The Battle of the Coral Sea reached its climax on the 8th of May with the exchange of blows between our air attack groups and those of the enemy. The actual fighting time was extremely brief. Therefore, in order that each phase of the action may receive full attention, separate treatment will be given those that conflict in time.
Task Force FOX continued to the southwestward during the night of the 7th and by 0800 of the 8th was at latitude 14°25' S., longitude 154°31' E., on course 125° true.
The location of the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku remained the principal concern of our force. Intelligence reports received during the night had indicated that the enemy invasion fleet was retiring to the northward, but nothing specific was heard about the two Japanese carriers. It was assumed that they had remained in the Coral Sea to settle the problem of air control preliminary to returning with their transports to attack Port Moresby.
Because of doubt concerning the enemy carrier's whereabouts, it was decided to conduct a 360° dawn search, 200 miles in the northern semicircle and 150 miles in the southern semicircle. Lexington scouts took off at 0625. At 0820 Lt. (j.g.) Joseph Smith of Scouting Squadron TWO made contact with a formation of two carriers, four heavy cruisers, and several destroyers about 170 miles to the northeastward, standing south at high speed. The position was latitude 11°51' S., longitude 156°04' E. At 0822 a radio interception indicated that our formation had been sighted almost simultaneously by the enemy.
The weather, which had aided our force the previous day, now helped the Japanese. Ceiling and visibility were almost unlimited in our vicinity. Clouds were few, there were no rain squalls, and the wind was blowing at 15 or 18 knots from the southeast. Approximately the same conditions held throughout the day. On the other hand, the Japanese ships were operating in the frontal area which had shielded us the day before. The visibility there varied from 2 to 15 miles. Cumulus,
alto-cumulus, and cirrus clouds covered the area. Intermittent squalls made things worse.
Admiral Fletcher turned over tactical command of the task force to Admiral Fitch, commander air, at 0907. The attack groups already had begun taking off, the first planes leaving the Yorktown about 0900. All scouts and bombers were equipped with 1,000-pound bombs.
The Yorktown group.
The Yorktown attack group went first. It consisted of 6 fighters, 7 scouts, 17 dive bombers, and 9 torpedo planes. The scouts and bombers proceeded toward the objective at 17,000 feet, accompanied by 2 fighters. The dive bombers sighted the enemy first at about 1032. There were 2 carriers, about 6 or 8 miles apart. The combined escort consisted of 1 battleship or very large cruiser, 3 heavy cruisers and 4 destroyers. Their course was 190° true.
By 1049 the scouts and bombers were in position to attack but circled to wait for the slower torpedo planes. One enemy carrier headed for a rain squall; the other turned into the wind and began launching planes. At 1058 the torpedo planes were in position and a coordinated attack was begun on the carrier that had launched planes. Six sure bomb hits, three possible, and many near hits were made.
The SBD's were attacked by enemy fighters during their dives and after their pull-outs. In the ensuing action Scouting Squadron FIVE shot down four fighters and Bombing Squadron FIVE accounted for seven others, while both squadrons damaged several other enemy planes. Our planes then used cloud cover to escape.
The fogging of bombsights and windshields handicapped our SBD planes.
One of the dive bomber pilots who scored a hit was Lt. John J. Powers. This officer, according to his fellow pilots, had sworn previously to get a hit at any cost and made good his promise by diving to within several hundred feet of the enemy carrier's flight deck before releasing his bomb. It was believed that his plane was destroyed by the blast of his own missile. His extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were noted by President Roosevelt and resulted in a posthumous award of the Congressional Medal of Honor. One other Yorktown SBD was lost, but available reports do not make clear how this came about.
Meanwhile, the torpedo planes had made their approach from the
southeast. As the SBD's attacked, the enemy carrier began a left turn, then swung abruptly to the right. It was during this turn to the right that the torpedoes were dropped. Of nine dropped, three and possibly four were hits. Three were seen to make erratic runs. The last two pilots to attack stated that the first torpedo struck the carrier on the port bow and laid it open from waterline to flight deck. The second and third torpedoes hit between the bow and the midships section. The whole side of the carrier from the bow aft for 50 or 100 feet was afire. Another small fire was visible on the starboard quarter. When the carrier was last seen, about 15 minutes after the attack, the fires were still burning fiercely. The torpedo planes also made use of convenient cloud cover in rendezvousing and retiring, and the fact that none was shot down was attributed largely to weather conditions.
The four fighters accompanying the Yorktown torpedo planes drove off an attack by six Zeroes during the approach and permitted the TBD's to drop unmolested. Three enemy Zeroes and one enemy scout plane were shot down during our attack and on the return trip an enemy torpedo plane was destroyed. Our fighters also attacked two enemy dive bombers while returning, but shortage of fuel forced the Grummans to limit their pursuit of the enemy and they escaped.
The Yorktown began recovering her attack group at 1231 and all the planes were aboard by 1300. During the landings a plane from Bombing Squadron TWO, piloted by Lt. (j.g.) Floyd E. Moan, made a crash landing, striking the island structure in full flight. His plane was badly shot up and his flaps would not operate. Although the SBD was a wreck and was pushed over the side, both Lieutenant Moan and his rear seat man, R. J. Hodgins, seaman second class, recovered.
The Lexington group.
The Lexington attack group originally was composed of 12 torpedo planes, 18 dive bombers, 4 scouts, and 9 fighters. The dive bombers were accompanied by 3 fighters, the torpedo planes by 4 fighters, and the scouts by 2 fighters. The entire force did not attack, however. The 3 fighters escorting the dive bombers lost contact with their charges en route and returned to the carrier. The 18 bombers went on but failed to locate the enemy and returned without striking a blow. One torpedo plane was turned back by engine trouble. The navigational data available to the pilots was none too good, and the visibility was extremely poor.
