About This Website   |   Who Am I?   |   Site Map   |   Music   |  Links   |   Contact Me

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

Home > Family History > USS Neosho > The Battle of the Coral Sea > Summary

 

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea:  Summary

 

 

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.

 


Background

From 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.

 

Right:

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.  

 

In 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.  

 
 

Right:

A

B-25

Mitchell bomber.

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.

Battle of the Coral Sea:  Japanese Advances

 

 

Battle of the Coral Sea:  Initial Movements

 


The Japanese Plan

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 Japanese farmers.  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 Solomon Islands.  

 

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.  

 

While 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 Islands, 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.

 

Battle of the Coral Sea:  Japanese Attack Plan

 


Participating Ships

Allies

Task Group 17.2 (Attack Group)

Cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Astoria, Chester and Portland.  Destroyers Phelps, Dewey, Farragut, Alywin and Monaghan.

 

Task Group 17.5 (Carrier Group)

Carriers Yorktown and Lexington.  Destroyers Morris, Anderson, Hammann and Russell.

 

Task Group 17.3 (Support Group)

Cruisers Australia (Australian Navy), Hobart (Australian Navy) and Chicago.  Destroyers Perkins and Walke.

 

Task Group 17.6 (Fueling Group)

Oilers Neosho and Tippecanoe.  Destroyers Sims and Worden.

 

 

Japan

Carrier Striking Force

Carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku.  Heavy cruisers Myoko and Haguro.  Destroyers Ariake, Yugure, Shigure, Shiratsuyu, Ushio and Akebono.  Tanker Toho Maru.

 

Port Moresby Landing Force / Covering Force

Light carrier Shoho.  Heavy cruisers Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa and Furutaka.  Light cruisers Yubari, Tenryu and Tatsuta.  Destroyers Sazanami, Oite, Uzuki, Asamagi, Mutsuki, Yunagi and Yayoi.  Minelayer Tsugaru.  Gunboats Keijo Maru, Seikai Maru and Nikkai Maru.  Twelve transports and auxiliary craft.  One patrol boat. 

 

Tulagi Invasion Force

Destroyers Kaikuzuki and Yuzuki.  Minelayers Okinoshima and Koei Maru. Transport Asuman Maru.  Auxiliary craft.

 

 


The Battle Unfolds

 

Fleet Strength

  Allied Fleet

  Japanese Fleet

  2 fleet carriers

  2 fleet carriers

  9 cruisers

  1 light carrier

  13 destroyers

  9 cruisers

  2 oilers

  15 destroyers

  1 seaplane tender

  5 minesweepers

  128 carrier aircraft

  2 minelayers

 x

  2 submarine chasers

 x

  3 gunboats

 x

  1 oil tanker

 x

  1 seaplane tender

 x

  12 transports

 x

  127 carrier aircraft

On May 1, 1942,  Admiral Fletcher's fleet, led by the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown, met up 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. 

 

The 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 indeed bleak. 

 

USS_Lexington_-_Abandoning_-_640x355.jpg (35799 bytes)  

Above:  Men evacuating the "Lady Lex."

 

 

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. 

 

Hiding 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.

 

After 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 Leu.

 


Casualties

Three U.S. ships were sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea and 69 American aircraft were destroyed.  The ships sunk included:

  • U.S.S. Lexington  (Aircraft Carrier)

  • U.S.S. Neosho  (Oiler)

  • U.S.S. Sims (Destroyer)

One U.S. ship was seriously damaged:

  • U.S.S. Yorktown  (Aircraft Carrier)

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:

 

U.S. Ship Type Status

Complement

Killed Survivors

U.S.S. Lexington

Carrier

Sunk

2,122

216

1,906

U.S.S. Neosho

Oiler

Sunk

293

168

125

U.S.S. Sims

Destroyer

Sunk

252

239

13

U.S.S. Yorktown

Carrier

Damaged

2,919

66

2,853

Other (estimated)

     

20

 
TOTAL     5,586 709 4,897

 

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.

 

After the 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. 

 
 
 

Jack Rolston

Perhaps the 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 death. 

 

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.

 


Aftermath

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 two reasons:

 

  • It was the first battle in naval history fought between aircraft carriers.  Neither surface 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.

 

For 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."  

 

When I 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 learn 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

the 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 he died suddenly about six months later.

 

I posted 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 page.

 

Bill_Leu_in_Sailor_Uniform.jpg (26022 bytes)    Neosho_Burning_-_600x480.jpg (51376 bytes)   

Above 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.

Above 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 American destroyer.

Above 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.

 


Additional Information

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.

 

 

Next Page >  Battle of the Coral Sea - Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942 

 

 

Table of Contents:

U.S.S. Neosho  (AO-23)

U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) Home Page

 

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Pearl Harbor Attack  (December 7, 1941)

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Bill Leu Interview:  Pearl Harbor Attack

U.S. Navy Action Report:  U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942)

The Battle of the Coral Sea:  Summary

Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942 

Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

Battle Action:  May 8, 1942

The U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea

May 7, 1942:  The Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

List of Survivors & Casualties

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942 - cont.)

Bill Leu Interview:  Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Coral Sea

Action Report of the U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of the U.S.S. Sims

U.S.S. Helm Report

Other Ships at Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Sims (Neosho's Escort)

The U.S.S. Henley (Neosho's Rescuer)

The U.S.S. Helm (Rescued Life Raft)

Coral Sea Scrapbook

S.F. Examiner Article, July 10, 1942

 

Aftermath

President Bush's Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

Obituary of Captain John S. Phillips

 

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

 

Sources & Further Information

The current page is shown in bold.