Thursday, May 11, 2017

TheList 4451


Thanks to Outlaw who forwarded this great history of the battle of the Coral Sea.
The Battle of the Coral Sea

From: Director of Naval History
To: Senior Retired Navy Leaders
Subj: H-Gram 005 - Battle of the Coral Sea

The Bomb that Changed the Course of the War
     On 8 May 1942, 24 SBD Dauntless dive bombers from USS Yorktown (CV-5) commenced an attack on the Japanese fleet carrier IJN Shokaku in the Coral Sea.  As each bomber nosed over in near-vertical dives from 18,000 feet on the wildly maneuvering Shokaku, their windscreens and bomb sights fogged over so badly during the descent that the U.S. pilots were blinded, forced to release their bombs "by memory."  Although one bomb hit the Shokaku very near the bow and started a serious fire, one bomb after another missed.  Finally one SBD, piloted by LT John Powers (USNA '35), his wing on fire after being hit by canon fire from a Japanese Zero fighter, pressed his dive well below the standard minimum pull-up altitude.  Power's bomb hit Shokaku nearly dead center and caused horrific and nearly fatal damage, starting massive fires and killing over 100 Japanese sailors.  Unable to pull up in time, Powers flew through the frag pattern of his own bomb and crashed alongside the Shokaku. Although 15 dive bombers off the USS Lexington (CV-2) would later manage to hit the Shokaku with one more bomb, it was Power's bomb that knocked Shokaku out of action for the rest of the battle, leaving her unable to recover aircraft, and with damage so severe that she was unable to participate in the critical and decisive Battle of Midway one month later, where her presence could have easily turned that battle into a catastrophic defeat for the U.S.  By the sacrifice of his life, and that of his radioman-gunner (Radioman Second Class Everett Clyde Hill), Powers quite likely prevented the loss of the Yorktown at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and changed the outcome of two of the most important battles of World War II.  For his valor, Powers was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. Hill's parents received his $10,000 G.I. life insurance policy payout.

Attachment H-005-1 shows Japanese carrier Shokaku under attack by USS Yorktown VB-5 SDB Dauntless dive bombers taken from a Yorktown VT-5 TBD Devastator torpedo bomber during the Battle of the Coral Sea on 8 May 1942.  Shokaku's forecastle is on fire from the first bomb hit and heavy black smoke amidships suggests this photo was taken moments after LT Powers' bomb hit, which took Shokaku out of the battle (and out of the Battle of Midway too.)

Carrier vs. Carrier (Us vs. Them)
American and Japanese carriers and carrier air groups had significant strengths and weaknesses relative to each other.  Most histories "mirror image" Japanese doctrine and tactics with those of the U.S., which frequently leads to an inaccurate understanding of the battle.  There are two recent books that superbly describe Japanese carrier operations and are worth a read, "Shattered Sword" by Parshall and Tully, and "Kaigun" by Evans and Peattie.  Both are over 500 pages long, so if you read my synopsis (derived from those books and many others) in attachment H-005-2 you will become a lot smarter about the relative capabilities of the U.S. and Japanese carriers and air groups at the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, in a much shorter period of time, and  the battles might make more sense to you.

The Battle of the Coral Sea - 7-8 May 1942
     The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first carrier versus carrier battle in history; opposing surface forces never sighted each other.  The battle occurred because U.S. naval intelligence provided Admiral Nimitz with sufficient warning and understanding of Japanese intent and capability that he chose to commit the two carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) against a Japanese force expected to consist of 2-3 carriers (Shokaku, Zuikaku and the light carrier Shoho.)  Nimitz committed the Enterprise (CV-6) and Hornet (CV-8) as well, but they were unable to reach the area in time, due the timing of the Doolittle Raid (see H-Gram 004).  The battle was a tactical draw (some accounts argue a tactical U.S. loss) but a strategic victory for the U.S.  The Japanese force failed in its objective to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea, which would have threatened the northeast coast of Australia.  Although the Japanese had previously suffered set-backs, this was the first time that proved permanent.  In addition, the Japanese carrier Shokaku was severely damaged, and attrition to the air groups of both Shokaku and Zuikaku caused both carriers to miss the decisive battle of Midway a month later, which almost certainly changed the course of that battle, and of the war.  The Japanese also lost the light carrier Shoho on 7 May to a gross over-kill of U.S. carrier torpedo and dive bombers, and was the first carrier lost by either side in the war.   The cost to the U.S. was high; the carrier USS Lexington was sunk as a result of secondary explosions following torpedo and bomb hits, the Yorktown was damaged by a bomb (but not hit by torpedoes, which was the critical factor in her being repaired in time for Midway), the oiler USS Neosho (AO-23) (which had survived being moored right in the middle of the attack on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor) was sunk, along with the destroyer USS Sims (DD-409.)  At the end of the second day of battle, the air groups on both sides were severely depleted with extensive losses, with Lexington sinking and Shokaku out of action.  Both commanders, RADM Frank "Jack" Fletcher and VADM Takeo Takagi, opted to withdraw, which resulted in years of criticism of both by other naval officers and armchair historians (Takagi was pilloried by ADM Yamamoto; Fletcher merely criticized, mostly behind his back).  Please see attachment H-005-3 for more detail on the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Attachment H-005-4 shows USS Lexington (CV-2) under attack at the Battle of the Coral Sea on 8 May 42 in a photo taken from a Japanese aircraft.  The Lexington has been hit by two torpedoes (the first proved fatal) and two bombs, and is bracketed by numerous other near misses.

