70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea
May 8th, 1942
May 8th, 1942, marked the end of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first carrier vs. carrier battle, which took place between the United States and Japan over the course of five days. In April 2006, Naval History printed a revised account of the battle from John B. Lundstrom’s book, Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal. Lundstrom’s account focused on the many difficulties encountered by both sides in locating enemy forces, and described the sense of anxiety that pervaded American and Japanese leaders as they tried to determine where and to what degree they would eventually engage their opponents in a drawn-out battle that ended, at last, with the sinking of the Japanese carrier Shoho.
Sunset on 6 May 1942 drew the curtain on the last unalloyed strategic success Japan would enjoy in the Pacific war. A thrilled empire learned of the surrender of Corregidor and the end of organized resistance in the Philippines, the last of the original strategic objectives of the brilliantly conducted first operational phase. The Port Moresby (MO) Operation against the Allied base on the south coast of Papua comprised the first offensive of the second operational phase. Despite the earlier-than-anticipated appearance of a U.S. carrier in the Coral Sea and the embarrassing 4 May U.S. raid on Tulagi, Tokyo expected nothing less than complete victory.
Vice Admiral Inoue Shigeyoshi and his top subordinates laid out their battle plan for 7 May. That day the invasion convoy would approach the Louisiade Islands from the northeast, turn the corner at Deboyne Island, and cut south through Jomard Passage that evening for the final leg of the voyage to Port Moresby. Rear Admiral Goto Aritomo’s MO Main Force (four heavy cruisers, one light carrier with 18 planes, and one destroyer) drew up near the convoy for direct protection. Float planes from the cruisers and the new seaplane base at Deboyne would scour the waters adjacent to the Louisiades. Likewise, bombers from Rabaul and flying boats from Tulagi sought enemy forces south and east of the Louisiades. Inoue’s own carriers and land-based bombers would crush the opposition and open the way to Port Moresby. Vice Admiral Takagi Takeo, commanding MO Striking Force (two carriers with 111 operational planes, two heavy cruisers, and six destroyers), remained confident. On the sixth he pursued the U.S. carrier that surprised T ulagi but could not overtake it. The seventh would be different. At the same time, Base Air Force at Rabaul planned its own search-and-destroy mission of 12 torpedo-armed land attack planes, while 20 level bombers and a dozen fighters softened up Port Moresby. All the bases appeared to be covered.
For Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, closing the Louisiades from the southeast, the prospects of a major battle soon after dawn on 7 May also loomed large. Overnight Task Force (TF) 17 (two carriers with 128 operational planes, 7 heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, and 11 destroyers) hastened to take position at dawn 100 miles south of Rossel Island in the eastern Louisiades. His job was to prevent a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby and hopefully not lose his shirt in the process. Available long-range air support in Australia and at Port Moresby totaled 18 B-17 heavy bombers, 14 B-25 and 16 B-26 medium bombers, a halfdozen Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Hudson medium bombers, and a lone RAAF Catalina.
On the evening of 6 May, Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch, the new TF-17 air task group commander, issued orders for the Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) air groups (36 fighters, 70 dive bombers, and 22 torpedo bombers) for the seventh. As duty carrier, the Yorktown was to launch ten SBDs at “earliest dawn” to search 250 miles northwest to northeast (325° to 85°) in the direction of Bougainville. That offered evidence of the baleful influence of misleading radio intelligence from Pearl Harbor regarding the likely location of the enemy carriers. Fitch reserved half the fighters for combat air patrol and assigned the rest as strike escort. He also held back, certainly at the urging of Lexington commander Captain Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, seven Lex SBDs to fly antitorpedo-plane patrol instead of augmenting the attack. The strike was to be ready to leave at dawn.
