Battle of the Coral Sea

Dafato Team | Jun 16, 2022

Table of Content

Summary

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought between 4-8 May 1942, was a major naval battle of the Pacific War, fought between Imperial Japanese naval forces and Allied air and naval forces from the United States and Australia during World War II. The battle is established as the first naval battle in which enemy aircraft carriers directly attacked each other, and it was also the first naval battle in which enemy fleets did not directly target and fire upon each other.

In an attempt to strengthen its position in the South Pacific, Japanese Empire forces decided to invade and occupy Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi(d) in the Solomon Islands to the southeast. The plan was called Operation MO and involved several major units of the Japanese fleet, including three aircraft carriers, to provide air defences for the invading fleet, under the command of Shigeyoshi Inoue(d). The United States learned of the Japanese plan by intercepting communications and sent two aircraft carriers accompanied by American and Australian cruisers(d) under Admiral Frank J. Fletcher to stop the Japanese offensive.

On 3 and 4 May, Japanese forces invaded and occupied Tulagi, although several of the supporting warships were surprised and sunk or merely damaged by aircraft from the aircraft carrier ''Yorktown''(d) Having been warned by now of the presence of American aircraft carriers in the area, Japanese carriers entered the Coral Sea with the intention of finding and destroying Allied naval forces.

Since 7 May, aircraft carriers from both sides have executed air strikes on two consecutive days. On the first day, the United States sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō, and the Japanese sank a destroyer and severely damaged an oil tanker (which was later allowed to sink). The following day, the Japanese aircraft carrier Shōkaku and the American aircraft carrier ''Lexington''(d) (which was also evacuated) were damaged, and the aircraft carrier Yorktown was damaged. As both sides suffered heavy damage in the form of lost aircraft and damaged or destroyed aircraft carriers, the fleets withdrew from the conflict area. Having lost the air defences provided by the carriers, Inoue withdrew the fleet from Port Moresby with the intention of attacking later.

Although it was a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of the number of ships sunk, the battle would prove to be a strategic victory for the Allies for several reasons. The Japanese expansion, which had seemed unstoppable up to that point, was repulsed for the first time. More importantly, the Japanese aircraft carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku - one damaged and the other with depleted aircraft numbers - would be unable to engage in the Battle of Midway, which was to take place the following month, thus ensuring a tie in aircraft numbers between the two adversaries that would contribute significantly to the U.S. victory in that battle. Because the Japanese lost aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway, they were unable to invade Port Moresby from the ocean. Two months later, the Allies took advantage of the Japanese strategic vulnerability and launched the Guadalcanal Campaign which, along with the New Guinea Campaign, led to the breakup of the Japanese defenses in the South Pacific and was a major factor in Japan's defeat in World War II.

Expansion of the Japanese Empire

On 7 December 1941, using aircraft carriers, the Japanese attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack destroyed or damaged most of the fleet's warships and led to the formal declaration of war between the two countries. At the beginning of this war, Japanese commanders sought to neutralize the American fleet, occupy territories rich in mineral resources, and gain a strategic military base to defend their distant empire. At the same time as Pearl Harbor, the Japanese also attacked Malaya, provoking the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand to join the United States in the war against Japan. According to the Imperial Japanese Navy's "Secret Order Number 1" dated November 1, 1941, the purpose of Japan's initial campaigns was to "remove British and American forces from the East Netherlands Indies and the Philippines and establish a policy of self-government and economic independence."

To achieve these ends, in the early months of 1941, in addition to Malaya, Japanese forces attacked and occupied the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain Island, the Gilbert Islands and Guam, inflicting heavy losses on Allied ground, naval and air forces. Japan planned to use these territories to establish a defence zone for its empire from which it aimed to employ attrition tactics to defeat any Allied counterattack.

Shortly after the war began, the Imperial Japanese Naval Staff recommended the invasion of northern Australia to prevent it from being used as a base to endanger Japan's defences in the South Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Navy refused to accept the proposal, claiming that it did not have the necessary force or adequate naval capability to carry out such an operation. At the same time, Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, commander of the 4th Fleet (also called the South Seas Force), which comprised most ships in the South Pacific, advocated the occupation of Tulagi Island and Port Moresby in New Guinea which would put northern Australia within range of Japanese ground-based aircraft. Inoue believed that by occupying these territories, Japan's military base at Rabaul(d), New Britain Island, would be better defended. The Japanese naval command and Imperial Army accepted Inoue's proposal and encouraged future operations using these places as support bases to appropriate New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa, thus interrupting supply routes and communication paths between Australia and the United States.

In April 1942, the land and naval armies developed a plan that was called Operation MO, according to which Port Moresby was to be invaded from the ocean and taken over by 10 May. The plan also included the occupation of Tulagi Island on 2-3 May, where ships were to establish a military base on the water for potential air strikes on Allied territory and armies and to provide a base for reconnaissance aircraft. After the MO plan was carried out, the Navy intended to begin Operation RY using the same ships to occupy Nauru and Banaba Islands on 15 May to gain access to phosphate deposits. Future operations against Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia, known as Operation FS, were planned to begin after MO and RY were completed.

Because of a devastating Allied ground-based and carrier-based air attack on Japanese naval forces to invade the Lae(d)-Salamaua(d) region of New Guinea during March, Inoue requested that aircraft carriers be sent to provide air defence for the forces involved in the MO operation. Inoue was particularly concerned about Allied bombers stationed at Townsville and Cooktown(d) air bases in Australia, which were out of range of his own bombers housed at Rabaul(d) and Lae(d).

