As Task Force FOX moved northward on the morning of the 7th, Admiral Fletcher conducted air searches in an effort to obtain information concerning Japanese ships, particularly carriers, and to locate a suitable objective for attack. It was possible that three enemy carriers were within striking distance, but no word of the movement of these ships had been received since the previous afternoon. Ten Yorktown scout planes were detailed to cover the area in the vicinity of Deboyne Island in the Louisiades. At 0845 one of the scouts reported 2 enemy carriers and 4 heavy cruisers at latitude 10°03' S., longitude 152°27' E., on course 140° true at a speed of 18 to 20 knots. Preparations were made to launch the attack groups from both carriers.
The other scouts, meanwhile, met with varying successes. One plane found two enemy heavy cruisers at latitude 10°40' S., longitude 153°15' E. on course 310° at low speed. The ships challenged him with two long flashes on a searchlight. Two scouts each shot down one twin-float monoplane resembling the Kawanishi type 94 torpedo bomber, one near Misima Island and the other at latitude 10°35' S., longitude 156°43' E. There were no other contacts. However, one scout assigned the eastern sector with a median 067° went out only about 165 of his designated 250 miles, turning back because of bad weather. Subsequent events indicated that two carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, were in the bad weather area not fully searched.
The air groups.
To get back to immediate developments, however, it was decided to launch a combined attack group: objective the two carriers reported by the Yorktown scout at 0845 north of Misima Island. The Lexington planes began taking off first, at about 0925. There were 10 fighters (F4F), 28 scout bombers (SBD), and 12 torpedo planes (TBD). Eight SBD's were retained over the ship for use as antitorpedo plane patrol.
Beginning at approximately 1014, the Yorktown launched 8 fighters (F4F), 24 scout bombers (SBD), and 10 torpedo planes (TBD). The combined attack group thus numbered 92 planes.
Comdr. William B. Ault was the Lexington group commander. Heading the fighters, Fighting Squadron TWO, was Lt. Comdr. Paul H. Ramsey; the scouts, Scouting Squadron TWO, Lt. Comdr. Robert E Dixon; the dive bombers, Bombing Squadron TWO, Lt. Comdr. Weldon L. Hamilton, and the torpedo planes, Torpedo Squadron TWO, Lt. Comdr. James H. Brett. The Yorktown group and squadron commanders were the same as at Tulagi.
Weather favored Task Force FOX. The ships were in a frontal area extending east and west. In the early morning there were strato-cumulus clouds, which developed into cumulus, alto-stratus and cirrus by noon. There were, however, sufficient breaks in the clouds to allow planes to be launched and landed without undue difficulty. Visibility was generally limited to 10 or 15 miles, reduced to less than a mile by several rain squalls. The wind was east to east southeast, blowing at 12 to 22 knots, and increasing in gusts to as much as 30 knots. At sunset there was a pronounced haze, with visibility limited to 4 miles. This frontal area which helped conceal our ships ended about 50 miles to the northward. Beyond, where the enemy lay, the weather was fine, ceiling unlimited, and visibility of 20 miles or more.
The launching was done within 160 miles of the objective, and the combined air attack group was well on its way by 1100 when the Yorktown search planes returned to that carrier. It was then discovered that due to an improper arrangement of the pilot's code contact pad that the report of 2 enemy carriers at latitude 10°03' S., longitude 152°27' E. was in error. The pilot actually had seen 2 heavy cruisers and 2 light cruisers and had thought he was reporting these ships to the task force. The improperly adjusted code pad had caused the launching of the attack group on a false mission. Little in the way of official comment is available concerning the reactions to this realization, but it must have been a tense moment. In any case, it was deemed expedient to allow the planes to continue, and this proved a wise decision, for not long afterward information was received from shore-based reconnaissance planes of the Australian command that a carrier, 16 miscellaneous warships and 10 transports had been sighted at latitude 10°34' 5., longitude 152°26' E. on course 285°. As is obvious, this position was not far from that given
by the unfortunate Yorktown scout. At 1123 the word was passed to the attack groups. They changed course slightly, and at approximately 1130 the Lexington group, which was leading, made contact with the enemy north of Misima Island.
Before going into details of our attack, it should be pointed out that there are obvious differences in the reports of the two carrier groups concerning the action. For instance, the Lexington pilots said that they saw only a carrier, while the Yorktown flyers described the enemy force as consisting of a carrier, one very large cruiser, three heavy cruisers and one light cruiser. Moreover, both carrier groups gave the impression that they attacked alone, whereas the times that they "pushed over" were very close together. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that only one enemy carrier was attacked, since the Yorktown pilots said that the ship they struck was afire aft when they began their attack.
The Lexington group.
