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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p134  Chapter 14

The Beginning of Glory

The Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor, a bold and success­ful stratagem whatever its moral aspects, set the pattern of the role that naval aircraft would play in the Pacific war. It is one of the ironies of that war that the Japanese Navy set the example which the United States was to exploit in a series of offensive raids across the breadth of the central Pacific Ocean that culminated in the great blows against the Philippines, the Ryukyus, and the empire, and broke the will of the enemy to resist. The first of these raids, conducted with our prewar carriers, were unpretentious in scale but important in effect; they discovered the weaknesses of the enemy, provided the hard core of experience needed by commanders who would soon take the responsibility of new fleets, and stimulated a jaded morale with a fillip of success. They were experiments in carrier warfare, conceived in improvisation and born of the necessity of defending a shattered fleet and of learning the methods to be employed by the fast carrier task force of the future.

Vice Admiral (later Fleet Admiral) Halsey, Commander, Aircraft Battle Force, led the first offensive strike of the Pacific war against Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands on 1 February 1942. Such strange names as Eniwetok and Kwajalein had not yet become bywords, and lack of information concerning these atolls made the raid an adventure in tactics. Two striking forces participated: Task Force 8, led by Halsey in the Enterprise, attacked the northernmost islands; Task Force 17, commanded by Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) Fletcher in the Yorktown, struck the southern atolls and Makin Island in the Gilbert group. The perspective of time has shown that this operation was more productive of lessons in aerial warfare than of damage done to the enemy. Not only were the flying squadrons tempered in battle, but the Enterprise, under vicious attack by enemy planes during  p135 the withdrawal of Task Force 8, discovered the weaknesses of carrier defense. One Japanese plane which deck-crashed the "Big E" portended the day of the Kamikaze suicide plane. Admiral Nimitz remarked that the results obtained by the raid were "noteworthy." If the material damage inflicted was more temporary than permanent, the psychological damage was not. This first indication of an American counteroffensive was, to the Japanese, a prognostication of things to come.

They were not long in coming. Three weeks later, on 24 February, Halsey led his force of 1 carrier (the Enterprise), 2 cruisers, and 6 destroyers against Wake Island, which we had lost in the first sweep of Japanese conquest. Opposition was feeble, and the raid was little more than a training exercise. As one officer of Air Group 6 remarked, "It was just a matter of going in and unloading your bombs. We found no surface ships at all and no airplanes except three 4‑engined big boats, and one of the Japanese destroyers which was probably damaged in their attack on Wake and which they had beached." But lack of opposition did not invalidate the experience. From the lessons gained in the actions against Wake and the Marshalls, Admiral Halsey recommended an increase in fighter strength on carriers, the installation of leakproof tanks in all aircraft, an increased use of incendiary ammunition, and a revision of methods for the identification of friendly planes. There was much to learn, but it was being learned quickly and, fortunately, at little cost.

Such raids, of course, had another value. The Japanese offensive in the South and southwest Pacific areas were unchecked, opposed only by handfuls of ships, planes, and men. Diversions seemed necessary while we were building and training our forces at home, and organizing in the southwest Pacific; the central Pacific offered ideal diversionary targets. In one effort to hamper the efforts of the enemy, a raid was planned on Rabaul for 21 February, three days prior to the attack on Wake. Although Rabaul was not even reached by the Lexington, which was to carry out the raid, the venture cannot be put down as a failure. As the carrier headed toward the objective, she was attacked by Japanese bombers. Effective antiaircraft fire and outstanding performances by our protecting planes prevented damage being done to the Lexington. The most astonishing feat of the day was the exploit of Lieutenant (later Lieutenant Commander) Edward "Butch" O'Hare, who in his fighter craft was individually responsible for the destruction of five enemy bombers.​a The attack on the task force made it evident that the element of surprise had been lost. Consequently, after steering a course directly for Rabaul  p136 during daylight hours to create as much alarm as possible among the enemy, Vice Admiral Wilson Brown ordered a withdrawal.

In another effort to irritate and confuse the enemy, Admiral Nimitz ordered a carrier feint at Marcus Island, a triangular air base within 1200 miles of Japan. Vice Admiral Halsey made the raid on 4 March 1942, with three ships, the Enterprise, the Northampton, and Salt Lake City, a force which illustrates not only the daring of the operation but also the weakness of our offensive abilities at this time. The attack achieved surprise and some destruction of enemy installations. Its particular value, however, was to re‑emphasize the need for reserve pilots on carriers. This long thrust into dangerous waters sapped the strength of airmen who flew an attack mission and then returned to the routine tasks of search and patrol. The success of the raid as a diversion can only be conjectured. Undoubtedly it caused a flurry of excitement in Tokyo.

Another raid was carried out in an effort to check the Japanese advance southward in the New Guinea‑New Britain area, which had gained considerable headway by the end of February, 1942. A rather sizable task force, built around the Lexington and the Yorktown, undertook the assignment. Because of the desirability of surprise, a moonlight air attack on Rabaul and Gasmata was first planned. This project was abandoned, however, when it was learned that a majority of pilots on the Yorktown were not qualified in night launchings and landings and were relatively inexperienced in night bombing. A dawn air attack, to be followed by a bombardment of shipping and shore installations by cruisers and destroyers, was next fixed upon.

