BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA
FOUGHT OFF THE FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND COAST,
4 - 8 MAY 1942
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first major naval engagement in history, which was decided without the opposing ships firing a shot at each other. The battle was brought to the opposing ships by the naval air support of the opposing enemy force.
Air attacks on the enemy at Lae and Salamaua on 10 March 1942 did not halt the Japanese move southward. By mid April 1942, the Japanese were moving their forces through the Mandates in readiness for a renewal of their offensive. Their strongholds in New Guinea, New Britain and the Solomon Islands gave them an opportunity to threaten all of Melanesia and Australia if they wished.
The Japanese had bases at the following locations:-
• Rabaul, New Britain
• Gasmata, New Britain
• Kavieng, New Ireland
• Slamaaua, New Guinea
• Lae, New Guinea
• Watom Island
• Ulu Island
• Dyaul Island
• Kieta, Bougainville Island
• Buin, Bougainville Island
• Buka Island, Solomons
• Faisi Island, Solomons
Japanese air reinforcements were believed to be enroute through the Marianas and the Marshall Island groups.
Simpson Harbour at Rabaul, was the main Japanese port for convoys, with lesser activity at Kavieng, Watom, Ulu, Dyaul, Lae and Salamaua.
A few Japanese combatant units, operated almost exclusively in the Rabaul area. Typically an occasional aircraft carrier transporting aircraft, a submarine tender, 3 or more submarines, a seaplane tender and several light cruiser, destroyers and gunboats would be present at Rabaul.
An estimated 3 Japanese aircraft carriers, 2 or 3 battleships, 3 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 16 destroyers, a submarine tender, 6 submarines, 2 converted seaplane tenders, 2 mine layers, 8 gunboats, 9 transports or cargo ships and 8 merchantmen were positioned at Palau and Truk in the Mandates in preparation for a possible move southwards.
During April 1942, there was evidence that the Japanese were planning to invade Port Moresby. The Allies believed that the Japanese would start major operations in the Rabaul area on about 28 April 1942 as part of a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby, or the Lower Solomons or both.
The Japanese operational plans called for six large aircraft carriers of the Japanese combined fleet to sail from Truk and head south of the Solomons and then west into the Coral Sea. Their role was to support and protect the invasion fleet headed for Port Moresby.
This invasion fleet was to consist of 5,000 marines of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces in 12 transports escorted by destroyers and cruisers with one light aircraft carrier to provide air cover. This amphibious assault was known as "Operation MO". They were scheduled to attack Port Moresby in the first week in May 1942. They were to assemble at Rabaul and sail down through the Louisade Archipelago around the eastern end of New Guinea and attack Port Moresby.
The role of the six aircraft carriers was to attack any Allied Naval forces trying to intercept the Japanese Invasion Fleet. Following the invasion of Port Moresby, the six aircraft carriers were due to head southwards to mount a massive 300 aircraft air-raid on Townsville.
On 18 April 1942 Colonel Doolittle launched his daring bombing raid on Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and Kyoto using B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from the decks of US aircraft carriers. In fact General Tojo was flying back to Tokyo at the time of Doolitle's daring raid and his aircraft had to take evasive action to avoid an unfamiliar brown twin-engined aircraft which the crew told a worried Tojo was a land-based American Mitchell bomber.
As a result of Doolittle's air raid, the Japanese changed their priorities in readiness for the invasion of Midway. The Japanese knew that the Americans only had four aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean. They knew that two of these carriers were used in Doolittle's raid on 18 April. Japanese intelligence knew that USS LEXINGTON CV-2 was in Pearl Harbor so that left only one aircraft carrier, the USS YORKTOWN CV-5 in the South Pacific.
NARA Photo # 19-N-17424.
USS Yorktown CV-5 on 21 July 1937
NARA Photo # 80-G-416362
USS Lexington CV-2 in October 1941
Based on this, the Japanese decided to downgrade the Combined Fleet support for the Port Moresby Invasion to just a Task Force support and at the same time the 300 aircraft air-raid on Townsville was removed from their plans. (Wheh!!!) The Japanese despatched only two aircraft carriers, Zaikaku and Shokaku, and the light carrier Shoho to support the invasion of Port Moresby. The rest of the Japanese fleet would make preparations for the invasion of Midway.
The Japanese air strength at Rabaul was reaching a peak. Because the Allied codebreakers were able to read most of the Japanese Naval radio traffic, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet CinCPac, was well aware of the Japanese plans.
Task Force 17 under Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher was still located in the Coral Sea area and Task Force 11 had returned to Pearl Harbor. Task Force 11, then under Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, left Pearl Harbor on 16 April 1942 and whilst on its way to Christmas Island it was ordered to divert course to the Coral Sea area to join up with Task Force 17 to oppose the expected Japanese threat.
On 25 April 1942, General MacArthur sent a signal from Melbourne stating "Information indicates the assembly in the JAPANESE MANDATES of sea and air forces of at least three aircraft carriers and five 8-inch gun cruisers capable of striking in any direction".
Australian military commanders were anticipating a possible strike by carrier-borne aircraft along the coast between Brisbane and Townsville somewhere between 28 April and 3 May 1942, co-incident with an invasion landing near Port Moresby.
Task Force 11 and Task Force 17 met up at Latitude 16° 16’ S., Longitude 162° 20’ E, on 1 May 1942. Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher was placed in command of the combined forces.
A scout plane from USS YORKTOWN sighted an enemy submarine on the surface 32 miles north of the Task Force's position before the two Task Forces separated on 2 May 1942. The submarine dived and resurfaced and was depth charged by three aircraft and was possibly sunk.
Rear Admiral Fletcher directed Task Force 11 to join up with a reinforcing group comprising USS CHICAGO, USS PERKINS of Task Force 44 and USS TIPPECANOE at Latitude 16° 00’ S, Longitude 161° 45’ E. Task Force 11 fully refuelled its ships from USS TIPPECANOE, which then headed for Efate. Task Force 11 then re-joined Task Force 17 the following day.
Task Force 17 had refuelled its ships from the USS NEOSHO and was topped up again on 2 May 1942. At this time Fletcher received intelligence that the Japanese might advance on Port Moresby very soon. Fletcher directed Task Force 11 which was closer, to respond, to continue fuelling its destroyers whilst pursuing a northwesterly course at night and to re-join with Task Force 17 at daylight on 4 May 1942 at Latitude 15° 00’ S, Longitude 157° 00’ E. Task Force 44 (previously known as the Anzac Squadron) comprising HMAS AUSTRALIA and HMAS HOBART joined them as a reinforcing unit at this location.
Task Force 17 refuelled its destroyers from USS NEOSHO on 3 May 1942 whilst heading northwest. At 1900 hours on 3 May 1942, Fletcher received intelligence from Commander Southwest Pacific Forces that the Japanese had begun to occupy Florida Island in the Solomons going ashore from transports in Tulagi Harbour.
Ground forces along the Queensland coast and in the Port Moresby area were put on alert. The Australia Army's 42nd Battalion was responsible for patrolling the coast line near Townsville. They were part of a defence scheme for the Kyber Pass through which the northern rail line ran to Townsville. No one in the Battalion had yet been issued with ammunition. But, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, from 4th to 8th May 1942, they were each issued with 20 rounds of ammunition and sent to the coast near Alligator Creek, just south of Townsville, and told to fix bayonets and face out to sea.
In some north Queensland towns, trains were parked at railways sidings with their boilers at the ready, to evacuate school children in the event of an invasion.
Task Force 17 headed for Tulagi at full steam ahead without rendezvousing with the other ships as originally planned. Fletcher detached USS NEOSHO with USS RUSSELL as an escort and directed her to proceed to the original rendezvous for the 4 May 1942 and to inform all ships that a new rendezvous would be made at Latitude 15° 00’ S., Longitude 160° 00’ E., at daylight on 5 May 1942.
Task Force 17 at that time comprised the following ships:-
Map showing the shipping movements during the Battle of the Coral Sea
Click on thumbnail for a much
enlarged view of the above map
ENGAGEMENT AT TULAGI – 4 MAY 1942
By 0700 hours on 4 May 1942, Task Force 17 was located 100 miles southwest of Guadalcanal Island at Latitude 11° 10’ S., Longitude 158° 49’E. The cruisers had launched an inner air patrol by 0701 hours and the USS YORKTOWN began launching a combat air patrol of six F4F-3 Wildcat fighter aircraft followed by the Attack Group.
The Combat Air Patrol of 6 aircraft was operated all day in 3 shifts. Lt. Comdr. Oscar Pederson was the Commander of the USS YORKTOWN air groups. The fighter aircraft belonged to Fighting Squadron FORTY-TWO, commanded by Lt. Comdr. Charles R. Fenton.
First attack on Tulagi
The Attack Group comprised the following:-
• 12 Torpedo planes (TBD Douglas Devastator) of Torpedo Squadron FIVE under Lt. Comdr. Joe Taylor
• 13 Scout planes (SBD Douglas Dauntless) of Scouting Squadron FIVE under Lt. Comdr. William O. Burch
• 15 Bombers (SBD Douglas Dauntless) of Bombing Squadron FIVE under Lt. Wallace C. Short
The torpedo aircraft were armed with Mark 13 torpedoes with a depth setting of 10 feet and all scout aircraft and bombers were armed with 13 x 1,000 pound bombs.
The Squadrons arrived in the Tulagi area independently with the scout aircraft arriving first at 0845 hours on 4 May 1942 at a height of 17,000 feet. Tulagi Harbour and the adjacent Gavutu Harbour were full of the following Japanese ships:-
• 2 large cargo ships or transports
• 2 destroyers
• 1 light cruiser (Jintsu Class)
• 1 large seaplane tender
• numerous small patrol boats and launches
Five Japanese seaplanes were also moored off Makambo Island. The American squadron commander also spotted a possible destroyer heading northward at high speed from the vicinity of West Cape, Guadalcanal.
The scout aircraft released their bombs from 2,500 feet in their 70° dives towards a Japanese light cruiser and 2 destroyers which were all moored together. They later claimed 4 sure hits and 1 probable hit. The heavy Japanese anti-aircraft fire was mostly ineffective with no casualties. The first of these scout aircraft landed back on their carrier by 1001 hours on 4 May 1942.
The torpedo aircraft from USS YORKTOWN arrived at 0850 hours on 4 May 1942 with seven of them sending their torpedoes towards the three Japanese warships that the scout aircraft had just finished attacking. The two destroyers sunk shortly later and the light cruiser beached itself and sank to deck level.
One aircraft failed to release its torpedo. Three other aircraft unsuccessfully attacked a large cargo ship with two of their torpedoes exploding on a nearby beach. The last two aircraft managed to hit another cargo ship twice and left it dead in the water. Its mast was later spotted sticking up out of the water.
The torpedo aircraft dropped their torpedoes from a height of about 50 feet about 400 to 500 yards from their target and then strafed small ships in the harbour at the end of their run. The heavy Japanese anti-aircraft fire was again ineffectual.
15 bombers arrived into 3 equal sections arrived over the Japanese ships at 0900 hours on 4 May 1942. One section attacked a cargo ship with no hits and the closest splashes more than 30 feet from their targets. They then strafed a Japanese seaplane taking off near Makambo Island.
A second section of bombers scored one possible hit and several near hits on a Japanese seaplane tender, which was getting under way.
Three aircraft from the third section of bombers also attacked the seaplane tender scoring one sure hit and one possible hit. The other two aircraft unsuccessfully attacked a cargo ship and a destroyer. All bombing attacks were made downwind from about 10,000 feet and releasing their bombs at 2,500 feet. Whilst attacking the seaplane taking off near Makambo Island, they were fired on by nearby ships and guns on Makambo Island.
Second attack on Tulagi – 4 May 1942
Serviceable aircraft from the first group of scout, torpedo and bomber aircraft were immediately refuelled and rearmed and left at 1106 hours on 4 May 1942 for a second wave of attacks. There were 14 bombers, 13 scouts and 11 torpedo aircraft, which proceed independently.
The 14 bombers attacked 3 gunboats fleeing from Tulagi at a location 5 miles east northeast of Savo Island. A section of five of the bombers attacked the rear most and largest gunboat at 1145 hours on 4 May 1942 and blew it to pieces with one direct hit and 3 near hits. Another section of five bombers attacked the next gun boat and also blew it up with a direct hit. A third section of four bombers attacked the leading gunboat, which managed to take evasive action during their bombing run resulting in only one near hit. One of the four bombers encountered cloud cover and did not drop its bombs. It then attacked a seaplane tender, which they reported slowed down after a near hit. Several aircraft then strafed the remaining gunboat, which beached itself shortly later.
The scout aircraft covered the area to the west and northwest of Florida Island. At 1240 hours on 4 May 1942 they attacked a seaplane tender standing out of Tulagi Harbour scoring two sure hits and one probable hit. The heavy and accurate Japanese anti-aircraft fire damaged two of the scout aircraft and both managed to limp back to USS YORKTOWN. The other scout aircraft then attacked small launches in the harbour sinking several and damaging others. They also managed to shoot down a Japanese seaplane that attacked them.
The torpedo aircraft attacked the seaplane tender and destroyer located between Tulagi and Savo Island. Six of the torpedo aircraft attacked the seaplane tender approaching on its starboard bow. The ship increased speed and began turning to starboard as the planes dropped their torpedoes from about 2,000 to 3,000 yards out resulting in no hits. The torpedo aircraft then chased a Japanese floatplane that had attacked them during their torpedo runs. They chased it to Makambo Island where it landed under the covering fire of a shore based anti-aircraft battery.
The other torpedo aircraft attacked the seaplane tender about five minutes after the first six had attacked it. The seaplane tender turned sharply to port as they approached on her starboard bow and there were no hits made. They dropped their torpedoes at ranges from 1,000 to 1,500 yards.
All torpedo aircraft encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire particularly from machine guns.
One torpedo aircraft became lost and was able to transmit using their radio but could not receive messages. It eventually ran out of fuel and ditched. USS PERKINS carried out an unsuccessful search for the downed torpedo aircraft.
Third attack on Tulagi – 4 May 1942
At 1340 hours on 4 May 1942, USS YORKTOWN launched four fighter aircraft to eliminate the Japanese seaplanes, which had disrupted their attacks on Japanese shipping during the second wave of attacks on the Tulagi area. At 1430 hours a third attack group was launched from USS YORKTOWN comprising 12 scout aircraft and 9 bombers.
