The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first major engagement in naval history in which the issue was decided without surface ships having exchanged a shot. It was purely an air action, with each opponent seeking to gain the upper hand by depriving the other of naval air support. Adding to the novelty was the fact that both forces sought to accomplish the same thing at the same time by the same means. The resultant overlapping found our carrier groups striking the enemy carriers at virtually the same instant that the Japanese carrier-based planes were attacking the Lexington and Yorktown.
Our air attack at Lae and Salamaua, on March 10, 1942, hindered but did not halt the southward tide of Japanese conquest. In spite of ship losses, the New Guinea ports remained in enemy hands, and the outlook grew progressively worse. Japanese armies overran Bataan Peninsula on April 9th. Corregidor fell on the 6th of May. Farther westward, the American General Stilwell and his men had been driven out of Burma by early May, exposing India to attack. Our bombing of Tokyo and the other Japanese centers of war industry on April 18th, while cheering, was only a nuisance raid. By mid-April the Japanese were moving forces through the Mandates in preparation for a renewal of the offensive. Their holds in the New Guinea-New Britain-Solomon Islands area put them in a position to threaten all Melanesia and Australia itself.
At that time the Japanese were known to have bases at the following places: Rabaul and Gasmata, New Britain; Kavieng, New Ireland; Salamaua and Lae, New Guinea; Watom, Ulu, and Dyaul Islands; Kieta and Buin on Bougainville Island, and on Buka and Faisi Islands in the Solomons.
It was estimated that a total of 53 land and seaplanes were operating from two airdromes at Rabaul and 49 land planes from fields at Lae and Salamaua. The existence of air fields at Gasmata and Kieta also
had been confirmed. Enemy air enforcements were believed en route through the Marianas and Marshalls.
With regard to shipping, Rabaul was the principal port for convoys, with lesser activity at Kavieng, Watom, Ulu, Dyaul, Lae, and Salamaua.
Enemy combatant units, operating almost exclusively in the Rabaul area, were few, including an occasional aircraft carrier transporting planes, a submarine tender and 3 or more submarines, a seaplane tender, and several light cruisers, destroyers and gunboats. However, considerable enemy strength had been gathered at Palau and Truk in the Mandates, obviously preparing to move southward. These reinforcements were estimated to include 3 carriers, 2 or 3 battleships, 3 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 16 destroyers, a submarine tender, 6 submarines, 2 converted seaplane tenders, 2 mine layers, 8 gunboats, 9 transports or cargo ships and 8 merchantmen.
It was felt that the enemy would commence major operations in the Rabaul area about April 28th, with the objective being a sea-borne invasion of Port Moresby, or the Lower Solomons, or both.
After the Lae-Salamaua attack Task Force FOX1 had remained in the Coral Sea area. Task Force BAKER had returned to Pearl Harbor, where on April 2d Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch relieved Vice Admiral Wilson Brown as its commander. The latter force left Pearl Harbor on April 16th and was proceeding to a rendezvous near Christmas Island when orders were received from the Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, to divert course to the Coral Sea area, join with Task Force FOX and meet the new Japanese threat.
Task Force FOX track
4-8 May, 1942
OUR FORCES JOINED
Task Forces BAKER and FOX made contact on May 1st at latitude 16°16' S., longitude 162°20' E. Rear Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, commander of Task Force FOX, had been given command of the combined forces. He immediately directed Task Force BAKER to join a reinforcing group consisting of the Chicago, Perkins, and Tippecanoe, at latitude 16°00' S., longitude 161°45' E. Admiral Fletcher desired that
as much fuel as possible be taken out of the Tippecanoe before she was sent back to Efate, in accordance with CINCPAC's orders. Having fueled, Task Force BAKER was to rejoin Task Force FOX the following day, which it did.
Task Force FOX, meanwhile, had been fueling from another available oiler, the Neosho, and was topped off on the 2d. About this time Admiral Fletcher received intelligence reports indicating that the Japanese might begin an advance on Port Moresby very soon. Knowing that the ships in his command were too far south to engage the enemy should they move, he inquired as to the fuel status of Task Force BAKER. The answer was that Task Force BAKER did not expect to complete fueling before noon of the 4th, and Admiral Fletcher thereupon directed Admiral Fitch to fuel his destroyers while pursuing a northwesterly course at night, and to rejoin Task Force FOX at daylight on May 4th, at latitude 15°00' S., longitude 157°00' E. This was the same rendezvous that had previously been arranged with additional reinforcing units consisting of H. M. A. S. Australia and H. M. A. S. Hobart of the Anzac Squadron.
Before the two task forces separated on May 2d a Yorktown scout plane sighted an enemy submarine on the surface 32 miles north of our formation. The submarine dived but surfaced again and was depth-charged by three planes and possibly sunk. However, the proximity of the submarine to our ships indicated that she had sighted them, and subsequent radio interceptions pointed to the probability of our position being reported to the enemy.
After separating from Admiral Fitch's force on the 2d, Task Force FOX continued to the northwestward throughout the night and again fueled destroyers from the Neosho on the 3d. Admiral Fletcher intended to fuel all ships requiring it on the 4th after rendezvous with Task Force BAKER and the ships of the Anzac Squadron. However, at 1900 on May 3d he received intelligence reports from Commander Southwest Pacific Forces indicating that the Japanese had begun to occupy Florida Island in the Solomons, going ashore from transports in Tulagi Harbor.
How Admiral Fletcher regarded this information is well illustrated by the words he used in his action report: "This was just the kind of report we had been waiting 2 months to receive".
Task Force FOX piled on steam and headed for Tulagi. Not wishing to miss what promised to be an excellent opportunity to hit the enemy, Admiral Fletcher did not wait to be joined by the rest of the ships at his
command. However, he detached the Neosho, with the Russell as escort, and directed her to proceed to the point which had been arranged for the rendezvous of the 4th and inform all ships that a new rendezvous would be made at latitude 15°00' S., longitude 160°00' E., at daylight on May 5th.
Besides the carrier Yorktown (flag) Task Force FOX at this time consisted of the heavy cruisers Astoria, Chester, and Portland, and the destroyers Hammann, Anderson, Perkins, Walke, Morris, and Sims.
1 Task force numbers have been omitted from Combat Narratives for reasons of security. In place of these numbers will be found the Navy flag names for the first letter of the surname of the commanding officer of a task force. However, since the names of the admirals commanding the two task forces in the Coral Sea begin with the same letter, the word "Baker" will he used in this instance to denote the task force commanded by Rear Admiral A. W. Fitch, to avoid confusion and because he relieved Vice Admiral Wilson Brown.