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Battle of Coral Sea, Part 1
By David H. Lippman
August 2016

After three days of sparring and scouting, the first carrier-to-carrier battle in naval history finally gets down to serious business in the Coral Sea, at 6 a.m., when Rear Adm. Chuichi “King Kong” Hara launches search planes from the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, with orders to find the American carrier fleet. The battle that begins is one of a series of blunders on both sides.

The Japanese planes roar aloft into overcast skies, which protect the American carriers steaming to the west. But at 7:36 a.m., the Japanese snoopers, peering down at an ocean whose waters change from dark blue to nearly yellow due to coral growth on the bottom, spot two American ships heading away from them. The Yankees are the oiler Neosho, known through the Pacific Fleet as the “Fat Lady,” which fueled the Lexington group the day before, and her escort, the destroyer Sims, the lead ship of her class, normally an escort to the carrier Yorktown. The excited Japanese pilot reports to Hara that he’s found a cruiser and an aircraft carrier. The Shokaku and Zuikaku promptly sortie 70 fighters and bombers to attack this presumably major target.


USS Sims in Boston, 1940.

At 9:30 a.m., the first Japanese wave hits the two ships, 15 high-level bombers, catching the Americans with some surprise . . . on Sims, Chief Signalman Robert Dicken flashes recognition signals with his lamps at the intruders, in the hope the attack is a mistake. It isn’t. On Neosho, Capt. John Phillips orders his radio officer to pass the word of the attack up to Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher and the carrier force, but the nervous radio officer and overworked radioman can’t get the message sorted out. Under the bombardment, a gun captain on Neosho yells, to relieve tension, “Oh, come, come, come in and see the Fat Lady! See her qui-v-ver as she laughs! Count her double chins! Come one! Come all! Come in! Bring the missus!”

Good ship-handling by Lt. Cdr. Wilford M. Hyman of Sims evades the bombs. Some 10 more high-level bombers return at 10:38 to try again, but again do no damage. The third time, however, is the charm: 36 Val dive-bombers plummet down on Sims and Neosho. The Japanese aviators who cut their teeth at Pearl Harbor bite hard into the slow-moving tanker, inflicting seven bomb hits on the “Fat Lady,” which herself is a survivor of Pearl Harbor.

Neosho’s guns damage one of the attacking bombers, which promptly turns itself into a kamikaze, splattering his wounded Val into the tanker’s No. 4 gun enclosure, wrecking the mount. The plane’s 80-octane aviation gasoline explodes, inflicting serious burns on the exec, Lt. Cdr. Firth, but not killing anybody. The third bomb explodes in the fireroom, killing everyone there and knocking out power. The fifth and sixth bombs blow holes in the fuel tanks, and the seventh, a near-miss, wipes out a searchlight and decapitates a seaman. Dead in the water and blazing, Neosho’s skipper orders his men to prepare to abandon ship. Some of those who get the word take it literally: They don’t just prepare, they abandon ship.

Sims, meanwhile, fends off dive-bombers with 5-inch and 20-mm shellfire and adroit maneuvering, knocking down two of the Vals, then three more. But three bombs smash directly amidships on the destroyer, and explode in the forward engine room, breaking her keel in two. The jackknifing destroyer sinks swiftly, stern first. When the fantail slips below the surface, her depth charges "cook off." The resulting concussion lifts Sims 15 feet out of the water. Lt. Cdr. Hyman orders his crew to abandon ship, but remains on his bridge.

Fireman Second Class Bill Vessia, with help from Chief Signalman R.J. Dicken, manning a damaged whaleboat, saves 14 crewmen, and they clamber aboard the smoldering Neosho. The other 235 members of Sims’ crew, including Lt. Cdr. Hyman, perish with the destroyer.

Meanwhile, back on Neosho, Cdr. Firth, suffering from burns, passes out while some panic-stricken men toss life rafts into the water and then jump in after them. There’s fear forward, too, where crewmen are trying to lower whaleboats into the water, and on the bridge, where Phillips orders his communications officer to burn the codebooks and his navigator to have the magazines flooded. Sailors hearing these orders assume the worst (as do the communications officer and navigation officer) and start abandoning ship themselves. The communications officer tries to launch a boat and the navigator leaps into the water.