Allied response

In March 1942, the United States noticed the first mention of Operation MO in intercepted messages. On April 5, the Americans intercepted a message from the Imperial Japanese Navy ordering an aircraft carrier and other large warships to operate in Commander Inoue's area of operations. On 13 April, the British deciphered another message informing Inoue that the 5th Carrier Division, consisting of the aircraft carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku, was on the march to come under his command, departing from Formosa and passing through the Imperial Japanese Navy's main base on the Chuuk Islands. The British relayed the message to the Americans, along with the conclusion that Port Moresby was likely a target of the MO operation.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the new commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, and his officers discussed the deciphered message and agreed that Japan would initiate a major operation in the Southwest Pacific in early May, with Port Moresby a likely target. The Allies viewed Port Moresby as a key base for a planned counteroffensive against Japanese forces in the Southwest Pacific. Nimitz's officers also determined that the Japanese operation might include carrier raids on Allied bases in Samoa and Suva. After consulting with Admiral Ernest King, commander of the U.S. Fleet, Nimitz decided to respond to the Japanese operation by sending all four available aircraft carriers from the Pacific Ocean to the Coral Sea. By 27 April, other information confirmed more details and targets of the MO and RY plans.

On 29 April, Nimitz ordered all four carriers and accompanying ships to proceed to the Coral Sea. Task Force 17, consisting of the aircraft carrier ''Yorktown''(d) escorted by three cruisers and four destroyers, supported by three tankers and two destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Fletcher, departed Tongatapu for the Coral Sea on 27 April. Task Force 11, consisting of the aircraft carrier ''Lexington''(r) with two cruisers and five destroyers, commanded by Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch(r) was between Fiji and New Caledonia. Task Force 16, which included the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet, commanded by Vice-Admiral William F. Halsey, had just returned to Pearl Harbour after the Doolittle Raid that had taken place in the central ocean and could not reach the South Pacific in time to participate in the battle. Nimitz appointed Fletcher to command Allied naval forces in the South Pacific until Halsey arrived with Task Force 16. Although the Coral Sea region was under Douglas MacArthur's command, Fletcher and Halsey were ordered to continue to carry out Nimitz's orders in the area and not MacArthur's.

Based on intercepts of Task Force 16's radio traffic as it returned to Pearl Harbor, the Japanese assumed that all but one of the American carriers were in the central Pacific. The Japanese did not know where the others were, but they did not expect the American carriers to oppose Operation MO until it was underway.

Prelude

At the end of April, the Japanese submarines RO-33 and RO-34 conducted a reconnaissance of the area where the landings were to take place. The submarines investigated Rossel Island and the anchorage area in the Louisiade Archipelago, the Jomard Channel and the route to Port Moresby from the east. They saw none of the Allied ships in the area and returned to Rabaul on 23 and 24 April respectively.

The Japanese invasion force directed against the Port Moresby area, commanded by Rear Admiral Kōsō Abe(r), included 11 ships carrying about 5,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army's South Seas Detachment and 500 soldiers of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force. The convoy was escorted by the Port Moresby Strike Force of six destroyers and a cruiser under Rear Admiral Sadamichi Kajioka(r). On 4 May ships under Kōsō Abe departed Rabaul on the 840 nautical mile (1,556 km) voyage to Port Moresby and rendezvoused with ships under Kajioka the following day. The convoy was travelling at a speed of 8 knots (15 km

The leading force in the Tulagi invasion was the detachment called the Tulagi Invasion Army, commanded by Rear Admiral Kiyohide Shima, the detachment consisting of two mine sweepers, two destroyers, six dredgers, two submarine chasers and a transport ship carrying about 400 troops from the Japanese Special Naval Landing Force. Defence of the convoy was provided by the Defence Company consisting of Shōhō, 4 cruisers and a destroyer, commanded by Rear Admiral Aritomo Gotō(d). A separate covering army, commanded by Rear Admiral Kuninori Marumo(d) and consisting of two cruisers, a seaplane carrier and three gunboats, provided, along with the Defence Company, the necessary protection for the invasion force heading for Tulagi. After Tulagi was occupied, on 3 or 4 May, the two covering armies headed for Port Moresby to assist the invading army there. Inoue led Operation MO from the cruiser Kashima, which had arrived from Rabaul at Truk on 4 May.

The defense company, led by Rear Admiral Gotō, departed Chuuk(d) on April 28, passed through the Solomon Islands between Bougainville Island and Choiseul Island and anchored near New Georgia Island. Marumo's covering army departed New Ireland Island on 29 April and stopped in Thousand Ships Bay near St. Elizabeth Island to establish a separate air base to support the attack on Tulagi Island. The Tulagi Invasion Army left Rabaul on April 30.

The carriers Zuikaku and Shōkaku, accompanied by two cruisers and six destroyers, left Truk on 1 May. The convoy was commanded by Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi(r), the flagship being the cruiser Myōkō with Rear Admiral Chūichi Hara(r) of the Zuikaku in tactical command of the carrier air force. The convoy moved south to the eastern Solomon Islands and entered the Coral Sea south of Guadalcanal. Once in the Coral Sea, the carriers were able to provide air defences for the invading forces, annihilate Allied air defences from Port Moresby, and intercept and destroy any Allied naval forces that entered the Coral Sea to retaliate.

On the way to the Coral Sea, Takagi's carriers were to send nine Zero fighters to Rabaul. Due to bad weather, after two attempts on 2 and 3 May, the planes returned to the carriers anchored 444 km from Rabaul, and one of them crash-landed in the ocean. Because he had to keep to the Operation MO schedule, Takagi was forced to abandon the mission to send the planes to Rabaul after the second attempt and lead his army to the Solomon Islands for refuelling.

