The Battle of the Coral Sea

Action from April 30 to May 4, 1942

 

Rendezvous in the Coral Sea

During the days and weeks after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the crippled U.S. Pacific fleet searched tentatively for the Japanese fleet.  My uncle Bill described it during my interview with him in 2002:

 

"Three days after the war started, we went out with some remnants of the fleet, just some cruisers and destroyers, looking for the Japanese.  But I donít think they looked very hard because we didnít have much left."

 

Above:  The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown in 1937.

In early April 1942, the U.S. navy sent the aircraft carriers Hornet and Enterprise west from Hawaii to support the Doolittle Raid, while the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown was sent to the south Pacific with a naval task force led by Admiral Jack Fletcher.  The task force included Bill's ship, the tanker U.S.S. Neosho.  A few weeks later, in mid-April, American forces learned about a Japanese naval build-up in the Coral Sea, east of New Guinea.  The Americans guessed that the Japanese were planning to push further into the south Pacific to try to knock Australia and New Zealand out of the war.  They correctly assumed that the Japanese objective was Port Moresby, the key city on the south coast of New Guinea.

 

With the American aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga in dry-dock since January recovering from a Japanese torpedo strike and the carriers Hornet and Enterprise returning from the Doolittle Raid, the U.S. Navy could dispatch only two carriers to the Coral Sea to counter the Japanese:  the Yorktown, which was operating in the south Pacific, and the Lexington, which was at Pearl Harbor undergoing repairs.  Between them, the two ships carried 128 planes.

 

Above:  The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington, known as the "Lady Lex."

Admiral Aubrey Fitch and the Lexington carrier group left Pearl Harbor on April 16 and headed south for the Coral Sea.  He planned to meet there with Fletcher and the Yorktown group (including Bill's tanker, the U.S.S. Neosho), which had been operating out of Noumea, New Caledonia. 

 

The two carrier groups met in the Coral Sea on the morning of May 1, about 200 miles north of New Caledonia.  The combined American fleet, with Fletcher in overall command, refueled for a few days as they prepared to battle the Japanese.  Fletcher's group refueled from the U.S.S. Neosho and Fitch's group from the other tanker in the task force, the U.S.S. Tippecanoe.  Fletcher, a cautious commander, always believed in getting his "ducks in line" before attacking the enemy and, perhaps as a holdover from the days of coal-fired warships, he wanted his ships to be fully fueled before heading into any battle.  

 

The two American carrier groups split up and during the next few days they operated about 100 miles apart as they refueled and searched for the Japanese fleet.  With a self-imposed radio silence, the two carrier groups operated out of touch with each other, though they planned to rendezvous on May 4 at an agreed-on location.

 

   

Above left:  Admiral Jack Fletcher, commander of the U.S. fleet during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Above right:  The U.S.S. Yorktown (CV-5) was Fletcher's flagship during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  It's shown here at anchor in 1937 in Hampton, Virginia.

 

   

Above left:  Admiral Aubrey Fitch, commander of the Lexington carrier group.

Above right:  Admiral Fitch's flagship during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-2), shown here leaving San Diego in October 1941.

Fletcher Attacks Tulagi

On the evening of May 3, Admiral Fletcher and the Yorktown group were about 200 miles west of Admiral Fitch and the Lexington group when Fletcher learned about a Japanese invasion that was currently underway on Tulagi, a small island north of Guadalcanal.  Australian forces had evacuated Tulagi a few days earlier in anticipation of the invasion.  Not wanting to break radio silence and contact Fitch, Fletcher and the Yorktown group sped north to attack the Japanese invasion force alone.  Before heading north, however, Fletcher ordered the tanker U.S.S. Neosho and an escorting destroyer, U.S.S. Russell, to split off and head to the relative safety of the rendezvous point, where they would meet Admiral Fitch and the Lexington group on May 4 as previously planned.  The two ships would meet up with Fitch there and convey the news about the Tulagi invasion to him.

 

The next morning, as Fletcher approached Tulagi, he launched 40 planes from the Yorktown to attack the Japanese invasion force, which had begun setting up a seaplane base in the Tulagi harbor.  Fletcher's dive-bombers and torpedo planes attacked the Japanese force with more enthusiasm than accuracy, however, and despite their subsequent boastful claims to the contrary, the American planes sank only a few small ships.  The Japanese finished building their seaplane base on Tulagi and started seaplane reconnaissance missions from there on May 6. 

 

Fortunately for Fletcher, he had encountered only a small Japanese force on Tulagi.  Had he met the main Japanese body and its two heavy carriers, Fletcher's fleet might have been wiped out.  After his planes made two runs at Tulagi, Fletcher headed his fleet south to meet Fitch and the Lexington group at the new rendezvous point, whose coordinates he'd given to the crew of the tanker Neosho and destroyer Russell.

 

Meanwhile, Admiral Fitch, oblivious of Fletcher's attack on Tulagi, had finished refueling the Lexington group and immediately headed west while continuing to cautiously search for the Japanese fleet.  Upon arriving at the rendezvous point, Fitch was surprised to meet only the ships Neosho and Russell.  From them, Fitch learned that Admiral Fletcher's Yorktown group had headed north to attack the Japanese force at Tulagi and that Fletcher had set a new rendezvous point.  Fitch turned the Lexington group east, and an hour later Admiral J.G. Crace of the British Royal Navy joined up with three more ships.

 

On the evening of May 4th, Admirals Fitch and Crace headed east, steaming toward the new rendezvous point where they planned to meet up with Fletcher's group, which was still hovering around Tulagi, 200 miles north.  Unknown to the Americans, the main Japanese carrier group was only a hundred miles north of Tulagi, screened from the American fleets by the Solomon Islands.  The Japanese were speeding towards the Coral Sea hoping to crush the American fleet there.

 

   

Above left:  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) refueling the aircraft carrier Yorktown in the Coral Sea, about May 2, 1942, at the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  A few days later the Neosho was attacked by a swarm of Japanese dive bombers.

Above right:  The U.S.S. Yorktown (right) and U.S.S. Neosho (center) from the rear of a U.S. torpedo bomber that had just taken off.  This was shortly before the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The small ship on the horizon to the right of the plane's tail fin is the destroyer U.S.S. Sims.  This may be the only photo ever taken that shows the U.S.S. Neosho and U.S.S. Sims together.

 

Battle Map:  April 30 to May 4, 1942.  (Click to see a larger version)

 

Next Page >  Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

 

 

Table of Contents:

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

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

 

SECTION 1:  Background

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

SECTION 2:  Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

Introduction

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Attack on Pearl Harbor

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

 

SECTION 3:  Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942)

Introduction

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 Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho

May 7, 1942:  The Japanese Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting for Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)

List of Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Neosho:  Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Sims:  Survivors and Casualties

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Battle of the Coral Sea

Action Report of U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of U.S.S. Sims

Action Report of U.S.S. Helm

Other Ships at the Battle of the 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)

Battle of the Coral Sea Scrapbook

Honolulu Newspaper:  May 8, 1942

S.F. Examiner Article:  July 10, 1942

 

SECTION 4:  Aftermath

Introduction

President Bush's 1991 Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times Article:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

John S. Phillips, Captain of the U.S.S. Neosho

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

Fireman Third Class, Bill Leu

Jack Rolston and the Tragic "Raft of 68"

Links, Sources and Further Information

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