Phillips needs some help to restore order and it shows up in the form of gunnery officer Lt. Cdr. Thomas M. Brown, who has just cleared out his control tower and come to the bridge. Phillips has Brown take over as exec, and start calling the men back from the boats and water. At the same time, Lt. Louis Verbugge, the engineering officer, comes up from the abandoned engineering room, and he also supervises launching of the port motor launch, to recover survivors. Many men are still panicked, and the ship is still burning and smoldering.

There are other heroes on Neosho. Machinist Mate 1st Class Harold Bratt is in charge in the after engine room’s battlestation. When the bombs hit and knock out power, Bratt and his four men are trapped in a dark compartment full of live steam, slowly filling up with cold sea water. Bratt tells his men that they should stand fast; the only hatch leads to the fire room. But two of the men panic, punch out Bratt and knock him down, grab his emergency lantern, and flee anyway. Bratt regains consciousness quickly, and tells his two remaining men to wait until the steam has ventilated. Forty-five minutes later, he leads them up the after escape hatch and into the forward fire room — past the bodies of the two men who had fled earlier — and up to the main deck and temporary safety.

 


Vice Adm. Shigeyoshi Inouye.

With rafts in the water, and the tanker burning, the next order of business is to call for help, and a navigating officer plots Neosho’s position for that message, and comes up with longitude 157º31E, latitude 16º25’S. The only problem is, the actual location is longitude 158º03E, latitude 16º09S, as plotted later. Search planes from the seaplane tender Tangier, based at Noumea, New Caledonia, and ships obediently head for the wrong site. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison calls the mistake “a cautionary tale for young naval officers.”

The Neosho is a giant mess, but the battle is just getting started. As the smoldering oiler drifts away from the battle, the Japanese planes fly back into formation and head home to their carriers, having expended six planes and vast amounts of energy, fuel, and time to hit two relatively minor targets. Adm. Hara himself admits he has made a blunder by hurling such a massive force at this small target: Ship identification skills of search plane crews need improvement, he reports.

While Neosho and Sims meet their fates, Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher busily cuts orders, informing Rear Adm. John G. Crace, the Australian-born Royal Navy officer who commands Task Group 17.3, to take his force and push on ahead northwest to attack the Port Moresby Invasion Group with his ships. Crace certainly has the firepower to dispose of a collection of transports: He flies his flag in HMAS Australia, a heavy cruiser of the Kent class, and has USS Chicago, another heavy cruiser, the light cruiser HMAS Hobart, and two American destroyers, USS Perkins and USS Walke, under his command.

Fletcher’s theory is that even if his carrier planes can’t catch up with the Japanese invasion fleet, Crace, regarded as an “excellent seaman” and “gallant gentleman who accepted the United States ships into his command with warmth, affection, and admiration for their efficiency,” can eliminate the transports. The weakness in Fletcher’s theory is that if the Japanese carriers stop Fletcher, then Crace’s ships are sitting ducks for the Japanese carriers. But if Fletcher defeats the Japanese carriers, the Nipponese are likely to turn back rather than face the combination of Fletcher’s planes and guns. Furthermore, as Crace shuffles his ships into diamond-shaped anti-aircraft formation, and sets off at 25 knots, he takes with him half of Fletcher’s screening cruisers and their anti-aircraft guns, thinning his screen.

Crace’s ships steam off at 6:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, the Japanese light carrier Shoho launches four reconnaissance planes and five more for fighter cover. Meanwhile, Fletcher launches his search planes, and at 8:15 a.m., a Yorktown snooper, Lt. John L. Nielson, reports “two carriers and four heavy cruisers” at latitude 10º03’S, longitude 152º27’E, about 175 miles away. This is the news Fletcher has been waiting for: the big Japanese carriers sighted at last. Lexington starts launching her strike at 8:15, putting up 25 dive-bombers from her scouting and bombing squadrons, 12 torpedo planes, and 10 fighters, with her air group commander going along with three scout bombers. Half an hour later, Yorktown launches 27 dive-bombers, 10 torpedo planes, and eight fighters. Yorktown keeps her air group commander on board as fighter-director officers. The 96 attackers are airborne by 10:30 a.m. Some 47 stay behind as reserve and combat air patrol.