In order to be notified of any approaching enemy ships, the Japanese sent submarines I-22, I-24, I-28 and ''I-29''(d) to form a reconnaissance line in the ocean about 830 km southwest of Guadalcanal. The Fletcher-led force, however, had entered the Coral Sea before the Japanese submarines got into position, so the Japanese were unaware that the Allies were nearby. Another Japanese submarine, I-21, which had been sent on reconnaissance around Nouméa, was attacked by aircraft from the aircraft carrier Yorktown on 2 May. The submarine suffered no damage, and the Japanese appeared not to realize they had been attacked by an aircraft carrier. Submarines RO-33 and RO-34 were also sent to try to blockade Port Moresby. and arrived near shore on 5 May. Neither submarine attacked any enemy ships during the battle.

On the morning of 1 May, Task Force 17 and Task Force 11 met 556 km northwest of New Caledonia.(16°16′S 162°20′E ({{PAGENAME}})

Tulagi

Early in the morning of 3 May, the fleet led by Shima arrived at Tulagi and began landing the troops needed to occupy the island. Tulagi was undefended because the small garrison of an Australian commando and a Royal Australian Air Force reconnaissance unit had been evacuated shortly before Shima's arrival. The Japanese immediately began building seaplane and communications bases. Aircraft from the carrier Shōhō provided landing cover until early afternoon, when the Gotō-led fleet returned to Boungaiville to refuel for landing cover at Port Moresby.

At 5pm on 3 May, Fletcher was told that the Japanese fleet that had invaded Tulagi had been seen the day before approaching the Solomons. What Fletcher didn't know was that Task Force 11 had finished refueling that morning, earlier than scheduled, and was only 111 km east of Task Force 17, but was unable to communicate its position because Fletcher had forbidden radio communications. Task Force 17 changed course and headed at 27 knots toward Guadalcanal to launch air strikes on the Japanese at Tulagi the next morning.

On 4 May, at a position 185 km south of Guadalcanal (11°10′S 158°49′E ({{PAGENAME}})

The Takagi-led fleet was refuelling 648km north of Tulagi when it was alerted to the Fletcher-led air attack on 4 May. Takagi finished refuelling, headed southeast and sent reconnaissance planes to search east of the Solomons, believing the US carriers were in the area. Since no Allied aircraft were there, the reconnaissance planes found nothing.

Aerial reconnaissance and decisions

On 5 May, at 8:16 a.m., Task Force 17 met Task Force 11 and Task Force 44 at a point 593 km south of Guadalcanal. Around the same time, four F4F Wildcat fighters from Yorktown intercepted a Kawanishi Model 97(d) reconnaissance aircraft from Yokohama Air Base that was part of the 25 Air Flotilla based in the Shortland Islands and shot it down 20 km from Task Force 11. The crew was unable to send a message before the plane crashed, but because it did not return to base, the Japanese assumed it was shot down by an aircraft carrier.

A message from Pearl Harbour alerted Fletcher that radio intercepts indicated that the Japanese were planning to land at Port Moresby and that their carrier fleet would operate close to the invasion site. Armed with this information, Fletcher ordered Task Force 17 to refuel from the tanker Neosho. After refueling was completed on 6 May, Fletcher planned to take his fleet north of the Louisiade Archipelago and attack on 7 May.

At the same time, Takagi's carriers rounded the eastern Solomon Islands on 5 May, turned west to pass south of San Cristobal Island (Makira) and entered the Coral Sea after passing between Guadalcanal and Rennell Island on the morning of 6 May. Takagi began refueling his ships 333 km west of Tulagi preparing for the carrier battle he expected to fight the next day.

On May 6, Fletcher included Task Force 11 and Task Force 44 in Task Force 17. Believing the Japanese carriers were still to the north near Bougainville, Fletcher continued to refuel. Reconnaissance patrols directed by American carriers throughout the day failed to locate any Japanese ships because they were outside the area being searched.

At 10:00, a Kawanishi reconnaissance aircraft from Tulagi spotted Task Force 17 and notified headquarters. Takagi received the report at 10:50. At that time, Takagi's fleet was about 556 km north of Fletcher, close to the range limit of the aircraft on his carriers. Takagi, whose ships were still refueling, was not ready to engage in battle, so he deduced from the report that Task Force 17 was heading south increasing the distance. Moreover, Fletcher's ships were under a large cloud formation at a low altitude, so Takagi and Hara thought the planes would have a hard time finding the American carriers. Takagi ordered his two carriers, under Hara's command and accompanied by two destroyers, to head for Task Force 17 at a speed of 37 km (20 miles).

US B-17 bombers based in Australia and training base in Port Moresby attacked invading forces approaching Port Moresby, including Gotō's ships, several times during May 6 without success. MacArthur's headquarters radioed Fletcher reports of the attacks and the location of the Japanese fleet. MacArthur's reports of an aircraft carrier being sighted (Shōhō) about 787 km northwest of Task Force 17 convinced Fletcher that his carriers were accompanying the invading fleet.

At 1800 hours, Task Force 17 finished refueling and Fletcher sent the tanker Neosho, accompanied by the destroyer ''Sims''(d), to anchor south at a rendezvous point (16°0′S 158°0′E ({{PAGENAME}})

Late in the evening of May 6 or early in the morning of May 7, the Kamikawa Maru established a seaplane base in the Deboyne Islands to provide air defenses for the invading fleet approaching Port Moresby. The rest of the Marumo-led covering force stopped near the D'Entrecasteaux Islands to assist the approaching Abe-led convoy.

Battle of the aircraft carriers, day one

On 7 May at 06:25, Task Force 17 was 213 km south of Rossel Island (13°20′S 154°21′E ({{PAGENAME}})

Believing Takagi's carriers to be somewhere north of his position near the Louisiade Archipelago, Fletcher ordered the aircraft carrier Yorktown to send SBD bombers to scout the area beginning at 06:19. During this time, Takagi, located approximately 556 km from Fletcher (13°12′S 158°05′E ({{PAGENAME}})

At 07:22, one of Shōkaku's reconnaissance planes reported locating the US ships at 182 degrees, 302 km from Takagi. At 07:45, the scout reported locating an aircraft carrier, a cruiser and three destroyers. Another reconnaissance aircraft from the Shōkaku confirmed the location. The aircraft on the Shōkaku misreported and misidentified the tanker Neosho and the destroyer Sims. Believing he had located the American carriers, Hara, with Takagi's assistance, immediately launched all available aircraft. A total of 78 Zero fighters, 36 D3A(d) bombers and 24 torpedo planes began taking off from Shōkaku and Zuikaku at 0800 and by 0815 were on their way to the reported target.

At 08:20, one of Furutaka's aircraft found Fletcher's aircraft carriers and immediately reported to Inoue's headquarters in Rabaul who passed the report on to Takagi. Visual contact was confirmed by Kinugasa seaplane at 08:30. Takagi and Hara, puzzled by the conflicting reports they received, decided to continue the attack on the ships to the south, but turned the carriers to the northwest to shorten the distance to the target reported by the Furutaka aircraft. Takagi and Hara felt that conflicting reports showed that the US carriers were operating in two separate groups.

At 08:15, an SBD aircraft from Yorktown, piloted by John L. Nielsen saw Gotō's fleet protecting the Japanese convoy. Nilesen, who made a mistake in his coded message, reported seeing two carriers and four cruisers at 10°3′S 152°27′E ({{PAGENAME}})

Fletcher concluded that the Japanese carriers were stationary and had been ordered to launch all available aircraft to attack. By 10:13, the Americans had attacked with 93 Wildcat fighters, 53 SBD bombers, and 22 Douglas TBD Devastator(d) torpedo planes. At 10:19, Nielsen landed and saw what a coding error the message made. Although the Gotō-led force included the aircraft carrier Shōhō, Nielsen thought he saw two cruisers and four destroyers. However, at 10:12 a.m., Fletcher received a report from a B-17 aircraft of an aircraft carrier, 10 carriers and 16 warships located 56 km from what Nielsen had seen at 10°35′S 152°36′E ({{PAGENAME}})

At 09:15, Takagi's fighters arrived in the target area, spotted the tanker Neosho and the destroyer Sims, and searched in vain for American aircraft carriers. Finally, at 10:51, the Shōkaku's reconnaissance planes realized they had made a mistake in identifying the tanker and destroyer as aircraft carriers. Takagi understood at that point that the American carriers were now between him and the convoy that was to invade the island, so the invasion army was in great danger. Takagi ordered the planes to attack the tanker and destroyer immediately and return to the carriers as soon as possible. At 11:15 the torpedo planes and fighters abandoned the mission and returned to the carriers, while the bombers attacked the two American ships.

Four bombers attacked the destroyer and the others attacked the tanker. Sims was hit by three bombs, torn in two and sank immediately. Of the crew of 192, 14 survived. The Neosho was hit by seven bombs. One of the bombers, hit by anti-aircraft fire, crashed into the tanker. Severely damaged and with engines inoperative, the tanker was allowed to slowly drift away (16°09′S 158°03′E ({{PAGENAME}})

American planes spotted the carrier Shōhō within range of Misima Island at 10:40 and launched an attack. The Japanese carrier was defended by six Zero aircraft and two Mitsubishi A5M fighters, and the other aircraft were prepared below deck for an attack on the American carriers. Gotō's cruisers surrounded the carrier in a diamond formation positioning themselves at a distance of 3,000 yards (2,743 m) to 5,000 yards (4,572 m) from each corner of Shōhō.

Attacking first, the Lexington group of planes, led by Commander William B. Ault(d), hit the Japanese carrier with two 1,000-pound bombs and five torpedoes, causing serious damage. At 11:00 a.m., the Yorktown group of planes attacked the burning and nearly stationary carrier, dropping up to 11 1,000-pound bombs and at least two torpedoes. Shattered, the Shōhō sank at 11:35 (10°29′S 152°55′E ({{PAGENAME}})

The American planes turned around and landed on the carriers at 13:38. By 14:20, the planes were refueled with ammunition and prepared for another launch against the Port Moresby Invasion Force or Gotō's cruisers. However, Fletcher was concerned that he knew nothing about the other Japanese carriers. He had been told that Allied intelligence sources believed that up to four Japanese carriers could have supported Operation MO. Fletcher concluded that by the time his reconnaissance planes located the other Japanese carriers, it would be too late to launch another attack on the same day. Therefore, Fletcher decided to call off another attack and remain hidden by the clouds with the fighters ready on defense. Fletcher turned Task Force 17 southwest.

Informed of the loss of the carrier Shōhō, Inoue ordered the convoy of invasion ships to temporarily withdraw to the north and ordered Takagi, then 417 km east of Task Force 17, to destroy the American carriers. As soon as the invasion convoy changed course, it was bombed by eight B-17 bombers, but suffered no damage. Gotō and Kajioka were told to move their ships south of the Rossel Islands and prepare for a night battle should the American ships come within range.

At 12:40, a seaplane from Deybone base spotted and reported the Crace-led fleet at 175 degrees, 144 km from Deybone. At 13:15, an aircraft from the Rabaul base observed Crace's fleet, but sent an erroneous report that it contained two aircraft carriers and was located at 205 degrees, 213 km from Deybone. Based on these reports, at 1:30 p.m. Takagi, still awaiting the return of the planes that had attacked Neosho, turned his carriers westward and, at 3:00 p.m., told Inoue that the American carriers were at least 796 km west of his position, making it impossible to attack him that day.

Inoue's staff directed two groups of attack planes from Rabaul, which had already taken off that morning, to the reported position on Crace. The first group included 12 torpedo planes, and the second group included 19 Mitsubishi Model 96(d) bombers. Both groups found and attacked Crace's ships at 2:30 p.m. and later claimed to have sunk the battleship California and damaged another ship and a cruiser. In reality, Crace's ships had no damage, but had shot down four Japanese planes. Shortly thereafter, three American B-17s mistakenly bombed Crace, but did no damage.

