World War II: Battle of the Coral Sea

Shoho at Coral Sea
Japanese carrier Shoho under attack during the Battle of the Coral Sea. US Naval History & Heritage Command

Battle of the Coral Sea - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought May 4-8, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders:

Allies

Japanese

  • Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi
  • Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue
  • 2 carriers, 1 light carrier, 9 cruisers, 15 destroyers

Battle of the Coral Sea - Background:

In the wake of their stunning victories in early 1942, the Japanese sought to extend their control by taking all of New Guinea and occupying the Solomon Islands.

This would eliminate the last Allied base between Japan and Australia as well as would provide a security perimeter around Japan's recent conquests in the Dutch East Indies. It was also hoped that the operation would draw the US Navy's carriers into battle so that they could be destroyed. To accomplish these missions, three Japanese fleets sortied from Rabaul in April 1942.

While one moved towards Tulagi in the Solomons, another sailed south towards the main Allied base on New Guinea, Port Moresby. These invasion forces were screened by Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi's covering force centered around the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the light carrier Shoho. Arriving at Tulagi on May 3, Japanese forces quickly occupied the island and set up a seaplane base. Alerted to Japanese intentions by radio intercepts, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, dispatched the carriers USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Lexington (CV-2) to the Coral Sea to protect Port Moresby.

Battle of the Coral Sea - Fighting Begins:

Led by Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, Yorktown raced to the area and launched three strikes against Tulagi on May 4, 1942. Hitting the island hard, they badly damaged the seaplane base and eliminated its reconnaissance capabilities for the coming battle. In addition, Yorktown's aircraft sank a destroyer and five merchant ships.

Steaming south, Yorktown joined Lexington later that day. Two days later, land-based B-17s from Australia spotted and attacked the Port Moresby invasion fleet. Bombing from high-altitude, they failed to score any hits.

Throughout the day both carrier groups searched for each other with no luck as cloudy skies limited visibility. With night setting in, Fletcher made the difficult decision to detach his main surface force of three cruisers and their escorts. Designated Task Force 44, under the command of Rear Admiral John Crace, Fletcher ordered them to block the probable course of the Port Moresby invasion fleet. Sailing without air cover, Crace's ships would be vulnerable to Japanese air strikes. The next day, both carrier groups resumed their searches.

Battle of the Coral Sea - Scratch One Flattop:

While neither found the other's main body, they did locate secondary units. This saw Japanese aircraft attack and sink the destroyer USS Sims as well as cripple the oiler USS Neosho. American aircraft were luckier as they located Shoho.  Caught with most of its aircraft group below decks, the carrier was lightly defended against the combined air groups of the two American carriers. Led by Commander William B.

Ault, Lexington's aircraft opened the attack shortly after 11:00 AM and scored hits with two bombs and five torpedoes. Burning and nearly stationary, Shoho was finished off by Yorktown's aircraft. The sinking of Shoho led Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon of Lexington to radio the famous phrase "scratch one flattop." 

On May 8, scout planes from each fleet found the enemy around 8:20 AM. As a result, strikes were launched by both sides between 9:15 AM and 9:25 AM. Arriving over Takagi's force, Yorktown's aircraft, led by Lieutenant Commander William O. Burch, began attacking Shokaku at 10:57 AM. Hidden in a nearby squall, Zuikaku escaped their attention. Hitting Shokaku with two 1,000 lb. bombs, Burch's men caused severe damage before departing. Reaching the area at 11:30 AM, Lexington's planes landed another bomb hit on the crippled carrier.

Unable to conduct combat operations, Captain Takatsugu Jojima received permission to withdraw his ship from the area.       

Battle of the Coral Sea - The Japanese Strike Back:

While the US pilots were having success, Japanese aircraft were approaching the American carriers.  These were detected by Lexington's CXAM-1 radar and F4F Wildcat fighters were directed to intercept.  While some of the enemy aircraft were downed, several commenced runs on Yorktown and Lexington shortly after 11:00 AM.  Japanese torpedo attacks on the former failed, while the latter sustained two hits by Type 91 torpedoes.  These assaults were followed by dive bombing attacks which scored a hit on Yorktown and two on Lexington. Damage crews raced to save Lexington and succeeded in restoring the the carrier to operational condition.  

As these efforts were concluding, sparks from an electric motor ignited a fire which led to a series of fuel-related explosions. In a short time, the resulting fires became uncontrollable. With the crew unable to extinguish the flames, Captain Frederick C. Sherman ordered Lexington abandoned. After the crew was evacuated, the destroyer USS Phelps fired five torpedoes into the burning carrier to prevent its capture. Blocked in their advance and with Crace's force in place, the overall Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, ordered the invasion force to return to port.

Battle of the Coral Sea - Aftermath:

A strategic victory, the Battle of the Coral Sea cost Fletcher the carrier Lexington, as well as the destroyer Sims and the oiler Neosho.

Total killed for the Allied forces was 543. For the Japanese, the battle losses included Shoho, one destroyer, and 1,074 killed. In addition, Shokaku was badly damaged and Zuikaku's air group greatly reduced. As a result, both would miss the Battle of Midway in early June. While Yorktown was damaged, it was quickly repaired at Pearl Harbor and raced back to sea to aid defeating the Japanese.

Selected Sources