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World War II: Battle of the Coral Sea

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World War II: Battle of the Coral Sea

Smoke pours from the aircraft carrier the USS Lexington from Japanese torpedo hits during the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War II, 1942

Pictorial Parade / Staff/ Archive Photos/ Getty Images

Battle of the Coral Sea - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought May 4-8, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders:

Allies

Japanese

Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi
  • Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue
  • Prinicpal Units: 2 fleet carriers, 1 light carrier, 4 cruisers

Battle of the Coral Sea - Background:

In the wake of their stunning victories in early 1942, the Japanese sought to extend their control by taking all of New Guinea and occupying the Solomon Islands. This would eliminate the last Allied base between Japan and Australia as well as would provide a security perimeter around Japan's recent conquests in the Dutch East Indies. It was also hoped that the operation would draw the US Navy's carriers into battle so that they could be destroyed. To accomplish these missions, three Japanese fleets sortied from Rabaul in April 1942.

While one moved towards Tulagi in the Solomons, another sailed south towards the main Allied base on New Guinea, Port Moresby. These invasion forces were screened by Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi's covering force centered around the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and the light carrier Shoho. Arriving at Tulagi on May 3, Japanese forces quickly occupied the island and set up a seaplane base. Alerted to Japanese intentions by radio intercepts, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, dispatched the carriers USS Yorktown and USS Lexington to the Coral Sea to protect Port Moresby.

Battle of the Coral Sea - Fighting Begins:

Led by Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, Yorktown raced to the area and launched three strikes against Tulagi on May 4, 1942. Hitting the island hard, they badly damaged the seaplane base and eliminated its reconnaissance capabilities for the coming battle. In addition, Yorktown's aircraft sank a destroyer and five merchant ships. Steaming south, Yorktown joined Lexington later that day. Two days later, land-based B-17s from Australia spotted and attacked the Port Moresby invasion fleet. Bombing from high-altitude, they failed to score any hits.

Throughout the day both carrier groups searched for each other with no luck as cloudy skies limited visibility. With night setting in, Fletcher made the difficult decision to detach his main surface force of three cruisers and their escorts. Designated Task Force 44, under the command of Rear Admiral John Crace, Fletcher ordered them to block the probable course of the Port Moresby invasion fleet. Sailing without air cover, Crace's ships would be vulnerable to Japanese air strikes. The next day, both carrier groups resumed their searches.

Battle of the Coral Sea - Exchanging Blows:

While neither found the other's main body, they did locate secondary units. Japanese aircraft attacked and sank the destroyer USS Sims as well as crippled the oiler USS Neosho. American aircraft were luckier as they located Shoho. Attacking the Japanese carrier, they sank it with heavy losses. The sinking of Shoho led Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon to radio the famous phrase, "scratch one flattop." On May 8, both fleets found each other and launched all of their aircraft. Arriving over Takagi's force, American aircraft hit Shokaku three times setting it on fire and putting it out of action.

Zuikaku, hidden in a squall, escaped any major damage. While the US pilots were having success, the Japanese were hitting Yorktown and Lexington. The former was hit by a bomb, while the latter was struck by both bombs and torpedoes. Damage crews raced to save Lexington and had contained most of the fires when a supply of aviation fuel exploded. With the crew unable to extinguish the flames, Lexington was abandoned and sunk to prevent capture. Blocked in their advance and with Crace's force in place, the overall Japanese commander, Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, ordered the invasion force to return to port.

Battle of the Coral Sea - Aftermath:

A strategic victory, the Battle of the Coral Sea cost Fletcher the carrier Lexington, as well as the destroyer Sims and the oiler Neosho. Total killed for the Allied forces was 543. For the Japanese, the battle losses included Shoho, one destroyer, and 1,074 killed. In addition, Shokaku was badly damaged and Zuikaku's air group greatly reduced. As a result, both would miss the Battle of Midway in early June. While Yorktown was damaged, it was quickly repaired at Pearl Harbor and raced back to sea to aid defeating the Japanese.

Selected Sources

 

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