The Americans enter a cold front, battling a gusty wind from the southeast and cloud cover. Minutes after Yorktown’s planes head out, her scout planes return, and their pilots give their report. Incredibly, due to an improper arrangement of Nielson’s code contact pad, their report of “two carriers and four heavy cruisers” should actually read “two heavy cruisers and two destroyers.” The scout planes have not found Vice Adm. Takeo Takagi’s two heavy carriers, or even Rear Adm. Aritomo Goto’s invasion force, but something vastly weaker, Rear Adm. Kuninori Marumo’s Support Group, which consists of two elderly light cruisers, a seaplane carrier, and three gunboats, a force that can hardly be considered a powerful armada by any standard. And now Fletcher’s entire hammer is heading straight for it, traveling a direction at right angles to Takagi’s big carriers.

For the second time in two hours, a massive aerial strike force is being sent to crush a tiny force. A furious Fletcher chews Nielson out in public and sends the unhappy aviator to his quarters. Fletcher ponders recalling the planes, but it’s too late. They have the enemy nearly in sight.

Meanwhile, Japanese planes are trailing the American carriers and reporting their location. The snoopers report Fletcher’s location to Goto on Shoho, and he orders his little carrier to prepare to attack with his nine torpedo-bombers. Other Japanese planes spot Crace’s ships racing west at 8:10 a.m.

Fortunately for Fletcher, the big Japanese boss, Vice Adm. Shigeyoshi Inouye, controlling the whole Japanese cause from his flag bridge on the old light training cruiser Kashima, parked at Rabaul, rightly worries about the safety of his loaded transports, headed for Port Moresby. With its classrooms, Kashima offers space for flag staffs to work and sleep. At 9 a.m., Inouye orders that force to turn away and keep it out of trouble until Fletcher and Crace are disposed of. At that moment, the ships are as close as any Japanese fleet will ever get to Port Moresby for the duration of the war.

These decisions do not impede the American attack. Cdr. William B. Ault leads in the Lexington group past Tagula Island, biggest of the Louisiades, at 11 A.M. Minutes later, Lt. Cdr. W.L. Hamilton, flying a scout plane in the attack group at 15,000 feet, spots the carrier Shoho and her escorts 25 to 30 miles on his starboard side. The Japanese spot Hamilton, too, and start taking evasive action. Ault and his two wing planes race in to attack as two Zeros struggle to intercept.

The American bombers swoop down eagerly, and while their bombs miss the little carrier, the near-miss blasts hurl five planes off the Shoho’s flight deck and into the Pacific. Hamilton’s SBDs hurl themselves at Shoho (her name meaning “Auspicious Phoenix”) at 11:10 a.m., followed by Lexington’s torpedo bombers at 11:18, and Yorktown’s air group at 11:25. Some 93 aircraft are piling in on a single aircraft carrier, an example of overkill that will be eliminated later in the war when such strikes will have a tactical air commander on the scene to coordinate the assault and divert some of the aircraft to attack other ships present.

Shoho cannot last long under a 93-plane bombardment, and she does not. Two 1,000-lb. bombs detonate on the carrier, and she bursts into flames and coasts to a halt, making her easy meat for 13 more bombs and seven torpedoes. Among the American attackers who presses home a hit is Lt. John J. “Jo-Jo” Powers, a Bronx native and gunnery officer of VB-5, a strong advocate of low release points in dive-bombing.

Ironically, the easy victory proves a problem for the U.S. Navy: The weaknesses of their air-launched Mark 13 torpedoes are not seen. Nobody notices that the fish doesn’t run straight, runs slowly, and doesn’t always explode. Against the crippled Shoho, the Mark 13 is a killer. Against more able ships for the rest of 1942, it is a failure.


