First Carrier Battle in History. Battle of the Coral Sea.
First Carrier Battle in History. Battle of the Coral Sea. – YouTube
The Battle of Coral Sea was the first ever carrier-versus-carrier battle in the history of the world and would go on to prove the importance of such vessels for decades to come. Japan was set on a land invasion of Australia and needed the required staging outposts to make the invasion a success.
One of the first steps in the process was to severe the communication ties between Australia and the United States. This would involve the capture of Port Moresby, New Guinea. In April of 1942, The Japanese put Operation MO into action and landed amphibious forces at Tulagi in the Solomon island chain. The beachhead allowed for supplies and manpower to establish a foothold and provided a base of operations for Japanese reconnaissance seaplanes.
A main invasion force was set up to take Port Moresby itself. This would originate from Rabaul in New Britain and bring with it cover from two large aircraft carriers – the IJN Shokaku and the IJN Zuikaku. It was understood that the main invasion force would garner much of the attention of Allied spotters in the sky so the basic idea was for the carriers to double back and assault any Allied ship actions from the rear.
However, Allied codebreakers were hard at work deciphering the intercepted Japanese communications. Though not a perfect science, the garnered information usually allowed the Americans to make a good guess as to the expected Japanese actions of the day. Task Force 17 was sent into action and, with it, the American carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown.
Bad weather across May 5th and May 6th allowed neither attacking force to spot one another. After searches resumed on the 7th, misinformation led to some limited engagements for both sides, wrongly identifying aircraft carriers that were, in fact, other ship classes. The lesser Japanese carrier IJN Shoho – able to field just 21 aircraft – fell victim to the Americans by way of thirteen direct bomb hits, several torpedoes and a crashing SBD Dauntless (with the loss of its two-man crew). In turn, the American oiler Neosho was lost by way of a Japanese strike in actions prior.
On May 8th, the two opposing carrier groups spotted one another in full, each launching as many aircraft as they could muster. Shokaku was nailed twice by American dive-bombers of USS Yorktown and completely limiting her aircraft-launch capacity for the duration of the battle. Yorktown was spotted by a 69-strong Japanese aerial force and hit with a bomb, damaging her but not taking her out of the fight.
USS Lexington was less fortunate. Japanese torpedo bombers zeroed in on her and hit her twice. Dive-bombers swooped in and added an additional two direct hits upon her structure, jamming her elevators in the raised position. However, her flight deck had not sustained any damage and she – more or less – remained operationally potent. The direct hits did cause internal gas leaks that eventually ignited, generating fires that proved beyond control for the damage crews. For all intents and purposes, the USS Lexington was a loss. Much of her crew were rescued and relocated to waiting for USN ships of the Task Force and her remaining aircraft found new homes on the damaged – but still functional – USS Yorktown. Lexington was abandoned, scuttled and eventually sunk by a torpedo.
The Battle of Coral Sea, though technically a victory for Japan, was nonetheless a major setback to its plans for complete Pacific dominance. The invasion of Midway Island was the next pressing action for the war machine but its two large carriers were now tied up in actions at Coral Sea action for the moment – proving decisive for the Battle of Midway to come.
While the USS Lexington proved a major Allied casualty, the Australian mainland was saved from invasion and any future prospect of similar Japanese actions in the area was nullified.