Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hell in the Coral Sea

Seventy-five years ago, in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean northeast of Australia, a new type of naval warfare entered the arena of history. For the first time, two naval forces did battle without ever coming within visual sight of each other. Although neither side could claim a clear-cut victory, the Battle of the Coral Sea changed the course of World War 2 in the Pacific. Many in Australia believe that it prevented the invasion of their homeland by the Japanese Empire.

Historians continue to debate whether or not the Japanese planned an actual invasion of Australia. However, there is no question that the Japanese High Command intended to isolate the island continent and force its government out of the war.

May 1942 came at the end of a long string of spectacular Japanese victories. Having smashed the American Battle Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese armed forces ran rampant through Southeast Asia, seizing Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. Allied naval and military efforts to slow the Japanese juggernaut had been brushed aside with seeming ease. As the remnants of American, British, Dutch, and Australian forces tried to regroup in Australia under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, prospects for survival of the Commonwealth appeared dicey.

IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) Vice Admiral Inoue Shigemi, Commander of Japan’s Fourth Fleet, had worked out an intricate plan with his Army counterparts for further expansion in the Southwest Pacific.  The same land and naval forces would be used over and over. First, the Navy would move down the Solomons Chain to the southeast, securing the big islands of Bougainville and Guadalcanal, on which airfields could be built. Tulagi, with its large lagoon suitable for operating the big Kawanishi flying boats, would be occupied at the same time. Once the eastern flank had been secured, a combined force invasion of the Australian base at Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast would follow.

With Port Moresby at his disposal, Inoue’s bombers would be in a position to attack northeast Australia. Meanwhile, he would regroup his ships and Army forces to advance across the Coral Sea to seize New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. With his bombers based on those islands, Australia would be completely isolated. Cut off from help from her Allies, the island continent would have no choice but to sue for peace.

Admiral Ernest King, Commander in chief, U.S. Fleet, was gravely concerned about the possible isolation of Australia. To prevent such a circumstance, he had ordered Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor to keep at least one aircraft carrier task force in the Coral Sea. Aircraft from these vessels had decimated the enemy bomber forces based at Rabaul and struck invasion shipping off the north coast of New Guinea. As the Japanese began to set their new plan in motion, a task force of two U.S. aircraft carriers and their supporting ships moved into the Coral Sea.

American and Japanese forces northeast of Australia began to converge. Rear Admiral Kōsō Abe’s Port Moresby Invasion Force was central to the situation. The Japanese admirals’ job was to protect it and support its landing. The American admirals’ objective was to prevent the landing from taking place.

Abe’s force sortied from Rabaul on 4 May and proceeded southward across the Solomon Sea, heading for the eastern tip of New Guinea. Admiral Sadanichi Kajioka’s light cruiser and six destroyers joined up during the day. After supporting the landings at Tulagi, The light carrier Shōhō and the heavy cruisers and destroyers of Rear Admiral Aritomo Gotō’s Covering Force put in at Bougainville to refuel. Meanwhile, Vice Admiral (VADM) Takeo Takagi’s Carrier Strike Group was steaming south on the east side of the Solomons, turning left to thread between Guadalcanal and Rennell Islands to enter the Coral Sea. 

The Japanese and American carrier forces were closely balanced. VADM Takagi had sister ships Shōkaku and Zuikaku, both first line fleet vessels. Rear Admiral (RADM) Frank Jack Fletcher had Lexington and Yorktown. The air groups were similarly balanced. Fletcher had 44 Wildcat fighters, 74 Dauntless dive-bombers, and 25 Devastator torpedo bombers, a total of 143. Takagi had 36 Zero fighters, 54 Aichi dive-bombers, and 54 Kate torpedo planes, a total of 144 aircraft. Both admirals were surface warfare officers. Both delegated control of actual air operations to their senior aviator subordinates: RADM Chūichi in the case of Takagi, RADM Aubrey Fitch in the case of Fletcher.

Fletcher had the advantage in intelligence. Allied codebreakers were just beginning to read JN25, The IJN’s main fleet code. Regular reports from both Australia and Hawaii fed him the composition, targets, and movements of the Japanese forces. The enemy planned to land troops at Port Moresby on 10 May. Their Carrier Strike Force would probably operate close to the invasion site.