At 3:26 p.m. Crace radioed Fletcher that he could not complete his mission without air support. Crace withdrew to a position 407 km southeast of Port Moresby to increase his distance from Japanese carriers and ground-based aircraft, while remaining close enough to intercept the Japanese fleet that might have advanced beyond the Louisiades through Jomard Passage or the China Strait. Crace's ships were running low on fuel, and since Fletcher had maintained a ban on radio communications (without informing Crace), he had no idea where Fletcher was or what his intentions were.

Shortly after 1500 hours, Zuikaku intercepted a message from a reconnaissance aircraft based at Deboyne reporting (erroneously) that the Crace-led fleet had changed course to 120 degrees south. Takagi's staff assumed that the plane was tracking Fletcher's carriers and concluded that if the Allied ships maintained the same course, they would be in range soon after dark. Takagi and Hara decided to attack immediately with a group of planes, without escort, even if it meant that the planes would return after dark.

To verify the location of the US carriers, Hara sent eight torpedo bombers to search the area up to 370 km to the west at 15:15. Around the same time, the bombers that attacked the tanker Neosho landed. Six pilots were told they would leave immediately on another mission. Choosing the most experienced crew members, Hara launched 12 bombers and 15 torpedo boats with orders to fly up to 519 km. The eight planes sent out on reconnaissance reached the 370 km limit and returned without seeing Fletcher's ships.

At 5:47 p.m., Task Force 17, under a thick cloud cover 370 km west of Takagi, detected the Japanese attack heading its way on radar, turned southeast into the wind and headed toward the Wildcats, one of which was flown by James H. Flatley(r), to rendezvous with them. Taking the formation of Japanese planes by surprise, the Wildcats shot down seven torpedo planes and one bomber and badly damaged another torpedo plane (which later crashed). Three Wildcat planes were shot down.

With heavy losses that also caused the formation to scatter, the Japanese attack leaders called off the mission after talking over the radio. All Japanese aircraft jettisoned their ammunition and returned to the carriers. The sun set at 6:30 p.m. Several of the Japanese bombers encountered the American carriers after dark around 7:00 p.m. and very confused as to their identity, the pilots flew in circles preparing to land. Anti-aircraft fire from Task Force 17 destroyers drove them away. By 20:00, there was a distance of 185 km between Task Force 17 and Takagi. Takagi turned on his ships' search lights to help the 18 surviving aircraft turn back and all were recovered by 2200.

During this time, at 15:18 and 17:18 Neosho was able to radio that it was drifting northwest as it sank. Neosho's report contained the wrong coordinates, which hampered American efforts to locate the tanker. More importantly, the news Fletcher received was not good, as the only tanker in the area from which he could refuel his fleet had been lost.

As the coming of night interrupted air operations, Fletcher ordered Task Force 17 to head west and prepare to conduct a search around dawn. Crace also turned west to stay within range of the Louisiades Archipelago. Inoue asked Takagi to destroy the American carriers the next day and postponed the landing at Port Moresby until 12 May. Takagi chose to take his carriers 222 km north during the night to be able to concentrate his morning search to the south and west and to provide better protection for the invasion convoy. Gotō and Kajioka were unable to position and coordinate their ships in time to attempt a night attack on Allied warships.

Both sides expected to find each other the next morning and spent the night preparing the air attack for the expected battle, while the tired aircrews only tried to sleep for a few hours. In 1972, Vice Admiral H. S. Duckworth, after reading Japanese reports of the battle, commented, "Without doubt, May 7, 1942, near the Coral Sea, was the most confusing battle zone in history." Hara told Yamamoto's chief of staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki, that he was so frustrated by the Japanese misfortune on May 7 that he considered resigning from the Navy

Battle of the aircraft carriers, day two

On 8 May, at 06:15, from a position 161 km off Rossel Island (10°25′S 154°5′E ({{PAGENAME}})

At 06:35, Task Force 17, operating under tactical control exercised by Fitch and positioned 33 km from Louisiades, launched 18 SBD bombers to conduct a 370 km radius search. Skies were clear over the US carriers and visibility was 31 km.

At 0820, an SBD bomber from Lexington, piloted by Joseph G. Smith, spotted the Japanese carriers through a hole in the clouds and notified Task Force 17. Two minutes later, a reconnaissance aircraft from the Shōkaku, commanded by Kenzō Kanno, spotted "Task Force 17" and notified Hara. The two armies were about 390 km apart. Both sides rushed to launch their own air attack.

At 09:15, 18 fighters, 33 bombers and 18 torpedo boats, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Kakuichi Takahashi, took off from Japanese aircraft carriers. Each American carrier launched a separate attack. Six fighters, 24 bombers and nine torpedo boats took off from Yorktown and were in the air by 09:15. Lexington launched 9 fighters, 15 bombers and 12 torpedo boats by 09:25. Both the American and Japanese carrier fleets turned and headed towards each other at full speed to shorten the distance the planes had to fly back.

The Yorktown bombers, commanded by William O. Burch, arrived at the Japanese carriers at 10:32 a.m. and remained in the area to allow the slower torpedo boats to arrive so they could conduct a simultaneous attack. By this time, the Shōkaku and Zuikaku were about 9 km from each other, and the Zuikaku was hidden under low rain and squall clouds. The two carriers were defended by 16 Zero fighters. The Yorktown bombers began their attack on Shōkaku at 10:57 and hit her with two 454 kg bombs, which split the bow of the bow and caused extensive damage to the flight decks and hangars. The Yorktown's torpedoes missed their target, although they used up all their ammunition. Two US bombers and two Zero fighters were shot down in the attack.

