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Carrier battle, second dayAttack on the Japanese carriers
At 06:15 on May 8, from a position 100 miles southeast of Rossel Island, Hara launched seven torpedo bombers to search the area bearing 140 to 230 degrees south and out to 250 miles from the Japanese carriers. Assisting in the search were three Kawanishi Type 97s from Tulagi and four Type 1 bombers from Rabaul. At 07:00, the carrier striking force turned to the southwest and was joined by two of Gotō's cruisers, Kinugasa and Furutaka, to help provide additional screening support. During the night the warm frontal zone with low-hanging clouds which had helped hide the American carriers on May 7 had moved north and east and now covered the Japanese carriers, limiting visibility to between two and 15 miles. At 06:25, TF17, operating under Fitch's tactical control, launched 18 SBDs to conduct a 360-degree search out to 200 miles. The skies over the American carriers were clear, with almost unlimited visibility horizon to horizon.
At 08:20, a Lexington SBD piloted by Joseph G. Smith spotted the Japanese carriers through a hole in the clouds and notified TF17. Two minutes later, a Shōkaku search plane commanded by Kenzō Kanno sighted TF17 and notified Hara. The two forces were about 210 miles away from each other. Both sides raced to launch their strike aircraft.
At 09:15, the Japanese carriers launched a combined strike of 18 fighters, 33 dive bombers, and 18 torpedo planes, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Kakuichi Takahashi. The American carriers each launched a separate strike force. Yorktown's group consisted of six fighters, 24 dive bombers, and 9 torpedo planes and was on its way by 09:15. Lexington's group of nine fighters, 15 dive bombers, and 12 torpedo planes was off at 09:25. Both the American and Japanese carrier warship forces turned to head directly for each other's location at high speed in order to shorten the distance their aircraft would have to fly on their return legs.
Attack on the US carriers
Yorktown's dive bombers, lead by William O. Burch, reached the Japanese carriers at 10:32 and paused to allow the slower torpedo squadron to arrive so that they could conduct a simultaneous attack. At this time Shōkaku and Zuikaku were about 10,000 yards apart, with Zuikaku hidden under a rain squall of low-hanging clouds. The two carriers were protected by 16 CAP Zero fighters. The Yorktown dive bombers commenced their attacks at 10:57 on Shōkaku and hit the radically maneuvering carrier with two 1,000 pound bombs, tearing open the forecastle and causing heavy damage to the carrier's flight and hangar decks. The Yorktown torpedo planes missed with all of their ordnance. One other US dive bomber and two CAP Zeros were shot down during the attack.
The Lexington aircraft arrived and attacked Shōkaku beginning at 11:30, hitting the carrier with one 1,000 pound bomb, causing further damage. All of Lexington's torpedoes missed. The 13 CAP Zeros on patrol at this time shot down three Wildcats.
With her flight deck heavily damaged and 223 of her crew killed or wounded, Shōkaku was unable to conduct further aircraft operations. Her captain, Takaji Joshima, requested permission from Takagi and Hara to withdraw from the battle, to which Takagi agreed. At 12:10, Shōkaku, accompanied by cruisers Kinugasa and Furutaka and two destroyers, retired to the northeast.
At 10:55, Lexington's CXAM-1 radar detected the inbound Japanese aircraft at a range of 68 mi (126 km) and vectored nine Wildcats to intercept. Expecting the Japanese torpedo bombers to be at a much lower altitude than they actually were, six of the Wildcats were stationed too low, and thus missed the Japanese aircraft as they passed by overhead. Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki, commanding the Japanese torpedo planes, sent 14 to attack Lexington and four to attack Yorktown. A Wildcat shot down one and 8 patrolling Yorktown SBDs destroyed three more as the Japanese torpedo planes descended to take attack position. Four SBDs were shot down by Zeros escorting the torpedo planes.
The Japanese attack began at 11:16 as the carriers and their escorts opened fire with their anti-aircraft guns. The four torpedo planes which attacked Yorktown all missed. The remaining torpedo planes successfully employed a pincer attack on Lexington, which had a much larger turning radius than Yorktown, and, at 11:20, hit her with two torpedoes. The first torpedo buckled the port stowage gasoline tanks storing highly flammable aviation fuel. Undetected, gasoline vapors spread into surrounding compartments. The second torpedo ruptured the port water main, reducing water pressure to the three forward firerooms and forcing the associated boilers to be shut down. The ship, however, could still make 24 knots with her remaining boilers. Four of the Japanese torpedo planes were shot down by anti-aircraft fire.
The 33 Japanese dive bombers circled to attack from upwind, and thus did not begin their dives from 14,000 feet until three to four minutes after the torpedo planes had begun their attacks. The nineteen Shōkaku dive bombers, under Takahashi, lined up on Lexington while the remainder, directed by Tamotsu Ema, targeted Yorktown. Escorting Zeros shielded Takahashi's aircraft from four Lexington CAP Wildcats which attempted to intervene, but two Wildcats circling above Yorktown were able to disrupt Ema's formation. Takahashi's bombers damaged Lexington with two bomb hits and several near misses, causing fires which were contained by 12:33. Yorktown, at 11:27, was hit by a single 250-kilogram, semi-armor-piercing bomb in the center of her flight deck which penetrated four decks before exploding, causing severe damage to an aviation storage room and killing 40 men, including Milton Ernest Ricketts. Up to 12 near misses damaged Yorktown's hull below the waterline. Two of the dive bombers were shot down during the attack.
As the Japanese aircraft completed their attacks and began to withdraw, believing that they had inflicted fatal damage to both carriers, they ran a gauntlet of CAP Wildcats and SBDs. In the ensuing aerial duels, three SBDs and three Wildcats for the US, and three torpedo planes, one dive bomber, and one Zero for the Japanese were downed. By 12:00, the US and Japanese strike groups were on their way back to their respective carriers. During their return, aircraft from the two adversaries passed each other in the air, resulting in more air-to-air altercations. Kanno's and Takahashi's aircraft were shot down, killing both of them.