The Battle of the Coral Sea: 
Summary

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought between the Allied and Japanese navies from May 4 through May 8, 1942 in the Coral Sea, about 500 miles northeast of Australia.  The sea was named for the large coral reefs that are common there, including the Great Barrier Reef.  The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first major head-to-head naval battle between Japan and America during World War II, occurring just five months after the surprise Japanese attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

 

Above:  Location of the Coral Sea.

In the spring of 1942, Japanese forces planned to invade southern New Guinea, a move designed to knock Australia and New Zealand out of the war.  The U.S. and Australian forces gathered a large fleet in the Coral Sea to thwart the invasion.  After several days of searching and skirmishing, the Japanese and Allied fleets found each other on May 8 and each sent aircraft to attack the other.  Both air attacks occurred at about the same time approximately 200 miles apart with both sides suffering moderate losses. 

 

The most significant Allied loss during the battle was the sinking of the American aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Lexington.  That evening, with the battle roughly a draw, both sides retreated but would meet again a month later at the decisive Battle of Midway, 3,000 miles away in the Hawaiian Islands.

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea was important for several reasons.  It was the first pure carrier-versus-carrier battle in history.  Neither surface fleet sighted the other during the battle, reflecting the growing importance of air power in naval conflicts.  It sent a message to navies around the world:  fleet power lies in aircraft carriers, not in battleships.  Secondly, although a draw, the battle was an important turning point in the war in the Pacific because, for the first time, the Allies had stopped the Japanese advance.  Before the battle, the Japanese had enjoyed a constant string of victories during the war, while afterwards it suffered almost nothing but defeats.  That includes at Midway a month later, a decisive American victory that changed the course of the war.

 

My uncle, Bill Leu, fought at the Battle of the Coral Sea on the navy tanker, U.S.S. Neosho, which was attacked by 24 Japanese dive bombers.  His ship was heavily damaged and eventually sank, as described below.  Hundreds of American sailors died on the Neosho and its escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, during that brief but fierce encounter and its tragic aftermath.

 

Shortly after the Battle of the Coral Sea, many called it one of the most important naval conflicts in world history and, at the time, it probably was.  For most Americans, however, the battle has faded into obscurity.  However, eighty years later, the conflict is still heralded in Australia with some Aussies referring to it as, "The battle that saved Australia."

 

This is the story of that important but mostly-forgotten battle.

 


Background

From December 1941 to the spring of 1942, Japanese forces advanced virtually unimpeded throughout the Pacific and southeastern Asia while handing the Allies a string of humiliating defeats, first at Pearl Harbor, then at Guam, Wake Island, Singapore, and in the Philippines.  By the spring of 1942, the outcome of the war was very much in doubt as Americans started to think that the Japanese military was invincible.  "The Pacific situation is now very grave," cabled President Franklin Roosevelt to Winston Churchill in March of 1942, after the Japanese conquest of Java in Indonesia.

 

Above:  Japanese advances across the Pacific, 1941 - 1942.

The Japanese war plan, developed in the months before the Pearl Harbor attack, was to first invade southeast Asia and Indonesia, securing their valuable oil fields and other precious natural resources, then turn towards the southwest in Burma and India.  However, two important factors changed their plan:  overconfidence resulting from their unexpectedly rapid string of military successes in southeastern Asia, and Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle's surprise bombing raid on Japan.

 

In April 1942, four months after the Japanese battered the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and with the Americans reeling and desperately needing a morale boost, Lt. Colonel Doolittle loaded sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers onto the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet and dashed towards Japan.  The carrier U.S.S. Enterprise accompanied the Hornet and would provide air cover, if needed.  The B-25 bombers on the Hornet took off 650 miles from Japan, bombed Tokyo and other key cities, then flew on to China as the American carriers returned to Pearl Harbor.  Although the raid inflicted little damage, it was a stunning and humiliating blow to the Japanese and provided an important boost to American morale.

 

Above:  Fleet movements before the Battle of the Coral Sea.

After the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese commanders were determined never to let Japan suffer another bombing and thus they shifted their plans.  Instead of invading India, they decided to first expand eastward across the Pacific towards Midway and south towards Australia, something they had planned to do much later in the war. 

 

Japanese military planners felt they should expand their perimeter in the south and central Pacific to act as a buffer around Japan, preventing another such humiliating raid on their homeland.  Considering their unexpectedly easy and rapid conquests in southeastern Asia so far, including in the Philippines and Malaysia, they felt they could accomplish this southward expansion much faster than they had originally planned.

