On May 7, 1942, Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher stood on the bridge of his flagship, and looked at the radiogram the combat information center had just handed him. Wainwright had surrendered, the Philippines were held by the Japanese.
Fletcher had to think these were grim days. His task force consisted of just two carriers, the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown. He could be facing many more, and certainly a larger number of escorting vessels. The superiority of the Japanese naval aircraft was becoming well known, and he knew his wildcat fighters were not up to dogfighting with the enemy”s Mitsubishi type 00.
But intelligence revealed a move towards Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea, where MacArthur”s Australians were holding out against thrusts from Kokombona. If New Guinea, and by extension Australia itself, were to hold, then Port Moresby had to hold.
Against this force the Japanese had three carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers. IJN Shokaku, IJN Zuikaku, and the IJN Shoho were detached from the First Air Fleet for the operation.
Scouts had found the two fleets well beyond gun range of the escorts. For the first time in Naval history, the combatants would not lay sight of each other in their main ships. The fighting would be done by air attack.
Both sides knew of the other and launched attacks. The squadrons passed each other within sight in the air, and both did grievous damage to the other fleet. The Americans sank Shoho, and damaged Shokaku. Zuikaku lost too many of her pilots for continued operations. USS Lexington and USS Yorktown were hit by bombs and headed for Pearl under their own power.
The Americans at first thought they had just two damaged carriers. The fires on the Lexington were out when a sudden explosion ripped through the ship. In the future the United Sstates Navy would be the finest navy in the world at fighting shipboard fires, but in 1942, fire control could not save the carrier. The order was sounded and the crew left without further loss of life.
Yorktown had severe damage to her flight deck. She steamed for Pearl at top speed, all her officers acutely aware there were only two operational Allied carriers in the whole Pacific. She returned without incident.
She would sail three days later for the last time, her holes patched for the time being. She would be the third carrier in a sea battle that would change the course of the war.