On the seventh of March, however, information was received from the ANZAC forces that changed the situation and necessitated a drastic revision of plans. This was the information that a Japanese convoy consisting of a cruiser and several destroyers, with transports, had been sighted off Buna, New Guinea. The following day information was received that the enemy was landing troops on Salamaua, and later word came that both Salamaua and Lae had been taken by the enemy. It was evident that the Japanese were moving in force on New Guinea.

In order to protect our own forces at Port Moresby and elsewhere, certain surface vessels were detached from the task force. The carrier task force then moved toward New Guinea. The singular feature of the raid that followed was the fact that it entailed a flight from carriers across a high mountain range to attack the enemy on the other side of New Guinea. It was common knowledge that the Owen-Stanley  p137 Range, over which the planes had to fly, had peaks up to 15,000 feet high, and that the interior, in addition to being rugged, was largely unexplored jungle. To secure more accurate information both as to territory to be flown over and weather to be encountered, two planes were dispatched to Townsville, Australia, and to Port Moresby for data that proved to be of great value.

It was learned that the best pass over the mountains, the highest point of which was at an elevation of about 7,500 feet, happened to be on a direct line between a point in the Gulf of Papua (from which it had been hoped that the carriers could launch their planes) and Salamaua, the objective. Great care had to be exercised to avoid arriving at the pass when it would be obscured by clouds. Since weather was to be such a factor, Commander Ault flew a scout bomber to a position about midway across the mountains and over the highest point of the pass, to act as a combination weather bureau and guidepost. Responsibility for carrying out or abandoning the attack was placed in his hands. He remained on station between Mount Chapman and Mount Lawson, broadcasting weather and operational information to both the planes and the surface units until all the attacking planes had returned.

In this attack 104 planes left the Lexington and the Yorktown. Our only loss consisted of one scout bomber shot down by shore-based antiaircraft fire, and eleven other planes slightly damaged.

That surprise was achieved was thoroughly demonstrated by the fact that no enemy fighter opposition was encountered at any time during the raid. It was difficult under the circumstances to determine accurately the extent of the damage inflicted upon the enemy. An analysis of the various and sometimes conflicting reports would lead to the following list of Japanese losses, excluding two cruisers at first erroneously reported sunk:

Total sinkings: 5 transports or cargo ships, 1 light cruiser, 1 destroyer

Probably sunk: 1 mine layer

Seriously damaged and possibly sunk: 2 destroyers, 1 gunboat

Seriously damaged: 1 seaplane tender, 1 gunboat

Our planes had seen more than the bear did when he went over the mountain.

In the last of the preliminary raids in the central Pacific — the Tokyo attack of 18 April 1942 — the naval air arm played a supporting role in a drama which starred Lieutenant Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Doolittle's B‑25's. The circumstances of that attack, which took the war to Japanese homeland, are well known. Task Force 16 was the  p138 strongest force to appear up to this time in the central Pacific area and with 2 carriers, Enterprise and Hornet, 4 cruisers, and 8 destroyers, Vice Admiral Halsey had a potent weapon under his command. Although the operation provided little experience for naval airmen, it proved that our fast carriers could steam at will through the enemy's ocean, and it foreshadowed the great carrier strikes of 1945 against the empire islands.

These first raids in the central Pacific were necessary preliminaries. They were the means by which we felt out the enemy, blooded our carrier air groups, and proved the potentialities of ship-borne air strikes. When the great tests came, in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, naval airmen were experienced and confident. The training period was over.

South Pacific
The Stakes

To the north and east of Australia lies a strange assortment of islands, varying in size from the second largest island in the world, New Guinea, to tiny coral atolls, scarcely able to rear their heads above the emerald sea. In prewar America these islands probably existed only for readers of the National Geographic Magazine, who settled back in their easy chairs and read of kangaroos that climbed trees, of birds that did not fly, of fuzzy-headed blackmen who had bizarre methods of passing away the time. With the coming of the war, however, these lands emerged from their obscurity to land in newspaper headlines. Names never before heard became a part of the language of today, first as symbols of the fiery expansion of the Japanese war machine and then as lasting monuments to the heroism and the uphill victory of American and Allied fighting men.

North of Australia lies New Guinea, shaped like a huge dragon facing west. At one point it is only a hundred miles from Australia, and scientists have estimated that if the waters of the strait dropped only sixty feet, a person could walk dry‑shod from one land mass to the other. Some miles to the northeast of the back of the "dragon" lies a chain of islands called the Bismarck Archipelago. Important in this group are two large islands, 1 New Britain and 2 New Ireland, and a smaller collection of islands, called the Admiralty Islands, of which 3 Manus Island is the most important.

South and east of this group is a double chain of islands known as the Solomons. 4 San Cristobal is the most southern of the lot; next in the  p139 chain is an island whose name has been engraved on American hearts — 5 Guadalcanal. Due east of San Cristobal lie the 6 Santa Cruz Islands and directly south of them are the 7 New Hebrides. Southwest of New Hebrides, and about a thousand miles northeast of Sydney, Australia, is 8 New Caledonia.

