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Battle of the Coral Sea - Afternoon operations

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Battle of the Coral Sea
Allied response
Carrier battle, first day
Afternoon operations
Carrier battle, second day
Recovery, reassessment and retreat
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Afternoon operations

The American aircraft returned and landed on their carriers by 13:38. By 14:20 the aircraft were rearmed and ready to launch against the Port Moresby Invasion Force or Gotō's cruisers. Fletcher, however, after learning that his aircraft had sunk a light carrier, was concerned that the location of the two Japanese fleet carriers, a more important target and a significant threat to his ships, was still unknown. He concluded that by the time his scout aircraft located the two Japanese carriers it would be too late in the day to mount a strike. Thus, Fletcher decided to hold off on another strike this day and remain in place, hidden under a thick overcast with fighters ready to defend against any Japanese attacks.

Apprised of the loss of Shōhō, Inoue ordered the invasion convoy to temporarily withdraw to the north and ordered Takagi to destroy the American carrier forces. At 12:40, a Deboyne-based seaplane sighted and reported Crace's force bearing 175 degrees, 78 miles from Deboyne. At 13:15, an aircraft from Rabaul sighted Crace's force but submitted an erroneous report, stating that the force contained two carriers and was located 205 degrees, 115 miles from Deboyne. Based on these reports, Takagi, who was still waiting on the return of all of his aircraft from attacking the Neosho, advised Inoue at 15:00 that the US carriers were at least 430 miles to the west of his location and that therefore, he would be unable to attack them that day.

Inoue's staff directed two groups of attack aircraft from Rabaul, already airborne since that morning, towards Crace's reported position. The first group included 12 torpedo-armed Type 1 bombers and the second group comprised 20 Mitsubishi Type 96 land attack aircraft armed with bombs. Both groups found and attacked Crace's ships at 14:30 and claimed to have sunk a "California-type" battleship and damaged another battleship and cruiser. In reality, Crace's ships were undamaged and shot down four of the Type 1 bombers. A short time later, three US Army B-17s mistakenly bombed Crace, but caused no damage. Crace radioed Fletcher at 15:26 and told him that he could not complete his mission without air support. Crace retired southward to increase the range from Japanese aircraft based at Rabaul, but to still be in position to try to intercept any Japanese naval forces advancing beyond the Louisiades.

Shortly after 15:00, Zuikaku monitored a message from a Japanese reconnaisance aircraft reporting that Crace's force had altered course towards the southeast. Takagi's staff assumed the aircraft was shadowing Fletcher's carriers and determined that if the Allied ships held that course, the US carriers would be in range shortly before nightfall. Takagi and Hara determined to immediately launch a selected group of attack aircraft, without fighter escort, to attack the Allied ships even though it meant that the strike force would return after dark.

To try to confirm the location of the American carriers, Hara sent, at 15:15, a flight of eight torpedo bombers to sweep westward 200 miles. About that same time, the dive bombers returned from the attack on Neosho and landed. Six of the weary dive bomber pilots were told that they would be immediately departing on another strike mission against the American carriers. Selecting his most experienced pilots, at 16:15 Hara launched a strike force of 12 dive bombers and 15 torpedo planes.

At 17:47, TF17, operating under thick overcast 190 miles west of Takagi, detected the Japanese strike on radar heading in their direction and vectored 11 CAP Wildcats, including one piloted by James H. Flatley, to intercept. Taking the Japanese formation by surprise the Wildcats shot down seven torpedo bombers, one dive bomber, and heavily damaged another torpedo bomber (which later crashed), at a cost of three Wildcats lost.

Having taken heavy losses in the attack which also scattered their formations, the Japanese strike leaders canceled the mission after conferring by radio. The Japanese aircraft all jettisoned their ordnance and reversed course to return to their carriers. The sun set at 18:30. Three of the Japanese dive bombers encountered the American carriers in the darkness and, briefly confused as to their identity, circled in preparation for landing before anti-aircraft fire from TF17's destroyers drove them away. Hara turned on his carriers' searchlights to help guide his surviving aircraft back and all were recovered by 22:00.

As nightfall ended aircraft operations for the day, Fletcher ordered TF17 to head west and prepared to launch a 360-degree search at first light. Inoue directed Takagi to make sure he destroyed the US carriers the next day and postponed the Port Moresby landings to May 12. Takagi elected to take his carriers 120 miles north during the night so that he could concentrate his morning search to the west and south and ensure that his carriers could provide better protection for the invasion convoy. Both sides expected to find each other early the next day and spent the night preparing their strike aircraft for the anticipated battle as their exhausted aircrews attempted to get a few hours sleep.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 18 April 2009 14:12 )  

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