Retired Navy Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch, 94, who commanded the U.S. planes in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first strategic defeat of the Japanese Navy in World War II, died Monday in Newcastle, Maine. He had a heart ailment and had been hospitalized with pneumonia.
The Battle of the Coral Sea, which lasted from May 3 to May 8, 1942, was fought entirely by aircraft. It was "the first naval battle in which no ship on either side sighted the other," according to the late historian, Samuel Eliot Morison.
The Japanese had planned to secure bases at Port Moresby, New Guinea, and in the Solomon Islands. They then planned to confront and destroy the American Pacific fleets by a raid on Midway Island.
Allied intelligence discovered the Japanese plans and ordered Rear Adm, Frank Jack Flethcer's Task Force 17, consisting of the carriers Lexington and Yorktown and a number of support craft, "to stop the enemy."
Adm. Fitch was in command of the task force planes and used the Lexington as his flagship.
In the early stages of the battle, each side tried to locate the other's major ships. There were air strikes on minor vessels.
On May 7, American planes found the Japanese light carrier Soho and sank it in 10 minutes.
"Scratch one flattop!" was the signal received by Adm. Fitch on the Lexington.
On May 8, the final day of the battle, two large Japanese carriers were damaged so badly they could not take part in the Battle of Midway, a major American victory less than a month later. Because of their losses in the Coral Sea, the Japanese canceled plans to invade Port Moresby. Thus, their advance in the South Pacific was halted.
But Task Force 17 also was severely mauled in the Coral Sea. Both Yorktown and Lexington were heavily damaged by Japanese aircraft. Yorktown and Lexington were heavily damaged by Japanese aircraft. Yorktown, known as "Waltzing Matilda," limped first to Pearl Harbor and then to the Battle of Midway, where she was finally lost.
The Lexington went down in the Coral Sea. With his flagship in flames, Adm. Fitch suggested to the captain that it be abandoned.
Adm. Fitch helped maintain an orderly evacuation and ordered ammunition and weapons thrown overboard. He saw that ice cream was served to the men while they were waiting their turn to be evacuated.
Finally, Adm. Fitch turned to the Lexington's skipper, Capt. Frederick Sherman, and said: "Well, let's get the hell off the ship."
Capt. Sherman insisted on the traditional right to be last off his ship, but was ordered by Adm. Fitch not to go down with "Lady Lex."
Adm. Fitch's decision to abandon the crippled ship was credited with saving some 2,700 lives. In addition, Adm. Fitch's dog, wrapped in a life jacket, was rescued by one of the ships standing by to evacuate Lexington's crew.
Later, Adm. Fitch commanded the aircraft of Adm. William Halsey's South Pacific fleet during the Guadal-canal campaign, and then became deputy chief of naval operations for air.
In 1945, AdM. Fitch became the first Navy airman appointed superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, from which he had graduated at the bottome of his class in 1906.
A native of Michigan, he served aboard of battleship Wyoming in World War I. He took naval aviation training a Pensacola during the 1920s. Later he commanded the first American carrier, the Langley, and then the Saratoga.
Adm. Fitch's decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and the Army Distinguished Flying Cross.
He is survived by three sons, Aubrey W. Jr., of Pittsburgh, Omar C., of Newcastle, and John C., of Houston, Tex.; six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.