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Summary > May 8, 1942
Battle of the Coral Sea
end of May 7, the American and Japanese navies
had been skirmishing in the Coral Sea for three days. Although the Americans clearly had the edge so far, after three
days of searching, neither carrier fleet had found the other and both sides were poised for what
would be the climactic battle in the Coral Sea.
sides, itching for a fight, were evenly
balanced. Each had two carriers, the Americans with the Yorktown
and Lexington, commanded by Admiral Fletcher, and the Japanese with the Shokaku
and Zuikaku, commanded by Admiral Takagi. The Americans had 122
planes and the Japanese had 121. The Japanese task force had been
operating together much longer as a group than the Americans, but the Americans,
unlike the Japanese, had radar.
Criss-Cross Air Battle
his intelligence reports on the evening of May 7, Admiral Takagi assumed that
the American carriers were somewhere to the south. Admiral
Fletcher's intelligence reports were less clear regarding the location of
the Japanese fleet -- some reports claimed the Japanese were to the east, other
reports to the west. To make matters worse for Fletcher, his task force
had been sailing south, out of the protective cloud cover which had cloaked them
so well earlier that day, and into an area of high visibility. Meanwhile, Admiral Takagi's group, 200 miles to the north, was
still well-hidden by clouds.
Above: Dauntless dive-bombers preparing
to take off from the U.S.S. Yorktown.
6:00 a.m. on May 8, an hour before sunrise, Admiral Takagi launched scout planes
which scattered in an arc from the southwest to the southeast, searching for the
American fleet. A half-hour later, at 6:30 a.m., Admiral Fletcher launched scout
planes from the Lexington that flew
out in a 360-degree pattern from the American fleet, searching for the Japanese
carriers. In a bold move, Takagi decided to launch his 90 attack planes
instead of waiting for the Japanese scout planes to locate the American
fleet. Takagi knew this strategy could backfire, but he was determined to
find and sink the American carriers before they found him.
At 8:22 a.m.,
Japanese scout planes found the American carrier group under clear skies and
reported the location back to Admiral Takagi. A few minutes
later, an American scout plane discovered the Japanese heavy
carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. Fletcher
immediately launched his attack planes. After lifting off, the
two air fleets, 200 miles apart, began speeding towards each other.
before 11 a.m., U.S. dive-bombers and torpedo bombers found the Shokaku
and Zuikaku sailing under broken cloud cover about 10 miles apart, and began their
assault. The American attack didn't live up to expectations, however, as the Japanese carriers
used the cloud cover to elude the American planes. American
torpedo-bombers dropped their payloads too far away from the carriers and the
torpedoes were too slow, allowing the Japanese ships to easily avoid them.
American dive-bombers followed, but their attacks weren't much more
effective. The Zuikaku hid under cloud cover and emerged unscathed. A few
bombs hit the Shokaku, which suffered fairly heavy damage, but she wasn't
holed under the waterline and the fires were quickly extinguished. Takagi
ordered the Shokaku back to Tokyo for repairs. The Shokaku almost capsized on the way,
but she did make it -- although she was too damaged to participate in the Midway
engagement a month later.
Above: Yorktown dive-bombers attacking the
American planes were bombing the Shokaku and Zuikaku, the
Japanese attack planes, 200 miles away in
this criss-cross air battle, had found the Lexington and Yorktown and
their screening force, consisting of seven American destroyers and five
their radar, the Americans had known
that the Japanese planes
were coming but they planned poorly for the assault. The few American
planes that were flying combat air patrol, providing protection over the Lexington and Yorktown,
were vastly inadequate to fight off the 70 Japanese fighters, dive-bombers and
torpedo bombers that were fast approaching. After the Japanese planes
eluded the scant American air patrol, the fight quickly became a duel between the Japanese planes and the anti-aircraft batteries on the American
carriers, cruisers, and destroyers.
At 11:18 a.m., the Japanese planes began their attack.
Japanese torpedoes blasted the Lexington on her port side, one forward
and one amidships, and several bombs exploded through the flight deck, killing
dozens of men and starting vicious fires.
Meanwhile, the Yorktown, a half-mile away, maneuvered furiously to avoid the Japanese torpedoes. The Yorktown was more nimble
than the Lexington, having a turning radius of only 1000 yards compared
to nearly twice that for the "Lady Lex," and she successfully
outmaneuvered the torpedoes. After the fruitless torpedo attack, Japanese
dive-bombers attacked the Yorktown, dropping bombs that landed ominously
close, sending up giant plumes of black water. For a few moments, it
appeared that the Yorktown would survive the attack unscathed. Then, at 11:24 a.m., the
Yorktown received her one and only hit: a bomb ripped through the flight
deck near the island, killing or seriously injuring 66 men.
a.m., the skies cleared again as the Japanese planes headed back to
their carriers, leaving both American carriers in flames and ending the first
carrier-vs-carrier battle in naval history.
of the "Lady Lex"
returning Japanese pilots were ecstatic, reporting that they had sunk
two American carriers, including a large carrier which they believed to be the Saratoga
and a medium carrier, which was either the Yorktown or Enterprise.
Their celebration was premature, however, because the American crews quickly put
out the fires and, within an hour, both carriers seemed to be functional.
Although the Lexington had started to list, counter-flooding had righted her enough so that her planes could land.
Above: The smoking deck of the U.S.S. Lexington.
p.m., however, a terrible explosion rocked the Lexington from bow to
stern. The explosion was caused, apparently, when a spark from a generator ignited gasoline vapors. The Lexington began burning and,
as the smoke blackened the sky, it
gradually became clear that she could not be saved.
At 5 p.m., an orderly
evacuation began as nets were hoisted over the side and crewmen climbed down and
slipped into the warm waters of the Coral Sea, where they were picked up by
whale boats or life rafts, then they clambered aboard nearby attending destroyers and
cruisers. The last person over the Lexington's side was her captain, Ted Sherman, and not
a man was lost during the evacuation.
evening of May 8, Admiral Fletcher received reports that the Japanese fleet was
withdrawing, so he likewise decided to withdraw, and the damaged Yorktown and
the rest of the American fleet limped back to Noumea. During the last four days, the Americans had turned
back the Tulagi invasion force, sunk the carrier Shoho and a few small
Japanese ships, and damaged the large carrier Shokaku. For their
part, the Japanese had sunk the American carrier Lexington and the
destroyer Sims, and had seriously damaged the carrier Yorktown and
tanker Neosho. On paper, therefore, the Japanese had a slight
the Americans had turned back the Japanese Navy for the first time in the
war. More importantly, the Shokaku was too battered and the Zuikaku
had lost too many planes to join the Midway invasion force a month later, during which the
Japanese lost all four of their participating carriers. Had the Shokaku
and Zuikaku been at Midway, the Japanese would have had a six-to-three
carrier advantage and the outcome of the battle -- and the war -- could have been very
Fletcher headed back to Noumea after the battle that day, a nagging question bothered him: what had
happened to the Neosho and the Sims? Three days later, he
would find out. You can read the account of this ordeal at The
U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea.
Above left: Two destroyers approaching the Lexington on
the afternoon of May 8. This was likely taken from the cruiser U.S.S.
Above right: Men evacuating the "Lady
Map: May 8, 1942 to Retirement:
see a larger version, click on the map.
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