Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet

Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet

(May 6, 2022) This week, 80 years ago, the first naval battle exclusively between aircraft carriers occurred in the Coral Sea. The Coral Sea is a large expanse of ocean northeast of Australia.

A Japanese naval task force, composed of three aircraft carriers and supporting cruisers and destroyers, was intercepted by a U.S. naval task force that included two aircraft carriers, the Lexington and Yorktown. The Lexington and her sister ship, the USS Saratoga, were the largest U.S. aircraft carriers ever to see action in World War II.

In early 1942, as military defeats and reversals for the Allied military and naval forces mounted, the feeling of the Australians was one of depression and a general expectation that the Japanese would invade their homeland at any moment.

Almost as if aware of these fears, the Japanese were, by April 1942, examining the possibility of capturing Port Moresby, in New Guinea; Tulagi; New Caledonia; Fiji and Samoa Islands. The object of this plan was to extend and strengthen the Japanese defensive perimeter as well as cutting the lines of communication between Australia and the United States.

The occupation of Port Moresby, designated “Operation MO,” would not only cut off the eastern sea approaches to the Port of Darwin in Australia, but provide the Imperial Japanese Navy with a secure operating base on Australia’s northern doorstep.

In the Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor, radio signal intercepts decoded Japanese radio messages. They found that the next Japanese operation would occur at Port Moresby. Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and his staff, had a large chart of the Coral Sea area displayed. Nimitz decided to send a naval force centered on the Lexington and Yorktown to intercept and sink the Japanese invasion force.

The deployment and operation of the American naval forces into the Coral Sea was further complicated by the fact that the Coral Sea lay in the newly created Southwest Pacific Theater, under the control of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The Japanese naval forces for Operation Mo were basically divided into two task forces. The invasion force comprised: 12 transport ships carrying 5,000 Japanese soldiers; 500 Japanese special naval infantry; destroyers; minesweepers; minelayers and gun boats.

The other task force was the main strike force, and was composed of one light carrier, the Shōhō, two fleet carriers, the Shōkaku and Zuikaku, both veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack, nine heavy cruisers and 15 destroyers.

The total Japanese naval force included five minesweepers, two minelayers, and three gun boats. The overall commander of the Japanese naval forces for “Operation Mo” was Adm. Shigeyoshi Inoue.

The U.S. naval force was divided into two task forces. Task Force 11 centered on the large fleet carrier Lexington, with three heavy cruisers and six destroyers, and Task Force 17 centered on the fleet carrier Yorktown, with two heavy cruisers and five destroyers.

There was also a surface action force composed of two Australian cruisers, the HMAS Australia and HMAS Hobart. It also included the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, and three destroyers. These US and Australian naval forces came under the command of Rear Adm. Frank Fletcher. On May 1, 1942, the two American carrier groups rendezvoused and began to refuel from their accompanying oilers.

Three days later, the Japanese forces invaded and occupied the island of Tulagi. Now the Battle of Coral Sea was in full swing. On the evening of May 6, the Japanese and U.S. carrier forces came within 70 miles of each other. The next day, planes from the U.S. carriers found and attacked the light Japanese carrier Shoho. It was sunk after receiving 13 bomb hits and seven torpedoes.

The same day, the Japanese launched 78 aircraft from the carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku against a reported U.S. carrier and cruisers sighted to the south of the Japanese force. When the Japanese planes reached the position, they found no carrier.

Instead they found the oiler USS Neosho, and the destroyer USS Sims. During the course of the attacks that followed, the Sims was sunk, and the Neosho was severely damaged. She was later sunk by the destroyer USS Henley. At the same time, 90 planes from both U.S. carriers found and attacked the main Japanese strike force, damaging the carrier Zuikakou.

Both forces launched planes on May 8. Planes from the Japanese carrier Shōkaku critically damaged the Lexington and the Yorktown. The damage to the “Lady Lex” was fatal. Fumes from aviation gasoline ignited and caused a massive explosion. The carrier was doomed, and had to be scuttled.

The damage to the Yorktown was also severe. A bomb dropped from a Japanese plane penetrated the flight deck and detonated inside the ship, causing fires to spread rapidly. Damage control parties on the carrier worked bravely to save their ship.

This was exemplified by the heroic action of Lt. Milton Ernest Ricketts, of Baltimore, Maryland, a 1935 graduate of the Naval Academy. He was mortally wounded when the fires caused by the exploding bomb spread. Despite his weakened condition, Lt. Ricketts promptly opened the valve of a nearby fireplug, partially let out the fire hose and directed a heavy stream of water into the fire before dropping dead beside the hose. His courageous action, which undoubtedly prevented the rapid spread of fire, saved the ship.

His unflinching devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Navy. He gallantly gave his life for his country, and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Royal Australian Navy’s overall contribution to the Battle of the Coral Sea may not have been as spectacular as that of the American carriers, but the work done by the coast watchers, intelligence staff, the cruisers and other support ships and personnel all contributed to the final result, not just at the Coral Sea, but throughout the Pacific War.

With the loss of the Japanese carrier Shōhō, the damage to the Zuikaku, and the depleted aircraft complement on the Shokaku, Adm. Inoue lost his air cover. As a result, he ordered the Port Moresby invasion force to retire.

The Yorktown limped back to Pearl Harbor with Adm. Fletcher on board. Upon arrival, Adm. Nimitz asked how long repairs would take, he was told two weeks. Knowing of the pending Battle of Midway, he ordered the ship made ready in 72 hours! Without the heroism of Baltimore’s Lt. Ricketts, that would not have been possible.

So, ended the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first carrier-to-carrier engagement in the Pacific War. It also marked the first time since the start of the war that a major Japanese advance had been checked. The U.S. Navy lost the carrier Lexington, the oiler Neosho, the destroyer Sims, 69 aircraft, and 656 men killed. The Lexington, fully loaded, weighed 48,000 tons. It was, by far, the greatest ship loss suffered by the U.S. Navy in World War II.

The Japanese lost the light carrier Shōhō, one destroyer, three minesweepers, 97 aircraft, and 966 men were killed. Tactically, the Japanese won the battle based on the tonnage of ships sunk. Strategically, however, the U.S. won because the Japanese Port Moresby invasion force had to retire, and a major Japanese landing was thwarted.

Next week: The Second Battle of Kharkov (Kharkiv)

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