The remaining 11 torpedo planes, under Commander Brett, joined up with the 4 scouts, which comprised a section led by the Lexington group commander, Commander Ault. After flying to the end of their navigational leg without sighting the enemy, these planes, with their combined escort of 6 fighters, began flying a "box." Within a few minutes they entered a clear area. About 20 miles away on the far side of the clearing were enemy ships. At this point Commander Ault tried to pick up the lost dive bombers by radio without success. Soon enemy fighters, Zeros and Me-109's, appeared and were engaged by our fighters. Lt. Noel Gayler, the only survivor of the 4 fighter pilots escorting the torpedo planes, reported that he and the others had accounted for at least 1 and probably more of the enemy fighters.
Lieutenant Gayler took cloud cover during this dogfight. After flying on instruments for about 3 minutes he came out of the clouds at an altitude of 1,000 feet directly above a Japanese carrier accompanied by a cruiser and a destroyer. He circled the carrier twice, unmolested by either planes or antiaircraft fire, expecting that our torpedo planes or scouts would attack at any minute. The enemy ships apparently did not see Lieutenant Gayler's plane. The carrier showed no evidence of damage. In a few moments another larger group of enemy ships became visible 15 miles to the eastward. Lieutenant Gayler said he saw several ships this time, among them a large one which he took to be a carrier and which was burning and "making a good deal of smoke."
Deciding that our planes had attacked the second group of enemy ships, Lieutenant Gayler began to look for the rendezvous point. Soon he came up with one of our scouts, piloted by Ensign Marvin M. Haschke, and followed it back to the Lexington. Ensign Haschke was the sole survivor among the four scouts of Commander Ault's group.
While our fighters were engaging the Japanese fighters, the 4 scouts and 11 torpedo planes attacked together. Radio logs showed that the time of this attack was 1057. They obtained two 1,000-pound bomb and 5 torpedo hits on a carrier of the Zuikaku class. When last seen, the enemy carrier was afire and apparently losing headway.
Enemy fighters or fuel shortage accounted for all but one of our attacking scouts, and two of our fighters. One of our torpedo planes also was forced down and lost because of running out of gas. Commander Ault was among those lost. He was in radio communication with the force for some time but could not find his way back and it was not possible
to pick him up on the radar screen. Finally, at 1454, he was told that he was "on his own" and to try to find land. He replied:
"O. K. So long, people. Remember we got a 1,000-pound hit on the flat top."
The last plane of what remained of the attack group landed aboard the Lexington about 1400. A group of seven torpedo planes coming in was so short of fuel that they did not execute recognition maneuvers and were fired on briefly by the Yorktown.
Both Admiral Fletcher and Admiral Fitch reported the belief that our air attacks had resulted in the severe damaging of one enemy carrier, the Shokaku, and the damaging of a second, the Zuikaku. CINCPAC, however, pointed out that it was possible that both our air groups had struck the same carrier, the other escaping in the overcast. Captain Sherman expressed the belief that the carrier attacked by the Lexington planes had sunk. Captain Buckmaster recorded no official opinion as to whether or not any enemy carrier had been sunk, restricting his report to the number of bomb and torpedo hits scored by the Yorktown air group. Subsequent developments showed that neither the Shokaku nor the Zuikaku had gone down, but that the Shokaku had been seriously damaged. If the Zuikaku was hurt it was only superficially.
Torpedo planes attacking the Shoho.
AIR ATTACK ON OUR TASK FORCE
Radio intercepts had indicated that the Japanese had sighted Task Force FOX about the same time our scouts picked up the enemy formation. There was no doubt that we would be subject to an air attack and all steps were taken to prepare to meet it. In order that he might have complete freedom of action with the cruisers and planes, Admiral Fitch had been given tactical command at 0907. Most ships present had gone to general quarters at dawn, and remained so throughout the day. Combat and antitorpedo plane patrols were maintained. Speed was built up gradually to 25 knots, and this was increased to 30 knots when the enemy attack materialized. Various courses were steered in launching and recovering planes, but the general direction of movement continued to be toward the southeast. Five minutes before the action opened our course was 125° true.
Our ships were in circular disposition "Victor" with the carriers in the center. The Yorktown was north of the Lexington, and at 1040 adjusted position on the Lexington so as not to have the latter between her and
the sun in the event planes approached from the sun. As the enemy attack developed, the Yorktown and Lexington gradually drew apart as a result of high-speed maneuvering to avoid bombs and torpedoes, so that they were separated by several miles when the action ceased. Without signal, the screening ships nearest each carrier followed. With the Yorktown went the Astoria, Portland, Chester, Russell, Hammann, and Aylwin. The Minneapolis, New Orleans, Morris, Anderson, Phelps, and Dewey followed the Lexington.
COMBAT AIR PATROL ON THE 8TH
The handling of our fighters during the enemy air attack has been the subject of some discussion. The failure of a large number of our fighters to intercept the enemy planes, despite the fact that ample radar warning of their approach was available, has resulted in criticism of the tactics of the task force fighter director, who was in the Lexington.1 It should be noted, however, that no criticism of the Lexington fighter director was contained in any of the official action reports of the 8th. Captain Sherman's report, which was compiled without the aid of records lost with his ship, was brief. It said:
"Our combat patrol, under the fighter director, was patrolling at 10,000 feet. Exact altitude of the approaching enemy was not determined, but was known to be over 10,000 feet. The fighters made contact 20-30 miles out but the enemy bombers were at 17,000 feet and the performance of our fighters was not sufficient to gain enough altitude to attack them before they reached the push over point. The bombers were accompanied by 18 protective fighters, which our fighters subsequently engaged in combat and shot down or damaged six."
Captain Buckmaster of the Yorktown, using radio logs, radar plot, and the accounts of pilots from both carriers, compiled the following account of how the enemy attack was met by the combat air patrol:
At 1055 radar showed a very large group of enemy planes approaching, bearing 020°, distance 68 miles. At 1059 all planes on combat patrol were recalled to the vicinity of the carriers. At 1059 four additional fighters were launched, making a total of eight from the Yorktown and nine from the Lexington.
(Fighters had been kept aloft in rotation since dawn. The cruiser planes also went up during the morning as an inner air patrol, but were recalled when the enemy attack appeared imminent. At 1014 a Yorktown fighter located and shot down an enemy four-engine flying boat which evidently had been shadowing our ships from a distance of 20 or 25 miles.)
