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Battle of Coral Sea Timeline

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 5/7/2014

The first carrier-versus-carrier duel ends as something of a mixed victory for the Empire of Japan.

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The Battle of Coral Sea was the first ever carrier-versus-carrier battle in the history of the world and would go on to prove the importance of such vessels for decades to come. Japan was set on a land invasion of Australia and needed the required staging outposts to make the invasion a success.


One of the first steps in the process was to severe the communication ties between Australia and the United States. This would involve the capture of Port Moresby, New Guinea. In April of 1942, The Japanese put Operation MO into action and landed amphibious forces at Tulagi in the Solomon island chain. The beachhead allowed for supplies and manpower to establish a foothold and provided a base of operations for Japanese reconnaissance seaplanes.


A main invasion force was set up to take Port Moresby itself. This would originate from Rabaul in New Britain and bring with it cover from two large aircraft carriers - the IJN Shokaku and the IJN Zuikaku. It was understood that the main invasion force would garner much of the attention of Allied spotters in the sky so the basic idea was for the carriers to double back and assault any Allied ship actions from the rear.


However, Allied codebreakers were hard at work deciphering the intercepted Japanese communications. Though not a perfect science, the garnered information usually allowed the Americans to make a good guess as to the expected Japanese actions of the day. Task Force 17 was sent into action and , with it, the American carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown.


Bad weather across May 5th and May 6th allowed neither attacking force to spot one another. After searches resumed on the 7th, misinformation led to some limited engagements for both sides, wrongly identifying aircraft carriers that were, in fact, other ship classes. The lesser Japanese carrier IJN Shoho - able to field just 21 aircraft - fell victim to the Americans by way of thirteen direct bomb hits, several torpedoes and a crashing SBD Dauntless (with the loss of its two-man crew). In turn, the American oiler Neosho was lost by way of a Japanese strike in actions prior.


On May 8th, the two opposing carrier groups spotted one another in full, each launching as many aircraft as they could muster. Shokaku was nailed twice by American dive-bombers of USS Yorktown and completely limited her aircraft-launch capacity for the duration of the battle. Yorktown was spotted by a 69-strong Japanese aerial force and hit with a bomb, damaging her but not taking her out of the fight.


USS Lexington was less fortunate. Japanese torpedo bombers zeroed in on her and hit her twice. Dive-bombers swooped in and added an additional two direct hits upon her structure, jamming her elevators in the raised position. However, her flightdeck had not sustained any damage and she - more or less - remained operationally potent. The direct hits did cause internal gas leaks that eventually ignited, generating fires that proved beyond control for the damage crews. For all intents and purposes, the USS Lexington was a loss. Much of her crew was rescued and relocated to waiting USN ships of the Task Force and her remaining aircraft found new homes on the damaged - but still functional - USS Yorktown. Lexington was abandoned, scuttled and eventually sunk by torpedo.


The Battle of Coral Sea, though technically a victory for Japan, was nonetheless a major setback to its plans for complete Pacific dominance. The invasion of Midway Island was the next pressing action for war machine but its two large carriers were now tied up in actions at Coral Sea action for the moment - proving decisive for the Battle of Midway to come.


While the USS Lexington proved a major Allied casualty, the Australian mainland was saved from invasion and any future prospect of similar Japanese actions in the area was nullified.


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There are a total of 21 the Battle of Coral Sea Timeline Events. Entries are listed below by date of occurrence.

1942
Sunday
May 3rd

Forces of the Imperial Japanese Army land at Tulagi of the Solomons island group. Subsequent develop ensures a base of operations for Japanese logistics in the region.

1942
Sunday
May 3rd

An Imperial Japanese Navy carrier force sets sail on patrol around the Solomons looking for American carrier battle groups.

1942
Sunday
May 3rd

American intelligence intercepts various Japanese communications and is able to piece together the intention to invade Port Moresby, New Guinea.

1942
Monday
May 4th

USS Yorktown launched strike aircraft south of Guadalcanal. At 6:30AM, the American Navy aircraft spot and subsequently target Japanese land emplacements and sea vessels in the area.

1942
Monday
May 4th

The Japanese invasion force leaves Rabaul, New Britain, heading towards Port Moresby, New Guinea.

1942
Wednesday
May 5th - May 6th

Foul weather limits detection of either carrier force across a two day span.

1942
Thursday
May 7th

Allied Task Force 44, headed by Royal Navy Rear-Admiral Crace, moves in to intercept the Japanese invasion force. However, the force is prematurely spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft resulting in a counter-assault of the Task Force by Japanese Navy warplanes. Crace and his force never make the intercept.

1942
Thursday
May 7th

The USS Neosho and the USS Sims are sunk by Japanese aircraft.

1942
Thursday
May 7th

The Allies spot the Japanese Covering Group escorting the invasion force.

1942
Thursday
May 7th

The USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown launch their attack planes and sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho in the process.

1942
Thursday
May 7th

The Japanese invasion of Port Moresby is called off.

1942
Friday
May 8th

The Japanese invasion force heads back to New Britain.

1942
Friday
May 8th

Some 27 Japanese aircraft are launched under the cover of darkness in the hopes of locating the Allied Task Force. They come up empty and only six aircraft return safely home.

1942
Friday
May 8th

Just past dawn, the Japanese and American carrier groups spot one another.

1942
Friday
May 8th

At 9:25AM, Japanese and American warplanes take to the skies.

1942
Friday
May 8th

At 11:40AM, US Navy warplanes manage to score devastating hits to the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku, severely damaging her.

1942
Friday
May 8th

At 2:47PM, the American carrier USS Lexington is hit by a Japanese torpedo, causing a major explosion in her generator room.

1942
Friday
May 8th

By 6:00PM that evening, nearly all of the USS Lexington's sailors have been rescued.

1942
Friday
May 8th

At 6:10PM, the USS Lexington is a complete loss. She is scuttled and sunk.

1942
Saturday
May 9th

Despite numbers against him, Japanese Vice-Admiral Takagi is ordered to send his warplanes aloft.

1942
Saturday
May 9th

The Japanese aircraft do not locate the American fleet and any further actions are called off, effectively ending the Battle of Coral Sea.