Shoho after U.S. attack on May 7.

“By 1130 the entire vessel was damaged by bombs, torpedoes, and self-exploded enemy planes,” records Shoho’s war diary. A minute later, Shoho skipper Capt. Ishinosuke Izawa orders his men to abandon ship, and he and 201 other Shoho sailors survive to be picked up by the destroyer Sazanami. Also going to the bottom at latitude 10º29’S, longitude 152º55’ E are 18 of the carrier’s 21 planes and 631 members of Shoho’s crew. American losses are the pilot and radioman-gunner of an SBD dive-bomber. However, the two have merely run out of gas, and ditch near Port Moresby, where they row ashore in their life raft and are taken in by friendly natives.

The very first attack by American planes on an enemy aircraft carrier has been a smashing success, but in the flag bridges and Combat Information Centers of Lexington and Yorktown 160 miles southeastward none of the staff officers and plotters can make sense of the aviators’ radio transmissions, until Lt. Cdr. Robert E. Dixon, Lexington’s second SBD leader, whoops clearly and loudly: “Scratch one flattop! Dixon to carrier, scratch one flattop!” Jubilation sets in on the American carrier fleet, the American aircraft form back up into formation to head home, and Goto, now lacking air cover and having ships full of wounded survivors, withdraws to Deboyne Island, where the Support Group’s seaplane carrier Kamikawa Maru is anchored.

By 1:38 p.m., the Americans have recovered their strike, with only three aircraft lost. Twenty minutes later, 11 single-engined land-based planes attack Crace’s cruisers, but are driven off by his AA guns. Moments later, Crace’s radar picks up what turns out to be 12 Type-96 Sally bombers, land-based naval twin-engine torpedo-bombers, 75 miles away. Crace orders evasive maneuvers and the Australian-American force opens fire as the planes slam in on the deck to deliver their fish. The Japanese fire eight torpedoes at Crace’s force, three at Australia, one at Hobart, and four at Chicago, their observers doing a good job with their ship identification cards. All torpedoes miss. The Allied gunners do better, splashing five Japanese bombers. Crace reports with classic Anglo-Australian understatement that the Japanese attack was “most determined but fortunately badly delivered.”

After the surviving Japanese bombers streak away, they are replaced by 19 more Sally bombers, these delivering bombs from 15,000 feet. Crace’s skippers display more energetic shiphandling, and while most bombs miss, Australia is straddled, and nicked by fragments. Two men are fatally wounded on Chicago, BKR3 Robert E. Reily and SM1C Anthony B. Shirley, Jr., and five others slightly injured. The Japanese fly away unharmed.

But before Crace can secure his men from Action Stations (on the Australian ships) and GQ (on the American vessels), three more bombers swoop in on the destroyer Perkins and treat her to a dose of bombs. The ship crews can identify these attacking birds easily: They’re U.S. Army Air Force B-17s, based in Townsville, Australia. The American bombers miss their targets, take pictures of them, realize they are bombing friendly forces, and fly off. But Crace is furious, complaining by radio to Australia and the American naval command in New Caledonia. He later writes of the American attack, “Fortunately, their bombing, in comparison with that of the Japanese formation a few moments earlier, was disgraceful!”

The Japanese, however, also commit their own disgrace in reporting the encounter, modestly claiming to have sunk an Augusta-class cruiser (Chicago), a California-class battleship (Australia), and a third battleship of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class. While these misidentifications on both sides seem appalling, Morison points out, “Let those who have tried (ship recognition) from 10,000 feet, without previous training, cast the first stone!”

Meanwhile, the American carriers prepare themselves to attack the Shoho group (now sans the Shoho) again, and are ready by 2:50 p.m., but Fletcher decides against it — a gaggle of heavy cruisers and destroyers are not worth such another attack when the two fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, are still out there. Also, the weather is deteriorating rapidly, and conditions are no longer optimal for carrier-based attacks or search planes. He heads west to close with the Port Moresby Invasion Group, and land-based Catalina PBY seaplanes and other shore-based aircraft will hunt for the Japanese carriers.

