World War II in the Pacific
The Battle of the Coral Sea -- 4-8 May 1942
The Japanese purpose of the War in the Pacific was to obtain resources
to continue her conquest of China. To this end she attacked the major
power centers -- the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, took the Guam, Wake outposts ;
invaded S.E. Asia to cut off resupply from India to China ; took the resources of
the Dutch East Indies while destroying the ABDA naval forces ;
took the Philippines and Malaya ; and
knocked the British fleet from India back to Africa.
The next logical
steps are to remove Australia from the war, and then isolate Hawaii.
However, the symbolic bombing of Tokyo by the
Doolittle Raid of B-25's launched from a carrier, even though doing
little damage, changed the Japanese priorities in the Pacific.
On return of the Japanese fleet from the Indian Ocean, the attack to the south was planned to:
- Complete the conquest of New Guinea, which opened Australia to air attack,
- Complete taking the Solomon Islands which thrust into the shipping lane from America
- Raid Australia with the full carrier fleet to destroy all offensive resistance forces.
- (although the Japanese Army was unprepared to occupy Australia.)
At this point all of the original goals have been met with
more ease than expected, so the plan was expanded to occupy another
ring of islands to extend the defensive parameter.
- The attack south was changed from a six, fleet-carrier strike
with supporting battle and occupation forces, to two fleet-carrier
support for the movement of troops
around to the south side of New Guinea and the progression to complete
occupation of the Solomons with air bases that would be able to
interdict convoys to Australia. The other carriers had to prepare
for the attack on Midway.
- The isolation of Hawaii was moved up and became a grand scheme to
destroy the remaining US forces in the Pacific by an attack on
Midway, the western-most Hawaiian Island, and on Alaska,
expecting to defeat the US forces at sea. Nine
carriers , one training carrier, the battle fleet, and lesser types, in total 124
warships were assigned to the task
to invade Midway, damage US carriers, and let the battle fleet
complete the destruction. As it turned out, two of Japan's six
fleet-carriers were to miss the fun because of damages received at
- After the expected Japanese victory at Midway, forces would
deploy to about 175°W latitude and accept peace while retaining
their conquests and continue the takeover of China.
The Setup - U.S.
After the disaster at Pearl Harbor and Wake Island and the acceptance
of inability to reinforce the Asiatic fleet and its assured
destruction, the entire theater was in organizational shuffling.
With the new year, Adm Nimitz took over Pacific from Adm Kimmel/Pye.
- Lexington (CV-2,VAdm Brown, TF-12) stood guard for Hawaii.
Saratoga (CV-3, RAdm Fitch, TF-11) was soon torpedoed in the
same area and was out of action missing both the Battles of Coral Sea
and Midway. RAdm Fletcher took newly arrived Yorktown (CV-5, TF-17)
to escort Marines to Samoa, joined by Enterprise (CV-6, VAdm
Halsey, TF-8). These two task forces raided the Marshalls and Gilberts
on their way back to Pearl.
- The two Vice Admirals headed out for raids. Enterprise hits
Wake and Marcus. Lexington is attacked before she can strike
Rabaul and stays to patrol in the Coral Sea.
Yorktown goes to S. Pacific to protect convoys now arriving from
the East Coast by way of the Panama Canal.
Lexington and Yorktown join up for another attempt at Rabaul,
but they divert to attack the Japanese landing on the north coast of
New Guinea. Lexington heads back to Pearl for overhaul.
Enterprise and newly
arrived Hornet (CV-8) make the Doolittle Raid on Japan.
- RAdm Fitch (from damaged Saratoga) replaces VAdm Brown in
Lexington, with Brown moved to Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet.
Adm Nimitz personally takes over South Pacific for a short while
(to show equal rank with MacArthur in setting up jurisdictions between
the Army in SW Pacific and the Navy in South Pacific.
- Lexington rejoins Yorktown at Tonga (SW of Samoa)
intending to make another try on Rabaul.
- Reports come in of Jap carriers arriving at Rabaul.
Yorktown heads for Coral Sea followed by Lexington.
The two task forces have five heavy cruisers, nine destroyers,
supplied by two tankers each with a destroyer.
VAdm Ghormley comes in from Europe to take South Pacific and Nimitz returns
to Pearl and sends Enterprise and Hornet towards the Coral Sea
(they don't arrive in time for the Battle). MacArthur's Navy, under Crace, RN, with three
cruisers : HMAS Australia, heavy ; HMAS Hobart, light ;
USS Chicago (CA-29) ; and two US destroyers also came
to the defense of Australia.
