The Battle of the Coral Sea
by John B Macartney. Republished with permission from the Australian-American Newsletter, April 2000.
(John Macartney retired as a Paymaster LCDR after service in HMAS Australia, Hobart and Shropshire between 1939 and 1946. He spent all but three months of his war service in a seagoing ship.)
There has only ever been one major naval battle fought by contestants within 300 miles of the Australian coast. It took place in the Coral Sea, so named in 1831 by CAPT Matthew Flinders, RN. Within a few weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, 7 December 1941, it became evident to the USN that they could expect increased activity in the South-West Pacific zone. This conclusion was supported by the remarkable success of code-breakers, particularly in Pearl Harbour and Melbourne, who were often able to anticipate the movements of enemy ships. In addition, extremely courageous coast-watchers mainly Australian, took up positions on various islands and reported their observations by radio.
(Ed. note: The major battles were 600 miles or more from mainland Australia.)
The Battle of the Coral Sea (Preston p. 110).
On 23 January 1942 the Japanese captured the port of Rabaul, which is near the north-east tip of New Britain, the largest chain of islands to the east and north of Papua New Guinea. Rabaul became the main base for assembling their forces in that part of the Pacific. In forthcoming clashes RADM F.J. Fletcher, USN, was to have overall command of the three main Allied task groups involved. His own group (TG 17.2) comprised the aircraft-carrier and flagship Yorktown, the cruisers Minneapolis, New Orleans, Astoria, Chester and Portland, and four destroyers.
USS Yorktown CV-5, San Diego, June 1940, loading aircraft for Hawaii. Displacement 25,900 tons, Length 809.5 feet (246.7m), Beam: 109.5 feet (33.4m), Draft: 26 feet (7.9m), 9 x Babcock and Wilcox boilers, 4 x Parsons geared turbines, 120,000 shp (90 MW), Speed 32.5 knots, rew: 2,217, Armament 8 x 5 inch (127mm), 4 x quad 1.1 inch (28mm) machine guns, 90 aircraft, 3 x elevators, 2 x flight deck hydraulic catapults, 1 x hangar deck hydraulic catapult.
Task Group 17.5 consisted of the aircraft carrier Lexington (CV-2, 50,000 tons, over 90 aircraft) and four destroyers, and was under the command of RADM A.W. Fitch. Task Group 17.3 (Ed. note: also called TF 44) was to be the support group, commanded by RADM J.G. Crace RN, flying his flag in the Australian cruiser Australia accompanied by the light Australian cruiser Hobart, the US cruiser Chicago and the US destroyers Farragut, Perkins and Walker.
HMAS Australia. County class cruiser, was RADM Crace’s flagship. Displacement: 13,450 tons, Length: 630 ft (190 m) Beam: 68.25 ft (20.80 m) Draught: 16.25 ft (4.95 m) 4-shaft Brown-Curtis geared turbines, 8 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 80,000 shp, Speed: 31.5 knots, Complement: 848, Armament: 8 x 8 inch (203 mm), 4 x 4 in (102 mm) dual Anti-aircraft guns, 4 x 3 pdr guns.
The Japanese Port Moresby invasion fleet had 11 troopships covered by an invasion group including the light carrier Shoho (21 aircraft), four heavy cruisers and a destroyer; these were backed up by the heavy carriers Zuikaku (flagship) and Shokaku with two heavy cruisers and six destroyers in distant company.
The extraordinary thing about this momentous battle was that at no stage did the opposing ships sight each other and after many reconnaissance flights by both sides, often hindered by low cloud, a sighting by Japanese pilots at about 1100 on 7 May led to the first attack.
HIJMS Zuikaku. Shokaku class aircraft carrier. Displacement: 32,000 tons, Length: 257.5 m, Beam: 26 m, Draught: 8.9 m, 8 boilers,160,000 hp (119 MW), 4 shafts, Speed: 34.5 knots, Complement: 1,660, Armament: 16 x 5 inch (127 mm), 96 x 25 mm Anti-aircraft, Aircraft: 18 Zeros, 27 Vals, 27 Kates (Dec. 1941).
The ships seen were reported as an aircraft carrier and a cruiser, so VADM Takagi (Zuikaku) ordered a force of 36 dive-bombers, 24 torpedo-bombers and 18 Zero fighters to deal with them. On arrival at the reported position the pilots found the ships were in fact the USN oiler Neosho and her escorting destroyer Sims. By then, the flight commander had received reports of bigger game in the vicinity, so he ordered a search for them until his planes were getting short of fuel.
Neosho and Sims
They then returned to deal with the oiler and destroyer. Sims was sunk by 36 dive-bombers and there were only 15 survivors. Twenty dive-bombers then concentrated on Neosho and within a few minutes scored seven direct hits.
The flight commander was satisfied that the oiler would sink and in any case his planes needed refuelling, so he ordered them all to fly home to their carriers. But he hadn’t allowed for the ability and tenacity of Neosho‘s crew. They fought fires that raged on board the oiler and kept her afloat until about noon four days later (11 May) when the destroyer Henley arrived, took off the 123 crewmen still on board and scuttled the ship.
Decisive factors: The Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero (950 hp engine, two x 7.7 mm machine guns, two x 20 mm cannon, range 1,930 miles with drop tank, left) entered the Coral Sea fray in 1942 with an enviable performance and war record. The Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat (1200 hp engine, six .50 calibre machine guns, range 770 miles, right) and new tactics (e.g. Thach weave) helped to dent its reputation, but it was not until 1943 that the new Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat (2000 hp engine, six .50 calibre machine guns) could reliably outmuscle the Zero in a one versus one match.
In the late forenoon of that day (7 May) a group of 93 aircraft from Yorktown and Lexington sighted the light Japanese carrier Shoho and her task group. They promptly attacked her and within half an hour she was on fire and then quickly went to the bottom.
HIJMS Shoho hit by a torpedo 7 May 1941. Displacement: 14,200 tons, Length: 674.2 ft (205.5 m), Beam: 59.8 ft (18.2 m), Draught: 21.75 ft (6.6 m) Geared turbines, 38.8 MW (52,000 hp), 2 shafts, Speed: 28.2 knots, Complement: 785, Armament: 8 x 127 mm (5 in), 8 x 25 mm anti-aircraft guns, 12 x 13.2 mm machine guns, 30 aircraft.
As she disappeared into her watery grave the voice of one of the US pilots, LCDR R.E. Dixon, was heard in the radio rooms of both American carriers: “Scratch one flat-top. Dixon to carrier, scratch one flat-top.”
A roar went up in both rooms. This was the first sinking of an enemy carrier by USN airmen, whose prowess and valour were to prove an extremely vital element throughout the Pacific War.
RADM Fletcher and VADM Takagi knew that the first pilot to spot the opposing carriers the following morning (8 May) would give his side an advantage, so spotting planes flew off as soon as there was sufficient visibility. At about 8 am the two carrier groups were about 160 miles apart and scouting planes from both sides had spotted enemy carriers.
The Americans were first into action with 39 aircraft (torpedo bombers and dive bombers) tackling Shokaku. The flagship-carrier Zuikaku and her group disappeared into a rain squall and when she emerged some minutes later RADM Hara saw from the bridge of Zuikaku that Shokaku was “burning furiously” from two direct hits by dive-bombers. Later she sustained a further blow when hit by another bomb and, as she was heavily damaged and no longer able to launch her aircraft, she was ordered to retire from the battle and head north.
Shokaku’s flight deck was badly damaged but the ship was repaired.
In the meantime planes from the enemy carriers scored hits on Lexington with two torpedoes and two bombs. There was a gigantic internal explosion at 1247. Her gallant crew kept trying to save their beloved ship through the afternoon, but as evening approached it became obvious that this was a lost cause, so the destroyer Phelps was ordered to torpedo her and send her to the bottom of the sea.
USS Lexington CV-2 after two torpedo and two bomb hits around 1100, could still make 25 knots and operate some aircraft until 1300, but two major avgas explosions and fires forced her crew to abandon ship by mid-afternoon.Lexington-class aircraft carrier, Displacement: 50,000 tons , Length: 888 ft (270.7 m), Beam: 106 ft (32.3 m), Draught: 24.25 ft (7.4 m), 16 x boilers, Geared turbines and electric drive, 4 x shafts, 209,710 shp, Speed: 34.8 knots, Complement: 2,122, Armament: 4 x twin 8-inch (200 mm), 12 x single 5-inch (130 mm), 91 aircraft, 2 x elevators, 1 x flywheel catapult.