On the evening of 6 May the search summary from ComSoWesPac appeared to confirm: Jomard Passage as the enemy’s route through the Louisiades. At 1530 planes had seen four transports and two destroyers off Deboyne and bound for Jomard. Earlier, other Australia-based aircraft reported additional forces, including a half-dozen transports, four or five cruisers, and six destroyers, north and northwest of Rossel. Around midnight South-West Pacific Area commander General Douglas MacArthur advised Fletcher that his B-17s struck out that morning against a carrier 40 miles southwest of Bougainville. That was the last word Fletcher received of enemy carriers on 6 May, and it certainly corresponded with his estimates based on radio intelligence. Allied aircraft were to shadow the force off Deboyne throughout the night and report positions every hour in plain language as they neared Jomard, but there is no evidence Fletcher was ever told which frequencies to monitor. After daylight on 7 May, three B-17s were to attack shipping at Deboyne and Woodlark Island, about 100 miles to the north, while three B-17s and eight B-26 medium bombers hit Jomard Passage.
Having configured TF-17 with two cruiser striking groups, Fletcher sought to use them independently to achieve his fundamental mission. Now with at least part of the invasion convoy about to traverse Jomard Passage, he perceived a golden opportunity for a separate surface attack. He selected Royal Navy Rear Admiral John G. Crace’s multinational Support Group (two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and two destroyers) for the Jomard mission and reinforced it with the destroyer Farragut (DD-348) from Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s Attack Group. At 0538 the Yorktown blinkered a message to Crace: “Proceed at daylight with your group to destroy enemy ships reported passing through Jomard Passage and threatening Moresby.” Fletcher clearly thought it unlikely that Crace would rejoin him until after the carriers exchanged blows, though he did expect to be nearby as the battle shifted closer to Port Moresby. Crace, in turn, determined 25 knots could see him off Jomard Passage by 1330, leaving five hours of daylight to plug the gap. He assembled his force, took course 315° at 25 knots, and disappeared to the northwest.
Fletcher’s decision to detach Crace has elicited much controversy. Fletcher explained to Commodore Richard W. Bates at the Naval War College that he feared the opposing carriers would quickly neutralize each other, just as in many prewar tactical exercises. Therefore he positioned a separate cruiser task group to repulse the Port Moresby invasion convoy, whether or not the U. S. flattops could intervene. Bates, in turn, raked him over the coals for exposing Crace’s Support Group without air cover and depriving TF-17 of its antiaircraft defense. Samuel Eliot Morison sarcastically dubbed the mission “Crace’s Chase” and claimed it served no useful purpose. If the Japanese carriers had won the main battle, he argued, they would have easily dealt with Crace, whereas a triumph by Fletcher would also have saved Port Moresby. Morison ignored the fact that carriers, even if not sunk or crippled, might have to withdraw because of battle damage or heavy plane losses. G. Hermon Gill, the official Australian naval historian, and British naval historian H. P. Willmott seconded the opinions of Bates and Morison.
Not everyone agreed with the critics. Crace himself fully supported the Jomard mission. In 1957 he acknowledged Morrison’s denunciation of dividing TF-17, but added, “Under the circumstances prevailing at the time, I am certain Fletcher was right and the advantage to be gained by possibly catching the Moresby Invasion Force in the Jomard Passage far outweighed that gained by increasing the Anti-Aircraft screen by the ships of my force.” In other words, Crace recognized that the distilled wisdom of a war’s worth of carrier combat was not the yardstick by which to fairly measure the pioneers. Commander Walter G. Schindler, TF-17 staff gunnery officer and antiaircraft expert, also deprecated the general ineffectiveness of ship antiaircraft fire in the early days of the war. He judged the Support Group’s contribution “a very minor consideration as far as AA [antiaircraft] protection was concerned,” and worried more about losing three destroyers from the TF-17 antisubmarine screen. Schindler heartily endorsed Fletcher’s decision to send Crace to Jomard Passage. “Had the Group made contact it might have well destroyed an important enemy force which couldn’t have had air protection.” That was a key factor in the original decision. It was believed that with TF-1 7 between the enemy carriers and Crace, every Japanese plane that could carry a torpedo or a bomb would be gunning for the U.S. carriers, not a cruiser group.
