The Action at Tulagi

May 4


By 0700 on May 4th Task Force FOX had reached a point about 100 miles southwest of Guadalcanal Island, at latitude 11°10' S., longitude 158°49' E.1 Weather conditions were unfavorable for flying. A frontal zone extending east and west covered Guadalcanal and the area to the south for a distance of 70 miles. Showers from cumulo-nimbus and strato-cumulus clouds were encountered in the morning and scattered squalls in the afternoon, so that visibility was limited between the carrier and Guadalcanal. Wind gusts varying in forces from 17 to 35 knots somewhat hampered the planes.

By 0701 the cruisers had launched an inner air patrol and the Yorktown began launching a combat air patrol of six fighters (F4F-3), followed by the attack group. A combat air patrol of six planes, working in three shifts, was maintained throughout the day. Lt. Comdr. Oscar Pederson was commander of the Yorktown air group. The fighters belonged to Fighting Squadron FORTY-TWO, commanded by Lt. Comdr. Charles R. Fenton.

The attack group was composed as follows: 12 torpedo planes (TBD) of Torpedo Squadron FIVE, under Lt. Comdr. Joe Taylor; 13 scout planes (SBD) of Scouting Squadron FIVE, under Lt. Comdr. William O. Burch; and 15 bombers (SBD) of Bombing Squadron FIVE, under Lt. Wallace C. Short.

All torpedo planes were armed with Mark 13 torpedoes, the depth setting 10 feet, and all scout planes and bombers with Mark 13 1,000-pound bombs. The same armament was used in all attacks.

Squadrons proceeded independently, the scouts arriving first and beginning their attacks at 0845. They found in Tulagi Harbor and adjacent


Gavutu Harbor two large cargo ships or transports, a smaller cargo ship, four gun boats, two destroyers, one light cruiser of the jintsu class, a large seaplane tender, numerous small patrol boats and launches and five seaplanes moored off Makambo Island. While approaching the objective at 17,000 feet, the squadron commander also had seen what he believed to be a destroyer heading northward at high speed from the vicinity of the West Cape, Guadalcanal. This ship was not seen again, although a search was made.

The scouts selected for their target a light cruiser and two destroyers which were all moored together. Bombs were released at an altitude of 2,500 feet, after 70° dives. Four sure hits and one probable were claimed. Heavy but ineffectual antiaircraft fire was encountered. There were no casualties. By 1001 the first of these planes had landed back aboard the carrier.

Arriving on the scene at 0850, the torpedo planes attacked shortly after the scouts. Seven aimed their torpedoes at the three nested warships previously attacked by the scouts, scoring three hits. Soon afterward the two destroyers sank and the light cruiser beached herself and sank to deck level. One plane failed to release its torpedo. Three other planes attacked a large cargo ship but failed to score any hits, two of their torpedoes exploding on the beach. The last two planes obtained two hits on another cargo ship, which was dead in the water when they departed. The ship was not visible some time later and it was assumed that she had gone down as pilots reported seeing a sunken ship's masts above water. All torpedo drops were made individually from an altitude of about 50 feet and at ranges varying between 400 and 500 yards. After dropping, the torpedo planes strafed small ships in the harbor. They were subject to heavy but ineffectual antiaircraft fire.

The 15 bombers divided into 3 equal sections upon arriving at the objective and commenced attacking at 0900. One division aimed at a cargo ship but obtained no hits and no misses closer than 30 feet. They then strafed a seaplane taking off from Makambo Island. It crashed and burned. The second division scored 1 possible hit and several near hits on a seaplane tender as it was getting underway. Three planes of the third division also attacked the seaplane tender, obtaining 1 sure and 1 possible hit. The other 2 planes aimed at a cargo ship and a destroyer with no success. All dives were made downwind from about 10,000


feet and releases from 2,500 feet. The planes were taken under fire from ships and from Makambo Island while attacking the seaplane.

Serviceable planes of the first group were rearmed and refueled immediately upon returning to the Yorktown, and at 1106 a second group was sent out to the attack. This time there were 14 bombers, 13 scouts, and 11 torpedo planes, the squadrons proceeding independently as before. The bombers located 3 gunboats fleeing from Tulagi about 5 miles east-northeast of Savo Island. Dividing into 3 sections of 5, 5, and 4, they began diving on the gunboats at 1145. The first division took the rearmost ship, which was the largest, and blew her to pieces with 1 direct hit and 3 near hits. The second division attacked the next ship in line and likewise blew her to bits with a direct hit. The third division was not so fortunate with the leading ship in the column. This gunboat used evasive tactics, turning sharply while the planes were diving, and the nearest bomb was a near hit. One of the 4 planes encountered cloud interference and did not drop its bomb. He later attacked a seaplane tender and reported that the vessel slowed down as a result of a near hit. Several planes, meanwhile, had strafed the remaining gunboat which beached herself shortly afterward.