That the Japanese had been quick to recognize the strategic value of these islands was indicated by the events of early 1942. In January they landed on New Britain and began fortifying Rabaul into a mighty base; they were establishing other bastions on Buka and at Kieta on Bougainville, the largest and most northern of the Solomons. In early March they sized Salamaua and Lae on New Guinea, and despite air attacks by the Lexington and Yorktown on these ports on 10 March 1942, the onward surge of Japanese conquest continued. By April the enemy had purloined the Shortlands and Faisi Island in the Solomons.

The strategic importance of these areas to the Japanese was twofold. They might well be landmarks on the road to a conquest of Australia and New Zealand. Failing this, they could be used as vantage points from which to cut the life lines of supplies that soon were to pour from our west coast to these outposts of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

These islands likewise possessed great strategic significance for us. With bases established in the Solomons and the neighboring islands we could vitiate Japan's effort to halt the flow of supplies to Australia, and when sufficient supplies and manpower were on hand, we could use the islands as a springboard for our advance into Japanese-held territory. We could move on to enemy bases in the Gilberts, Marshalls, and the Carolines, the latter formidably protected by that seemingly impregnable base, Truk. Operating in another direction, we could close in on the Bismarck Archipelago, and then central Pacific bases, and ultimately retake the Philippines.

All this, of course, lay in the future. In the early days the picture was black, and it looked as if Japanese strategic plans were the more important. Japan was in the ascendancy. Bataan was lost, and even as Corregidor fell, the Japs were occupying Hollandia on the north coast of New Guinea. The remainder of the Philippines was submerged, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stilwell retreated from Burma, having taken, as he put it, "a hell of a beating," and Singapore, looking stiff-necked out to sea, was taken by wriggly fighting men sliding down the Malay Peninsula.

Meanwhile, despite the appalling blows they had received, the Allied  p140 nations were not inactive. As we have seen, our fledgling carrier task forces were testing their wings in harassing raids in the central Pacific. In addition, while the Japanese were moving into the southwest Pacific and the Solomons area, the Allies had been preparing bases which it was hoped would be out of range. These spots were in the Ellice, Fiji, and the Samoan islands, and were essential if the onrush of the enemy was to be stopped and the tide of battle turned. Marine and navy forces were reorganized to prepare for future action. Major General F. B. Price assumed command of military forces in the Samoan area, and Rear (later Vice) Admiral John Sidney McCain was ordered detached as Commander, Patrol Wings, Pacific Fleet, to command all aircraft in the South Pacific area.

The Battle of the Coral Sea — First Phase
Why the Admiral Was Late

Admirals ordinarily meet their appointments, and when one is a day late it usually means that something is up. Rear Admiral Fletcher had a date with Rear Admiral Fitch on 4 May 1942. It was an important engagement, for Fletcher commanded Task Force 17 and he was to rendezvous at a prearranged spot with Fitch, CO of Task Force 11, in conjunction with units of an ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) squadron. The purpose of the meeting was to take steps to prevent the further advance of the Japs into the islands north and east of Australia.

But the admiral was late, and therein lies a tale. On 3 May the admiral received intelligence reports from General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur that the occupation of Florida Island north of Guadalcanal had begun and that Japs were going ashore in transports in Tulagi Harbor. Admiral Fletcher had been waiting for this news for two months. The rendezvous could wait a day. The admiral and his Task Force 17 headed for the Solomons, even though units of his forces were fueling and not prepared to join him in battle.

By 0700 on 4 May, Admiral Fletcher's force was within a hundred miles of Guadalcanal, facing a weather front so heavy that it blanketed Guadalcanal and the area south of it for seventy miles. Notwithstanding poor visibility, the cruisers had launched an inner air patrol, and the Yorktown a combat air patrol of six Wildcats, followed immediately by the attack group. When the planes reached Tulagi and Gavutu harbors they found a considerable number of ships and five seaplanes moored off Makambo Island. The strike was satisfying. In the three attacks made by  p141 the Yorktown's planes, 2 destroyers, one cargo boat, 4 gunboats, and various small craft were sunk, while a seaplane tender, a cruiser, and cargo ships were damaged, and the 5 seaplanes destroyed. The cost was, in war terms, slight; the Yorktown lost 2 fighter planes, but the pilots were rescued. A torpedo plane and pilot were lost, and 2 torpedo planes, 3 bombers, and 3 scouts were damaged by bullets.

As a result of the Tulagi interim, Admiral Fletcher was a day late at the rendezvous, but no one, except the Japs, minded very much.

The meeting was held on the morning of 5 May somewhere in the Coral Sea, south of the Louisiades Islands. In accordance with the flexible custom of task force organization, the whole unit became Task Force 17. All the ships of the combined task force were refueled from the Neosho during 5 and 6 May, and the operation order was placed in effect. Ominous reports were coming in — the enemy was on the move from Rabaul and headed for the occupation of bases in the Louisiades and the possible seizure of Port Moresby, on the southern shore of New Guinea. At the same time it was reported that the enemy's Carrier Division 5, with the Shokaku and the Zuikaku, was in the Bougainville area. Admiral Fletcher's objective was to make night and day attacks on all enemy surface units and furnish a screen of cruisers and destroyers to protect the Lexington and Yorktown, whose air groups were to check the further advance of the enemy into the New Guinea-Solomons area.