After shooting down 3 Japanese single float seaplanes, the four fighters attacked a destroyer, which was heading away from Tulagi at high speed. They made two runs from astern down the fore-and-aft axis of the ship, followed by two runs from abeam, aiming initially at the water line and then at the bridge. They fired around 4,500 rounds of .50-caliber at the destroyer. The tracers started small fires and the armour-piercing rounds seemed to penetrate the ship’s hull quite easily. The destroyer was last seen leaving a wake of oil.
Two of the fighters from USS YORKTOWN force landed on the southern coast of Guadalcanal Island near Cape Henslow after becoming lost. USS HAMMANN was detached from Task Force 17 at 1640 hours on 4 May 1942 to search for the two pilots. USS HAMMANN was ordered to search no longer than would enable her to rendezvous with the combination of forces at daylight the following morning at Latitude 15° 00’ S., Longitude 160° 00’ E.
USS HAMMANN travelled the 42 miles to a location 6,000 yards off Guadalcanal Island. Through a short rain squall and a heavy overcast they eventually sighted a white parachute and the two aircraft on the beach about 2 miles east of the cape. By 1820 hours on 4 May 1942, a motorised whaleboat with a crew of five with Ensign Robert P.F. Enright in charge was launched and reached a position about 150 yards offshore from the two beached aircraft. Heavy surf and the steepness of the beach prevented then from going any closer to the beach.
The two pilots, Lt. (j.g.) Elbert S. McCuskey, and Ensign John P. Adams, paddled out towards the whaleboat in rubber life rafts from their aircraft, but the surf pushed them back. Coxswain G.W. Kapp, then swam through the surf with a life line and all three men were then pulled back into the whaleboat.
Ensign Enright, under orders, then tried to destroy the two aircraft with small arms fire. The two pilots had destroyed all confidential gear and paperwork before their rescue, but were unable to destroy the aircraft. Lieutenant McCuskey then swam ashore with a life line to see if he could destroy the aircraft using a Very Pistol. He got tangled up with the life line on the way in and eventually reached the beach where he collapsed, totally exhausted.
As it was then dark, the whaleboat fired a flare to see whether McCuskey had made it a shore. Due to the depth of the water, the whaleboat was unable to anchor and had to maintain its position using the engine. When McCuskey had troubles with the life line, the slack created caused it to get tangled with the propeller of the whaleboat which then started to drift towards the breaking surf.
Boatswain’s Mate A.S. Jason dived overboard and cleared the rope away using a knife and hacksaw. Kapp then attempted unsuccessfully to take a line ashore. Boatswain’s Mate A.S. Jason then managed to take a line ashore and both he and McCuskey were dragged back to the whaleboat. They had tried again to destroy the two aircraft without success. The whaleboat returned to USS HAMMANN at 2118 hours on 4 May 1942 and the destroyer was able to rejoin the Task Force at the appointed rendezvous.
The 12 scout aircraft of the third attack group arrived over Tulagi Harbour at 1530 hours on 4 May 1942 and dive-bombed a cargo ship from 2,500 feet. After receiving one hit and several near misses, the cargo ship got underway. The scout aircraft strafed and sank several small launches in the harbour and a gunboat just outside the harbour before returning to USS YORKTOWN.
The nine bombers followed the oil slick left by the destroyer that had been damaged earlier by the four fighter aircraft. They soon sighted the destroyer and the seaplane tender. They concentrated their attack on the seaplane tender, which managed to avoid all the bombs by some radical manoeuvring. Two bombs fell very close though and the rest were within 50 yards of the seaplane tender. The last aircraft of the third attack group returned to USS YORKTOWN by 1702 hours on 4 May 1942.
Damage to the Japanese
• 2 destroyers
• 1 cargo ship
• 4 gunboats
• Various small launches
• 1 seaplane tender
• 1 cargo ship
Damage to US Forces
• 2 fighter aircraft lost – both pilots rescued
• 1 torpedo aircraft lost
• 2 torpedo aircraft, 3 bombers and 3 scouts damaged by bullets or shrapnel – all repaired
The assessment of the three waves of attacks on Tulagi was that they used an excessive amount of ammunition compared to the results achieved (see above). Ammunition expended was as follows:-
• 22 torpedoes
• 76 x 1,000-pound bombs
• 12,570 rounds of .50-caliber
• 70,095 rounds of .30-caliber machine gun bullets
Events between Tulagi and Misima – 5, 6 & 7 May 1942
At about 0816 hours on 5 May 1942, USS YORKTOWN launched 4 fighter aircraft to investigate a radar contact. The fighters spotted and shot down a Japanese four-engine flying boat about 27 miles from USS YORKTOWN and 15 miles for USS LEXINGTON. It was thought that the flying boat might have been following USS LEXINGTON and its group of ships.
Prior to this action, a scout aircraft from USS YORKTOWN had spotted a Japanese submarine on the surface on a course headed towards USS YORKTOWN. It was thought the Japanese flying boat might have been directing the submarine towards one of the Task Force groups. A subsequent air search failed to locate the submarine.
At 0846 hours on 5 May 1942, Task Force 17 rendezvoused with Task Force 11 and the ships of the Anzac Squadron at Latitude 15° 00’ S., Longitude 160° 00’ E., and all units were then combined into a single task force called Task Force 17.
All ships were refuelled from USS NEOSHO on 5 and 6 May 1942. At 0730 hours on 6 May 1942, Admiral Fletcher’s operations order was implemented. It organised Task Force 17 into:-
• an Attack Group of cruisers and destroyers for the purpose of making day and night attacks on Japanese surface craft
• a Support Group of cruisers and destroyers to protect the aircraft carriers
• a Carrier Air Group comprising the two aircraft carriers and a number of destroyers
• a Fuelling group
• a Search group
The group roles for the attack and support groups could have been interchanged if circumstances had required it.
The organisation of the groups was as follows:-
Task Force 17.2 - Attack Group:-
Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid:
CA USS Minneapolis, Capt. Frank J. Lowry
CA USS New Orleans, Capt. Howard H. Good
Rear Admiral William W. Smith:
CA USS Astoria, Capt. Francis W. Scanland
CA USS Chester, Capt. Thomas M. Shock
CA USS Portland, Capt. Benjamin Perlman
Capt. Alexander R. Early:
DD USS Phelps, Lt. Comdr. Edward L. Beck
DD USS Dewey, Lt. Comdr. Charles F. Chillingworth, Jr.
DD USS Farragut, Comdr. George P. Hunter
DD USS Aylwin, Lt. Comdr. Robert H. Rogers
DD USS Monaghan, Lt. Comdr. William P. Burford
Task Force 17.3 - Support Group:-
Rear Admiral J.G. Crace, R.N.:
CA HMAS Australia, Capt. H.B. Farncomb, R.A.N.
CA USS Chicago, Capt. Howard D. Bode
CL HMAS Hobart, Capt. H.L. Howden, R.A.N.
Comdr. Francis X. McInerney:
DD USS Perkins, Lt. Comdr. Walter C. Ford
DD USS Walke, Comdr. Thomas E. Fraser
Task Force 17.5 - Carrier Air Group
Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch:
CV USS Yorktown, Capt. Elliott Buckmaster
CV USS Lexington, Capt. Frederick C. Sherman
Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover:
DD USS Morris, Comdr. Harry B. Jarrett
DD USS Anderson, Lt. Comdr. John K.B. Ginder
DD USS Hammann, Comdr. Arnold E. True
DD USS Russell, Lt. Comdr. Glenn R. Hartwig
Task Force 17.6 – Fuelling Group
Comdr. John S. Phillips
Oiler USS Neosho
Oiler USS Tippecanoe
DD USS Sims
DD USS Worden
Task Force 17.9 – Search Group
Comdr. George H. DeBaun
Seaplane tender USS Tangier – based at Noumea
Admiral Fletcher’s order specified that Task Force 17 was to operate in the Coral Sea about 700 miles south of Rabaul until news of a Japanese advance was received. Intelligence arrived on 5 May 1942 from CINCPAC and COMSOWESPAC that a large number of Japanese ships were in the New Guinea – New Britain – Solomon Islands area. All types of enemy ships including 3 aircraft carriers were reported to be scattered in this area with no common direction of movement.
By the afternoon of 6 May 1942 it became apparent that an advance towards Port Moresby through the Jombard Passage in the Louisiade Archipelago was imminent. It was assumed that the Japanese would establish a base in the Deboyne Islands on their way to Port Moresby. Intelligence suggested that the 7th or 8th May 1942 were the most likely dates on which the Japanese advance might begin.
Task Force 17 at that time was fuelling on a south-easterly course due to the current sea and wind conditions. Admiral Fletch ordered the refuelling to stop and took his Task Force 17 north-westward so they would be in a position to strike the Japanese by daylight on 7 May 1942.
On 6 May 1942, pilot Harry Spieth, co-pilot W. Fields and their crew of the 435th Bomb Squadron had spotted the Japanese fleet and they made a bombing run on an aircraft carrier. "Hotfoot" Harlow, who was in the same flight, bombed a Japanese heavy cruiser. Wilbur Beasley was also in the same flight. They received heavy anti-aircraft fire, but encountered very few fighter aircraft. The Japanese carrier-based fighter aircraft were too busy with the Allied Navy and their aircraft rather than get involved chasing high level bombers.
B-17 Flying Fortress of the 435th Bomb Squadron
On 6 May 1942, USS NEOSHO and USS SIMS were detached to operate to the southward in accordance with the fuelling rendezvous arrangements.
Task Force 17 was at Latitude 13° 25.5’ S., Longitude 154° 48’ E., by 0600 hours on 7 May 1942. Admiral Fletcher detached the Support Group plus USS FARRAGUT, sending it ahead to attack Japanese transports and light cruisers reported heading for Port Moresby through Jombard Passage. The Support Group arrived at a location 110 miles southeast of the South Cape, New Guinea later that day, where it fended off an attack by Japanese bombers and torpedo aircraft.
ACTION OFF MISIMA ISLAND - 7 MAY 1942
As Task Force 17 moved north on the morning of 7 May 1942, Admiral Fletcher carried out air searches looking for Japanese ships. They believed that there were three Japanese aircraft carriers within striking distance.
Ten scout aircraft from USS YORKTOWN searched the area near Deboyne Island in the Louisiades. At 0845 hours on 7 May 1942 one of the scout aircraft spotted 2 Japanese aircraft carriers and four heavy cruisers at Latitude 10° 03’ S., Longitude 152° 27’ E., on a course of 140° true at a speed of about 18 – 20 knots. Preparations were started to launch attack aircraft from both aircraft carriers.
Another scout aircraft spotted two Japanese heavy cruisers at Latitude 10° 40’ S., Longitude 153° 15’ E., on a course of 310° at a slow speed. The Japanese ships used a searchlight to flash the scout with two long flashes.
Two other scout aircraft each shot down a twin-float monoplane resembling a Kawanishi Type 94 Torpedo bomber. One was shot down near Misima Island and the other at position Latitude 10° 35’ S., Longitude 156° 43’ E.
Another scout aircraft, which was assigned the eastern sector, only reached out to 165 miles of his 250 mile assignment and had to turn back due to bad weather. Later events indicated that the Japanese aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku were in the bad weather area not patrolled by that scout aircraft.
Carrier Air Group - Task Group 17.5 - 7 May
It was decided to launch a combined attack group targeting the two Japanese aircraft carriers spotted by the scout aircraft at 0845 hours on 7 May 1942 north of Misima Island.
10 F4F Grumman Wildcat fighters, 28 SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers and 12 TBD Douglas Devastator torpedo aircraft from USS LEXINGTON began taking off at 0925 hours on 7 May 1942. Eight of the SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers were kept locally to protect the group against any torpedo attacks.
USS YORKTOWN launched 8 F4F Grumman Wildcat fighters, 24 SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers and 10 TBD Douglas Devastator torpedo aircraft at approximately 1014 hours on 7 May 1942. There were 92 aircraft in the combined attack group.
The weather for Task Force 17 was reasonably favourable. There were sufficient breaks in the clouds to allow aircraft to be launched and landed without any issues. Visibility was limited to 10 to 15 miles but down to less than a mile during several rain squalls.
At sunset the haze limited the visibility to 4 miles. The frontal area which helped to conceal the Task Force ships ended about 50 miles to the north of them. Where the enemy ships were located, the weather was fine, with unlimited ceiling and visibility of 20 miles or greater.
Task Force 17 aircraft were launched within 160 miles of the enemy ships. The Search aircraft returned to USS YORKTOWN by 1100 hours on 7 May 1942.
It was realised that due to an incorrect arrangement of the pilot’s code contact pad that the report of two enemy carriers at Latitude 10° 03’ S., Longitude 152° 27’ E., was in error. The pilot had actually seen 2 heavy cruisers and 2 light cruisers and had thought he was reporting these ships to the Task Force. The incorrectly adjusted code pad had resulted in the launching of an attack group on a false mission.
A decision was made to let the aircraft continue, which paid off, because not long later information was received from shore-based reconnaissance aircraft of the Australian command that an aircraft carrier, 16 miscellaneous warships and 10 transports had been sighted at Latitude 10° 34’ S., Longitude 152° 26 E., on a course of 285° which was not too far from the incorrect position initially issued to the Attack Group.
At 1123 hours on 7 May 1942 the Attack groups were advised of the new target position and they adjusted their course slightly. The attack group from USS LEXINGTON made contact with the Japanese shipping north of Misima Island at 1123 hours.
The USS LEXINGTON Attack Group – 7 May 1942
Scouting Squadron TWO, comprising 10 SBD Douglas Dauntless aircraft, each carrying one 500-pound and two 100-pound bombs attacked the Japanese ships first. One 500-pound bomb hit the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho’s stern about 50 feet from the ramp and another hit in the centre of the flight deck about two thirds of the way aft.
Soon after the SBD Douglas Dauntless scout aircraft dropped their bombs, Bombing Squadron TWO and Torpedo Squadron TWO made a coordinated attack at 1145 hours on 7 May 1942. The 16 dive bombers, each armed with 1,000-pound bombs, scored 5 direct hits on the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho and the torpedo aircraft scored 9 direct hits out of 12 drops.
USS LEXINGTON aircraft encountered some opposition during their attack from some Japanese Nakajima type 97 fighters. Lt. Edward Allen Executive Officer of Scouting Squadron TWO was shot down. Lt. (j.g.) Anthony J. Quigley from the same squadron made a forced landing on Rossel Island after his control wires were shot away. The Australians later rescued Lt. Quigley and his radioman.