The Lexington planes attacked at 11:30. Two bombers attacked the aircraft carrier Shōkaku and hit it with a 454 kg bomb, causing more damage than the Yorktown planes. Two other bombers dropped bombs on the carrier Zuikaku, but missed the target. The other Lexington bombers were unable to find the Japanese carriers through the thick clouds. Lexington's torpedo boats missed all 11 shots fired at the carrier Shōkaku. Zero fighters, which were on patrol at the time, shot down three Wildcats.

With its flight deck severely damaged and 223 crew members killed or injured, the aircraft carrier Shōkaku was unable to conduct any further aircraft operations. Its captain, Takatsugu Jōjima(d), asked Takagi and Hara to allow him to withdraw from the battle, and Takagi agreed. At 12:10, Shōkaku, accompanied by two destroyers, withdrew to the northeast.

At 10:55 a.m., Lexington's radar detected the Japanese planes coming in at a range of 126 km, so nine Wildcat fighters were sent to intercept them. Because the Japanese torpedo planes were expected to fly lower than they actually flew, 6 Wildcat fighters mispositioned themselves and thus missed the Japanese planes passing overhead. Because of the planes lost the night before, the Japanese were unable to execute a full torpedo attack on both carriers. Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki, in command of the Japanese torpedo boats, sent 14 such bombers to attack the carrier Lexington and 4 to attack the carrier Yorktown. A Wildcat fighter shot down a Japanese torpedo boat and the 8 SBD bombers on the "Yorktown" destroyed 3 other Japanese torpedo boats as they descended to take up attack positions. Four SBD bombers were shot down by Zero fighters escorting the torpedo planes.

The Japanese attack began at 11:13 while the carriers were stationed about 2700 m apart and the escort ships opened fire on the aircraft. The four torpedo boats that attacked the Yorktown missed their target. The other torpedo boats managed to target Lexington, which needed more room to turn than Yorktown, and, at 11:20, hit it with two torpedoes. The first torpedo destroyed the aircraft fuel tanks, and gasoline vapors spread to surrounding compartments. The second torpedo damaged the main water tank, causing a pressure reduction in three combustion chambers that shut down three boilers. The ship could still travel 44 km

The 33 Japanese dive bombers flew in a circle to attack from downwind and because of this they did not start their dive from 4267m until 3 or 4 minutes after the torpedo bombers had started their attack. The 19 dive bombers on the Shōkaku, under Takahashi, lined up for Lexington, while another 14, commanded by Tamotsu Ema, targeted Yorktown. Zero escort planes defended Takahashi's planes from the four Wildcat planes on Lexington that tried to intervene, but two Wildcat planes hovering over Yorktown were able to spoil the formation led by Ema. Takahashi's bombers damaged the Lexington carrier with two bombs fired in full and several others that missed their target, but caused fires that were controlled by 12:33 p.m., however. At 11:27, the Yorktown was hit in the middle of the flight deck by a single 250-pound anti-armor bomb that passed through four decks before exploding and thus causing serious damage to an aviation depot structure. A total of 66 people were killed or seriously injured. Up to 12 near misses damaged the hull of the aircraft carrier Yorktown below the waterline. Two dive bombers were shot down by Wildcat fighters during the attack.

When the Japanese planes finished their attack and began to retreat, believing they had done serious damage to both carriers, they were attacked by Wildcat fighters and SBD dive bombers. In the ensuing air duel, three SBD bombers and three Wildcat fighters from the American camp, as well as three torpedo bombers, a dive bomber and a Zero fighter from the Japanese were shot down. By 12:00 noon, both Japanese and American planes were heading for their own carriers. On the way back, planes belonging to both sides passed each other and engaged in several aerial altercations. Kanno's and Takahashi's aircraft were shot down and both were killed.

The planes that executed the attacks, many of them damaged, managed to land on their carriers between 12:50 and 14:30. Although damaged, Yorktown and Lexington were able to recover all of their aircraft. During the landing, for various reasons, the Americans lost five more SBD bombers, two TBD torpedo bombers and a Wildcat fighter, while the Japanese lost two Zero fighters, five dive bombers and a torpedo bomber. 46 of the 69 Japanese aircraft returned from the mission and landed on Zuikaku. Of these, three Zero fighters, four dive bombers and five torpedo bombers were so badly damaged beyond repair that they were immediately jettisoned into the ocean.

As soon as "Task Force 17" recovered its planes, Fletcher assessed the situation. The returning airmen reported that they had badly damaged one carrier, but that another had escaped unhurt. Fletcher noted that both of his carriers had been damaged and that he had taken heavy losses in fighters. Fuel was another concern because of the loss of the tanker Neosho. At 14:22, Fitch informed Fletcher that he had information about two Japanese aircraft carriers that had not been damaged and that this information had been obtained by intercepting radio communications. Believing he was facing a superior force in terms of carrier numbers, Fletcher chose to withdraw Task Force 17 from the battle. Fletcher radioed MacArthur the approximate position of the Japanese carriers and suggested attacking them with ground-based bombers.

On the aircraft carrier Lexington, emergency crews extinguished the fires and brought it back into service, but at 12:47 p.m., several sparks jumping from unattended electric motors ignited a gas station near the control tower. The resulting explosion killed 25 people and started a huge fire. At around 14:42, another explosion occurred, resulting in a second large fire. The third explosion occurred at 15:25, and at 15:38 the crew reported they were unable to get the fire under control. At 17:07 the crew began the evacuation. After survivors were rescued, including Fitch and Captain Frederick C. Sherman(d), at 7:15 p.m. the destroyer ''Phelps''(d) fired five torpedoes at the burning carrier. The Lexington sank in 4300 m depth at 19:52 (15°15′S 155°35′E ({{PAGENAME}})

That same evening, Crace detached the Hobart, which was out of fuel, and the destroyer ''Walke''(d), which was having engine trouble, from the convoy for Townsville. Crace heard a lot of radio reports that the enemy had returned, but, unaware that Fletcher had retreated, he stayed behind to patrol with the rest of Task Group 17.3 in the Coral Sea in case the invasion force headed back toward Port Moresby.