A half-hour before dawn on 7 May, Fletcher turned TF17 southeast into the brisk wind to launch the search. The ten Yorktown SBDs fanned out north and east. At 0625 Fletcher changed course to 025° at 15 knots. After the sun rose at 0645, he increased speed to 22 knots. Four Lexington fighters took off for combat air patrol, and six SBDs flew antitorpedo-plane patrol. At 0718 Fletcher turned north. During the morning search the tension in TF-17 was almost palpable, with strike planes poised on deck and pilots crowded in the ready rooms. All three enemy carriers could be within striking range. Victory hinged on getting the jump before the enemy could locate TF-17 and land his own blows.
First word from the search reached the Yorktown at 0735. Lieutenant Keith E. Taylor, VB-5 executive officer, radioed the sighting of two heavy cruisers northwest of Rossel and about 170 miles northwest of TF-17. A pair of cruisers was small-fry but perhaps indicated an enemy concentration in the neighborhood. At 0815 Fletcher hit the jackpot. Lieutenant John L. Nielsen, who flew the far western search sector, found two carriers and four heavy cruisers north of Misima, an island located northwest of Rossel and just east of Deboyne. This force steamed southeast at 18 to 20 knots, that is, almost directly toward TF-17. Fletcher logically assumed this was the Moresby Striking Force with the two big carriers of the 5th Carrier Division. Fitch could strike them.
At fully 225 miles northwest of TF-17, the target was perhaps 50 miles beyond the limited radius of the U.S. carrier fighters and torpedo planes. Yet if the enemy maintained course and speed, the distance would shrink to where they might just be able to accompany the dive bombers. Fletcher and Fitch bravely risked waiting an hour while closing the target in order to launch a full strike. This was despite evidence that Japanese search planes already glimpsed TF-1 7. Lieutenant Frank F. “Red” Gill, the Lexington fighter director officer (FDO), had discovered worrisome contacts soon after 0700. Shortly after 0833 both Lexington and Yorktown radars picked up a bogey 30 miles west. Gill dispatched combat air patrol fighters in “another heartbreaking” pursuit that the intruders evaded.
At 0915 Fitch finally released Sherman and Captain Elliott Buckmaster, the Yorktown‘s skipper, to attack “objective enemy CV.” With the estimated distance still 200 miles, Buckmaster asked whether the short-ranged torpedo planes and fighters should go. Fitch replied affirmative. If the enemy persisted in approaching TF-17 at the same reported course and speed, the strike should only need to fly 170 miles to reach the target. He counted on an average rate of advance of 15 knots to cut down the strike’s return leg. TF-17 swung southeast into the wind at 0926, and the first aircraft took off from the Lexington‘s huge deck load of 10 F4Fs, 28 SBDs, and 12 TBDs. After Fletcher himself got on the bullhorn to exhort the Yorktown fliers to get the carriers, Buckmaster followed suit at 0944, three minutes before the last Lex TBD waddled into the air. Twenty-five SBDs and ten TBDs comprised the first Yorktown deck load. Lieutenant Commander William O. Burch Jr., commanding officer of VS-5, again exercised general supervision of the Yorktown strike, while Schindler occupied the rear seat of a VS-5 SBD. The TBDs and SBDs left immediately, while the second deck load of eight escort F4Fs, departing at 1013, used their faster cruising speed to catch up. At 1024, after the Yorktown landed her search SBDs, Fletcher brought TF-17 all the way around to 2900 and rang up 23 knots. The skies gradually filled to half cloud cover, and worse weather was on the way.
Several new complications confronted Fletcher in close succession. At 0943 one of the senior TF-17 leaders reported, accurately as it turned out, that the “enemy has our position.” Who sent that message is not recorded, but the likeliest possibility is Fitch, using the findings of Lieutenant Commander Ranson Fullinwider’s radio intelligence unit in the Lexington. Although Red Gill, also in the Lexington, as well as FDO Lieutenant Commander Oscar Pederson in the Yorktown, strongly suspected the presence of snoopers based on radar, they had not been absolutely certain because no one had yet spotted one. Now Fletcher’s fear that the enemy had located TF-17 was confirmed. Everything depended on which side could hit harder.