At 1102 five Lexington fighters were vectored out on 020°, distance 30 miles, at 10,000 feet. Two of them later were told to go low to intercept torpedo planes. The remaining three made contact about 20 miles out, being 1,000 or 2,000 feet below the enemy. One pilot said there were 50 or 60 planes stacked in layers extending from about 10,000 to 13,000 feet, and that approximately a third of them were fighters. At the lowest level, he said, were torpedo planes, then fighters, then dive bombers, then more fighters. Our three fighters attacked this large formation while it was 15 to 20 miles from the fleet. Our two fighters which had been sent low attacked torpedo planes at 1116 when they were within 4 or 5 miles from the fleet.
At 1108 four Lexington fighters were vectored out on the same bearing at about 1,000 feet to a distance of 15 miles. Arriving on station without making contact, they asked instructions and were told by the fighter director that our ships were already under air attack and that they should return at 10,000 feet. Although they returned after the attack was over, they were able to shoot down several planes still in the vicinity.
Another two-plane section of Lexington fighters was instructed to orbit overhead. It climbed to 12,000 feet, and from that position was able to attack the tail end of the enemy formation.
Four Yorktown fighters were kept overhead at eight to ten thousand feet. Two planes failed to intercept before the enemy could push home their attack, but managed to shoot down 1 Zero and 1 dive bomber which already had released its bomb. The other 2 planes of this unit attacked
a group of dive bombers as they entered their dives, going down with them and shooting down one before and one after release of their bombs.
Thus, only 3 of our 17 fighters effectively intercepted the enemy prior to delivery of the attack. The others were not in position to attack until after the enemy had commenced or finished their attacks.
In all, Yorktown fighters shot down four Zeros and three dive bombers, besides damaging other planes.
No Yorktown fighters of the combat patrol were lost. Two Lexington fighters were shot down, but the pilots of both were picked up by screening ships. The Phelps rescued one of them, Lt. (j.g.) Richard Crommelin.
The scout bombers (SBD's.)
The Yorktown had launched eight SBD's of Scouting Squadron FIVE at 0730, on orders from Admiral Fitch, to form an antitorpedo plane patrol. Captain Buckmaster termed the use of these planes as "expedient", pointing out that there were not sufficient fighters on hand to do the job. The SBD's were on station at a low altitude close to our formation. They attempted to intercept the enemy torpedo planes as they glided in at high speed, but could not catch them. The SBD's were then attacked by a superior number of Japanese fighters, and four of our planes were shot down almost immediately. In the melee, however, our planes shot down four enemy fighters and damaged several others, four of which were listed as probables. Not one of these eight SBD's escaped damage. Captain Buckmaster described their action as "a splendid example of courage and devotion to duty; although outnumbered, and opposed by faster and more maneuverable aircraft, they were not outfought"
The Lexington also had eight scouts out as an antitorpedo plane patrol, on station at 2,000 feet at a distance of some 6,000 yards from their carrier. The enemy planes came in over them. The SBD's, however, managed to score impressively. Captain Sherman credited them with shooting down eight enemy torpedo planes, four of them before they could launch their torpedoes; one dive bomber and one fighter. One Lexington SBD was shot down. Another, piloted by Lt. (j.g.) Frank R. McDonald, fell over the side while attempting to land. Lieutenant McDonald was wounded in the shoulder. He and his rear seat man, C. H. Hamilton, aviation radioman, third class, were rescued by the Morris.
A Lexington fighter pilot said later that the SBD's that day were like "a small boy sent to do a man's job."
ATTACK ON THE YORKTOWN
The Yorktown went to general quarters at 0545. After the launching of the air striking group, and aside from launchings and recoveries of planes on combat patrol, the morning passed uneventfully until the actual time of the enemy attack. Fighter directing was done for both our carriers by the Lexington, and Yorktown planes conformed to orders issued by that ship.
At 1055 radar picked up a large group of enemy planes bearing 020°, distance 68 miles. At 1111, when these planes were 15 miles distant, the fleet course was changed to 125°. Enemy torpedo planes came in over and through our protecting fighters and scouts and fire was opened at 1118 by the bearing 5-inch batteries. The enemy torpedo planes separated into small groups almost immediately after fire was opened. Three dropped torpedoes from the port quarter, followed closely by four on the port beam. When the first three torpedoes hit the water Captain Buckmaster applied full right rudder and rang for emergency flank speed. At this point the Yorktown and Lexington began drawing apart.
The ship was steadied on a course parallel to the torpedoes dropped on the port beam sufficiently long to allow them to run past the port side close aboard.
The fire from our ships, meanwhile, had knocked down four planes from the group which had dropped three torpedoes on the port quarter. The tracks of these three torpedoes were not observed close to the Yorktown. Of the group of torpedo planes which approached on the port beam, one was shot down before and one after dropping.
A third group of planes rounded the Yorktown's stern about 8,000 yards or more out and dropped on the starboard quarter. The Yorktown turned to present her stern. Two tracks were observed running past on the starboard side. This group of planes launched well out, and only one was brought down.
A single torpedo plane approached parallel to the starboard side to a point forward of the beam. This plane was under continuous 5-inch and 1.1 fire. It turned toward the Yorktown but dropped at a distance of 2,000 yards in the face of the fire from all guns on that side. The ship
was swung to the right as this torpedo dropped, and it passed across the bow.
Fifteen to eighteen enemy dive bombers began an attack at 1124, coming out of the sun and generally diving across the deck from port to starboard. The bridge or island structure appeared to be their point of aim. All planes were held under heavy fire, and course was changed, generally under the dives or toward the direction from which they started. One bomb hit was received. There were six near misses on the starboard side, two very close, between the bow and the bridge; at least two very near misses on the port quarter, and two or three on the starboard quarter. These lifted the screws clear of the water. One of the near misses on the starboard bow touched the edge of the catwalk just abaft the No.3 5-inch gun.
Fragments from another miss in the same vicinity pierced the hull in several places above the water line.
During the latter stages of the dive-bombing attack several reports were received on the bridge of torpedo planes attacking on both quarters and astern. It was believed, however, that these reports were made on planes rendezvousing after dropping.
