On This Day – 7th/8th May 1942

The Battle of the Coral Sea is fought to stop the Japanese-planned capture of Port Moresby. It is a confused engagement and is the first major naval battle fought without visual contact being made between the surface forces of the opposing fleets.

The Japanese devise an over-complicated plan for the operation, breaking their forces into five separate groups. The large carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku (sister ships) provide overall cover for the operation, while the small carrier Shoho is assigned to directly cover landing operations. The Japanese believe that the Americans, at most, have one carrier in the area.

Because the Americans have broken the main Japanese naval codes, forces can be concentrated to oppose the operation. Two task forces, each containing a large carrier, USS Yorktown and USS Lexington, are in the area plus another task force, made up of Australian and American cruisers, is ready to oppose the landing force directly.

On the 7th the Japanese sight the cruiser force and attack it unsuccessfully with land-based aircraft. They also sight an American tanker Neosho and the destroyer USS Sims, mistaking them for a carrier with escorts, resulting in a major strike by the main carriers which sink both ships. During the same day the Americans spot the covering force with the small carrier Shoho and launch an overwhelming attack which sees the loss of this carrier. Late in the day the Japanese attempt to locate and attack the American carriers with another strike by the main carriers, but this fails to find the ships and some twenty aircraft are lost in the darkness. As a precaution the Japanese landing force turns back to await the outcome of the carrier battle.

Large_explosion_aboard_USS_Lexington_(CV-2),_8_may_1942
A large explosion seals the fate of USS Lexington

On the 8th, reconnaisance aircraft from each side simultaneously sight the opposing fleets. The carriers immediately dispatch strikes which literally pass each other on the way to attack their opponents. The USS Lexington is badly damaged and has to be abandoned while the USS Yorktown is also damaged. The Shokaku, also seriously damaged, manages to survive. The Japanese are forced to abandon their attack on Port Moresby. While this can be seen as a tactical victory for the Japanese (inflicting more damage than they suffered and forcing the Americans to retire from the area), it can justly be described as a strategic victory for the Americans, thwarting a major Japanese operation and significantly affecting the outcome of the next carrier battle (Midway in June as both Shokaku and Zuikaku were not available for this action).