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

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought May 4-8, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945) as the Allies sought to halt the Japanese capture of New Guinea. During the opening months of World War in the Pacific, the Japanese won a string of stunning victories which saw them capture Singapore, defeat an Allied fleet in the Java Sea, and force American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula to surrender. Pushing south through the Dutch East Indies, the Imperial Japanese Naval General Staff had initially desired to mount an invasion of northern Australia to prevent that country from being used as base.

This plan was vetoed by the Imperial Japanese Army which lacked the manpower and shipping capability to sustain such an operation. To secure the Japanese southern flank, Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, commander of the Fourth Fleet, advocated for 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. This plan was approved as it would also bring northern Australia within range of Japanese bombers and would offer jumping off points for operations against Fiji, Samoa, and New Caledonia. The fall of these islands would effectively sever Australia's lines of communication with the United States.

Japanese Plans

Dubbed Operation Mo, the Japanese plan called for three Japanese fleets sortie from Rabaul in April 1942. The first, led by Rear Admiral Kiyohide Shima, was tasked with taking Tulagi in the Solomons and establishing a seaplane base on the island. The next, commanded by Rear Admiral Koso Abe, consisted of the invasion force that would strike 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.

Allied Response

Throughout the spring of 1942, the Allies remained informed about Operation Mo and Japanese intentions through radio intercepts. This largely occurred as a result of American cryptographers breaking the Japanese JN-25B code. Analysis of the Japanese messages led the Allied leadership to conclude that a major Japanese offensive would occur in the Southwest Pacific during the early weeks of May and that Port Moresby was the likely target.

Responding to this threat, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, ordered all four of his carrier groups to the area. These included Task Forces 17 and 11, centered on the carriers USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Lexington (CV-2) respectively, which were already in the South Pacific. Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's Task Force 16, with the carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8), which had just returned to Pearl Harbor from the Doolittle Raid, was also ordered south but would not arrive in time for the battle.

Fleets & Commanders

Allies

Japanese

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

Fighting Begins

Led by Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, Yorktown and TF17 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.

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.       

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.

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.

 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of the Coral Sea." ThoughtCo, Jun. 13, 2018, thoughtco.com/battle-of-the-coral-sea-2361430. Hickman, Kennedy. (2018, June 13). World War II: Battle of the Coral Sea. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-the-coral-sea-2361430 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of the Coral Sea." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-the-coral-sea-2361430 (accessed June 18, 2018).