Meanwhile in the Atlantic, the "Second Happy Time."
     Due to the demands of my day job and the focus on WWII in the Pacific and WWI, I have not written on WWII in the Atlantic after Pearl Harbor yet.  My intent is to "catch up" the Atlantic in July during the lull between Midway and Guadalcanal.  But, in brief, the initial months of the war in the Atlantic went very badly.  The Germans reacted faster than we did, and German U-boats were operating off the coast of the U.S. (which didn't happen in WWI) faster than the U.S. was able to establish a system of convoys.  U-boats sank so many ships so fast off the U.S. east coast that the spring of 1942 was known as the "Second Happy Time" by the U-boat crews.  (The "First Happy Time" was in the early days of the war before the British managed to get some semblance of their act together.)  Historians have tended to heap considerable blame for the sorry state of affairs on the Commander-in-Chief U.S. Fleet/Atlantic Fleet, ADM Ernest J. King.  (King became CNO and retained the U.S. Fleet Hat in March 42).  King supposedly disliked the British so much that he was loath to implement a "British idea" of convoys, and therefore the U.S. was too slow (or "failed to learn the lessons of WWI") in implementing convoys on the U.S. east coast..  King wasn't very favorably disposed toward the British, but then he wasn't favorably disposed toward just about anyone, and King's predispositions and sour demeanor had little to do with it.  (more on King in a future H-gram.)  The reality had far more to do with a lack of resources than with a resistance to working with the British or incorporating foreign ideas.  The U.S. simply did not have enough destroyers; those that were in the Atlantic were committed and stretched thin escorting transatlantic convoys across the western half of the Atlantic, which the U.S. had been doing well before the start of the war, on occasion engaging in combat with German U-boats well before Pearl Harbor.  Those critical convoys still needed to be escorted after war was officially declared, and the U.S. Navy continued to do so.  The U.S. had also already "loaned" 50 WWI vintage destroyers to the British as part of the 1940 "Destroyers for Bases Agreement" which contributed to the shortage.  In the spring of 1942, there simply were not enough destroyers and patrol craft to provide escorts for merchant traffic going up and down the U.S. east coast.  Convoys, without escorts, would have only made the U-boats' targeting problem even easier.   Regardless, the result was a pretty grim tally of carnage up and down the U.S. east coast.

100th Anniversary of WWI
Please see attachment H-005-5 for additional detail  on the first U.S. Navy combat actions against German U-boats in Aril and May 1917, the first U.S. naval officer killed in action in WWI, and the first underway refueling in history.  In addition, while sending destroyers to combat the U-boats seems like a no-brainer today, RADM Sims' recommendation to do so actually provoked heated opposition among senior naval officers in the Navy Department in Washington DC at the time.

For anyone who may have missed previous H-grams, the most recent one (this one) can be found at "Director's Corner"
For "back issues" toward the bottom of the page is the "Content Library" where all H-Grams are listed -

Also NHHC's website - and Blog  "The Sextant" - have a lot more content (and a lot more pictures) on significant historical events.

Very respectfully,


Samuel J. Cox
RADM, USN (Retired)
Director of Naval History
Curator of the Navy
Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

