The Battle of Coral Sea took place in May 1942. If the Japanese had succeeded at Coral Sea, the way would have been open for the Japanese to have captured New Guinea and leave Australia isolated from Allied help and more open to a Japanese attack. The Battle of Coral Sea was fought entirely by planes – no ship on either side made any visual contact with any enemy ship.

Rear-Admiral Frank Fletcher

The Japanese had made great gains in the Far East by the spring of 1942. By May 1st, the conquest of the Philippines, Burma, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies had cost the Japanese Navy only 23 warships and none had been larger than a destroyer. 67 transport ships had also been lost. The Japanese naval command had expected far greater losses and, buoyed by such success, they looked to expand still further in the Far East. However, the senior officers in the Japanese Navy argued on what was best to do next. One school of thought was for the navy to continue spearheading territorial gains. Admiral Nagano was a keen supporter of this. Others, led by Admiral Yamamoto wanted an all-out attack on America’s aircraft carriers in the Pacific as they feared that these ships were the key to success in the Pacific. Yamamoto believed that the destruction of America’s aircraft carriers would ensure the security of Japan. For this reason, Yamamoto wanted an attack on Midway Island as he believed that such an attack would draw out the American navy into a full-scale battle which he believed the Japanese would win.

The Japanese Army’s high command wanted an attack to be centred on isolating Australia and this would include an attack on New Guinea.

However, it was the Americans who forced the hand of the Japanese. On April 18th, 1942, America had launched bombers from two American aircraft carriers (the ‘Enterprise’ and the ‘Hornet’) that had bombed Tokyo. This strengthened Yamamoto’s case against the Americans aircraft carriers and on May 5th, Imperial General Headquarters Navy Order 18 was issued which ordered Yamamoto to carry out an attack on Midway Island and other key points in the Western Aleutians – the operation was to take place in early June 1942.

However, the Japanese had decided on a course of action that spilt their forces. The attack on New Guinea had already started and could not be called off as it was too far advanced. Therefore, Yamamoto could not call on all the forces he might have needed for an attack on Midway Island as some Japanese forces were concentrated in the Coral Sea to the south-east of New Guinea.

The attack on Port Moresby in New Guinea was considered important by the Japanese as its success would isolate Australia and New Guinea could then be used as a platform to attack Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa. The Japanese labelled the attack on Port Moresby as ‘Operation MO’ and the force that was to attack it was ‘Task Force MO’.

The Japanese force included the aircraft carriers ‘Shokaku’ and the ‘Zuikaku’. These were to sail from Truk Island and were to intercept any ships sent by America to attack the Japanese. The main part of the Japanese plan was for its invading force (the Port Moresby Invasion Force) to move through the Jomard Passage, to the south-east of New Guinea, unhindered by the Americans, allowing it to attack Port Moresby.

America treated the attack on Port Moresby very seriously. They believed that any attack would leave Australia vulnerable. Both Chester Nimitz and Douglas MacArthur gave the attack on Port Moresby high priority. The Americans had broken the Japanese naval code and had detailed knowledge of their plans. They believed that an attack on Port Moresby was scheduled for May 3rd and that the Japanese forces would have to make a move through the Coral Sea to carry out this task. The Americans may have known about the Japanese plan but they had one problem themselves. The carrier ‘Saratoga’ was still being repaired after torpedo damage while the carriers ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Hornet’ had not returned from the Tokyo raids and would need five days to prepare themselves for any forthcoming battle.

Nimitz knew that the battle that would ensue would involve aircraft and air supremacy. He therefore ordered the carriers Lexington and Yorktown to the Coral Sea along with their respective task force.

Task Force 17 Task Force 11
Yorktown (carrier) Lexington (carrier)
Astoria (heavy cruiser) Minneapolis (heavy cruiser)
Chester (heavy cruiser) New Orleans (heavy cruiser) )
Portland (heavy cruiser)  
  Phelps (destroyer)
Hammann (destroyer) Dewey (destroyer )
Anderson (destroyer) Farragut (destroyer )
Russell (destroyer) Aylwin (destroyer)
Walke (destroyer) Monaghan (destroyer )
Morris (destroyer)  
Sims (destroyer)  

Though formidable on paper, both task forces could only provide less than 150 planes for the battle. Nimitz gave Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher complete freedom in tactics on how to defeat the Japanese invasion fleet led by Inouye.

Fletcher started to operate in the Coral Sea on May 1st. The Japanese invasion group left Rabaul on May 3rd – hence Fletcher had the upper hand by being in the projected combat zone before his opponent. On May 3rd, Fletcher was informed that the Japanese had taken Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and he ordered that the ‘Yorktown’ steam north-north-west towards Tulagi to make his first attack. At 06.30 on May 4th, 12 Devastator torpedo-bombers and 28 Dauntless dive-bombers took off from the ‘Yorktown’. Their target were Japanese ships stationed near Tulagi. On their first attack, the planes seriously damaged one destroyer, the ‘Kikuzuki’, and sank three minesweepers. The first attack was over by 09.30 when the planes landed back on the ‘Yorktown’. Two more attacks throughout the day brought little reward – two Japanese seaplanes were destroyed and four landing barges. The return for the pilots endeavours was not great.

