High Noon on the Coral Sea: How One of America's Most Legendary Aircraft Carriers Was Sunk
In the first five month of the Pacific War, the Imperial Japanese military won an almost uninterrupted string of victories, seizing Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and most of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. However, Australia remained a thorn in Japan’s southwestern Pacific flank—one which needed to be cut off from U.S. reinforcements before Japanese troops could invade.
Though Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto planned on drawing U.S. carriers into a decisive battle around Midway Island in June 1942, he first authorized Operation Mo in April to isolate Australia by dispatching two separate invasion fleets to seize Tulagi (part of the Solomon Islands) and Port Moresby, a key supply point for Australian troops on New Guinea.
However, American cryptographers had broken the Japanese naval code and learned the details of the plan in a matter of days. Adm. Chester Nimitz decided to dispatch the Navy’s fleet carrier, the Lexington, and the more modern Yorktown to bushwhack the Japanese invasion force.
The American ships would confront a Japanese screening force that grew to include the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku as well as the light carrier Shoho, commanded by Adm. Takeo Takagi. The two opposing carrier groups mustered nearly the same number of aircraft: 127 to 128 bombers and fighters. The Lexington’s wing included thirty-five SBD Dauntless dive bombers, twenty-one F4F Wildcat fighters and twelve TBD Devastator torpedo bombers.
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Japanese marines seized Tulagi on May 3 without opposition, while the second force steamed for Port Moresby. However, on May 4 aircraft from the Yorktown raided the amphibious fleet off of Tulagi, sinking a destroyer and five support vessels. Then the carrier rendezvoused 370 miles south of Guadalcanal with the Lexington and an Australian squadron to form Task Force 17.
Both Japanese and American forces were now aware of the other’s presence in the Coral Sea, northeast of Australia, but did not know each other’s exact location. What followed was the first carrier battle in history—and, indeed, the first naval battle in which the opposing ships never entered each other’s visual range.
The challenges of this new form of warfare began with locating the moving enemy force amidst the vastness of the ocean. The available radars then were short ranged and unreliable, so the seas had to be combed by submarines, flying boats, smaller float planes and carrier-based scouts. The scouts also had to evade defending aircraft long enough to radio the position of the opposing fleet.
For two days, Japanese and American aircraft probed for the rival fleet’s position but only received fragmentary reports for their efforts. In fact, the American fleet had bumbled in between the Japanese invasion force to the south and the carriers assigned to protect them, without either side being aware of how close they were to each other.
Finally, at 8 a.m. on May 8, a Japanese scout detected what it believed to be a carrier and a heavy cruiser.
Once the enemy’s position was verified, a carrier had to quickly launch a strike force before the enemy bombers returned the favor and caught its fuel and bomb-laden aircraft on the flight deck. While approaching, strike planes would have to evade or overwhelm the defending fighters of the Combat Air Patrol (CAP), which were usually quite effective at shooting down slower, bomb-laden attackers.
Then, actually hitting an enemy carrier with unguided torpedoes and bombs posed a major challenge, as the huge vessel performed evasive maneuvers and its dozens of rapid-fire flak guns filled the skies with streams of hot metal and black clouds of shrapnel.
However, sometimes only a few hits were needed. Carriers are stuffed full of aviation fuel, bombs and dozens of warplanes loaded with plenty of both. Just a few lucky hits could ignite massive fires, potentially leading to cascading explosive chain reactions.
At 9 a.m., fifty Japanese warplanes swooped down upon the ships reported by the scout plane—which were in fact the hapless U.S. destroyer Sims and the oiler Neosho. The Sims was broken in two and sunk with all but fourteen hands, while the Neosho was set ablaze.
By then, the American carriers had launched ninety-three aircraft towards a sighting of the Japanese amphibious fleet—also misidentified as a carrier force! However, a ground-based B-17 bomber reported a new sighting at 10 a.m., and the aircraft were redirected.