Battle of the Coral Sea

The Battle of the Coral Sea was an intricate naval engagement stretching across hundreds of miles of open ocean. The United States and Japan made naval history when all of the battle’s attacks were carried out by carrier-based aircraft. The warships never sighted or directly fired upon each other.

Summary of Event

In May of 1942, less than five months after their attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II, the Japanese turned their attention to strengthening their southern perimeter. They sought to eliminate the possibility of the United States using Australia as a base of operations in the Pacific. Lacking the necessary manpower and materiel to invade Australia directly, the Japanese decided instead to construct bases that would neutralize Australia’s ports and air fields. The plan would require them to conquer only specific, strategically important sites. One of the most important of these sites would be Port Moresby Port Moresby , at the southern end of New Guinea. The Japanese built up a strong force consisting of three carriers and numerous other ships to make their advance. [kw]Battle of the Coral Sea (May 7-8, 1942)
[kw]Coral Sea, Battle of the (May 7-8, 1942)
Coral Sea, Battle of the (1942)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles
Coral Sea, Battle of the (1942)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles
[g]Pacific;May 7-8, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea[00510]
[g]South Pacific;May 7-8, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea[00510]
[g]Australia;May 7-8, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea[00510]
[c]World War II;May 7-8, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea[00510]
[c]Military history;May 7-8, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea[00510]
Fletcher, Frank Jack
Rochefort, Joseph J.
Crace, John
Goto, Aritomo
Hara, Chuichi
Takagi, Takeo
Nimitz, Chester W.
Inoue, Shigeyoshi

Advances in American intelligence-gathering at Station Hypo Station Hypo , Pearl Harbor, allowed cryptologists World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];cryptography
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];military intelligence
Espionage under Lieutenant Commander Joseph J. Rochefort to alert the Allies to the Japanese plan to capture Port Moresby and Tulagi. With this advance warning, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz mobilized the available U.S. warships to defeat the Japanese Port Moresby operation. He assembled the carriers Yorktown
Yorktown (ship) and Lexington, Lexington (ship) their complement of 141 aircraft, one light and seven heavy cruisers, fifteen destroyers, and several submarines and dispatched them to the Coral Sea under the command of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher. This carrier group would face a strong Japanese force under the command of Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue.

On May 3, 1942, the Japanese made an unopposed landing on Tulagi and began constructing an airfield. Alerted to the landing, Fletcher raced his force toward Tulagi. Early the next morning, the Yorktown launched three consecutive air raids on the island. Surprised by the American attack, the Japanese failed to mount a defense; however, most of the Japanese ships had already departed the island.

For the next two days, the American and Japanese carrier groups searched for each other. At one point, the carrier forces were only seven miles apart but failed to sight each other because of rain squalls and poor visibility. Based on intelligence gathered from Station Hypo and sighting reports, Fletcher decided that the Japanese invasion force would advance on Port Moresby through the Jomard Passage. Fletcher sent Rear Admiral John Crace Crace, John of the British Royal Navy and a group of cruisers and destroyers from the U.S. and Australian navies to block the passage’s south exit. This group was designated Task Force 17 Task Force 17 .

On the morning of May 7, 1942, a Japanese pilot sighted what he believed was a carrier and a cruiser. In actuality, the pilot had found the fleet oiler Neosho and the destroyer Sims. Rear Admiral Chuichi Hara ordered seventy-eight planes to attack. Only minutes later, Hara received a sighting report for Task Force 17. Finding the Neosho and the Sims, the Japanese pilots searched desperately for the American carriers. Running low on fuel, they finally struck the two ships.

That same morning, a U.S. Navy scout plane reported sighting two Japanese carriers and four heavy cruisers. Fletcher immediately ordered an attack by some ninety planes from the Lexington and the Yorktown. These planes had almost reached their target when it was discovered that the scout plane had sighted only two cruisers and two destroyers. Fletcher allowed the attack to continue, hoping the invasion fleet could be found in the vicinity.

The lead SBD Dauntless dive-bomber from the Lexington strayed off course and stumbled upon Admiral Aritomo Goto’s force, including the carrier Shoho. Shoho (ship) Most of the Shoho’s planes were escorting the Port Moresby invasion force, leaving the carrier group unprotected. The Shoho was hit by thirteen bombs and seven torpedoes and rapidly disappeared into the sea with some eight hundred crewmembers.