The American fighter aircraft and the rear-seat gunners in the scout aircraft shot down four Nakajima type 97 fighters. A Japanese torpedo aircraft was also shot down. The remaining USS LEXINGTON aircraft returned to their carrier and landed by 1345 hours on 7 May 1942.
The USS YORKTOWN Attack Group – 7 May 1942
USS YORKTOWN aircraft sighted the Japanese ships about 20 miles northeast of Misima Island at 1130 hours on 7 May 1942 shortly after the attacks by the USS LEXINGTON aircraft. They also saw the last of the USS LEXINGTON aircraft returning to their carrier.
They reported seeing the Japanese ships ceasing their violent manoeuvres and saw the aircraft carrier Shoho turning into the wind as though preparing to launch its aircraft. They reported only one small fire on the carrier.
In addition to the aircraft carrier, they sighted a very large cruiser or battleship, 3 heavy cruisers and 1 light cruiser.
At 1147 hours on 7 May 1942, Scouting Squadron FIVE, followed closely by Bombing Squadron FIVE made their dives down wind from an altitude of 18,000 feet. The 24 SBD Douglas Dauntless in the two squadrons were each armed with 1,000-pound bombs. They claimed 14 direct hits on Shoho.
The last bomber decided the destruction on board the aircraft carrier Shoho was so great and pulled away and dropped his bomb towards the light cruiser, scoring a direct hit on its stern which lead to the light cruiser sinking rapidly.
Torpedo Squadron FIVE, came in low and saw the aircraft carrier Shoho listing to starboard and burning fiercely. They could only see a small section of the bow through the smoke and observed only 2 light guns firing.
Within three minutes of the last torpedo striking the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho, it had sunk.
The attack aircraft from USS YORKTOWN did not encounter any Japanese fighter opposition during their initial attacks. Later on six Nakajima type 97 fighters and three other Japanese scout bombers attacked the bombers and torpedo aircraft from USS YORKTOWN. Aircraft from Scouting Squadron FIVE attacked two of the Japanese scout aircraft causing them to break off their attack.
USS YORKTOWN’s escorting fighters divided in half, allocating four to escort the dive bombers and four to escort the torpedo aircraft. They shot down three Japanese fighters and one scout bomber, and damaged two other Japanese aircraft.
The USS YORKTOWN attack aircraft minus one dive bomber had returned to USS YORKTOWN by 1338 hours on 7 May 1942. The missing dive bomber was last seen breaking away from its return flight to attack a Japanese aircraft.
The possibility of a second attack against a group of Japanese ships reported in the Deboyne Island area was considered but dismissed, as there were indications that two other Japanese aircraft carriers were possibly in the vicinity. A decision was made to rely on land-based aircraft to locate the two Japanese aircraft carriers.
Combat Air Patrol – 7 May 1942
Whilst the American Attack Groups were sinking the Shoho, Task Force 17 maintained a Combat Air Patrol to protect their carriers. Aircraft from both carriers were under the control of the USS LEXINGTON Fighter Director.
Radar picked up the first “bogey” at 0903 hours on 7 May 1942. Fighters from USS LEXINGTON were vectored out to intercept a single Japanese aircraft. They did not locate the aircraft.
At 1049 hours on 7 May 1942, USS YORKTOWN put up a combat patrol. The Air Patrols were maintained all day long.
At 1114 hours on 7 May 1942, a section of USS YORKTOWN fighters shot down a Japanese four-engined flying boat about 40 miles from the Task Force.
As the day wore on, Admiral Fletcher decided to head north-westward during the night. Fletcher expected the Japanese to pass through Jombard Passage before morning, heading for Port Moresby in force probably accompanied by an aircraft carrier.
“Bogeys” continued to appear on radar and at 1653 hours on 7 May 1942, fighter aircraft were vectored out to investigate an aircraft on bearing 315°, at a distance of 18 miles. The fighters failed to locate the Japanese aircraft possibly due to the increasingly poor visibility. The aircraft, later identified as a Japanese seaplane by surface lookouts, came within 9 miles of Task Force 17.
USS YORKTOWN fighter aircraft were not fitted with their own radar, which led to them continually investigating “bogeys” identified by ship radars which turned out to be friendly aircraft.
A large group of Japanese aircraft were detected at 1747 hours on 7 May 1942 on a bearing of 145° at a distance of 18 miles. USS YORKTOWN immediately launched additional fighter aircraft and seven fighters were sent to intercept the approaching enemy aircraft. Whilst in transit to intercept, they passed over the top of several Japanese aircraft, which quickly disappeared in the haze. Two of the Yorktown’s fighters broke away to chase the Japanese aircraft. One of these aircraft was never seen again. The other 5 fighter aircraft from USS YORKTOWN spotted a flight of Japanese Aichi type 99 dive bombers and shot one down before losing the others in the murky conditions.
Some fighter aircraft from USS LEXINGTON shot down five Japanese aircraft, which they believed, were Zeros from another formation at around the same time in much the same location. Pilots from USS YORKTOWN reported seeing five oil patches on the sea marking the demise of these five enemy aircraft.
Admiral Fletcher believed that his aircraft had shot down at least 15 of the Japanese aircraft encountered. USS YORKTOWN lost two fighter aircraft, one mentioned above which broke formation and disappeared and another, which became lost in the middle of the air combat. At 2028 hours on 7 May 1942 the latter was given directions to reach Tagula Island, but he was never seen again. USS LEXINGTON lost one fighter aircraft, piloted by Lt. (j.g.) Paul G. Baker, which is believed to have collided with a Japanese Zero.
USS YORKTOWN began landing their combat air patrols after sunset at 1858 hours on 7 May 1942, and this was completed by 1930 hours. Whilst in the landing circle at about 1850 hours, three Japanese aircraft flew by on the starboard side flashing lights. A fighter from USS YORKTOWN opened fire on them as they crossed the bow of the aircraft carrier without success.
More Japanese aircraft appeared over USS YORKTOWN at about 1910 hours on 7 May 1942. They were driven off by small calibre fire from USS YORKTOWN.
There were differing versions regarding the appearance of Japanese aircraft over Task Force 17 that night. Captain Buckmaster of USS YORKTOWN stated that a Japanese aircraft was shot down by fire from an unspecified screening ship, and that the firing damaged one of his carrier’s aircraft.
Captain Sherman of USS LEXINGTON stated that he opened fire on aircraft flying around his ship after they were reported as being hostile by USS YORKTOWN. He believed that the Japanese aircraft mistook USS LEXINGTON as their own carrier. Radar later showed them moving about 30 miles to the east, circling and then apparently landing on a Japanese aircraft carrier.
At 2000 hours on 7 May 1942, Task Force 17 was at Latitude 13° 10’ S., Longitude 154° 13’ E. on a course of 115° true.
Japanese Losses on 7 May 1942:-
1 Aircraft Carrier Shoho with most of her crew and aircraft
1 Light Cruiser with many of her crew
13 fighters, type 97 and Zeros
3 torpedo aircraft, type 94
2 scout bombers
1 four-engined patrol plane, type 97
Allied Losses on 7 May 1942:-
3 SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers, crew of one later saved
3 F4F Grumman Wildcat fighters
Japanese attack on the Support Group – 7 May 1942
As a reminder the Support Group comprised the following ships:-
Task Force 17.3 - Support Group:-
Rear Admiral J.G. Crace, R.N.:
CA HMAS AUSTRALIA, Capt. H.B. Farncomb, R.A.N.
CA USS CHICAGO, Capt. Howard D. Bode
CL HMAS HOBART, Capt. H.L. Howden, R.A.N.
Comdr. Francis X. McInerney:
DD USS PERKINS, Lt. Comdr. Walter C. Ford
DD USS Walke, Comdr. Thomas E. Fraser
Plus USS FARRAGUT – attached for this mission
Task Force 17 was at Latitude 13° 25.5’ S., Longitude 154° 48’ E., by 0600 hours on 7 May 1942. Admiral Fletcher detached the Support Group plus USS FARRAGUT sending it ahead to attack Japanese transports and light cruisers reported heading for Port Moresby through Jombard Passage. The Support Group proceed to Jombard Passage at 25 knots and arrived at a location 110 miles southeast of the South Cape, New Guinea later that day.
At about 0840 hours on 7 May 1942, radar indicated three Japanese aircraft were shadowing the ships. USS CHICAGO sighted a Japanese twin-float monoplane, which stayed well out of gun range.
At 1427 hours on 7 May 1942, a formation of 10 to 12 single-engined monoplanes with retractable landing gear approached the Support Group from astern on a parallel course to port. The Support Group was in formation “Victor” at this stage at a position Latitude 12° 00’ S., Longitude 151° 31’ E.
The Japanese aircraft passed within about 6,000 yards of USS FARRAGUT, which was on station bearing 300° from the guide ship, HMAS AUSTRALIA. Several ships opened fire on the aircraft briefly without any success, and the aircraft disappeared ahead.
At 1505 hours on 7 May 1942, between 10 and 14 Japanese aircraft were detected on radar approaching from dead ahead. They were possibly Mitsubishi type 97 heavy bombers. These twin-engined aircraft were armed with torpedoes.
The leading ships in the formation opened fire from 6,500 yards. Almost immediately the Japanese aircraft formation leader and another aircraft were shot down. This caused the other Japanese aircraft to break their tight “vee” formation. They then attacked USS PERKINS in smaller groups from both port and starboard.
Only five torpedo trails were observed, with two of them passing by HMAS AUSTRALIA and three by USS CHICAGO. The ships maneuvered vigorously, maintained a heavy curtain of gun fire and managed to avoid all of the Japanese torpedoes.
After they dropped their torpedoes, the Japanese aircraft strafed the ships in front of them at the end of their torpedo run. At least two more Japanese aircraft were shot down. USS PERKINS estimated that 4 to 6 aircraft had been shot down. After ten minutes of action, the Japanese aircraft disappeared to the north.
More Japanese aircraft were detected on radar during the first attack. Shortly later, the Support Group came under attack from Japanese Mitsubishi type 96 aircraft flying at an altitude variously estimated somewhere between 14,000 to 24,000 feet. Approaching from directly astern, they straddled HMAS AUSTRALIA with a salvo of bombs that fell in a diameter of only 500 yards. Fortunately there were only two near misses, which shook HMAS AUSTRALIA, but no damage was sustained.
Shortly later another two Japanese aircraft were spotted shadowing the Support Group, but they made no efforts to attack.
Friendly Fire attack on Task Force Support
Group by USAAF - 7 May 1942
Several minutes after the second high level bombing attack, a “vee” formation of three more bombers dropped a salvo of bombs from a very high altitude. Admiral identified them as USAAF B-26 Marauders based on photographs, but the Commanding Officer of USS WALKE, Lt. Comdr. Fraser, correctly identified them as USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses and said that the bombs fell just astern of USS FARRAGUT.
They were part of a group of 19 American B-17 Flying Fortresses, of the 435th Bomb Squadron, 19th Bomb Group, based at Townsville. They were returning to Townsville after a bombing raid in New Guinea. Their bombs apparently straddled HMAS AUSTRALIA, whose upper decks were swamped with water from the explosion. Some minor damage was reported by bomb shrapnel. A further three aircraft then dropped bombs from 25,000 feet near USS Perkins. Harry Spieth was one of the pilots involved in this accidental bombing incident. HMAS Australia returned fire with its anti-aircraft guns.
These B-17's had formerly been part of "Southern Bomber Command" which was attached to a US Navy Task Force. Six of the aircraft in “Southern Bomber Command” had been members of the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 7th Bomb Group. They B-17s were then transferred to the 40th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 19th Bombardment Group, which was later redesignated to become the 435th Bomb Squadron.
The War Diary for USS PERKINS has the following entry for the 7 May 1942:-
"1513 Sighted a formation of approximately 15 high level bombers at approximately 20,000 feet altitude approaching formation from astern when sighted planes were above thin layers of clouds, almost directly overhead. Opened fire immediately and almost simultaneously bombs began falling around ships in formation. HMAS AUSTRALIA seemed to be main objective. No ships were hit but all ships could claim near misses. No damage to planes resulted from our A.A. fire as they were above effective range. Planes disappeared and did not return."
In a separate report the Commanding Officer of USS PERKINS dated 9 May 1942 stated:-
"At 1515 while on course 295º, speed 30 knots with the ships attempting to keep the same relative stations in formation, firing on the remaining torpedo planes (Japanese) have ceased a few seconds earlier, a flight of about 20 high level bombers were observed overhead approaching from astern. Fire was opened immediately. The planes were at about 20,000 feet and bombs began dropping in the vicinity of all ships in the formation on our port hand. The ship's course was changed radically to starboard and shortly thereafter the Commanding Officer observed a near miss close aboard on our port hand. This was apparently a fortunate change of course. Many near misses were observed in the vicinity of the AUSTRALIA and FARRAGUT but no direct hits were observed. The AUSTRALIA reported four bombs dropped close to this vessel. Shrapnel fell on the port side aft and on the director platform and bridge. Twenty 500 pound bombs and a number of smaller bombs were dropped."
"The damage was slight. The TBS antenna was severed above the bridge. A small amount of shrapnel fell in the vicinity of the director and around the after deck house. There was a large dent in the director in the vicinity of the position occupied by a man who was wounded in the arm and chest, apparently by a 20 MM shot." (most likely from the earlier Japanese dive bombers or an Allied ship rather than the B-17s)."
"One hundred two rounds of five inch, four hundred twenty rounds of 20 MM, and two hundred fifty rounds of .50 caliber were expended. The only material casualty was a shell jamming in Number One 20 MM, after about fifty rounds had been fired, and this gun was thus temporarily out of action until the barrel could be shifted."
The War Diary for USS FARRAGUT has the following entries for 7 May 1942:-
1508 "Ceased firing. Ammunition expended 120 rounds 5" / 38 AA service; 750 rounds 20 mm ball, and 750 rounds 20 mm tracer, total 1,500 20 mm rounds and about 200 rounds of small arms ammunition." (This is action involving the Japanese Dive Bombers)
1526 "Sighted 19 twin engined bombers (actually four engined B-17 Flying Fortresses) making high level approach on AUSTRALIA and CHICAGO at elevation of 15,000 to 20,000 feet, flying in massed "V" formation."
