The Japanese battle plan, developed by the battle staff of Admiral Yamamoto, was set
into motion. Called Operation MO, the plan involved the Invasion of Port Moresby on the
Coral Sea. The fall of Port Moresby would lead to an easy conquest of the rest of New
Guinea and thereby place Australia itself in great peril. As a preliminary move, a
Japanese force seized Tulagi, a small island some 20 miles North of Guadalcanal in the
Solomon Islands and began construction of a seaplane base there. Since January, Japanese
forces had been staging for regional Pacific operations at Rabaul. On 4 May, the Port
Moresby Invasion force consisting of 14 invasion troop transports. escorted by a light
cruiser and six destroyers and a covering force consisting of the light carrier Shoho,
four heavy cruisers and a destroyer departed the Rabaul staging area and headed to sea.
Most of this information was already known by Admiral Nimitz, whose crypto analysts had
broken the Japanese fleet crypto codes. Nimitz had already dispatched a naval force,
designated Task Force 17, consisting of two carriers, six heavy cruisers, two light
cruisers and eleven destroyers under command of Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher. Their
mission--to intercept the Japanese fleet now steaming from Rabaul. On the afternoon of the
6th of May, enemy forces had become sufficiently consolidated in the Bismarck
Archipelago-New Guinea region to indicate amphibious operation to the southward. As enemy
forces moving against Port Moresby, the most likely target, would have to round the
southeastern end of New Guinea. Rear Admiral Fletcher stationed an attack group within
striking distance Of the probable track of the enemy fleet and the remainder of his force
moved northward in an attempt to locate the enemy covering force.
Admiral Fletcher's forces had reached the Coral Sea of northeastern Australia by the
time of the Tulagi landing. Fletcher immediately launched a ninety nine plane air attack
toward Tulagi from his flagship, the carrier Yorktown. To counter the unexpected threat
from Task Force 17, Japanese Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi was sent south from Bougainville
with an additional reinforcing force consisting of two heavy carriers, the Zuikaku and the
Shokaku, two heavy cruisers and six destroyers.
As the two opposing forces drew inexorably closer, the first contact was made by
Takagi. On the morning of 7 May. one of his search planes spotted the oiler Neosho and a
destroyer. Excited by his discovery, the spotter erroneously reported the two ships as an
enemy carrier and a cruiser. Responding quickly, two waves of high-level bombers and 36
dive bombers attacked, sinking the destroyer and leaving the oiler mortally wounded and
While Takagi concentrated on these relatively minor targets, a strike force of 93
planes from the Yorktown and Lexington found the light carrier Shoho and began an intense
bomb and torpedo attack. As the command elements on the United States mother ships
strained to make sense of the garbled and excited radio conversations between engaged
aircraft, the voice of Lieutenant Commander Robert Dixon came in loud and clear, reporting
"Scratch one flattop! Dixon to carrier. Scratch one flattop!" At last, after
five long and discouraging months, a Japanese ship larger than a destroyer had been sunk.
In Rabaul, Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, overall commander of Operation MO, ordered
the transports to turn back and wait until the seas were cleared of the Americans. As the
afternoon wore on, visibility decreased and squalls developed, limiting visibility and
aerial observation. By midnight, the two fleets had lost contact.
Takagi then signaled Rear Admiral Tadaichi Hara, commander of the two Japanese
carriers, querying if he could launch a night air attack. Hara replied that he was
prepared to send a force of 27 aircraft. Just prior to dusk they took off but because of
limited visibility and worsening weather, they found nothing. However, on the way back to
the carriers, the returning Japanese raiders were set upon by a group of Fletchers
fighters. In the ensuing battle, nine Japanese aircraft were shot down; the others
dispersed and attempted to return to their home carriers. One cluster of six eventually
found a carrier and entered the landing pattern. As the first Japanese aircraft skimmed
the deck with its landing hook extended, he was blasted by a hail of gunfire. The aircraft
carrier was the Yorktown.
Takagi, reviewing the situation, decided to retire to the north temporarily. After
several hours, he doubled back toward the American carriers and just before dawn on 8 May,
he dispatched a force of 27 search planes. The first pure carrier battle in the history of
warfare was now imminent. Admiral Fletcher had ra dar, but his carriers had operated
together as a team for less than a week. Takagi had no radar, but his forces had been
together as a coordinated division for more than six months. Fletcher now had 122 planes:
Takagi had 121. The overcast weather gave a slight advantage to the attacking Takagi.
The first break, however, went to Fletcher. At 0815 one of his search pilots reported
sighting the Japanese Strike Force, radioing that he had spotted two carriers, four heavy
cruisers, many destroyers, steering 120 degrees, 20 knots. Their position 175 miles
roughly northeast!" Fletcher ordered airstrikes launched from both carriers and
around 1100 hours 39 planes from the Yorktown attacked the Shokaku, now screened by heavy
cruisers and destroyers. Zuikaku, ten miles away, was hidden by a dense squall. Shokaku
avoided hits by torpedo planes, but dive bombers scored two direct hits which started
raging fires. Twenty-four planes from the Lexington made up a second wave and found the
carriers and attacked aggressively. The Shokaku was hit one more time and, as the aircraft
returned to the Lexington. the Shokaku's fires were brought under control and. seriously
wounded, she left the field of battle and headed for home.
However, the Japanese found the American force almost simultaneously with the American
discovery of the Japanese fleet. Seventy planes attacked Fletchers two carriers. One
bomb hit he Yorktowns flight deck, however the fires were quickly brought under
control by the Yorktown damage control crews; the Lexington, however, was not so lucky as
two torpedoes exploded on her port side and small bombs struck forward on the main deck
and into the smokestack structure.
The air attacks had been costly to both sides. By noon the battle was over. It was the
first naval engagement in which posing ships never saw each other or changed gunfire.
At this time, it appeared that Fletcher had won. He had sunk a light carrier, a
destroyer and three small vessels while losing one destroyer and an oiler. Then. two
explosions rocked the stricken Lexington and set off fires that could not be brought under
control. Around 1700 hours, the Lexington now almost Impossible to control Rear Admiral
Aubrey Fitch, commander of the Carrier Group, informed the Lexington's skipper. Captain
Frederick C. Sherman, that it was time to "get the men off."
Nearly all personnel were saved and once everyone was clear of the stricken Lexington,
four torpedoes from the destroyer Phelps were fired into the carriers starboard
side. The carrier shuddered and, as Steam continued to rise from within her She slid
stern-first beneath the waters, head up and refusing to roll over even at the very end.
With the sinking of the Lentngton, the battle now became a tactical victory for Takagi:
however, the strategic triumph belonged to Fletcher. Admiral Inoue was forced to postpone
the Port Moresby operation. Fletcher had accomplished his mission and, for the first time
since Pearl Harbor. a Japanese invasion had been thwarted.
Takagi, however. Was reluctant to give up. He was preparing to engage the Americans in
a night battle when he learned that his own destroyers were almost out of fuel. He then
turned back toward Rabaul. Yamamoto was still resolved to pursue the Americans, however,
and through communications facilities at Rabaul ordered Takagi to attack in spite of the
fuel shortage. Takagi reversed his course to engage, but to late. Fletcher had already
Thus ended the first major engagement in naval history in which surface ships did not
exchange a single shot. Although the loss of the Lexington was keenly felt, the engagement
in the Coral Sea effectively checked the Japanese in their advance southward. 0ur losses
of one carrier, one tanker, one destroyer and a total of 66 planes were considerably less
than the estimated Japanese losses. Our personnel casualties totaled 543.
Tactically, the Battle of the Coral Sea was a Japanese victory. The United States
carrier Lexington, plus the Neoshe and Sims were lost during the fight, far out weighing
the loss of the Japanese light carrier Shoho. Strategically, however, Coral Sea was a
stunning American victory. The Japanese invasion force headed for Port Moresby was forced
to turn back, the first such withdrawal of the war. Japanese expansion effectively ended
with the turning back of that invasion force, although the war would continue for many
more years. And, for the first time, the United States had sunk a major Japanese ship.
Additionally, two other large Japanese carriers, the Shokaku and the Zuikaku were forced
to return to port for repairs and replacement of lost aircraft. The forced return to port
would keep them from participating in the upcoming Battle of Midway. Had those two large
carriers been players in that strategically decisive battle, their presence could have
been decisive in altering the outcome.
Alter the Battle of the Coral Sea, the carrier became the focus of naval weaponry.
Other ships of the fleet now supported the carrier. The carrier became the first true
strategic weapons system, fully capable of executing the range of strategic options
through the spectrum from establishing a "show the flag" presence to the
projection of both surgical, tactical and strategic power on a global basis in support of
national policy and military strategy.
And thus is the heritage of the USS Coral Sea. ...