After three days of sparring and scouting… at 6 a.m., when Rear Adm. Chuichi “King Kong” Hara launches search planes from the carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, with orders to find the American carrier fleet….
[A]t 7:36 a.m., the Japanese snoopers, peering down at an ocean whose waters change from dark blue to nearly yellow due to coral growth on the bottom, spot two American ships… the oiler Neosho… and her escort, the destroyer Sims…. The excited Japanese pilot reports to Hara that he’s found a cruiser and an aircraft carrier. The Shokaku and Zuikaku promptly sortie 70 fighters and bombers to attack this presumably major target.
At 9:30 a.m., the first Japanese wave hits the two ships…. Chief Signalman Robert Dicken flashes recognition signals with his lamps at the intruders, in the hope the attack is a mistake. It isn’t. On Neosho, Capt. John Phillips orders his radio officer to pass the word of the attack up to Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher and the carrier force, but the nervous radio officer and overworked radioman can’t get the message sorted out…. Some 10 more high-level bombers return at 10:38…. The third time, however, is the charm: 36 Val dive-bombers plummet down on Sims and Neosho, and the Japanese aviators who cut their teeth at Pearl Harbor bite hard… inflicting seven bomb hits on the “Fat Lady.”… Neosho’s guns damage one of the attacking bombers, which promptly turns itself into a kamikaze…. The third bomb explodes in the fireroom, killing everyone there and knocking out power. The fifth and sixth bombs blow holes in the fuel tanks, and the seventh, a near-miss, wipes out a searchlight and decapitates a seaman. Dead in the water and blazing, Neosho’s skipper orders his men to prepare to abandon ship…. Sims, meanwhile, fends off dive-bombers with 5-inch and 20-mm shellfire and adroit maneuvering, knocking down two of the Vals, then three more. But three bombs smash directly amidships on the destroyer…. The jackknifing destroyer sinks swiftly, stern first….
With rafts in the water, and the tanker burning, the next order of business is to call for help, and a navigating officer plots Neosho’s position for that message, and comes up with Longitude, 157º31E, Latitude 16º25’S. The only problem is, the actual location is Longitude 158º03E, Latitude 16º09S, as plotted later. Search planes from the seaplane tender Tangier, based at Noumea, New Caledonia, and ships obediently head for the wrong site. Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison calls the mistake “a cautionary tale for young naval officers.”…
[T]he Japanese planes fly back into formation and head home to their carriers, having expended six planes and vast amounts of energy, fuel, and time to hit two relatively minor targets….
Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher… [asks] Rear Adm. John G. Crace, the Briton who commands Task Group 17.3, to take his force and push on ahead northwest to attack the Port Moresby Invasion Group with his ships…. Fletcher’s theory is that even if his carrier planes can’t catch up with the Japanese invasion fleet, Crace… can eliminate the transports. The weakness in Fletcher’s theory is that if the Japanese carriers stop Fletcher, then Crace’s ships are sitting ducks…. [A]s Crace shuffles his ships into diamond-shaped anti-aircraft formation, and sets off at 25 knots, he takes with him half of Fletcher’s screening cruisers and their anti-aircraft guns, thinning his screen….
[A]t 8:15 a.m., a Yorktown snooper, Lt. John L. Nielson, reports “two carriers and four heavy cruisers” at Latitude 10º03’S, Longitude 152º27’E, about 175 miles away. This is the news Fletcher has been waiting for…. Lexington starts launching her strike at 8:15…. Half an hour later, Yorktown launches….
Incredibly, due to an improper arrangement of Nielson’s code contact pad, their report of “two carriers and four heavy cruisers” should actually read “two heavy cruisers and two destroyers.” The scout planes have not found Vice Adm. Takeo Takagi’s two heavy carriers, or even Rear Adm. Aritomo Goto’s invasion force…. A furious Fletcher chews Nielson out in public and sends the unhappy aviator to his quarters….
Vice Adm. Shigeyoshi Inouye, controlling the whole Japanese cause from his flag bridge on the old light training cruiser Kashima, parked at Rabaul, rightly worries about the safety of his loaded transports, headed for Port Moresby. With its classrooms, Kashima offers space for flag staffs to work and sleep. At 9 a.m., Inouye orders that force to turn away and keep it out of trouble until Fletcher and Crace are disposed of. At that moment, the ships are as close as any Japanese fleet will ever get to Port Moresby for the duration of the war.