1526 "1/2 Opened fire on bombers with 5" / 38 guns and expended 49 rounds. Other ships opened fire at same time, no hits were observed. These planes dropped a number of bombs close to AUSTRALIA."
1527 "2 4-engined land bombers (B-17 Flying Fortresses) appeared making approach on FARRAGUT followed by another lone plane at elevation about 20,000 feet. Increased to emergency flank speed and came hard left. Five bombs missed 200-300 yards on starboard quarter about where FARRAGUT would have been if no change in course and speed had been made. Bombs were apparently delayed action and exploded underwater, three of them giving about the water disturbance usually caused by a 600 lb. depth charge set at 50 feet, the others appearing lighter or else exploded deeper. No damage to ship although shock of explosion was noticeable."
The B-17's took bomb sight photographs immediately after dropping their bombs and on return to their Townsville base, it was confirmed that they had inadvertently tried to sink the Support Group of Allied Task Force 17. The incident was hushed up at the time.
Rear Admiral Crace commented "Fortunately, their bombing, in comparison with that of the Japanese formation a few moments earlier, was disgraceful." And of course the anti-aircraft fire from the Allied ships did not hit any of the B-17 Flying Fortresses!!
Apparently the Navy had told the 435th Bomb Squadron that everything north of a certain Parallel would be Japanese, and everything south of a certain Parallel would be friendly. As it turned out, they were north of the nominated Parallel.
A squadron of B-26 Marauders had also accompanied the B-17s on the mission that day. Spieth and his flight were flying at about 18,000 feet and could see some planes flying below and diving for a low level to attack on some Naval ships. Spieth and his flight thought these other aircraft were the B-26s, so they assumed that the ships were Japanese. So they lined up on the battleship that the other aircraft had just attacked and dropped their bombs on it. It turned out that they had just attacked the Support Group of Task Force 17 just after some Japanese torpedo bombers had also made an attack.
Attack on USS NEOSHO and USS SIMS – 7 & 8 May
As mentioned earlier, USS NEOSHO and USS SIMS were detached from the Task Force on 6 May 1942 to operate to the southward in accordance with the fuelling rendezvous arrangements. By 0800 hours on 7 May 1942, they had reached a position at Latitude 16° 01’ S., Longitude 158° 01’E when aircraft were detected by radar and visually. They initially thought they were friendly aircraft. At 0929 hours, as USS SIMS was moving ahead of USS NEOSHO to provide an anti-submarine screen, it was attacked by a single unseen reconnaissance type Japanese aircraft at about 15,000 feet, which dropped a bomb about 100 yards off the destroyer’s starboard quarter.
Both ships sounded general quarters and built up speed to 18 knots. After some false alarms based on radar contacts, they eventually sighted 15 Japanese aircraft at high altitude on a bearing of 025° true from USS NEOSHO. The aircraft flew past on the port side disappearing to the north east without attempting to attack. USS SIMS fired on the aircraft without any impact.
A few minutes later, 7 more aircraft were sighted approaching from 010° true. They also flew away parallel to the ships making no attempt to attack the ships. Guns on both ships fired on the aircraft as they passed to port.
At 1033 hours on 7 May 1942, another 10 aircraft approached from 140° true. Three twin-engined bombers made a horizontal run on USS NEOSHO dropping three bombs from a high altitude. They all fell to starboard with two of them falling within 25 yards of USS NEOSHO. Both ships fired on the attacking aircraft which flew away undamaged to the north east.
They continued to observe more aircraft on radar and finally at 1201 hours, on 7 May 1942, about 24 Japanese dive bombers were sighted at a very high altitude manoeuvring to attack. USS SIMS moved back to a position on USS NEOSHO’s port quarter. For the next 15 or more minutes both ships were attacked with aircraft diving from all directions. The sequence of events was lost in the confusion and destruction, which followed.
USS SIMS took at least three direct hits from what were thought to be 500-pound bombs. It was believed that four Japanese aircraft dived extremely low on USS SIMS. Personnel on USS NEOSHO reported that none of the four aircraft survived their dives. They were either shot down or destroyed by the blasts of their own bombs.
Bombs exploded in both the forward and after engine rooms and severely damaged USS SIMS. All power was lost and the ship stopped dead in the water. Her topside was a shambles. Lt. Comdr. Willford M. Hyman immediately ordered the men who had survived the explosions to assist the repair party to throw overboard all weight possible.
Meanwhile a motorised whaleboat and two life rafts were launched. The whaleboat was ordered to go aft to attempt to extinguish a fire in the after deck house and flood the after magazine. As the whaleboat moved around the bow, USS SIMS seemed to break amidships and went down slowly, stern first.
All hands started jumping into the water and swimming clear. As the water reached the top of the stack, a terrific explosion occurred and the water was immediately covered with oil. Another smaller explosion happened a short time later.
Surviving fireroom men did not believe either explosion could have been the boilers, since all pressure had already been lost. Their consensus was that the depth charges or warheads had exploded. The explosions were the main cause of the loss of life. Lt. Comdr. Hyman was last seen on the bridge giving orders in an attempt to save the ship.
The USS SIMS whaleboat, which had been launched, reached USS NEOSHO at about 1445 hours on 7 May 1942 and 15 men were taken onboard USS NEOSHO. Two of the men later died. Chief Signalman R. J. Dickens, in charge of the whaleboat, had picked up all survivors he had seen where USS SIMS went down.
Whilst USS SIMS was under attack, most of the Japanese aircraft were attacking USS NEOSHO. The 20-mm gunners on USS NEOSHO shot down three aircraft and damaged others, which were forced to pull out of their dives prematurely. It was all to no avail though, as the oiler received seven direct hits and at least eight near misses. The seven direct hits were as follows:-
1. Port side main deck at the transverse bulkhead separating No. 7 and No. 8 wing tanks.
2. Starboard stack deck near No. 3 gun enclosure, penetrating to the after center bunker tank before exploding.
3. Forward of the stacks on the centre line at frame 30, piercing to the fireroom before exploding
4. In the bridge structure on the port side, penetrating the main deck and exploding in No. 5 port wing tank.
5. On the starboard side of the main deck abaft the bridge structure, exploding in No. 6 starboard wing tank.
6. On the main deck, starboard side, forward of the bridge structure, penetrating the transverse bulkhead separating No. 3 and No. 4 starboard wing tanks.
7. On the starboard side of the main deck, penetrating into No. 8 starboard wing tank.
USS NEOHO was further damaged by one of the three Japanese bombers that were shot down. The burning aircraft made a suicide landing at 1214 hours on 7 May 1942 on the deck crashing into No. 4 gun enclosure. The gun was badly damaged and intense fires broke out immediately and spread aft over the stack deck.
Commander John S. Phillips ordered all hands to prepare to abandon ship soon after the last bomb fell. The Executive Officer, Lt. Comdr. Francis J. Firth, who had been initially knocked unconscious and badly burned had relayed the order and later reported to Commander Phillips for further orders.
Some of USS NEOSHO’s crew were so affected by the seven explosions, the crashing Japanese aircraft and the sight of the sudden sinking of USS SIMS, they leapt off the US NEOSHO before the order to abandon ship was given. Seven undamaged life rafts were set adrift. It would appear that a junior officer gave directions to abandon ship to the men in his area despite no such order coming from the bridge,
At about 1230 hours on 7 May 1942, Commander Phillips ordered two more whaleboats to pick up personnel who had leapt overboard and to retrieve the drifting life rafts. The whaleboats returned overloaded with men retrieved from the water. Due to the overloading they were unable to retrieve the drifting life rafts. As it was near sunset it was decided not to send the whaleboats out again.
The seas were getting rougher with the winds increasing to a force of 5 – 6. Distress calls were sent out to the Task Force. It was hoped that ships sent to their rescue would be able to find the rafts the next day.
Although fires on board USS NEOSHO had been brought under control, it was obvious that she was a doomed ship. Water continued to rise within the ship despite the continual pumping and the main deck was buckling gradually to such an extent that there was a serious risk she would break in two at any moment.
A muster of the whaleboats after they returned to USS NEOSHO showed 16 officers and 94 men accounted for; 1 officer and 19 men known dead, and 4 officers and 154 men missing, besides the 15 men from USS SIMS. Many were wounded and several died later on.
Despite all the damage, USS NEOSHO continued to remain afloat. During the night of 7 May 1942, three whaleboats, one of them from USS SIMS, were kept in the water near the port side to pick up survivors in case USS NEOSHO capsized. All Classified material was ordered destroyed. All radio transmission then had to be sent in plain language via an auxiliary transmitter.
An effort was made to determine USS NEOSHO’s position the next morning, 8 May 1942. The ship by then was listing to starboard by 26°. The edge of the main deck on that side was under water. They were unable to raise steam. All moveable equipment on the starboard side was thrown overboard to try to correct the list to starboard.
After an unsuccessful attempt was made to break the starboard anchor chain, it was let go with a run. USS NEOSHO was drifting on bearing 280° at about 1.4 knots. The list to starboard had been reduced only by about 3°.
ACTION ON 8 MAY 1942
Task Force 17 continued to move southwest during the night of 7 May 1942 and by 0800 hours on 8 May 1942 was located at Latitude 14° 25’ S., Longitude 154° 31’ E., on a course of 125° true.
Intelligence reports received by Admiral Fletcher during the previous night indicated that the Japanese invasion fleet was retiring northward, but nothing specific was received about the Japanese Aircraft Carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku. It was assumed they had remained in the Coral Sea to settle the problem of air control prior to returning with their transports to attack Port Moresby.
Admiral Fletcher decided to conduct a 360° dawn search, 200 miles in the northern semicircle and 150 miles in the southern semicircle to endeavour to locate the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku.
Scout aircraft from USS LEXINGTON took off at 0625 hours on 8 May 1942. At 0820 hours, Lt. (j.g.) Joseph Smith of Scouting Squadron TWO spotted a Japanese formation of two aircraft carriers, four heavy cruisers and several destroyers located about 170 miles to the northeast heading southwards at high speed. The position was Latitude 11° 51’ S., Longitude 156° 04’ E. At 0822 hours, the interception of Japanese radio transmissions indicated that they had spotted the American Scout plane at same time.
Unlike the previous day, weather conditions that morning favoured the Japanese. Ceiling and visibility near the Task Force were almost unlimited, with few clouds, no rain squalls and wind blowing at 15 to 18 knots from the southeast. The Japanese ships were located in a frontal area with visibility varying from 2 to 15 miles. In addition to intermittent squalls, Cumulus, alto-cumulus and cirrus clouds blanketed the area.
Admiral Fletcher handed over tactical command of the Task Force to Admiral Fitch, Commander Air, at 0907 hours on 8 May 1942.
The USS YORKTOWN Group – 8 May 1942
The first of the Air Attack Group comprising 6 fighters, 7 scouts, 17 dive bombers and 9 torpedo aircraft began taking off from USS YORKTOWN at about 0900 hours on 8 May 1942. All of the scout and bomber aircraft were loaded with 1,000-pound bombs.
The scout and bomber aircraft, escorted by 2 fighters proceeded at 17,000 feet. The dive bombers sighted the Japanese ships first at 1032 hours on 8 May 1942 heading on a course of 190° true. The spotted two aircraft carriers about 6 to 8 miles apart with an escort of 1 battleship or very large cruiser, 3 heavy cruisers and 4 destroyers.
By 1049 hours on 8 May 1942, the scout and bomber aircraft were in position to attack but circled waiting for the slower torpedo aircraft to arrive. At 1058 hours with the torpedo aircraft in position, a co-ordinated attack was made on the Japanese aircraft carrier that had already launched some aircraft. Six sure hits, three possible hits and many near hits were made in the attack.
Japanese aircraft attacked the SBD Douglas Dauntless aircraft during their dives and after their pull-outs. Scouting Squadron FIVE shot down four Japanese fighters and Bombing Squadron FIVE shot down 7 more. Both squadrons also damaged several other Japanese aircraft. The American aircraft were able to use the cloud cover to escape the Japanese fighter aircraft.
The SBD Douglas Dauntless aircraft were hampered in their attacks by fogging bombsights and windshields.
Lt. John J. Powers had previously sworn that he would make a direct hit at any cost. He dived to within several hundred feet of the Japanese aircraft carrier in his dive bomber before releasing his bomb. It is believed that his aircraft was destroyed by the blast from his own bomb. President Roosevelt later posthumously awarded Lt. Powers the Congressional Medal of Honor for his extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty. Another SBD Douglas Dauntless from USS YORKTOWN was also lost in the attack.
The torpedo aircraft attacked from the southeast. As the SBD Douglas Dauntless aircraft attacked, the Japanese aircraft carrier made a left turn then swung abruptly to the right. It was at this point that nine torpedoes were dropped. Three and possibly four of them made direct hits. Three torpedoes made erratic runs.
The last two pilots said that the first torpedo struck the Japanese aircraft carrier on the port bow opening a hole from the waterline to the flight deck. The second and third torpedoes hit between the bow and the midships section of the carrier. The side of the carrier from the bow aft for 50 to 100 feet was on fire. Another small fire was seen on the starboard quarter. Fires were still burning fiercely about 15 minutes after the attack.
The torpedo aircraft also made good use of the cloud cover to rendezvous or retreat for cover, which aided in none of them being shot down.
The four fighters escorting the USS YORKTOWN’s torpedo aircraft drove off an attack by six Zeros during the approach allowing the TBD Douglas Devastators to drop their torpedoes unmolested. Three Zeros and one Japanese scout aircraft were shot down during the attack and a Japanese torpedo aircraft was shot down whilst returning to USS YORKTOWN.
USS YORKTOWN’s fighter aircraft also attacked two Japanese dive bombers whilst returning but they had to break off the attack due to a shortage of fuel.
The attack group from USS YORKTOWN began landing at 1300 hours on 8 May 1942. An aircraft flown by Lt. (j.g.) Floyd E. Moan of Bombing Squadron TWO, crash landed and struck the island structure in full flight. Lt. Moan and his rear seat man, Seaman Second Class R.J. Hodgins were rescued and the totally wrecked SBD Douglas Dauntless was pushed over the side of the carrier.
The USS LEXINGTON Group – 8 May 1942
The Attack Group from USS LEXINGTON comprised 12 torpedo aircraft, 18 dive bombers, 4 scouts and 9 fighter aircraft. The dive bombers were escorted by 3 fighters, the torpedo aircraft were escorted by 4 fighters and the scouts were escorted by 2 fighters.
The 3 fighters escorting the dive bombers lost contact with their charges and returned to USS LEXINGTON. The 18 dive bombers then failed to locate the Japanese ships and returned to their carrier.
One torpedo aircraft returned to the carrier due to engine problems. The other 11 torpedo aircraft under Commander Brett, teamed up with the 4 scout aircraft, which comprised a section led by the Lexington group commander, Commander Ault. They did not sight the Japanese ships by the time they reached the end of their navigational leg. They then started to fly a box pattern along with their combined escort of 6 fighters. Within a few minutes they entered a clear area where they sighted the Japanese ships about 20 miles away.
Comdr. Ault tried to make radio contact with the lost dive bombers without success. Soon Japanese Zeros and what were thought to be ME-109s (probably Tonys) attacked the American fighter aircraft. Lt. Noel Gayler one of the four fighter pilots escorting the torpedo aircraft reported they had shot down at least one and probably more Japanese fighter aircraft.
Lt. Gayler took advantage of some cloud cover during the dogfight and after flying on instruments for about 3 minutes, he exited the clouds at about 1,000 feet directly over a Japanese aircraft carrier and a cruiser and a destroyer. He circled the aircraft carrier twice. It would appear the Japanese had not seen his aircraft, as he was not fired on. A few moments later he spotted a larger group of Japanese ships 15 miles to the east. One of them appeared to be a carrier, which was burning and “making a good deal of smoke.”
Lt. Gayler spotted one of the scout aircraft piloted by Ensign Marvin M. Haschke and followed it back to USS LEXINGTON. Ensign Haschke was the sole survivor of the four scout aircraft of Commander Ault’s group.
Whilst the fighters were attacking the Japanese fighters, the 4 scouts and 11 torpedo aircraft attacked the Japanese together. Radio logs showed that this attack happened at 1057 hours on 8 May 1942. They made two 1,000-pound bomb and 5 torpedo hits on a carrier of the Zuikaku class, which was last seen on fire and losing headway.
Three of the scouts and two fighters were lost due to Japanese fighters or shortage of fuel. A torpedo aircraft also made a forced landing due to lack of fuel. Comdr. Ault was one of those lost. Although in radio contact with the Task Force, he could not find his way back and his aircraft could not be seen on radar. At 1454 hours on 8 May 1942, he was told that he was “on his own” and to try to find land. He replied:-
“O.K. So long, people. Remember we got a 1,000-pound hit on the flat top.”
The last of the surviving aircraft made it back to USS LEXINGTON at about 1400 hours on 8 May 1942. A group of seven torpedo aircraft were fired on briefly by USS YORKTOWN when they did not execute agreed recognition manoeuvres due do a severe shortage of fuel.
The assessment of both Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Fitch was that the air attacks had severely damaged the aircraft carrier Shokaku and damaging aircraft carrier Zuikaku.
Japanese Air Attack on Task Force 17 – 8 May 1942
As mentioned earlier, at 0820 hours, on 8 May 1942, Lt. (j.g.) Joseph Smith of Scouting Squadron TWO from USS LEXINGTON spotted a Japanese formation of two aircraft carriers, four heavy cruisers and several destroyers located about 170 miles to the northeast heading southwards at high speed. The interception of Japanese radio transmissions indicated that they had spotted the American Scout plane at the same time and estimated the position of Task Force 17.
Admiral Fletcher handed over tactical command of the Task Force to Admiral Fitch, Commander Air, at 0907 hours on 8 May 1942, so that he had complete freedom of action with cruisers the cruisers and aircraft.
Most ships of the Task Force had gone to general quarters at dawn, which was maintained for the rest of the day. Combat and anti-torpedo patrols were maintained throughout the day.
The Task Force continued to travel generally south easterly building up to 25 knots and then eventually 30 knots when the Japanese attack commenced but this varied during launching and recovery of aircraft.
The ships were maintained in circular disposition “Victor” with the aircraft carriers in the middle, with USS YORKTOWN to the north of USS LEXINGTON. At 1040 hours on 8 May 1942, USS YORKTOWN repositioned itself so that USS LEXINGTON would not be between her and the sun, in the event that Japanese aircraft approached from the sun.
As the Japanese attack developed, USS YORKTOWN and USS LEXINGTON drew apart from each other whilst doing high spend manoeuvres to avoid bombs and torpedoes. Once the attacks had finished they ended up several miles away from each other.
USS YORKTOWN was escorted by:-
And USS LEXINGTON was escorted by:-
USS NEW ORLEANS
COMBAT AIR PATROL – 8 MAY 1942
The Fighters – 8 May 1942
Captain Sherman of USS LEXINGTON produced the following brief report without the aid of records, which were lost with his ship:-
“Our combat patrol, under the fighter director, was patrolling at 10,000 feet. Exact altitude of the approaching enemy was not determined, but was known to be over 10,000 feet. The fighters made contact 20 – 30 miles out but the enemy bombers were at 17,000 feet and the performance of our fighters was not sufficient to gain enough altitude to attack them before they reached the push over point. The bombers were accompanied by 18 protective fighters, which our fighters subsequently engaged in combat and shot down or damaged six.”
An unnamed officer on one of the aircraft carriers made the following statement about the handling of the American fighter aircraft during the Japanese air attack:-
“What we wanted to criticize mostly was fighter direction. The Lexington fighter director, who was directing fighters for both carriers, had an excellent organization. His physical set-up was good and they were all drilled. He got information and got that information out quickly and accurately. When a large attack was seen to be coming straight in, without any change of bearing, having been picked up at 80 miles at high altitude, he didn’t take any action for a while. Apparently he was watching to see what would develop. The fighter director in the Yorktown called him and asked him if he knew that the attack was coming in. He said ‘yes.’ Then he pulled in all his fighters. Then he sent them out piecemeal at various altitudes, with the result that, as far a fighter protection is concerned, we might just as well have had no fighters in the air instead of the 17 we had from the two carriers. Many of us are positive that the loss of the Lexington was due, specifically and exactly, to the lack of fighter direction.”
Using radio logs, radar plots and the accounts of pilots from both aircraft carriers, Captain Buckmaster of USS YORKTOWN compiled the following account of how the Japanese attack was met by the combat air patrol.
At 1055 hours on 8 May 1942, radar showed a very large group of Japanese aircraft approaching on a bearing of 020° from a distance of 68 miles. At 1059 hours, all aircraft on combat air patrol were recalled by the fighter director to the vicinity of the two aircraft carriers. Four extra fighters were launched at 1059 hours. There were then a total of eight fighters from USS LEXINGTON and nine fighters from USS YORKTOWN in the air.
Aircraft from the cruisers that had been up since dawn providing an inner patrol were recalled when the Japanese air attack seemed imminent. At 1014 hours on 8 May 1942, a fighter from USS YORKTOWN shot down a Japanese four-engined flying boat, which had been shadowing Task Force 17 from a distance of 20 to 25 miles.
At 1102 hours on 8 May 1942, five fighters from USS LEXINGTON were vectored out on a course of 020°, distance 30 miles, at 10,000 feet. Two of the fighters were later told to fly at a lower altitude to intercept Japanese torpedo aircraft. The other three fighters made contact with a large formation of Japanese aircraft at about 20 miles out. One of the pilots reported that there 50 or 60 Japanese aircraft 1,000 to 2,000 feet above them.
He said they were stacked in layers from about 10,000 to 13,000 feet and that about one third of them were fighters. The torpedo aircraft were at the lowest level, then the fighters, then the dive bombers, then more fighters. The three Task Force fighters attacked the large Japanese formation when it was about 15 to 20 miles out. The other two fighters who were flying at the lower altitude attacked the Japanese torpedo aircraft at 1116 hours on 8 May 1942 when they were about 4 to 5 miles out.
At 1108 hours on 8 May 1942, another four fighters from USS LEXINGTON were vectored out on the same bearing to a distance of 15 miles at about 10,000 feet. On reaching their end point and after making no contact, they asked for new orders. They were told by the fighter director that the enemy aircraft carriers were already under attack and they should return at 10,000 feet. They arrived on the scene after the attack was over, but managed to shoot down several Japanese aircraft that were lingering in the area.
Another two-plane section of fighters from USS LEXINGTON was instructed to circle overhead. They climbed to 12,000 feet and were able to attack the tail end of the enemy formation.
Four fighters from USS YORKTOWN were kept overhead at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. Two of the four aircraft failed to intercept the Japanese aircraft before they commenced their attack, but managed to shoot down one Zero and one dive bomber after it had released its bomb. The other two aircraft attacked a group of dive bombers as they entered their dives, and shot down one before it released its bombs and another just after it released its bombs.
Therefore only 3 of the 17 Task Force fighters effectively intercepted the Japanese aircraft prior to the delivery of their attack.
Fighters from USS YORKTOWN shot down four Zeros and three dive bombers and damaged other aircraft.
No fighters from the USS YORKTOWN combat air patrol were lost. Two fighters from USS LEXINGTON were shot down but screening ships picked up both pilots. USS PHELPS rescued Lt. (j.g.) Richard Crommelin.
The SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers – 8 May
USS YORKTOWN launched eight SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers at 0730 hours on 8 May 1942 to provide an anti-torpedo patrol. Captain Buckmaster commented that this was necessary due to a shortage of fighter aircraft. The SBDs circled at a low altitude close to the Task Force.
They were unable to catch the Japanese torpedo aircraft as they came in at high speed. The SBDs were then attacked by a larger number of Japanese fighters. Four SBDs were immediately shot down.
The SBDs did however manage to shoot down four of the Japanese fighters and damaged several others, four of which were listed as probables. None of the eight SBDs escaped damage. Captain Buckmaster described their action as “a splendid example of courage and devotion to duty; although outnumbered, and opposed by faster and more manoeuvrable aircraft, they were not outfought.”
USS LEXINGTON also launched eight SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bombers for an anti-torpedo patrol on station at 2,000 feet at a radius of about 6,000 yards from their carrier. The Japanese aircraft came in above them. Captain Sherman reported that they shot down eight Japanese torpedo aircraft and one fighter.
One SBD Douglas Dauntless scout bomber from USS LEXINGTON was shot down. Another SBD piloted by Lt. (j.g.) Frank R. McDonald, fell over the side of the carrier while attempting to land. McDonald, who was wounded in the shoulder, was rescued by USS MORRIS along with his rear seat man, Aviation Radioman, third class C.H. Hamilton.
One of the USS LEXINGTON fighter pilots said later that the SBDs that day were like “a small boy sent to do a man’s job.”
Attack on USS YORKTOWN – 8 May 1942
USS YORKTOWN went to general quarters at 0545 hours on 8 May 1942. The first of the Air Attack Group comprising 6 fighters, 7 scouts, 17 dive bombers and 9 torpedo aircraft began taking off from USS YORKTOWN at about 0900 hours. Aircraft on combat patrol were launched and recovered at various times through the morning.
At 1055 hours on 8 May 1942, radar detected a large group of Japanese aircraft on a bearing of 020° at a distance of 68 miles. The Task Force course was changed to 125° at 1111 hours when the Japanese formation was 15 miles away.
The 5-inch batteries commenced firing as the Japanese torpedo aircraft flew through and above the protecting fighters and scout aircraft. The Japanese torpedo aircraft then operated in small groups. Three torpedoes were dropped from the port quarter and then another four on the port beam. Captain Buckmaster called for full right rudder and emergency flank speed for USS YORKTOWN. At this time USS YORKTOWN and USS LEXINGTON started to move apart from each other.
USS YORKTOWN had manoeuvred such that she was running parallel to the torpedoes dropped on the port beam long enough so that they ran past close by the port side.
Covering fire from Task Force 17 shot down 4 Japanese aircraft from the group, which had dropped the first three torpedoes on the port quarter. One of the Japanese torpedo aircraft that approached on the port beam was shot down before it dropped a torpedo and another one was shot down after dropping its torpedo.
A third group of torpedo aircraft came around USS YORKTOWN’s stern about 8,000 yards or more out and dropped their torpedoes well out on the starboard quarter. USS YORKTOWN was turned to present her stern and two torpedo tracks were seen running past on the starboard side. One of these Japanese torpedo aircraft was shot down.
One torpedo aircraft approached parallel to the starboard side to a position forward of the beam. It turned towards the aircraft carrier and dropped its torpedo 2,000 yards out whilst under heavy 5-inch and I.I fire. USS YORKTOWN was veered to the right as the torpedo was dropped and it passed harmlessly across the bow.
At 1124 hours on 8 May 1942, fifteen to eighteen Japanese dive bombers attacked out of the sun, diving across the deck from port to starboard. They appeared to be aiming at the island structure where the bridge was located. Heavy anti-aircraft fire and evasive action by Captain Buckmaster, managed to limit the damage to one direct bomb hit on the flight deck about 23 feet forward of No. 2 elevator and about 15 feet from the island structure. It made a hole 14 inches in diameter in the flight deck and passed through No. 3 Ready Room, the hangar deck and the second deck, angling towards the starboard side. It then hit a beam and stanchion and was deflected back to port, piercing the third deck. It exploded in the Aviation Store Room about 3 feet above the fourth deck, instantly killing 37 men and injuring others.
The one direct bomb hit penetrated a vertical distance of 50 feet before it detonated piercing a total thickness of 1.68 inches of steel decking plate. The hole in the flight deck was a clean hole, whilst the holes in the hangar and second decks were jagged and slightly larger. The ship’s shell was not punctured. The hangar deck was bulged across its total breadth from frame No. 100 to frame No. 115. The flight and galley decks were undamaged.
A 4 foot diameter hole was blown up through the second deck about 8 feet inboard of the bomb impact hole, and the entire deck in the marine living compartment was bulged upwards. The transverse bulkheads of that compartment were badly bulged forward and aft but did not rupture. All doors were badly warped but remained secure
When the bomb hit the second deck it pierced the general lighting, battle light and power circuits for the damaged area, causing short circuits. Several people in the fire parties received electric shocks one being a serious shock.
The hole blown in the third deck was 6 feet in diameter and the deck was turned and peeled back over an area of about 35 square feet. The entire deck in compartment C-301-1L was bulged upwards and the service store and office, soda fountain, engineer’s office and laundry issue room were totally destroyed.
The fourth deck, though not ruptured, was dished downwards over an area of about 40 square feet. The inboard bulkhead of the forward engine room access truck, and the after bulkhead of the laundry storeroom were shattered. Two watertight doors were severely damaged and a large hatch cover was thrown about 15 feet up into the No. 2 elevator pit. The transverse bulkheads and doors joining four compartments were blown out.
