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Battle of the Coral Sea - Recovery, reassessment and retreat

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Recovery, reassessment, and retreat

The strike forces, with many damaged aircraft, reached and landed on their respective carriers between 12:50 and 14:30. In spite of their damage, Yorktown and Lexington were both able to recover aircraft from their returning air groups. During recovery operations, for various reasons the US lost an additional five SBDs, two TBDs, and a Wildcat, and the Japanese lost two Zeros, five dive bombers, and one torpedo plane. Forty-six out of the original 69 aircraft from the Japanese strike force returned from the mission and landed on Zuikaku. Of these, three more Zeros, four dive bombers, and five torpedo planes were judged damaged beyond repair and were immediately jettisoned into the ocean.

As TF17 recovered its aircraft, Fletcher assessed the situation. The returning aviators reported that they had heavily damaged one carrier, but that another had escaped damage. Fletcher noted that both his carriers were hurt and that his air groups had suffered high fighter losses. At 14:22, Fitch notified Fletcher that he had reports of two undamaged Japanese carriers and that this was supported by radio intercepts. Believing that he faced overwhelming Japanese carrier superiority, Fletcher elected to withdraw TF17 from the battle.

Around 14:30, Hara informed Takagi that only 24 Zeros, eight dive bombers, and four torpedo planes from the carriers remained operational. At 15:00, Takagi notified Inoue that his fliers had sunk two American carriers, but that heavy losses in aircraft meant that he could not continue to provide air cover for the invasion. Inoue immediately recalled the invasion convoy, postponed Mo to July 3, and ordered his forces to redeploy to begin the Ry operation. Zuikaku and her escorts turned towards Rabaul while Shōkaku headed for Japan.

On Lexington, damage control had put out the fires and restored her to operational condition, however at 12:47, sparks from unattended electric motors ignited gas fumes near the ship's central control station. The resulting explosion killed 25 men and started a large fire. Around 14:42, another large explosion occurred, starting a second severe fire. A third explosion occurred at 15:25 and at 15:38 the ship's crew reported the fires as uncontrollable. Lexington's crew began abandoning ship at 17:07. After the carrier's crew was rescued, including Fitch and the carrier's captain, Frederick C. Sherman, at 19:15 the destroyer Phelps fired five torpedoes into the burning ship, which sank in 2400 fathoms at 19:52. Two-hundred sixteen of the carrier's 2,951-man crew went down with the ship, along with 36 aircraft. Phelps and the other assisting warships left immediately to rejoin Yorktown and her escorts, which had departed at 16:01, and together TF17's warships retired to the southwest.

That evening, Crace detached Hobart, which was low on fuel, and the destroyer Walke, which was having engine trouble, to proceed to Brisbane. Crace remained on patrol with the rest of TG17.3 in the Coral Sea in case the Japanese invasion force resumed its advance towards Port Moresby.


On May 9, TF17 altered course to the eastward and proceeded out of the Coral Sea via a route south of New Caledonia. Nimitz ordered Fletcher to return Yorktown to Pearl Harbor as soon as possible after refueling at Tongatabu. During the day US Army bombers attacked Deboyne and Kamikawa Maru, inflicting unknown damage. At 01:00 on May 10, Crace turned towards Australia and arrived at Cid Harbor on May 11.

At 22:00 on May 8, Yamamoto ordered Takagi to turn around and destroy the remaining Allied warships. Critically low on fuel, Takagi's warships spent most of the day of May 9 refueling from the fleet oiler Tōhō Maru. Late in the evening of May 9, Takagi and Gotō headed southeast, then southwest into the Coral Sea. Seaplanes from Deboyne assisted Takagi in searching for TF17. Fletcher's ships, however, were already well on their way out of the area. At 13:00 on May 10, Takagi concluded that the Americans were gone and decided to turn back towards Rabaul. Yamamoto concurred with Takagi's decision and ordered Zuikaku to return to Japan to replenish her air groups. At the same time, Kamikawa Maru packed up and departed Deboyne.

At noon on May 11, a US Navy PBY on patrol sighted the drifting Neosho. The US destroyer Henley responded and rescued 109 Neosho and 14 Sims survivors later that day, then scuttled the tanker with torpedoes.

On May 10, the Ry operation commenced. After the operation's flagship, the minelayer Okinoshima, was sunk by the American submarine S-42 on May 12, the landings were postponed to May 17. In the meantime, Halsey's TF-16 reached the South Pacific near Efate and, on May 13, headed north to contest the Japanese approach to Nauru and Ocean Island. On May 14, King and Nimitz, having obtained intelligence concerning the Combined Fleet's upcoming operation against Midway, ordered Halsey to make sure that Japanese scout aircraft sighted his ships the next day, after which he was to return to Pearl Harbor immediately. At 10:15 on May 15, a Kawanishi reconnaisance aircraft from Tulagi sighted TF-16 445 miles east of the Solomons. Halsey's feint worked. Fearing a carrier air attack on his exposed invasion forces, Inoue immediately canceled Ry and ordered his ships back to Rabaul and Truk. On May 16, TF-16 turned towards Pearl Harbor and arrived there on May 26. Yorktown reached Pearl the following day.

Shokaku reached Kure, Japan on May 17, almost capsizing en route during a storm due to her battle damage. Zuikaku arrived at Kure on May 21, having made a brief stop at Truk on May 15. Japan's Naval General Staff estimated that it would take two to three months to repair Shokaku and replenish the carriers' air groups. Thus, both carriers would be unable to particiapte in Yamamoto's upcoming Midway operation. The two carriers rejoined the Combined Fleet on July 14 and were key participants in subsequent carrier battles against US forces.

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

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