On 9 May, Task Force 17 changed course and headed east out of the Coral Sea through the southern part of New Caledonia. Nimitz ordered Fletcher to proceed with Yorktown to Pearl Harbor as soon as possible after refueling at Tongatabu. During the same day, American bombers bombed Deboyne and Kamikawa Maru causing damage that was not assessed. At the same time, because he had no word from Fletcher, Crace deduced that Task Force 17 had left the area. At 0100 on 10 May, having heard no further news that the Japanese ships were advancing towards Port Moresby, Crace headed for Australia and arrived at Cid Harbor, 130 nautical miles (241 km) north of Townsville, on 11 May.

On 8 May, at 22:00, Yamamoto ordered Inoue to return, destroy the remaining Allied ships and occupy Port Moresby. Inoue did not cancel the recall of the invasion convoy, but ordered Takagi and Gotō to pursue the remaining Allied ships in the Coral Sea. Because they ran out of fuel, Takagi's ships spent May 9 refueling from the tanker Tōhō Maru. Late on the evening of May 9, the TaKagi and Gotō headed southeast, then southwest into the Coral Sea. Deybone seaplanes helped Takagi search for Task Force 17 on the morning of May 10. Fletcher and Crace, however, were already on their way out of the area. By 1 p.m. on May 10, Takagi concluded that the enemy had left and decided to return to Rabaul. Yamamoto agreed with Takagi's decision and ordered the carrier Zuikaku to return to Japan to replenish his air fleet. At the same time the aircraft carrier Kamikawa Maru departed Deboyne. At noon on 11 May, an American PBY(d) patrolling off Nouméa saw the wreck of the tanker Neosho drifting (15°35′S 155°36′E ({{PAGENAME}})

On 10 May, Operation RY began. After the flagship of the operation, the Okinoshima mine shaft, was sunk by the American submarine ''S-42''(d) on 12 May (05°06′S 153°48′E ({{PAGENAME}})

The Shōkaku arrived in Kure, Japan, on May 17, after nearly capsizing in a storm due to battle damage. Zuikaku arrived in the same port on 21 May, after stopping at Truck on 15 May. Acting on intelligence gathered, the United States placed 8 submarines along the route the carriers were to return from Japan, but they were unable to begin any attack. Japanese Navy Headquarters estimated that it would take two to three months to make the necessary repairs to the Shōkaku aircraft carrier and to refit its fleet of aircraft. Because of this, neither carrier will be able to participate in Yamamoto's planned operation in Midway. The two carriers joined the Japanese fleet on 14 July and were key participants in the battles that followed. The five 1st class submarines participating in Operation MO were sent to assist in the attack on Sidney Harbour three weeks later as part of the "destroy Allied supply lines" campaign. En route to Truck, I-28 was torpedoed on 17 May by the US submarine ''Tautog''(d) and sunk.

A new kind of naval warfare

The battle was the first battle in history in which the participating ships did not directly observe or fire directly at each other. Instead, manned aircraft acted as attack artillery for the ships involved. Because of this, the commanders of the two armies were engaged in a new kind of war, in which aircraft carriers faced each other and neither had experience; as such, both sides made mistakes. To quote H. P. Wilmot, commanders "had to contend with inaccurate and poor communications in situations where the war area increased more than they could have expected based on past experience, but where speeds increased even more, thereby reducing the time to make a decision"

Because of the faster decision-making speed, the Japanese were at a disadvantage because Inoue was too far away at Rabaul to run his fleet in real time, unlike Fletcher who was there with his aircraft carriers. The Japanese admirals involved were too slow in communicating important information.

The more experienced Japanese crews performed better than the Americans, with equal numbers of aircraft achieving better results. The Japanese attack on US carriers on 8 May was better coordinated than the US attack on Japanese carriers. The Japanese suffered more casualties in terms of aircraft crews, 90 Japanese pilots died compared to 35 Americans. The well-trained pilots with whom Japan began the war could not be replaced because of limitations on institutions and training programs, as well as the absence of reserves or training programs for new pilots. With the Battle of the Coral Sea began the trend that led to the decimation of experienced pilot crews by the end of October 1942.

Although the Americans did not perform as expected, they learned from their mistakes in battle and improved their aircraft carrier tactics and equipment, including combat tactics, attack coordination, torpedo bombers and defensive strategies such as anti-aircraft artillery, which led to better results in the ensuing engagements. Radar gave the Americans some advantage, but its value to the US Navy increased over time as technology developed and the Allies learned how to use it more usefully. After the loss of the aircraft carrier Lexington, the Americans implemented better methods of fuel storage for aircraft and emergency response procedures.

Coordination between Allied ground forces and the U.S. Navy was not good in this battle, but it too would improve over time.

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Japanese and American aircraft carriers would clash again in the Battle of the Midway Islands, the Battle of the Solomons and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in 1942, as well as the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. Each of these battles had its own strategic importance in determining the course and ultimate outcome of the Pacific War.

Tactical and strategic implications

Each side publicly announced its victory after the battle. In terms of ships lost, Japan had a tactical victory because it sank an American aircraft carrier, an oil tanker and a destroyer, compared to an aircraft carrier, a destroyer and several smaller ships sunk by the Americans. The aircraft carrier Lexington represented, at that time, a quarter of the United States' power expressed in the number of aircraft carriers and their size in the Pacific.