S.J. Cox
18 Apr 17
Carrier vs. Carrier (Us vs. Them.)
     The greatest advantage the Japanese had in the first months of the war was the ability to quickly launch a massive multi-carrier coordinated and integrated strike package, under a single strike commander, and conduct a well-timed, coordinated, multi-axis attack on the target.  At the Battle of Midway, the Japanese launched a 108 plane strike from four carriers in seven minutes, formed up and enroute to the target (Midway Island) in 15 minutes, with a 107 planes in reserve to be launched against U.S. carriers should they be detected.  Japanese doctrine (like the U.S., frequently violated) called for each carrier to launch half its aircraft, that would form up into a single strike package under a single strike leader, while the other half of each carrier's air wing was held in reserve for contingency or to launch a second wave (as at Pearl Harbor.)  The U.S. could not remotely duplicate this feat, taking close to an hour to launch a similar size strike (90 aircraft) from two carriers that proceeded to the target (the Japanese carriers) in widely separated and uncoordinated groups.  Both the Japanese and the U.S. could spot about half their air group for a launch.  By integrating the aircraft from multiple carriers into one strike package, the Japanese could complete the launch and push to the target much faster than the U.S.  The Japanese could then re-spot the deck for a second wave, or to await updated contact information.  The American approach required the first half of the strike package to orbit and wait for the second half to be spotted and launched, and the second spot almost always had some complication that resulted in delay, and a serious fuel shortage amongst the aircraft from the first spot.
     U.S. doctrine (like the Japanese, frequently violated) called for each carrier and escorts to operate as an independent task force, and for each air group to launch their full complement of aircraft in an independent strike, that might be loosely coordinated in timing with another carrier air group.  The principle advantage of this approach was that it kept the enemy from finding (and destroying) all the carriers at once.  The major disadvantage was that it frequently resulted in uncoordinated strikes and diffused combat air patrol (fighter) defense.  The Japanese were even more fixated on the Mahanian principle of offense, and determined that massing their carriers into a single task force gave them the greatest offensive punch, and also allowed them to mass their fighters into a more coordinated defense.  Debate regarding which approach was better raged in both navies prior to the war.  The U.S. approach nearly cost the U.S. victory at Midway.  The Japanese approach significantly contributed to their defeat at Midway.
     In the Japanese Navy, a Carrier Division (two carriers) was a highly trained integrated tactical formation, unlike in the U.S. where a Carrier Division was mostly an administrative function.  CARDIV 1 (Akagi and Kaga), CARDIV 2 (Hiryu and Soryu), and CARDIV 5 (Shokaku and Zuikaku) constituted the Kido Butai (Mobile Striking Force.)  Each CARDIV could operate independently, but splitting a CARDIV (or crippling one of the two carriers) resulted in a severe degradation in combat capability, which is what happened at Coral Sea, and what prevented Zuikaku from participating at Midway. 
     U.S.: At the outbreak of WWII, the U.S. had seven aircraft carriers.  The Langley (CV-1) had been converted to a seaplane tender and was lost off Java in Feb 42 and is not counted.  Ranger (CV-4,) the first U.S. carrier built from the keel-up as a carrier, was not considered capable of operating as a front-line carrier against the Japanese, but did provide useful service in the Atlantic.  The Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) were converted battlecruiser hulls and had served in the Pacific since being commissioned in 1927.  Saratoga was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-6 in Jan 42 and was out-of-action until June 42, missing the battle of Midway, although significant parts of her air group did participate as replacements on board Yorktown.  Lexington was sunk on 8 May 1942 in the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The Wasp (CV-7) was a one-of-a-kind design (treaty-limited) that was not considered especially successful; she served in the Atlantic until Jul 1942 (including flying off British Spitfire fighters to assist in the defense of Malta)  before arriving off Guadalcanal to operate briefly before being torpedoed and sunk by Japanese submarine I-19 on 15 Sep 42.  The three Yorktown-class carriers (Yorktown (CV-5), Enterprise (CV-6), and Hornet (CV-8) were arguably the most-capable and best-designed of any carrier in any navy to that date.  Yorktown and the new Hornet were in the Atlantic at the start of the war and were brought around to the Pacific.  Yorktown was damaged at Coral Sea, quickly repaired, and then heavily damaged by Japanese dive bombers and torpedo bombers from the Japanese carrier Hiryu before being torpedoed and sunk by Japanese submarine I-168 at the Battle of Midway.  Hornet was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz in Oct 1942, while Enterprise survived the war as the most highly-decorated U.S. ship in history.  During WWII the U.S. commissioned 17 new Essex-class carriers, 9 new Independence-class light carriers (on converted light cruiser hulls) and over 100 smaller and much slower escort carriers; demonstrating a U.S. industrial shipbuilding capacity that the Japanese could not remotely match (in part, because of U.S. submarines sinking Japanese merchant ships carrying critical raw materials.) 
     Japan:  Japan began the war with 10 carriers, but only six were large "fleet" carriers comparable to the U.S. carriers, the others were a hodgepodge of medium and light carriers based on converted submarine tenders and other vessels, with limited capabilities.  Like the Lexington and Saratoga, the Akagi and Kaga were 1927/28 vintage converted battlecruiser (Akagi) and battleship (Kaga) hulls.  Like the Yorktown-class, the newer (late'30's vintage) Hiryu and Soryu were smaller than the converted carriers, but were very capable and very fast.  Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu were all sunk at the Battle of Midway.  The newest Japanese fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku were highly capable and the most successful Japanese carrier designs of the war; the Pearl Harbor strike was essentially the shakedown cruise for Zuikaku.  Both survived numerous battles before being sunk; Shokaku by U.S. submarine USS Cavalla (SS-244) at the Battle of the Philippine Sea (Jun 44) and Zuikaku by U.S. aircraft at the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Oct 44).  During the war, Japan only produced one large fleet carrier that made it into battle, the Taiho, sunk by U.S. submarine USS Albacore (SS-218) at the Battle of the Philippine Sea.  The Shinano, a conversion from the third huge Yamato-class battleship hull, was sunk by USS Archerfish (SS-311) in Nov 44 before she had even commenced sea-trials.  Several other fleet carriers were in various stages of (mostly suspended) completion when they were bombed, sunk or damaged by U.S. carrier aircraft in Japanese home ports in the last months of the war.
Carrier Air Groups (In the USN, Carrier Air Groups became Carrier Air Wings in 1963).
