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The Battle of the Coral
The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought between the Japanese and
Allied navies from May 4 through May 8, 1942 in the Coral Sea, about 500
miles northeast of Australia. Occurring only six months after the
surprise Japanese attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and a
month before the decisive battle at Midway, it was one of the first naval
battles fought in the Pacific during World War II. The battle,
roughly a draw, was an important turning point in the Pacific campaign. My uncle, Bill
Leu, fought at the Battle of the Coral Sea on the tanker,
U.S.S. Neosho, which was attacked by dozens of Japanese dive bombers
and heavily damaged, as described below. I've
dedicated this section of my website to my uncle Bill and to all of the
men in the Allied forces who fought in this battle.
In the spring of 1942, a few months after their surprise
attack at Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces planned to invade southern New Guinea,
a move designed to knock Australia and New Zealand out of the war.
The Allies, including the U.S. and Australia, gathered a
large fleet in the Coral Sea to thwart the invasion. After
several days of searching and skirmishing, the Japanese and Allied fleets found each other on May 8
and each sent aircraft to attack the other. Both air attacks occurred at
about the same time approximately 200 miles apart with both sides
suffering moderate losses. The most significant Allied loss during
the battle was the sinking of the American aircraft carrier,
U.S.S. Lexington. That evening, with the battle roughly a
draw, both sides retreated but would meet again a month later at the
decisive Battle of Midway, 3,000 miles away in the Hawaiian Islands.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was important for several
reasons. It was the first pure carrier-versus-carrier battle in history as
neither surface fleet sighted the other.
Though a draw, it was an important turning
point in the war in the Pacific because, for the first time, the Allies
had stopped the Japanese advance. Before the battle, the Japanese had
enjoyed a continual string of victories while afterwards, it suffered an
almost continual series of defeats, including at Midway one month later, a major American victory.
Shortly after the Battle of the Coral Sea, many called it one of the most important naval battles in world history and,
at the time, it probably was. Seventy years later, the battle is still
widely known throughout Australia with many Aussies referring to it as,
"The battle that saved Australia." For most Americans, however, the
Battle of the Coral Sea has faded into obscurity.
This is the story of that important battle.
December of 1941 to the spring of 1942, Japanese forces advanced virtually unimpeded throughout
the Pacific and southeastern Asia while handing the Allies a string of
humiliating defeats, first at Pearl Harbor, then at Guam, Wake
Island, Singapore, and in the Philippines. By the spring of 1942, the outcome of the
war was very much in doubt as Americans began to think that the Japanese
military was invincible. "The Pacific situation is now very
grave," cabled President Roosevelt to Winston Churchill in March of 1942,
after the Japanese conquest of Java.
A B-25 Mitchell
bomber and the U.S.S. Hornet.
The Japanese war plan,
developed in the months before the Pearl Harbor attack, was to first invade
southeast Asia and Indonesia, securing their valuable oil fields and other precious
natural resources, then turn towards the southwest in Burma and India.
However, two important factors changed this plan: Japanese overconfidence
resulting from their unexpectedly rapid string of military successes in
southeastern Asia, and Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle's surprise
bombing raid on Japan.
April 1942, five months after the Japanese battered the American fleet at
Pearl Harbor, and with the Americans desperately needing a morale boost, Lt. Colonel Doolittle
loaded sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers onto the carrier U.S.S. Hornet and dashed
towards Japan. The carrier U.S.S. Enterprise accompanied the
Hornet and would provide air cover, if needed. The B-25
bombers on the Hornet took off 650 miles from Japan, bombed Tokyo and
other key cities, then flew on to China as the American carriers returned to Pearl
Harbor. Although the raid inflicted little damage, it was a stunning
and humiliating blow to the Japanese and provided an important boost to American morale.
After the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese commanders were determined never
to let Japan suffer another bombing and thus shifted their plans.
Instead of invading India, they decided to first expand eastward across
the Pacific towards Midway and south towards Australia, something they
had originally planned to accomplish much later in the war. With
the humiliating Doolittle raid firmly in
mind, Japanese military planners felt they should
expand their perimeter in the south and central Pacific to act as a buffer
around Japan, preventing another such raid on their homeland.