The Battle of the Coral Sea — Second Phase
Death of the Shoho

When Admiral Fletcher became aware of the impending movement of the Japs, he proceeded to the northwest in order to be able to strike by daylight of the seventh. The oiler Neosho and its escort Sims were detached to the south in accordance with fueling directives, and both were overtaken and sunk by enemy bombing the next day. Admiral Grace's support group comprising 2 Australian and 1 American cruiser and 2 American destroyers, was sent ahead to attack enemy transports and light cruisers, which had been sighted headed for Port Moresby through Jomard Passage and the Coral Sea. In the early afternoon, when Grace's group was about 110 miles southeast of South Cape, New Guinea, 10 to 12 single-engined Japanese monoplanes passed within 6,000 yards of the Farragut, and although ships' guns opened fire no hits were made. An hour later 10 to 14 planes, probably Mitsubishi  p142 97‑type heavy bombers, were seen bearing down from dead ahead. The leading ships opened fire at about 6500 yards, and 2 planes were shot down almost immediately. The Japs then dispersed from the tight V formation and came over in small groups on port and starboard of the Perkins. Our ships, by radical maneuvers and heavy fire, avoided all torpedoes. After the Japs had dropped the torpedoes they strafed the ships they passed in retiring, and seven men topside the Chicago were wounded; two of them died later. The attack had lasted only ten minutes, but from 4 to 6 Japs had been splashed. An unsuccessful attack on the Australia followed some time later.

Task Force 17 was headed north on the morning of 7 May, and extensive searches were being made for the Japanese force, especially carriers. It was certain that three enemy carriers were within striking range of Fletcher's force, but there had been no additional information since the afternoon of the sixth. Ten scout planes from the Yorktown covered the area of Deboyne Island, and one of them reported two enemy carriers and four heavy cruisers north of Misima Island. Two other scouts encountered and shot down two two‑float monoplanes, one near Misima Island; there were no other contacts. To the east, however, blotted out by a heavy front, were the Shokaku and Zuikaku of Japanese Carrier Division 5 which a Yorktown scout had missed because he had to relinquish his search as a result of bad weather.

The Lexington and Yorktown both launched planes almost simultaneously to attack the carriers reported by the Yorktown scout at 0845. At 1100, however, when the combined attack group was well under way, other Yorktown scouts returned to the carrier and reported that what the pilot had actually seen were two heavy and two light cruisers. The attack groups were not recalled, since later information supplied by shore-based reconnaissance planes of the Australian command reported one carrier, sixteen sundry warships and ten transports near the latitude and longitude from which the Yorktown scout had erroneously reported two carriers. Word was then given the attack groups, which changed course, and at 1130 the Lexington group made contact with the enemy north of Misima Island.

The battle was on, and for one Jap carrier, at least, the day of reckoning was at hand. The first of the Lexington squadrons to go in was Scouting Squadron 2, followed a few minutes later by the bombing and torpedo squadrons. Despite hits by all three, the enemy carrier prepared to launch planes and only one small fire was visible from the air when the Yorktown planes arrived shortly afterwards. The same type of attack was repeated by scouting and bombing squadrons together with Torpedo  p143 Squadron 5, with the added advantage that the enemy ship had turned into the wind to launch its aircraft and could not easily take evasive action. Within three minutes after the last torpedo had struck, the waves closed over the Japanese carrier, originally thought to be the Ryukaku but later identified as the Shoho.

The Lexington group accounted for five Japanese planes shot down at a cost of two for us. The pilot of one of our planes was Lieutenant Edward Allen who had won the Navy Cross in the defense of the Lexington against Jap bombers near Rabaul the February before. The pilot and crew of the other plane were forced down on Rossel Island and later rescued by the Australians. Four Japanese planes were shot down by the Yorktown fighters, but one of her dive bombers was lost with its pilot.

While the combat patrols were being landed on the Yorktown at dusk on the seventh, three enemy planes flew by on the starboard side burning running lights which indicated they mistook the Yorktown for a Japanese carrier. Our own planes were circling for landings and although antiaircraft brought down one of the enemy planes, the others went undamaged as a result of our fear of shooting down our own planes. The radar screen of the Lexington showed that thirty miles to the east, planes were circling apparently to land on a Japanese carrier, confirming the conjecture that Carrier Division 5, until now unaccounted for, was in the area.

The Battle of the Coral Sea — Third Phase
Carrier vs. Carrier

Admiral Fletcher decided to proceed southwest so as to be in a position to attack the enemy carriers in the morning. A Lexington scout on dawn search patrol, at 0820 on the eighth, sighted an enemy formation of 2 carriers identified as the Shokaku and Zuikaku, 4 heavy cruisers and 3 destroyers 170 miles northwest. An attack group composed of 35 dive bombers, 15 fighters, 11 scouts and 21 torpedo bombers was launched at 0900 at about the same time that it became evident the Japs had located our force. This meant that an enemy attack could be expected about 1100, and the task force prepared to receive it. Admiral Fletcher turned over tactical command of the force to Commander, Air, Admiral Fitch. History was about to record its first carrier-against‑carrier battle, for while our planes were winging toward the Jap force, its planes were headed for Task Force 17.

The day was clear with unlimited visibility and ceiling. At 1100, radar  p144 reported many aircraft approaching from the south, about seventy-five miles from our position which was southeast of Rossel Island. The first planes, torpedo bombers, were sighted thirteen minutes later at 6,000 to 7,000 feet, coming in on both bows. As soon as the enemy planes were sighted, the ships of Task Force 17 advanced speed to 30 knots. Our fighters had gone out at 10,000 feet but when the Japanese torpedo planes were sighted 20 to 30 miles distant from the task force, the enemy had an altitude advantage of 7,000 feet, and our fighters could not gain altitude soon enough to intercept him before the pushover point. Our Wildcats did engage the 18 protecting Japanese fighters and shot down or damaged 6. The position of the anti-torpedo patrol, however, was 6,000 yards from the ship at 2,000 feet and enabled the enemy torpedo planes to come in over this patrol at high speed. However, our SBD's on the port side of the Lexington shot down eight planes, four of which were carrying torpedoes. A bomber and two fighters were also destroyed by the SBD's, while we lost one dive bomber to a Jap fighter.

At 1120 the first torpedo struck the Lexington and exploded in front of the port forward gun gallery. Only a minute later another hit farther aft, opposite the bridge. Meanwhile, Jap dive bombers were attacking at 70‑degree dives from 17,000 feet. A 1,000‑pounder hit the after end of the port gun gallery in the ready-ammunition locker just outside Admiral Fitch's cabin. Two near misses hit close aboard aft on the port side and at first it was thought the ship had been struck by torpedoes. Another 500‑pound bomb hit the gig boat pocket on the port side, and a 100‑pound bomb, realizing one Jap pilot's dream, struck the stacks and exploded inside, killing and injuring a number of men in the stack machine guns, sky aft, and in the after signal station. Altogether there were seven hits on the Lexington. Fire started in the main deck near the admiral's country, and the ship was listing six degrees to port. Damage Control, however, shifted oil to trim the ship, and fire parties were fighting numerous fires. In spite of the blasting she had taken, all units of the Lexington were in commission, although three of her fire rooms were partially flooded. Pumps, however, were controlling that damage. Her steering gear was intact, and she was making twenty-five knots, under good control. Both elevators, however, were out, jammed in the up position.

By 1300 the ship was on even keel, three fires had been doused, and the one in the admiral's country was under control. She was still landing and reservicing planes.

Simultaneously with the attack on the Lexington, the Japanese  p145 launched an attack on the Yorktown. Torpedo planes came in over and through our protecting screen of fighters and separated into small groups as soon as antiaircraft batteries opened fire. Three torpedoes were observed approaching on the port quarter and four more on the port beam. Skillful maneuvering enabled the carrier to evade them only to have others come in on the starboard quarter. As the torpedo planes completed their attack the dive bombers came in. Six near misses on the starboard side and two each on the port and starboard quarters shook the ship so that the screws were lifted from the water and bomb fragments pierced the hull above the water line. Only one direct hit was made, but it pierced the flight deck and penetrated into the ship, exploding above the fourth deck and killing thirty-seven men and injuring many others.

Damage was not sufficient to impair the Yorktown's battle efficiency, however, and she continued operations.

While this attack was in progress, the Japanese carriers were having a similar experience. Our strikes, which had been launched at 0900, arrived over the Jap force at 1030. They found 2 carriers, escorted by a battle­ship, 3 heavy cruisers, and 4 destroyers. The dive bombers, which had arrived first, waited for the slower torpedo planes to come up and then launched a co‑ordinated attack on a carrier which had started to send off planes. In spite of fighter opposition, Yorktown dive bombers pressed home their attacks and as soon as they pulled out, were followed by the torpedo planes. Although the bombing squadron from the Lexington failed to locate the Jap force, the other planes from that ship participated in the attack. Results were indeterminate, but it is known that at least two bomb hits were scored.

The planes returned at 1400 to find the Lexington in bad shape but still capable of landing planes. All damage had been checked or cleared, when from somewhere deep amid­ship a heavy explosion shook the ship. All telephones but one were out, and another fire started. All pressure in the forward fire main was gone and the gyro compass system was inoperable although the after gyro and repeaters were functioning. The explosion had doomed the ship.

Ironically, Japanese planes had failed to do what gasoline vapors caused by small leaks had done. As the fire spread, all communications were lost, water pressure was nil and minor explosions kept recurring, intensifying fires.

By 1600 the last main control telephone was so weak that Captain Sherman, fearing he would lose contact with the engineering personnel,  p146 ordered them topside. The safeties were opened, the ship halted, and preparations to abandon ship were made as all water pressure was gone and fire fighting was now impossible. Admiral Fitch ordered destroyers with fire hoses to stand by to receive excess personnel. The Morris stood alongside with hoses while personnel descended by lines to her decks and safety. The fires were now beyond control, and explosions were occurring more frequently. Captain Sherman meanwhile, fearing the ship would blow up, had had the sick and wounded transferred to whaleboats. Admiral Fitch directed him to abandon ship. Captain Sherman passed the word, and orderly disembarkation began. By 1800 the admiral and captain prepared to leave the ship, but not until Captain Sherman had made an inspection and found, on the starboard side in an after gun gallery, some men having difficulty disembarking. He ordered them to shift aft and disembark from that point. The executive officer, Commander Mortimer Seligman, his final inspection finished, reported all hands were off the ship. At that moment another explosion shook the Lexington, and the two officers had to duck to avoid debris showering them near the elevator. The skipper ordered Seligman off, and when he saw that his executive officer had swum to a motor sailer, Captain Sherman himself went hand-over‑hand down a line, dropped into the water, and was picked up by a boat from the Minneapolis aboard which he reported to Admiral Fitch.​b

It was a magnificent but sad spectacle made by the doomed and burning ship. She had performed so gloriously only to perish in her hour of triumph. Gallant to the end, she remained afloat seven hours and finally was torpedoed by the Phelps. Three out of five torpedoes hit her and she sank on an even keel. Even as the Pacific received her, a tremendous explosion rocked ships for miles around.

The battle of the carriers was over. The enemy had incurred such losses that he would have to take pause before he could continue his progress south. The balance was heavily weighted on our side. From 0700 on 4 May to dusk of the eighth, in addition to losses suffered at Tulagi, the Japanese had lost the Shoho and a light cruiser and had seventy planes shot down, as well as those which sank with the carrier. Both the Shokaku and Zuikaku and their planes were badly damaged, and in the case of the Shoho, the Japanese probably lost the entire complement of the carrier. For the time being the Japanese invasion of Port Moresby was halted. Our own losses, while serious, were not nearly so grave as those of the Japs. We had lost the Lexington but 2,735 of a complement of 2,951 were saved, and eighteen of her planes were safely landed on the  p147 Yorktown. In addition, the Neosho and Sims had been sunk on the seventh.

Twenty-seven of our planes were lost to enemy action. The Yorktown was also damaged but not so badly that she could not turn up a month later at the Battle of Midway.

The Battle of the Coral Sea indicated that despite the weather advantage the Japs had enjoyed, and the superiority they had both in number of planes and in their performance ability, our personnel were superior in quality and skill. Our tactics were better, as was our antiaircraft fire.

This was the first time in history that a decisive naval engagement had been fought without surface ships taking combatant roles, and in that engagement the nectar of victory that the Japs had been drinking for five long months was for the first time flavored with the gall of defeat. Furthermore, had the Japanese won the Battle of the Coral Sea, they might have been able to take Port Moresby from the sea. In their attempt to take it by land they were unsuccessful; failing in that, their campaign in the southwest Pacific ultimately collapsed.

The Battle of Midway

As we have seen, the Battle of the Coral Sea, 4‑8 May 1942, was the first decisive engagement in the history of the world in which aircraft carriers played the principal part and in which opposing surface ships did not fire a shot at or get within sight of each other. The Battle of Midway, coming about a month later, was the after event which definitely established the pattern of future naval warfare. As such, it stemmed the Japanese offensive at its flood tide, saved our outer defenses from occupation, and put the enemy forever after on the defensive. It was the turning point in the battle for the Pacific.

After their South Pacific offensive had been stopped in the Coral Sea, the Japanese mustered ships and men for a grand assault on our Aleutian and Hawaiian bases. American naval strategists knew that the situation was extremely serious. The Lexington had been sunk in the Coral Sea and the Yorktown damaged, and the air groups of both carriers had been weakened by four months at sea. The Japanese still had carriers and ships in home waters that could be used against Hawaii and the Aleutians, and there was reasonable doubt that we could bring our forces back from the South Pacific in time to do any good. If we guessed wrong, especially if the enemy renewed his attacks in the South  p148 Pacific, the situation might become extremely serious. The forces at our disposal were distributed as seemed best, and we awaited the next enemy move. On the west coast were the battle­ships with a light destroyer screen. Only five cruisers and four destroyers could be spared for the Alaskan area in case of a thrust in that direction. Two task forces, composed of three carriers and supporting ships, and land-based air squadrons were available to protect the Hawaii-Midway area.

Task Force 16, under Rear Admiral (later Admiral) Raymond Spruance, and Task Force 17, commanded by Rear Admiral (later Vice Admiral) Frank Jack Fletcher, rendezvoused northeast of Midway on 2 June 1942. In the former force were the carriers Enterprise and Hornet; in the latter, the Yorktown, restored to fighting condition in three days at Pearl Harbor. The defensive capabilities of Midway Island itself had been strengthened by the addition of army, navy, and marine air units. Nineteen submarines were assigned to cover the approaches to the Hawaiian area. All were on station by 3 June.

The Japanese began the battle on that date with a feint at the Aleutian Islands. Moving in under cover of a weather front, an enemy carrier force attacked the Unalaska base at Dutch Harbor and Fort Glenn on Unimak Island. The raid, as is shown elsewhere, was useful both as a cover for landing operations on Attu and Kiska and as a diversion for the main effort against Midway. The diversionary tactic failed, however, because we refused to divert our naval strength from Hawaiian waters; distance and time factors made such a shift impossible. Part of the price of the victory at Midway, therefore, had to be the minor Japanese success in the Aleutians.