Early on the morning of 5 May, the American task forces rendezvoused about 400 miles south of Guadalcanal. Admiral Fletcher consolidated his forces into a single Task Force 17. Task Force 44 now became Task Group 17.3 and remained so for the rest of the battle. In preparation, the task force spent much of May 6 refueling from the Neosho. The tanker then sailed to a rally point to the south, hopefully out of range of the Japanese carrier planes. With full fuel tanks, TF 17 headed toward the Jomard Passage between the western tip of New Guinea and the Louisiade Archipelago, through which Abe’s invasion force must proceed.

During 6 May, the opposing forces played a game of “blind-man’s-bluff.” Both carrier forces kept reconnaissance planes aloft, searching the seas where they believed their enemy to be. Neither commander was limited to his shipboard resources. American B-17s staging through Port Moresby sighted and attacked Abe’s convoys several times during the day. No hits were scored, but the Army reported the location of the enemy units to Fletcher. Takagi could count on Kawanishi flying boats from both Tulagi and the Shortland Islands near Bougainville, ground-based bombers from Rabaul, and the cruiser floatplanes of the other Japanese groupings.

Admiral Fletcher ordered Australian RADM John Gregory Crace’s cruiser Task Force 17.3 to break off from the carrier force and race ahead to block the Jomard Passage at the earliest possible moment. Heavy cruiser U.S.S. Chicago joined that force, along with three modern destroyers.

While Admiral Crace’s ships raced westward, both carrier commanders were reacting to faulty scouting reports. Just after 0700, one of Shōkaku’s reconnaissance planes reported a carrier, a cruiser, and three destroyers. A few minutes later, a second Shōkaku aircraft confirmed the sighting. Excitement permeated the Japanese aviators. They were eager to get aloft and sink the American carriers. Admirals Takagi and Hara concurred. By 0815, thirty-six Aichi dive-bombers and twenty-four torpedo planes with an escort of eighteen Zeros were on the way to the reported sighting.
But what the scout planes had actually found was the oiler Neosho and destroyer Sims.

Meanwhile, at 0815, a Dauntless dive-bomber from Yorktown discovered heavy cruisers screening the Port Moresby invasion force. The pilot mistakenly reported the sighting as two carriers and four heavy cruisers. Believing that his scout had found the Japanese carrier force, Admiral Fletcher ordered every available plane into the air. Ninety-three aircraft sped off the decks of Yorktown and Lexington: 18 Wildcat fighters, twenty-two Devastator torpedo planes, and 53 SBD Dauntless dive-bombers. Both the Japanese and American air fleets were pursuing the wrong targets.

While the American carriers were launching aircraft, a cruiser floatplane from Fururaka found the actual American carrier force. A few minutes later, another floatplane confirmed the report. The Japanese admirals faced a quandary. Were the Americans operating in two carrier groups? Confused, they decided to go ahead with the attack in progress but turned to close the distance to the second sighting.

The Japanese air armada found Neosho and Sims at about 0930. Soon realizing that these were the only ships in the area, the pilots radioed back for instructions. Their admirals realized at once that the American carriers must be between them and the invasion convoy. They ordered their planes to sink the oiler and destroyer and return to their ships as quickly as possible. Without air cover, the two American ships stood no chance. The torpedo bombers and fighters headed home at once. The dive-bombers attacked the American ships. Hit by three bombs, Sims broke in half and went down. Seven bombs hit Neosho. The Japanese left her drifting and sinking.

Just after 1000, American Army B-17s reported an aircraft carrier, ten transports, and sixteen warships a little south of the earlier Dauntless sighting. Now convinced that he had found the main enemy carrier force, Admiral Fletcher diverted his air fleet to the new targets.