     U.S.:  USN carriers could generally carry more planes than Japanese carriers, and the USN was willing to keep numerous planes parked on the flight deck, so USN air groups were larger, with 60-70 aircraft.  In the first years of the war, USN air groups typically consisted of one fighter squadron (VF) of 18 F-4F Wildcats, one squadron (VT) of 12-18 TBD Devastator torpedo bombers, and two squadrons of SBD Dauntless dive bombers (16-21 aircraft each.)  One of the SBD squadrons was designated as a "Bombing" squadron (VB) and the other as a "Scouting" squadron (VS.)  In practice, there was little difference in the employment of the VB and VS squadrons; sometimes the VB would carry 1,000lb bombs (with shorter range) and the VS would carry 500lb bombs (with longer range) but both could do either.  The USN was generally fixated on the bombing capability and neglected scouting "ISR" capability (with significant negative effects in several battles) despite extensive exercise experience that showed that whichever carrier force found the other first had a decisive advantage.
    Initially, the numerical designation of each USN squadron matched the hull number of its parent carrier (torpedo squadron eight (VT-8) embarked on USS Hornet (CV-8) for example.)  An exception to this at Coral Sea was that the fighter squadron on Yorktown (CV-5) was VF-42 (the rest of the air group as VB-5, VS-5 and VT-5.)  The system began to further fall apart at Midway, when some Saratoga (CV-3) squadrons replaced battle-attrited Yorktown squadrons (VT-3 replaced VT-5 and operated off Yorktown (CV-5) at Midway for example.)  Air Groups were known by their parent carrier (e.g. "Enterprise Air Group") until later in 1942 when a number corresponding to the parent carrier was implemented (CAG 6 embarked on USS Enterprise (CV-6) for example.)  The whole system got too complicated and was abandoned during the war; air groups and squadrons thereafter retained their number regardless of which carrier they were embarked on.
     Japan.  Although Japanese carriers had two hangar decks (an upper and a lower), the Japanese did not keep planes parked on the flight deck as the U.S. did.  As a result, Japanese air groups were smaller, roughly 50-60 operational aircraft.   A typical Japanese carrier would carry 18 Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 fighters  (code-named "Zeke" but usually referred to as "Zero"), 21 Aichi D3A1 Type 99 "Val" dive bombers and 21 Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 "Kate" torpedo bombers, which could also be used as high-altitude horizontal bombers.  (The "Type XX" referred to the imperial calendar year in which the aircraft was introduced.  The "Zero" (actually "00") derived from imperial year 2600, which corresponded to 1940.)
      The basic unit of Japanese naval aviation organization was a three-plane "shotai" and nine-plane "chutai."  A Japanese rough equivalent to a "squadron" would generally consist of some multiple of three/nine, such as 18, 21, 27 aircraft.  Unlike U.S. air groups, Japanese air groups and associated maintenance personnel, were all integral "ship's company." The Japanese did not have the capability to rapidly shift groups or squadrons from carrier to carrier such as the U.S. did just before Midway, by putting squadrons from the Saratoga (left on the beach in Hawaii after she was torpedoed) onto the Yorktown, to replace and/or supplement losses incurred by Yorktown's squadrons at Coral Sea.  By contrast, even though the Zuikaku was undamaged at Coral Sea, the Japanese were unable to "cross-deck" and combine remnants of Shokaku and Zuikaku's air wings into an effective force in time for the Battle of Midway, so the undamaged Zuikaku missed Midway too because she could not reconstitute an air wing in time (although a case could be made that the over-confident Japanese didn't try hard enough to do so).  Also, although combat losses in the months after Pearl Harbor were low, operational attrition was already outstripping Japanese ability to replace aircraft.  So at the Battle of the Coral Sea, all Japanese carriers had fewer embarked aircraft than their maximum complement.  The same was true at Midway, but compensated by additional Zeros that had been embarked intended to be ferried to and flown from Midway after the Japanese captured it, according to the Japanese plan.  The Japanese were even more fixated on bombing instead of scouting than the U.S., preferring to leave the "search" mission to catapult-launched float planes from cruisers and battleships, and long-range flying boats, as much as possible.  Using carrier aircraft to conduct searches was viewed as a "waste" of an attack asset, even though the Japanese too clearly understood that whichever side found the other first would almost always "win" the exercise.  Like the U.S., the Japanese frequently paid for their inadequate attention to "ISR," dearly at Coral Sea and Midway
Plane vs. Plane.
     Fighters:  The F-4F Wildcat was significantly inferior to the Japanese Zero fighter in terms of maneuverability, dogfighting capability, and range.  Wildcats that attempted to "mix-it-up" with Zeroes usually met a quick end.  However the Wildcat had more powerful armament, more armor, self-sealing gas tanks, much better radio, and could withstand a lot more punishment than a Zero, which tended to turn into a flaming torch when hit with a few rounds.  With the right tactics (stressing teamwork and diving one-pass hit-and-run) and experienced pilots, Wildcats could make it an even fight.  If the Wildcats could get through the Zeros (or better yet, avoid them) they were quite capable of downing numerous Japanese dive and torpedo bombers.
     Torpedo Bombers:  At the start of the war, both U.S. and Japan viewed torpedoes as the true ship-killers (correctly.)  When the TBD Devastator entered the fleet in 1937 it was the most advanced, state-of-the-art carrier bomber in the world.  By 1942, it had been surpassed in capability by the much better Japanese B5N2 "Kate."  Comparison between the TBD and the Kate is somewhat meaningless since they didn't fight each other.  How they stood up to enemy defenses, particularly fighters, is what mattered.  The Kate was faster, and had a much better torpedo that could be dropped from higher altitude and at faster speed than the TBD, which gave it a significant survivability advantage.  However, if Wildcats could make the intercept, Kates would go down in flames even more readily than a TBD.  The most critical weakness of the TBD was its torpedo, which required the TBD to fly even slower than the TBD's too-slow maximum speed, and to fly so low that the TBD could not maneuver, and the torpedo was so slow (35kts) that most target ships could easily outrun it.  Faced with a torpedo attack, Japanese carriers would generally turn away at high speed, forcing the torpedo planes to make a very long run to get ahead of the carrier, providing much more time for the fighters to engage.  Like their sub and surface-launched counterparts, U.S. airdropped torpedoes frequently failed to detonate properly even when they hit the target.
    Dive Bombers: Both the SBD Dauntless and Val dive-bombers were great aircraft superbly suited to their mission.  The Val looked like a throw-back with fixed landing gear, but its performance approximated that of a SBD, but with longer range and smaller (but effective) payload.  The Val's lack of folding wings was one factor that constrained Japanese air group size.  Like the Wildcat, the SBD was a rugged aircraft that could absorb considerable punishment (which increased the vulnerability of attacking Zeros to defensive fire.)  The SBD was maneuverable enough that in some U.S. air wings it was used in an anti-torpedo bomber role (and anti-submarine role.)