The one direct hit struck the flight deck about 23 feet forward of No.2 elevator and about 15 feet from the island structure. Recovered fragments indicated that it was a projectile of about 12 inches in diameter. It pierced the flight deck, making a hole 14 inches in diameter, passed through No.3 ready room, the hangar deck and the second deck, angling toward the starboard side. It then hit a beam and stanchion and angled back to port, piercing the third deck. It exploded in the aviation store room about 3 feet above the fourth deck, killing 37 men outright and injuring others. On the whole, however, the damage was not great.2 The ship's speed did not drop below 24 knots. Main control, when asked by the bridge if he should be slowed, replied:
"Hell, no. We'll make it!"
The Yorktown's CXAM (radar) went out of commission at 1131 but began functioning again at 1222. The next day the radar antenna was blown off its base by the wind, and it was learned that the rivets holding the antenna yoke to its pedestal had been sheared during the action of the 8th.
The YE homing transmitter also was out for a time because of damage
to the antenna. As a result, there was a period of several hours following the enemy's attack and after the loss of communications in the Lexington when no YE homing means was available to either air group.
EXPERIENCES OF SHIPS WITH THE YORKTOWN
The action of the 8th, as viewed by the commanding officers of the cruisers and destroyers which stayed with the Yorktown after our carriers separated, is presented herewith:
Astoria--(Flagship of Rear Admiral Smith).
Captain Scanland said that Japanese torpedo planes were first seen at 1112 off the port beam of his ship, deploying for attack. The Astoria opened fire with her 5-inch and automatic guns, placing a barrage over and beyond the Yorktown. One torpedo plane was downed on the port quarter by a direct 5-inch hit. Another torpedo plane which was withdrawing off the port quarter was shot down at a range of 400 yards. A third torpedo plane, taken under fire off the port bow, was forced to drop its weapon at a height of about 500 feet. This torpedo ran ahead of the Astoria, causing a destroyer in its path to maneuver radically. A fourth enemy plane was observed to crash in flames 300 yards off the port bow after an apparent attempt to crash into the cruiser.
At 1120, after a brief lull, the Astoria commenced firing on enemy dive bombers. The ship was straddled by four bombers at 1132, but was not damaged. One dive bomber was shot down on the port bow.
Fire was ceased at 1132.
Captain Scanland estimated that a total of 68 enemy planes participated in the attack, being composed of 30 torpedo planes, 26 dive bombers, and 12 fighters.
Of the torpedo planes, he reported, 14 aimed at the Yorktown, 15 at the Lexington, and 1 at the Astoria. The Yorktown, he added, also was the target for 12 of the dive bombers, while an equal number struck at the Lexington. The other two dive bombers aimed at the Astoria.
The only casualties aboard the Astoria were one slight flash burn and two cases of broken toes caused by dropping 5-inch shells.
Admiral Smith also expressed satisfaction with the personnel performance of the Astoria, as well as that of the two other ships of his command, the Portland and Chester. The Admiral, however, was disappointed with the antiaircraft gunfire. The performance of the 5-inch batteries,
he said, was "uniformly poor," with "much wild shooting." The 1.1's and 20-mm. guns, "although extremely wild, were more effective."
From the Portland's standpoint, the action began at 1117, when the Yorktown turned sharply to starboard. This turn brought the cruiser's starboard batteries to bear on incoming torpedo planes. The planes were taken under fire by two 5-inch guns, two 1.1 mounts and the starboard after 20-mm. guns. Fire was continued until the range was fouled by the Yorktown.
Captain Perlman stated that all fire, except in the instance of one torpedo plane which was shot down approaching the Yorktown, was "generally without damaging effect, inasmuch as lead-offs were too small and planes were out of effective range. However, the volume of fire was apparently disconcerting to the pilots, who released torpedoes against the Yorktown considerably earlier than they did against the Lexington."
Captain Perlman described three "phases" of the action. The second began about 1120 and consisted of a coordinated enemy torpedo plane and dive-bomber attack on the Yorktown. The Portland fired on these planes with all bearing guns without any effect other than a possible element of disturbance. The third phase consisted of uncoordinated attacks by single dive bombers from several directions. During this phase two planes diving either at the Portland or the Yorktown were observed to turn away when engaged by one 1.1 mount and four 20-mm. guns. Both planes departed smoking. Two other planes, retiring on a course opposite to that of the cruiser at an altitude of 4,000 feet, were fired on by one 5-inch battery but escaped.
Toward the end of the engagement, one enemy plane made a low level approach on the Portland's port bow. At this time the Russell was almost directly ahead of the cruiser at a distance of 1,500 yards. Both ships opened fire and the plane fell into the sea near the destroyer.
The ship suffered no personnel casualties.
The Chester opened fire on torpedo planes attacking the Yorktown at 1113, and continued firing as targets presented themselves until 1133. Captain Shock reported that at 1117 two torpedo planes attacked his ship from the starboard side. One was shot down before releasing its torpedo
and the other after dropping, crashing just forward of the starboard beam. The torpedo passed 50-75 yards astern of the Chester. A third torpedo plane passed ahead of the Chester on its way to the Yorktown, and was shot down under 1.1 and 20-mm. fire from the cruiser.
Captain Shock's estimate of the total number of enemy planes and their objectives was as follows:
Number Type Objective 31 Torpedo type 97. 2 waves of 6 and 1 of 5 on Lexington.
2 waves of 6 on Yorktown.
2 planes on Chester.
20 (plus) Dive bomber type 99 and some fighter bombers similar to Army type 97. 3 attacks of 4 or 5 planes on Yorktown and the remainder on Lexington. 15-20 Fighters type 96 or 97. Supported attack and attempted strafing.
One marine gunner was rather seriously wounded by the premature explosion of a 20-mm. shell in a hot gun.
The Hammann first sighted enemy aircraft, identified as torpedo planes, at 1116, coming in to attack from the northeast. A minute later 2 torpedo planes approaching the Yorktown were taken under fire and 1 crashed in flames ahead of the carrier. Within the next few minutes enemy torpedo planes and dive bombers were fired on as they came within range. One and possibly 2 torpedo planes fell to the Hammann's 5-inch and 20-mm. guns. About 10 torpedo planes and dive bombers were fired on, but most of them were at extreme ranges.
