Thursday, April 15, 2021

May 8, 1942: Lexington Sunk in the Coral Sea

Friday 8 May 1942

USS Lexington on fire and sinking, 8 May 1942
"A mushroom cloud rises after a heavy explosion on board the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2), 8 May 1942. This is probably the great explosion from the detonation of torpedo warheads stowed in the starboard side of the hangar, aft, that followed an explosion amidships at 1727 hrs. Note USS Yorktown (CV-5) on the horizon in the left center, and destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412) at the extreme left." Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-16651.
Battle of the Pacific: The Battle of the Coral Sea ends on 8 May 1942 with a classic tactical victory but strategic defeat for the Japanese. The Japanese Navy inflicts more damage on the Allies, but the Allies prevent it from accomplishing its main objectives and, by so doing, completely alter the course of the Battle of the Pacific.

Japanese Rear Admiral Chūichi Hara, on Zuikaku, is in tactical command of the carrier air forces aboard that ship and Shōkaku. He knows the US carrier force known to be nearby must be eliminated for the invasion of Port Moresby, which has been halted, to proceed. With his force about 100 nautical miles (120 miles, 190 km) east of Rossel Island, Hara sends out search planes at first light to locate the enemy force. About twenty minutes later, Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher does the same. A USS Lexington pilot is the first to spot the enemy's position, quickly followed by a Shōkaku search plane sighting US Task Force 17. After the violent maneuvers of 7 May, the two opposing carrier forces are about 210 nautical miles (240 miles, 390 km) apart - close enough to attack.

The Japanese get their planes aloft by 09:15, and the Americans by 09:25. The carrier groups both head for each other's position at flank speed. The stage is set for a decisive carrier battle.
US Navy fighters taking off
The USS Yorktown's dive bombers (William O. Burch) reach their target first, at 10:32, but pause to await lagging formations to catch up before launching a coordinated attack. The Japanese have 16 Zero fighters patrolling over the two carriers, which are about 10,000 yards (9100 meters) apart. The weather is mixed, with low-hanging clouds and rain squalls. The attack begins at 10:57 and quickly scores two 1,000 lb (450 kg) hits on Shōkaku. Each side loses two planes.

Lexington's dive bombers attack next, at 11:30. They hit the Shōkaku with another 1000 lb bomb but miss the Zuikaku. The Japanese shoot down three Grumman F4F Wildcats without loss. Takatsugu Jōjima, the Shōkaku's captain, then withdraws his battered ship at 12:10 to the northeast.

While the attack on the Japanese carriers is in progress, Task Force 17 detects the incoming Japanese bombers on their CXAM-1 radar. A Close Air Patrol of six Wildcats is sent up, but it stations itself too low, completely missing the Japanese planes above. Some Yorktown SBDs, however, have better luck. The commander of the torpedo planes, Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki, directs 14 to attack Lexington and four to target Yorktown. The Japanese lose three planes to the SBDs and another to the Wildcats at a cost of four SBDs to the bombers' Zero escorts.
USS Lexington on fire and sinking, 8 May 1942
" Japanese Type 97 Shipboard Attack Plane (Kate torpedo bomber) is hit by anti-aircraft fire during attacks on the U.S. aircraft carriers, late in the morning of 8 May 1942." Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-16638.
The Japanese torpedo attack begins at 11:13 against the two US carriers, which are stationed about 3000 yards (2700 meters) apart. While no hits are scored on Yorktown, it is a much different story regarding Lexington.  Coming in from both sides, the torpedo bombers get their first hit at 11:20, which punctures the port aviation gasoline stowage tanks and releases gasoline vapors. A second hit soon after destroys the port water main, forcing the three forward boilers to be shut down. The Japanese lose an additional four torpedo planes during this attack.