Strategically, the Allies won because the invasion of Port Moresby from the sea was prevented, lessening the threat to supply lines between the United States and Australia. Although the withdrawal of the aircraft carrier Yorktown from the Coral Sea meant surrendering territory to the Japanese, they were forced to abandon the operation that had initiated the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The battle was also the first repulse of the Japanese invasion force before it achieved its objectives, which greatly boosted Allied morale after a series of defeats to the Japanese during the first six months of the war in the Pacific. Port Moresby was vital to Allied strategy and its garrison would have been overwhelmed by the strength of the invading troops. The outcome of the battle had a substantial effect on the strategic plans of both sides. Without a foothold in New Guinea, the subsequent Allied advance, while difficult, could have been much harder to achieve. For the Japanese, who focused on achieving tactical results, the battle was seen as a temporary setback. The results of the battle confirmed the unfavorable views of American combat capability and helped form the belief that future carrier operations to be waged against the United States would be assured of success.

Midway

One of the most important effects of the Battle of the Coral Sea, for Yamamoto's planned confrontation with the American carriers in the Battle of Midway, was the loss of the carrier Shōkaku and the carrier Zuikaku (the carrier Shōhō would play a tactical role at Midway by helping the invading land armies). The Japanese thought they had sunk two carriers in the Coral Sea, but this meant that the Americans still had two carriers Enterprise and Hornet that could help them defend Midway. The fleets of aircraft on the American carriers were larger than the Japanese, which meant that the Japanese military, even when they combined these fleets with the ground-based ones at Midway, could not overcome American superiority in the ensuing battle. In fact, the Americans would have three carriers to oppose Yamamoto at Midway, because the Yorktown remained operational despite damage in the Coral Sea and the US Navy was able to repair it sufficiently at Pearl Harbor between 27 and 30 May to allow it to participate in the battle. At Midway, Yorktown's planes played a crucial role in sinking Japanese aircraft carriers. Yorktown cushioned both Japanese air counterattacks at Midway that would otherwise have been directed at the other American carriers.

In contrast to the intense American effort to send maximum available forces to Midway, the Japanese apparently did not even consider including the aircraft carrier Zuikaku in this operation. Apparently no effort was made to combine the surviving Shōkaku's ex-ship with the Zuikaku's crews or to provide the latter with replacement aircraft so that the carrier could participate with the rest of the fleet in the Battle of Midway. Shōkaku was unable to conduct further air operations as she had her flight deck badly damaged and required nearly three months of repairs in Japan.

Historians H. P. Wilmot, Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully have considered that Yamamoto made a huge strategic error when he made the decision to support the MO operation. Since Yamamoto decided that the decisive battle with the Americans would take place at Midway, he should not have shifted the destination of important assets at his disposal, especially the carrier fleets, to a secondary operation like MO. Yamamoto's decision meant that the Japanese forces were already weakened in both the battle of the Coral Sea and Midway and thus led to Allied victory. Willmott adds that if the operation was important enough to involve aircraft carriers, then all Japanese carriers had to be involved in turn to ensure the success of both operations. By involving the most important guns in Operation MO, Yamamoto made the more important Operation Midway dependent on the success of the secondary operation.

Moreover, Yamamoto apparently missed other implications of the Battle of the Coral Sea: the unexpected appearance of the American carriers in the right place and in time to oppose the Japanese, the crews of planes on the American carriers showing sufficient skill and determination to inflict damage on the Japanese carriers. These were to be repeated at Midway, and as a result Japan lost four carriers, the core of its offensive naval force, and thus lost the strategic initiative in the Pacific War. Parshall and Tully point out that because of American industrial might, since Japan lost numerical superiority in aircraft carriers, it would never recover. Parshall and Tully add "The Battle of the Coral Sea provided the first indications that the Japanese ceiling had been reached, but the Battle of Midway made it visible to all."

The situation in the South Pacific

The American and Australian armies were initially disappointed with the outcome of the Battle of the Coral Sea, fearing that Operation MO was only the beginning of the invasion of Australia and that Japan's withdrawal was only temporary. At a meeting in late May, the Australian War Council described the outcome of the battle as "rather disappointing" due to the fact that the Allies knew of the Japanese intentions. General MacArthur gave Australian Prime Minister John Curtin(d) his assessment of the battle, stating that "all the elements that have wreaked havoc in the western Pacific since the beginning of the war" were still present since the Japanese army could attack anywhere if supported by major elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Because of the heavy losses suffered by the carriers at Midway, the Japanese were unable to sustain another attempt to invade Port Moresby from the sea and were forced to attack Port Moresby from land. Japan began its land offensive towards Port Moresby along the Kokoda runway on 21 July from Papua New Guinea. By then, the Allies had brought additional troops, mainly Australian, to New Guinea. The additional forces slowed, then stopped the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby in September 1942 and repulsed the Japanese attempt to seize an Allied military base at the Battle of Milne Bay.

At the same time, the Allies tried to take advantage of the victories in the Coral Sea and Midway to limit Japan's strategic initiative. The Allies chose Tulagi and Guadalcanal as targets for their first offensives. Japan's failure to occupy Port Moresby and the defeat at Midway had the effect of weakening the military base at Tulagi, which was left unprotected by other Japanese military bases. Tulagi was a four-hour flight from Rabaul, the nearest large Japanese military base.

On August 7, 1942, at 11:00 a.m., the U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal and 3,000 Marines landed on Tulagi Island and neighboring islands. Japanese troops on Tulagi and neighboring islands were outnumbered and killed almost to the last man in the Battle of Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo as the Guadalcanal Marines captured an airfield being built by the Japanese. This led to the outbreak of the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands campaigns which resulted in a series of battles of attrition between Allied and Japanese armies over the next year, producing irreparable losses for the Japanese army, particularly ships, which ultimately contributed to victory over Japan.

Sources

  1. Battle of the Coral Sea
  2. Bătălia din Marea Coralilor