Some minor fires broke out in the aviation storeroom, and the flash from the explosion penetrated up to the hangar overhead, causing a small paint fire directly above the bomb impact hole. There was also a minor fire in the marine living compartment.
37 of the 40 deaths on USS YORKTOWN were attributed to the bomb explosion as well as 26 of the serious injuries.
Fire hoses attached to the fireplugs in the hangar were led to the bomb hole and No. 2 elevator pit and were used to put out the fires on the three decks below. A short in a power circuit in the aviation storeroom started the sprinkler system which great assisted the work of the fire parties.
The fire and repair parties performed exceptionally. Lt. Milton E. Ricketts, who was the officer in charge of repair party No. 5 was mortally wounded by the bomb blast. The men in his repair party were all killed, wounded or stunned by the bomb blast. Despite his serious wounds Lt. Ricketts opened the valve of a fireplug, then partially led out the fire hose and directed a stream of water into the fire before he dropped dead. This was the first fire hose put on the fire.
There were also six near misses on the starboard side, two very close between the bow and the bridge. There were two very near misses on the port quarter and two or three on the starboard quarter. These managed to lift the screws clear of the water. One of the near misses on the starboard bow grazed the edge of the catwalk just abaft of the No. 3, 5-inch gun. Shrapnel from another near miss in the same area pierced the hull in several places above the waterline.
USS YORKTOWN’s speed was maintained at 24 knots or more and when Main Control was asked by the bridge if they should slow down they replied “Hell, no. We’ll make it!”
TCXAM Radar on USS YORKTOWN stopped working at 1131 hours on 8 May 1942 and was functioning again at 1222 hours. The following day the radar antenna was blown off its base by the wind. It was discovered that the rivets holding the antenna yoke to its pedestal was sheared off during the Japanese attack the previous day.
The YE homing transmitter was also damaged and out of service for several hours meaning that both Air Groups had no YE homing available for that time.
USS ASTORIA – Flagship of Rear Admiral Smith
Captain Scanland stated that Japanese torpedo aircraft were first seen off the port beam of his ship at 1112 hours on 8 May 1942. USS ASTORIA opened fire with her 5-inch and automatic guns, placing a barrage above and beyond USS YORKTOWN.
One Japanese torpedo aircraft was shot down on the port quarters by a direct 5-inch hit.
Another Japanese torpedo aircraft withdrawing off the port quarter was shot down 400 yards out.
A third torpedo aircraft was forced to drop its torpedo at a height of about 500 feet under very heavy fire.
A fourth torpedo aircraft crashed in flames 300 yards off the port bow after an apparent attempt to crash into the cruiser.
After a brief break in the attack, USS ASTORIA started firing on Japanese dive bombers at 1120 hours on 8 May 1942. At 1132 hours, USS ASTORIA was straddled by four Japanese bombers but amazingly was not damaged. One dive bomber was shot down on the port bow.
The attack was broken off at about 1132 hours on 8 May 1942.
Captain Scanland stated that a total of 68 Japanese aircraft took part in the attack, comprising 30 torpedo aircraft, 26 dive bombers and 12 fighters.
Fourteen of the torpedo aircraft attacked USS YORKTOWN, fifteen attacked USS LEXINGTON and one attacked USS ASTORIA. Twelve of the dive bombers targeted USS YORKTOWN, another twelve attacked USS LEXINGTON and two aimed at USS ASTORIA.
The only casualties onboard USS ASTORIA were one flash burn and two cases of broken toes due to 5-inch shells being dropped.
Admiral Smith was disappointed with the anti-aircraft gunfire. He indicated that the performance of the 5-inch batteries was “uniformly poor”, with “much wild shooting.” He also stated that the I.I’s and 20-mm guns, “although extremely wild, were more effective.”
USS PORTLAND - 8 May 1942
When the USS YORKTOWN turned sharply to starboard at 1117 hours on 8 May 1942, USS PORTLAND’s starboard batteries came to bear on the incoming Japanese torpedo aircraft. This comprised two 5-inch guns, two I.I mounts and the starboard 20-mm guns. The guns continued firing until USS YORKTOWN moved towards the line of fire.
Captain Perlman stated that all gun fire was “generally without damaging effect, inasmuch as lead-offs were too small and planes were out of effective range. However, the volume of fire was apparently disconcerting to the pilots, who released torpedoes against the Yorktown considerably earlier than they did against the Lexington.”
At 1120 hours on 8 May 1942, Japanese torpedo and dive bombers began a co-ordinated attack on USS YORKTOWN. USS PORTLAND fired on these Japanese aircraft with all bearing guns without any effect except for an element of disturbance for the Japanese pilots.
After this, uncoordinated attacks by single dive bombers were made from several directions. During this time, two Japanese aircraft diving either at USS PORTLAND or USS YORKTOWN were seen to turn away when engaged by one I.I mount and four 20-mm guns. Both aircraft retreated leaving a trail of smoke.
Two other Japanese aircraft retiring on a course opposite to USS PORTLAND at 4,000 feet were fired on by one 5-inch battery and escaped undamaged.
Near the end of this engagement, a single Japanese aircraft made a low level approach on USS PORTLAND’s port bow. USS RUSSELL at that time was almost directly in front of USS PORTLAND 1,500 yards out. Both ships opened fire and the enemy aircraft crashed into the sea near the destroyer.
There were no personnel injured on USS PORTLAND.
USS CHESTER – 8 May 1942
At 1113 hours on 8 May 1942, USS CHESTER opened fire on Japanese torpedo aircraft and continued firing on them until 1133 hours. Captain Shock stated that two Japanese torpedo aircraft attacked USS CHESTER from the starboard side at 1117 hours. One of them was shot down before it released its torpedo. The other one was shot down after it dropped its torpedo and crashed just forward of the starboard beam.
Another Japanese torpedo aircraft flew ahead of USS CHESTER on its way to attack USS YORKTOWN but was shot down by intense I.I and 20-mm fire from USS CHESTER.
Captain Shock’s summary of the Japanese aircraft and their targets was as follows:-
|Type of Japanese Aircraft||No. of aircraft||Their Target|
|Torpedo type 97||31||2 waves of 6 aircraft – USS Lexington
1 wave of 5 aircraft – USS Lexington
2 waves of 6 – USS Yorktown
2 aircraft – USS Chester
|Dive bomber type 99 & some fighter bombers similar to Army type 97||20||3 attacks of 4 or 5 aircraft on USS Yorktown and the remainder on USS Lexington|
|Fighters type 96 or 97||15 - 20||Supported attack and attempted strafing|
A US Marine gunner on USS CHESTER was seriously wounded by the premature explosion of a 20-mm. shell in his hot gun.
USS HAMMANN – 8 May 1942
Personnel on USS HAMMANN first sighted Japanese torpedo aircraft coming in to attack from the north east at 1116 hours on 8 May 1942. A minute later 2 torpedo aircraft headed for USS YORKTOWN and one was shot down ahead of USS YORKTOWN. Within the next few minutes more torpedo aircraft and dive bombers came under fire. USS HAMMANN shot down one and possibly two torpedo aircraft with its 5-inch and 20-mm. guns.
After a brief lull in the attack, a smaller wave of Japanese aircraft came in from the east. USS HAMMANN opened fire without success. One Japanese torpedo aircraft was shot down by USS RUSSELL before USS HAMMANN’s guns could open fire.
Commander True estimated that 30 to 40 % of the 5-inch shells that were fired failed to explode.
USS RUSSELL – 8 May 1942
Lieutenant Commander Hartwig stated that the intensity of gunfire from all the screening ships made it hard for them to determine the effectiveness of their own guns.
Eyewitness reports on board varied widely. Lt. Cmdr. Hartwig stated “These reports claim four planes shot down and one disappearing, leaving a trail of smoke. There is authoritative agreement on two of those reported shot down.” One was a torpedo aircraft, which had not dropped its torpedo. The other was an unidentified type, which was hit directly by a 5-inch shell, which failed to explode. The damage however was sufficient to cause the aircraft to plunge into the sea.
USS AYLWIN – 8 May 1942
When the USS YORKTOWN and USS LEXINGTON separated, USS AYLWIN remained with USS YORKTOWN.
Japanese attack on USS LEXINGTON – 8 May 1942
At 1000 hours on 8 May 1942, a message was sent to the Commander Southwest Pacific Area Forces giving the enemy’s position and disposition at 0900 hours with the hope that land based aircraft could track and bomb them. Weather conditions prevented the Japanese ships being located.
The Japanese aircraft attack on USS LEXINGTON and USS YORKTOWN began at about the same time. USS LEXINGTON opened fire at 1113 hours on 8 May 1942 at Japanese Torpedo aircraft, which made the first attack. Some of the aircraft approached directly from port and others circled and came in on the starboard bow.
The Japanese Torpedo aircraft approached in a high-speed glide angle of about 40° dropping their torpedoes from about 300 to 500 feet altitude about 500 yards to 1,200 yards out.
Captain Sherman called for left full rudder to bring the first torpedoes ahead of the carrier. Captain Sherman commented:- “From then on, torpedoes were coming in from both starboard and port and I maneuvered with full rudder both ways as I considered best to avoid torpedoes.”
Some of the torpedoes passed from starboard ahead of USS LEXINGTON. Two more ran parallel to the carrier, with one on either side of the ship. Some others passed from port ahead, and another two apparently ran directly beneath the keel.
The first torpedo hit USS LEXINGTON at 1120 hours on 8 May 1942 just forward of the port forward gun gallery and exploded. A second torpedo hit a little further aft, about opposite the bridge at 1121 hours and exploded.
USS LEXINGTON’s anti-aircraft guns shot down four of the Japanese torpedo aircraft.
The dive bombers were also co-ordinating their attacks on USS LEXINGTON with the torpedo aircraft. At about the same time the first torpedo hit, an estimated 1,000 pound bomb struck the after end of the port forward gun gallery. The explosion killed the entire crew of gun No. 6 and rendered the battery useless. It also killed or wounded thirteen men on gun Nos. 2 and 4.
The explosion also killed several men inboard of the main passageway on the main deck. It is believed that some of the preset 5-inch ammunition in the ready locker of the gallery may have also exploded. The gun gallery, the admiral’s cabin and surrounding areas were on fire.
Another possibly 500-pound bomb hit the gig boat pocket on the port side killing many men. A third much smaller bomb hit and exploded inside the stack.
Two large bombs hit near the port side aft and tore holes in the hull. The damage was initially thought to have been caused by torpedoes. Shrapnel from one or more bomb hits aft on the starboard side killed and injured several machine gunners in the sky aft and the after signal station.
In addition to the earlier mentioned fires there were fires near the gig boat pocket, beneath the incinerator and in the forward starboard marine compartment near the forward elevator.
By now the aircraft carrier was listing to port at about an angle of 6°. Damage Control were frantically pumping oil to other compartments to correct the list. Main Control reported all units in commission. Nos. 2, 4 and 6 fire rooms were partially flooded, but water levels were being maintained using the pumps.
Both aircraft elevators were jammed at the top level due to machinery damage in the wells. USS LEXINGTON was still underway at 25 knots under good control.
Damage Control reported at about 1240 hours on 8 May 1942, that the carrier was then on an even keel and that three of the fires had been extinguished and that the other one in the Admiral’s country was under control.
Several of the American aircraft returning to USS LEXINGTON to land, thought that she had come through unscathed based on what they could see. Little did they know that she was a doomed ship.
USS MINNEAPOLIS – Flagship of Rear Admiral
Kinkaid - 8 May 1942
USS MINNEAPOLIS sighted the first Japanese torpedo aircraft about 15 miles out and opened fire with their 5-inch guns and automatic weapons at about 1116 hours on 8 May 1942. USS MINNEAPOLIS was directly in line with the approach of the Japanese torpedo planes on USS LEXINGTON.
The torpedo aircraft passed ahead, astern and over USS MINNEAPOLIS. One of them crashed off the starboard bow of USS MINNEAPOLIS after a direct 5-inch hit. The I.I and 20-mm guns destroyed another one passing over the stern. The 20-mm guns shot down a third approaching the stern.
Two torpedo aircraft dropped their torpedoes towards USS MINNEAPOLIS and they passed close aboard.
Captain Lowry of USS MINNEAPOLIS estimated that about nine dive bombers attacked USS LEXINGTON. USS MINNEAPOLIS fired at them with their 5-inch guns with no effect except that possibly one was deterred from its attack. The cruiser ceased firing at 1133 hours on 8 May 1942.
Due to difficulties in recognising their own SBDs from the Japanese aircraft, Captain Lowry noted that on several occasions, USS MINNEAPOLIS and some of the other screening ships fired on the SBDs.
There were no casualties on board USS MINNEAPOLIS.
USS NEW ORLEANS – 8 May 1942
USS NEW ORLEANS opened fire on Japanese torpedo aircraft attacking the USS LEXINGTON at 1114 hours on 8 May 1942. After the dive bombers arrived they continued firing until 1134 hours. They did not shoot down any Japanese aircraft. The main reason for this was apparently their long distance from USS LEXINGTON. Captain Good recommended that they should have been at circle 2 instead of circle 3 which had a radius of 1,000 yards from the aircraft carrier.
USS NEW ORLEANS was generally in front of USS LEXINGTON though at times, when the carrier was evading torpedoes, they found themselves approximately 4,300 yards away from the aircraft carrier at the time that the dive bombers started their attack. Captain Good stated that the 5-inch guns were “entirely too slow in train and elevation to effectively keep on fast moving dive bombers or gliding torpedo planes.” He stated a “need for remote control of I.I and 20-mm mounts is more apparent than ever.”
One man in the gun crew of the I.I-mount on the fantail received a broken nose. The gun at one point was completely submerged in the rough seas and the crew narrowly missed being washed overboard.
USS PHELPS – 8 May 1942
USS PHELPS was placed with USS LEXINGTON after the two carriers separated. She was on the aircraft carrier’s starboard bow at 1129 hours on 8 May 1942.
The Japanese aircraft came in over USS PHELPS at 1115 hours on 8 May 1942. A burning Japanese aircraft crashed off USS PHELP’s port beam at 1118 hours. A torpedo is believed to have passed beneath USS PHELPS at 1129 hours. A minute later a Japanese bomb struck the water close to her port bow just as the Japanese attack was about to finish.