The Setup - Japanese
The Japanese attack in the Coral Sea has three task forces.
- Port Moresby Task force to swing around the east coast of
Papua New Guinea and take the capital on the south coast opposite
- An occupation force to reach the southern most Solomons,
to immediately establish a seaplane base at Tulagi, and
later to build an airfield on Guadalcanal across the sound.
- A carrier strike force of two fleet carriers, two heavy cruisers,
and two destroyers to wipe out any Allied naval forces that tried to
interfere. Then to strike bases in northeastern Australia in support
of the Port Moresby invasion.
The Opening Sequence
- On 4May with Yorktown on station in the Coral Sea, Fletcher responds
to the Japanese occupation force at Tulagi, while Lexington
refuels from her 1,700 mile trip up from Tonga. Minor damage was committed
at Tulagi, insufficient to interfere with setting up a seaplane base,
but the US thought it had sunk most of the Jap ships.
- Lexington and Yorktown rejoin, refuel the combined task force,
and send the tankers out of the way. Both sides search for the other.
They miss, though at one point only 70 miles from each other.
Forces Engaged - detail
- On 7May each side detects elements of the other.
- Japanese search planes find US oiler, Neosho, and destroyer,
Sims, steaming to their next rendezvous point. Mistaking them for a
carrier and cruiser, they launch a full and fierce attack, sinking the
Sims and wrecking Neosho.
- Meanwhile US search planes find the Port Moresby invasion force.
Thinking it is the strike fleet, they launch a full attack. Small escorting
carrier Shoho is destroyed, "Scratch on flattop" . [pic]
- The Port Moresby invasion force halts, waiting for the allied forces
to be destroyed before venturing further.
- Fletcher sends the Crace cruiser force to attack the Japanese
convoy, while Yorktown and Lexington continue to seek the
Japanese strike force.
- Aircrews encounter each other with the loss of nine Jap planes.
- At dawn on 8May, both sides found the other and launch simultaneous
- US planes find Shokaku and made three bomb hits, putting her
deck out of action. Zuikaku was not found as she hid in a rain squall.
She landed the remaining Japanese planes and both Japanese carriers
retired to Rabaul for repairs before going on to Japan. Permanent repairs to
Shokaku take three months. Zuikaku returns to Japan
to replenish her aircrews, which took one month.
- The Japanese invasion force, now without
air cover, is ordered back to Rabaul.
- The two American carriers were each hit : Yorktown with one bomb,
Lexington by two torpedoes and two bombs. Lexington suffered
a gasoline explosion and was abandoned. Yorktown retired and
returned to Tonga and then to Pearl for repair.
- Crace's Cruisers fought off Japanese land-based aircraft in their
forward role of blocking the Japanese invasion force. They were even attacked by
B-17's from Australia, but they held on until after the Japanese withdrew.
- Enterprise and Hornet patrolled east of the Coral Sea, scaring off
a Japanese occupation force sailing for the Phosphate Islands,
until recalled for the Battle of Midway less than a month after
the Battle of Coral Sea.
- This battle was the first of the carrier battles
of the Pacific War. Ships from neither side sighted the other. The
Japanese had fought at Pearl Harbor, Java, and Indian Ocean and should have
been the better prepared. Weather made finding the Japanese difficult,
while the Americans were in sunshine. Radar played little part.
Both sides had an opportunity to learn
about damage control on carriers, but not soon enough for Midway the following month.
Tactically, the two forces were almost evenly matched. Yet the Japanese
lost more planes.
- Tactically, the Japanese lost a small carrier, damage to a fleet carrier, and
significant loss of air crews and planes. This was a tactical
victory over the Americans who lost a fleet-carrier, a tanker, and a destroyer
and damage to another fleet-carrier. Tonnage loss favored the Japanese.
- Strategically, however, the Japanese objective was thwarted ; the
invasion fleet withdrew and never returned to threaten Australia.
New Guinea becomes an infantry battle that lasted for two and a half years.
The big picture would progress next to the Battle of Midway/Aleutians where
The Battle of the Coral Sea had taken strategic victory from a tactical defeat,
but the Allies were still outnumbered and still losing the Pacific War.
- The Japanese had four fleet carriers (plus four light carriers) to
the US three fleet carriers.
- Japan had two fleet carriers out of action in Japan and the US had
the fleet carrier Saratoga repairing at Puget Sound. Yorktown would briefly repair at Pearl in time to make it to Midway.
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About this page: CoralSea - The naval battle that "Saved Australia".
Last updated on February 15, 2002
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