The Battle of the Coral Sea

Action from May 5 to May 7, 1942

 

On the morning of May 5, Admirals Jack Fletcher with the Yorktown group and Aubrey Fitch with the Lexington group rendezvoused at the appointed location south of Rennel Island and combined their fleets into Task Force 17, then the task force headed west with Fletcher in overall command.  The American fleet refueled, as the cautious Fletcher liked to do before any battle, and continued looking for the Japanese.  

 

The next day, May 6, Fletcher received intelligence reports from Pearl Harbor describing a large Japanese task force with three carriers operating somewhere "south of the Solomon Islands."  These were the Shokaku and Zuikaku that were just rounding San Cristobal Island, starting to search for the Americans.  The reports also confirmed that a separate Japanese force would head through Jomard Pass on the way to Port Moresby, New Guinea no later than May 8.  With these reports, Fletcher cut his refueling short and sped west.  First, though, he dispatched the tanker U.S.S. Neosho with an escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, ordering them both south and out of harm's way.  Their orders were to stay well behind the fleet and operate between designated locations "Point Rye" and "Point Corn" on alternating days, refueling ships there as needed.

 

Without knowing it, the American and Japanese carrier fleets came within 70 miles of each other on May 6, each without spotting the other.  Fletcher's scout planes had turned back just before they would have found Admiral Takagi's two carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier.  For his part, Admiral Takagi, amazingly, had not yet sent out scout planes to search for the American fleet.

 

As it turned out, May 6, 1942 would mark America's low point in World War II, for it was on that day that General Wainwright was forced to surrender his forces in the Philippines.  The next day, the course of the war would begin to turn.

"Scratch One Flattop!"

Fletcher's task force sped west all night.  The next morning, May 7, it split up again with the main body turning north, while British Admiral Crace and a handful of ships continued sailing west.  Crace intended to turn back the Japanese invasion force that was heading for Port Moresby, which was fast approaching Jomard Pass from the east.

 

Above:  The light carrier Shoho was launched in 1935 as a submarine tender and was later converted to a carrier.  It had a top speed of 28 knots and carried a maximum of 30 aircraft.

After Crace's fleet detached, Admiral Fletcher sent out several scout planes to look for the Japanese fleet.  Within two hours, an American scout radioed back that "two Japanese carriers and four cruisers" were sailing about 200 miles north.  Fletcher, thinking he had found the main Japanese fleet, immediately launched the bulk of his airfleet, 93 planes. 

 

Unfortunately for Fletcher though, the coded message from the American scout plane had been garbled.  Instead of "two carriers and four cruisers," it should have said "two cruisers and two destroyers."  This wasn't the Japanese carrier fleet, after all.  Instead, it was a much smaller group.  Fletcher, with the bulk of his airfleet now flying north to attack a small force, and with two heavy Japanese carriers closing in on him, was stunned.  He was also in a real fix.

 

Above:  The sinking of the Japanese light carrier, Shoho.

Fortunately for Admiral Fletcher, however, the Japanese light carrier, Shoho part of another Japanese force entirely was in line with the reported sighting, or at least, it was close enough to be spotted by the American pilots.  The 93 American planes swooped down on the lightly-defended Shoho.  Although it wasn't the large Japanese fleet they were expecting, it would have to suffice.

 

The Shoho's fate was sealed and after a furious 30-minute attack by American dive-bombers and torpedo bombers, it sunk at 11:35 a.m.  Lt. Commander R. E. Dixon, an American pilot, reported back to the Yorktown using a phrase that would soon become famous: "Scratch one flattop!"  It was a clear victory for the Allies and, returning to their carriers, the American pilots were jubilant.

Attack on the U.S.S. Sims and Neosho

At about this same time, another vicious attack was unfolding 300 miles to the southeast as crewmen on the tanker Neosho and destroyer Sims were fighting for their lives.  Admiral Takagi had sent out scout planes on the morning of May 7 to search for the American fleet.  Unknown to the Japanese pilots, they had just missed spotting the Yorktown and Lexington, but they did locate what appeared to be an American carrier and cruiser.  These, in fact, were the large tanker Neosho (which, with its flat top and catwalk, looked like a carrier from a high elevation) and its nimble escort, the destroyer Sims.

 

Thinking his scout planes had finally found the American carrier force, Admiral Takagi launched 62 planes to attack.  Many of the planes were later ordered to turn back but 24 found their prey and, like the attack on the Shoho, which was happening at the same time, the Japanese attack on the Sims and Neosho was furious and one-sided.  The Sims sunk quickly with the loss of 237 men and the Neosho was heavily damaged.  Due to a navigation error, the Neosho's location was incorrectly transmitted to the American fleet before the radio gave out.  Consequently, the 123 survivors waited in the hot sun on the listing deck of the disabled ship for four days, not knowing the outcome of the battle, before being spotted by sheer luck and then rescued.

