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Wiliam Hall: Hero at Coral Sea
posted in History Up Close on May 8, 2017 in History Up Close on 5/8/2017

The Battle of the Coral Sea marked a seminal moment in the evolution of naval warfare as aircraft carriers and their escorting ships of both the U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy never came within sight of each other. Instead, all attacks were made by aircraft. There were many heroic deeds during the landmark battle of early May 1942, among them the actions of SBD Dauntless dive bomber pilots and aircrewmen that flew a mission for which their aircraft was not designed, but that was necessary to confront the threat posed by the enemy.

SBD Dauntless dive bombers pictured spotted for launch from the carrier Yorktown (CV 5) just weeks before the Battle of the Coral Sea.

At the time of the battle, the U.S. Navy was still very much in the learning mode when it came carrier warfare and leaders found themselves needing to maximize the capabilities of the aircraft on their flight decks. Fighter aircraft in the form of F4F Wildcats were at a premium. Not only were they vital in the role of escorting strike groups, they flew combat air patrols to protect carriers against enemy attack. There was only on fighter squadron on board the two U.S. Navy carriers at Coral Sea, Lexington (CV 2) and Yorktown (CV 5). However, each flattop’s embarked air group included a scouting squadron and bombing squadron equipped with SBD Dauntless dive bombers that boasted not only a flexible machine gun for the gunner in the rear cockpit, but also forward-firing machine guns that fired timed to fire through the propeller. Thus, the decision was made to operate the F4Fs at high altitude against enemy dive-bombers and position SBDs at lower altitudes to combat attacks by enemy torpedo planes.

On May 8, 1942, an hour and a half after both carriers launched a strike group against the reported position of the Japanese force, radars picked up unidentified aircraft approaching Lexington and Yorktown, prompting the scrambling of eight F4F Wildcats for the combat air patrol and 18 Dauntless’ for the anti-torpedo plane mission. Among the pilots of the latter was Lieutenant (junior grade) William Hall, a native of Utah, who was already a highly experienced combat pilot despite the U.S. having been at war for only five months. He was in two of the hit-and-run strikes executed by U.S. Navy carriers and made a bombing attack against the Japanese carrier Shoho the previous day, May 7, 1942.

Medal of Honor recipient William Hall pictured as an aviation cadet at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida.

As the enemy torpedo planes approached, they were able to launch their ordnance at Yorktown, luckily scoring no hits. The remainder converged on Lexington, where they ran into a spirited defense by SBDs of Scouting Squadron (VS) 2. Hall, flying at less than 1,000 feet, Hall pursued one enemy Nakajima B5N and splashed it just above the eave tops. He was also credited with a second kill. He had little time to celebrate his victory as Zero fighters jumped he and his gunner, Seaman First Class John Moore. Both pilot and gunner claimed an enemy aircraft shot down, but the Japanese fighter pilots peppered the Dauntless with fire. One 20mm round hit just forward of the cockpit, shredding Hall’s right foot and knocking out the aircraft’s hydraulics. Despite his pain, Hall managed to stay in the fight, steering the aircraft with his left foot and the rudder trim tabs because he could not press the rudder pedals with his right foot.

The valiant efforts of Hall and others could not keep the enemy from putting torpedoes into Lady Lex. After the enemy had departed, Hall made an approach to Lexington for landing, firing off a flare to signal he was a friendly plane. Over anxious gunners still took him under fire, a 5-inch shell passing through his cockpit, but fortunately not detonating.

Against the loss of eight SBDs, two of which were jettisoned because of battle damage, the anti-torpedo defense claimed seventeen aircraft shot down. In actuality, they shot down six, but inflicted damage on seven other aircraft, the extent of which forced them to ditch en route back to their carriers or be pushed over the side.

For his actions, Lieutenant (junior grade) William Hall received the Medal of Honor, which cited his action on May 8th and the bombing attack against Shoho. Numerous other pilots received the Navy Cross, with some awarded posthumously. Interestingly, one person had been wrong about Hall’s capabilities and potential, an instructor at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, writing of Aviation Cadet Hall. “He is never quite certain of having conducted himself well enough. This apparent lack of confidence handicaps his abilities somewhat.” On May 8th, if there was something Hall definitely was not lacking, it was certainty that he had performed and confidence!

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