“The Tulagi operation was certainly disappointing in terms of ammunition expended to results obtained.”Nimitz

On May 5th, the ‘Yorktown’ and the ‘Lexington‘ joined up at a designated rendezvous. At the same time, the various parts of the Japanese fleet were entering the Coral Sea.

Admiral Takagi’s Striking Force moved down along the Solomons, turned west and passed north of Rennel Island. By early May 6th, Takagi’s force was well into the Coral Sea.

The Port Moresby Invasion Force and the Support Group approached the Jomard Passage.

The Covering Force, led by Marushige, was re-fueling south of Bougainville.

Port Moresby was bombed on this day.

On May 6th, Fletcher decided to attack the Japanese force. American Intelligence informed him that it was almost certain that the Japanese would come through the Jomard Passage on May 7th or 8th. Fletcher moved his force to be in striking distance by May 7th. Japanese spotter planes reported back the position of some American warships. At 09.00, 15 Japanese bombers attacked the American ships but failed to hit their intended targets. Later attacks hit the ‘Sims’, a destroyer, and it quickly sank with the loss of 379 lives. The oil tanker ‘Neosho’ was also hit but it stayed on the surface to May 11th when 123 men were taken off by the destroyer ‘Henley’. The ‘Neosho’ was scuttled. However, their loss was not in vain as the 56 Japanese planes that attacked these two ships could well have turned their attention to the ‘Yorktown’. Just before 14.00 on the same day, a group of Japanese bombers attacked ships under the command of Rear Admiral J C Crace of the Royal Navy. Fletcher had moved his carrier away from Crace’s group that included the heavy cruisers ‘Australia’ and ‘Hobart’ of the Australian Navy. By doing so, he kept the vital warship ‘Yorktown’ out of the way of Japanese bombers. Crace’s force took the full brunt of an aerial attack – though it proved to be ineffective. By the end of the day, Crace had faced another attack – by American B-26 bombers which mistook his ships for Japanese ships!

At 08.15 spotter planes from the ‘Yorktown’ reported back that they had spotted two Japanese carriers and four heavy cruisers some 225 miles from the ‘Yorktown’. 93 aircraft were launched by the Americans to attack the Japanese. However, in this case the intelligence was incorrect – the ‘force’ was two light cruisers and two gunboats from the Japanese Support Group.

The ‘Lexington’ had better luck. Her planes spotted one Japanese carrier (the ‘Shoho’), three cruisers and some destroyers just 25 miles from the ‘Lexington’. With planes from the ‘Yorktown’ and ‘Lexington’ attacking, the ‘Shoho’ stood little chance. She sank at 11.35 after being hit by 13 bombs and 7 torpedoes.

To destroy the Americans carriers in the Coral Sea, Takagi selected his 27 best pilots for a night time attack against the carrier force. It was a disaster that was not helped by the poor weather. 21 planes failed to return – 11 were lost when they went over the side of the Japanese carriers when they attempted to land.

The battle carried over to May 8th. Both sides had thought about a night time surface engagement, but the weather and general fatigue ruled it out. May 8th became what was essentially a ‘carrier-versus-carrier’ battle. American planes attacked the Japanese carrier ‘Shokaku’. She sustained damage to her flight deck. After the attack, she could recover planes trying to land but could no longer launch any. A second attack was not overly successful – the carrier was not holed below the waterline and fires on board were soon under control. However, the ‘Shokaku’ had lost 108 crewmen.

However, the Japanese had not been idle. Both the ‘Lexington’ and the ‘Yorktown’ were attacked by Japanese planes. The ‘Yorktown’ was hit once by a bomb but it failed to impede the ability of the carrier to function. The ‘Lexington’ was hit by torpedoes and bombs – one of which hit a supply of ammunition. At 12.47, the carrier was shaken by a huge internal explosion when fuel vapours were ignited. A series of other explosions occurred and by 15.00 ‘Lady Lex’ was beyond help. At 16.30, the crew prepared to abandon ship. Various ships were called up to assist in the evacuation which was disciplined and orderly – even the ship’s dog was brought off. The ship’s commander was the last to leave. The destroyer ‘Phelps’ was ordered to finish off the ‘Lexington’, which it duly did with five torpedoes. The ‘Lexington’ sank at 20.00.

The Japanese called off the invasion of Port Moresby fearing that the Americans still had the capacity to destroy many of their landing craft. In numerical terms, the Japanese came out best in the Battle of Coral Sea. The loss of the ‘Lexington’ was great and far outweighed the loss of the ‘Shoho’. The Japanese lost 43 planes to the Americans 33. However, the battle is seen as an American victory simply because it stopped Japan doing what it had set out to do – capture Port Moresby and isolate Australia. In this sense, it was a strategic victory for America. The Battle of Midway was to do the Japanese far more damage.

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