CAPT Sherman checked all the decks to ensure that there were no living crewmen left, and he was the last to leave his stricken carrier, having seen to it that his dog, Wags, was transferred to one of the destroyers. He was promoted to RADM not long after this battle.
Yorktown was hit by one armour-piercing 800 lb bomb during the attack. It fell through one side of the flight deck and exploded on the fourth deck down, killing or seriously wounding 66 men. But the damage did not prevent aircraft from using the flight deck. The carrier proceeded to Pearl Harbour and was repaired in the astoundingly short time of three days by a 1400-strong work-force.
She was in time to join the carriers preparing for the next battle, near the island of Midway. Four Japanese carriers were sunk in that engagement. Yorktown became the only USN carrier lost, and that was very sad news for all who remembered the gallant part she, her crew and airmen had played in the Coral Sea.
At about 2 pm the same day (7 May) eleven single-engined land-based planes appeared, flying high, above TG 17.3. All ships opened fire and no bombs hit their targets.
Near 3 pm a more serious threat to the task group developed when 12 two-engined land-based navy bombers arrived. In this case the aircraft were flying very low and most carried torpedoes. The ships of RADM Crace’s task group were in formation, but he ordered them to act independently as the enemy planes approached. The ships all turned towards their attackers so as to present the narrowest possible targets, and as a result not one was hit.
Five of the attacking planes were shot down. Not long after this extremely satisfying episode another flight, of 19 twin-engined land-based bombers, appeared. They had come from Rabaul and they failed to score any hits with the bombs they dropped from heights of 15,000 feet or more, though there were plenty of near misses.
They flew away promptly after their fruitless mission, having come under heavy fire from the ships of RADM Crace’s task group.
The balance sheet
That was the end of the Coral Sea Battle. And which side won it? Well, published figures which I cannot guarantee give the main US losses as:
Aircraft carrier Lexington 50,000 tons, destroyer Sims 1570 tons, tanker Neosho 7256 tons.
Japanese losses included:
Aircraft carrier Shoho 14,200 tons, destroyer Kikuzo 1772 tons, supply vessel Okonoshima 4470 tons.
Aircraft losses were claimed as 77 American and 97 Japanese.
Because most of the crews of Lexington and Neosho were rescued by destroyers the casualty figures indicated an imbalance compared with the total tonnages of the sunken ships; 543 Americans were killed while the Japanese lost 1074.
The Japanese claimed a win because the total tonnage of US ships lost exceeded their total. But the US response was that the would-be invading ships never again came as far south as they had during the attempt to capture Port Moresby.
[Ed. notes: This was the first ever major naval action when opposing ships never came within sight of one another (Firkins p. 153), even though they were only 70 miles apart during night of 6/7 May, without knowing it (Reynolds p. 68).
It has been strongly argued that had the American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet, been available for this action, they would have contributed significantly to the battle. In fact, they were engaged in a North Pacific stunt, the Doolittle B-25 raid on the Japanese home islands, that recorded little material damage (Reynolds p. 68).
American torpedoes hit Shokaku in the forenoon of 8 May, but they failed to detonate. She received three bomb hits but returned to Japan for repairs under her own steam and was ready for action again in two months. Lexington‘s loss was attributed chiefly to secondary explosions associated with her poorly designed and managed avgas refuelling systems.
Other authorities give different times for the Japanese attacks on RADM Crace’s force. Some say the first strike was an 0600 torpedo attack by 12 aircraft, 10 of which were somewhat optimistically claimed to have been shot down (Firkins 1975, p. 155). Crace was also inadvertently bombed by US Army Air Force B-17s from Townsville, “Fortunately without hitting anything,” according to the official USN history website.
Zuikaku might have survived the battle unscarred, but the carrier required a month or more to replace the valuable aircrew and aircraft lost in the Coral Sea. The absence of Zuikaku and Shokaku and their highly capable aircrew might have been a crucial factor in the decisive 4 June 1942 Battle of Midway. “The battle-hardened Shokaku and Zuikaku would have been invaluable,” said Preston (p. 117).]
Firkins, P. Of nautilus and eagles: History of the Royal Australian Navy. Cassell Australia: North Melbourne. 1975.
Preston, A. Aircraft carriers. Bison Book Corp: Greenwich. 1979.
Reynolds, C.G. The carrier war. Time-Life Books Inc.: Chicago. 1982.