 

I've posted a video interview with my uncle Bill Leu here as he describes his experience onboard the U.S.S. Neosho.  During that 2002 interview, Bill told me about the attack of the 24 Japanese planes:

 

"One of them dove into our it was on flames and it dove into our stack deck in the rear.  Anyway, when youd take a hit if it was way back in the stern, which a lot of them were, or amidships, youd feel the ship would jar <gestures with body>.

 

But the worst one I felt was a near miss where... I was on the starboard side where I was standing, and the cork plaster came down and loud noise.  And <crossing arms> I went on one side and the guy on the other side went over there <colliding hands>.  And the guy that was on the phone, he was laughing.  We were scared.  We were all scared.  And somebody yelled, 'Are you guys still alive down there?'  And I said, 'Yes we are, but Im sure scared!'  And he laughed and said, 'So are we!' "

 

Above:  This is the last known picture taken of the U.S.S. Neosho.  It was taken from a Japanese plane about 1 p.m. on May 7, 1942, after 24 Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers attacked the Neosho and sunk its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims.  Despite a 30-degree list, the ship would continue to float for four days until the surviving 123 crewmen, including my uncle, Bill Leu, were rescued by the destroyer U.S.S. Henley on May 11.

Crace's Chase

While the American planes were bombing the Shoho and Japanese planes were attacking the Sims and Neosho, British Admiral John Crace was heading west to thwart the Japanese advance through Jomard Pass.  This small fleet was a true Allied effort, consisting of Australian and American ships while commanded by Crace, from the U.K.  Crace had seven ships in his squadron:

  • H.M.A.S. Australia (Australian heavy cruiser)

  • H.M.A.S. Hobart and Canberra (Australian cruisers)

  • U.S.S. Chicago (American cruiser)

  • U.S.S. Perkins, Farragut, Walke (American destroyers)

Above:  The heavy cruiser HMAS Australia in 1937, the flagship of Crace's squadron.

Japanese planes had been tailing Crace almost since he detached from Fletcher's fleet earlier that day, staying just out of range of the ship's anti-aircraft guns.  Fletcher couldn't afford to detach planes to cover the squadron, so Crace was sailing naked without air support.  Finally, at about 2 p.m., Japanese torpedo planes and high-level bombers appeared on the horizon and began to attack Crace's small fleet.

 

The Japanese assault was vicious but Crace's fleet outmaneuvered the torpedoes and bombs, and despite several near-misses, the squadron emerged intact with no serious damage.  Fearful of Crace's fleet, the Japanese invasion force bound for Port Moresby decided not to enter Jomard Pass.  As it turned out, this would be the closest the Japanese Navy would ever get to Port Moresby during World War II.

An Evening Air Battle

With all the attacks that day the Shoho, Sims, Neosho, and the bombing of Crace's group things were heating up in the Coral Sea fast.  Based on the American attack on the Shoho and other intelligence he'd received, Admiral Takagi figured the American carriers must be about 150 miles southwest of his carrier fleet, so at 2:30 p.m., he launched planes to find them.

 

By this time, Fletcher's fleet was operating under the clouds of a cold front that had moved in and his ships were well hidden.  The Japanese planes flew right over the American carrier force without realizing it.  Then, not having spotted any American ships, they turned around and started heading back.  On their way back to the Shokaku and Zuikaku, and once again near the American carriers, the Japanese planes ran into a group of American fighters.  The Americans shot down nine Japanese fighters while losing two, and as darkness settled, the Japanese pilots became confused and even tried to land on an aircraft carrier that turned out to be the U.S.S. Lexington, thinking it was their own.  The evening sky lit up with anti-aircraft fire as the American ships battled the Japanese planes, though neither attacked very effectively.  Finally, the Japanese planes withdrew, this time to their correct carriers.

 

Tensions were high as May 7 drew to a close.  Although each side had drawn blood the Americans sinking the light carrier Shoho and the Japanese sinking the destroyer Sims and damaging the tanker Neosho neither carrier fleet had yet found the other.  Fletcher prepared to send out scout planes at dawn on May 8 to locate the Japanese carriers.  From radio reports, Admiral Takagi had a clearer idea of where Fletcher was but he was still unsure.  Like Fletcher, he would send out scout planes at dawn.

 

It was a question of who would find the other first.

 

Battle Map:  May 5 to May 7, 1942.  (Click to see a larger version)

 

 Next Page >  Battle Action:  May 8, 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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