The Battle of the Coral Sea 1942: The First Aircraft Carrier Battle in History

in may of 1942 the first aircraft

carrier battle in history would take

place in the south pacific

it would be one of the most confused and

confusing battles of all time

and because it was the first duel

between aircraft carriers it would be

the first time that neither side's ships

sighted or fired directly upon the other

the battle of coral sea is often

overshadowed by the more famous battle

of midway

but nonetheless its significance cannot

be understated

the outcome of this engagement would

have direct consequences for the midway


operation mo called for the invasion of

port moresby

from there the japanese could launch

attacks on northern australia

and it could serve as a launching pad

for further incursions into the islands

of new caledonia

the fiji's and samoa ultimately what the

japanese wanted to achieve was to cut

off australia's supply lines with the us

and hopefully strangle it into


for this operation they needed air

support so admiral yamamoto reluctantly

agreed to land two of his carriers

he wanted him back as soon as the

operation was completed because he

needed him for the upcoming midway


as was typical in japanese operational

planning the operation was unnecessarily


first tulane would be taken on may 3

while receiving air cover from the

carrier strike force

and a covering force on the rear admiral

goto which contained a light carrier and

four cruisers

a sea plane base would be set up for air

reconnaissance koto's covering force

would then head north and team up with

the invasion convoy that would have

departed reball on may 4th

the six-day voyage would pass through

the jomar passage

additional seaplane bases would be set

up along the way to supplement the air


this was a dangerous stretch for the

japanese since they would be subjected

to air raids from land-based bombers

based in australia but no worries that's

what the carrier strike first was there


to provide air cover and finally on may

10th the invasion party would land

and port moresby will be taken

but as you can see the plan relied on

perfect coordination with five separate


the japanese were depending on

encountering a passive enemy who would

follow the japanese script

if they were to run into any determined

counter-attack their plan was surely


in regards to enemy opposition the

japanese were optimistic

at most there could be two american

carriers present but they weren't

counting on it

and if they showed up vice admiral

takagi was confident his own carers

would make easy work of them

plus they also had surprise on their

side well sort of

because little did they know the

americans were completely aware of the

upcoming invasion

at this stage of the war the greatest

american weapon was their radio


thanks to skilled u.s navy code breakers

enough pieces and fractions of messages

were deciphered

that a rough timeline for the operation

was made available to the americans

however to meet the japanese the

americans had only one carrier available

the uss

yorktown the u.s navy had five carriers

in the pacific at this stage in the war

one had been torpedoed and would be in

repairs for several months

two were coming back from the recent

doolittle raid and were unavailable

so they could only reinforce the

yorktown with one more

the old but reliable uss lexington

the american plan was simple stay at the

edge of japanese air range

and launch counter-attacks when deemed


the americans relied not only on

australian bombers to conduct their air

searches but also on their own scout


the japanese differ from this doctrine

they strictly used their own carrier

aircraft for offensive capabilities

not scouting thus they solely relied on

land-based aircraft

seaplanes and flying boats to do all the


their seaplanes had an extraordinary

range of 3000 miles

meaning they could search up to a

thousand miles still

this wasn't enough in war one must do

his utmost to get the most accurate


the one who can spot the enemy first and

spot him accurately is the one who gets

to strike first

and thus achieve victory keep in mind

that weather could play an important

role during air searches

whoever operated under cloud cover had

an advantage

it gave them protection from enemy

reconnaissance and it would make it

difficult for the enemy aviators to

attack them

during the first days of the battle the

americans would benefit from this

if there is something to be learned from

this battle it's that reliable

reconnaissance is

key you'll see how it will fail both

sides in the following days

there were five separate groups for

operation mo including two

invasion convoys a light carrier the

shoho would provide air cover for each

of the invasion forces

but it was the carrier striking force

that provided the main punch

it was composed of the shokaku and the

zuikaku together they had 121 aircraft

it was under the command of vice admiral

takagi but tactical control was given to

rear adam o'hara

a veteran of naval aviation warfare

the americans had task 417 with the

yorktown in the south pacific

it will later be reinforced with an

australian american cruiser force

under the command of rear animal crates

royal navy

once the lexington arrived the two

carriers would have 134 planes between


rear admiral fletcher was in command but

tactical control was given to rear

admiral fitch

the preliminary phase

on may 2nd fletcher was waiting to

rendezvous with the lexington however

lexington needed to refuel intelligence

