Aviation History

Remembering the of the Battle of Coral Sea, History’s First Carrier vs Carrier Battle

On May 8, 1942, the first Carrier VS Carrier battle climaxed between the US Navy and Imperial Japan. For the past 4 days the two fleets had been on a collision course.

On May 8, 1942, the first Carrier VS Carrier battle climaxed between the US Navy and Imperial Japan. For the past 4 days the two fleets had been on a collision course. A lot has been written about this historic fight, and we in no way presume to rewrite all the excellent work which has been done on the battle. ù

What we will do is attempt to show how historic an engagement Coral Sea was, as two navies who both were Pioneers of Aircraft Carrier Technology met to engage in History’s First Carrier vs Carrier Battle between two Adversaries who fought OVER THE HORIZON, with neither side’s ships ever physically seeing the other. Coral Sea marks the first time such an event occurred, discounting the loss of HMS Hermes to the overwhelming force of Imperial Japan’s Kido Butai in the Indian Ocean the previous month.

Coral Sea marked the first time BOTH sides had Carriers with full Air Groups. On Imperial Japan’s side was the Shokaku and Zuikaku, newest and most powerful Carriers in the Imperial Fleet. Facing them were Lexington and Yorktown, the one America’s first real Aircraft Carrier, and the other the nameship of the best class of American Prewar Aircraft Carriers.

Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho is torpedoed, during attacks by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft in the late morning of 7 May 1942. The torpedo was a Mark XIII. Photographed from a USS Lexington (CV-2) plane.

Aviators on both sides faced launching on sorties to find a moving target at sea, in the middle of a Big Ocean, fighting their way to their targets, thence returning to an unknown and variable Carrier’s Position of Intended Movement, referred to as “Point Option” at the end of their Mission. They did so using navigation aids as simple as mechanical flight computers, the plotting board on their instrument panel, and Radio Direction Finders to home in on their ship.

Both sides would blunder into an action neither side really knew how to fight. Errors would be made on both sides as each realized they were facing carriers on the opposite side. The US would launch a strike and sink the first Carrier lost by Imperial Japan, the luckless Shoho covering the Imperial Navy’s Port Moresby Landing Force.

The Imperial Japanese would batter the oiler Neosho and sink her luckless escort, the destroyer Sims. The Imperial Japanese would also launch a late day attack against the American carrier fleet which ended in the strike getting lost in the gloomy weather surrounding both Task Forces, and incredibly, several Imperial Japanese strike aircraft would actually be shot down while attempting to join the landing circuit for the AMERICAN Task Force.

Things would come to a head on May 8, when Both sides made the all important discovery of the other’s position and send strikes to neutralize the other. The result would be Shokaku receiving damage to her flight deck, Zuikaku losing most of her Air Group, and the US Navy losing Lexington. Thus two carriers were lost in the first Carrier VS Carrier Battle ever fought between two navies, one light carrier for Imperial Japan, and the pioneer of much of prewar American Naval Aviation operations on the US Side.

The US Navy aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), burning and sinking after her crew abandoned ship during the Battle of the Coral Sea, May, 8 1942. Note the planes parked aft, where the fires have not yet reached.

As Navy Ace and future 4-Star Admiral Noel Gayler quipped in John Lundstrom’s excellent book The First Team “Twas a rugged day to be flying the Wily Wildcat.” The Lexington remains on the bottom of the Coral Sea, in waters deep enough to retain her gray paint and the markings on her aircraft. She stands as a monument to the lives lost, as Aviators sacrificed themselves to perfect a doctrine still being developed as both sides made the ultimate Test of their carrier technology.

Strategically, the Battle remains an American Victory, as Port Moresby’s seaward invasion was repulsed, and Imperial Japan had to fight across the Owen Stanley Mountains overland, rather than capture the main port in New Guinea. Both Navy’s would face again the following month, though the mauling of Shokaku and the losses to Zuikaku aircrew kept both carriers of CarDiv5 out of Midway. Meanwhile, Yorktown, damaged by a single bomb, would be repaired in time for Round 2 of the 1942 Carrier World Cup at Midway.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Hangar B Productions

Wildcat BuNo 3976. This particular F4F-3 was flown by future fighter ace and Rear Admiral Albert “Scoop Vorse” as well as Naval Aviation Legend Jimmy Thach, and Noel Gayler, both future 4-Star Admirals.
Rendering by Hangar B Productions.
William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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