As the American planes made their attack, Crace and Task Force 17, blocking the invasion route, warded off numerous attacks by Japanese forces. Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi soon learned of the Shoho’s loss and of Task Force 17’s presence near the Jomard Passage. He ordered the Port Moresby invasion force to withdraw until the enemy could be cleared from the area.

As evening approached, the Japanese spotted the Lexington and the Yorktown and attacked with twenty-seven planes. They failed to locate the American ships because of inadequate visibility and the looming darkness. American patrols downed nine of the enemy planes. Following the engagement, several of the Japanese pilots mistook the Yorktown for their own ship and attempted to land on its deck. The carrier’s guns quickly shot down one of the planes, forcing the rest to change course. They found their carriers after dark, but eleven of the Japanese planes crashed into the sea attempting to land.

The morning of May 8 began with the two opposing forces 175 miles apart and nearly evenly matched. Planes from the Yorktown struck the first blow. The Zuikaku disappeared into a rain squall, leaving the Shokaku as the main target. Soon, planes from the Lexington joined the attack and the Shokaku was hit. Fires quickly spread through the carrier forcing, it to retreat.

As the Americans attacked the enemy carriers, a force of some seventy Japanese planes moved against the Yorktown and the Lexington. The Yorktown evaded the Japanese torpedoes, but one Japanese bomb passed through its flight deck and exploded deep within the ship. Nearly seventy men were killed or wounded, but the ship’s planes continued to operate. The Lexington was not as lucky. It was hit by numerous torpedoes, causing fires to erupt. It soon began to list to port.

Shortly after noon, the Lexington’s crew was able to control the fires and resume air operations. However, fuel lines damaged from the earlier attack ignited, and flames engulfed the ship. Despite the best efforts of the crew to save the Lexington, the order to abandon ship was given at 5:07 p.m. Most of the crew was saved before she was sent to the bottom by torpedoes from one of her escorts. Intermittent action continued into the next day, however, the Battle of the Coral Sea was over.


The Battle of the Coral Sea was a turning point in naval history. It marked the first battle in which the ships of the opposing forces neither fired a single shot at nor sighted each other. The battle was a tactical victory for the Japanese but a strategic victory for the United States and the Allies. After five months of continuous defeat, United States succeeded in its effort to prevent the Japanese from capturing Port Moresby. The battle signaled the end of Japanese expansion in the Pacific. Port Moresby was vital to Allied strategy in the Pacific, and it could not have been defended by the ground forces stationed there.

The American attack on the Japanese naval force was crippling. The carrier Shoho was sunk, and the damage to the Shokaku would force it to remain in port for months undergoing repairs. Damage to the Zuikau cost the Japanese dearly in experienced pilots and planes. The United States gained a great deal of knowledge during the battle and acquired valuable insight into the ways best to coordinate its dive-bombers and torpedo planes for attack. The loss of the Lexington was devastating. The damage to the Yorktown, however, was miraculously repaired after only three days at Pearl Harbor, allowing it to participate in the Battle of Midway one month later. The Japanese losses at the Battle of Coral Sea would also have a tremendous impact during the Battle of Midway, contributing to Japan’s defeat in that battle and in the overall Pacific campaign. Coral Sea, Battle of the (1942)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles

Further Reading

  • Dull, Paul S. A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1941-1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1978. Narrative history of the Japanese navy from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the end of the war.
  • Kennedy, David M. The American People in World War II. Part 2 in Freedom from Fear. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Narrative history of the United States in World War II from its role in the conflict through victory. Biographical essay, maps, extensive index.
  • Maddox, Robert J. The United States and World War II. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. One-volume history of the causes, conduct, and consequences of World War II, including the impact of the war on American society. Bibliography.
  • Miller, Nathan. War at Sea. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Detailed naval history of World War II including, all theaters of operation. Extensive bibliography and index.
  • Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun. New York: The Free Press, 1985. One of the best single-volume studies of World War II in the Pacific. Bibliography, notes.
  • Sweetman, Jack, ed. Great American Naval Battles. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998. Collection of essays on the United States’ greatest naval battles. Bibliography, maps.

World War II: Pacific Theater

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia

Japan Invades the Philippines

Battle of Midway

Central Pacific Offensive

Atomic Bombs Destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki