The Death of a Lady: The USS Lexington (CV-2) at the Battle of the Coral Sea, Part I: The Log

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park. This is the first post in a three-part series.

After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, imperial Japanese forces seemed unstoppable, winning battle after battle in the Philippines, and other places in the Pacific – Wake Island, Guam, Hong Kong, Thailand, North Borneo, Singapore, the Netherlands East Indies.  Only the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid on Japan broke the monotony of Allied defeats.

By mid-April 1942, U.S. naval planners had determined that the Japanese planned to continue their expansion south and conquer the Coral Sea as part of a plan to capture all of New Guinea.

To counter that move, the U.S. established Task Force 17, a two-carrier naval force centered on the USS Yorktown (Captain Elliott Buckmaster) and the USS Lexington (Captain Frederick C. Sherman).  Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher commanded TF 17 from the Yorktown and Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch commanded carrier operations from Lexington.  The opposing Japanese force was divided into three divisions aimed at capturing Port Moresby on New Guinea to control the straits between New Guinea and Australia and capturing Tulagi, one of the Solomon Islands.  The following is a simplified account of the Battle of the Coral Sea and leaves out much significant action not relevant to the document presented here.

The Japanese experienced early success, capturing Tulagi on May 3, which the Americans bombed to little effect on May 4.  On May 5 and 6, the opposing forces searched for each other.  May 7 was a day of maneuvering and long-distance skirmishing, including the sinking of the Japanese light carrier Shoho, leaving two heavy carriers intact.  The main action of the Battle of the Coral Sea took place on May 8, 1942, coincidentally just two days after the last American forces in the Philippines surrendered to overwhelming Japanese forces.  The opposing carrier groups located each other and launched attacks.  The Japanese had the advantage due to weather conditions.  American planes could not locate one Japanese carrier but damaged the second enough to put it out of action.  The Japanese attack, however, was more successful.  The Yorktown took one bomb hit.  The story on the Lexington was very different.

In his book The Two-Ocean War, distinguished naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison describes what happened to the Lexington this way:

The Japanese attack group . . . gave both American carriers a severe working-over . . . Lexington took two torpedoes and two bomb hits.  The end of the battle found “Lady Lex”   listing, with three fires burning but with her power plant intact.  There was every prospect of damage control quenching the fires when suddenly she was racked by two internal explosions which forced Captain Frederick Sherman to abandon ship.

The sequence and timing of those events and number of hits and explosions as presented in the Lexington‘s log is different and presents a more dramatic picture that helps bring to life the experience of a new kind of naval warfare.  The following are selections from the log presented as bullet-points.  The log was prepared from notes made contemporaneously with the events recounted.  Images of the entire log for May 8, 1942, are appended.

  • 0735 Commenced zigzagging in accordance with standard plan.

  • 0820 [R]eceived radio contact report of enemy.

  • 0850 [T]urned into the wind at 20 knots and between 0907 and 0924 launched attack group. . . .

  • 0930 [W]ent to general quarters and material condition Zed. Between 0930 and 0950 landed [planes] . . . for reservicing.

  • 0957 Changed speed to 15 knots.

  • 1013 [R]eceived report from Yorktown enemy bombers approaching; made 20 knots launched [planes]. . . .

  • 1016 [S]ighted heavy smoke from surface . . . about 20 miles.

  • 1023 [S]lowed to 15 knots and landed [planes]. . . .

  • 1030 [O]n signal changed course. . . .

  • 1042 [O]n signal changed speed to 20 knots.

  • 1044 [O]n signal took special cruising disposition V.

  • 1047-1050 [T]urned into wind and landed [planes]. . . . [R]esumed course.

  • 1057 [G]uide of disposition shifted to Yorktown. Radar reports many unidentified planes . . . distant about 58 miles approaching, turned into wind. . . .

  • 1101-1106 [L]aunched [planes].

  • 1106 [R]esumed course.

  • 1108 [C]hanged speed to 25 knots.

  • 1111 [A] signal to the force for course [change] . . . speed 20 knots was executed but course was not changed by this ship.

  • 1115. [F]irst enemy aircraft seen on port bow. As first torpedo was seen to drop rudder was put full right.

  • 1116 [G]unfire opened on enemy. Speed increased to 30 knots. Torpedo planes seen on starboard bow, rudder was put full left but before ship started to swing left, rudder was again put full right.

  • 1118 [T]orpedo hit port side about frame 50.

  • 1120 [H]eavy hit by torpedo about frame 72 port side.

  • 1120½ [T]orpedo hit port side near bow. Shock of second hit broke siren pull cord, jammed siren valve open.

  • 1121. [N]ear miss bomb port side about frame 50.

  • 1122 [T]orpedo hit near water line port side about frame 100. A bomb hit on flight deck port side near frame 60 . . . . Ship took up a list to port of about 6. A bomb hit near after end of stack, penetrated, and exploded inside stack.  A near miss bomb exploded off port side near frame 135.

  • 1130 [R]eport of damage gave boilers 2, 4, 6 out of commission, speed reduced to 25 knots. Ready service ammunition after end #2 gun gallery burning but fire there being extinguished using Amdyco equipment.  Ship turned to the right . . . .

  • 1133 [O]ne plane landing went over side – pilot . . . and passenger . . . picked up by U.S.S. Morris.

  • 1139 [S]lowed to 20 knots.