Considering their unexpectedly easy and rapid conquests in southeastern Asia so
far, including the Philippines and Malaysia, they felt they could accomplish this much faster than
they had originally planned.
As part of this
new strategy, Japan in
late April 1942 prepared to invade Port Moresby, a key city on the southern coast
of New Guinea. This move, coupled with additional thrusts through the
south Pacific, would allow Japan to bomb northern
Australia, cut off Australia and New Zealand from supplies, and possibly force
the two countries out of the war. Once
the Americans learned about this planned invasion, the American/Allied
fleet, led by American Admirals Jack Fletcher and Aubrey Fitch, headed to the Coral Sea
to try to thwart the Japanese. The stage was set for a crucial battle.
I've drawn several maps
to help explain the battle. Click
on the maps below to see larger versions.
As was typical throughout the war, the Japanese naval plan for the Port
Moresby invasion was complex and required a high level of coordination.
Also, as was typical, the Japanese assumed that the Americans would play
a passive role and would do "what they were supposed to do"
while exhibiting little initiative. As events would prove, these would be
two huge mistakes.
The Japanese battle plan centered around their Port Moresby invasion force
and included several supporting thrusts. First, they
planned to invade the island of Tulagi in the Solomon Island chain, where they hoped to set up a
seaplane base, which would be used to patrol the southern Solomon Islands and provide
valuable reconnaissance information. The Tulagi invasion force would be
protected by a Japanese covering fleet from Truk, which included the light carrier, Shoho.
After the invasion of Tulagi, the force would continue eastward to Nauru
and Ocean Island, which had significant deposits of phosphorus needed by
Meanwhile, the main Japanese strike force with the heavy carriers Shokaku and
Zuikaku, veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack six months earlier, would sail south from Truk, screened from American forces by the
As the Americans rushed
north to engage the Tulagi invasion force, the two Japanese carriers would swing west and, in a pincer movement, wipe out the American fleet. After destroying the American
fleet, the Japanese carrier force
would continue westward, where its planes would attack key cities and
airbases on the Australia coast, similar to the way that Japanese airplanes were
firebombing Darwin on the northern Australia coast.
the American fleet was being wiped out, a Japanese invasion force would sail from Rabaul
through Jomard Pass and land at the key city of Port Moresby in New Guinea. Once the
southern coast of New Guinea was secured, the Japanese could bomb cities in
northern Australia at will and, by continuing to thrust southward through the Solomon
cut off Australia and New Zealand from supplies. This would force the two countries
to sue for peace, or, if unwilling, would set the
stage for a possible Japanese invasion.
Task Group 17.2 (Attack Group)
Task Group 17.5 (Carrier Group)
Carriers Yorktown and
Task Group 17.3 (Support Group)
Hobart (Australian Navy)
Destroyers Perkins and
Task Group 17.6 (Fueling Group)
Oilers Neosho and
Carrier Striking Force
Heavy cruisers Myoko
Tanker Toho Maru.
Port Moresby Landing Force /
Light carrier Shoho.
Heavy cruisers Aoba,
Light cruisers Yubari,
Gunboats Keijo Maru,
Seikai Maru and
Twelve transports and auxiliary craft. One patrol
Tulagi Invasion Force
Destroyers Kaikuzuki and
Koei Maru. Transport
Asuman Maru. Auxiliary
2 fleet carriers
2 fleet carriers
1 light carrier
1 seaplane tender
128 carrier aircraft
2 submarine chasers
1 oil tanker
1 seaplane tender
127 carrier aircraft
May 1, 1942, Admiral Fletcher's fleet, led by the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown,
with Admiral Fitch's fleet, led by the carrier U.S.S. Lexington, which
had sailed south from Pearl Harbor. During the next few days, the
American fleets refueled as both sides,
like two boxers fighting in the dark, tried to find each other. On May 4,
Fletcher learned about the Japanese invasion of Tulagi a day earlier, sped north with the Yorktown
group and bombed the Japanese invasion force. Despite the inflicted
damage, the Japanese were able to construct a seaplane base on Tulagi
and began flying reconnaissance missions from here on May 6.