reports indicated to fletcher that

operation ammo was beginning so he

headed north alone at a slow pace

at 1900 hours he got a report of the

tulagi invasion force making its way

towards tulagi

he decided to launch an attack on his

own he increased the speed

and headed north although attacking the

landing force on tulagi would reveal the

presence of a u.s carrier in the area to

the japanese

fletcher deemed it justified if he could

deliver a punishing blow

the next day on may 4 fletcher launched

an early morning strike

he was under some protection because he

was operating under heavy weather

the japanese were caught completely by

surprise and were practically


three attacks in total were launched

throughout the day despite such a large

amount of ordinance being dedicated to

this attack

the damage was modest and in spite of

the attack the tulagi sea plane base

will be operating two days later

on may 5th fletcher met up with the

lexington and the cruiser force

they topped off on fuel and on the six

fletcher combined all the forces at hand

into one enlarged task 417

fletcher had correctly deduced that the

invasion force was going to pass through

the jomar passage

so they began to head northwest but only

after they had sent

their only oiler and her escort to the

south to a designated safe area

he thought the carriers were in the

bougainville area they were probably

going to head south to guard the left

flank of the convoy

boy he couldn't have been more wrong the

japanese carriers were actually on his

exposed flank

coming right at him and within striking


but let's see how they got here in the

first place

to minimize the chances of discovery the

port moresby operation called for the

carrier strike force to conduct a wide

sweep around the solomon islands

so that they could enter coral sea from

the east

however a seemingly simple mission had

given loads of trouble to the carriers

they were tasked with ferry nine zeroes

to reball to strengthen the air base


on the 2nd of may the fighter set off

but bad weather forced them to return

they tried again on the third and again

they had to return due to bad weather

ultimately they were unsuccessful and

this two-day delay

is what made them be here instead of

here where they could have possibly

launched a counter-strike against a


anyways the strike was a shock for the

japanese and to complicate things more

takagi was in the middle of refueling

when he received the news of the attack

he ceased fueling and headed south

immediately in pursuit but by then

fletcher was long gone

on the evening of may 5th takagi turned

west into coral sea

where he planned to refill on the sixth

it must be noted that even at this point

given the tactical situation of there

being an enemy carrier on the loose

the japanese carriers were still not

launching their own searches

instead they waited passively for

reports from land-based aircraft

actually on may 5th a flying boat

appeared in the vicinity of task 417 but

was shot down

the crew either sent no message or did

but it failed to reach chicagi

nevertheless the failure of this

aircraft to return gave the japanese a

vague notion of where the american

carriers might be

and so as it came to be on the 6th of

may the japanese were in a perfect

position to launch an ambush on the

unsuspecting americans

while the americans incorrectly searched

the north the japanese correctly

searched to the west

at 100 hours a flying boat spotted task

force 17

but once again takagi was caught in the

middle of refueling when he received a


by noon he was heading south in pursuit

however by the evening

enthusiasm had fallen there was bad


it was getting late and he roughly knew

where the american carriers were

but he didn't want to send the search to

confirm it because he feared that he

would alert the americans to his


so he decided not to rush it it would be

better to launch a comprehensive search

the following day

locate the enemy and launch a powerful

strike to finish the carriers

and so hera called off the pursuit

unbeknownst to him if he had been more

aggressive this day

it would have paid off handsomely

post-battle analysis would later reveal

that the japanese carers got within 70

miles of task force 17 that day

70 miles the report that hera originally

had received was incorrect but to his


it was actually some 50 miles closer if

he had launched a search he surely would

have found the americans

and if he had launched a strike that

evening he would have found task 417 in

a vulnerable state since they would have

been in the middle of refueling

the battle kurosi would have ended right

then and there with a total japanese


hera and takagi's timidity and lack of

aggression this day

cost them their best chance for a


both sides were ready to give battle on

the 7th the ammo striking force still

had the advantage of surprise

they searched west and south while task

417 ignorant of the real japanese


searched north in case the carrier

battle didn't go well for the americans

a task force of three cruisers and three

destroyers on the rear admiral craze

departed to block the convoy that would

pass jomart passage

by this point hera had

unenthusiastically launched 12 of his

own kates to boost the search

in order to safeguard his flank he

extended their southwest search to also

search south

this decision would prove rather

unfortunate herrera search planes got a

sighting in this sector at 7

22 an american carrier and a cruiser

were spotted

hera hesitated but a second plane

confirmed the sighting at 7 45.