     Anti-Aircraft Defense.  At the outset of WWII, U.S. carrier AAA defense was very poor.  Japanese carrier AAA defense was even worse.  Neither side had weapons that were effective against dive bombers, and only marginally effective against torpedo bombers.  In most cases, defensive weapons lacked the range to effectively engage the target aircraft before bomb or torpedo release.  At both Coral Sea and Midway, the vast majority of losses on both sides were due to enemy fighters (and running out of fuel).  Only a minimal number were lost to AAA fire.  By the time of Coral Sea and Midway, U.S. carriers and some cruisers were equipped with radar.  No Japanese ships had radar at either battle. Radar-directed fighter control was still in its infancy, but was used effectively by the U.S. in several instances, but was easily overwhelmed in a mass attack.  The U.S. kept cruisers and destroyer escorts in a circular formation close to the carrier to theoretically provide supporting AAA fire (later in the war, with better weapons, this worked well, but early in the war this generally only resulted in increased risk of collision once the carrier started maneuvering to avoid bombs and torpedoes, and Japanese aircraft easily found the gaps between ships.)  The Japanese, on the other hand, viewed radical maneuver as the best carrier defense against air attack (besides the fighters) and Japanese escorts would steer well clear to give the carrier plenty of sea room to maneuver.  Japanese escorts also didn't have enough AAA to defend themselves, let alone a carrier.  Also, because of lack of radar, Japanese escorts were stationed farther from the carrier, at the horizon, to provide visual early warning of incoming raids.  Upon detecting a raid, the escort would fire its main battery to alert the airborne fighters to the direction of attack, since the few radios the Japanese had in their fighters were very unreliable.
     Damage Control: U.S. damage control was greatly superior to the Japanese, although many hard lessons were learned from the loss of the USS Lexington at Coral Sea (and from the disaster at Pearl Harbor for that matter).  In the years since, many Sailors have spent many hours chipping paint to prevent the buildup that fueled horrific fires on U.S. ships early in the war. The U.S. also incorporated lessons learned much faster than the Japanese.  As an example, at Midway, the Yorktown flooded her aviation fuel lines with inert CO2 gas, almost certainly sparing her the secondary explosions that doomed the Lexington at Coral Sea.  The Japanese learned the vulnerability of the aviation fuel lines on Shokaku at Coral Sea, but were able to save the ship, but then didn't pass the lessons on, contributing to the loss of four carriers at Midway.
    On Japanese carriers, damage control was the responsibility of a specially trained cadre of engineering personnel (who were frequently killed by initial and secondary explosions) and no one else had received training.  The result was that fires would be fought ineffectively by untrained crew with extraordinary valor and extremely high cost in lives.  The Japanese had also not developed the system of "damage control conditions" that the USN had (they had no equivalent to Yoke, Zebra, etc., nor did they have an effective "damage control central.")  A critical design weakness of the Japanese carriers was that their hangar bays were completely enclosed.  U.S. hangar bays had rolling partitions that could be opened to the weather, which enabled aircraft engines to be warmed up in the hangar bay; Japanese carriers had no such thing.  The Japanese also fueled their aircraft in the hangar bay, then took the aircraft to the flight deck to warm up (U.S. carriers fueled aircraft on the flight deck.)  As a result, an explosion in a Japanese hanger bay would be unable to easily vent out of the ship as on a U.S. carrier, and in combination with fueled aircraft would have devastating consequences, which proved to be the case at Midway.
     The theme that runs throughout the above was that the Japanese viewed "Offense" as the supreme virtue, and disdained "Defense" to their ultimate detriment.  It worked well for the first six months of the war, then proved catastrophic.
S.J. Cox
18 Apr 17
Battle of the Coral Sea
(See also summary in the H-Gram e-mail)
     The Battle of the Coral Sea did not occur by accident.  By early April 1942, Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, knew from intelligence that the Japanese intended to launch a major operation against Port Moresby New Guinea, which would constitute a serious threat to the northeast coast of Australia.  By April, Nimitz had gained substantial confidence in his intelligence organization.  During the course of the first months of the war, U.S. carriers had conducted multiple raids on the periphery of Japanese occupied ocean areas.  The raids were not conducted at random, but were based on intelligence that indicated Japanese carriers would not be present to oppose the raids.  The  raids had multiple purpose, besides a need to "do something" to attack the Japanese; they also provided useful combat experience for U.S. forces in a relatively low-risk environment (although Japanese land-based bombers nearly made that a bad assessment on several occasions), but each raid generated a flurry of Japanese communications (and communications security violations) that greatly helped U.S. Naval Intelligence break ever more of the Japanese naval operating code and to more accurately refine communications "traffic analysis" capability.  As a result, by mid- April, ADM Nimitz had a good idea of the Japanese plan, the forces committed, and the timing.  Nimitz wanted to commit all four operational carriers (Lexington, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet – Saratoga was still in repair after being torpedoed by a submarine) but Enterprise and Hornet were already committed by Washington to the Doolittle Raid, and although they attempted to get to the battle area, were unable to do so in time.  Although Nimitz didn't fully realize it, given the capability of Japanese Naval Aviation, committing two U.S. carriers against two-three Japanese carriers was quite audacious.  Nevertheless, as at the subsequent Battle of Midway, the U.S. carriers at Coral Sea would theoretically have the advantage of surprise, thanks to Intelligence, but that advantage would be squandered.
     On the Japanese side, the Port Moresby Operation (Operation "MO") was the result of a messy compromise.  By early March 1942, with the exception of isolated U.S. forces valiantly holding out on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island in the Philippines, the Japanese had achieved all their pre-war objectives, over three months ahead of schedule.  What to do next resulted in massive infighting between the Japanese Army and Navy and also internal to the Navy.  The Japanese Army, tied down in its endless war on the mainland of China, and prudently keeping a very large force in Manchuria (after they had suffered a couple nasty defeats in clashes with Soviet forces in 1939) did not want to commit any of its 2,000,000 or so men to capturing any more islands in the Pacific, and they especially did not want any part of trying to invade Hawaii (which the Army viewed, probably rightly, as a high cost loser).
