The Battle of Coral Sea — Plus 75 Years

May 4th 1942 was the beginning of the Battle of Coral Sea. The world’s first naval engagement where surface forces of both sides never saw one another.

The engagement happened as a Japanese invasion force covered by headed towards Port Moresby covered by two large Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet aircraft carriers, Zuikaku and Shokaku, and the light carrier Shoho.

USS Lexington before she was sunk by a gasoline vapor explosion caused by in experienced damage control after an Imperial Japanese Navy carrier strike -- NARA Photo # 80-G-416362
USS Lexington photo dated October 1941, months before she was sunk by a gasoline vapor explosion caused by poor/inexperienced US Navy damage control after an Imperial Japanese Navy carrier strike during the Battle of Coral Sea — NARA Photo # 80-G-416362


American code breaking tipped off the US Fleet in time to dispatch the two fleet carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown under Admiral Fletcher to counter the invasion.

In the course of the 4 – 8 May battle the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, and over 100 carrier planes with 66 highly skilled and irreplaceable air crews lost in aerial combat.

The American fleet lost the carrier Lexington with the carrier Yorktown being heavily damaged plus the sinking of the fleet oiler USS Neosho.

The Battle of Coral Sea was a tactical victory for the Imperial Japanese fleet…but a strategic win for the Allies as the invasion of Port Moresby was checked.

However, the tactical victory the Japanese won at Coral Sea would echo in the Guadalcanal campaign months later.  In 1942-43 the USS Neosho was a hugely important strategic logistical asset whose loss would later play a large part in Adm Fletcher’s controversial decision to withdraw carrier coverage early during the invasion of Guadalcanal, and contributed heavily to the Imperial Japanese victory at the First Battle of Savo Island.

For those looking for a really good article on this battle, see Peter Dunn’s “Oz At War” website article at this link —

4 – 8 MAY 1942

It is the most complete article you will find on the web showing the entire Battle of Coral Sea, including the air units participating and losing planes from Australia and New Guinea based RAAF and USAAF squadrons, Ultra intelligence reports, damage reports, maps and appendixes listing the names, planes (with serial numbers!) and ships lost in the 4 – 8 May 1942 battle.

15 thoughts on “The Battle of Coral Sea — Plus 75 Years”

  1. I will read the article. It was poor Japanese handling of gasoline vapor in fueling lines that caused several of the sinkings of their carriers at Midway. I had not heard this about the Lexington.

  2. Some mistakes fortunately do little damage:

    The B-17’s … dropp[ed] their bombs and on return to their Townsville base, it was confirmed that they had inadvertently tried to sink the Support Group of Allied Task Force 17. The incident was hushed up at the time. Rear Admiral Crace commented “Fortunately, their bombing, in comparison with that of the Japanese formation a few moments earlier, was disgraceful.”

    Some are not so cheap: whatever happened to the notion that height is the Queen of battles?

    Captain Sherman of USS LEXINGTON produced the following brief report … :-

    “Our combat patrol, under the fighter director, was patrolling at 10,000 feet. Exact altitude of the approaching enemy was not determined, but was known to be over 10,000 feet. The fighters made contact 20 – 30 miles out but the enemy bombers were at 17,000 feet and the performance of our fighters was not sufficient to gain enough altitude to attack them before they reached the push over point. …”

    An unnamed officer on one of the aircraft carriers made the following statement about the handling of the American fighter aircraft during the Japanese air attack:-

    “What we wanted to criticize mostly was fighter direction. … Many of us are positive that the loss of the Lexington was due, specifically and exactly, to the lack of fighter direction.”

    Height is the Queen of battles, part 2; you’ve got to feel sorry for these poor sods.

    USS YORKTOWN launched eight SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers at 0730 hours on 8 May 1942 to provide an anti-torpedo patrol. Captain Buckmaster commented that this was necessary due to a shortage of fighter aircraft. The SBDs circled at a low altitude close to the Task Force.

    They were unable to catch the Japanese torpedo aircraft as they came in at high speed. The SBDs were then attacked by a larger number of Japanese fighters. Four SBDs were immediately shot down.

    One of the USS LEXINGTON fighter pilots said later that the SBDs that day were like “a small boy sent to do a man’s job.”