On 3 June the usual searches were being conducted in the Midway area, coverage being excellent except for the sector to the north-northwest where visibility was extremely poor. At 0904 a plane of Patrol Squadron 44 made the first contact of the battle: "Two Japanese cargo vessels sighted bearing 247° from Midway, distance 470 miles. Fired upon by antiaircraft." At 0925 another plane reported: "Main body bearing 261°, distance 700 miles, 6 large ships in column." During the next few hours other units of the Japanese Fleet were sighted by our patrols, and it became evident that a force of power­ful proportions was converging for an attack.

At about 1230, nine B‑17's, each carrying bomb‑bay gasoline tanks and four 600‑pound bombs, took off from Midway for the first attack on the enemy. At 1623 this flight found two or three heavy cruisers escorting approximately 30 auxiliaries, 570 miles from base. An attack  p149 was made by three flights of three planes each at altitudes of 8,000, 10,000, and 12,000 feet, respectively. Results were unobserved.

Before the B‑17's returned, a volunteer flight of 4 PBY‑5A's, each carrying a torpedo, took off from Midway at 2115 on a mission of historic interest, for this was the first night torpedo attack by our patrol planes on surface ships. Station keeping was difficult in the darkness, and one plane lost the formation and did not participate in the attack. At 0115 on 4 June a radar sighting was made on a group of ten ships off the port beam of the PBY's. The planes approached with engines throttled back. The result of the torpedo drops was difficult to ascertain, and the returning pilots could only report that one or two ships were "possibly damaged."

In the meantime, there was cause for anxiety. The Japanese carrier force had not been located, and the imminence of a raid on Midway was real. In the absence of sightings, the enemy carriers were believed to be approaching from the northwest under cover of the weather front. Preparations were made accordingly; all planes were put in the air or kept in a state of take‑off readiness.

At 0545 on 4 June, anxious American airmen received the most important contact report of the battle, a brief message in plain English: "Many planes heading Midway, Bearing 320°, distance 150." Five minutes later the Midway radar picked up the planes at a distance of 93 miles, altitude 10,000 feet. By 0600 every plane able to leave the ground had taken off. Pilots of Marine Squadron 221, flying Buffalos and Wildcats, intercepted a Japanese formation of 60 to 80 navy bombers escorted by about 50 Zero-type fighters at 12,000 feet altitude, distance 30 miles. Despite this interception, however, the enemy planes proceeded in ragged formation to their objective and at 0630 dropped the first bomb on Midway. By 0175 the raid was over, and the marine fighters were ordered to land and refuel. Of the 27 planes which attacked the enemy flight, 15 were missing and 7 severely damaged. They had, however, inflicted punishing damage to the enemy; known Japanese losses amounted to 43 aircraft. Damage to Midway installations was severe, but fortunately the attacking planes had spared the runways, apparently for their own anticipated use.

Shortly after 0615, four torpedo-carrying B‑26's left to attack the enemy carriers. At 0705 they sighted the target — three large carriers, a battle­ship, several cruisers, and about six destroyers — and leveled off for the approach. The Japanese shot down two of the planes and prevented the other two from making an accurate assessment of the results obtained.  p150 It was believed, however, that one carrier was damaged by two torpedoes. At the same time the Midway-based detachment of Torpedo Squadron 8, consisting of six Avengers, made a run on the same group of enemy ships. Of this flight only one badly shot‑up plane returned to make a landing.

At 0755, Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 moved in to the attack. This squadron was divided into two groups, the larger group of 18 Dauntless aircraft under Major L. R. Henderson being the first to reach the target. Enemy fighter defense was effectively organized. Of the 18 SBD's, 9 returned to base, and of these only 6 remained fit for service. Major Henderson and his gunner were shot down before the final attack was under way, and it was only by determined devotion to duty that the squadron obtained three direct hits and several near misses on a large Kaga-class carrier.

Following a high level attack by army B‑17's, that reported three hits on two carriers, the second group of marine bombers under Major B. W. Norris arrived on the scene. For a loss of two planes his twelve Vindicators obtained two hits and two near misses on the Japanese battle­ship. With their return to Midway the first phase of the assault on the enemy fleet was accomplished.

Admiral Nimitz described the situation as of that moment in his report of the action:

"The Midway forces had struck with full strength, but the Japanese were not as yet checked. About 10 ships had been damaged, of which 1 or 2 AP or AK may have been sunk. But this was hardly an impression on the great force of about 80 ships converging on Midway. Most of midway's fighters, torpedo planes, and dive bombers — the only types capable of making a high percentage of hits on ships — were gone, and 3 of the Japanese carriers were still undamaged or insufficiently so to hamper operations. This was the situation when the carrier attack began."

During the night of 3‑4 June, Task Forces 16 and 17 moved to a position about two hundred miles north of Midway. At 0700 the Hornet and Enterprise began sending off planes, Admiral Fletcher having by this time received through radio interception the first contact of the Japanese carrier force. Inasmuch as only two enemy carriers had been reported, the Yorktown delayed launching until 0840. Meanwhile the Japanese had apparently sighted our own carriers and had turned northward. This maneuver took us unawares, and the air strike that had already been launched consequently failed to reach the target, except for the Hornet's Torpedo Squadron 8, which had become separated from  p151 the rest of the air group, had turned north and discovered the enemy ships Akagi, Kaga and Soryu close together, the last damaged and smoking, and the Hiryu standing off to the north. In a gallant but futile attack made at 0920, without support of any kind, the fifteen planes of the squadron were shot into the sea by overwhelming fighter opposition. One pilot, Ensign G. H. Gay, survived to witness the subsequent action, from the insecure vantage point of an uninflated life raft wallowing in the water.

