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Home > Family History > USS Neosho > The Battle of the Coral Sea > Summary > May 5-7, 1942



The Battle of the Coral Sea

Action from May 5 - 7, 1942




On the 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.  


The next 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.  


Without 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.


As it 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.


"Scratch One Flattop!"

Fletcher's task force sped west all night and the next morning, May 7, it split up again, with 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.  


After Crace's fleet detached, Fletcher sent out scout planes to look for the Japanese.  Within two hours, a American scout radioed back that "two Japanese carriers and four cruisers" were sailing 200 miles about north.  Fletcher, thinking he had found the main Japanese fleet, immediately launched the bulk of his air-fleet, 93 planes.  Unfortunately, though, the coded 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.


Fortunately 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.


Shoho.jpg (17146 bytes)    Shoho_-_Being_Hit_By_Torpedo_-_600x400.jpg (33447 bytes)

Above 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 aircraft.

Above right:  The Shoho getting hit by a torpedo at the Battle of the Coral Sea.


Attack on the Sims and Neosho

At about 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.  


Thinking 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.


Crace's Chase

While the 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 squadron:

  • H.M.A.S. Australia  (Australian battleship)     

  • H.M.A.S. Hobart and Canberra  (Australian cruisers)                  

  • U.S.S. Chicago  (American cruiser)

  • U.S.S. Perkins, Farragut, Walke  (American destroyers)

Japanese 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 sailing 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 fleet.


The 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.


An Evening Air Battle

With all 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.


By this 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 planes ran 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.


Tensions 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.



Battle Map:  May 5 to May 7, 1942:   To see a larger version, click on the map.

Battle of the Coral Sea:  May 5 to May 7, 1942


 Next Page >  Battle Action:  May 8, 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



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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