The next problem arose at 1021 when the USS Neosho (AO-23), ostensibly out of harm’s way, radioed that three planes had bombed the Fueling Group some 325 miles southeast of TF-17. Fletcher later explained his concern that neither the oiler nor the destroyer Sims (DD-409) ever identified whether the planes were land-based bombers, carrier planes, or flying boats. Bates and others questioned that judgment, pointing out that the Neosho was some 750 miles from Rabaul, the nearest Japanese airfield, and thus supposedly out of range. Fletcher therefore should have realized the attackers must have come from a carrier. However, the critics failed to realize that the Fueling Group’s operating area fell within range of flying boats from Tulagi and Shortland. The Neosho‘s message mentioned only three enemy planes, although in fact her observers saw many more aircraft in the area. A mere trio could still mean flying boats. Fletcher’s puzzlement was legitimate, but also his own fault due to his serious misjudgment in keeping the Fueling Group within 700 miles of Tulagi.
Word of an air attack, source unknown, against the distant Fueling Group troubled Fletcher. What occurred simultaneously proved devastating. When Nielsen returned, he dropped a message on the Yorktown‘s flight deck stating that he had sighted four light cruisers and two destroyers. When asked, after he landed, about the two enemy carriers his astonished response was in effect: “What carriers?” Investigation established that Nielsen’s coding device was misaligned and wrongly enciphered the all-important message. The system was later discarded. According to Lieutenant Forrest R. Biard, head of the Yorktown‘s radio intelligence unit, Nielsen was immediately hauled up to flag plot to explain, whereupon an irate Fletcher, gesturing violently, supposedly yelled: “Young man, do you know what you have done? You have just cost the United States two carriers!” Nielsen subsequently recounted “catching hell” from someone. Yeoman Thomas Newsome, Fletcher’s combat talker, was also present in flag plot but recalled no dramatic outburst.
If Fletcher indeed lost his composure (and there is no independent confirmation), it was only briefly. At 1031 he relayed to Fitch the potentially disastrous news that the TF-17 strike had miscarried, having been directed to the wrong target. Other than Keith Taylor and Nielsen, the Yorktown search discovered no enemy ships. Thick clouds and squalls to the northeast and east rendered a thorough search impossible. Lieutenant (junior grade) Henry M. McDowell flying the 067° line to the northeast even turned back after only going 165 miles. Therefore Fletcher could not rule out enemy carriers hiding in the northeast quadrant, where in fact he originally thought they might be. He considered whether to recall the strike now well on its way to the objective or let it press on northwest in the hope it might find a worthy target. Avoiding possibly fatal hesitation, he correctly decided to let the planes continue.
While Fletcher still talked to Nielsen in flag plot, a vital message arrived that could partially redeem the situation. At 1022 air headquarters at Port Moresby radioed that 1 carrier, 10 transports, and 16 warships had been located only 30 miles south of the position Nielsen provided for the misidentified carrier force. Fletcher increased speed at 1041 to 25 knots on the course of 290° and probably wished he could, by sheer will alone, bridge the gap to direct his strike the planes. Hugely relieved they would at least have a chance to attack one carrier after all, he informed Fitch of the contact at 1045, and at 1053 transmitted a message in the clear to redirect the strike groups toward the new target. Fletcher shot his bolt and could do nothing more in the meantime but wait and hope. He did not know that Takagi, his deadliest opponent, faced the same dilemma after his dawn search also grossly misreported the identity of a target.