 

As part of this new strategy, in late April 1942 Japan prepared to invade Port Moresby, a key city on the southern coast of New Guinea.  This move, coupled with additional thrusts through the south Pacific, would allow Japan to bomb northern Australia, cut off Australia and New Zealand from supplies, and possibly force the two countries out of the war.  

 

Once the Americans learned of this planned invasion of New Guinea, the Allied fleet, led by American Admirals Jack Fletcher and Aubrey Fitch, headed to the Coral Sea to try to thwart the Japanese.  The stage was set for a crucial battle.

 

   

Above left:  The crew of the lead plane in the 1942 air raid on Japan.  Lt. Colonel James Doolittle is front row, left.  The co-pilot, Lt. Richard Cole, (front row, right) was the last surviving member of the 80-man Doolittle raiding group.  He died in 2019 at age 103.

Above right:  A B-25 bomber from Doolittle's group taking off from the U.S.S. Hornet and heading to Japan on April 18, 1942.

 

   

Above left:  Artist's rendering of a B-25 Mitchell bomber above the carrier U.S.S. Hornet on its way to Japan.

Above right:  A B-25 Mitchell bomber, the type used by Doolittle's raiders.

 


The Japanese Plan

As was typical throughout the war, the Japanese naval plan for the Port Moresby invasion was complex and required a high level of coordination.  Also, as was typical, the Japanese assumed that the Americans would play a passive role and would do "what they were supposed to do" while exhibiting little initiative.  As it turned out, these would be two costly mistakes for Japan.

 

Above:  The Japanese aircraft carrier, Shokaku.

The Japanese battle plan centered around their Port Moresby invasion force and included several supporting thrusts.  First, they planned to invade the island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands chain.  They hoped to set up a seaplane base on Tulagi, which they would use to patrol the southern Solomon Islands and provide valuable reconnaissance information. 

 

The Tulagi invasion force would be protected by a Japanese covering fleet from the island of Truk, a major Japanese naval base, which included the light carrier, Shoho.  After the invasion of Tulagi, the force would continue eastward to Nauru and Ocean Island, which had significant deposits of phosphorus needed by Japanese farmers.

 

The main Japanese strike force would be led by the heavy carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack five months earlier.  While the Allies were distracted at Tulagi, these two carriers would sail south from Truk, screened from American forces by the Solomon Islands.  As the Americans rushed north to engage the Tulagi invasion force, according to the Japanese plan, the two Japanese carriers would swing west and, in a pincer movement, wipe out the American fleet.  After destroying the American fleet, the Japanese carrier force would continue westward, where its planes would attack key cities and airbases on the Australia coast, similar to the way that Japanese airplanes had been firebombing Darwin on the northern Australia coast.

 

While the American fleet was being wiped out, a Japanese invasion force would sail from their large naval base at Rabaul, through a narrow passage through coral reefs known as Jomard Pass, then land at the key city of Port Moresby in southern New Guinea.  Once the southern coast of New Guinea was secured, the Japanese could bomb cities in northern Australia at will.  By continuing to thrust southward through the Solomon Islands, Japan would cut off Australia and New Zealand from supplies, perhaps forcing the two countries to sue for peace.  If the countries were unwilling, it could set the stage for a possible Japanese invasion of Australia and New Zealand.

 

 

 


Participating Ships

ALLIES

Task Group 17.2  (Attack Group)

Cruisers:  Minneapolis, New Orleans, Astoria, Chester, Portland

Destroyers:  Phelps, Dewey, Farragut, Alywin, Monaghan

 

Task Group 17.5  (Carrier Group)

Carriers:  Yorktown, Lexington 

Destroyers:  Morris, Anderson, Hammann, Russell

 

Task Group 17.3  (Support Group)

Cruisers:  Australia (Aust.), Hobart (Aust.), Chicago 

Destroyers:  Perkins, Walke

 

Task Group 17.6  (Fueling Group)

Tankers:  Neosho, Tippecanoe 

Destroyers:  Sims, Worden

JAPAN

Carrier Striking Force

Carriers:  Shokaku, Zuikaku

Heavy cruisers:  Myoko, Haguro

Destroyers:  Ariake, Yugure, Shigure, Shiratsuyu, Ushio, Akebono

Tanker:  Toho Maru

 

