May of 1942 was a desperate time for the Allies in the South Pacific. Japanese expansion had been literally unchecked for the first six months of the war. It was only the bravery of the outmatched men of the Navy, Army and Marines that stood between the Japanese and the land down under.
This was the first battle fought exclusively between the two fleet’s aircraft carriers and the first major naval battle in which the two groups never came into close enough contact to see each other. Their planes were the only ones who carried forward the battle to a hellish effect.
In the end, both sides knew that victory was imperative to survival. On the Japanese side, it was survival of the tide forward which would help them establish a new boundary. For the Allies, it was desperation which meant the stemming of that tide and the preservation of Australia as a place to carry the war forward at come point.
The story of the Lexington (CV 2) is one which reflects the bravery of the fighting men in a struggle for life or death and sets the stage for the coming months of many life and death struggles.
The entire after action report can be read here:
As I read the report, I tried to imagine myself as a member of ship’s company as the battle began with the sounds and smells of battle ranging around me. The attack that would lead to her loss was on the second day of battle. As a member of a crew (especially engineering) you can do nothing more than man your station, do your assigned work and pray. Aircraft carriers are particularly large targets and despite their speed, they are no match for diving torpedo planes and dive bombers.
In the main space, you can feel the shudder of the ship’s propellers as they grind against the ocean’s resistance. Every knot of speed may mean the difference between life and death. You can hear the pounding of the five inch anti-aircraft guns through the hull itself as they try to swat away the annoying bees trying to lay a stinger on you. Heat from the steam boilers and the South Pacific air combine below decks to punish you through every minute of time. The ship is locked down for battle stations so the fresh air you might get is restricted at best.
Then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, an explosion rips through the flight deck above you. You have to be thinking about the poor bastards who just bought it and then the most worrisome thoughts flash through your mind… what if we can’t make it out? Training and pure adrenaline kick in then as you follow the orders of the Chiefs and Officers with you. Keep the ship going and keep the power on. The only hope of survival is to make sure the pumps for the fire hoses stay alive.
After the main attack, the Executive Officer makes his tour of the damaged ship. Initial reports seem to indicate that even with the direct hits, most of the fires and damage were under control. Repair parties were rescuing men and containing the damage as best as possible. Unfortunately, one of the torpedo’s ruptured the gasoline system and fumes were spreading through several machinery spaces that were unmanned.
Smoke and fumes were present throughout the ship now and working under these conditions challenged even the strongest men to stay on station.
More fires and another explosion deep with the ship set in motion the final blows that sealed her fate. Seeing the entire forward part of the ship now being engaged with the burning fires and knowing that those same fires were racing towards the ammunition stores in the ready rooms, the Executive officer returned to the bridge. Once there, he informed the Captain about the increasingly desperate situation and a decision was made to abandon the engineering spaces.
As a Snipe, I can tell you that there could have been no sweeter sound than that order. But you still have to race up many decks in smoky conditions to get to freedom.
There are no elevators and hatches are often dogged down to prevent spreading fires. Only your skill and training (with a lot of luck) will get you out. Two hundred and sixteen of the carrier’s 2,951-man crew went down with the ship, a large proportion of them were engineers. Their remains forever rest in the Coral Sea with her gallant ship. The Captain is the last person off and it takes five American torpedoes to sink her. She remains in her graveyard to this day.
The Japanese scored a tactical victory at Coral Sea but in the end, her losses were more significant than they could imagine. In the next action at Midway, two carriers that may have shifted the tide were not available and more significantly, their pilots and planes were lost – most never to be replaced. This would continue to haunt the Japanese all the way back to Tokyo Wan.
The Japanese press celebrated their continuing victories but the real results were much less than needed for a final victory. The Invasion of Port Moresby was stopped. The invaders returned to Truk with their plans in disarray and the code breakers in Pearl Harbor ensured the remaining US Carriers were ready for their roles at Midway a month later. The Japanese advance would go no further.
English: A propaganda cartoon in the Japanese English-language newspaper Japan Times & Advertiser on May 13, 1942 depicts, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Coral Sea, a mournful Uncle Sam joining Winston Churchill in erecting grave markers for ships that the Imperial Japanese Navy claimed to have sunk up to that point in World War II. The Japanese claimed to have sunk the Saratoga, Yorktown, and California during the Battle of the Coral Sea. In reality, the Lexington was sunk and the Yorktown was damaged.
13 May 1942(1942-05-13)
Source:Scanned from book: Cressman, Robert (2004), That Gallant Ship USS Yorktown (CV-5), Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, p. 118.
There were untold acts of exceptionalism all throughout the naval wars in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. It is easy sitting from such a far away vantage point to assign less heroic values to a battle. Ships move and fight. Some are won and lost. But in the end, no ship, no submarine, no plane of any kind from that era ever did any of those things without the incredible bravery of the men who put their lives into the breach.
War has always been a horrible and cruel device. The aggressors who use war as a means of intimidation bear a large cost and answer for their actions in both this life and the next. The men who stand between them and the rest of us are forever heroes whose sacrifices in times of desperation can never be fully measured by non-participants. They did not ask for war. But when the moment of need arose, they answered.
God rest your souls, boys. The Executive Officer in his after action report asked for two things. The first was that his crew could be held together as much as possible to continue the fight against the Japanese. The second was that the Navy would name another ship after the Lexington.
He got his wish. The USS Lexington (CV 16) sailed into history within a year and was engaged in every major battle in the march to Tokyo.
She was also the longest lasting Essex Class carrier serving in one role or another until 1991.