The scouts covered the area to the west and northwest of Florida Island. Their sightings included a cargo ship standing out of Tulagi Harbor, and a seaplane tender and destroyer heading to the northwest between Tulagi and Savo Island. At 1240 they dived on the seaplane tender, making two sure hits and one probable. Two of our planes were damaged by the ship's antiaircraft fire which was heavy and accurate, but both were able to return to the carrier. The undamaged planes next attacked small launches in the harbor, sinking several and damaging others. They also shot down an enemy seaplane which attacked them.

The torpedo planes likewise attacked the seaplane tender and destroyer between Tulagi and Savo Island. Six of them concentrated on the tender, approaching on its starboard bow. Drops were made from between 2,000 and 3,000 yards out. The vessel increased speed and began turning to starboard as the planes approached. No hits were made. An enemy float plane which attacked our planes during their approach was pursued to Makambo Island, where it landed under the covering fire of a shore-based antiaircraft battery.


The rest of the torpedo planes attacked the tender 5 minutes after the first six. The ship turned sharply to port as they approached on her starboard bow and no hits were made. Drops were made at ranges from 1,000 to 1,500 yards. All torpedo planes encountered heavy antiaircraft fire, particularly from machine guns.

One torpedo plane failed to rendezvous for the return to the carrier. This plane, able to transmit on its radio but not to receive, became lost, ran out of fuel, and landed in the water. A search by the Perkins failed to locate it.

Pilots returning from the second attack mentioned that enemy seaplanes had been interfering with their work, and at 1340 the Yorktown launched 4 fighters for the purpose of destroying these pests. The fighters were followed at 1430 by a third attack group, consisting of 12 scouts and 9 bombers.

Searching the Tulagi area, the fighters encountered three enemy single-float seaplanes and shot them all down into the water. They then attacked a destroyer heading away from Tulagi at high speed, making two runs from astern down the fore-and-aft axis of the ship, followed by two runs from abeam, aiming first at the water line and then at the bridge. In all, about 4,500 rounds were expended on the destroyer, and the effect of the .50-caliber bullets was noteworthy. The tracers started small fires and the armor-piercing bullets seemed to penetrate the ship's hull readily. When last seen the destroyer was leaving a wake of oil. Two fighters became lost while returning to the carrier and force landed on the south coast of Guadalcanal Island. Both pilots were rescued that night by the Hammann.2

The 12 scout planes of the third attack group reached Tulagi Harbor at 1530, and dive-bombed a cargo ship. The vessel got under way after receiving 1 hit and several near hits. Bombs were released at an altitude of about 2,500 feet. Before leaving, the planes strafed and sank several small launches in the harbor and a gunboat just outside.

The bombers sighted the already much-attacked seaplane tender and the destroyer which had been strafed by the fighters, after following the oil slick left by the latter. All concentrated on the seaplane tender, but by radical maneuvering the ship avoided all bombs, although two fell very close and the remainder within 50 yards. This was the final phase, and the last plane had landed aboard the Yorktown by 1702.


Analysis of various reports indicated that the following results had been achieved:

Damage to the enemy.

Ships sunk:

2 destroyers.
1 cargo ship.
4 gunboats.
Various small launches.

Ships damaged:

1 seaplane tender.
1 cargo ship.

Our damage.

2 fighter planes lost; both pilots rescued.
1 torpedo plane lost
2 torpedo planes, 3 bombers, 3 scouts damaged by bullets or shrapnel; all repaired.



The Tulagi operation was disappointing in terms of the ratio of ammunition expended to results achieved. This expenditure included, in all, 22 torpedoes, seventy-six 1,000-pound bombs, 12,570 rounds of .50-caliber and 70,095 rounds of .30-caliber machine-gun bullets. CINCPAC observed that the performance of the Yorktown air group, despite their "very creditable willingness and effort to keep after their enemy objective until it was destroyed," emphasized "how much proficiency drops off in wartime and necessity for target practices at every opportunity in order to keep pilots completely trained in all phases of aerial warfare."



At 0846 on the morning of May 5th Task Force FOX rendezvoused with Task Force BAKER and the ships of the Anzac Squadron at latitude 15°00' S., longitude 160°00' E., and all units were combined as Task Force FOX. A half hour before, the Yorktown had launched four fighters to investigate a radar contact. The fighters found and shot down an enemy four-engine flying boat. The enemy aircraft fell into the sea about 27 miles from the Yorktown but only 15 miles from the Lexington,


and it may have been that the "snooper" was following the group built around the latter. Previous to this, a Yorktown scout had sighted an enemy submarine on the surface on a course directly opposite that of his carrier. It was assumed that the enemy observation plane had been directing the submarine toward one of our task forces. However, an air search failed to locate the submarine and she was not heard from again.