     The Japanese Navy General Staff wanted to exploit their success; some planners wanted to capture Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and hopefully provoke an uprising against the British in India (then a British Crown Colony) while others wanted to drive across the Pacific to Fiji and Samoa, to cut the lines of communication to Australia, and still others wanted to capture the Aleutian Islands to prevent them from being used by long-range U.S. bombers against the mainland of Japan.  ADM Yamamoto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, believed that the primary objective at this point should be to draw out and defeat the U.S. Navy carriers.  Even before the Doolittle Raid, Yamamoto had decided that Midway Island was the place to spring a trap on the U.S. carriers, and the Raid only hardened his resolve and enabled him to beat down Army and Navy General Staff resistance.  When all the dust settled, Yamamoto had with great reluctance approved splitting his carrier force ("Kido Butai") and sending CARDIV 5 (Shokaku and Zuikaku) to support an amphibious assault on Port Moresby, New Guinea in early May (which the Army had very reluctantly agreed to support), with the intent that CARDIV 5 return to participate in the Midway Operation in early June.  After Port Moresby was captured, and after the U.S. carriers were defeated at Midway, and the Aleutians taken in an operation concurrent with Midway, then the Japanese Navy intended to drive across the south Pacific.  The problem was that there was no margin for error if the Port Moresby operation went bad for any reason, which it did, because of the unexpected opposition from U.S. carriers.  Also, although the Shokaku and Zuikaku were the newest Japanese carriers, their air wings were the least experienced and viewed by the rest of the Kido Butai as the Japanese term for "B team" and Yamamoto may have felt they needed some additional practice.  Nevertheless, both carriers were very experienced, formidable and capable foes.
      As Task Force 11 (Lexington) and Task Force 17 (Yorktown) under overall command of RADM Frank "Jack" Fletcher waited in the Coral Sea for the Japanese invasion force to commence operations against Port Moresby, the Japanese sent a small force to capture Tulagi and Gavutu Islands and establish a seaplane reconnaissance base across the sound from Guadalcanal (a name which at the time meant nothing to anyone.)  Thinking Lexington was still engaged in refueling (she wasn't, but radio silence was affecting U.S. command and control), Fletcher took Yorktown north and attacked the Japanese landing force on 4 May 42, catching it without air cover and essentially defenseless.  In three waves over the course of the day, including 76 dive bomber sorties and 23 torpedo bomber sorties from Yorktown, U.S. pilots continued a trend observed in earlier raids of grossly overestimating the size, type, and number of Japanese ships present, as well as the number damaged and sunk, claiming several cruisers sunk (no cruisers were present) and several destroyers (one was present.)  The actual result of a huge expenditure of ordnance was that one Japanese destroyer was damaged and later beached, three small minesweepers and four landing barges sunk, and probably most importantly, all five H6K4 Type 97 "Mavis" flying boats present were destroyed, which adversely affected Japanese search capability at a critical point. The Japanese carriers, operating in radio silence as well, north of the Solomon Islands, were engaged in refueling and could not react fast enough to launch a counter-strike on the Yorktown; they were, however, alerted to the presence of at least one U.S. carrier.
      On the 5 and 6th of May, both U.S. and Japanese carrier forces tried to locate each other without success.  Expecting the Japanese carriers to be supporting the invasion force that would have to round the eastern tip of New Guinea, U.S. carrier aircraft concentrated searches to the northwest, to no avail.  Meanwhile, the Japanese carriers had rounded the eastern side of the Solomons Islands and entered the Coral Sea from the east, unbeknownst to the U.S.  Although Intelligence had provided a good strategic situation to Fletcher, Japanese tactical communications security was superb (Fletcher also didn't trust his own radio intelligence capability even when it was accurate.)  However, Japanese commander RADM Takagi, believing he was in position to surprise and trap the Americans (and he was) opted not to use his own carrier aircraft initially for search (so as not to give away his presence) relying on long range land-based and flying boat reconnaissance, much of which had been significantly depleted at Tulagi, and one was shot down by a Wildcat fighter.  Fletcher was not helped by inaccurate reports from General MacArthur's aircraft flying out of Australia that reported multiple carriers in company with the invasion force (and a lot else that wasn't there.)  The brand-new Japanese light carrier Shoho (18 operational aircraft) was in the vicinity of the invasion force, which confused matters.  The result was that both commanders had lost situational awareness by 7 May. 
     RADM Fletcher made one of his most controversial decisions of the battle early in the morning on 7 May by detaching TG-17.3, under the command of RADM Crace, Royal Navy (consisting of the Australian cruisers HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart, the U.S. heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29), two U.S. destroyers, plus an additional attached U.S. destroyer.)  The heavy cruisers Minneapolis (CA-36), New Orleans (CA-32,) Astoria (CA-34,) Chester (CA-27), and Portland (CA-33,) and nine destroyers remained with TF 17.  Crace's mission was take his ships toward New Guinea and block the Japanese invasion force, which was covered by four heavy cruisers and other escorts.  This action removed about a third of TF-17's escorts (and a third of its AAA defenses, which were not very effective to begin with) and without air cover, Crace's force was potentially vulnerable to the 40 or so Japanese land-based bombers operating out of Rabaul.  It is believed that Fletcher based his decision on pre-war exercises experience, during which opposing carrier forces usually neutralized each other very early in the "battle" leaving surface ships to accomplish the mission, in this case, preventing the invasion of Port Moresby.  In fact, Crace's force was attacked later in the afternoon by two waves (about 30 aircraft total) of land-based twin-engine "Nell" bombers, in one of the more dismal performances in Japanese aviation history.  The first wave of 12 Nells attempted a torpedo attack; five were shot down and no torpedoes hit.  The second wave contented itself with a high altitude level bombing attack, with the usual results for that kind of attack, nothing.  Displaying even worse ship recognition skills than U.S. pilots, the Japanese claimed to have sunk a California-class battleship, an Augusta-class cruiser, and damaged a Warspite (British)-class battleship, none of which were even remotely present.  In reality, Crace's ships dodged over a hundred bombs with no hits due to skillful ship handling, although there were seven casualties on Chicago resulting from a strafing attack.  Crace's ships were then attacked by three U.S. Army Air Force B-26 bombers from Australia; fortunately their bombing proficiency was even worse than the Japanese.  Crace termed the B-26's accuracy as "disgraceful" (and a good thing for him.)