    “More than 92 percent of the crew of USS LEXINGTON were saved.” By that account, her support ships did a superb job.

    In his section 1.0 he lists Yorktown as a heavy cruiser: that’s an error, I assume?

  3. I recently finished “Stay the Rising Sun: the story of the USS LEXINGTON” by Phil Keith. There is a detailed discussion of the Avgas storage and handling. Remember, the LEXINGTON was a converted battle cruiser, and was not designed as an aircraft carrier. The fuel system they came up with served well enough until battle damage occurred. Then things went south, rapidly. It just could not handle the shock. The later ENTERPRISE and SARATOGA were better designed and could handle battle damage, and the lessons learned from the losses of both LEXINGTON and YORKTOWN were incorporated into the ESSEXes.

    Fighter direction was in its infancy also, as was the radar system. They had problems in determining altitude and learning how to do fighter direction in the literally jury rigged set up they had. Fortunately, we were able to learn the lessons from our losses.

  4. The Japanese carrier was named the ZUIKAKU, not the Zaikaku.

    “However, the tactical victory the Japanese won at Coral Sea would echo in the Guadalcanal campaign months later.”

    It would also echo on the Midway campaign because the Shokaku and Zuikaku lost so many planes and aircrew that they were not available for the attack at Midway, where they lost the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu carriers.

    It’s easily arguable that the two additional carriers would have provided enough additional power so that the Japanese would have been able to carry out the air attacks on Midway while still holding reserves and adequate air cover for their ships.

  5. Subotai Bahadur Says:

    >>Fighter direction was in its infancy also, as was the radar system. They had problems in determining altitude and learning how to do fighter direction in the literally jury rigged set up they had. Fortunately, we were able to learn the lessons from our losses.

    You might be interested in these links —

    A Brief History of the Genesis and Evolution of the (RAF) Fighter Control Branch
    by Tim Willbond

    Radar and the Fighter Directors
    By David L. Boslaugh, Capt USN, Retired

  6. Subotai Bahadur,

    Coral Sea and Midway were the first battles the IJN Air Force ran into rudimentary radar fighter direction and shortly later, SCR-268 radar directed anti-aircraft fire over the Solomons and New Guinea.

    For the background of radar/anti-aircraft/fighter direction changes the IJNAF ran into in the Solomons and New Guinea I recommend John F. Kreis’

    Air Warfare and Air Base Air Defense 1914-1973
    Office of Air Force History
    United States Air Force
    Washington D. C. 1988

    This passage from pages 228 – 230

    On October 8, Lt. Lewis C. Mattison and Ens. W. A. Noll, both naval
    officers sent from the Navy’s fighter director school at Pearl Harbor, arrived
    on Guadalcanal. There they found two rudimentary radar air search operations.
    One was used by the lst Marine Air Wing’s fighter controllers, the
    other by the 3rd Defense Battalion. The two search efforts at first were not
    integrated and not always mutually supporting, although there was contact
    between them. Moreover, the early radar sets were not very reliable and
    reported false returns from the surrounding mountains and hills. Sergeant
    MacDonnell was often the only man who could interpret the zigzag lines on
    the oscilloscopes and tell how many airplanes were in an attacking formation.
    Lieutenant Mattison gave much of the credit for the radar’s success to
    MacDonnell, who could tell from the radar set’s A-scope not only how many
    aircraft were in a formation, but could also frequently identify medium
    bombers, dive bombers, fighters, or long range seaplanes.

    MacDonnell was a harried commander’s dream who specialized in getting
    around shortcomings in his equipment. For example, radar operators
    to wait for the enemy to come within 25 miles before the SCR-268 gave them
    the accurate altitude reading. The sergeant knew that the 270’s frame was
    tiltable 10 degrees backward, so that the antenna could be adjusted for
    terrain contour when installed. MacDonnell used this feature to take two
    readings on a target, one with the antenna perpendicular, another with the
    antenna slightly reclined. He could then calculate an approximate altitude.
    Fighters vectored to the heading waited above that level. More exact determination
    could be made when the Japanese came within the SCR-268’s range,
    and the American interceptors closed in. 24

