1942 Turning Points: The Doolittle Raid and Coral Sea

A bit of military history for Memorial Day in remembrance of those who served.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan brought the United States into the Second World War.  The Battles of the Philippines, Wake Island, and Java Sea followed in defeat for the United States Navy.  For the Army, General MacArthur would soon retreat to Australia from the Philippines.  Beginning in April, 1942, the tide would turn in the United States’ favor.

Doolittle Raiders on the Hornet.  U.S. Navy photo via Wikipedia.

Doolittle Raiders on the Hornet. U.S. Navy photo via Wikipedia.

The offensive war for the United States began when the United States struck back at the Japanese with the Doolittle Raid.  Leading up to the Raid, sixteen B-25 Mitchells and their crews spent several months training how to launch the bombers from a five hundred foot simulated carrier deck runway. These efforts were orchestrated and led by Colonel Jimmy H. Doolittle.  In April, 1942, the Raiders and their planes left California on board the USS Hornet CV-8 as part of Task Force 16 led by Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.

The B-25s were to be transported to a point four-hundred fifty miles from Japan for launch but a sighting of Task Force 16 by a Japanese patrol forced tan early launch from a point seven-hundred miles from Japan’s coast.  The bombers bombed military, industrial, and shipping targets in five cities, including Tokyo, upon arrival in Japanese air space.

Doolittle’s men flew on to China to land, but ran out of fuel.  This forced all but one bomber to be ditched by their crews before reaching the designated landing area, the base of the Flying Tigers.  The remaining plane landed in Vladivostok, Russia. All but eight captured raiders made their way to unoccupied China.

B-25 taking off from the Hornet.  From NARA, ARC Identifier 520603 via Wikipedia.
B-25 taking off from the Hornet. From NARA, ARC Identifier 520603 via Wikipedia.

The Doolittle Raid was a morale booster for the United States because it was our first victory.  It also forced the Japanese to pull many troops back towards Japan.  The Raid also set off a chain reaction for the next two months.

Back in mid-March, Naval Intelligence had learned of the Japanese “Operation MO,” the invasion of Port Moresby, New Guinea.  In order to prevent this, Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered Task Forces 11 and 17 to the South Pacific to prevent “Operation MO.”  Task Force 11 was led by Rear Admiral Aubrey Wray “Jake” Fitch on the USS Lexington CV-2 (“Lady Lex”) and contained two heavy cruisers and five destroyers.  Task Force 17 was led by Vice Admiral Frank “Black Jack” Fletcher, the Task Group Commander and Naval Academy graduate, on board the USS Yorktown CV-5 and contained three heavy cruisers and six destroyers. Both Task Forces merged on May 1 at “Point Buttercup” south of the Solomon Islands and were joined by Task Force 44.  The mixed Australian, British, and American Task Force 44 was led by Rear Admiral Sir John Crace, a Royal Navy Officer with the Australian Navy.  The ships refueled and sent the oiler Neosho AO-23 with the destroyer Sims DD-409 out of harms way.  Meanwhile, the Japanese under Admiral Takagi captured Tulagi, Solomon Islands.

Map of the Battle of Coral Sea.  From Wikipedia via a U.S. Army publication.

Map of the Battle of Coral Sea. From a U.S. Army publication via Wikipedia.

On May 4, Task Force 17 attacked the Japanese at Tugali, sinking a destroyer and marking the beginning of the Battle of Coral Sea.  On May 7, the Japanese planes attacked the Neosho and Sims, believing them to be a carrier and heavy cruiser.  The Sims was sunk and the Neosho was set on fire.  Both crews evacuated and were left adrift in the water.  An hour later, an American search plane spotted what they believed to be two Japanese carriers and an air strike was ordered.  The “carriers” were actually two light cruisers.  Lieutenant Commander Weldon L. Hamilton, commander of the Lexington’s dive-bomber squadrons, drifted off course and spotted a light carrier, the Shoho.  The planes were redirected and the Shoho was sunk.  Lieutenant Robert E. Dixon, a Lexington pilot, issued the first “Scratch one flattop.”

The next day was the main day of the battle.  The Japanese and Americans located each others’ forces and launched air strikes. The Japanese flew through anti-aircraft fire to damage the Lexington and Yorktown.  Meanwhile the American forces badly damaged the Japanese carrier, Shokaku.  Lieutenant John James Powers, who vowed to personally sink a carrier, dive-bombed the Shokaku and was killed in the following blast.  By 1 p.m. the attack was over.

“Explosion on the Lexington,” from the Naval Historical Center via Wikipedia.

Several events occurred in the following hours.  A fire broke out on the Lexington, forcing its evacuation.  It was later ordered to be sunk to ensure the Lady Lex didn’t fall into enemy hands.  Admiral Fitch transferred his staff to the USS Minneapolis.  Three days later the survivors from the Neosho and Sims were rescued by the USS Henley.

The Battle of Coral Sea was an important battle, though it had no clear victor.  It stopped the Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, protecting Australia and preventing Japanese activity in the South Pacific.  It boosted morale after Corregador’s May 6th fall.  The Japanese losses included the Shoho, one destroyer, 1,074 dead, and seventy-seven planes.  The Shokaku and Zuikaku, another carrier, were badly damaged and were made unavailable for the following pivotal battle.  The Unites States lost the Lexington, Neosho, Sims, and sixty-six planes, and there were five-hundred sixty-four dead.  It was also a battle of firsts.  Coral Sea was the first all air sea battle.  The ships never met, but at one point they were thirty-two miles apart.  It was also the first battle victory for the United States.

Can anyone predict based on this post what next week’s might be?  They will go together.

Further Reading/Sources:

Bicheno, Hugh. Midway. London: Cassell, 2007.

Cox, J.A.   “Tokyo Bombed! Doolittle Do’od It.”  Smithsonian, June, 1992.

Lawson, Ted.  Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Multiple editions.  This was later made into a movie, but the focus was split between the Raid and its preparation and Lawson’s relationship with his wife.  Lawson piloted “The Ruptured Duck” and lost his leg due to injuries sustained during the Raid.  He continued to served his county in supporting roles until February, 1945, when his disability finally forced his retirement.

Naval Department Communiqués Pertinent Press Releases—No. 77, May 7, 1942.

Naval Department Communiqués Pertinent Press Releases—No. 78, May 8, 1942.

Sims, Edward H.  Greatest Fighter Missions of the Top Navy and Marine Aces of World War IINew York: Harper and Brothers, 1962.

Steinway, Rodger.  “Pearl Harbor to Midway.”  Military History, June, 2001.

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11 thoughts on “1942 Turning Points: The Doolittle Raid and Coral Sea

  1. Amy,
    After speaking in Ohio, we visited the Dayton Air Force Museum. It was very interesting. Have you been there?

  2. Pingback: Doolittle Raider | Doolittle Raider Reunion News

  3. Pingback: Doolittle Raider | Doolittle Raider Reunion News

  4. Pingback: Review: Five Came Back | Amy's Scrap Bag: A Blog About Libraries, Archives, and History

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