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History and Heritage

Battle of the Coral Sea

Laying the Foundation for Pacific Dominance

Billows of dark grey smoke filled the Hawaiian skies. With ships toppled over and aircraft in ruins, it was like a grave site. At about 8:10 that morning, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese had dropped a 1,800-bomb through the deck of the battle ship USS Arizona (BB 39).

The crushing blow sank Arizona with more than 1,000 Sailors trapped inside. Next, torpedoes capsized the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB 37) with 400 Sailors aboard. By the day's end, some 20 ships and 300 aircraft were severely damaged or destroyed, and about 2,500 Sailors and Soldiers lay dead in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Historians consider the attack to be one of the most devastating incidents in our country's history. It had been a shocking wake up call to citizens who wanted to stay out of the war, and with subsequent losses throughout the Pacific, Americans needed a morale boost. The Navy wanted to take the fight back to the Japanese and set the tone for the rest of the war.

Planners saw their opportunity when U.S. intelligence personnel intercepted Japanese plans to capture Port Moresby on the southeastern coast of New Guinea, hoping to eliminate the last Allied base between Japan and Australia. The U.S. responded by sending two carriers, USS Lexington (CVN 16) and USS Yorktown (CV 5), as well as cruisers, destroyers, submarines, land-based bombers and patrol seaplanes.

On May 7, 1942, Japanese scout planes located the Navy-operated oiler Neosho (AO 23) and the destroyer USS Sims (DD 409). The ensuing conflict, the Battle of the Coral Sea, would be the first naval battle between aircraft carriers, and the first battle in which opposing ships never saw or directly fired upon one another. They didn't need to: Aircraft carriers had become the most important ships in naval warfare, as opposed to battleships. They could deploy large numbers of aircraft in a short period of time, allowing a larger attack radius. The same was true of the enemy: Thirty-six Japanese dive bombers attacked the two American ships, hitting Sims with three bombs. The destroyer broke in half, sinking immediately. Only 14 crew members out of 192 survived.
Three photo collage of the Battle of Coral Sea. Unknown aircraft sinking; US ship sinking; US aircraft flying

Neosho also sustained heavy damage, with seven bombs striking the oiler. Then, a damaged Japanese fighter plane collided with Neosho, almost splitting her in half. Neosho miraculously stayed afloat long enough to call reinforcements, and 123 survivors waited for rescue on floating wreckage in the tropical sun until an American flying boat spotted them four days later.

Many of those men owed their lives to Chief Petty Officer Oscar V. Peterson. Although severely burned and wounded by the bombing, Peterson managed to close the bulkhead stop valves, which kept sections of the ship afloat. He sustained additional burns in the process that led to his death, according to the Medal of Honor citation he posthumously received.

Watching a ship go down can be terrifying. Petty Officer Third Class Robert Olsen, a crew member aboard USS Lexington (CV 2), faced this same horror when she was hit with two torpedoes and seven bombs, May 8. Olsen remembered the bombs hitting the engine room and the torpedo room before Lexington sank:

"Oh, you could feel it," Olsen said in an oral history. "Boom, and the whole thing shattered. They gave off a tremendous explosion and you can kind of feel yourself going down."

The Coral Sea was some of the deepest water he had ever experienced, and Sailors had seen sharks the night before. Still, Olsen donned his life vest and went overboard.

You can't lay down in a prone position and swim, because the jacket holds you up. ... So I start kicking and swimming, and I must have swam for at least two straight hours, you know, never stopping, just trying to get away from the carrier."
-Petty Officer Third Class Robert Olsen

Olsen and his shipmates may not have expected to survive, but somehow about 2,700 men lasted two hours in the shark infested water before rescue by Allied ships. Olsen was hauled aboard the cruiser USS New Orleans (CA 32).

"Everyone was picked up out of the water. Nobody drowned and about three hundred people died on the ship. ... That's actually a small percentage when you think about how many guys were on the ship: 3,000 men. The men who died were mostly top side. They either died [from the shots from] these planes or the bombs going off."

Meanwhile, a scout plane from USS Yorktown had located the Japanese Covering Group, which consisted of the light carrier Shoho and four heavy cruisers. American commanders ordered a massive strike, including 53 scout bombers, 22 torpedo planes and 18 fighters. The overwhelming attacks sank Shoho. Yorktown's antiaircraft squadron also opened fire on several Japanese planes overnight. The pilots had somehow mistaken Yorktown for their own carrier and attempted to land.

Yorktown's dive bombers then spotted Japan's carriers, Shkaku and Zuikaku, May 8. Instead of attacking right away, the dive bombers lingered, waiting for Yorktown's torpedo bombers so they could attack together, eventually hitting Shkaku with three devastating bombs. Zuikaku escaped unscathed, but the battle left Japan's air groups with only 39 aircraft.

Yorktown endured several enemy attacks herself. Although badly damaged, she returned to Pearl Harbor for quick repairs and would play a crucial role in the Battle of Midway, helping turn the tide of the war.
Three photo collage of the Battle of Coral Sea. men abandoning US ship; men repairing US ship; USS Lexington sinking

Approximately 700 American Sailors were killed during the battle. Their shipmates mourned, then turned their attention to the next fight:

"There was sadness, and respect, for the dead, but not the wholesale celebration this present generation embraces," Seaman First Class Otis Kight, a Yorktown crew member, later reflected. "We gave them a military burial at sea, and went on with the business of war. As far as fear, or terror, no! There was none of it anywhere I could see or hear. Just a pure dedication to fight the enemy with all that we had, to survive with our ship."

While the Japanese could claim the Battle of the Coral Sea as victory from a destruction and casualty perspective, the damage done to Japan's carriers, Shkaku and Zuikaku, kept them from the Battle of Midway, which historians consider the turning point of World War II. Like Yorktown, several of these Sailors and ships fought in that battle, making Coral Sea a strategic victory for the U.S.

"Coral Sea proved quite significant to the course of World War II in the Pacific," wrote Charles River Editors in The Battle of the Coral Sea: The History and Legacy of World War II's First Major Battle Between Aircraft Carriers. "Though the Japanese claimed a victory after sinking the USS Lexington, the battle actually gave the Imperial Japanese Navy its first bloody nose in a conflict which, until then, had been going entirely their way."

This dented Japanese morale and raised that of the Americans, Australians, and British, beginning a tidal shift in the balance of confidence which previously favored the warriors of Japan over the Allies. ..." -Charles River Editors

"[The Japanese commander's] official diary revealed a new, anxious, almost pessimistic outlook: 'The dream of a great victory is gone. The battle belongs to the enemy.'"

Learn more about the Battle of Coral Sea from Navy History and Heritage Command.

Links to Battle of Coral Films can be seen at the following links:

Battle of Coral Sea Training Film Part 1
Battle of Coral Sea Training Film Part 2
Battle of Coral Sea Training Film Part 3

Editor's Note: Be sure to check All Hands Magazine in June to read about the Battle of Midway.