast, where the
tanker Neosho (AO-23) and the destroyer Sims (DD-409) are mistakenly identified as a
carrier and a cruiser. Both American ships are lost.
Admiral Fletcher orders a major
strike against what is mistakenly reported as two carriers and finds
instead Admiral Goto's Covering Force protecting the Port Moresby invasion force. American aircraft attack the light carrier Shoho, which is sunk
by numerous bomb and torpedo hits. This prompts Lieutenant Commander Bob
Dixon, of Lexington's VS-2 to radio the famous message, "Scratch one
This is the first attack by American carrier aircraft against a
capital ship, and the first carrier to be lost by either side. During this
action, the first IJN A6M Mitsubishi Zeke (Zero) fighter to be downed by a Navy or
Marine Corps aviator is shot down by Lieutenant Junior Grade Walt Haas of
VF-42 from Yorktown.
In late afternoon, Takagi launches twenty-seven bombers from his two
big carriers, but finding nothing they jettison their bombs and
torpedoes. Their course back takes them over Fletcher's force. The USN
ships fire on the IJN bombers and F4F Wildcats attack the enemy aircraft
inflicting heavy losses. Some reports state that
confused Japanese pilots actually try to land on the American carrier.
8 May 1942
The climax of the battle on the 8 May finds the IJN invasion fleet has
retired to let the carrier forces battle it out. The
opposing forces are fairly evenly matched with two carriers and
approximately 20 aircraft each. Scout planes from both forces locate
the enemy at about 0820 local time and approximately 200 miles apart.
At 1057, American dive and torpedo bombers attack the Shokaku
finding twin problems in defending Zero's and bad weather. After numerous near misses,
the Dauntless dive bombers score a hit with a 1000 pound bomb. VB-5
pilot, Lieutenant John Powers, with his plane on fire, hits the Shokaku
with another 1000 pound bomb causing extensive damage and fires. Lieutenant Powers does
not recover from his dive and is awarded a posthumous
Medal of Honor for his bravery.
A third SBD from the Lexington hits the Shokaku with a 1000 pound
At this point the badly damaged Shokaku transfers her aircraft to the
Zuikaku and retires to the north. The Zuikaku safely hides in a
rainstorm throughout the action and is not touched by the American attack.
A search plane from the Shokaku, hiding in the clouds, shadows the
Americans and later guides the IJN strike group to within sight of the
Lexington. Fourteen IJN torpedo planes execute an attack on Lexington. Demonstrating their seasoned tactics, the IJN torpedo bomber
pilots attack with
two simultaneous thrusts from 45 degrees either side of the bow. Lexington
tries to dodge the torpedoes, but at 1120 she receives two hits. Attacks
on the Yorktown by four torpedo planes come close, but she receives no hits.
Japanese dive bombers push over in steep attack formations a few minutes after the torpedo attack.
The F4F Wildcat's of the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) fight to stop them, but
find themselves engaged in furious dogfights with the escorting Zeros. The
Lexington suffers two bomb hits and numerous near misses.
Dive bombers from the Zuikaku attack the Yorktown at 1142. They are
harassed all the way down by two F4F's from VF-42. The Yorktown is
steaming crosswind at full speed and skillfully avoids all but one direct
hit. This 250 kg bomb strikes the center of Yorktown's flight
deck forward of the middle elevator. Several near misses
cause underwater damage. Throughout all the action there are numerous
Once the IJN attackers retire, the U.S. carriers are still able to steam
at 24 knots and recover aircraft despite their damage. But trouble is
developing aboard the Lexington. Leaking gasoline results in a tremendous
explosion at 1247, killing 25 men. She is able to recover her strike
group, but is wracked by two more explosions. The
situation rapidly deteriorates. In short order Lexington experiences crippled
communications, loss of helm control from the bridge, smoke drawn in by
blowers putting out her boiler fires and forcing the boiler room personnel
to evacuate, low fire main pressure, more fires and explosions until she
is dead in the water and helpless.
Consideration is given to towing the Lexington with one of the cruisers,
but in view of her severe damage and the possibility of another air
attack, the decision is made to abandon ship at 1707. This is done in
nearly ideal conditions and 92% of Lexington's complement is picked up by
Later, with the Lexington burning furiously, the destroyer Phelps
five torpedoes into "Lady Lex" and she sinks at 1952 with final tremendous
After this day's battles, both fleets retire. The
Japanese postpone their invasion of Port Moresby and suffer the
first major strategic setback of the war.
IV. Results and Conclusions
At first glance it would appear that the battle was a Japanese victory or
a draw at best, since they lost but a small carrier and the U.S. a large
one. But strategically, the outcome was unquestionable an American Navy
Most importantly, it stops the Japanese advance southward, and possibly
saves Australia from invasion. Secondly, Japan's newest large carriers, the Shokaku
and the Zuikaku are prevented from participating in the Battle of Midway. Shokaku
is heavily damaged and must return to Japan for major
repairs remaining out of service for three months. The Zuikaku, although
undamaged, has suffered major losses to her air group and also
returns to Japan. She is out of action for two months while replacement
pilots are trained. Thus both these new carriers are unavailable for the
Battle of Midway. It is conceivable that their presence at Midway would
have spared the IJN from their staggering defeat with the loss of four
U.S. Navy lessons learned at Coral Sea.
| (1) The F4F could
defeat Zero if attacking with an altitude advantage.
(2) Wildcats should
not try to out turn the more maneuverable Zeros.
(3) Fighters need to stay together for mutual protection.
(4) Fighters require belly tanks for more range.
(5) Better CAP (carrier air patrol) and fighter direction procedures are
(6) Torpedo planes and bombers have to be escorted.
(7) IFF (identification friend or foe) transponders on all aircraft
is sorely needed.
(8) Communications equipment desperately needs improvement.
| (1) Fire fighting
training is necessary to save ships.
(2) Damage control equipment improvements are needed.
The list is long and the Battle of Midway would be in less
than a month, long before many of the lessons could be
The Battle of Coral Sea marks the first time in the history of naval
warfare that opposing ships are never in sight of each other, and no
shots are exchanged. The battle is fought entirely by carrier planes. It ushers
in a new era in the history of naval warfare - the supremacy of the
E. E. Oleson
Disclaimer : References vary on the IJN order of battle.
Hoehling, A. A., The Lexington Goes Down: The Last Seven Hours of A Fighting Lady, Garden City NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1971
Johnson, Stanley, Queen of the Flat-Tops: The USS Lexington and the Coral Sea Battle, New York NY, E. P. Dutton, 1942
Lundstrom, John B., The First Team, Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press, 1984
Millet, Bernard, The Battle of the Coral Sea, Annapolis MD, Naval Institute
Morison, Samuel Eliot, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Vol 4: Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions May 1942 - August 1942, Boston MA, Little, Brown and Company, 1949.
Kraig, Walter (ed.), Battle Report; Vol 1: Pearl Harbor to Coral Sea, New York NY, Reinhart, 1944.
Dull, Paul S., A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945, Annapolis MD, U.S. Naval Institute, 1978
Stille, Mark, The Coral Sea 1942: The first carrier battle (Campaign), Oxford, UK, Osprey Publishing, 2009