At 1130, after a brief lull, a smaller wave of enemy planes came in from the east. Fire was opened but no hits were observed. Guns were also trained on two torpedo planes, but one was brought down by the Russell before the Hammann's guns could open.
Commander True, the ship's captain, estimated that 30 or 40 percent of the 5-inch shells fired failed to explode.
Lt. Comdr. Hartwig, commanding the Russell, reported that because more than one of the screening ships frequently were firing at the same enemy plane it was difficult to determine the effect of his own guns.
"Reports of eyewitnesses vary widely," he stated. "These reports claim four planes shot down and one disappearing, leaving a trail of smoke. There is authoritative agreement on two of those reported shot down." One was a torpedo plane which had not dropped. The other, of a type not specified, was hit directly by a 5-inch shell and plunged into the sea despite the failure of the shell to explode.
The only available word concerning the part played by the Aylwin in defending the carriers against the air attack on the 8th is a part of the battle report of Captain Early, commander Destroyer Squadron ONE, which at that time included the Phelps and Dewey in addition to the Aylwin. When the carriers separated the Aylwin remained with the Yorktown while Captain Early in the Phelps kept station on the Lexington. Consequently the Aylwin is mentioned only briefly.
ATTACK ON THE LEXINGTON
The enemy aircraft attack on the Lexington was almost simultaneous with that on the Yorktown. The Lexington opened fire about 1113. Torpedo planes made the first attack, some approaching directly from port and others circling to come in on the starboard bow. Most of the torpedo planes approached in a high-speed glide at an angle of about 40°, dropping at an altitude of 300-500 feet. The range at the dropping point varied between 500 and 1,200 yards.
Captain Sherman ordered full left rudder to bring the first torpedoes ahead. "From then on," he reported, "torpedoes were coming from both starboard and port and I maneuvered with full rudder both ways as I considered best to avoid torpedoes."
Some torpedoes were observed passing from starboard ahead of the Lexington. Two others ran parallel to the ship, one on either side. Still others passed from port ahead, and two were believed to have run directly beneath the keel.
At 1120 the first torpedo hit, exploding just forward of the port forward gun gallery. At 1121 a second torpedo hit a little further aft, about opposite the bridge.
Four torpedo planes were shot down by the Lexington's antiaircraft guns.
In the meantime dive bombers, coordinating their attacks closely with the low-flying torpedo planes, also were coming in. About the same
time the first torpedo hit was received, a bomb estimated to weigh 1,000 pounds hit the after end of the port forward gun gallery. The explosion rendered the battery useless, killing the entire crew of gun No.6, and killing or wounding 13 men on guns No.2 and 4. Several men also were killed inboard in the main passageway on the main deck, and it is probable that some of the preset 5-inch ammunition in the ready locker off the gallery exploded and added to the destruction. Fire broke out on the gun gallery, in the admiral's cabin and surrounding country.
Another bomb of possibly 500 pounds hit the gig boat pocket on the port side, killing many men. A third and considerably smaller bomb hit and exploded inside the stack.
Two large caliber bombs which hit near the port side aft tore holes in the hull and were mistaken for torpedoes for a time. Flying fragments from one or more near hits aft on the starboard side killed and injured several machine gunners in sky aft and the after signal station.
Besides the fire in the admiral's country, there were blazes near the gig boat pocket, beneath the incinerator and in the forward starboard marine compartment near the forward elevator. The ship was listing about 6° to port. Damage control reported they were shifting oil to correct the list. Main control reported all units in commission. Nos. 2, 4, and 6 fire rooms were partially flooded, but the water was being controlled by the pumps. Both elevators were jammed in the up position due to machinery casualties in the wells, probably as a result of shock. Otherwise, the Lexington was making 25 knots under good control.
At about 1240 damage control reported that the ship was on an even keel, that three fires were out, and that the other one, in the admiral's country, was under control. The fact that the Lexington was a doomed ship was anything but apparent. Several returning pilots of the attack group, knowing she had been attacked by Jap planes, thought, before landing aboard, that she had come through unscathed.
EXPERIENCES OF SHIPS WITH THE LEXINGTON
Minneapolis.--(Flagship of Rear Admiral Kinkaid).
The Minneapolis, Captain Lowry commanding, was directly in line with the approach of enemy torpedo planes on the Lexington. These planes were sighted at a distance of about 15 miles, and fire was opened at 1116. The planes passed ahead, astern and over the cruiser and were heavily engaged by the 5-inch and automatic weapons.
One torpedo plane crashed off the starboard bow of the Minneapolis after a direct 5-inch hit. The 1.1's and 20-mm guns destroyed another which was passing over the stern. A third was shot down by a 20-mm gun as it approached the stern.
Two planes launched torpedoes toward the cruiser, and these were seen to pass close aboard.
Dive bombers attacked the Lexington immediately after the torpedo planes. Captain Lowry estimated that they were about nine in number. Each was tracked and fired on by the 5-inch guns as it dived, but with no effect other than a possible deterring one.
Fire was ceased at 1133.
Difficulty in distinguishing enemy planes from our own SBD's was stressed by Captain Lowry. On several occasions our planes were fired on by the Minneapolis and others of the screening ships, he said.
There were no personnel casualties.
The New Orleans reported no enemy aircraft shot down, although fire was opened on torpedo planes attacking the Lexington at 1114 and was kept up almost continuously against both torpedo planes and dive bombers until 1134. This failure to hit evidently was caused by the extreme range at which most of the firing was done. The commanding officer, Captain Good, recommended that with a circle spacing of 1,000 yards, as was in effect in the Coral Sea engagement, the cruisers should be placed on circle 2 instead of 3.
"The New Orleans was generally ahead of the carrier during this engagement," Captain Good wrote. "Although in approximate position just prior to the attack, due to the carrier slowing down to launch planes with inadequate notice and then turning to avoid torpedoes without signal shortly after the attack, this vessel found herself approximately 4,300 yards away from the carrier at the time the dive bombers commenced their attack. This was too far away to render effective assistance with antiaircraft fire." He also stated that the 5-inch guns were "entirely too slow in train and elevation to effectively keep on fast moving dive bombers or gliding torpedo planes," and that "the need for remote control of 1.1- and 20-mm. mounts is more apparent than ever.
