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Crew Abandoning USS Lexington during Battle of the Coral Sea
Crew Abandoning USS Lexington during Battle of the Coral Sea

Battle of the Coral Sea

The first day of the carrier battle of Coral Sea on May 7, 1942, saw the Americans searching for Japanese carriers they knew were present and the Japanese looking for ones they feared might be in the area. The opposing commanders, U.S. Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher and Japanese Vice Adm. Takeo Takagi and Rear Adm. Tadaichi Hara, endeavored to get in the first blow, a presumed prerequisite to victory in a battle between heavily-armed and lightly-protected aircraft carriers. However, both sides suffered from inadequate work by their scouts and launched massive air strikes against greatly inferior secondary targets, which were sunk, but leaving the most important enemey forces not hit.

American losses during the Battle of Coral Sea were estimated at 543; the Japanese suffered between 2,000 to more than 5,000 losses. The United States losses included the USS Lexington (CV-2), the oiler USS Neosho (AO-23) and the destroyer USS Sims (DD 409). More than 92 percent of the Lexington's crew were saved. But, for the crews of Neosho and Sims they weren't as fortunate.

At the start of the battle, the Japanese were determined to provide the first blow. Scouting planes spotted Neosho and her escort, Sims, in a southerly position well away from Fletcher's carriers. Reported as a "carrier and a cruiser," these two ships received two high-level bombing attacks during the morning that, as would become typical of such tactics, missed. However, about noon a large force of dive bombers appeared and sank Sims, which resulted in heavy casualities. They also destroyed Neosho which was reduced to a drifting wreck whose survivors were not rescued for days.

In retaliation to the attacks on Sims and Neosho, a scouting group from USS Yorktown (CV-5) found the Japanese Covering Group, the light carrier Shoho and four heavy carriers. Yorktown and Lexington sent out a huge strike force: 53 scout-bombers, 22 torpedo planes and 18 fighters. The fighters and bombers delivered well-coordinated attacks that overwhelmed Shoho.

Six minutes after Yorktown's planes had commenced their attack on Shoho, the order went out on board Shoho to abandon ship. Within five minutes, though, the carrier sank, taking with her all but 255 of her 800-man crew and having suffered hits from at least 13 bombs and seven torpedos. Up to this point, outside of anti-aircraft fire, Yorktown fliers had encountered no opposition. At that juncture, however, at least four of the mixed bag of Mitsubishis - Type 96s and Type 0s - swept in, well below Lt. Cmdr. James H. "Jimmy" Flatley Jr.'s five F4Fs. Although they came in an altitude well below what Flatley expected, he took his men down to deal with this newly developed opposition. Flately picked out a Type 96 not more than 100 feet above the water, and came in from above an angle of 60 degrees, walking his bullets across the water until they hit metal; the fixed-gear Mitsubishi splashed into the sea. Before the engagement was over, two more enemy planes would be shot down - both by the former Philadelphia pharmacist, Ensign Haas, one of which proved to be the first "Zero" downed by a U.S. Navy or Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II.

By the evening of May 7, it appeared the earlier attacks by the Americans had impacted the Japanese. Just after sunset, three enemy aircraft flew close by Yorktown's starboard side, "showing lights" and making "no sign of hostility," even blinking in morse code. After the aircraft flew over the carrier's bow, the actions aroused the suspicions of Lt j.g. Macomber, who was still waiting to land. To get a closer look, Macomber closed in on one of the planes, whose tail light betrayed its existence. At the same time, Yorktown's landing signal officer Lt. Norwood S. "Soupy" Campbell began bringing VF-42's "Wildcats" on board, but soon discovered he had pilots in the landing circle who seemed unfamiliar with U.S. Navy doctrine. Obviously, confused in the murky blackness, the Japanese pilots were attempting to land on the Yorktown. Yorktown's gunners opened fire with every gun possible. From that episode it was surmised that the Japanese apparently had not done much in the way of night flying aboard carriers "because the air was full of their conversation trying to get home and aboard," said Lt. Cmdr. Ray.

This suprise night action against three enemy planes gave a distinct advantage to Fletcher. But, the U.S. Navy had little to no night battle practice in the pre-war years. The training that had been conducted was primarily defensive in nature, not receiving the emphasis it should have-as events in the then not-too-distant future proved. Fletcher had no other option than to keep his force concentrated and prepared for a battle with enemy carriers the next morning. His decision would prove a wise one.

On May 8, Fletcher dispatched USS Monaghan (DD 354) to look for survivors of Neosho and Sims, as well as to transmit messages away from the task force. The Yorktown was slow in sending out their combat air patrol. At 0730 on May 8, Yorktown reported that 12 had been sent aloft to look for the Japanese carriers. By 0745, Yorktown had commenced putting four F4Fs and eight SBDs. By 0847, Rear. Adm. Jake Fitch radioed Fletcher informing him that scouters had spotted the Japanese fleet. Ironically, at about the same time, a Japanese scout had spotted Task Force 17.

After aggressive fighting between the Japanese Zeroes and SBDs the American pilots were having difficulty hitting the enemy planes in mass. By 1119, Lt. Cmdr. Flatley ordered his F4Fs to return to the Lexington because they were being attacked. Two 800-kilogram aerial torpedos hit the big carrier - both on the port side - but failed to slow her down.

By 1443, a serious explosion rocked Lexington that touched off uncontrollable fires below decks. By 1622, the Lexington was being abandoned, and the cruisers and destroyers lingered nearby, picking up the carrier's officers and men, while two cruises and two destroyers remained guarding Yorktown.

By May 9, the Japanese were claiming victory at Coral Sea. To the Japanese, the Battle of Coral Sea was not "just another naval battle" but an event which marked "another emphatic step in the inevitable march of the Japanese Empire toward the destruction of the old and the building of a new and better world order." Japanese naval commentators scorned American tactics as "idiotic," and predicted that the battle spelled the doom of the U.S. Navy. The Japanese were confident in the belief that they had rendered the U.S. Navy powerless to stop them in the Pacific.

On May 12, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto issued the operations orders directing the seizure of Midway, the key atoll located at the extreme western end of the Hawaiian chain, as well as Kiska and Attu, islands in the Aleutians.

Although the Japanese exercised the utmost secrecy in planning the thrusts against Midway and the Aleutians, Adm. Chester Nimitz's extraordinary intelligence advantage, the broken Japanese naval code, allowed him to know the projected movements of the combined fleet in each operation in great detail.

Courtesy of the Naval Historical Center; Robert Cressman - "That Gallant Ship - USS Yorktown (CV-5)"