    Defending fighters rarely tried to attack the Japanese before they
    reached the target area. Poor ground to air radios limited the intercept zone
    to an area ten to fifteen miles from Henderson Field.2s In the sky above the
    field, the Wildcat pilots’ dive and run tactic was very effective and compensated
    for the limited interception zone. The resilient airplane in the hands of
    capable pilots shot down or damaged a disproportionate number of enemy
    aircraft. As the Americans did well under the able leadership of Brig. Gen.
    Roy S. Geiger, the Marine air commander at Guadalcanal, they became
    more confident, but difficulties persisted. 26

    and later on page 230

    The attackers were not without their own difficulties. The distance
    from Rabaul and Kavieng forced the Japanese to leave early in the day,
    usually arriving over Henderson Field between eleven and twelve o’clock in
    the morning. The escorting fighters had to use external fuel tanks that could
    not be jettisonned, thus reducing their maneuverability. After October 20,
    Japanese fighters flew from Buin, but that was still 300 miles from their
    targets. Moreover, the flights invariably arrived from the northwest, often
    after forewarning from coastwatcher stations and radar. The long distances,
    American awareness of impending attacks, and inadequately armored Japanese
    planes gave the defenders an important advantage, which they used
    repeatedly to ambush the Japanese. After slashing through the flights of
    bombers, the Wildcats dove to safety at Henderson. Moreover, American
    airmen shot down could be rescued. Downed Japanese pilots were normally
    lost at sea or captured.30

    Make clear that the Allies were using both coast watcher early warning and radar based fighter direction (plus geography that forced Rabaul based A6M Zekes to use aux-fuel tanks in combat) to obtain good exchange ratios with the veteran/high flight hour IJNAF pilots over the Solomons.

  7. I knew a former Marine pilot who flew SBDs and Corsairs from Henderson Field.

    He was there after the early battles but got plenty of experience. I’m sure he was much happier with the Corsair.

    He also flew Corsairs in Korea.

    His son, a friend of mine, flew F 18s in Gulf War I and his son-in-law is one of the most famous Marine fighter pilots of the past 50 years. He flew 500 sorties in Vietnam and 100 in Gulf War I.

    Alvin Kernan was aboard the Lexington when she was sunk.

    He was also on Enterprise at Midway.

    His two books on the war (He was also dean of the graduate school at Princeton) are treasures.

  8. In 1986, (I spent almost a month touring Queensland, NSW, and Victoria. Traveled up the Queensland coast to Townsville, where I checked in to this local hotel. Typical Queensland architecture, with 2 stories and the second story had the veranda going all the way around the structure.

    Tin roof, of course.

    I walked in the main entrance to discover old wooden floors that creaked as you stepped on them. A ceiling fan turned lazily overhead and the house cat – a bit fat – laid contentedly on the hotel desk.

    Came to discover that this was MacArthur’s headquarters during the battle of the Coral Sea.

  9. Bill…”I walked in the main entrance to discover old wooden floors that creaked as you stepped on them. A ceiling fan turned lazily overhead and the house cat – a bit fat – laid contentedly on the hotel desk.”

    A nice bit of writing.

  10. Thanks David – with the cat content on the desk told the hotel mgr that this was my kind of place!

  11. Trent Trelenko,

    Thanks, I’ll chase those down. That period of time was really a time when we had to learn quickly. Working from memory from a project I did 30+ years ago [groan, that makes me feel old, because I am] that involved the Panama Canal Zone in 1942; I remember running across some commentary about the early radar warning system there. A Brit radar expert was doing a tour of US bases inspecting the warning systems and bring his experience from the Battle of Britain. He found that we had aimed our Canal Zone radars in such a way that they would have found out the Japanese were there when the bombs started landing. The military was climbing the learning curve about radar.

  12. “whatever happened to the notion that height is the Queen of battles?”

    No that’s infantry. Sir William Napier coined the phrase in 1892, and there is evidence that the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal used a very similar phrase in the seventh century.

  13. “No that’s infantry.” It was also the RAF’s experience in 1940: you can always trade height for speed. I dare say it was known to the airmen of WWI too.

  14. PenGun, where did you get the date of 1892 for the Sir William Napier quote? The Web site of the Army magazine infantry attributes it to a Sir William Napier that died in 1860, but there was another William Napier (not a “Sir) who became Governor of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst who died in 1903.

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