BATTLE OF THE CORAL SEA
FOUGHT OFF THE FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND COAST,
IN MAY 1942

 

During April 1942, there was evidence that the Japanese were planning to invade Port Moresby.  The Japanese air strength at Rabaul was reaching a peak. Because the Allied codebreakers were able to read most of the Japanese Naval radio traffic, Admiral Nimitz was well aware of the Japanese plans, he was able to request Admiral Frank Fletcher of the USS Lexington to make a high speed journey from Pearl Harbor in time to attack the Japanese Navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The Japanese operational plans called for six large aircraft carriers of the Japanese combined fleet to sail from Truk and head south of the Solomons and then west into the Coral Sea. Their role was to support and protect the invasion fleet headed for Port Moresby. 

This invasion fleet was to consist of 5,000 marines of the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces in 12 transports escorted by destroyers and cruisers with one light aircraft carrier to provide air cover. This amphibious assault was known as "Operation MO". They were scheduled to attack Port Moresby in the first week in May 1942. They were to assemble at Rabaul and sail down through the Louisade Archipelago around the eastern end of New Guinea and attack Port Moresby.

The role of the six aircraft carriers was to attack any Allied Naval forces trying to intercept the Japanese Invasion Fleet. Following the invasion of Port Moresby, the six aircraft carriers were due to head southwards to mount a massive 300 aircraft air-raid on Townsville.

On 18 April 1942 Colonel Doolittle launched his daring bombing raid on Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and Kyoto using B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from the decks of US aircraft carriers. In fact General Tojo was flying back to Tokyo at the time of Doolitle's daring raid and his aircraft had to take evasive action to avoid an unfamiliar brown twin-engined aircraft which the crew told a worried Tojo was a land-based American Mitchell bomber.

As a result of Doolittle's air raid, the Japanese changed their priorities in readiness for the invasion of Midway. The Japanese knew that the Americans only had four aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean. They knew that two of these carriers were used in Doolittle's raid on 18 April. Japanese intelligence knew that USS Lexington was in Pearl Harbor so that left only one aircraft carrier, the Yorktown in the South Pacific. 

Based on this they decided to downgrade the Combined Fleet support for the Port Moresby Invasion to just a Task Force support and at the same time the 300 aircraft air-raid on Townsville was removed from their plans. (Wheh!!!) The Japanese despatched only two aircraft carriers, Zaikaku and Shokaku, and the light carrier Shoho to support the invasion of Port Moresby. The rest of the Japanese fleet would make preparations for the invasion of Midway.

On 25 April 1942, General MacArthur sent a signal from Melbourne stating "Information indicates the assembly in the JAPANESE MANDATES of sea and air forces of at least three aircraft carriers and five 8-inch gun cruisers capable of striking in any direction"

Australian military commanders were anticipating a possible strike by carrier-borne aircraft along the coast between Brisbane and Townsville somewhere between 28 April and 3 May 1942 co-incident with an invasion landing near Port Moresby.

The 435th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group played an effective part in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Crews of this squadron had seen the Japanese fleet gathering in Rabaul area nearly two weeks before the battle actually took place. Because of the Reconnaissance activity of the 435th Bomb Squadron, the US Navy was prepared to cope adequately with the situation. The squadron was commended by the US Navy for its valuable assistance not only for its excellent reconnaissance work but for the part played in the battle.

The US Navy's Task Force 17 manoeuvred to intercept the Japanese fleet in the Coral Sea which led to the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Task Force 17, comprised the aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown and various other ships including a cruiser squadron under the command of Rear Admiral J. Crace RN. The cruiser squadron included HMAS Australia and HMAS Hobart. Rear Admiral F.J. Fletcher, USN ordered Crace's cruiser squadron to patrol the Jomard Passage at the eastern end of New Guinea. This occurred before the Battle of the Coral Sea had commenced. The Japanese Invasion Force learnt of the presence of Crace's cruiser squadron near the Jomard Passage and stopped their progress towards Port Moresby.

Ground forces along the Queensland coast and in the Port Moresby area were put on alert. The Australia Army's 42nd Battalion was responsible for patrolling the coast line near Townsville. They were part of a defence scheme for the Kyber Pass through which the northern rail line ran to Townsville. No one in the Battalion had yet been issued with ammunition. But, during the Battle of the Coral Sea, from 4th to 8th May 1942, they were each issued with 20 rounds of ammunition and sent to the coast near Alligator Creek, just south of Townsville, and told to fix bayonets and face out to sea.

In some north Queensland towns, trains were parked at railways sidings with their boilers at the ready, to evacuate school children in the event of an invasion.

The American naval forces intercepted the Japanese fleet on 4 May 1942 and after a long series of battles had driven them out of the Coral Sea by 9 May 1942 thus saving the Queensland coast and Port Moresby from possible invasions.

Planes from the American aircraft carriers sank the Japanese carrier, the Shoho, and seriously damaged the Shokaku.   The Americans lost the USS Lexington and two others ships.  The USS Yorktown was also badly damaged.  Although the Americans suffered greatly, it was considered a victory, as the Japanese fleet turned back to Rabaul due to a lack of adequate air defences.

The heavy volume of Japanese signals traffic during the Battle of the Coral Sea greatly assisted the allied cryptanalysts based in Townsville and other locations to learn more about the Japanese secret codes.

During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the 435th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group operated mostly out of Townsville. They flew missions on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 11th of May 1942.

On 6 May 1942, pilot Harry Spieth, co-pilot W. Fields and their crew of the 435th Bomb Squadron had spotted the Japanese fleet and they made a bombing run on an aircraft carrier. "Hotfoot" Harlow, who was in the same flight, bombed a Japanese heavy cruiser. Wilbur Beasley was also in the same flight. They received heavy anti-aircraft fire, but encountered very few fighter aircraft. The Japanese carrier-based fighter aircraft were too busy with the Allied Navy and their aircraft rather than get involved chasing high level bombers.

On 7 May 1942, nineteen B-17's from the 435th Bomb Squadron were returning from a bombing raid in New Guinea when they spotted what they thought was the Japanese fleet. They had just witnessed some other aircraft carrying out a low level attack on these ships. They assumed that these aircraft were the B-26 Marauders that had accompanied them on their mission. It turned out they were Japanese torpedo bombers which had just attacked HMAS Australia and the rest of the Allied Naval Task Force. Harry Spieth and his flight dropped their bombed on HMAS Australia which returned fire with its anti-aircraft guns.

During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the US radar station at Paluma manned by the 565th Signal Battalion tracked a target aircraft early one afternoon coming in from the ocean and crossing the coast about 30 miles north of Paluma. Later that night a few trucks stopped at their camp at Paluma. They were carrying the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress that had crashed somewhere to the west of Paluma. They fed the crew and left for Townsville accompanied by the 565th's doctor. The B-17 had been involved in operations associated with the Battle of the Coral Sea.

 


 

19th Bomb Group's Involvement in the Battle of the Coral Sea
Extracted from Turn of the Tide by E. Teats

From May 7 through May 12, every available plane was in the air almost continuously. No sooner would one mission be completed than the ships would be gassed, serviced, loaded with bombs and either sent out again or held on continuous alert waiting orders to hit a suitable target.

The chips were down. The Jap held some good cards -- good enough to encourage him in the belief that he could knock off Moresby, and get set to smash our vital supply line in the Southwest Pacific.

But we held a few good cards of our own. We didn’t know much about our naval dispositions, but we knew that the Navy was itching for a scrap out in the open, where the odds would not be too heavily against them and where the best man would win. Just as a foot-note to now well known history, the best man did win.

Several missions had been flown against the Japs and on May 8 reconnaissance reported 15 or 18 vessels gathered in a convoy and retreating to the northward, just north of the passage through the Louisiade Archipelago.

(The Louisiade Archipelago is the cluster of islands southeast of New Guinea which, geological are an extension of the Papuan Peninsula. Navy Department Communiqué 68, issued June 12, 1942, which comprised the final summary of the Coral Sea action, revealed that on May 7, the United States task force under Vice Admiral Frank V. Fletcher "hit the main body of the Japanese force in the Louisiade Archipelago off Misima." Misima is an island approximately 375 air miles south east of Port Moresby -- J.M.M.).

On May 7, group headquarters at Townsville called for two crews to replace the crews which had been flying missions or on alert since the first reports were received of the approaching Jap force. Lt, (now Captain) Charlie Hillhouse and I, with crews, were ordered in as replacements and I was assigned the lead plane of eight B-17s which were standing by loaded for business.

We took off immediately in two flights of three planes each and one flight of two, the latter mine. We were to find the Jap convoy and hit it before sunset, if possible. Two of the planes' were forced to turn back at take-off, because of engine trouble, so our three flights of two B-17s each headed off at full speed at five minute intervals.

Just about the time we spotted the second flight ahead of us, my bombardier, Lt Stone, reported a convoy ahead and then we saw the first black bursts of ack-ack at fairly high altitude quite a distance in front of us.

We were all flying at fairly high altitude-on about the same level. I didn't see the first flight until they had flown across the convoy of about six or eight troop or auxiliary vessels and eight or nine war ships, including cruisers and destroyers.

The second flight went in. We could see the convoy clearly. All ships were manoeuvring wildly in all directions, like an aggregation of excited water-bugs. We were too busy to observe what damage the bombs of the first and second flight had caused, other than to notice that no direct hits had been scored.

Watching the ack-ack ahead of us, I climbed a little higher, but just as Stone announced that he was ready to make his bombing run, and we turned on the course for his selected target, a string of heavy ack-ack started popping about a quarter of a mile ahead of us right on our level and right on our course. I immediately dropped several thousand feet, to mess up the Jap gunners range, and continued on course.

Neither before nor after have I seen such heavy and well placed anti-aircraft fire as those cruisers and destroyers threw at us. We could see the orange flashes as the ships batteries fired. Things grew hotter and hotter. The side gunner reported some close behind us, and then my wing man peeled off and took some distance because one burst was so close the side-gunner thought the plane had been hit.

The split-second the bombardier reported "bombs away," I made a sharp diving turn away to the left and at that same instant, the tail-gunner began to chatter excitedly through the inter-phone. On the turn, I saw a line of shell bursts on the level course we had just left, and later the tail gunner reported that one burst really had our name on it. If we had not turned when we did, someone else might be relating this story of the 19th Group but it wouldn't be me.

I knew that those Nip gunners were in the groove, and I also knew that they were getting close. The gunner reported that the bursts started about a mile behind and each one came a little closer, directly on our level. By his report, we evaded by a split second either a direct hit, or one just as bad. As we turned away, we noted one very near miss on a heavy cruiser but figuratively, I tipped my hat. It was beautiful anti-aircraft gunnery.

 


 

Coral Sea Battle by H. Hornbeck Navigator, 435th Squadron, 19th Bomb Group

23 April 1942
War was still new to us in April 1942. From the mainland of Australia out to the islands that in many necklace chains form the eastern, northern and western perimeter of Australia, ours was the only Heavy Bombardment Squadron flying against an encroaching enemy. On April 23rd, we bombed Rabaul Harbor sinking an unloading transport. In the days following there came a greater change in the balance of our lines. Enemy ships were on the move. This was to result in the Coral Sea Battle -- our first great naval victory and the 435th was to play a significant part. Down through the Solomons conquering, occupying the Japanese came till on May 3rd Tulagi, Australian seaplane base, fell. Our picture was one of an assembling Japanese Invasion Fleet 1,000 miles east from Australia across the Coral and Solomon seas. And, I thought they will come on for we alone have not the strength to stop them. We flew long range reconnaissance, saw and reported their convoys and movements. This was the key information on which our naval strategy must be planned.

6 May 1942 Port Moresby
At Port Moresby, New Guinea before dawn on May 6th, the crews of our squadron were awakened to a new cool night. The men were tense, the course food and bitter coffee did not set too well. Earlier, the night had been hot and sleep had not come easy to the perspiring men. But it had come now and the first striking force contacted a carrier and flanking war vessels, scoring a hit on a cruiser while at the same time another flight of the 435th's attacking another force hit a cargo ship. So it started. Returning planes were refuelled and fresh crews took them out. By the 7th the enemy was still in rendezvous and on their way to Port Morseby. But again sections of our Pacific Fleet struck.

The 7th was a Saturday and we returned long after dark. It had been a tough day- and flying at night is lonely. There are many elements to contend with besides the enemy and we were glad when we were back on the ground and momentarily secure. In the night and clouds, without radio aids, one plane failed to return from the long sea flight. Again the sleep troubled with scenes of invasion and destruction now come so close to a nation. Who can realize its monstrous significance. Surely not they who are concerned with dancing -- Ah! But this was Saturday night.

But averted it was, by the Navy and Army Air Corps. By the following day the enemy had turned back and far out on reconnaissance we saw below us two long slowly moving columns of transports, one burning fiercely, on a smooth and silver sea. It was sunset and we knew that for the moment we had seen the last of them, for in a few hours they would pass out of our bombing range and into the night. 

(end of available story)

 

Can anyone help me with more information?

 


 

The following information is from this site on the White House web page:-  http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/overview_fact_sheet.pdf

 

FACT SHEET ON NEW AUSTRALIA- UNITED STATES COOPERATION

Partnering in Commemorating the Battle of the Coral Sea

In recognition of the exceptional bravery and sacrifice exemplified by our sailors and airmen who fought together in the May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea, historically regarded as the start of U.S. - Australia military cooperation, Australia and the United States are to work together, in advance of the battle’s 70th anniversary in May 2012, to locate the wrecks of three U.S. warships (the USS Lexington, USS Neosho, and USS Sims) sunk in Australian waters during this pivotal two-day clash. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, a leader in archival research on historic naval battle records, is to provide expertise to identify these wrecks for formal designation as protected heritage resources under the laws of both nations. Australia and the United States will also continue to advance collaboration on marine and climate science in the Coral Sea and other areas.

 

USS Neosho and USS Sims Survivors
from the Battle of the Coral Sea
taken to US Army Hospital in Brisbane

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Karen Nunan for her assistance with this web page.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

Action Stations Coral Sea:  The Australian Commander's Story
C. D. Coulthart-Clark

Combat Narratives - The Battle of the Coral Sea
Consisting of the actions at Tulagi, May 4th; off Misima, May 7th; and in the Coral Sea on May 8th, 1942
Office of Naval Intelligence, U.S. Navy

 

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This page first produced 4 December 1998

This page last updated 13 March 2017