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Home > Family History > USS Neosho > The Battle of the Coral Sea > Summary > April 30-May 4, 1942

 

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea

Action from April 30 - May 4, 1942

 

 

 

Rendezvous at Coral Sea

In mid-April, 1942, five months after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, American forces learned about a Japanese naval build-up in the Coral Sea, east of New Guinea.  The Americans guessed that the Japanese were planning to push further into the south Pacific to try to knock Australia and New Zealand out of the war.  They also assumed that the Japanese objective was Port Moresby, the key city on the south coast of New Guinea.

 

With the American carrier Saratoga in dry-dock since January recovering from a Japanese torpedo strike and the Hornet and Enterprise returning from the Doolittle Raid, the U.S. Navy could afford to dispatch to the Coral Sea only two carriers to counter the Japanese:  the Yorktown, which had been operating in the south Pacific, and the Lexington, at Pearl Harbor undergoing repairs.  Between them, these two ships carried fewer than 150 planes.  

 

Admiral Aubrey Fitch and the Lexington carrier group left Pearl Harbor on April 16, heading south for the Coral Sea, where he planned to meet Admiral Jack Fletcher and the Yorktown group (including the U.S.S. Neosho and my uncle Bill Leu), which had been operating out of Noumea, New Caledonia.  The two carrier groups met on the morning of May 1, about 200 miles north of New Caledonia.  The combined American fleet, with Fletcher in overall command, refueled for a few days, Fletcher's group from the oiler Neosho and Fitch's group from the other oiler in the task force, the U.S.S. Tippecanoe.  Fletcher, a cautious commander, always believed in getting his "ducks in line" before attacking the enemy and, perhaps as a holdover from the days of coal-fired warships, wanted his ships to be fully fueled before heading into any battle.  

 

During the next few days, the two American carrier groups split up and operated about 100 miles apart as they refueled and searched for the Japanese.  With a self-imposed radio silence, the two carrier groups operated out of touch with each other while planning to rendezvous on May 4.

 

 

Right: Admiral Jack Fletcher, commander of the U.S. fleet during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Adm_Jack_Fletcher_-_600x400.jpg (19319 bytes)  

Right: Fletcher's flagship, the U.S.S. Yorktown, at anchor in 1937 in Hampton, Virginia.

USS_Yorktown_at_Anchor_in_1937_-_600x400.jpg (28880 bytes)

 

Right: Admiral Aubrey Fitch, commander of the Lexington carrier group.

Adm_Aubrey_Fitch_-_600x400.jpg (25354 bytes)  

RightThe U.S.S. Lexington, known as the "Lady Lex," in 1941 near San Diego.

USS_Lexington_Oct_1941.jpg (43322 bytes)

 

Fletcher Attacks Tulagi

On the evening of May 3, Admiral Fletcher and the Yorktown group were about 200 miles west of Admiral Fitch when they learned about a Japanese invasion of Tulagi Island, which the Australians had evacuated a few days earlier.  Not wanting to break radio silence and contact Fitch, Fletcher and the Yorktown group sped north to attack the invasion force alone.  Before heading north, Fletcher ordered the tanker U.S.S. Neosho and an escorting destroyer, U.S.S. Russell, to split off and head to the relative safety of the rendezvous point, where they would meet Admiral Fitch and the Lexington group.  

 

The next morning, as Fletcher approached Tulagi, he launched 40 planes from the Yorktown to attack the Japanese invasion force, which during the previous day had started to set up a seaplane base in the Tulagi harbor.  Fletcher's dive-bombers and torpedo planes attacked the Japanese force with more enthusiasm than accuracy, however, and -- despite their subsequent boastful claims to the contrary -- sank only a few small ships.  The Japanese finished building their seaplane base on Tulagi and started seaplane reconnaissance missions from here on May 6.  Fortunately for Fletcher, he had encountered only a small Japanese force on Tulagi.  Had he met the main Japanese body and its two heavy carriers, Fletcher's fleet might well have been wiped out.  After his planes made two runs at Tulagi, Fletcher headed his fleet south to meet Fitch and the Lexington group at the new rendezvous point.

 

Admiral Fitch, meanwhile, had finished refueling the Lexington group and immediately headed west while continuing to cautiously search for the Japanese fleet.  Upon arriving at the rendezvous point, Fitch was surprised to meet only the tanker Neosho and the destroyer Russell.  From them, Fitch learned that Admiral Fletcher's Yorktown group had headed north to attack the Japanese force at Tulagi and that Fletcher had set a new rendezvous point.  Fitch turned his group east, and an hour later Admiral J.G. Crace of the British Royal Navy joined up with three more ships.  

 

On the evening of May 4th, Fitch and Crace were heading east, steaming toward the new rendezvous point with Fletcher's group, which was still hovering around Tulagi 200 miles north.  Unknown to them, the main Japanese carrier group was a hundred miles north of Tulagi, screened from the American fleet by the Solomon Islands, and heading rapidly for the Coral Sea.

 

Neosho_At_Coral_Sea_From_US_Plane_-_600x370.jpg (40631 bytes)    Neosho_Fueling_Yorktown_-_600x480.jpg (40713 bytes)

Above left:  The Yorktown (right) and Neosho (center) from the rear of a U.S. torpedo bomber (TBD) that's just taken off.  This was just before the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The small ship on the horizon to the right of the plane's tail fin is the destroyer U.S.S. Sims.  This is the only photo that I've ever seen of the Neosho and Sims together.

Above right:  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) refueling the aircraft carrier Yorktown in the Coral Sea, about May 2, 1942. 

 

Battle Map:  April 30 to May 4, 1942:    To see a larger version, click on the map.

Battle of the Coral Sea:  April 30 to May 4, 1942

Next Page >  Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

 

Table of Contents:

U.S.S. Neosho  (AO-23)

U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) Home Page

 

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Pearl Harbor Attack  (December 7, 1941)

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Bill Leu Interview:  Pearl Harbor Attack

U.S. Navy Action Report:  U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942)

The Battle of the Coral Sea:  Summary

Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942 

Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

Battle Action:  May 8, 1942

The U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea

May 7, 1942:  The Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

List of Survivors & Casualties

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942 - cont.)

Bill Leu Interview:  Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Coral Sea

Action Report of the U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of the U.S.S. Sims

U.S.S. Helm Report

Other Ships at Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Sims (Neosho's Escort)

The U.S.S. Henley (Neosho's Rescuer)

The U.S.S. Helm (Rescued Life Raft)

Coral Sea Scrapbook

S.F. Examiner Article, July 10, 1942

 

Aftermath

President Bush's Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

Obituary of Captain John S. Phillips

 

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

 

Sources & Further Information

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