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Summary > May 5-7, 1942
Battle of the Coral Sea
5 - 7, 1942
morning of May 5, the two American Admirals, Jack Fletcher with the Yorktown
group and Aubrey Fitch with the Lexington group, rendezvoused at the appointed
location south of Rennel Island and combined their fleets into Task Force
17. The task force headed west with Fletcher in overall command, refueling
(as the cautious Fletcher liked to do before any battle) and continuing to look for the Japanese fleet.
day, May 6, Fletcher received intelligence reports from Pearl Harbor describing a
large Japanese task force with three carriers operating somewhere "south of the
Solomon Islands." The reports also confirmed that a separate Japanese
force would head through Jomard Pass on the way to Port Moresby no later than
May 8. With these reports, Fletcher cut his refueling short and sped
west. First, though, he dispatched the tanker Neosho with an
escorting destroyer, U.S.S. Sims, ordering them south -- presumably out
of harm's way -- with orders to stay behind the fleet and operate
between designated locations "Point Rye" and "Point Corn" on
alternating days, refueling ships there as needed.
knowing it, the American and Japanese carriers fleets came within 70 miles of
each other on May 6, each without spotting the other. Fletcher's scout
planes had turned back just before they would have found Admiral Takagi's
two carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, veterans of the attack on
Pearl Harbor. For his part, Admiral Takagi,
amazingly, had not sent out scout planes to search for the American fleet.
turned out, May 6, 1942 would mark America's low point in World War II, for it
was on that day that General Wainwright was forced to surrender his forces in the Philippines.
The next day, the fate of the war would begin to turn.
task force sped west all night and the next morning, May 7, it split up
the main body turning north while Admiral Crace and a handful of ships continued
to sail west. Crace's aim was to turn back the Japanese invasion force
heading for Port Moresby, which
was then approaching Jomard Pass from the east.
Crace's fleet detached, Fletcher sent out scout planes to look for the
Japanese. Within two hours, a American scout radioed back
"two Japanese carriers and four cruisers" were sailing 200 miles about
Fletcher, thinking he had found the main Japanese fleet, immediately
launched the bulk of his air-fleet, 93 planes. Unfortunately, though,
message from the American scout plane had been garbled. Instead of "two
carriers and four cruisers," it should have said "two cruisers and two
destroyers." This wasn't the Japanese carrier fleet, after all -- in
fact, it was a much smaller group.
Fletcher, with the bulk of his air-fleet now flying north to attack a small
force and with two heavy Japanese carriers closing in on him, was stunned --
and in a real fix.
for Fletcher, however, the Japanese light carrier, Shoho -- part of
another Japanese force entirely -- was in line with the reported sighting, or at
least close enough to be spotted by the American pilots. The 93 American
planes swooped down on the Shoho which, while not the large Japanese fleet they were
expecting, would have to suffice. The Shoho's fate was
sealed and after a furious 30-minute attack by the American dive-bombers and
torpedo bombers, it sunk at 11:35
a.m. Lt. Commander R. E.
Dixon, an American pilot, reported back to the Yorktown using a phrase
that would soon become famous, "Scratch one flattop!"
It was a clear victory for the
Allies. The American pilots, returning to their carriers, were jubilant.
left: The light carrier Shoho was launched in 1935 as a submarine tender and was later converted to a
carrier. It had a top speed of 28 knots and carried a maximum of 30
right: The Shoho getting hit by a torpedo at the
Battle of the Coral Sea.
on the Sims and Neosho
this same time,
another vicious attack was unfolding a few hundred miles south as crewmen on the
Neosho and Sims were fighting for their lives. Admiral
Takagi had sent out scout planes on the morning of May 7 to search for the
American fleet. Unknown to the Japanese pilots, they had just missed spotting the Yorktown
and Lexington but they did locate what appeared to be an
American carrier and cruiser. These, in fact, were the large tanker Neosho
(which, with its flat top and catwalk, looked a bit like a carrier from a high elevation) and
its nimble escort, the destroyer Sims.
that his scout planes had finally found the American carrier force, Admiral Takagi launched 62
planes to attack. Like the attack on the Shoho, which was happening
at the same time, the Japanese attack on the Sims and Neosho was
furious and one-sided. The Sims quickly sunk with the loss of 237
men and the Neosho was heavily damaged. Due to a navigation error,
the Neosho's location was incorrectly transmitted to the American fleet
before the radio gave out and 123 men waited in the hot sun on the listing deck
of the disabled ship for four days before being rescued. I've posted the
entire story of the Neosho at The
U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea, and an interview with my uncle Bill Leu
at Interview with Bill
Leu: The Battle of the Coral Sea, as he describes his experience
onboard the Neosho.
American planes were bombing the Shoho and Japanese planes were attacking
the Sims and Neosho, Admiral John Crace was heading
west to thwart the Japanese advance through Jomard Pass. This small fleet
was a true Allied effort, consisting of Australian and American ships while
commanded by Crace, a British admiral. There were seven ships in his
H.M.A.S. Hobart and Canberra
U.S.S. Perkins, Farragut, Walke
planes had been tailing Crace almost since he detached from Fletcher's fleet
earlier that day, staying just out of range of the ship's anti-aircraft guns.
Fletcher couldn't afford to detach planes to cover the squadron, so Crace was
naked without air support. Finally, at about 2 p.m.,
Japanese torpedo planes and high-level bombers appeared on the horizon and they began to attack Crace's small
Japanese assault was vicious but Crace's fleet outmaneuvered the torpedoes and
bombs, and despite several near-misses, the squadron emerged intact with no
serious damage. Fearful of Crace's fleet, the Japanese invasion force
bound for Port Moresby decided not to
enter Jomard Pass.
As it turned out, this would be the closest the Japanese Navy would ever get to
Port Moresby during World War II.
Evening Air Battle
the attacks that day -- the Sims, Neosho, Shoho, and the
bombing of Crace's group -- things were heating up in Coral Sea fast.
Based on the American
attack on the Shoho and other intelligence he'd received, Admiral Takagi figured the American carriers must be about
150 miles southwest of his carrier fleet, so at 2:30 p.m., he launched planes to find them.
time, Fletcher's fleet was operating under the clouds of a cold front that had
moved in and his ships were well hidden. The Japanese planes
flew right over the American carrier force without realizing it then, not having
spotted any American ships, turned
around and started heading back. On their way back to the Shokaku
and Zuikaku, and once again near the American carriers, the Japanese
into a group of American fighters. The Americans shot down nine Japanese
fighters while losing two, and as darkness settled, the Japanese pilots became
confused and even tried to land on an aircraft carrier that turned out to be
the Lexington, thinking it was their own. The evening sky lit up with
anti-aircraft fire as the American ships battled with the Japanese planes,
though neither attacked very effectively. Finally, the Japanese planes
withdrew -- this time, to the correct carriers.
were high as May 7
drew to a close. Although each side had drawn blood -- the Americans sinking the light
carrier Shoho and the Japanese sinking the destroyer Sims and
damaging the tanker Neosho -- neither carrier fleet had found the
other. Fletcher prepared to send out scout planes at dawn on May 8th to
locate the Japanese carriers. From radio reports, Admiral Takagi had a
clearer idea of where Fletcher was but was still unsure and, like Fletcher, he would
also send out scout planes at dawn.
It was a
question of who would find the other first.
Map: May 5 to May 7, 1942:
see a larger version, click on the map.
Page > Battle
Action: May 8, 1942
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