At 1040, the American strike group found the Shōhō. Lexington’s dive-bombers began the attack.  The SBDs of Bombing Squadron Two peeled off and screamed down at the enemy aircraft carrier. In the midst of their dive, fighters from the Japanese Combat Air Patrol (CAP) jumped the dive-bombers. One staggered in the air and then went spiraling down in flames. Below, the carrier was zigging and zagging in violent maneuvers. Amazingly, not a single bomb hit the target. LCDR Robert E. Dixon’s SBDs of Scouting Squadron Two then had their turn. Two 1000-pound bombs struck the carrier. Flames began to pour out of the sides of her hangar deck.

[Explanation of Dive-Bombing]

Yorktown’s planes went after the stricken ship. Five torpedoes plowed into the crippled ship. The carrier went dead in the water just as the SBDs of Yorktown’s air group began their first dives. The Yorktown pilots hit the almost stationary carrier with another ten or twelve bombs and two more torpedoes.

Just after 1130, the ravaged carrier slid beneath the waves, becoming the first carrier sinking of the Pacific War. Not knowing that their prey was the light carrier, Shōhō, the Americans thought that they had sunk a first-line fleet carrier. LCDR Dixon got the honor of reporting the results of the battle to Admiral Fletcher.

“Scratch one flattop,” Dixon radioed, coining the term by which carriers would be known for the rest of the war.

Just before 1300, a Japanese floatplane sighted RADM Crace’s cruiser force steaming westward. The pilot reported that the force contained a battleship and two carriers. Still waiting for his strike force to return from sinking Neosho, VADM Takagi diverted two groups of land-based bombers from Rabaul toward Crace’s position. One flight contained twelve G4M Betty twin-engine torpedo bombers. The second was nineteen Mitsubishi G3M Nell horizontal bombers.  Admiral Inoue also ordered Admiral Abe to turn his invasion convoy around and remain in the Solomons Sea until the forthcoming carrier battle was decided.

At around 1430, U.S.S. Chicago’s air search radar picked up two large formations of aircraft approaching from the north. Admiral Crace ordered his ships into a diamond formation to give each vessel maneuvering room to dodge torpedoes and bombs. All the Allied ships were at General Quarters with every gun manned and ready.

A storm of anti-aircraft fire shot out toward the attackers, some of whom were actually lower than the gun positions. Every five-inch, four-inch, and smaller caliber gun within range poured out fire at its maximum rate. Shells burst all around the sea- skimming aircraft. First one, then another took hits and plowed into the sea. Yet the remaining enemy pilots pressed home their attacks, dropping their fish at what would have been maximum range for American torpedoes.

Both Australia and Chicago turned into the attacks, going bow first in the direction of the incoming torpedoes. With consummate skill, both captains “combed” the oncoming wakes, allowing the weapons to pass harmlessly on either side of the cruisers. The flanking destroyers likewise maneuvered to avoid the deadly fish.

The Bettys came on at low altitude, machine-gunning the targets as they passed over. The light anti-aircraft guns on the ships scored numerous hits, sending two more of the enemy planes into the drink.

Chicago’s radar reported another formation approaching from astern at 18,000 feet. Lookouts throughout the Allied force scanned the sky, but they were staring directly into the sun. The Japanese air commander was obviously a wily veteran. Allied captains had learned early in the war to watch for bomb release from attacking aircraft.

The captains of Australia and Chicago began to corkscrew their ships about the sea. Every pair of binoculars in the task group locked onto the falling bombs. The volley aimed at the American cruiser missed by a narrow margin. But Australia disappeared in a typhoon of towering bomb splashes. Miraculously, the Australian cruiser emerged from the huge waterspouts without any visible sign of damage.

Five-inch and four-inch shells began to burst among the Japanese formations. First one, then another of the bombers burst into flames and spiraled downward. A few minutes later, two more of the Nells were hit. The entire gaggle of aircraft turned and sped off to the north.

The Japanese aircraft commander reported to Rabaul that he had sunk a California-Class battleship and damaged another battleship and a cruiser. In fact, the only casualties on the Allied fleet were from shrapnel.

Admiral Crace ordered the Task Group to turn south and increase the range from Rabaul. Since the enemy obviously knew where he was, Crace was not constrained by the need for radio silence. He reported to Admiral Fletcher that he could not complete his mission without air cover. Still hoping to hide his carriers, Fletcher did not respond.

Shortly after Admiral Crace turned away from Rabaul, Admiral Takagi received a report from another floatplane from Kamikawa Maru that Task Group 17.3 was steaming southeast. Both Japanese admirals assumed that the reported force was Fletcher’s aircraft carriers. A few calculations established that the American ships would be within aircraft range later in the day.

Excitement energized the Japanese air staffs. A late afternoon strike against the Americans seemed possible. Admiral Hara ordered that eight torpedo bombers fly scout missions in the direction he believed the American ships to be.

After his air group returned from crippling Neosho, Hara selected the most experienced crews to hit the Americans. Commanded by Pearl Harbor hero LCDR Kakuichi Takahashi, twelve dive-bombers and fifteen torpedo planes were soon headed to the west on a course of 277°. Scout planes ranged ahead searching for the American fleet. The Japanese formation flew above solid cloud cover as they searched for the American ships. At one point, they flew within forty miles of TF17. Meanwhile, the big radars on the American carriers picked up and tracked the Japanese force. Every available fighter was scrambled to protect the carriers. The Yorktown vectored four Wildcats to intercept the enemy attack planes. Flying below the overcast, the Wildcats would be invisible until the last moment.

Just before intercepting, the Wildcats popped up through the clouds right behind the enemy formation. Lacking their own fighter support, the Japanese pilots were at a great disadvantage. They immediately dumped their ordnance to gain maneuverability. When the ensuing melee was finished, over half the Japanese torpedo planes had gone down, along with one of the dive-bombers. The remaining planes were scattered. One of the Wildcats had succumbed to defensive fire from the bombers.

A little after sunset, several enemy dive-bombers flew over the American carriers. Apparently believing them to be their own ships, the Japanese pilots began circling as if to land. Antiaircraft gunners on the American destroyers opened up and drove the dive-bombers away.

Ignoring the threat of submarines, gutsy Admiral Takagi ordered his ships to turn on their searchlights to guide his surviving planes back to his carriers. Nevertheless, another eleven aircraft ran out of fuel and had to ditch. Twenty-one of the twenty-seven aircraft sent out never made it back to their ships.

After being informed of the results of battle on May 7th, Admiral Inoue postponed the invasion of Port Moresby by two days.

Dawn on May 8th found both American and Japanese commanders eager to pinpoint the location of their enemies. Takagi got search planes aloft first, launching seven torpedo bombers at 0615. Exercising tactical command, RADM Fitch sent out eighteen SBDs twenty minutes later to conduct a full 360-degree search.

The weather situation had changed radically overnight. The warm frontal zone that had shielded Fletcher’s forces the day before was now over the Japanese ships. Lexington and Yorktown cruised beneath clear skies with seventeen nautical miles visibility.

A Lexington SBD sighted the Japanese carriers through a hole in the clouds at 0820. Just two minutes later, one of Shōkaku’s torpedo planes sighted TF17.

The two fleets launched their strike forces almost simultaneously. At 0915, the Japanese sent out a combined force of 33 dive-bombers, 18 torpedo planes, and 18 Zero fighters. The American carriers launched individual strike forces. By 0915, Yorktown put up six fighters, 24 dive-bombers, and 9 torpedo planes.  Lexington sent nine fighters, 15 dive-bombers, and 12 torpedo planes out by 0925.

Yorktown’s strike group found the Japanese at 1032. With Zuikaku hidden beneath a rain squall, the dive-bombers concentrated on Shōkaku. Fiercely harried all the way through their dives by the 24 Zeros of the Combat Air Patrol (CAP), the SBDs planted two 1000-pound bombs near the bow of the ship, peeling back the flight deck and starting raging fires in the hangar below. Fortunately for the Japanese, none of the torpedo planes was able to hit the carrier.

Four of Lexington’s dive-bombers arrived at around 1125. Two attacked each carrier, scoring only one more bomb strike on Shōkaku, further damaging her flight deck. The other Lexington SBDs failed to find the enemy ships in the heavy cloud cover. Lexington’s torpedo bombers launched 11 fish, none of which hit their targets.

With Shōkaku now unable to launch or land aircraft, Takagi released her to return to the Japanese base at Truk. The air group now aloft would all have to land on Zuikaku when they returned.

Fletcher’s force had the powerful advantage of radar. The powerful set on Lexington picked up the incoming Japanese strike force. Air controllers vectored nine Wildcat fighters out to intercept the enemy planes. Expecting the Japanese torpedo planes to fly at low altitudes, six of the Wildcats flew too close to the sea to make contact.

Deprived of the aircraft lost the night before, the Japanese torpedo group commander had too few planes to mount a full attack on both American carriers. He decided to concentrate on Lexington, the larger target with a bigger turning radius. Fourteen aircraft went after the big ship, while only four went after Yorktown. Defending Wildcats and SBDs shot down four of the attackers. Antiaircraft fire destroyed four more. But the remaining bombers attacked Lexington in a pincer movement, coming in from both port and starboard bows. Despite radical maneuvering by the ship’s captain, two deadly 24-inch torpedoes plowed into the big carrier. The first fish ruptured the aviation gasoline tanks, allowing deadly fumes to escape and spread throughout the ship. The second torpedo cut the water main on the port side of the ship, requiring the shutdown of some boilers.

About four minutes after the torpedo attacks, 19 dive-bombers from Shōkaku nosed over and went after Lexington. Four CAP Wildcats tried to disrupt the attack, but escorting Zeros cleared the way. Only two 550-pound bombs hit the carrier, starting additional fires. However, damage control parties soon had all fires under control, and the ship regained a speed of 24 knots. Aircraft operations continued unabated.

Yorktown seemed to have a charmed life that morning. All four torpedoes launched at the ship missed. CAP Wildcats then disrupted the attack by fourteen Zuikaku dive-bombers, and only one bomb struck the ship. However, near misses buckled some fuel tanks, leaving an oil slick trailing behind the ship.

By noon, all Japanese aircraft had withdrawn. CAP fighters and SBDs shot down an additional Zero, 3 torpedo bombers, and a dive-bomber. The opposing strike groups ran into each other on their return flights. The senior Japanese air commanders were killed in these dogfights.

Back on Zuikaku, Admirals Takagi and Nara were jubilant. Incoming reports indicated that both American carriers had been sunk. But when their aircraft began to land, the severity of their losses became apparent. Of the 69 aircraft sent out, only 46 made it back to Zuikaku. Twelve of these were so badly damaged that they had to be pushed over the side. Only four torpedo planes, eight dive-bombers, and 24 Zeros remained operational.

The initial damage assessment on the American ships found both carriers damaged but able to continue air operations. This rosy conclusion changed radically at 1247, when a tremendous explosion racked Lexington. Fumes from the ruptured gasoline tanks had spread throughout the ship, and electric sparks had triggered an ignition. In the next hour, a series of violent explosions continued to ravage the ship. By 1600, the fires were uncontrollable. Abandon Ship was ordered at 1707. Admiral Fitch and Captain Frederick C. Sherman, the CO, were the last to leave the ship alive. Of the 2951-man crew, 216 went down with the vessel.

The opposing commanders now took stock of the situation. Both found their ships alarmingly low on fuel. Takagi had the fleet oiler, Tōhō Maru, waiting in the Solomons. But Fletcher had lost Neosho. With no fuel supply available short of either Australia or New Caledonia, his operational options were severely limited. With only thirteen fighters left to defend his force, he decided to withdraw from the Coral Sea. Although he had won no decisive victory, he had heavily damaged one first-line carrier and so savaged the air group on another to the point that she would be out of the war for months. And he had achieved his strategic objective.

After consulting with Admiral Inoue. Takagi also decided to withdraw. In his view, he had won a great victory. With no carriers available to support his landing forces, Inoue felt compelled to call off the Port Moresby invasion and return his units to Rabaul. For the first time since the war began, a Japanese invasion force had been forced to abandon its mission.

Although he had won no decisive victory, Fletcher had heavily damaged one first-line carrier and so savaged the air group of another that she would be out of the war for months. And he had achieved his strategic objective. Port Moresby remained in Allied hands and would for the rest of the war. Japan’s plans to isolate Australia and force her out of the war were now in shambles.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

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