American and Japanese carrier fleets continued to search for each other and, on May 7, Japanese planes found two
American ships, which they identified as an American aircraft carrier and an escorting
cruiser. With this news, the Japanese commander ordered 62 planes to
attack. Instead of a carrier and cruiser, however, these turned out to be
the flat-topped American tanker, U.S.S. Neosho and its escorting destroyer, U.S.S.
Sims. During a fierce one-sided attack, the Sims was sunk with
heavy loss of life and the Neosho
was badly damaged. At the same time, American planes hundreds of miles away
found and sunk the Japanese light carrier, Shoho. Despite
these initial skirmishes, though, neither side had found their opponent's main
carrier fleet and
both forces continued to search for each other.
As events would reveal, May 7, 1942, would be the low point
for the Allied forces in the Pacific theatre. Not only did the
Japanese sink the destroyer Sims and badly damage the oiler
Neosho that day in the Coral Sea, but several thousand miles away,
they ousted the Allies from Burma, cutting off the vital supply link to
China known as the Burma Road. With the American fleet crippled at
Pearl Harbor six months earlier, the outlook for the Allies that day was
Above: Men evacuating the "Lady
On the morning of May 8, planes from both fleets
finally located the opposing carrier fleets and the major attacks during the Battle of the Coral Sea
began. Aided by clear skies, Japanese planes found and sunk the large aircraft carrier,
U.S.S. Lexington and seriously damaged the U.S.S. Yorktown.
under cloud cover, the Japanese fleet fared better. American dive bombers
and torpedo planes managed to inflict moderate damage on the carrier Shokaku,
but the Zuikaku emerged from the battle unscathed. Both carriers,
however, were rendered unavailable
for the upcoming battle at Midway, a month later -- the Shokaku because
of its damage and the Zuikaku because it had lost a large number of
planes and pilots.
the mutual attacks that day, both sides retreated to lick their wounds.
The Japanese carriers split up and returned to port, while their Port Moresby
invasion force, fearful of the American fleet, turned back after approaching Jomard
Pass, the closest
the Japanese fleet would ever come to
Port Moresby during the war. The
Americans, meanwhile, sailed south smarting from the loss of the Lexington and
the crippling of the Yorktown.
Three days later, long after both fleets had left the Coral Sea, American scout planes
found the listing hulk of the tanker U.S.S. Neosho. Amazingly
enough, the battered
Neosho was still afloat, having drifted for four days with 123 men aboard, including my uncle, Bill
Three U.S. ships were sunk during the Battle of the Coral
Sea and 69 American aircraft were destroyed.
The ships sunk included:
One U.S. ship was seriously damaged:
I've done a lot of research in books and on the Internet,
and there seems to be conflicting claims of total Allied forces killed.
According to the official U.S. Navy records (see
http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq11-1.htm), 543 Allied men were
killed during the Battle of the Coral Sea. However, I believe this
number is too low and, from my research, I would estimate that 709 Allied men were killed during the
battle. The majority of casualties were from the four ships listed
above (Lexington, Neosho, Sims, and Yorktown) and from research I've done, I
estimate that an additional 20 men on other ships were killed. I've posted a
breakdown of these casualties below:
The Japanese lost one light
aircraft carrier (Shoho), 1 destroyer, 3 small warships, and 92
aircraft. Damaged Japanese ships included 1 fleet carrier (Shokaku),
1 destroyer, 2 smaller warships, and 1 transport. An estimated 966
men from the Japanese forces were killed.
battle, the damaged carrier U.S.S. Yorktown limped back to Pearl
Harbor and was patched up in time to participate in the crucial Battle
of Midway, one month later in June 1942. The Yorktown
played an important role in the destruction of the Japanese attack force
at Midway before it was sunk. Both Japanese fleet carriers
returned to Japan after the Battle of the Coral Sea but neither fought a
month later at Midway. The Zuikaku had lost too many planes
and the Shokaku was too damaged to participate in the battle.
most tragic story of the Battle of the Coral Sea, and a story that few
people know, took place on what I call the
"Raft of 68." Shortly after the tanker U.S.S. Neosho was
attacked by Japanese dive bombers, dozens of men on the ship leaped into
the sea, fearing that the heavily damaged, burning and listing Neosho
would sink. Many
clambered into rafts, which drifted away from the Neosho,
including 68 men who lashed several rafts together. Over the next
nine days, this Raft of 68 drifted west. The men had no food,
water, or shelter from the blistering sun and after several days, they
began to die, some becoming delirious and drinking sea water.
