The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought on 7-8 May 1942 in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands and east of New Guinea, was the first of six battles between opposing aircraft carrier forces in the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II.
During the Battle of the Coral Sea, a heavy explosion on board USS Lexington (CV-2) blows an aircraft over her side, 8 May 1942. This is probably the "great explosion" from the detonation of torpedo warheads stowed in the starboard side of the hangar, aft, that took place just after the ship's Commanding Officer, Captain Frederick C. Sherman, left Lexington.
In the spring of 1942, Japan's expansion plans aimed for control of the Coral Sea through seizure of the Southern Solomon Islands and Port Moresby, on the southeastern coast of New Guinea. From there they could threaten growing Allied air power in northeastern Australia. New Caledonia would be seized to complete encirclement of the Coral Sea. Control of the Coral Sea would sever American links to Australia and New Zealand, making them vulnerable to further Japanese expansion.
The Japanese moved into the Coral Sea with the Port Moresby Amphibious Invasion Force, a separate Covering Force and an aircraft carrier Striking Force. There they were intercepted by Allied naval units, acting on communications intelligence, resulting in an operational and strategic defeat for Japan, the first setback to the great offensive they had begun at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The Battle of the Coral Sea depleted Japanese strength, setting them up for even greater losses a month later, at the Battle of Midway.
Coral Sea was a clash between carrier task forces in which the surface ships did not exchange fire, in fact never saw each other, the first such battle in history. Preliminary operations on 3-6 May and two days of active carrier combat on 7-8 May cost the United States one aircraft carrier -- the USS Lexington (CV-2) -- a destroyer and a valuable fleet oiler, plus damage to a second carrier. The Japanese were forced to cancel their Port Moresby seaborne invasion while losing a light carrier, a destroyer and some smaller ships. Their aircraft carrier Shokaku was badly damaged by aerial bombs and carrier Zuikaku's air group was badly depleted. The elimination of the two carriers from the Midway operation was fundamental to that Japanese defeat.
The U.S. Navy task force commander was Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (on USS Yorktown (CV-5)) with Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, who had more carrier experience (on Lexington). The Japanese force was commanded by Japanese Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi and Rear Admiral Tadaichi Hara.
Battle of the Coral Sea: Day 1
Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning, 7 May 1942. A Douglas TBD Devastator is visible to the right of center. Photographed from a USS Yorktown (CV-5) torpedo plane.
7 May 1942 began with American and Japanese commanders trying to locate opposing carriers to score a decisive first blow in the expected battle. Both sides managed to sink inferior secondary targets, but the vital carriers were not located until the next day.
The destroyer USS Sims (DD-409) was sunk by a large force of dive bombers, taking very heavy casualties. The oiler Neosho (AO-23) was reduced to a drifting wreck whose survivors were not rescued for days. Japanese light carrier Shoho sank in minutes from a huge attack sent out from Yorktown and Lexington, based on intelligence that misidentifed Shoho as a larger carrier. "Scratch one flattop", was the message to Fletcher from Lt.Cmdr. R.E. Dixon. Other actions that day had many planes from both sides in the air, without much effect.
More Japanese losses were sustained late in the day, when another thirty carrier planes searched for U.S. ships, but were shot down or lost in night landing attempts. The intensity of the battle, if not the actual losses, convinced the Japanese to order their Port Moresby invasion force to turn back to Rabaul.
Battle of the Coral Sea: Day 2
Before dawn on 8 May, Japanese and American carriers sent scout planes looking for opposing ships. After locating the carriers, each side's planes attacked the other's ships about 1100. The Japanese ships were under cloudy weather, but only clear skys were over the American positions.
Planes from both Yorktown and Lexington hit the Shokaku, leaving the carrier unable to launch planes, and she withdrew to return to Japan for repairs. Although Zuikaku was nearby, low clouds kept her from being detected.
Japanese planes struck the American carriers shortly after 1100. Torpedoes hit Lexington and bombs hit both carriers. Fires spread through the Lexington followed by explosions; she was abandoned and scuttled later in the day. Yorktown was badly damaged, but remained operational.
By the end of 8 May, both sides were gone from the battle area. Zuikaku remained nearby for a few days, but withdrew on 11 May, her air group devastated. The Yorktown was recalled to Pearl Harbor where she received quick repairs and returned to play a vital role in the Battle of Midway in early June. The Americans had sustained heavier damage and casualties, but had thwarted the invasion of Port Moresby and had triumphed by taking Shokaku and Zuikaku out of further offensive action.
Recommended Books about the Battle of the Coral Sea
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