Daybreak on 7 May had found the eager MO Striking Force 275 miles southwest of Rossel and moving south. Rear Admiral Hara Chuichi, commander of the force’s 5th Carrier Division, personally believed the U.S. carrier force was no closer to the Louisiades than 400 miles. Hence beginning at 0600 a dozen carrier attack planes swept across the southwest quadrant to 250 miles. Unknown to Takagi and Hara, TF-17 was 210 miles west, much closer to Rossel than they suspected, and already too far north for their own search to encounter. At 0722 two searchers radioed exciting news that American ships lurked only 163 miles south of MO Striking Force. One enemy carrier, one cruiser, and three destroyers headed due north at 16 knots. Hara felt vindicated. The enemy was just where he thought. By 0815, 78 aircraft from the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku winged south to end the U.S. carrier threat to the MO Operation. As an added bonus, the searchers also reported an oiler and a heavy cruiser about 25 miles southeast of the main enemy force.
The happy scenario of Takagi and Hara quickly soured. By dawn virtually all of Goto’s MO Attack Force–Rear Admiral Kajioka Sadamichi’s Port Moresby Invasion Force, his MO Main Force, and Rear Admiral Marumo Kuninori’s Support Force–converged in the Misima-Deboyne area north of Jomard Passage. Seaplanes from Marumo’s temporary base at Deboyne and from the heavy cruisers Furutaka and Kinugasa of the 6th Cruiser Division (temporarily operating east of the main body) combed the waters beyond the Louisiades. Allied planes were also active over the eastern Louisiades. To Goto’s consternation they made contact before his own searchers could report back. Three B-17s led by Captain Maurice C. Horgan left Port Moresby before sunrise for a search-attack mission toward Deboyne, where the invasion convoy might be expected to pass. At 0748 they sighted Japanese ships and carefully checked out the area. Below was the whole array of ships at and near Deboyne. As Fletcher later attested, Horgan’s sighting report, routed through Port Moresby, was of the highest importance. Shortly thereafter the B-17s bombed the seaplane tender Kamikawa Maru but caused only minor damage.
At 0750 Goto heard the alarming news of an enemy carrier plane seen snooping part of MO Main Force northwest of Rossel. That was Keith Taylor, who inspected the Furutaka and Kinugasa. With a U. S. carrier obviously nearby, Goto worried that a strike might follow. Soon afterward Nielsen showed up north of Misima. His unintentionally misleading message reporting two carriers and four heavy cruisers led Fletcher to unleash a full strike. Ironically Nielsen had in truth spotted a carrier force, namely the rest of Goto’s MO Main Force (Shoho, Aoba, Kako, and Sazanami), but never realized it. It is fascinating to contemplate what Fletcher might have done had Nielsen just reported the one carrier, perhaps just what he actually did. Goto’s own searchers offered more daunting news after 0820, when they came upon an American carrier, a battleship, two cruisers, and seven destroyers 80 miles south of Rossel. They shadowed the U.S. force and continued transmitting contact reports, some of which reached Takagi and Hara as well as others, including Fullinwider in the Lex.
Goto correctly decided on the basis of search reports that the enemy force south of the Louisiades had separated into two groups (Crace heading west and Fletcher moving northeast), but other Japanese commanders failed to perceive that key fact. Goto knew from radio traffic that MO Striking Force also found the enemy and was attacking. By 0900 he realized to his vast dismay that Takagi’s target was hundreds of miles farther southeast than the one that threatened MO Attack Force. Goto told Rear Admiral Kajioka, the invasion force commander, to retire temporarily north or northwest and girded his reunited MO Main Force for battle. For his own part Hara thought the enemy southern force that he was attacking was the stronger of the two, whereas Takagi desperately wanted to finish up in the south and hasten west to support Goto.
Takagi’s supposedly formidable southern enemy group was merely the unlucky Neosho and Sims, inexplicably magnified by inept searchers into a whole carrier task force. Hara’s strike sifted the target area after 0910, but found only the lowly oiler and its escorting “cruiser.” Captain John S. Phillips, in charge of the Fueling Group, thought at first the two search planes had come from TF-17, but after one rudely released a “bomb” (actually a target designator) he realized his error. Beginning at 0935 several high-flying Japanese formations passed overhead unaffected by a 5-inch gun barrage from the Sims. Lieutenant Commander Willford M. Hyman, her commanding officer, apparently radioed a contact report, but no one in TF-17 received the message. At 1005 three planes, wrongly supposed to be twin-engine bombers, broke off from yet another Japanese group seemingly for a horizontal bombing run that caused only near misses. Actually they were carrier attack planes lugging torpedoes, and again the “bombs” were target indicators. As noted before, the Neosho’s 1021 contact report mentioned only three aircraft, definitely not helpful to Fletcher. Phillips later censured his communications officer for not correctly dispatching contact and position reports.
At 1008 a Kinugasa float plane shadower alerted Goto that the Americans southeast of Rossel were launching a strike. The same searchers later noted the presence of one Saratoga (CV-3) -type carrier and another carrier, class not identified. That proved a sharp jolt to the Japanese, who had not anticipated facing such a formidable force so early in the MO Operation. Takagi finally got MO Striking Force pointed west at 1042. Watching the situation deteriorate, Inoue ordered his forces to concentrate against the enemy south of Rossel. At 1051 the original searchers from MO Striking Force belatedly confessed they had discovered only an oiler. Thus at 1100 Takagi recalled the strike. Lieutenant Commander Takahashi Kakuichi, the mission leader, required time to gather his scattered squadrons and start the fighters and torpedo planes northward. As soon as that was accomplished he led the 36 carrier bombers against the hapless Neosho and Sims. By 1148 their accurate divebombing sank the destroyer and left the mortally wounded oiler drifting without power. But by then Inoue had already lost a carrier.
As the situation simultaneously unraveled for both sides, Fletcher sought an accurate picture of Japanese tactical dispositions so he could decide what to do next. At 1059 Vice Admiral Herbert Leary summarized the SoWesPac air contact reports, based mainly on sightings of numerous transports, auxiliaries, and escorting warships starting around 0800 by Horgan’s B-17s. Those enemy ships all clustered in the vicinity of Deboyne. Fletcher’s big worry remained the actual whereabouts of the Japanese carriers and the immediate threat they posed to TF-17. For the next several hours until his strike groups returned, he was committed to his westerly course. Even after all the planes landed, an additional hour or more would be required to rearm and refuel them. Therefore TF-17 could not count on launching a second strike before 1400 at the very earliest.
At the same time Biard apparently deduced from fragmentary radio intercepts that the other two carriers prowled to the east and were the source of danger to the Neosho and Sims. Another bogey on the Yorktown’s radar at 1044 served as a reminder the Japanese continued to track TF-17. At 1100 the Yorktown combat air patrol shot down a Type 97 flying boat only six miles northeast of the task force. At 1126 the Yorktown launched the ten former search SBDs on antitorpedo-plane patrol. It is not known whether Fletcher ever contemplated sending them or the seven Lexington SBDs already on patrol to search for the enemy carriers. Given the low number of available fighters, Fitch obviously considered all 17 Dauntlesses essential to the defense of TF-17. The poor weather in the sectors where the enemy carriers were thought to be hiding also militated against another try to find them there.
First word from the strike groups reached TF-17 at 1145, when a Lex SBD pilot announced he was ditching at Rossel. At 1154 several ships in TF-17 (as well as in Crace’s Support Group) heard an unidentified voice exult on the attack radio frequency: “Boy we sure got that carrier good. How about the other one?” Welcome confirmation that a carrier indeed had sunk arrived at 1210, when Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon, the extremely able commanding officer of the Lex‘s VS-2, sang out, “Scratch one flattop signed Bob.” Fletcher’s run northwest toward the target lowered the return leg below 150 miles. Fletcher brought TF-17 around to the southeast into the wind for air operations. By 1316 the Lexington and Yorktown recovered 90 strike aircraft. Only three SBDs were missing.