The only casualty aboard the New Orleans occurred among the crew of 1.1-mount on the fantail which was continuously wet from spray and
occasional green seas. At one point, this gun was completely submerged, and the crew narrowly escaped being washed overboard. One man received a broken nose.
In spite of the overzealousness of topside personnel "to try to see and evaluate everything at once instead of concentrating on a particular sector or duty," Captain Good reported that the conduct of his officers and crew under fire was "excellent."
The report of the Phelps' commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. Beck, is not available. However, Captain Early, commander Destroyer Squadron ONE, of which she was the leader, placed her with the Lexington after the separation of our carriers, in a position on the carrier's starboard bow at 1129.
The attacking planes came in over the Phelps at 1115. Captain Early stated that fighters or dive bombers composed the first wave and that torpedo planes followed very closely. At 1118 an enemy plane crashed off the Phelps' port beam, burning fiercely. What appeared to be a torpedo passed beneath the Phelps at 1129 and a bomb struck the water close to her port beam a minute later. The attack ceased at this time.
The Dewey, according to her captain, Lt. Comdr. Chillingworth, was stationed 1,500 yards abeam of the Lexington when the attack commenced. He asserted that planes passed over and around the Dewey, three of which were shot down. Two, described as Zero fighters, were credited to 20-mm. guns, and the third, a torpedo plane, fell to 5-inch fire. From the Phelps, Captain Early saw two planes shot down by the Dewey at 1116, 2 minutes after Lt. Comdr. Chillingworth reported opening fire.
Six men on the Dewey were wounded by strafing, which was done by torpedo planes approaching from port.
Several small bombs fell near the ship.
At 1430 the Dewey commenced an unsuccessful search astern for survivors of the air action.
The Morris, commanded by Commander Jarrett, was the leader of Destroyer Squadron TWO, under Captain Hoover. Change of course as the attack began placed the Morris on the Lexington's port quarter.
According to Commander Jarrett, the first enemy torpedo plane dropped a torpedo on the carrier's port beam at 1115, dropping at the close range of 300 or 400 yards and scoring a hit. "No ship seemed to realize that enemy planes were so near until just prior to release of torpedo," he stated, "at which time firing commenced from all directions at this plane." The surprise was not due to unpreparedness but to confusion in plane identification, he pointed out, our carriers just having launched several planes which were still in the ships' vicinity.
His ship, as well as others of the screen, violated doctrine by firing on the plane after it had released its torpedo, Commander Jarrett reported.
About 20 planes in all appeared to attack the Lexington's formation. Commander Jarrett observed that the sun and one medium sized cloud were so aligned from his position that enemy planes "could approach high in the sun and then be blanketed from line of sight by this one cloud to make their attack without being seen until they were beginning their dive."
The Morris fired at an unspecified number of planes, claiming hits on two. It was stated, however, that while both planes were shot down other ships also were firing at them at the same time as the Morris and that consequently it was impossible to say to whose guns they fell. The action ceased at 1132.
One plane strafed the Morris briefly after dropping a torpedo at the Lexington, but there were no casualties. Commander Jarrett characterized the behavior of personnel as excellent.
Captain Hoover also remarked the slowness with which our ships opened fire on the attacking planes, likewise crediting this to confusion over aircraft identification. He described our antiaircraft fire as a whole as "relatively ineffective," that of the 5-inch guns being "erratic and uncoordinated," and that of the 1.1's and 20-mm.'s as "frequently being directed at targets beyond range.
According to Lt. Comdr. Ginder, commanding officer of the Anderson, Japanese planes dived out of a cloud on the Lexington at 1116. At 1116½, the Anderson opened fire on a plane on her port beam flying parallel. Although no hits were observed, the plane turned away from the carrier without dropping its torpedo.
At 1117 20-mm. fire was opened on three torpedo planes flying close to the water in the opposite direction from the Anderson. No hits were
observed. A minute later a plane was seen on the port bow launching a torpedo at the destroyer or a nearby cruiser, and hard left rudder was applied. The torpedo's wake crossed the bow close aboard.
Four single torpedo planes were fired on without visible effect within the next couple of minutes. In most cases the range was extreme.
Four or five dive bombers were observed attacking the Lexington at 1122. Most of them came in from the side opposite that occupied by the Anderson, and her fire was frequently fouled by other ships. Although no hits on planes were claimed, fire control was said to have functioned smoothly.
SINKING OF THE LEXINGTON
Before the attack on our ships a message was sent to the Commander Southwest Pacific Forces at 1000, giving the enemy's position and disposition at 0900, in the hope that shore-based aircraft would be able to bomb and track them. Army bombers of the Australian command were active from the 2d through the 12th, reconnoitering and bombing enemy bases in the area, but weather conditions prevented their locating the Japanese carriers.
When all planes of our attack groups had either returned or been given up for lost, Admiral Fletcher made a quick estimate of the situation. Consideration was given to making another air attack or sending the attack group in for a surface engagement. There was reason to believe that one Japanese carrier had escaped damage, and at 1422 Admiral Fitch reported that there were indications that an additional carrier had joined the enemy forces. Damage had reduced the Yorktown's maximum speed to 30 knots and the Lexington's to 24. Furthermore, both our carriers had lost a great number of planes in action and others had been rendered unserviceable by damage. This last consideration caused Admiral Fletcher to abandon the idea of another air attack. The idea of a surface attack also was rejected because it was felt that our ships might be subject to a strong carrier air attack before dark.
The decision was to retire to the southward for further investigation of damage to ships and to give the air groups time to put sufficient planes in service for a strong attack the following day.
The sudden breakdown of the Lexington prevented the planned transfer of her operable planes to the Yorktown. When she lost headway the planes on deck could not take off, and 35 of them went down with
her. However, 16 planes, 4 fighters, and 10 SBD's were saved. These were in the air when the Lexington came to a stop, and were landed aboard the Yorktown about 1535.