Port Moresby Landing Force / Covering Force

Light carrier:  Shoho

Heavy cruisers:  Aoba, Kako, Kinugasa, Furutaka

Light cruisers:  Yubari, Tenryu, Tatsuta

Destroyers:  Sazanami, Oite, Uzuki, Asamagi, Mutsuki, Yunagi, Yayoi

Minelayer:  Tsugaru

Gunboats:  Keijo Maru, Seikai Maru, Nikkai Maru

Also, twelve troop transports and auxiliary craft 

One patrol boat 

 

Tulagi Invasion Force

Destroyers:  Kaikuzuki, Yuzuki 

Minelayers:  Okinoshima, Koei Maru

Troop transport:  Asuman Maru 

Auxiliary craft

 


The Battle Unfolds

On May 1, 1942,  Admiral Jack Fletcher's fleet, led by the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown, met up with Admiral Aubrey Fitch in the Coral Sea.  Fitch's fleet, led by the carrier U.S.S. Lexington, had sailed south from Pearl Harbor.  They knew the advancing Japanese fleet was somewhere to the north of them, so the American fleets refueled during the next few days as both sides, like two boxers fighting in the dark, tried to find each other. 

 

 

Fleet Strength

  Allied Fleet

   Japanese Fleet

  2 fleet carriers

   2 fleet carriers

 

   1 light carrier

  9 cruisers

   9 cruisers

  13 destroyers

   15 destroyers

  1 seaplane tender

   1 seaplane tender

  128 carrier aircraft

   127 carrier aircraft

  2 oil tankers

   1 oil tanker

 

   5 minesweepers

 

   3 gunboats

 

   2 submarine chasers

 

   2 minelayers

 

   12 troop transports

 

On May 4, Fletcher learned about the Japanese invasion of Tulagi, which had happened a day earlier.  Fletcher sped north with the Yorktown group and bombed the Japanese invasion force on Tulagi.  Despite the inflicted damage, the Japanese were able to construct a seaplane base on Tulagi and began flying reconnaissance missions from there on May 6.

 

The American and Japanese carrier fleets continued searching for each other and, on May 7, Japanese planes found two American ships, which the pilots flying at a high elevation identified as an American aircraft carrier and an escorting cruiser.  With this news, the Japanese commander ordered 24 planes to attack.  Instead of a carrier and cruiser, however, these turned out to be the flat-topped American tanker, U.S.S. Neosho and its escorting destroyer, U.S.S. Sims.  During a fierce, one-sided attack, the Sims was sunk with a heavy loss of life and the Neosho was badly damaged.  At the same time, American planes hundreds of miles away found and sunk the Japanese light carrier, Shoho.   Despite these initial skirmishes, though, neither side had found their opponent's main carrier fleet and both sides continued to search for the other.

 

As events would reveal, that day, May 7, 1942, would be the low point for the Allied forces in the Pacific theatre.  Not only did the Japanese sink the destroyer Sims and badly damage the tanker Neosho  in the Coral Sea that day, the Japanese also ousted the Allies from Burma several thousand miles away, cutting off the vital supply link to China known as the Burma Road.  With the American fleet crippled at Pearl Harbor five months earlier and these losses in the south Pacific and in southeast Asia, the outlook for the Allies that day looked bleak.

 

Above:  Sailors abandoning the stricken "Lady Lex."

On the morning of May 8, planes from both fleets finally located the opposing carrier fleets and the major attacks during the Battle of the Coral Sea began.  The Japanese had a decided advantage, however:  weather.  Their two aircraft carriers were partly obscured by clouds from a passing weather front while the two American carriers steamed ahead under sunny skies, clearly visible to Japanese planes many miles away. 

 

Aided by clear skies, the Japanese planes found and sunk the large aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Lexington and seriously damaged the U.S.S. Yorktown.  Hiding under partial cloud cover, the Japanese fleet fared better.  American dive bombers and torpedo planes managed to inflict only moderate damage on the carrier Shokaku, while the Zuikaku emerged from the battle unscathed.  Both Japanese carriers, however, were rendered unavailable for the upcoming battle at Midway a month later.  The Shokaku had suffered too much damage and the Zuikaku had lost too many planes and pilots to participate.

 

After the mutual attacks on the opposing aircraft carriers that day, both sides retreated to lick their wounds.  The Japanese carriers split up and returned north, back to Japan.  Their Port Moresby invasion force, fearful of the American fleet, turned back as they approached Jomard Pass.  This would be the closest the Japanese forces would ever come to Port Moresby, or Australia, during the war.  Meanwhile, the Americans sailed south, then eventually back to Pearl Harbor, smarting from the loss of the Lexington and the crippling of the Yorktown. 

 

Three days later, after both fleets had left the Coral Sea, American scout planes found the listing hulk of the tanker U.S.S. Neosho.  Amazingly, the battered Neosho was still afloat, having drifted for four days with 123 men aboard, including my uncle, Bill Leu.

 


Casualties

Three U.S. ships were sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea and 69 American aircraft were destroyed.  The sunk ships included:

  • U.S.S. Lexington (aircraft carrier)

  • U.S.S. Neosho (tanker)

  • U.S.S. Sims (destroyer)

In addition, one U.S. ship was seriously damaged:

  • U.S.S. Yorktown (aircraft carrier)

I've done some research in books and on the Internet regarding casualties and there seem to be conflicting claims of total Allied forces killed.  According to the official U.S. Navy records, 543 Allied men were killed during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  However, I believe this number is too low and, from my research, I estimate that 711 Allied men were killed during the battle or its aftermath.  Most of the casualties were from the four ships listed above.  From research I've done, I estimate that an additional 20 men on other ships were killed.  I've posted a breakdown of these casualties below:

 

 U.S. Ship

 Type

 Status

 Complement

 Killed

 Survivors

 U.S.S. Lexington

 Carrier

 Sunk

 2,122

 216

 1,906

 U.S.S. Neosho

 Tanker

 Sunk

 293

 170

 123

 U.S.S. Sims

 Destroyer

 Sunk

 252

 239

 13

 U.S.S. Yorktown

 Carrier

 Damaged

 2,919

 66

 2,853

 Other (estimated)

     

 20

 

 TOTAL

   

 5,586

 711

 4,895

 

Japanese casualties included 92 aircraft lost and an estimated 966 men killed.  In addition, the following Japanese ships were sunk :

  • 1 light aircraft carrier (Shoho)

  • 1 destroyer

  • 3 small warships

Four Japanese ships were damaged during the battle, including:

  • 1 fleet carrier (Shokaku)

  • 1 destroyer

  • 2 smaller warships

  • 1 troop transport

Summary of Casualties

 

Sunk / Lost / Killed

  Allied Fleet

   Japanese Fleet

  1 fleet carrier

 

 

   1 light carrier

  1 destroyer

   1 destroyer

  69 carrier aircraft

   92 carrier aircraft

  1 tanker

 
 

   3 small warships

  711 men (est.)

   966 men (est.)

Damaged

  Allied Fleet

   Japanese Fleet

  1 fleet carrier

   1 fleet carrier

 

   1 destroyer

 

   2 small warships

 

   1 troop transport

 

 


Aftermath

After the battle, the damaged aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown limped back to Pearl Harbor and was quickly patched up in time to participate in the crucial Battle of Midway, one month later in June 1942.  The Yorktown played an important role in the destruction of the Japanese attack force at Midway before it was sunk, late in the battle.  Both Japanese fleet carriers returned to Japan after the Battle of the Coral Sea but neither fought at Midway for the reasons mentioned above.

 

 

Jack Rolston

 

Perhaps the most tragic story of the Battle of the Coral Sea, and a story that few people know, took place on what I call the "Raft of 68."  Shortly after the tanker U.S.S. Neosho was attacked by Japanese dive bombers, dozens of men on the ship leaped into the sea, fearing that the heavily-damaged, burning and listing Neosho would sink and carry them down.  Many sailors clambered into rafts, which drifted away from the Neosho, including 68 men who lashed several rafts together.

 

Over the next nine days, this Raft of 68 drifted several miles west.  The men had no food, water, or shelter from the blistering sun, and some became delirious and began to drink sea water.  After a few days many of them began to die.  Nine days after the Neosho was attacked, the destroyer U.S.S. Helm spotted the raft, dozens of miles away, and rescued the men.  However, there were only four survivors left, all of whom were emaciated and near death.

 

Two men died shortly after being rescued but the other two recovered in a hospital in Brisbane, Australia, then returned to the U.S.  In 2003, the last of these survivors, Jack Rolston, helped me put together this section of my website.  Sadly, Jack died in 2010.  I've posted more information about Jack and the Raft of 68 here, including several newspaper articles that he sent to me describing the ordeal.