Enthusiastic aviators described finding a task force northeast of Misima and sinking a carrier variously reported as “Koryu” or modified “Ryujo” class. A cruiser also rolled over and sank after a bomb hit or near miss. Fletcher called the two senior squadron commanders to the flag bridge to brief him and Buckmaster. Asked what he saw, Lieutenant Commander Joe Taylor, the skipper of VT-5, replied: “I’ll show you in a minute.” Fletcher countered sharply, “Come now, this is no time for joking.” Taylor was not kidding around. In a few minutes he produced photographs taken by one of the crewmen that presented a graphic portrait of the destruction of what was soon identified as the “Ryukaku” (Shoho). Taylor recalled that Fletcher and Buckmaster “jumped up and down like a couple of old grads when a last minute touchdown saved the day.” They “just threw their arms around Bill Burch and me and hugged us,” so. “excited and happy” were they. That afternoon Fletcher congratulated Fitch and his aviators for their “splendid performance. “
In the haste of getting the air groups ready to fight again, details of the attack only emerged slowly. After crossing over Tagula Island 20 miles west of Rossel, Commander Bill Ault’s Lexington group welcomed rapidly clearing skies. Around 1040, even before Fletcher attempted to redirect the strike groups to Horgan’s contact, the Lex flyers sighted ship wakes to the northeast beyond Misima. Drawing closer, they recognized a carrier in the midst of a cruiser force. Ault stalked the Shoho, which with the rest of Goto’s reunited MO Main Force covered the Port Moresby Invasion Force located off to the northwest. The Shoho was preparing a small torpedo strike of five carrier attack planes and three Zero fighters against the U.S. carriers being tracked southeast of Rossel. Only three Zeros flew combat air patrol and two Mitsubishi Type 96 carrier fighters handled antisubmarine patrol. Three more Zeros and two Type 96s were ready to relieve them.
Ault’s command section of three SBDs pushed over against the carrier at 1110, followed by the ten of Dixon’s VS-2. Adroit shiphandling caused all to miss the Shoho. She also sent three Zeros aloft to reinforce the defense. Nonetheless, the Shoho did not escape a devastating, wellcoordinated assault (one of the best of the war) by 15 VB-2 SBDs under Lieutenant Commander Weldon L. Hamilton and Lieutenant Commander James H. Brett’s 12 VT-2 TBDs. Two 1,000-pound bombs set the flight deck and hangers on fire, and five torpedo hits tore open the hull, dooming the ship. Trailing the Lex group by 15 minutes, Burch’s 25 Yorktown SBDs spotted the MO Main Force around 1100. Unlike Ault, he heard Fletcher’s message that relieved him of having to search for another carrier. Nearing the dive point while VT-2 made its attack, Burch saw only a “small” fire break out on the carrier and consequently at 1125 followed up the Lexington attack. The Yorktown SBDs scored 11 hits according to Japanese sources. Only Ensign Thomas W. Brown of VB5, the last SBD pilot to dive, elected to shift to another target. Schindler and other Yorktowners thought he hit a cruiser that capsized and sank, but the nimble Sazanami was undamaged.
There was no doubt about the carrier’s fate, particularly after the VT-5 TBDs piled on. They claimed hits by all ten torpedoes, and the Japanese confirmed at least two. The Shoho succumbed at 1135 with great loss of life. The eight Japanese fighters aloft shot down one VS-2 SBD and forced another to ditch at Rossel, but the 18 Wildcat escorts destroyed five of their number. Overkill was the only criticism that could be lodged against the TF-17 strike, after all the aircraft except two SBDs concentrated on the carrier. At least half the Yorktown SBDs and all of VT-5 should have diverted to other targets. That lapse could not overshadow the real triumph of annihilating the first major Japanese warship in the war.
The balance of MO Main Force fled north without even stopping to rescue survivors. From just over the horizon Kajioka’s Port Moresby Invasion Force heard the explosions that signaled the end of the Shoho. Kajioka kept withdrawing northwest. Once Inoue learned of the fiasco, he suspended the MO Operation until the enemy carrier force could be destroyed. At 1210 he directed the convoy to keep going north temporarily and mustered his forces to counterattack.