This is how Captain Sherman, commanding officer of the Lexington, reported the tactics of that carrier's planes after an analysis of the statements of pilots participating:
Scouting Squadron TWO, consisting of 10 SBD's loaded with one 500-pound and two 100-pound bombs per plane, attacked first. Two confirmed 500-pound bomb hits were made, one on the enemy carrier's stern about 50 feet from the ramp, and the other in the center of the flight deck about two-thirds of the way aft.
Soon after the scouts released their bombs, Bombing Squadron TWO and Torpedo Squadron TWO made a coordinated attack at 1145. The 16 dive-bombers, all armed with 1,000-pounders, obtained 5 direct hits and the torpedo planes were credited with 9 hits out of 12 drops. This would seem to have been sufficient to destroy any carrier imaginable, and it is a puzzling fact that when the Yorktown planes arrived on the scene shortly afterward they reported the enemy "flat top" turning into the wind as though preparing to launch planes, with only one fire visible from the air and that a small one.
Enemy fighter opposition was encountered by several Lexington planes during the attack and withdrawal. Lt. Edward Allen, executive officer of Scouting Squadron TWO, who had won the Navy Cross for his heroic part in the defense of the Lexington against Japanese bombers off Rabaul the previous February, was shot down. Another plane of the
same squadron, piloted by Lt. (j.g.) Anthony I. Quigley, made a forced landing on Rossel Island after his control wires were shot away. Lieutenant Quigley and his radioman were later rescued by the Australians.
The enemy fighters encountered near the enemy carrier were of the Nakajima type 97. Although extremely maneuverable, these planes were not very effective. Four were shot down by our fighters and rear-seat gunners in the scouts. A fifth enemy aircraft, described as a torpedo plane, also was shot down near the scene of our attack.
With the exception of the two SBD's shot down, the entire Lexington group had returned to the carrier and landed by about 1345.
The Yorktown group.
The estimate of the part played by the Yorktown group in attacking the enemy carrier, as reported by Captain Buckmaster, commanding officer, follows:
Yorktown planes first sighted the enemy at 1130, at a point about 20 miles northeast of Misima. As mentioned previously, the Japanese force observed included a carrier, a very large cruiser or battleship, 3 heavy cruisers and 1 light cruiser. As our planes approached they saw part of the Lexington group attack. The enemy ships maneuvered violently at high speed. After the Lexington planes departed, the enemy carrier ceased maneuvering and turned into the wind, "a perfect target." At 1147 Scouting Squadron FIVE, followed closely by Bombing Squadron FIVE, made their dives down wind from an altitude of 18,000 feet. There were 24 SBD's, all armed with 1,000-pound bombs, in the 2 squadrons, and they clairned 14 direct hits. So great was the destruction that the last bomber pulled away and released his bomb at the light cruiser. He made a direct hit on the stern, and the ship sank rapidly.
Torpedo Squadron FIVE, coming in low, found the enemy carrier listing to starboard and burning fiercely. Only a small section of the bow was visible through the smoke, and only 2 light guns were seen to be firing. Utilizing the smoke, the torpedo planes approached very close and scored 10 hits out of as many drops. Within 3 minutes after the last torpedo had struck, the enemy carrier disappeared beneath the surface. She subsequently was identified as the Shoho, but was erroneously called the Ryukaku for some time.
No fighter opposition was encountered during the Yorktown's attack.
Later, however, both bombers and torpedo planes were attacked by about six Nakajima type 97 fighters and three other planes of the scout bomber type. Scouting Squadron FIVE planes engaged two of the enemy scouts and made hits that caused them to break off the fight.
Our escorting fighters, meanwhile, had been divided in half, four assigned to our dive bombers and four to the torpedo planes. They engaged the enemy and shot down three fighters and one scout bomber. Two other enemy planes were damaged.
The Yorktown group, minus one dive bomber, had landed aboard by 1338. The missing plane was last seen on the return flight when it broke off to attack an enemy plane.
Consideration was given to the idea of launching a second attack against enemy ships which had been reported in the Deboyne Island area, but this was not done because there were indications that other enemy carriers, not yet located, were in the vicinity.
COMBAT AIR PATROL ON THE 7TH
While our attack groups were sinking the Shoho, Task Force FOX maintained a combat air patrol. Planes from both carriers were controlled by the Lexington fighter director. The protecting planes were kept busy. Radar picked up the first "bogey" at 0903, a single plane, and Lexington fighters were vectored out to intercept, but failed to make contact. At 1049 the Yorktown also put a combat patrol into the air, and planes of one or the other carrier were kept aloft all day.
At 1114 a section of Yorktown fighters located and shot down an enemy four-engined flying boat about 40 miles from the task force.
When it was decided, after the sinking of the Shoho, not to send out another attack group until more had been learned of the two other enemy carriers believed operating nearby, it also was decided to rely upon our shore-based aircraft to find these carriers. But as the day wore on and nothing was reported, Admiral Fletcher, after an estimate of the situation, determined to head northwestward during the night, it being expected that the enemy would pass through Jomard Passage before morning, heading for Port Moresby in force, probably accompanied by a carrier.
