Thursday, May 6, 2010

Coral Sea Memories

It was hard, growing up, to realize the significance of the stories my Grandfather would tell me about his time aboard the USS Lexington. I was, as are most boys, intrigued by the thought of war and all the machinery that goes along with it. I remember building models of WWII era fighters and bombers when I was still in grade school. Little did I know that at the time that my Grandfather was passing to me the history of my family and the price of freedom which was paid in blood all those years ago. I realized far too late how much I really didn't know. As he got older, he succumbed to multiple small strokes which eventually deprived him of most of his memories. I wish that I'd taken the time to ask more, when he was still all there.

Grandpa joined the Navy in the summer of 1941. He completed basic training in San Diego and was stationed aboard the USS Lexington attached to an anti-aircraft gunnery crew. My Grandfather would fight the Japanese from the 28mm gun emplacement immediately forward of the tower. From this vantage point, my Grandfather would be among the first men ever to take part in a naval battle in which the enemy ships never saw each other.

During the Battle of the Coral Sea, Grandpa said that everyone was so focused and intent upon completing their assigned duties, that they often completely blocked out what was happening around them. One such story was the aircraft armament group. Grandpa told me that an F4F Wildcat had just landed, returning from a dogfight. Part of the fuselage was on fire, however, so intent were the armament group that they'd climbed aboard the plane's wings and began reloading the F4F's .50 Cal machine guns before the fire crew had the opportunity to douse the flames. Shortly thereafter, the armament crews were pulled of the F4F which was ditched over the side of the CV-2, as the flames had completely engulfed the aircraft.

Confirmed hits upon the USS Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea

Midmorning on May 8th, as the carriers were in the midst of an attack upon the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, a Japanese bomb struck and detonated upon the anti-aircraft gun emplacement directly across the deck from where my Grandfather was serving. The bomb blast killed the entire gunnery crew along with members of the gunnery crews on either side of the damaged AA gun. It's believed that the shell in the gun also detonated when it was struck by the bomb, exploding and causing further damage to the interior of the ship. The Lexington would be struck by another bomb which hit the evaporator stack behind the tower, and also by two torpedoes on the port side. The crew of the Lexington were able to suppress the fires and the Lexington was able to continue on for a short while after the damaging blows. After the fires below deck had been extinguished, ventilation fans which were cycled on sparked and ignited gasoline fumes under deck which would render the Lexington immobile and ultimately lead to her being scuttled.
One of the enemy torpedo strikes upon the port bow.

#2 Port side gun gallery after the bomb strike

Smoke is seen rising between the deck sections from a fire raging below deck.  This fire would be extinguished, and the Lexington would sail on for the time being.

View from flight deck adjacent to the tower looking forward after the explosion which rendered the Lexington immobile.

Another photo of the #2 port side gun gallery after the bomb impact.

Smoke is seen rising from a splintered hole in the flight deck.

Photo of the #2 port side gun gallery after the bomb hit.

Still another photo of the #2 gun gallery after the bomb strike.  The ship is recovering her flight groups after a successful raid against the Shokaku and Zuikaku.

Close up of the #2 gun gallery after the bomb strike.  The gun is coated in foamite which was used to extinguish the subsequent fire.
Shortly after the fire below deck was ignited by the recirculation fans, the Lexington would be ordered abandoned.  My Grandfather, along with most of the Lexington's surviving crew would jump from the flight deck into the tropical waters below.  Once in the ocean, the men would swim to a near by destroyer where they would be pulled from the sea.  As the ship was being abandoned, small explosions continued below decks as planes, and armament lockers went up in flames.  Near the bottom of the post there are a few pictures of the massive explosion caused by the detonation of stowed torpedo warheads on the hangar deck.

After everyone was safely off the Lexington, the Destroyer Phelps would send her to the bottom with two torpedoes.

My grandfather would subsequently be stationed with several other men on the island of Tonga for a six month period before returning to Pearl and ultimately back to the states.  Grandpa had some funny stories about the people on Tonga stealing the servicemen's underwear.   But that's a story for another time.  Miss you, Grandpa.

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4 People Have Had Their Say:

paul mitchell on May 6, 2010 at 10:56 AM said...

A person wants to say, "Great story," but that is not really what needs to be said. I miss your Grandpa, too.

innominatus on May 6, 2010 at 11:10 AM said...

The personal element here really makes the story.

classicaliberal on May 6, 2010 at 1:58 PM said...

Thanks for your kind words, gentlemen.

Andy on May 9, 2010 at 6:35 AM said...

CL, I finally got around to reading this in detail. I'll bet you do miss your Grandpa. Great man.


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