  • 1142 [S]lowed to 17 knots. All fires on flight deck out.

  • 1153 [S]teadied on course.

  • 1155 [T]urning left.

  • 1158 [S]teadied on course. . . . Repair parties inspecting and repairing damage.

  • 1200 Steaming as before . . . at 20 knots. Both elevators out of commission in up position.  List all removed from ship by shifting fluids.

  • 1230 [O]pened vents necessary for ventilation and turned into wind.

  • 1235 [A]ll fires below decks reported out.

  • 1243 [C]ommenced launching combat patrol.

  • 1247 [H]eavy explosion felt which vented up forward bomb elevator. Lost communication with central station.

  • 1259 [C]ompleted launching [planes] . . . .

  • 1313 [C]hanged course . . . .

  • 1317 [T]urned into wind.

  • 1319 [A]nother internal explosion felt. Rudder angle indicator and Dead Reckoning Tracer out of commission.

  • 1322-1328 [L]anded [planes] . . . .

  • 1336 [S]teady on course . . . . All communications in forward part of ship out of commission.

  • 1340 [T]urned into wind and launched [planes] . . . . Fires burning in forward part of ship below main deck.  Frequent light explosions felt.

  • 1351 Gyro compasses out of commission.

  • 1356 [C]hanged course . . . on signal and increased speed to 25 knots. Engine order telegraph out of commission.

  • 1400 [T]urned left into the wind to land returning attack group . . . . Radar out of commission.

  • 1413 [F]inished landing [planes] . . . . Changed course . . . .

  • 1443 [H]eavy explosion under forward elevator. Lost steering control from bridge.  All radios out of commission.  Steering by after steering station using sound power telephone to order setting for rudder.

  • 1453 [H]eavy explosion under forward elevator.

  • 1502 [S]peed slackening.

  • 1520 [H]eat of fire forward of “A” machinery unit space made that untenable. Secured A & B units and ordered personnel to abandon that space.

  • 1525 [A]n extra heavy explosion port side amidships. Heavy black smoke poured out stack.  Lost telephone communications to after steering and trick wheel.

  • 1530 [S]prinkled after magazines. Using engines powered by C & D units to maintain ship on course . . . .  Making good 12 to 15 knots.

  • 1540 [E]stablished telephone communication with after steering station by relay through main control over JV telephone.

  • 1540 [S]moke forced the abandonment of stations on stack, also air plot and communication stations.

  • 1544 [A]nother explosion on port side.

  • 1545 [A]bandon sky forward and surface forward.

  • 1548 [L]ost all pressure on fire main aft.

  • 1558 [S]everal small explosions under forward elevator. Fire on main deck out of control.  Communications to main control growing very faint.  Ordered main control to secure machinery and abandon engineering compartments.

  • 1600 Ship losing way. Hanger deck thick with smoke, fires visible under forward elevator, personnel assembling on flight deck . . . .  Injured ordered evacuated to cruisers standing by.

  • 1615 U.S.S. Morris came alongside, passed fire hoses on board in effort to combat fire.

  • 1645 [W]ater played on fire around forward elevator without success in extinguishing fire. With loss of speed a port list of 3 developed and ship took a trim down y the bow of about 2 feet.

  • 1652 [O]rdered all squadron & air department personnel and men not needed for working the ship to embark on USS Morris alongside.  Large cloud of steam and smoke came up from forward elevator.

  • 1700 [L]ist to port now 5.

  • 1706 [A] steam explosion rose on port bow.

  • 1707 Rear Admiral A.W. Fitch directed The Captain to have the ship abandoned.

  • 1710 [O]rder passed “All Hands abandon ship.”

  • All injured men on flight deck were lowered over the side to boats and life rafts. . . . Captain [Sherman] proceeded to inspect flight deck aft and after insuring all had abandoned, was last to leave going down a rope at stern about 1830 after several terrific explosions had scattered flames and debris over a large area of water.

  • At about 1945 USS Phelps fired torpedoes into hulk of U.S.S. Lexington and at 1956 the Lexington sank and as she sank three extremely heavy explosions were felt. Depth of water 2000 fathoms.

After seven minutes under direct attack and six hours of valiant work by her crew to save the ship, the Battle of the Coral Sea ended for the USS Lexington.

While perhaps a tactical victory for the Japanese, American loss of a scarce aircraft carrier was significant, the Battle of the Coral Sea was a strategic victory for the U.S. and its allies; Japan did not capture Port Moresby and never again pushed that far south.

Aside from the tactical and strategic results, the battle in the Coral Sea is notable because it was the first naval engagement in history where opposing ships never came within sight of each other.  The battle ushered in a new form of naval warfare in which big-gun ships had no role, with all action taking place at long range via carrier-based airplanes.

 

NEXT: A photo gallery


Sources:

The deck log of the U.S.S. LEXINGTON is found in RG 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Logbooks of U.S. Navy Ships and Stations, 1941-1978 (NAID 594258), Lexington (CV-2) – May 1942.  I thank my colleague Dr. Timothy Nenninger for bringing this log and related records to my attention.

Useful secondary sources are:

♦Samuel Eliot Morison, History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II: Volume IV: Coral Sea, Midway, and Submarine Actions, May 1942-August 1942 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1949).  This is part of a 15 volume series.

♦Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963).  This is a condensation of the larger 15-volume work noted above.

♦Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

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