USS DEWEY – 8 May 1942
USS DEWEY was positioned 1,500 yards abeam of USS LEXINGTON when the Japanese attacked started. Lt. Comdr. Chillingworth asserted that the Japanese aircraft passed over and around his ship and that they shot down three of them. He stated that their 20-mm guns shot down two Zeros and their 5-inch guns shot down a torpedo aircraft. Captain Early on USS PEHLPS confirmed seeing two aircraft shot down by USS DEWEY at 1116 hours on 8 May 1942.
Japanese Torpedo aircraft strafing USS DEWEY from port wounded six crew members. Several bombs fell near the ship. USS DEWEY started an unsuccessful search astern for survivors of the Japanese attack at 1430 hours on 8 May 1942.
USS MORRIS – 8 May 1942
As the Japanese attack began, USS MORRIS was on USS LEXINGTON’s port quarter. Commander Jarrettt, stated that the first Japanese torpedo aircraft dropped a torpedo at 1115 hours on 8 May 1942 on the carrier’s port beam 300 to 400 yards out and scored a hit. A delay in opening fire on this torpedo aircraft was put down to initial uncertainty in identification, as the carriers had only just launched several aircraft.
Japanese aircraft used the red Rising Sun roundel on the side of their aircraft. The Americans affectionately referred to it as the "meatball". The early American markings for their aircraft had a red circle in the centre of the star. At a distance this was sometimes confused for the red Japanese meatball. The red circle was eliminated after May 1942 to avoid confusion.
Comdr. Jarrett stated that about 20 aircraft appeared to attack USS LEXINGTON. USS MORRIS claimed hits on two Japanese aircraft though as other ships were also firing on the same aircraft, it was difficult to be sure which ship had scored the successful hit.
After dropping a torpedo on USS LEXINGTON one Japanese aircraft briefly strafed USS MORRIS. There were no casualties on board USS MORRIS.
USS ANDERSON – 8 May 1942
Lt. Comdr. Ginder stated that Japanese aircraft dived from the clouds on USS LEXINGTON at 1116 hours on 8 May 1942. USS ANDERSON opened fire 30 seconds later on a Japanese aircraft on her port beam flying parallel to their direction. The aircraft, although not hit, turned away from the carrier without dropping its torpedo.
Their 20-mm guns opened fire at 1117 hours on 8 May 1942 on three torpedo aircraft flying close to the water in the opposite direction from USS ANDERSON. There were no successful hits. At 1118 hours a Japanese aircraft was seen on the port bow launching a torpedo at the destroyer or a nearby cruiser. Lt. Comdr. Ginder called for hard left rudder to avoid the torpedo, which crossed the bow close aboard.
At 1122 hours on 8 May 1942, USS ANDERSON observed four or five Japanese dive bombers attacking USS LEXINGTON. They mostly came in from the side opposite that occupied by USS ANDERSON, whose fire was frequently fouled by other ships. USS ANDERSON made no claims of hitting any aircraft.
SINKING OF USS LEXINGTON
After all the aircraft of Task Force 17 had either returned or been given up for lost, Admiral Fletcher considered making another air attack or sending the attack group of ships in for a surface battle. Fletcher believed that one Japanese aircraft carrier had escaped damage. At 1422 hours on 8 May 1942 Admiral Fitch reported there were indications that an additional aircraft carrier had joined the enemy forces.
Damage had reduced USS YORKTOWN’s maximum speed to 30 knots and USS LEXINGTON’s to 24 knots. Both carriers had lost a great number of aircraft during action and other had been rendered unserviceable from damage. As a consequence Admiral Fletcher abandoned the idea of an air attack. He also rejected the idea of a surface attack because he felt that his Task Force might be the subject of a strong carrier air attack before dark.
Admiral Fletcher decided to retire southwards to assess damage to the ships and allow the Air Groups more time to return sufficient aircraft to service in readiness for a strong attack on 9 May 1942.
It was planned to transfer serviceable aircraft from USS LEXINGTON to USS YORKTOWN and send USS YORKTOWN to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
As Task Force 17 proceeded southwards, Comdr. Morton T. Seligman, Executive Officer of USS LEXINGTON made an inspection of the carrier. He found damage control parties were functioning smoothly and “there was no apparent cause for concern.”
As Commander Seligman was on his way to the sick bay a “terrific” explosion below decks blew him through a hatch scuttle at 1247 hours on 8 May 1942. Severe fires broke out in the C.P.O. passageway and at other locations on the second deck. They were especially bad near the gunnery office.
It was concluded that small fuel leaks caused an accumulation of vapours in the bowels of the ship, which eventually ignited. Captain Sherman stated “from this time on the ship was doomed.”
Fire hoses from the after section of the fire main were led out and considerable efforts were made to fight the fires, which were spreading aft. Many additional minor explosions were heard below decks from 5-inch ammunition or fuel vapours. More communications continued to be lost on the ship and the fire fighting main water pressure dropped to 30 or 40 pounds. Captain Sherman had to start steering using the engines when the telephone circuit to the trick wheel went dead.
Comdr. Seligman believed that the original explosion happened below the armoured deck and that the later explosions and fires were incidental.
The Task Force Commander was advised at 1452 hours on 8 May 1942 that the fires were out of control and USS LEXINGTON signalled for assistance at 1456 hours.
Admiral Fletcher reassumed tactical command of the Task Force from Admiral Fitch at 1510 hours on 8 May 1942.
Men who were not equipped with rescue breathers could not assistant in fighting the fires due to the heat, smoke and gas conditions. Once the supply of the rescue breathers ran out, men persisted going back into dangerous areas wearing just a regular gas mask.
The Gunnery Officer, Lt. Comdr. Edward J. O’Donnell acquired two additional fire hoses from aft, which were led into the scuttles of the 5-inch ammunition hoist to starboard. In an attempt to flood the C.P.O. country, the last available fire hose was led into the dumb waiter of the food distribution room.
The men were trying to flood the fire forward of the quarter deck to check the spread of the blaze. They managed to have good water pressure on their hoses for a short time.
Lt. (j.g.) Raymond O. Deitzer, the officer in charge of the gasoline system, determined shortly after the attack that the system on the starboard side was functioning correctly. The system on the port side had been secured as a precaution just after the attack. Just before the terrific explosion, Lt. (j.g.) Deitzer ordered the gas control room on the port side to be flooded with water and smothered with CO2.
Commander Seligman, weakened by the effects of smoke inhalation, proceeded to the flight deck where he soon heard another explosion. The forward elevator had jammed up and sheets of flame could be seen below it. A fire hose brought from aft seemed to be making an impact on the fire.
Seligman asked Carpenter Nowak to make sure that all of the hangar deck sprinklers were on. Lt. Comdr. O’Donnell also made sure that the ‘ready’ torpedoes war heads on the mezzanine were also being sprinkled with water.
Shortly later it became necessary to evacuate the hangar deck aft and many wounded men were brought from the fuselage deck to topside. Lt. (j.g.) John F. Roach (MC) and Lt. Morris A. Hirsch, without regard for their own safety, both led rescue parties who were evacuating the wounded.
The forward section of the aircraft carrier was well ablaze, above and below the armoured deck with no available means left to fight the raging fire, which was now spreading aft on the flight deck. It was believed that it would not be long before the 20 or so torpedo warheads on the mezzanine of the hangar deck would explode.
Only one power phone to main control was still working, but line quality was poor and it was expected to fail soon. Commander Seligman, Executive Officer of USS LEXINGTON, sent a message to the Chief Engineer that it may be necessary to abandon ship, and ordered that the life rafts be placed in the nettings and unoccupied crew members be send forward and aft on the starboard side, as the ship was listing at about 7° to port.
Seligman then proceeded to the bridge and gave the Commanding Officer, Captain Sherman, a situation report. Sherman immediately ordered the Engineering Department to be secured and personnel to be evacuated to the flight deck.
The plan to transfer operating aircraft from USS LEXINGTON to USS YORKTOWN was prevented due to the sudden breakdown of USS LEXINGTON.
When USS LEXINGTON lost headway, the aircraft on deck were unable to take off and 35 of them were lost when USS LEXINGTON later sunk. 16 planes, 4 fighters and 10 SBDs from USS LEXINGTON were in the air when she came to a halt and these were landed on USS YORKTOWN at about 1535 hours on 8 May 1942.
A Combat patrol was in operation until darkness fell.
The Engineering Plant on USS LEXINGTON was secured at 1630 hours on 8 May 1942, and USS LEXINGTON soon lay dead in the water.
Captain Sherman ordered life rafts to be made ready and preparations to be made to abandon ship. Once the Engineering Plant was abandoned and all water pressure gone for fire fighting, Sherman asked Admiral Fitch for destroyers to come alongside and pass over fire hoses. Admiral Fitch directed the destroyers accordingly and asked Sherman to disembark excess personnel to the destroyers.
USS MORRIS passed over two fire hoses, which were immediately put into action. Excess crew members went down lines to her deck from USS LEXINGTON.
Additional explosions were heard and Captain Sherman believed there was a risk that the carrier could blow up at any moment, as the war heads on the hangar deck had earlier been at a temperature of 140° F, and the ready bomb storage area was very close to the fire.
Admiral Fitch ordered Captain Sherman to abandon ship at 1707 hours on 8 May 1942. Admiral Kinkaid was ordered to take charge of rescue operations. USS ANDERSON and USS HAMMANN joined USS MORRIS alongside USS LEXINGTON, with USS MINNEAPOLIS and USS NEW ORLEANS standing by.
At 1714 hours on 8 May 1942, USS MORRIS secured the two fire hoses that had been passed over earlier and made preparations to move clear of the burning carrier. Survivors crowded all available deck space on USS MORRIS and there were many hundred men in the water between the destroyer and USS LEXINGTON.
At the same time USS ANDERSON and USS HAMMANN were circling USS LEXINGTON clockwise. USS ANDERSON proceeded to USS LEXINGTON’s port side but was unable to make fast due to the carrier’s pronounced list to port. USS ANDERSON then launched two small boats and moved forward to pick up survivors from the water. The two small boats filled with men from the water and were subsequently taken aboard USS DEWEY. USS ANDERSON proceeded to join USS YORKTOWN and transferred 17 rescued officers and 360 men to the aircraft carrier.
There were also many life rafts in the area around USS LEXINGTON along with a motorised whaleboat from USS MINNEAPOLIS with 40 survivors on board. USS MORRIS started to back away. A section of her bridge windscreen was carried away, a searchlight was damaged and a foremast stay snapped as she moved away from the carrier.
Prior to the order to abandon ship at 1707 hours on 8 May 1942, USS HAMMANN had been ordered at 1536 hours to relieve USS PHELPS in standing by USS LEXINGTON on its port quarter. Being in this location, she was able to take on board many survivors who lowered themselves down ropes and nets. Other survivors were picked up by two small boats, a whaleboat and gig, which towed the life rafts to the USS MINNEAPOLIS.
Admiral Kinkaid directed USS HAMMANN to move around to USS LEXINGTON’s starboard to pick up many men who were still in the water. The men on the leeward side of USS LEXINGTON were having difficulty getting clear of the carrier as she drifted at one or two knots with the wind.
USS HAMMANN maneuvered carefully through the men in the water, and came alongside the carrier without crushing any of the men. About 100 men were taken from the water and life rafts on the leeward side.
At 1737 hours on 8 May 1942, USS MORRIS transferred about 200 survivors to the cruiser USS MINNEAPOLIS. USS MORRIS then relieved a ship screening USS YORKTOWN.
At 1739 hours on 8 May 1942, USS PHELPS and USS DEWEY were ordered to close on USS LEXINGTON and assist with the rescue of survivors. They launched small boats about 1,000 yards to windward to pick up survivors. They did not bother to go alongside the aircraft carrier as by that time it was obvious that most if not all crew had left the carrier.
As USS HAMMANN backed clear of the burning aircraft carrier at 1750 hours on 8 May 1942, a heavy explosion was heard on board USS LEXINGTON, which showered USS HAMMANN with flaming debris. Aircraft had been tossed from her deck high into the air and by now the carrier was afire from stem to stern and listing about 30°. There were no injuries.
At 1810 hours on 8 May 1942, Lt. Comdr. John C. Daniel in a whaleboat from USS PHELPS, made a hazardous turn around the USS LEXINGTON and along her lee side to check that there were no more men in the water. None were found.
Captain Sherman and Commander Seligman made a final inspection before abandoning ship. They found several men still manning a gun mount on the starboard side who they ordered to abandon ship.
Some time after 1800 hours on 8 May 1942, Captain Sherman and his Executive Officer, Seligman slid down a line over the stern of the carrier. They were picked up by a small boat and taken to USS MINNEAPOLIS.
Debris fouled both USS HAMMANN’s main circulating pumps, causing a loss of backing power. Instead of transferring the rescued men to USS NEW ORLEANS, she circled back to recover her small boats at 1845 hours on 8 May 1942. Ensign Theodore E. Krepski and Ensign Ralph L. Holton, who were in charge of the small boats, were recommended for an award for their excellent performance during the dangerous rescue work.
More than 92 percent of the crew of USS LEXINGTON were saved. There were no drowning deaths and a preliminary check showed that all crew had been accounted for except for 26 officers and 190 men out of a total complement of 2,951 men.
Admiral Fletcher commended Admiral Kinkaid’s direction of the rescue work.
At 1853 hours on 8 May 1942, USS PHELPS was ordered to sink USS LEXINGTON. Five torpedoes were fired between 1915 hours and 1952 hours. Four of them detonated. USS LEXINGTON sank very rapidly at 1952 hours in 2,400 fathoms of water at Latitude 15° 12’ S., Longitude 155° 27’ E’.
A few seconds after she disappeared under the water there were two terrific explosions. The main body of ships, which were 10 miles away, felt a distinctive shock from the two explosions. In fact USS PHELPS had thought initially, that they had been torpedoed.
The Final Fate of USS NEOSHO 9 - 11 May 1942
At 1012 hours on 9 May 1942, the crippled USS NEOSHO had drifted to Latitude 15° 35’ S., Longitude 156° 55’ E. The crew continued to make floats and rafts from all available equipment in readiness for abandoning ship. They also rigged masts, spars and sails for all available boats. The three motorised whaleboats were still in the water alongside, with only one with a functioning motor. It was to be used to tow the other two.