A few minutes after the torpedo planes attack, the Japanese dive bombers begin their attacks from 14,000 feet, with 19 aiming for Lexington and 14 diving on Yorktown. They score two hits on Lexington, starting numerous fires, and one on Yorktown. The hit on Yorktown is particularly damaging, causing 66 casualties and putting the superheater boilers out of action. A dozen near-misses also deform Yorktown's hull. The Japanese lose two dive bombers during this attack.

The Japanese dive bombers largely escaped the defending fighters during the attack, but once they are at sea level wild air battles ensue. The US loses three Wildcats and three SBDs, while the Japanese lose three torpedo bombers, a dive bomber, and a Zero. After this, the planes from both sides turn toward their own carriers at around 12:00.

Lexington and Yorktown, despite both receiving heavy damage, both remain operational. However, the plane recovery process goes poorly and they lose an additional five SBDs, two TBDs, and a Wildcat. The Japanese on Zuikaku suffer similar issues and lose five dive bombers, two Zeros, and a torpedo plane. Due to damage and lack of deck space due to the damage to the inability of Shōkaku to recover its planes, the Japanese push five recovered torpedo planes, four dive bombers, and three additional Zeros overboard.
USS Lexington on fire and sinking, 8 May 1942
"USS Lexington (CV-2) under Japanese dive bomber attack, shortly before Noon on 8 May 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea." Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-19100.
At 14:22, Fletcher decides that he has had enough and withdraws. Hara reports to Takagi that he has lost all but a dozen of his bombers, and Takagi, worried about his fuel situation, withdraws at 15:00.

Attention now shifts in both fleets from offensive operations to saving their own damaged ships. At first, it appears that Lexington can handle her multiple hits. The crew puts out the worst fires and she becomes operational again. However, at 12:47, sparks from electric motors ignite the gasoline vapors released from the first torpedo strike, causing a huge explosion that kills 25 men. There is another explosion at 14:42, and a third at 15:25. At 15:38, the fires are out of control and the crew realizes the situation is hopeless. Captain Frederick C. Sherman orders the crew to abandon the ship, and at 19:15 escorting destroyer Phelps pumps five torpedoes into the flaming hulk of "Lady Lex." It sinks at 19:52, with 216 deaths from the 2951-man crew. It also takes 36 aircraft with it.

On the Japanese side, Takagi sends Zuikaku with her escorts to Rabaul, while the badly damaged Shōkaku heads for Japan. The Port Moresby invasion remains off, though Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is still determined to continue when the time is right. The Japanese have sunk a US fleet carrier, a destroyer, and an oiler, along with the destruction of dozens of US planes, while the Americans have sunk only a Japanese light carrier. This is a close but clear Japanese tactical victory. But the Allies' ability to prevent the invasion of Port Moresby and blunt the Japanese military's heretofore unchecked advance south represents a much more important and lasting strategic victory. The Battle of the Coral Sea also is renowned as the first sea battle where no ship sights an enemy ship or fires at one.

US Navy submarine USS Skipjack torpedoes and sinks 4804-ton Japanese freighter Bujun Maru in the South China Sea.

USS Navy submarine USS Grenadier torpedoes and sinks 14503-ton Japanese naval transport Taiyo Maru 92 nautical miles (170 km) southwest of Me Shima, Nannyo Gunto, Kyushu, Japan. There are 816 deaths and 15 survivors, who are picked up by several nearby ships and a fishing vessel.
USS Lexington on fire and sinking, 8 May 1942
"Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942. Abandoning of USS Lexington (CV-2) following the Battle of the Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. Small explosions amid-ship is visible." Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-16637.
Battle of the Indian Ocean: An attempted mutiny in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands by Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) troops against the British fails. As illustrated by the final words of one of the mutineers - "Loyalty to a country under the heel of a white man is disloyalty" - there are elements of nationalism and racism to the uprising.

The mutineers, 30 men of the Ceylon Garrison Artillery on Horsburgh Island, attempt to arrest their commanding officers and turn the islands over to the Empire of Japan. The mutiny fails because the mutineers turn out to be completely incompetent soldiers who have difficulty firing their guns accurately, though they kill one loyal (Indian) British soldier and wound an officer. Once the mutiny is put down, three mutineers are executed and four others imprisoned for life. While completely unsuccessful, the Cocos Islands Mutiny provides fodder for anti-British agitation throughout the region, particularly in Sri Lanka.

Operation Ironclad, the British invasion of Madagascar, ended in a British victory on 7 May 1942, but the Vichy French retain some powerful but scattered assets. One of those assets, submarine Monge, launches an attack on Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable but misses. Two escorting destroyers, Active and Panther, leap into action and sink the French submarine (all 69 crew perish). All other undefeated Vichy French forces withdraw to the south, where they are annoying but pose no real threat to the British occupation. Italian freighters 2315-ton Duca Degli Abruzzi and 2669-ton Somalia are scuttled at Diego-Suarez.

Japanese troops driving north from Bhamo enter Myitkyina, Burma, which the British evacuated on 7 May. The Allied forces in northern Burma withdraw into China or India via the Hukawng Valley to the east and north of the city, depending on their preference. The retreating Allied forces do a good job of destroying the area's numerous bridges, which slows down any Japanese pursuit toward Sumprabum.

The 1st Burma Infantry Brigade leaves the 1st Burma Infantry Division and heads to India. It leaves Tigyaing on the Irrawaddy River today and heads west to the road junction at Indaw. The objective is to go to Pantha on the Chindwin River, cross it, and head west to India. This path involves difficult cross-country travel but it is the shortest route and free of enemy troops who are not far to the north on the Irrawaddy at Myitkyina.
USS Lexington survivors being rescued, 8 May 1942
"Survivors of USS Lexington (CV-2) are pulled aboard a cruiser (probably USS Minneapolis) after the carrier was abandoned during the afternoon of 8 May 1942. Note man in the lower part of the photo who is using the cruiser's armor belt as a hand hold." Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-7392.
Eastern Front: General Franz Halder sums up the day with the brief entry, "Kerch offensive has opened with good initial successes. Rest of the front quiet."

At 04:15, General Erich von Manstein opens Operation Trappenjagd on the Crimean peninsula. The objective is to clear the eastern Kerch peninsula of Red Army troops so that the German 11th Army can concentrate all of its assets to subdue the Soviet pocket at the western port of Sevastopol.

Manstein has promised that the offensive will have "concentrated air support the like of which has never been seen." He describes his plan as a ground attack that will have its main strength in the air. The planes would "pull the infantry forward" because Luftwaffe General Wolfram von Richthofen has the strength of an entire air fleet - which usually accompanies an entire army group - to support the advance.

The attack opens with massive Luftwaffe VIII Air Corps raids on Soviet airfields and communications. Soviet 44th Army, holding the southern section of the Parpach Narrows front, loses touch with its headquarters, while the commander of 51st Army, holding the northern half of the front, is killed. The Germans mount 2100 sorties during the day, shooting down 57 of 401 Soviet aircraft and destroying their airfields.
Manstein at the front in Crimea ca. 8 May 1942
General Manstein directs the attack on the Kerch peninsula from his command truck ca. 8 May 1942 (Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe 2-768).
When Manstein launches his ground attack after a quick 10-minute artillery barrage, the stunned Red Army defenders in the south quickly give way despite outnumbering the Axis units (19 Soviet divisions and four armored brigades to five German divisions, 2 1/2 Romanian divisions, and the 22nd Panzer Division). A German seaborne invasion by the 902nd Assault Boat Command of the 436th Regiment, 132nd German Infantry Division, lands behind the Soviets and helps to pierce the defensive line. The 28th Light Division and 132nd ID advance six miles by nightfall, a massive distance when previous gains have been measured in meters. General of Artillery Maximilian Fretter-Pico, commander of the 30th Corps, asks for and receives the 22nd Panzer Division to exploit the breakthrough. He also brings forward his only reserve, the Grodeck Brigade composed of a Romanian motorized regiment and two German truck-mounted infantry battalions.
Lord Gort inspects bomb damage in Malta on 8 May 1942
Lord Gort, the new Governor of Malta, and Vice Admiral Leatham inspect the dockyard area, 8 May 1942 © IWM A 8767.
European Air Operations: The Luftwaffe ends a four-day lull in operations with a Baedeker Blitz attack on Norwich. While 70 bombers participate, the raid causes little additional damage to the city, which the Germans previously attacked on the night of 27/28 April 1942.