Unknown to Fletcher, Inouye has recalled the invasion force. More importantly, the Japanese carriers have launched 12 bombers and 15 torpedo planes manned by crews trained in night-flying, to find, fix, and strike Fletcher at sundown if they locate him. In the increasingly squally weather, the Japanese only find intercepting American fighters on combat air patrol, and the stubby Grumman F4F Wildcats charge into the Japanese force.

The Wildcat, making one of its first appearances in American hands in the war, proves rugged and sturdy, with its 1,200-horsepower Pratt and Whitney engine. However, its speed, climbing strength, range, and firepower are unequal to that of the Mitsubishi Zero. It has other interesting habits: Its starter is a gunpowder-packed cartridge about the size of a shotgun shell that is placed in a cylinder behind the engine. The pilot fires the shell with a switch in the cockpit, and the force of the exploding gases is transmitted to the engine. Another feature is a small crank mounted inside of the cockpit of the F4F, beside the pilot’s right knee. The crank controls the landing gear, and when the F4F takes off, the pilot must crank up the wheels, doing 27 turns with his left hand. If a friction brake on the shaft of the crank comes loose and the pilot’s right hand slips, the weight of the wheels can send the handle whirling forward at a high rate of speed. The pilot’s only means to stop the whirling is to jam his knee into the crank, sometimes chipping a bone.

With ample determination and professionalism, the Americans splash nine Japanese planes, losing two Wildcats, among them one flown by Lt. Paul G. Baker, one of the best and most beloved aviators in the Navy. Baker, a native of Plainfield, New Jersey, strays too far from Yorktown, is lost to their radar screen, and cannot be given directions to return. Baker pleads over the radio for directions, and is told he can’t be found by Yorktown’s radar. Lt. Cdr. Oscar Pederson, the carrier’s air group commander, in tears, orders Baker to fly to the nearest land, Tagula Island. Baker is never heard from again.

The other Yorktown aviator who is lost is Lt. Leslie Lockhart Bruce Knox, who married his sweetheart, Louise Frances Kennedy, in Our Lady of Victory Chapel at Norfolk on Saturday, December 6, 1941. He has spent four months on Yorktown telling his buddies how much he misses Louise. He and Louise enjoyed 10 days of married life in Norfolk’s Glencove Apartments.

As the American fighters return to fuel, Lexington fighter leader Lt. Cdr. Paul H. Ramsey realizes that he has to keep a promise: When he shoots down his first Japanese plane, he must shave off his huge moustache. Ramsey has earned his first kill. Now he must shave. Before landing, he flies slowly round Lexington, cockpit open, stroking his moustache to let everyone know it will be coming off right after he lands.


USS Lexington in October 1941.

Spanked, and facing sunset, the Japanese head home and soon arrive over a pair of aircraft carriers steaming along. Lacking radar and homing devices, the Japanese figure they must be home. At 7 p.m., 45 minutes after sunset, lookouts on Yorktown spot three of those planes, and the Japanese, thinking they’re home, start blinking in Morse code on Aldis lamps. Yorktown blinkers back. The planes swoop in to land, and both sides realize that a trio of Japanese planes are about to land on the flight deck of an American carrier. The Americans make the realization from studying the planes’ port running lights — they’re red, when American lights are blue. The Americans open fire and the Japanese gun their engines and successfully flee, turning off their running lights. A few minutes later, three more Japanese planes try to join Yorktown’s landing circle. This time the Americans waste no energy with signal lamps and shoot the intruders down.

The remaining Japanese form up and try to use their radio to locate their carriers, but American radio is jamming the frequency. On his flagship, the carrier Shokaku, Adm. Hara orders his ships to turn on their searchlights so that his lost aviators can straggle home. In the night recovery (difficult in peacetime), 11 planes splash and the remaining don’t flop down on their flight decks until 9 p.m.