The situation was altered, however, by subsequent developments. Bogeys continued to appear on the radar screen, and at 1653 fighters were
vectored out to investigate a plane bearing 315°, distance 18 miles. The fighters failed to intercept, probably because of the increasingly poor visibility, although this plane came within 9 miles of the task force and was identified as an enemy seaplane by surface lookouts.
The Yorktown fighters were not equipped with radar identification means, and, because of this, considerable effort was wasted. Fighters were being sent out continually to investigate planes which proved to be friendly.
A large group of enemy planes was detected at 1747 bearing 145°, distance 18 miles. Soon afterward the Yorktown launched additional fighters and seven were sent out to intercept the approaching enemy formation. On the way they passed over several enemy planes which quickly disappeared in the haze. Two of our fighters broke formation to give chase and one of them was never heard from again. The remaining five sighted a group of Aichi type 99 dive bombers and shot one down before losing contact in the murk. Lexington fighters, about the same time, shot down five enemy planes from a formation encountered at approximately the same position. Yorktown pilots reported seeing five oil patches on the surface of the sea, which marked their end. The Lexington described the downed enemy planes as Zero fighters.
Admiral Fletcher viewed the presence of the enemy aircraft near our ships late in the day as an attempted attack, and was of the opinion that at least 15 of them had been shot down in all.
The Yorktown lost two fighters and the Lexington one from the combat patrols flown that evening. One Yorktown plane, mentioned above, broke formation and simply disappeared. The other became lost in the general melee and all efforts to direct him back to the carrier proved fruitless. At 20281 he was given directions to Tagula Island, but so far as is known did not make it. The lost Lexington fighter, piloted by Lt. (j.g.) Paul G. Baker, is believed to have collided with a Zero in combat.
The combat patrols were landed well after sunset. In the case of the Yorktown, this was begun at 1858 and completed at 1930. While the fighters were in the landing circle, about 1800, three enemy planes flew by on the starboard side flashing lights. As they crossed the bow to port a Yorktown fighter opened fire on them without visible effect. Again,
at 1910, enemy planes appeared over the Yorktown, which took them under small caliber fire briefly and drove them off.
There is some confusion among the different reports concerning the appearance of enemy planes over our task force. Captain Buckmaster of the Yorktown said that one enemy plane was downed by the fire of an unspecified screening ship, and that one of his carrier's planes was damaged by the firing.
Captain Sherman of the Lexington reported that planes also flew about his ship and that he opened fire upon receiving word from the Yorktown that they were hostile. He stated that the enemy planes mistook our force for their own, and that radar later showed them moving off only 30 miles to the eastward, circling, and apparently landing on a Japanese carrier.
At 2000 Task Force FOX was in latitude 13°10' S., longitude 154°13' E., on course 115° true.
In the morning repeated despatches from the Neosho had been received telling of the bombing attack on that ship and the Sims. The despatches, however, had not indicated whether or not the enemy planes making the attack were carrier-based. Such information would have been extremely valuable to Task Force FOX, since the Neosho and Sims were operating to the southeastward of the main body. Thus, after the twilight incident of enemy planes circling our carriers and being tracked to what must have been a carrier or carriers to the northeastward, Admiral Fletcher was left in doubt as to where the enemy lay in greatest force. On the basis of the radar information, he considered momentarily the idea of delivering a night surface attack on the enemy ships to the northeastward. "Had there been assurance of our surface force making contact, it might have been advisable for the carriers to retire to the southward," the Admiral later reported. "But had the surface force failed to make contact during the night, they might have met a disastrous air attack next day. All things considered, the best plan seemed to be to keep our force concentrated and prepare for a battle with enemy carriers next morning."
The Monaghan was detached during the night of the 7th-8th to search for survivors of the Neosho and Sims.
This left, besides the Yorktown and Lexington, five cruisers and seven destroyers, namely, the Astoria, Chester, Portland, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Phelps, Dewey, Aylwin, Morris, Anderson, Hammann, and Russell.
RESULTS OF THE 7TH
A combination of the estimates by Captains Sherman and Buckmaster of the damage dealt and received on the 7th showed the following:
- Damage to the enemy.
- Ships sunk:
- 1 aircraft carrier (Shoho), with most of her personnel and planes.
- 1 light cruiser, with many of her personnel.
- Planes shot down:
- 13 fighters, type 97 and Zero.
- 3 torpedo planes, type 94.
- 2 scout bombers.
- 1 four-engined patrol plane, type 97.
- Our damage.
- Planes shot down:
- 3 scout bombers (SBD), crew of one later saved.
- 3 fighters (F4F).
1 At 1700 clocks were set to minus 11 zone time. All times previously given on the 7th apply to minus 10 zone time.