Share This Article

After securing the Dutch East Indies by early 1942, Japan sought a buffer zone between that resource-rich acquisition and Australia. Toward that end, Operation Mo was launched under the overall command of Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye.

Typically for the Japanese, it was a complex multipronged affair. One invasion force, commanded by Rear Adm. Kujohide Shima, occupied Tulagi in the Solomon Islands on May 3, 1942, while a 12-transport invasion force supported by the light carrier Shoho and commanded by Rear Adm. Sadamichi Kajioka headed south for Port Moresby, on the island of New Guinea. A third task force, centered around the fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and commanded by Vice Adm. Takeo Takagi, was to enter the Coral Sea and deal with any Allied ships that tried to interfere.

Forewarned of the Japanese plan by U.S. naval intelligence, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz had every intention of interfering, for which purpose he gathered all available units–Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch’s Task Force 11, centered around the carrier Lexington, and Task Force 17, built around the carrier Yorktown, whose commander, Rear Adm. Frank J. Fletcher, was put in overall command of the composite group.

What followed was a black comedy of mutual errors. On May 4, Yorktown launched an air raid on Tulagi that only succeeded in damaging the destroyer Kikuzuki, which foundered in the shallows. Shokaku and Zuikaku, which could have demolished Yorktown then and there, were away at Rabaul delivering nine aircraft.

No further contact was made between the antagonists until May 7, when scout aircraft from both sides misidentified two branch groups as the main carrier task forces and both sides launched large air strikes accordingly. In consequence, 70 Japanese planes sank the tanker Neosho and her escort, the destroyer Sims, while 93 American planes caught the light carrier Shoho north of Jomard Passage in the Louisiades and overwhelmed her in just 20 minutes.

“Scratch the flattop,” Lt. Cmdr. Robert Dixon reported gleefully to his comrades aboard the carrier Lexington. In tactical terms, little Shoho had been the wrong carrier, but her loss caused Admiral Inouye to halt the invasion force bound for Port Moresby.

The next double misstep occurred when 31 planes from Shokaku and Zuikaku attacked a cruiser force commanded by British Rear Adm. J.G. Crace, whose ships survived their attention as well as a misdirected, but fortunately inaccurate, bombing attack by three land-based B-17s. To complete the day’s grim farce, 18 Japanese planes on a night mission came to grief when they approached what seemed to be their carrier, and then suddenly discovered that they were trying to land on the Yorktown.

On May 8, the carrier forces finally squared off for the most evenly matched air-sea confrontation of the war–121 Japanese planes versus 122 American. A Japanese bomb damaged Yorktown and killed 66 of her crew, but Lexington bore the brunt of Japanese wrath–two torpedoes and two bombs, followed by internal explosions, rendered her beyond saving. Meanwhile, the Americans scored three bomb hits on Shokaku, one of which bent her deck too badly for her planes to land on it, and caused minor damage to Zuikaku.

Satisfied with having “scratched one flattop” of his own through the elimination of the Lexington, but unwilling to risk his transports against the remainder of the Allied fleet, Inouye canceled Operation Mo and claimed a legitimate tactical victory.

Still, the Battle of the Coral Sea had seen a Japanese invasion force turned back for the first time since the war began. And although anything but out of the war, Shokaku would not be repaired for a crucial two months, while Zuikaku spent a month replacing her aircraft losses.

Consequently, neither carrier was able to take part in the Battle of Midway on June 4-6, 1042. But Yorktown would be repaired in time to participate in the battle–and to play a prominent role in making it the turning point in the naval war in the Pacific against Japan.

Jon Guttman