 


Importance of the Battle of the Coral Sea

Both sides made a number of blunders during the Battle of the Coral Sea, which wasn't surprising considering that it was early in the war.  Nevertheless, the Battle of the Coral Sea was an important conflict and for two main reasons:

  • Above:  Front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, one day after the main conflicts of the Battle of the Coral Sea.

    It was the first battle in naval history fought exclusively through the air.  Neither surface fleet spotted the other during the battle, underscoring the importance of air power, and aircraft carriers, in future naval conflicts.

  •  

  • Though the battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese, it was a strategic victory for the Allies.  The Japanese inflicted more damage during the battle than the Allies, with the sinking of the heavy American carrier Lexington.  But the Allies fared better in the long run and for two reasons.  First, the Allies had turned back the Japanese for the first time in the war, providing them with a much-needed morale boost.  Second, due to Japanese aircraft losses and damage suffered during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the two Japanese heavy aircraft carriers couldn't participate in the crucial Battle of Midway one month later, in which Japan lost all four of its participating aircraft carriers.  If the two Japanese carriers damaged during the Battle of the Coral Sea had fought at Midway, the outcome of the Midway battle, and the war, might have been different.

For many Americans, the Battle of the Coral Sea has faded into obscurity and isn't nearly as well-known as other World War II conflicts in the Pacific, such as Pearl Harbor, Midway, Okinawa or Iwo Jima.  That's perhaps because the battle wasn't a clear-cut victory for either side.  However, many Australians still consider it to be one of the most important battles of World War II and for obvious reasons.

 

When I toured Australia in 2002 and swam in the aptly-named Coral Sea while exploring the coral reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, I didn't know anything about the battle, to be honest.  It wasn't until eight months later when I interviewed my uncle, Bill Leu, at his home near Seattle that I learned about the battle and about his ship, the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho, which was sunk during the conflict.  After researching the Battle of the Coral Sea and learning about the fate of the Neosho, I reflected on my blissful visit to the Coral Sea several months earlier in a different light.

 


Video Interview with U.S.S. Neosho Survivor, Bill Leu

In November 2002, I videotaped an interview of my uncle, Bill Leu, and asked him about the Battle of the Coral Sea.  In vivid detail, he told me how Japanese planes had battered his ship, the tanker U.S.S. Neosho, which eventually sank. 

 

I hadn't realized it then but this was the first time Bill had ever discussed some of these stories with anyone, the memories being too painful for him.  Not even his wife or children had heard about his experiences at the Coral Sea or Pearl Harbor, 60 years earlier.  Modest, caring and compassionate, Bill had always been like a second father to me and I was greatly saddened when he died suddenly and unexpectedly six months later.

 

I posted that interview on YouTube and have included it in my website.  To watch the 10-minute video interview, please visit my Battle of the Coral Sea Interview page.

 

       

Above left:  My uncle, Bill Leu, Fireman 3rd Class, in 1941.  Bill served on the U.S.S. Neosho during its entire active service, from July 1941 until May 1942, when it was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Above center:  This is the last known picture of the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho.  It was taken from a Japanese plane about 1 p.m. on May 7, 1942, after Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers attacked the Neosho and its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims.  Despite a 30-degree list, the ship would continue to float for four days until the surviving 123 crewmen, including my uncle, Bill Leu, were rescued on May 11.

Above right:  My dad (left) and his brother, my uncle Bill Leu, during their interview in 2002 as they described their experiences during World War II.  Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other.  My father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill died a few months later.

 


 

This is a brief summary of the battle.  To learn more about the Battle of the Coral Sea, including the tragic story of the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho and its valiant escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims, please read on.

 

Next Page:  Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942

 

Table of Contents:

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

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

 

SECTION 1:  Background

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

SECTION 2:  Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

Introduction

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Attack on Pearl Harbor

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

 

SECTION 3:  Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942)

Introduction

>  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 Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho

May 7, 1942:  The Japanese Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting for Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)

List of Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Neosho:  Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Sims:  Survivors and Casualties

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Battle of the Coral Sea

Action Report of U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of U.S.S. Sims

Action Report of U.S.S. Helm

Other Ships at the Battle of the 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)

Battle of the Coral Sea Scrapbook

Honolulu Newspaper:  May 8, 1942

S.F. Examiner Article:  July 10, 1942

 

SECTION 4:  Aftermath

Introduction

President Bush's 1991 Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times Article:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

John S. Phillips, Captain of the U.S.S. Neosho

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

Fireman Third Class, Bill Leu

Jack Rolston and the Tragic "Raft of 68"

Links, Sources and Further Information

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