After a daylight mission to Dieppe by 6 Boston bombers without loss, the night's mission is to Warnemünde, Germany. The 193 bombers make a "moderately successful" attack and lose 19 aircraft for a very poor 10% loss rate.

Battle of the Atlantic: U-564 (Kptlt. Reinhard Suhren), on its fifth patrol out of Brest, torpedoes and sinks 6078-ton US Design 1015 freighter Ohioan ten miles (19 km) off Boynton Beach, Florida. There are 15 deaths and 22 survivors, who are rescued by US Coast Coast Guard ships.

U-507 (KrvKpt. Harro Schacht), on its second patrol out of Lorient, torpedoes and sinks 2424-ton Norwegian freighter Torny in the Gulf of Mexico west of Tampa, Florida. There are two deaths and 24 survivors, who are rescued by US Navy seaplanes.

U-136 (Kptlt. Heinrich Zimmermann), on its second patrol out of St. Nazaire, spots the 325-ton three-masted Canadian schooner Mildred Pauline off the coast of Nova Scotia. It surfaces and shells the ship, sinking it. All seven crewmen perish.
HMS Olympus, sunk on 8 May 1942
HMS Olympus, sunk on 8 May 1942.
Battle of the Mediterranean: Royal Navy submarine HMS Olympus (LtCdr H.G. Dymott) hits a mine and sinks while leaving Grand Harbour, Malta. It is carrying survivors from submarine Pandora, P.36, and P.39. There are 89 deaths and only nine survivors - three from Olympus and six from P.39 - who manage to swim ashore.

German/Spanish Relations: The German military attache to Madrid, Colonel Krabbe, tells General Halder that "Spain is manifestly racked by economic and political strains. Likelihood of British invasion." Things actually are not quite that bad in Spain, and the British have no intention of invading. However, Spanish leader Francisco Franco does not mind the Germans thinking that Spain is in bad straits because he does not want to join the Axis.

American Homefront: Warner Bros. releases "In This Our Life," directed by John Huston/Raoul Walsh and starring Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and George Brent. It is a classic "women's film" and involves issues of racial discrimination, personal responsibility, and marriage issues. It is based on a popular novel by Ellen Glasgow that dealt much more sharply with these issues and raised even more disturbing ones, such as incest. Huston is called away by the United States Department of War midway through production and the studio replaces him with Raoul Walsh, which causes problems with the cast, particularly Bette Davis. The film is notorious for its portrayal of African-Americans, though Davis personally finds Ernest Anderson, a waiter at the studio commissary, to play a key role for which he receives much critical praise and which kickstart his acting career. Due to its negative portrayal of African-Americans, the wartime Office of Censorship refuses to certify "In This Our Life" for foreign distribution. Despite all the issues, particularly some wildly diva-ish behavior by Davis, the film makes money.
USS Lexington torpedo damage, 8 May 1942
View on the port side of USS Lexington (CV-2), looking aft and down through torn flight deck life nettings, showing damage from the aftermost of the two torpedo hits received during the Battle of the Coral Sea, 8 May 1942. This hit was centered at about Frame 85, and blew some of the ship's hull blister plating up and out, as seen at the waterline in this photo. Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-16804.

May 1942


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