Less than an hour later Torpedo Squadrons 3 and 6 from the Yorktown and Enterprise arrived at the scene. In a wild melee of flying planes and flying shrapnel, hits were obtained on two carriers and probably a third. But the price was heavy. Of the 41 torpedo planes in the three squadrons only 6 returned. It was a sacrifice, however, which forced the enemy carriers into such radical maneuvering that they could not launch their own planes, and it left few of the Zero fighters in a position to intercept our dive bombers, which now attacked with devastating effect.

At 1022 the bombers struck. Antiaircraft fire was light and there was no fighter opposition until after the planes had pulled out of their dives. The Enterprise planes broke up the decks of the Kaga and Soryu, and the Yorktown bombers hit a carrier believed to be the Akagi as well as a battle­ship and a cruiser. The action cost 18 SBD's but the results were spectacular. Burning furiously, the three stricken carriers marked the high tide of the Japanese advance. Later in the day the submarine Nautilus delivered the death blow to the Soryu. Only the Hiryu escaped undamaged to the north.

The temporary escape of the Hiryu cost us the carrier Yorktown. At 1159, radar contact was made with a Hiryu attack group of thirty to forty aircraft which necessitated the waving off of the returning Yorktown strike. Defensive fighters were vectored out to meet the enemy planes about twenty miles from Task Force 17. Only eight bombers evaded the Wildcats, but before they were shot down by ship's gunfire they scored three hits on the Yorktown, which, however, reduced her combat efficiency only temporarily. By 1215 the action had been completed; by 1350 the wounded carrier began refueling planes.

At 1427 the second enemy air strike approached. Although interception was again made at some distance from the Yorktown, the Japanese put two torpedoes in the carrier, causing her to smoke heavily and finally stop with heavy list to port. At 1445, with all power gone and danger of capsizing imminent, the ship was abandoned. The epilogue  p152 requires no elaboration. On 5 June a salvage party boarded the listing vessel and it was determined to take her in tow. The operation proceeded successfully until 1335 on 6 June when she was struck by two submarine torpedoes. At 0501 the next morning she turned over on her port side and sank in about 3,000 fathoms of water with all battle flags flying.

Revenge for the Yorktown was not delayed. Scout bombers located the Hiryu at 1430 on 4 June, shortly after her air group had completed the attack on the Yorktown. Enterprise planes reached her first and left her burning so fiercely that the Hornet attack was diverted to a battle­ship and a cruiser. With the destruction of the Hiryu, control of the air had been won, and the tide of battle turned. Pursuit of a disorganized and fleeting enemy now occupied our air force.

During this critical afternoon, Army B‑17's from Midway had found and attacked damaged units of the Japanese armada. The island garrison, meanwhile, feverishly prepared for the possibility of a landing attempt which seemed close at hand when an enemy submarine shelled installations at 0130 on the morning of the fifth. Shortly before dawn on 5 June search planes took off, followed by a mixed force of Fortresses, Dauntlesses, and Vindicators — the remnants of Midway air power. This force located and bombed cruiser targets and claimed some hits. Later in the day the B‑17's made other attacks. The results of the day's operations were reported as one hit each on two heavy cruisers and three hits on a large cruiser.

An attempt by Task Force 16 to close with the enemy on 5 June produced no success­ful results. On the morning of 6 June, however, Enterprise search planes found two Japanese dispositions within fifty miles of one another. The task force chose the northernmost group as its target, leaving the southern group for the Midway Fortresses. The Fortresses failed to make contact but at 0950 the Hornet strike hit a battle­ship and cruiser and sank a destroyer. Enterprise planes followed this up, sinking the heavy cruiser Mikuma and severely damaging the Mogami. At 1645 a second Hornet attack group found two cruisers and two destroyers and obtained hits on three ships. This was the last strike of the day. Fuel shortage, reports of Japanese submarines in the vicinity, and the danger of coming into range of Wake-based enemy planes forced the task force to retire. The Battle of Midway was over.

For the loss of the Yorktown, the destroyer Hammann (sunk by submarine torpedo while assisting in the attempted salvage of the Yorktown), and 150 aircraft, our airmen had sunk 4 large Japanese carriers,  p153 with an estimated 275 planes, 2 heavy cruisers, and 3 or 4 destroyers, had damaged numerous other units of the enemy battle fleet, and by doing this had relieved the danger to Midway, Hawaii, and the west coast.

The Battle of Midway will be an object of curiosity for succeeding generations of historians. It was a contest primarily to retain naval air forces, and it established the fact that naval air power was a principal factor in the control of the sea. It is a monument to America's naval heroes.

Thayer's Notes:

a For his actions on this mission, Edward H. O'Hare was awarded the Medal of Honor, receiving it from President Roosevelt. A photograph of him as well as the citation, which attributes to him the saving of the Lexington, are given on his page at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

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b Just four months later, Capt. Sherman would again have an aircraft carrier sunk under him — the USS Wasp, on September 15, 1942. A first-hand survivor account by one of Wasp's officers is onsite.

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Page updated: 14 Jul 21