by 0815 hera had launched a massive

strike of 78 planes

however minutes after the launch he got

another sighting of american carriers

150 miles northwest

turns out his original sighting was

incorrect unbelievably

both search planes committed the same

mistake and misidentified the two

ships hera had just committed his strike

against the wrong target

he declined to recall the strike he

didn't want to break radio silence

and he hoped there would be other

targets of some value the planes reached

the target area

found the euler neosho which by the way

was a pearl harbor survivor

and the destroyer sims both had left

fletcher the day before

the pilot spread out and waste two hours

searching for more valuable targets

and of course they found none so they

finally settled on these two secondary


at 15 past 12 the sims was hit by three


the destroyer split in half and sank

with a heavy loss of life

the remaining dive bombers went for

neosho and she was hit by seven bombs

she survived for four more days and was

eventually scuttled

the japanese strike arrived late that

afternoon the launching of a second

strike this late in the day was

doubtful however the attack didn't

compromise their position

only niosho had sent word at 1021 that

it was under attack by three planes

but these could have been long-range

aircraft from tulagi so fletcher was

still unaware that the carriers were on

his flank

eerily the americans were practically

committing the japanese's exact mistakes

fletcher's dawn search resulted in a

sighting at oa15

a report of two carriers and four

cruisers was given he launched a strike

of 93 aircraft at 9 26

soon the pilot that made the siding

landed onboard the yorktown and revealed

that he had never spotted two carriers

turns out his coding device had a

malfunction and when he reported two

cruisers and two destroyers it came out

as two carriers and four cruisers

therefore by about 10 15 the situation

was that both carrier forces had


launched their strikes against the wrong


just like takagi fletcher declined to

recall the strike it pressed on

however the american strike fared better

when the report at 10 22

indicated the presence of at least one

carrier there

here you realize the foolishness in not

delaying the rest of the ammo operation

since the carrier striking force was

behind schedule for two days

the vulnerable convoy had been advancing

this whole time

with practically no air cover except for

the shoho

the invasion force knew it had been

spotted with all the sightings of

aircraft overhead so it pulled back

north but it was too late a gap was

formed between the shoho and his

protective screen of cruisers

to show how was in very clear weather

her 18 aircraft would be no match

against the 93 that were coming her way

lessenton's air group was spotted at 10

50. shoho had only three fighters in the


shoho made a turn to port she skillfully

dodged the first three bombs

then the next 10 bombs she launched

another three fighters to boost her


however her luck ran out 15 dive bombers

came and scored a hit

then another 1 000 pound bomb hit the


torpedo bombers conducted an anvil

attack and hit her with five torpedoes

the ship was now crippled

the yorktown squadrons came next at 11

25 they should have ignored her and gone

for other targets

but they didn't they landed another five

to six more hits on the carrier and

another two to five torpedo hits

in total they had overkill on this

carrier with about 12 hits and seven


at 11 31 abandoned ship was ordered

all 18 planes were lost either by

ditching or being destroyed

all for the loss of three american

aircraft the shoho had a heavy loss of

life and was the first

japanese carrier to be sunk in the war

the invasion force dispersed in terror

and all the forces not involved with

dealing with the american carriers were

ordered to temporarily withdraw north

fletcher's forest was recovered by 1316

but he was hesitant to launch a second

strike against a convoy

because he still didn't know where the

main japanese force was

he knew of the loss of the sims in the

neosho but that still didn't pinpoint

the exact location of the carriers

also on the seventh crisis cruiser force

was spotted and attacked by a force of

31 bombers and 11 fighters in the


luckily none of the ships were hit he

was even attacked by three friendly

b-17s by accident

but also survived that without a scratch

the japanese heard about shoho's loss

and were eager for revenge

with the number of aircraft involved

during the shoho attack it was clear

that two carriers were on the loose only

now were the japanese inclined to take


they decided to make a dusk attack a

long-range search and destroy mission

with their best pilots

based on the sighting at 1615 they sent

27 bombers to search west

mind you these pilots have just returned

from a 7 hour mission and were exhausted

the strike was launched but the weather

was terrible and they ended up missing

the americans

american radar detected the flight and

an ambush was set up on a portion of


nine were shot down

the rest continued their mission unaware

that they had passed the enemy fleet

they finally gave up jettison their

bombs and torpedoes to lighten their


and headed back home and it was only on

the return trip that they run into the


but they didn't have their bombs anymore

and something noteworthy happened in all

the confusion settling that night

some japanese aircraft actually tried to

land on the yorktown

thinking it was their own carrier they

quickly sped away when they received

anti-aircraft fire

hera turned on his searchlights and the

remaining 18 were able to land

but the loss of nine bombers and their

elite pilots in this desperate attempt

will be sorely missed the next day

the carriers were about a hundred miles

away from each other at twenty hundred


fletcher finally knew the location of

the carriers the japanese trump card

surprise had been thrown away in the

24-hour period that straddled the sixth

and the seventh

the japanese lost two good opportunities

to force battle on the american carriers

when the odds were in their favor

on the afternoon of the six had the

japanese attacked they would have found

the americans in the process of


and on the seventh the japanese were on

the rear of a distracted enemy

and squandered their chance by launching

their strike against secondary targets

had they found an attack task 417 and

not the niosho in the sims

the japanese would have caught them by

surprise while they were attacking the


and so now battle was assured for the

eighth the japanese would now give


more or less on the basis of equality

and with an enemy alerted to their


this day lady luck was on the japanese

side as cloud cover had moved and was

now over the japanese force

both fletcher and takagi found what they

were looking for the americans launched

a full 360 degree search at zero 625

and at 0820 the japanese were spotted

175 miles away

on this day fletcher had 117 operational


he dispatched a striking force of 75


by zero 925 the two air groups proceeded


the japanese search aircraft were

launched at 0.615 and made a spotting at


the ammo striking force had fewer

aircraft 95 operational planes but

managed to put together a strike of 69


almost simultaneously both strikes


the yorktown dive bomber spotted the

japanese carriers at 10 32.

they decided to wait for the torpedo

bombers to catch up but it wasn't worth

it this 20-minute delay

allowed the zuikaku to disappear under

the clouds

also this allowed more japanese fighters

to be launched to strengthen the air


at 10 57 the attack finally commenced

the planes of yorktown and lexington

attacked separately and shokaku being

the only carrier visible took the brunt

of the entire attack

the first seven bombs missed then came

17 dive bombers

a bomb struck the bow which started a

fire the rest of the squadron followed

one of her pilots lieutenant john jay

powers with his aircraft already damaged

dived well below a thousand feet to

ensure a hit he wasn't able to pull out

the dive in time and both he and his

rear gunner were killed

his bomb hit shattered the flight deck

of the shokaku his bravery earned him a

posthumous medal of honor

the torpedo bombers came next and

launched from extreme range and all of

them missed

by 1105 shokaku had been hit by two

bombs and was popping in and out of

cloud cover

half an hour later came lexington strike

however 14 planes never even made it to

the target because they got lost in the

bad weather

so only 22 made the attack

four dive bombers came and scored one

hit at 11 40.

the remaining 12 torpedo bombers came

and launched the torpedoes but again

they all missed

by 11 50 the attack was over

it was a poor performance although they

managed to strike to shokaku with three

heavy thousand pound bombs

she was in no immediate danger of

sinking the attack had cost the

americans two dive bombers and three


the japanese combat air patrol lost only

two fighters

after the attack the shokaku had to

depart the area leaving the zuikaku as

the sole carrier

the japanese attack differed greatly in

coordination and precision

warrant officer kanyo kenzo the pilot

who made the original sighting was on

his way back to his carrier

he made a heroic sacrifice by turning

back to lead the strike accurately to

his target

this spelled a death sentence for him

and his crew who now wouldn't have

enough fuel to return

his plane would be shot down shortly

after the battle for their bravery the

three men would be awarded a posthumous

letter of commendation

personally signed by admiral yamamoto

radar detected the japanese strike at 10

55. they were 68 miles out the americans


five fighters to intercept them but they

missed them

remember that radar interception was in

its infancy at this stage of the war

the japanese were to launch a superior

coordinated strike with both their

torpedo and dive bombing squadrons

of the 18 capes 14 selected the

lexington and four would go for the


of the 33 dive bombers 19 went for the

lexington and 14 for the yorktown

a wave of anti-aircraft fire greeted the

japanese and the lexington turned to


the lexington was able to avoid damage

for several minutes

once even allowing a pair of torpedoes

to pass her on both sides

at 11 20 her luck ran out against the

torpedoes and she was hitting quick

secession by two on her port side

dive bombers got two hits on the

lexington but overall the dive bombing

attack caused minor damage

although the lexington had suffered two

bomb hits and two torpedo hits

she could still conduct flight

operations and keep at a good 24 knots

the yorktown was more maneuverable and

was able to dodge all the torpedoes

but she was hit by a 500 pound bomb and

it went through six decks before finally


despite the effort of 20 wildcats and 23

dauntlesses on combat air patrol

japanese losses were light five dive

bombers and eight torpedo bombers were

lost to the americans

american losses were three wildcats and

five dauntlesses

however on the return trip the japanese

had to ditch seven aircraft

and 12 more were thrown off the decks

after they had landed

so in total japanese suffered more

losses during the eighth

the ammo striking force lost 34 aircraft

in combat as opposed to 19 for task 417

but there was trouble on the lexington

as the day went on her condition grew

worse as

explosions rattled the ship there was an

explosion at 12 47

then a huge one at 14 42 and then a

third one at 15

25. soon fires began to spread

uncontrollably throughout the carrier

it was then clear that she wouldn't be

saved after the crew had been rescued

the carrier was scuttled other crew of


216 men died the lexington took with her

35 aircraft still on board

leaving the yorktown with only 39


fletcher had no option but to withdraw

this battle had already cost the pacific

fleet one fourth of its carrier strength

but on the flip side the japanese

situation also didn't look promising

tazuikaku was left with oddly enough 39

operational planes

fuel was down because of all the fuel

interruptions pilots were fatigued and

with this low aircraft strength the

carrier striking force was not capable

of supporting the invasion force so they

wisely pulled back

the battlefield did lay in japanese

hands the japanese could have pushed

forward and taken port moresby with

little opposition

all that was left were army land-based

bombers who posed little threat to ships

underway at sea

but again this is hindsight back then it

would have been ludicrous to send a

vulnerable convoy without sufficient air


operation mo was over casualties were as

follows for the allied forces

the americans lost to lexington a

valuable fleet oiler and a destroyer

66 planes were lost and personal

casualties were at 543.

for the japanese they lost a light

carrier a destroyer and several


the japanese lost 77 planes and 1074 men

the japanese lost 90 aircrew compared to

the americans who lost only 35

but strictly speaking in tonage and

material loss the japanese had a

tactical victory here

but it was a strategic victory for the

americans because it had stopped the

first japanese offensive since the

beginning of the war

and it prevented the port moresby

invasion the japanese would later try to

take port moresby over land and it would


the threat to australia was put away for



equally important was that this

engagement had knocked off two carriers

off the order of battle for the upcoming

midway operation

the americans had devastated zuikaku's

air group and damage to shokaku so that


none would be able to participate in


this could have been offset though if

the japanese had been luckier

on may 8th only four torpedo bombers

went after the yorktown

eight more could have been added to this

attack if they hadn't been lost in the

desperate night mission the day before

had the japanese place a single torpedo

hit on the yorktown

history would have been altered even if

the yorktown had survived she certainly

would not have been repaired in time to

participate in the midway battle

where as we know her aircraft would end

up playing an important role

instead it would now just be four

carriers for the midway operation

oh well they should be able to handle

themselves yamamoto was confident in his