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Summary > April 30-May 4, 1942
Battle of the Coral Sea
from April 30 - May 4, 1942
at Coral Sea
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.
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
Right: Admiral Jack Fletcher, commander of the U.S. fleet
during the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Fletcher's flagship, the U.S.S. Yorktown, at anchor in
1937 in Hampton, Virginia.
Right: Admiral Aubrey Fitch, commander of the Lexington
Right: The U.S.S. Lexington, known as the "Lady Lex,"
in 1941 near San Diego.
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.
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.
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.
right: The U.S.S. Neosho (right) refueling the
aircraft carrier Yorktown in the Coral Sea, about May 2, 1942.
Map: April 30 to May 4, 1942:
see a larger version, click on the map.
Action: May 5 - May
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