      At dawn on 7 May, neither the U.S. carrier force nor the Japanese carrier force knew where the other was, and both were searching in the wrong directions (in effect, both forces had gotten "behind" the other).  Giving up on land-based reconnaissance, the Japanese launched carrier aircraft to search.  A Japanese plane misidentified the oiler USS Neosho (operating well "behind" the U.S. carriers) as a carrier, and her escort, the USS Sims (DD-402) as a cruiser.  RADM Takagi (a surface officer, and victor in the Battle of the Java Sea in Feb 42) turned over tactical command to RADM Chuichi Hara (an aviator) who immediately launched a full strike from both carriers (not standard Japanese doctrine – which was to launch half from each carrier, with the second half from each carrier for reserve/contingency) at what he thought was a U.S. carrier.  A 78 plane strike (18 fighters, 24 torpedo bombers, and 36 dive bombers) rolled in on the luckless Neosho and Sims.  The Japanese strike commander astutely recognized the error and diverted his torpedo bombers onto a fruitless search (but at least didn't waste torpedoes.)  Four Val dive bombers hit the Sims with three bombs, which sank quickly with high loss of life; the rest pummeled the Neosho with seven hits and 15 near misses.  Neither ship was able to radio a distress signal, so Fletcher remained clueless to the real location of the Japanese carriers.  Initially abandoned, Neosho refused to sink – half her crew was able to get back on board and valiantly fought to save the ship, until she finally had to be scuttled on 11 May.
      In the meantime, the U.S. carriers had combined into a single task force (17), with the carriers operating together instead of independently (in keeping with the tradition of the USN ignoring our own doctrine) on the advice of RADM Aubrey Fitch (an aviator) to whom Fletcher delegated tactical control during air operations.  An SBD dive bomber conducting a scout mission from Yorktown erroneously reported two carriers operating in the vicinity of the Japanese invasion force (the pilot used the codeword for carriers when he meant cruisers) in clear weather.  Based on that incorrect report, the U.S. launched a full strike from each carrier (93 aircraft total…50 from Lexington and 43 from Yorktown.)  Fletcher learned of the error after the launch, and opted not to attempt a recall (something that hadn't really been done before anyway) figuring that there were enough ships in the vicinity of the Japanese invasion force that there had to be something worth sinking, plus Fletcher still expected to find the Japanese carriers there anyway.
     At about 1040, Lexington's air group found the light carrier Shoho.  Fifty Lexington aircraft executed what was perhaps the best coordinated U.S. carrier attack of the entire war.  The dive bombers rolled in just ahead of the torpedo planes (the preferred sequence so that the dive bombers would draw fighters away from the more vulnerable torpedo planes and the bombs would disrupt Japanese AAA.)  Shoho was attempting to launch a strike with her limited assets against TF-17.  Shoho's combat air patrol (one Zero and two older A5M "Claude" fighters) gamely tried to disrupt the attack, succeeding in shooting down only one SDB after bomb release.   Nevertheless, despite her limited defensive capability, Shoho managed to dodge the first 13 bombs dropped.  Two bombs then hit and ignited massive fires.  Lexington's torpedo planes executed a near perfect "anvil" attack (from port and starboard bow, so that no matter which way the target turns a beam aspect is presented to one of the attacking sections.)  Nine torpedo hits were claimed (at least five did hit, which were fatal.)  At about 1125, Yorktown's air group arrived and pounded the already burning stem-to-stern, listing, dead-in-the-water and sinking Shoho with another 19 or so bombs, and somewhere between two and ten more torpedoes.  Not surprisingly, Shoho sank quickly with heavy loss of (203 of 834 survived).  Meanwhile, none of the other Japanese cruisers, destroyers and transports in the vicinity were scratched (some of which inflicted severe losses on U.S. ships in the later Solomons Islands camaign.)
     Given the number of U.S. carrier aircraft that attacked the Shoho, RADM Takagi was able to deduce that two U.S. carriers were involved as well as their approximate location.  In a gamble that would have gone done in history as a brilliant move, had it worked, Takagi ordered a dusk attack on the American carriers, knowing that it would require night recovery in deteriorating weather on his carriers, something that neither Navy did on purpose except rarely.  The dangerous mission consisted of volunteers from among the very best Japanese pilots in 15 torpedo bombers and 12 dive bombers.  The strike overflew the U.S. carriers, hidden below the clouds.  After jettisoning their ordnance, and transiting back toward their carrier, one flight of Japanese aircraft was detected by radar from the U.S. carriers, and with just enough light left, was ambushed by Wildcats out of the undercast; six torpedo bombers and one dive bomber were shot down at a cost of three Wildcats.  The loss of the torpedo bombers would prove critical the next day.  The remainder of the Japanese flight arrived over the U.S. carriers in darkness, mistook them for their own carriers, and attempted to recover on the Yorktown.  One was shot down on approach (the ultimate "wave off") and the others got the message.  At the time the U.S. and Japanese carriers were about 40-60 miles apart.  Eighteen of the 27 Japanese planes managed to recover on their own carriers.
     The 8th of May, 1942 played out just like numerous pre-war fleet exercises in both navies.  Both sides' airborne scouts found each other about the same time, both sides attacked each other about the same time, and both sides effectively neutralized each other's carriers about the same time.  Unlike the pre-war exercises, however, there was no Battle Fleet to clean up afterwards (the Japanese hadn't brought any battleships either.)
     At dawn on 8 May 1942, TF17, the Lexington and Yorktown, with 117 operational aircraft (31 fighters, 65 dive bombers, and 21 torpedo bombers) faced off against Carrier Division 5, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, with 96 operational aircraft (38 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 25 torpedo bombers.)  Although the U.S. had numerical superiority, the weather favored the Japanese, as a front moved over the Japanese carriers hiding them under clouds, while the U.S. carriers were under mostly clear skies.
     Japanese search aircraft launched at 0615.  U.S. search aircraft launched at 0635.  Yorktown's radar gained first contact on a Japanese scout but the Wildcats missed the intercept, and the scout issued a contact report on two U.S. carriers at 0822, confirmed by radio intelligence on both Yorktown and Lexington.  At 0820, a U.S. SBD scout located and reported the Japanese carriers.  The U.S. launched first at 0900, with 39 Yorktown aircraft (six fighters, 24 dive bombers and nine torpedo bombers.)  At 0907, Lexington began launching 36 aircraft (nine fighters, 15 dive bombers, and 12 torpedo bombers.)  The two air-groups proceeded independently to the target.  Shortly after, Shokaku and Zuikaku launched a 69-plane strike (18 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 18 torpedo bombers) in a single integrated strike package which pushed at 0930.  At 1100, Yorktown dive bombers commenced their attack on the Shokaku.  Zuikaku ducked under clouds and was not seen by any attacking aircraft.   Lexington's aircraft would arrive at the target about 30 minutes later.  At about 1115, the combined Japanese strike commenced its attack on both Yorktown and Lexington simultaneously.