All ships, now combined as Task Force FOX, fueled from the Neosho on the 5th and 6th. At 0730 on the 6th Admiral Fletcher's operation order to the force was placed in effect. The order outlined the facts concerning enemy movements and probable intentions which had led our ships to the Coral Sea. Roughly speaking, it organized Task Force FOX into an attack group of cruisers and destroyers for the purpose of making day and night attacks on enemy surface craft, and a support group of cruisers and destroyers to protect the carriers, with the proviso that either group might be assigned the mission of the other if circumstances warranted it. There were further ramifications, but the following excerpt from the order is a pretty good example of its marrow: "This force will destroy enemy ships, shipping, and aircraft at favorable opportunities in order to assist in checking further advances by enemy in the New Guinea-Solomon area."

The task organization of combatant unit was as follows:

Attack group--
Rear Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid:
CA Minneapolis, Capt. Frank J. Lowry.
CA New Orleans, Capt. Howard H. Good.
Rear Admiral William W. Smith:
CA Astoria, Capt. Francis W. Scanland.
CA Chester, Capt. Thomas M. Shock.
CA Portland, Capt. Benjamin Penman.
Capt. Alexander R. Early:
DD Phelps, Lt. Comdr. Edward L. Beck.
DD Dewey, Lt. Comdr. Charles F. Chillingworth, Jr.
DD Farragut, Comdr. George P. Hunter.
DD Aylwin, Lt. Comdr. Robert H. Rogers.
DD Monaghan, Lt. Comdr. William P. Burford.

Support group--
Rear Admiral I. G. Crace, R. N.:
CA Australia, Capt. H. B. Farncomb, R. A. N.
CA Chicago, Capt. Howard D. Bode.
CL Hobart, Capt. H. L. Howden, R. A. N
Comdr. Francis X. McInerney:
DD Perkins, Lt. Comdr. Walter C. Ford.
DD Walke, Lt. Comdr. Thomas E. Fraser.


Air group--
Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch:
CV Yorktown, Capt. Elliott Buckmaster.
CV Lexington, Capt. Frederick C. Sherman.
Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover:
DD Morris, Comdr. Harry B. Jarrett.
DD Anderson, Lt. Comdr. John K. B. Ginder.
DD Hammann, Comdr. Arnold E. True.
DD Russell, Lt. Comdr. Glenn R. Hartwig.

Operating in conjunction with the combatant ships were a fueling group and a search group. Comdr. John S. Phillips commanded the former, which consisted of the Neosho and Tippecanoe with the Sims and Worden as their respective escorts. The search group consisted of the seaplane tender Tangier and 12 patrol planes, under Comdr. G. H. DeBaun operating from a base at Noumea, New Caledonia.

The order specified that Task Force FOX was to operate in the Coral Sea about 700 miles south of Rabaul until word was received of an enemy advance. On the 5th, intelligence reports began to come in from CINCPAC and COMSOWESPAC placing a large number of enemy ships in the New Guinea-New Britain-Solomon Islands area. Practically every type of ship was reported, including three aircraft carriers, but the enemy units were scattered and for a while there seemed to be no common direction of movement. However, by the afternoon of the 6th it was becoming evident that an advance would be made on Port Moresby through Jomard Passage in the Louisiade Archipelago. It was also felt that the Japanese would attempt to establish a base in the Deboyne Islands en route. May 7th or 8th was given as the date on which the enemy advance might begin.

Task Force FOX, meanwhile, because of sea and wind conditions, had been fueling on a southeasterly course. But when Admiral Fletcher got word of the impending Japanese movement he ordered the fueling discontinued and took his force northwestward so that he would be in a position to strike the enemy by daylight of May 7th. The Neosho and Sims were detached to operate to the southward in accordance with fueling rendezvous provisions. Both were sunk as a result of enemy bombing attacks on the 7th.3


By 0600 on the 7th Task Force FOX was at latitude 13°25.5' S., longitude 154°48' E. Admiral Fletcher here detached the support group, plus the Farragut sending it ahead to attack enemy transports and light cruisers which were reported to be heading for Port Moresby through Jomard Passage. The support group reached a position about 110 miles southeast of the South Cape, New Guinea, later in the day, where it successfully beat off an attack by enemy bombers and torpedo planes.4


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1 The force remained to the southward of Guadalcanal throughout the attack following a zigzag course in a northeasterly direction. The Yorktown changed course and speed according to doctrine, with the screening vessels maintaining position on her in disposition "Victor."

2 See appendix, p.47.

3 See appendix, p. 48.

4 See appendix, p.53.

Last updated: September 14, 2002

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation