Excerpt From Survivor
Shortly after the war began, Japan's Naval General Staff advocated the occupation of Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands and Port Moresby in New Guinea, which would put northern Australia within range of Japanese land-based aircraft
Unknown to the Japanese, the U.S. Communication Security Section of the Office of Naval Communications, had for several years enjoyed some success with penetrating Japanese communication ciphers and codes. By March 1942, the U.S. was able to decipher up to 15% of the Japanese code. By the end of April the Americans were reading up to 85% of the code.
In March 1942, the U.S. intercepted messages directing the Japanese carriers Shōkaku and Zuikakua and other large warships to proceed to the main Japanese base at Truk. U.S. Intelligence concluded that from Truk they would invade Port Moresby, New Guinea, an assessment that proved correct.
On 29 April, Admiral Chester Nimitz issued orders that sent Task Force 17 consisting of the carrier Yorktown, escorted by three cruisers and four destroyers, including the Russell, towards the Coral Sea.
At about the same time, the Japanese intercepted U.S.radio traffic that led to the assumption that all but one of the U.S. Navy's carriers were in the central Pacific. The Japanese did not know the location of the remaining carrier, but did not expect an American carrier response until the operation was well underway
On 4 May, the Japanese Port Moresby Invasion Force, left Raboul in Western New Guinea. The invasion force included 11 transport ships carrying about 5,500 soldiers and was escorted by one light cruiser and six destroyers. The ships planned to pass around the southern tip of New Guinea to arrive at Port Moresby by 10 May. The Allied garrison at Port Moresby numbered around 5,333 men, but only half of these were infantry and all were badly equipped and under trained
Anticipating the Port Moresby invasion, Rear Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 17 united with Task Force 11, commanded by Rear Admiral and consisting of the carrier Lexington with two cruisers and five destroyers,
Early on 3 May, the Japanese arrived off Tulagi in the southern Solomon Islands and began disembarking the naval troops to occupy the island. Tulagi was undefended. The Japanese forces immediately began construction of a seaplane and communications base.
The same day, Admiral Fletcher was notified that the Japanese Tulagi invasion force had been sighted.
On 4 May, 60 aircraft from Yorktown launched strikes against the Japanese forces off Tulagi sinking a destroyer and three minesweepers, damaging four other ships, and destroying four seaplanes supporting the landings. The Americans lost one dive bomber and two fighters in the strikes, but all of the aircrews were eventually rescued. In spite of the damage suffered in the carrier strikes, the Japanese continued construction of the seaplane base and two days later began flying reconnaissance missions from Tulagi.
After the Yorktown’s planes returned from their mission, Russell was ordered to leave the Yorktown screen and escort the Neosho, an oiler which had been brought along to refuel the ships of Task Force 17. At night, while the two ships were zigzagging, a maneuver designed to make a poorer target for submarines, Russell’s engines suddenly became quiet. Crewmen, to whom the throb of the ship’s engines was as normal as their heart beats, were awakened by the silence. Something was catastrophically wrong. The engine room “snipes” frantic to find the cause, soon determined that a pump which should have been feeding fuel to the engines had stopped. To the credit of the engine room gang, they managed to get the fuel line pump going, but they kept fingers crossed, not being sure for how long it would keep working.
Because the faulty pump made Russell an unreliable escort for the indispensable Neosho, Admiral Fletcher decided to relieve her and assigned the Sims to take her place. Russell was ordered to return to the Task Force 17 screen. It proved to be fateful decision.
On 7 May, Japanese carrier planes searching for American carriers, sighted the Neosho and destroyer Sims, and mistakenly identified them as carriers. Thirty-six dive bombers attacked the two American ships. The Sims was hit by three bombs, broke in half, and sank immediately, killing all but 14 of her 192-man crew. Neosho was hit by seven bombs. Heavily damaged and without power, Neosho was left drifting and slowly sinking. Before losing power, Neosho was able to notify Fletcher by radio that she was under attack and in trouble, but garbled any further details as to just who or what was attacking her and gave wrong coordinates for its position.
It was Sims’ misfortune and Russell’s luck that fate’s fickle fingers had fouled up Russell’s fuel pump.
Meanwhile, Lexington's air group, sank the Japanese carrier Shōhō and heavily damaged Zuikaku, another carrier. Three American aircraft were lost in the attack. On his way back to Lexington, SBD pilot and squadron commander Robert E. Dixon radioed the most memorable message of the Battle of the Coral Sea: "Scratch one flat top!”
Having taken heavy losses in the attack, the Japanese leaders canceled the Port Moresby mission. The Japanese aircraft all jettisoned their ordnance and reversed course to return to their carriers. Ten Japanese dive bombers encountered the American carriers in the darkness, and briefly confused as to their identity, circled in preparation for landing. Russell’s anti-aircraft went into action shooting down one plane and damaging another.
But the battle was far from over. On 8 May Russell received a report that an enemy force was about 170 miles away. The Lexington and Yorktown launched their aircraft to strike the Japanese ships. About the same time, the Japanese carriers launched their planes to attack the Americans. Without knowing, the opposing planes crossed paths. The gunners on Russell, screening the Lexington, waited with fingers on triggers as the expected attack materialized. While anti-aircraft fire from the entire task force dotted the sky, the Japanese planes bore in. Torpedo planes struck first, two torpedoes hitting the Lexington. The first torpedo buckled the port aviation gasoline stowage tanks spreading deadly gasoline vapors into surrounding compartments. The second torpedo ruptured the port water main, reducing water pressure to the three forward firerooms forcing the boilers to be shut down. Amazingly, the ship could still make 24 knots with her remaining boilers.
Russell’s main battery saved Lady Lex from further damage when they scored a direct hit obliterating one of the incoming Japanese planes before it released its torpedo.
Moments after the torpedo plane attack, 33 Japanese dive bombers circled the two carriers from about 14,000 feet. Nineteen dove at Lexington, while the remaining 14 targeted Yorktown.
Lexington’s F4F Grumman Wildcats rose to protect the U.S. carriers and fought off Zero fighters escorting the dive bombers. The F4Fs were able to penetrate the enemy formation of dive bombers shooting down four. Russell’s guns accounted for another.
But the American planes and the anti-aircraft fire from American ships—cruisers, destroyers and carriers—were not enough to suppress the relentless attack of the swarming Japanese aircraft. Dive bombers struck Lexington with two bomb hits causing fires which enveloped portions of the flight deck until they were contained by the carrier’s efficient Damage Control team.
Yorktown too was targeted by dive bombers one of which dropped an armor-piercing bomb in the center of her flight deck and penetrated four decks before exploding. Sixty-six men were killed or seriously wounded by the explosion. Even near misses were damaging when they struck Yorktown's hull below the waterline.
Three Japanese dive bombers circling Russell dropped their bombs barely missing the maneuvering ship but the resulting explosions knocked crew members on the main deck off their feet. Undeterred, the gun crews kept pouring 5” anti-aircraft shells at the attackers. By now the air was filled with swarming planes and anti-aircraft bursts.
Finally, the Japanese aircraft, believing that the carriers were fatally damaged, broke off the attack. But the American F4Fs would not let them off so easily. Engaging the Japanese planes as they attempted to return to their carriers, furious dog fights filled the air. By the time the aerial duel ended, the score stood seven Japanese and six U.S. aircraft downed.
While the Japanese were attacking the U.S.carriers Yorktown’s dive bombers and torpedo squadron were reciprocating with simultaneous attack on the Japanese carrier Shōkaku hitting her with two 1,000 lb bombs that destroyed the forecastle and caused heavy damage to the carrier's flight and hangar decks. The U.S. torpedoes, known to be erratic, caused the Yorktown’s torpedo planes to miss with all of their ordnance. During the attack, two U.S. dive bombers and two Japanese Zeros were shot down. At the time, a second carrier, Zuikaku, was about 10,000 yards away, but was hidden under a rain squall with low-hanging clouds.
Shortly after the Yorktown aircraft began their attack, Lexington’s planes arrived and continued where the others left off. Two dive bombers attacked Shōkaku, hitting the carrier with another 1,000 lb bomb, causing further damage. Two other dive bombers dove on Zuikaku, but missed with their bombs. The rest of Lexington's dive bombers were unable to find the Japanese carriers in the rain squall with heavy cloud cover. Lexington's TBD torpedo planes fired 11 torpedoes, but as with the Yorktown’s torpedo planes,missed with all. The skirmish proved deadly for three F4F Wildcats that were outnumbered and downed by13 Zeros.
By noon on 8 May, the U.S. 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 aerial dogfights from which the U.S. planes emerged the victors shooting down two Japanese dive bombers.
Aboard Lexington, damage control parties had put out the fires and restored her to operational condition. Both the Yorktown and Lexington were able to recover returning aircraft. However, during recovery operations, made difficult because of the damaged decks, the U.S. lost an additional five SBD dive bombers, two torpedo planes, and an F4F Wildcat.
With fire hoses all but useless due to the torpedo hit that ruptured the main water supply, damage control teams on the Lexington were unable to cope with the gasoline that poured out of the broken aviation fuel tanks and had spread over the flight deck. When sparks ignited gasoline fumes, three large explosions killed 25 men and restarted the fire. By now, the Lexington was ablaze with fires enveloping most of the ship.
On the Russell, the crew watched helplessly at the raging inferno. Someone on the carrier managed to run up a flag indicating “Severe internal explosion.” Shortly afterward, the Captain of the Lexington, realizing that his ship was damaged beyond salvage, ordered “Abandon ship!” Russell maintained a protective screen while the carrier and aircraft crews went over the side in an orderly fashion, and were picked up by cruisers and destroyers of the task force. When Captain Fredrick Sherman determined that all surviving personnel were clear of the ship, in keeping with the rules of the sea, he was the last man off.
Soon after Captain Sherman, left the ship, fires spread to torpedo warheads stowed in the after hangar, and detonated in a spectacular blast. The carrier burned furiously and was blanketed by thick smoke from stem to stern.
The eventful day ended dramatically when the destroyer fired five torpedoes into the burning ship scuttling her. Two hundred and sixteen of the carrier's 2,951-man crew went down with the ship, along with 36 aircraft.
Russell and the other assisting warships left immediately to rejoin Yorktown, and Task Force17 retired to the southwest. Two days later, 170 of the carrier’s survivors were transferred to Russell from the cruiser Minneapolis. With the Russell decks crowded with personnel, crew members gave up their bunks to the “visitors” and tried to make them as comfortable as possible. The doctor and pharmacist’s mates were kept busy treating their wounds, mostly burns. Two of the survivors were severely burned, and five days later, on 15 May, after arriving at Tonga Island, they were transferred to the hospital ship USS Solace. The other 168 survivors were transferred to USS Barnett, an attack transport, and eventually landed in San Diego.
Thus ended the Battle of Coral Sea.