Have you ever stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier?
I have, just once, when I was about eight. My family visited Patriot’s Point in South Carolina where my uncle worked following his retirement from the U.S. Navy. He gave us the grand tour, finishing up (if memory serves true) on the flight deck of the USS Yorktown.
I didn’t like it.
The space was too wide, too open, and the deck was too high. (No, I wasn’t a particularly brave kid.)
I didn’t know at the time that I was standing on a Second World War ship that was named for another World War 2 air craft carrier, or that the first Yorktown was involved in one of the first US naval engagements of that war- The Battle of the Coral Sea.
Yes. It’s time!
Welcome to another installment of my blog’s condensed history of the Second World War! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Time to sift through the notes to see where I left off…
AH! We pick up in early 1942, as U.S. troops deploy across the Atlantic to support their British allies. Others, the few remnants of uncaptured troops on the Philipines, defend Corregidor Island against relentless Japanese assault.
Since being caught unprepared by the surprise Japanese attacks of December 7, 1941, U.S. Naval Intelligence had been scrambling.
Shock and embarrassment galvanized efforts of people like cryptanalyst Commander Joseph Rochefort and Admiral Nimitz’s chief intelligence officer Captain Edwin Leyton. They struggled to break the Japanese naval code.
In late April, they sent word that they’d discovered something.
Perhaps spurred on by the successful Doolittle Raid, Japan was preparing for a big push to expand their influence in the Pacific. It appeared that they would try to take Port Moresby, New Guinea, which would give them dominance of the Coral Sea.
Victory would give the Japanese a clear shot at Australia, as well as potentially cutting their supply lines with the U.S., crippling Allied efforts in the Pacific.
Admiral Nimitz sent the aircraft carriers USS Yorktown and USS Lexington along with several American and Australian cruisers to meet the threat.
Their intelligence was correct. Admiral Yamamoto had sent his own forces to the Coral Sea, including not two, but three carriers- the light carrier Shoho as well as the Shokaku and Zuikaku and other supporting vessels.
The stage was set for a new kind of naval battle.
With aircraft carriers as the main focus of each force, both U.S. and Japanese could launch attacks on each other while still out of sight. With planes to do the attacking, their ships mightn’t even fire on each other.
Of course, the planes would still need to be able to find opposing vessels.
While this may not sound hard in theory, poor weather conditions made it difficult, especially for the Japanese, who had no radar.
The opposing sides spent the 5th and 6th of May searching for each other. On the morning of the 6th, U.S. planes spotted the Shoho and sank her.
One down, two to go- but the two remaining were the big carriers.
Due to the weather on May 8th, U.S. planes had difficulty locating the Japanese carriers. When they did, the Zuikaku took refuge under low clouds and escaped. The Shokaku took three bomb hits and was temporarily put out of commission.
Meanwhile, Japanese planes had located the Yorktown and Lexington.
The Yorktown was hit, though not sunk.
The Lexington was not so fortunate. She was hit multiple times. The crew worked furiously to repair the ship and put out the fires. For a while, it appeared that they were succeeding.
Twelve minutes after their ship’s log reported that all of the fires below decks were put out, the following entry was logged*:
1247 [H]eavy explosion felt which vented up forward bomb elevator. Lost communication with central station.
More explosions shook the Lexington, systems failed and new fires blazed. In spite of all of the crew’s efforts, in the end she was abandoned an scuttled.
Thus the battle ended… and both sides claimed the victory.
The Japanese lost both the Shoho and more aircraft than the Americans. However, the loss of the Lexington was a blow to the U.S. forces in the Pacific. The Yorktown survived, but limped back to Pearl Harbor, trailing an oil slick.
Perhaps the best claim for American victory is the fact that the Japanese plans to invade Port Moresby were thwarted- for good, as it turned out.
However, the Japanese navy had other plans in the works. As new intelligence came in, Admiral Nimitz urged the workers repairing the Yorktown to hurry.
If his analysts were correct, she would be needed soon to defend Yamamoto’s next target. The only trouble was, they weren’t certain if it was going to be Midway Island, or Alaska’s Aleutian’s…
Many thanks for visiting!
*For another summary of these events AND a fascinating read of a portion of the log of the USS Lexington, HERE is a link to an excellent article from the US National Archives site. Also, HERE is a second article on the same site with pictures of the Lexington‘s sinking.
I also used the following sources to research this post:
Buell, Hal (editor). World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle. New York. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2002. Print.
Churchill, Winston S. The Hinge of Fate. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950. Print.
Hyslop, Stephen G. and Neil Kagan. Eyewitness to World War II. Washington, D.C. National Geographic.