Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Other Shoe drops -- Lexington sunk 70 years ago

USS Lexington afire after being hit during the Battle of Coral Sea on May 8, 1942.
On the morning of May 8 both carrier forces spotted each other and launched strikes, and while both strikes found their opponents the more experienced Japanese aviators got the better of the exchange.  Both the USS Yorktown and the USS Lexington were hit, while only the Shokaku was hit in return.

While the Shokaku and the Yorktown ended up surviving their hits, the Lexington was hit by at least two bombs and, more critically, by two torpedoes. As it turned out in the Pacific war, torpedoes were the bane  of American aircraft carriers. Every US fleet carrier that was lost was lost after receiving torpedo hits.

While the Japanese got the better of the tactical exchange, however, from a strategic standpoint things were quite different. The Americans hurriedly repaired the Yorktown and it was available for the Battle of Midway less than a month later. Meanwhile the Shokaku's damage took much longer to repair and the Zuikaku, while undamaged, had taken such heavy losses in its air group that it also missed out the key Battle of Midway. Overall, the Japanese would have been much better served by skipping the whole affair. Having all six fleet carriers for Midway would have been a big advantage, even if the Americans retained the Lexington. The US Navy in mid-1942 had not developed doctrine or experience in operating carriers together (indeed, the pairing of the Enterprise and Hornet at Midway was an innovation for the Americans) so having four carriers would have been an awkward situation. In contrast, the Japanese had highly honed their capability to operate all six fleet carriers as a unified force. A 6-4 edge in carriers would have been much better than the 4-3 advantage they had in the actual event.

In June a new Essex-class carrier being built in Massachusetts was renamed the Lexington (CV-16) in honor of the lost ship. The other three fleet carriers lost later in 1942 -- the Yorktown, Hornet and Wasp -- would likewise be memorialized by new Essex class ships (CV-10, CV-12 and CV-18, respectively).


  1. I thought the St. Lo might be an exception to the torpedo rule you mention, but it looks like it was just an escort carrier.

  2. Yeah, the lighter US carriers could be taken out by bombs. The CVL USS Princeton, succumbed to bombs/kamizazes alone, as did the CVEs Block Island, Ommaney Bay and St. Lo.

    But the fleet carriers could take substantial damage from bombs and suicide planes, such as Enterprise, Intrepid, Franklin, Bunker Hill and Hancock, without necessarily being lost. The Yorktown quite possibly would have survived Midway despite being heavily bombed, twice, but for the torpedoes from I-168.