USS NEOSHO continued to drift, and at 1230 hours on 10 May 1942, an Australian Lockheed Hudson bomber appeared to the south. USS NEOSHO flashed her name and hoisted the international distress signal. At about the same time, the Hudson asked if the ship was in distress, which was quickly confirmed. The aircraft circled the ship several times and then flew off southwards. Whilst USS NEOSHO signalled her position to the Hudson, she never received a reply.
On the 11 May 1942, it was obvious that during the night, USS NEOSHO had settled in the water significantly. The further distortion of her plates was cause for alarm. A final conference of the Officers was held at about 1130 hours to discuss abandoning ship and the best course for the Australian coast.
At about this time, a US Navy PBY from USS TANGIER appeared from the east at 1245 hours on 11 May 1942, circled twice and headed southwards. Within 90 minutes USS HENLEY, which had been dispatched from Noumea, New Caledonia was sighted approaching from the south. USS HENLEY hove to on USS NEOSHO’s port side and removed all 123 survivors of USS SIMS and USS NEOSHO by 1412 hours on 11 May 1942
Commander Phillips advised the Commanding Officer of USS HENLEY that his ship was doomed and requested that she be sunk. USS HENLEY fired two torpedoes and 146 x 5-inch rounds and USS NEOSHO went down stern first at 1522 hours on 11 May 1942 at Latitude 15° 35’ S., Longitude 155° 36’ E.
USS HENLEY searched the area until dark for those who had abandoned ship without results. USS HENLEY then set sail for Brisbane with the survivors, where the wounded and injured could be taken to hospitals.
At 0100 hours on 12 May 1942, USS HENLEY was ordered to return to the scene of the USS NEOSHO bombing to make a wider search. This second search also bore no results and the ship set sail for Brisbane again.
War Plans Daily Summary for CINCPAC had the following entry for 0930 GCT, 16 May 1942:-
(COMTASKFOR 42) Survivors from NEOSHO and SIMS arrived BRISBANE in HENLEY. From NEOSHO: known dead, 1 officer; missing 5 officers including one passenger, 154 men including 7 passengers; survivors 14 officers plus 2 from YORKTOWN, 83 men plus 9 from YORKTOWN and PORTLAND. From SIMS: dead, 2 men; survivors, 13 men; all others missing.
USS HENLEY moored at New Farm wharf in Brisbane at 1353 hours on 14 May 1942 and disembarked USS NEOSHO and USS SIMS survivors, who were taken to a US Army Hospital in Brisbane. It is believed they were taken to the US Army Hospital at St. Joseph's College, Nudgee Junior, at Indooroopilly in Brisbane.
The Fate of 68 other men from USS NEOSHO adrift in four Life Rafts
Amongst the sailors who abandoned ship from USS NEOSHO were sixty eight men who boarded four life rafts at 1155 hours on 7 May 1942. They drifted away, and after two days their fresh water supply was exhausted. Unfortunately the Chief Petty Officer in charge of the group of rafts had made no attempt to ration the water. Shortly after this their food supplies were soaked with salt water.
On the third day, approximately fifteen men became irrational and took off their life jackets and jumped overboard. After this incident, men on board the rafts started to die gradually, some slid off the life rafts and drowned and others died onboard the life rafts. Their bodies were dropped over the side of the life rafts once their death had been confirmed.
The remaining men were able to collect a small amount of fresh water on the fifth evening during a very light shower of rain. It only amounted to one mouthful for each of the remaining six survivors. They started to drink their own urine on the sixth day. This practice continued for another 3 days. Another sailor died on the seventh day and another on the eighth day leaving just four men:-
Sea.2c William Arthur Smith (660 00 09) V-6 U.S.N.R.
Sea.2c Thaddeus Ocela Tunnel U.S.N.
Sea.2c Jackson (n) Rolston Jr. U.S.N.
Sea.2c Kenneth T. Bright
The four survivors placed one raft on top of another and then set the other two rafts adrift.
Commander Phillips of USS NEOSHO realised that his Navigation Officer had incorrectly plotted the ships position at the time of the attack. On the 14 May 1942, USS HELM was dispatched from Noumea, New Caledonia to search for survivors at the correct position.
USS HELM sighted an empty whaleboat on 16 May
The four survivors were finally spotted by USS HELM on the ninth day (17 May 1942) at Latitude 15º 16' S and Longitude 155º 07' 30" E. They were all in a critical condition. They all had multiple severe salt water ulcers over their legs and buttocks. They were badly dehydrated and showed significant weight loss. Two of the men were irrational at times and one of them had moderate anemia and was bleeding from the bowel.
Three of the men responded well to treatment on board USS HELM, however Sea.2c Kenneth T. Bright died six hours after being rescued. He had apparently drunk large quantities of salt water in the previous 12 hours. He was buried at sea at 1805 hours (local time) on 17 May 1942.
Aircraft from USS Tangier maintained a search for more survivors without success.
USS HELM searched from more survivors until sunset on 17 May 1942 and then set course for Brisbane, Australia arriving there on 19 May 1942. They moored alongside USS HENLEY at New Farm dock at about 1543 hours (local time). The three survivors were then transferred to a US Army Hospital at approximately 1615 hours. It is believed they may have been taken to the US Army Hospital at St. Joseph's College, Nudgee Junior, at Indooroopilly in Brisbane.
Summary of Damage
|Cargo Ship or Transport||1||-|
More Details of Japanese Losses
Japanese Ships Sunk:-
2 destroyers 4 May
1 cargo ship or transport 4 May
1 aircraft carrier – Shoho 7 May
1 light cruiser 7 May
Japanese Ships Damaged:-
1 aircraft tender 4 May
1 aircraft carrier – Shokaku 8 May
Japanese Aircraft Destroyed:-
5 floatplanes 4 May
30 aircraft aboard Shoho 7 May
3 four-engined patrol bombers 5, 7 & 8 May
33 fighters 7 & 8 May
16 dive bombers 7 & 8 May
17 torpedo aircraft 7 & 8 May
Japanese Personnel Killed
Anywhere from 2,000 to more than 5,000 men
More Details of Allied Losses
Allied Ships Sunk:-
1 oiler – Neosho 7 May
1 destroyer 7 May
1 aircraft carrier – Lexington 8 May
Allied Ships Damaged:-
1 aircraft carrier – Yorktown 8 May
Allied Aircraft Destroyed:-
16 Yorktown aircraft in combat 4, 7 & 8 May
15 Lexington aircraft in combat 7 & 8 May
35 Lexington aircraft with ship 8 May
Allied Personnel Killed
Estimated at 543 men
During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the US radar station at Paluma manned by the 565th Signal Battalion tracked a target aircraft early one afternoon coming in from the ocean and crossing the coast about 30 miles north of Paluma. Later that night a few trucks stopped at their camp at Paluma. They were carrying the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress that had crashed somewhere to the west of Paluma. They fed the crew and left for Townsville accompanied by the 565th's doctor. The B-17 had been involved in operations associated with the Battle of the Coral Sea.
19th Bomb Group's Involvement
in the Battle of the Coral Sea
Extracted from Turn of the Tide by E. Teats
From May 7 through May 12, every available plane was in the air almost continuously. No sooner would one mission be completed than the ships would be gassed, serviced, loaded with bombs and either sent out again or held on continuous alert waiting orders to hit a suitable target.
The chips were down. The Jap held some good cards -- good enough to encourage him in the belief that he could knock off Moresby, and get set to smash our vital supply line in the Southwest Pacific.
But we held a few good cards of our own. We didn’t know much about our naval dispositions, but we knew that the Navy was itching for a scrap out in the open, where the odds would not be too heavily against them and where the best man would win. Just as a foot-note to now well known history, the best man did win.
Several missions had been flown against the Japs and on May 8 reconnaissance reported 15 or 18 vessels gathered in a convoy and retreating to the northward, just north of the passage through the Louisiade Archipelago.
(The Louisiade Archipelago is the cluster of islands southeast of New Guinea which, geological are an extension of the Papuan Peninsula. Navy Department Communiqué 68, issued June 12, 1942, which comprised the final summary of the Coral Sea action, revealed that on May 7, the United States task force under Vice Admiral Frank V. Fletcher "hit the main body of the Japanese force in the Louisiade Archipelago off Misima." Misima is an island approximately 375 air miles south east of Port Moresby -- J.M.M.).
On May 7, group headquarters at Townsville called for two crews to replace the crews which had been flying missions or on alert since the first reports were received of the approaching Jap force. Lt, (now Captain) Charlie Hillhouse and I, with crews, were ordered in as replacements and I was assigned the lead plane of eight B-17s which were standing by loaded for business.
We took off immediately in two flights of three planes each and one flight of two, the latter mine. We were to find the Jap convoy and hit it before sunset, if possible. Two of the planes' were forced to turn back at take-off, because of engine trouble, so our three flights of two B-17s each headed off at full speed at five minute intervals.
Just about the time we spotted the second flight ahead of us, my bombardier, Lt Stone, reported a convoy ahead and then we saw the first black bursts of ack-ack at fairly high altitude quite a distance in front of us.
We were all flying at fairly high altitude-on about the same level. I didn't see the first flight until they had flown across the convoy of about six or eight troop or auxiliary vessels and eight or nine war ships, including cruisers and destroyers.
The second flight went in. We could see the convoy clearly. All ships were manoeuvring wildly in all directions, like an aggregation of excited water-bugs. We were too busy to observe what damage the bombs of the first and second flight had caused, other than to notice that no direct hits had been scored.
Watching the ack-ack ahead of us, I climbed a little higher, but just as Stone announced that he was ready to make his bombing run, and we turned on the course for his selected target, a string of heavy ack-ack started popping about a quarter of a mile ahead of us right on our level and right on our course. I immediately dropped several thousand feet, to mess up the Jap gunners range, and continued on course.
Neither before nor after have I seen such heavy and well placed anti-aircraft fire as those cruisers and destroyers threw at us. We could see the orange flashes as the ships batteries fired. Things grew hotter and hotter. The side gunner reported some close behind us, and then my wing man peeled off and took some distance because one burst was so close the side-gunner thought the plane had been hit.
The split-second the bombardier reported "bombs away," I made a sharp diving turn away to the left and at that same instant, the tail-gunner began to chatter excitedly through the inter-phone. On the turn, I saw a line of shell bursts on the level course we had just left, and later the tail gunner reported that one burst really had our name on it. If we had not turned when we did, someone else might be relating this story of the 19th Group but it wouldn't be me.
I knew that those Nip gunners were in the groove, and I also knew that they were getting close. The gunner reported that the bursts started about a mile behind and each one came a little closer, directly on our level. By his report, we evaded by a split second either a direct hit, or one just as bad. As we turned away, we noted one very near miss on a heavy cruiser but figuratively, I tipped my hat. It was beautiful anti-aircraft gunnery.
Coral Sea Battle by H. Hornbeck Navigator, 435th Squadron, 19th Bomb Group
War was still new to us in April 1942. From the mainland of Australia out to the islands that in many necklace chains form the eastern, northern and western perimeter of Australia, ours was the only Heavy Bombardment Squadron flying against an encroaching enemy. On April 23rd, we bombed Rabaul Harbor sinking an unloading transport. In the days following there came a greater change in the balance of our lines. Enemy ships were on the move. This was to result in the Coral Sea Battle -- our first great naval victory and the 435th was to play a significant part. Down through the Solomons conquering, occupying the Japanese came till on May 3rd Tulagi, Australian seaplane base, fell. Our picture was one of an assembling Japanese Invasion Fleet 1,000 miles east from Australia across the Coral and Solomon seas. And, I thought they will come on for we alone have not the strength to stop them. We flew long range reconnaissance, saw and reported their convoys and movements. This was the key information on which our naval strategy must be planned.
May 1942 Port Moresby
At Port Moresby, New Guinea before dawn on May 6th, the crews of our squadron were awakened to a new cool night. The men were tense, the course food and bitter coffee did not set too well. Earlier, the night had been hot and sleep had not come easy to the perspiring men. But it had come now and the first striking force contacted a carrier and flanking war vessels, scoring a hit on a cruiser while at the same time another flight of the 435th's attacking another force hit a cargo ship. So it started. Returning planes were refuelled and fresh crews took them out. By the 7th the enemy was still in rendezvous and on their way to Port Morseby. But again sections of our Pacific Fleet struck.
The 7th was a Saturday and we returned long after dark. It had been a tough day- and flying at night is lonely. There are many elements to contend with besides the enemy and we were glad when we were back on the ground and momentarily secure. In the night and clouds, without radio aids, one plane failed to return from the long sea flight. Again the sleep troubled with scenes of invasion and destruction now come so close to a nation. Who can realize its monstrous significance. Surely not they who are concerned with dancing -- Ah! But this was Saturday night.
But averted it was, by the Navy and Army Air Corps. By the following day the enemy had turned back and far out on reconnaissance we saw below us two long slowly moving columns of transports, one burning fiercely, on a smooth and silver sea. It was sunset and we knew that for the moment we had seen the last of them, for in a few hours they would pass out of our bombing range and into the night.
(end of available story)
The following information is from a now superseded web page on the White House web site.
FACT SHEET ON NEW AUSTRALIA- UNITED STATES COOPERATION
Partnering in Commemorating the Battle of the Coral Sea
In recognition of the exceptional bravery and sacrifice exemplified by our sailors and airmen who fought together in the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, historically regarded as the start of U.S. - Australia military cooperation, Australia and the United States are to work together, in advance of the battle’s 70th anniversary in May 2012, to locate the wrecks of three U.S. warships (the USS Lexington, USS Neosho, and USS Sims) sunk in Australian waters during this pivotal two-day clash. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, a leader in archival research on historic naval battle records, is to provide expertise to identify these wrecks for formal designation as protected heritage resources under the laws of both nations. Australia and the United States will also continue to advance collaboration on marine and climate science in the Coral Sea and other areas.
USS Neosho and USS Sims Survivors
from the Battle of the Coral Sea
taken to US Army Hospital in Brisbane
I'd like to thank Karen Nunan for her assistance with this web page.
Action Stations Coral Sea: The Australian
C. D. Coulthart-Clark
Combat Narratives - The Battle of the Coral Sea
Consisting of the actions at Tulagi, May 4th; off Misima, May 7th; and in the Coral Sea on May 8th, 1942
Office of Naval Intelligence, U.S. Navy
Can anyone help me with more information?
"Australia @ War" Research Products
© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 4 December 1998
This page last updated 19 April 2017