The Battle of the Coral Sea

Action on May 8, 1942

 

By the 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, with the sinking of the light carrier Shoho, neither carrier fleet had found the other despite their intense searches.  Both sides were now poised for what would be the climactic battle in the Coral Sea.

 

The two sides, itching for a fight, were evenly matched.  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.

A Criss-Cross Air Battle

From the intelligence reports he received on the evening of May 7, Admiral Takagi assumed that the American carriers were somewhere to the south of him.  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 during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

At 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 find the American fleet.  Takagi knew this strategy could backfire, but he was determined to find and sink the American carriers before they could find him.

 

At 8:22 a.m., Japanese scout planes found the American carrier group under clear skies and reported their 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 racing towards each other.

 

Above:  The Japanese carrier Shokaku.

Just 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 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.  Admiral 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 critical engagement at Midway, near Hawaii, a month later.

 

While 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 American carriers Lexington and Yorktown and their screening force, consisting of seven American destroyers and five cruisers.

 

Above:  Yorktown dive-bombers attacking the carrier Shokaku.

With 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.  Two 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 while 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.

 

By 11:45 a.m., the skies had cleared again as the Japanese planes headed back to their carriers, leaving both American carriers in flames and ending the first carrier-versus-carrier battle in naval history.

End of the "Lady Lex"

Above:  The U.S.S. Lexington after the attack.

The 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.  

 

At 12:47 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 about 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 hovering whale boats and life rafts, then they clambered aboard nearby attending destroyers and cruisers.  The last person over the Lexington's side was her captain, Ted Sherman.  Admirably, not a man was lost during the evacuation.

 

Above:  The smoking deck of the U.S.S. Lexington around 2 p.m.

That evening, Admiral Fletcher received reports that the Japanese fleet was withdrawing, perhaps even heading back to Tokyo.  Therefore he likewise decided to withdraw, and the damaged Yorktown and the rest of the American fleet limped back to Noumea, New Caledonia, about 500 miles southeast.  During the last four days, the Americans had attacked the Tulagi invasion force, sunk the carrier Shoho and a few small Japanese ships, prevented the Japanese from invading Port Moresby, New Guinea, 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 edge.

 

However, 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 aircraft 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 perhaps the war could have been very different.

 

As Fletcher headed back to Noumea after the battle, a nagging question bothered him:  What had happened to the tanker Neosho and destroyer Sims?  Three days later, he would find out.  You can read the account of that ordeal in the next section, The U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea.

 

   

Above left:  Two destroyers approaching the U.S.S. Lexington on the afternoon of May 8.  This photo was likely taken from the cruiser U.S.S. Minneapolis.

Above right:  Sailors evacuating the "Lady Lex."

 

Battle Map:  May 8, 1942 to Retirement:    (Click to see a larger version)

 

 

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

The current page is shown with a  >