At 7:30 p.m. Lexington’s radar reports enemy planes orbiting a landing circle only 30 miles east. Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch on Lexington passes this news on to Fletcher in Yorktown, but a foul-up in communications keeps this message from reaching Fletcher until 10 p.m. Fletcher figures Hara’s carriers will be far gone by midnight. Actually, they’re only 95 miles east of the American carriers. Fletcher considers detaching some cruisers and destroyers to attack Hara by night, but decides against it. For one thing, he’s already detached two heavy cruisers and a light cruiser with Crace on that pursuit, and in the last-quarter moon doesn’t provide enough light through the thick clouds to illuminate an attack, and Fletcher needs every escort he has to guard against submarines by night and air attack at dawn. “All things considered, the best plan seemed to be to keep our force concentrated and prepare for a battle with enemy carriers next morning.”

These decisions have little immediate impact on exhausted crewmen on both sides. Most man their stations, try to sleep, or take a breather. On the Yorktown’s flight deck, Aviation Ordnanceman Judson Brodie, who will make the Navy a career and retire as a lieutenant commander, sits talking with Cleveland native Paul Meyers about their futures. On the short term, battle is coming in a few hours, they agree. Over the long haul, Meyers says he intends to leave the Navy when his enlistment is up and become a civilian again. In the wardroom of VB-5, Lt. John J. Powers lectures his squadron on point-of-aim and diving technique, stressing low pull-out. The risks of planes being damaged by bomb fragments in such attacks are considerable, but accuracy is gained.

Back at Rabaul, Inouye is pondering the same thing, and he orders Goto’s cruisers and destroyers to leave the transports, rendezvous east of Rossel Island, and make a night attack on whatever American forces are at hand. But before midnight Inouye changes his mind and cancels both this attack and the Port Moresby landings, deferring the latter for two days. Goto’s cruisers will hook up with Hara’s carriers and the other ships will return to Rabaul.

Takagi has the same idea of a night attack, since his force has performed pretty badly so far. On his flagship, the cruiser Myoko, he talks about sending his two heavy cruisers, Myoko and Haguro, and his six destroyers against the Americans. Unfortunately, that’s his entire escort, and he doesn’t have anything else to protect his carriers. And his aviators are exhausted from all those long search missions. Before Takagi can make up his mind, Rear Adm. Koso Abe, commanding the retreating Port Moresby transports, asks Hara to close up and provide air cover, lest transports full of the Emperor’s assault troops get sunk, along with the troops. Hara heads north at 10 p.m., and by midnight, he’s at latitude 12º40’S, longitude 156º45’E, opening the range on Fletcher. So much for a desperate night surface action. But the Battle of the Coral Sea is far from over and further from decision.

The battle is being closely watched in the flag bridge of the battleship Yamato in Hashirajima harbor in Japan, by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, and his staff, including Adm. Matome Ugaki, who are busy planning the Midway operation. Ugaki records the sinking of Shoho, noting that the ship had been only recently converted from a submarine depot ship into her new duties as a carrier. “I am sorry for her short life ... a dream of great success has been shattered. There is an opponent in a war, so one cannot progress just as one wishes. When we expect enemy raids, can’t we employ the forces in a little more unified way? After all, not a little should be attributed to the inefficiency of air reconnaissance. We should keep this in mind.”

On Lexington, Lt. Cdr. Paul D. Stroop, flag secretary to Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch, commanding Carrier Division 1, is awakened at 3:30 a.m. on May 8th. The Americans are heading north. Over breakfast and coffee, he analyzes dispatches and works with Adm. Fitch to prepare to launch the morning search group, which is again led by Lt. Cdr. Dixon. An hour before dawn, Hara’s carriers stand at latitude 10º25’S, longitude 154º5’E, just 100 miles east-southeast of Rossel Island. The Japanese carriers launch a 200-mile search pattern, followed by a 90-plane attack force, with orders to fly along the median of the South by West search pattern, ready to pounce. The Japanese strike package is larger, better balanced, more accurately directed, than the American attack force, and is well-coordinated.

To be continued.

David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He maintains the World War II + 55 website and currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J.

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