A combat patrol was maintained until darkness fell.
Admiral Fletcher reassumed tactical command at 1510. Conditions aboard the Lexington, meanwhile, had been growing worse. It was planned to take her serviceable planes aboard the Yorktown and send her back to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Of course she never got there, but the decision to retire was responsible for the saving of a large number of Lexington personnel. "Although probably based on incorrect information," Admiral Fletcher stated, "(the decision) resulted in saving the lives of 92 percent of Lexington's personnel, a large portion of which would have been lost if the attack group had not been present when the ship sank."
As Task Force FOX proceeded southward, Comdr. Morton T. Seligman, executive officer of the Lexington, made an inspection of the ship. He found the damage control parties functioning smoothly, and "there was no apparent cause for concern." After reassuring himself as to the fires, Commander Seligman was making his way to the sick bay when a "terrific" explosion below decks blew him through a hatch scuttle. This occurred at 1247, and was followed by severe fires in the C.P.O. passageway and at other points on the second deck, being especially bad near the gunnery office.
Where the explosion occurred or what caused it was not immediately known. Some thought it was caused by a "sleeper" bomb. Eventually it was concluded that small gasoline leaks resulting from the heavy pounding the Lexington had absorbed caused an accumulation of vapors in the bowels of the ship, where they were set off by sparks of unknown origin. "In any event," Captain Sherman related, "from this time on the ship was doomed."
Hoses from the after section of the fire main were led out and strenuous efforts were made to combat the fires, which were spreading aft. As the fires gained headway, frequent additional minor explosions occurred below decks, either from hot 5-inch ammunition or gasoline vapors. The fires gradually ate through more and more communications. All lights forward went out. The fire main pressure dropped to 30 or 40 pounds. The telephone circuit to the trick wheel went dead and Captain Sherman steered for a while with the engines. Smoke filled spaces below decks. Commander Seligman concluded that the original explosion had occurred
below the armored deck and that subsequent blasts and fires were incidental.
At 1452 the task force commander was informed that the fires were not under control, and at 1456 the Lexington signalled for help.
Heat, smoke, and gas conditions were such that men not equipped with rescue breathers could not participate in fighting the fires. The ship's allowance of these breathers was soon exhausted, but many men, equipped only with regular gas masks, which were inadequate, persisted in going back into the dangerous areas.
Excerpts from Commander Seligman's report of succeeding developments give a vivid picture of the scene. He wrote:
"Lt Comdr. Edward J. O'Donnell, the gunnery officer, had procured two additional hoses from aft. These were led into the scuttles of the 5-inch ammunition hoist to starboard, and the last available hose was led into the dumb waiter of the food distribution room in an attempt to flood the C.P.O. country. Good pressure was maintained on these hoses for a short time and it was hoped that sufficient water could be gotten below to flood the area on fire forward of the quarter deck and check the spread of the blaze. Under existing conditions it was impossible to combat it otherwise.
"Lt (j.g.) Raymond O. Deitzer, who was in charge of the gasoline system, had determined shortly after the completion of the attack that the system on the starboard side was functioning satisfactorily. The gas system on the port side had been secured just subsequent to the attack as a precautionary measure. Well before the terrific blast at 1247 he had ordered that the gas control room on the port side be flooded with water and smothered with CO2.
"It appeared that the situation, while extremely grave, might not be hopeless if sufficient water could be obtained.
"I proceeded to the flight deck, considerably weakened by smoke. Shortly afterward another explosion occurred. The forward elevator was jammed up and sheets of flame could be seen below it. A hose from aft was obtained and seemed to have some effect.
"I asked Carpenter Nowak to insure that all hangar deck sprinklers were on, and Lt. Comdr. O'Donnell saw that the 'ready' torpedo warheads on the mezzanine were sprinkled.
"It soon became necessary to evacuate the hangar deck aft and many wounded were brought from the fuselage deck to the topside. Lt. (j.g.)
John F. Roach (MC) and Lt. Morris A. Hirsch led rescue personnel in evacuating all these wounded with utter disregard for their own safety.
"The forward part of the ship was ablaze, both above and below the armored deck with absolutely no means left to fight the fire, which was now spreading aft on the flight deck. It was inevitable that the 20-odd torpedo warheads on the mezzanine of the hangar deck must eventually detonate.
"One sound power phone to main control still was functioning, but communication was not good and it appeared that the heat might ground it out at any moment. Accordingly I sent word to the chief engineer that it might become necessary to abandon ship, and ordered that the life rafts be placed in the nettings and unoccupied personnel distributed forward and aft on the starboard side, as the ship was listing about 7° to port.
"I then proceeded to the bridge and reported the situation to the commanding officer. (He) immediately ordered that the engineering department be secured and personnel evacuated to the flight deck.
"I must again comment on the heroism of personnel. It was an inspiration. The first thought of all was for the wounded."
The engineering plant was secured at 1630, and the Lexington soon lay dead in the water.
"I ordered life rafts made ready and preparations made to abandon ship," Captain Sherman related. "Fire fighting efforts were still being made until the engineering plant was abandoned, when all water pressure was gone. At this time I asked Admiral Fitch for destroyers to come alongside and pass over fire hoses, thinking we might control the fire if we got water. The Admiral directed DD's to come alongside and also directed me to disembark excess personnel to the destroyers. The Morris passed two hoses over, which were put to work, and excess personnel went down lines to her deck. However, by this time the fire was beyond control. Additional explosions were occurring; it was reported that the warheads on the hangar deck had been at a temperature of 1400 F.; ready bomb storage was in the vicinity of the fire and I considered there was danger of the ship blowing up at any minute."
At 1707 Admiral Fitch directed Captain Sherman to abandon ship. Thereupon Admiral Kinkaid was directed to take charge of rescue operations. The Anderson and Hammann joined the Morris alongside the Lexington, while the Minneapolis and New Orleans stood by.
The Morris secured the hoses that had been passed to the carrier at 1714 and made preparations to move clear. All available deck space was crowded with survivors, and several hundred men were in the water between the destroyer and the Lexington. There also were many life rafts in the vicinity and a motor whaleboat from the Minneapolis with about 40 survivors aboard. The Morris backed her propellers several times, and when her stern was clear began backing away. A section of her bridge wind screen was carried away, a searchlight was damaged, and a foremast stay was snapped as she eased away from the carrier.
At 1737 the Morris went alongside the Minneapolis and transferred about 200 survivors to the cruiser. The Morris then relieved a ship screening the Yorktown.
While the Morris was alongside the Lexington the Anderson and Hammann were circling the stricken carrier clockwise. At 1657 the Anderson proceeded to the Lexington's port side but experienced difficulty, largely because of the carrier's pronounced list to port, in making fast. Unable to stay alongside, the Anderson moved ahead to pick up survivors from the water. Before moving off she launched two small boats. These were filled with personnel from the water, who subsequently were taken aboard the Dewey. The Anderson proceeded to join the Yorktown and transferred to the carrier 17 rescued officers and 360 men.
At 1536 the Hammann was ordered to relieve the Phelps in standing by the Lexington, and soon afterward took station on the carrier's port quarter. Many men were taken aboard after lowering themselves down ropes and nets. Others were picked up by two small boats, a whaleboat and gig, which towed life rafts to the Minneapolis.
At 1720 Admiral Kinkaid directed the Hammann to move around to the Lexington's starboard to pick up many men still in the water. The Lexington was in the trough of the sea, drifting at one or two knots with the wind, and the men in the water on her leeward side were having difficulty getting clear. The Hammann moved carefully in among the many men in the water, and only by skillful maneuvering was able to come alongside without crushing men between herself and the carrier. About 100 men were taken from the water and life rafts on the leeward side. As the Hammann backed clear at 1750 a heavy explosion within the Lexington showered the destroyer with flaming debris, but no one was injured.
Debris fouled both the Hammann's main circulating pumps, causing a loss of backing power, so instead of transferring those rescued to the New Orleans as she had been directed to do, the destroyer circled back to recover her small boats at 1845. Ensign Theodore E. Krepski and Ensign Ralph L. Holton, who were in charge of the Hammann boats, were recommended for award for their excellent performance during the rescue work.
At 1739 both the Phelps and Dewey were ordered to close the Lexington and assist in the rescue. They took station 1,000 yards to windward and launched small boats to pick up survivors. Neither went alongside the carrier, as it was obvious by this time that most if not all hands had left the ship.
At 1810, after it was quite dark, Lt. Comdr. John C. Daniel, in a Phelps whaleboat, made a hazardous turn around the Lexington and along her lee side to make certain no more people were in the water there. The carrier had just been rocked by a particularly heavy explosion which tossed planes from her deck high into the air, was afire from stem to stern and listing about 30°. No more survivors were found.
Captain Sherman and Commander Seligman made a final inspection before leaving the ship. They found several men manning a gun mount on the starboard side aft who would not abandon ship until ordered to do so.
Sometime after 1800 the Executive, followed by the captain, slid down a line over the stern. A small boat took them to the Minneapolis.
More than 92 percent of the Lexington's crew were saved. It was believed that not a man was lost by drowning during the abandonment. A preliminary check accounted for all but 26 officers and 190 men of a total complement of 2,951.
To list the names of all officers and men who performed tasks above and beyond the call of duty would fill several pages, and would not be complete at that. In the words of Commander Seligman, "All of the individual cases of heroism and devotion to duty will probably never be revealed." Suffice it to say that there were many.
Admiral Fletcher particularly commended Admiral Kinkaid's direction of the rescue work.
At 1853 the Phelps was detailed to sink the Lexington. Five torpedoes, four of which detonated, were fired between 1915 and 1952. The
Lexington sank very suddenly at 1952 in 2,400 fathoms of water. The position was latitude 15°12' S., longitude 155°27' E.
A few seconds after the Lexington disappeared two terrific explosions occurred underwater. The shock was distinctly felt by ships of the main body, which by this time were 10 miles away. The captain of the Phelps thought momentarily that he had been torpedoed.
Effects of a hit on Lexington gun gallery
Abandoning the Lexington
Explosion rocks the Lexington
Lexington survovors rescued by cruiser
Summary of Enemy Damage.3
Ships sunk: Date 1 carrier--Shoho May 7 1 light cruiser May 7 2 destroyers May 4 1 cargo ship or transport May 4 4 gunboats May 4 9 Ships damaged: 1 carrier--Shokaku May 8 1 aircraft tender May 4 2 Aircraft destroyed: 33 fighters May 7 and 8 3 four-engined patrol bombers May 5, 7, and 8 5 floatplanes May 4 16 dive bombers May 7 and 8 17 torpedo planes May 7 and 8 30 planes aboard Shoho 104
Summary of our losses.
Ships sunk: 1 carrier--Lexington May 8 1 oiler--Neosho May 7 1 destroyer--Sims May 7 3
Summary of our losses.
Ships damaged: 1 carrier-Yorktown May 8 1 Aircraft destroyed: 15 Lexington planes in combat May 7 and 8 35 Lexington planes with ship May 8 16 Yorktown planes in combat May 4, 7, and 8 66
Our personnel losses were estimated at 543; the enemy's at anywhere from 2,000 to more than 5,000.
1 The following statement was made subsequently by an officer in one of the carriers during this action:
"What we wanted to criticize mostly was fighter direction. The Lexington fighter director, who was directing fighters for both carriers, had an excellent organization. His physical set-up was good and they were well drilled. He got information and got that information out quickly and accurately. When a large attack was seen to be coming straight in, without any change of bearing, having been picked up at 80 miles at high altitude, he didn't take any action for a while. Apparently he was watching to see what would develop. The fighter director in the Yorktown called him and asked him if he knew that the attack was coming in. He said 'yes.' Then he pulled in all his fighters. Then he sent them out piecemeal at various altitudes, with the result that, as far as fighter protection is concerned, we might just as well have had no fighters in the air instead of the 17 we had from the two carriers. Many of us are positive that the loss of the Lexington was due, specifically and exactly, to the lack of fighter direction."
2 For additional details, see appendix, p.55.
3 Compiled from information subsequently received by O. N. I.