After nine days, the destroyer U.S.S. Helm spotted the raft and
rescued the men, but
there were only four survivors left, all of whom were emaciated and near
Two men died shortly after being rescued but the other two recovered in
a Brisbane hospital, then returned to the U.S. In 2003, the last
of these survivors, Jack Rolston, helped me put together this section of
my website. Sadly, Jack died in 2010. I've posted more
information about Jack and the Raft of 68 here,
including several newspaper articles he sent me describing the ordeal.
Both sides made a number of key blunders
during the Battle of the Coral Sea, though this was not surprising,
considering that it was early in the war. Despite the foul-ups,
though, this battle was important for
It was the first
battle in naval history fought between aircraft carriers.
fleet spotted the other during the battle, underscoring the
importance of air power in future naval conflicts.
Although it was a
tactical victory for the Japanese, the battle was a strategic
victory for the Americans.
Certainly, Japan inflicted more damage during the battle -- but
the Americans fared better in the long run, and for two reasons.
First, the Americans had turned back the Japanese for the first
time in the war, providing a much-needed morale boost to the
allies. Second, because of Japanese aircraft losses and
damage suffered here, the two Japanese heavy aircraft carriers
at Coral Sea could not participate in the crucial Battle of
Midway, one month later, in which Japan lost all four of its
aircraft carriers. If the two Japanese carriers at Coral
Sea had been able to fight at Midway, the outcome of the Midway
battle -- and the war -- might have been very different.
many Americans, the Battle of the Coral Sea is not nearly as well-known as other
WWII conflicts in the Pacific, such as Pearl Harbor, Midway, Okinawa or Iwo Jima,
perhaps because the battle wasn't a clear-cut victory for either side.
However, many Australians
understandably consider it to be one of the most important battles of World War II, with some
Aussies referring to it as "The Battle That Saved Australia."
toured Australia in 2002 and swam in the Coral
Sea and the Great Barrier Reef, I didn't think about the battle, to be
honest. It wasn't until several months later when I interviewed my uncle, Bill Leu, that I started to
about the battle and about his ship, the oiler U.S.S. Neosho, which was
sunk during the conflict. After
researching the Battle of the Coral Sea and learning about the fate of the Neosho,
I thought back on my visit to the Coral Sea several months earlier in a very different light.
Video Interview with a Veteran of
Battle of the Coral Sea
In 2002, I videotaped an interview
of my uncle, Bill Leu, and asked him about the Battle of the Coral Sea. In vivid
detail, he told me how Japanese planes attacked and battered his ship,
the tanker U.S.S. Neosho, which eventually sank. I hadn't
realized it, but this was the first time Bill had discussed some of
these stories with anyone, the memories being so painful. Not even
his wife or children had heard him talk about his experiences at the
Coral Sea or Pearl Harbor. Modest, caring and compassionate, Bill
had always been like a second father to me, and I was greatly saddened when
suddenly about six months later.
that interview on YouTube and have included it in my website. To
watch the 10-minute video interview, please visit my
Battle of the Coral Sea Interview
left: My uncle, Bill Leu, Fireman 3rd Class, in 1941.
Bill served on the U.S.S. Neosho during its entire active service, from July
1941 until May 1942, when it was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea.
center: The tanker U.S.S. Neosho after the
Japanese attack at the Coral Sea (the bow is on the left). 123 American
sailors clung to the listing Neosho for four days until they were rescued by an
right: My Dad (left) and his brother, my uncle Bill Leu
during their interview in 2002, describing their experiences in World
War II. Sadly, this was the last time they
saw each other. My father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill
died a few months later.
This page provides a
brief summary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. To read about the
battle in more detail and to see more of my maps and photos, please
continue on the next page or refer to the Table of Contents below.
of the Coral Sea - Battle Action: April
30 - May 4, 1942
Table of Contents:
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