     At 1100, seven VS-5 (Yorktown) SBD Dauntless dive bombers attacked the Shokaku; harassed by Japanese fighters, all seven missed due to fogged windscreens and bombsights.  At 1103, 17 VB-5 SBD's attacked the Shokaku with multiple misses due to the fogging problem.  One bomb hit almost at the bow and started a fire.  A second bomb, dropped by LT John Powers, at the cost of his own and his gunner's lives, hit near the island and started severe fires on the flight deck and in the hanger deck.  Shokaku was unable to operate aircraft for the remainder of the battle due to this hit (Powers would be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor).  As VB-5 concluded its attack, the nine TBD torpedo bombers of VT-5 commenced their attack.  Fighter escort kept the Zeros off the TBD's, but Shokaku, despite burning furiously, was able to avoid or outrun all the torpedoes.  At 1130 part of Lexington's air group arrived over the Shokaku, but the remainder could not find the target due to the deteriorating weather.  Four of Lexington's command group dive bombers scored one hit on Shokaku.  Eleven Lexington (VT-2) torpedo planes attacked Shokaku but no torpedoes hit.  Two Lexington Wildcats were shot down while successfully protecting the torpedo bombers from Japanese fighters.  The final tally; Shokaku was hit by three bombs, and unable to operate aircraft but still able to make 30Kts on her own.  The cost to the U.S. was two SBD Dauntless and three Wildcats. An additional Wildcat and two SBD's (including the Lexington air group commander, Commander William Ault) disappeared returning to the carrier.
     Meanwhile, fully expecting to be attacked, TF-17 launched a heavy CAP of 8 Wildcats and 18 SBDs (in an anti-torpedo plane role.)  Upon radar detection of the inbound Japanese strike, nine more Wildcats and five more SBD's were launched.  It did little good, despite radar fighter direction.  The Japanese torpedo bombers escaped in the clouds, and the dive bombers were not intercepted until they began commencing dives.  LTjg William E. Hall, flying a Lexington SBD Dauntless dive bomber in an anti-torpedo bomber role was credited with downing three Japanese aircraft, despite being severely wounded, for which he was awarded a Medal of Honor. However, with only three of 18 Kate torpedo bombers shot down, nine attacked the Lexington and four went after the Yorktown (this is where the loss of torpedo bombers the previous night would prove crucial.)  The four that attacked the Yorktown all missed and two were shot down.  The nine other torpedo bombers executed a doctrinal anvil attack on Lexington, which avoided the first five torpedoes but could not avoid the four coming from a different direction; two went under without exploding and two hit.  The first torpedo hit was fatal, although it would take several hours before that would become apparent.  Among other damage, the port aviation fuel tank was cracked, and volatile gasoline vapors began to seep throughout the ship.
     Nineteen Val dive bombers then attacked Lexington and 14 attacked Yorktown.  Zeros successfully defended the dive bombers, so all 33 dropped on target.  Perhaps unfairly justifying CARDIV 5's "B-team" status, just three direct hits were scored, along with numerous near misses (although that matched the U.S. total on Shokaku– At Midway, Hiryu's A-team scored three serious hits and two damaging near misses on Yorktown with only seven dive bombers.)  Two bombs hit Lexington, which caused minimal damage.  One bomb hit Yorktown, which penetrated deep in the ship, causing significant damage, but Yorktown was quickly able to resume flight operations (this damage was repaired in time for Yorktown to participate in the battle at Midway; had she been hit by a torpedo, that would not have been the case.)   LT Milton Ernest Rickets was officer-in-charge of the Engineer Repair Party, which was decimated by the bomb.  Despite being mortally wounded, Rickets immediately manhandled a hose and prevented the spread of the fire before "dropping dead beside the hose," for which he was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor, and directly contributed to Yorktown's presence at the subsequent Battle of Midway.
     The Japanese lost five dive bombers and eight torpedo planes in the attack on the Lexington and Yorktown; however damage was extensive and seven more were forced to ditch on the way back to the Zuikaku, and another 12 had to be pushed over the side due to damage and as Zuikaku struggled to take aboard the remains of both Zuikaku and Shokaku's air groups.  Yorktown fighters, returning from the strike on Shokaku, shot down two more Japanese aircraft returning from the strike on the U.S. carriers; one was the Shokaku's air group commander, and the other was the pilot who had first located the U.S. carriers, and dodged U.S. fighters for over two hours, providing a steady stream of accurate positional reporting in probably the best scouting mission by either side in the war.  The U.S. lost three Wildcats and five SBD's defending the carriers.
     At first it appeared that the U.S. carriers had gotten off surprisingly light from the Japanese air attack.  However at 1247, the gasoline vapors seeping through Lexington were ignited when they reached motor generators, resulting in a massive explosion.  The fires quickly got out of control as numerous lesser and two more major explosions devastated the ship throughout the afternoon.  At 1707 Captain Frederick "Ted" Sherman gave the order to abandon ship, and in what was arguably the most orderly and successful abandon ship in the history of the U.S. Navy, all personnel who were not killed in the air attack or the subsequent explosions were safely rescued.
     At the end of the day, Yorktown had only 12 SBD dive bombers and eight TBD torpedo bombers still operational, and only seven torpedoes left.  The situation was even worse on the Zuikaku; of 46 aircraft recovered on board, only nine were operational.  Since 6 May, the Japanese had lost about 69 aircraft from Shokaku and Zuikaku, along with Shoho's entire complement of 18 aircraft.  Over 1,000 Japanese had been killed, most on Shoho.  U.S. losses included 81 aircraft (including 35 that went down with the Lexington) and 543 dead aboard Lexington, Neosho and Sims.  Both Fletcher and Takagi decided that the best course of action was to clear out as fast as possible.  Takagi was blasted by Yamamoto for his decision and returned to the battle area (by then most of his embarked aircraft were repaired and operational) in a vain search.  Nimitz had not second-guessed Fletcher, and TF17 was long gone.  The Japanese attempt to invade Port Moresby was "postponed," never to be attempted again, at least by sea.
(There are numerous books on the Coral Sea, but one relatively recent one (2009) "The Coral Sea 1942," by Mark Stille, has exceptionally good graphics depicting each carrier attack, along with all the best photos of the battle, in a very concise but thorough text.)
The USS Lexington under attack
Shakaku  under attack

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