Battle of the Coral Sea

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It’s mid-1942. You’re a crew member on an oiler in the US Navy. 

You’re standing on the deck of your ship, leaning against the railing, a cigarette burning between your lips. Late evening has set in, and the sprawling waters of the Pacific look steely grey in the low light.

Over the whistle of the wind and the dull slapping of the waves against the hull, you hear footsteps on the deck behind you. You glance over your shoulder, watching as one of your crewmates makes his way over to you. He leans on the railing, his eyes fixed on the dark and rolling waters.

Absently, not looking in his direction, you hand him a cigarette. Silence hangs in the air.

“So,” he finally says, “this is really it, then.”

You nod. “Never thought it would happen?”

Blowing out a plume of smoke, he shrugs. “I mean… you remember the last war?”

Of course you do — nobody’s going to forget that one. One hundred, two hundred, a thousand years from now, they’re still going to be talking about the horrors of the European War.

He goes on, almost as if to himself. “I just… I guess I just figured it’d mostly be like that one. I mean… this is all really just European business, right? That’s what started it all off — some German fascists, some Brits, some Frenchies. The same story as last time.”

He sighs, and flicks the burning stub out over the side; you watch as the dull orange glimmer disappears into the dark below.

“I suppose I just thought that… that it’d all stay in Europe. I knew they’d probably send some of our Army boys over to help ‘em bring the Germans to heel, of course, but…” He chews his lip contemplatively. “I didn’t think we’d be getting involved.”

You nod thoughtfully, staring out over the horizon. “And yet, here we are.”

He clicks his tongue. “I mean, even when the Japs joined, I just… I suppose I wanted to believe they’d just fly a couple troops over to Europe and give the Germans a hand over there. I thought that if we Navy boys saw any action at all, it’d be around the coast of France, you know? Maybe the North Sea, if the Norwegians decided they needed our help de-Germanifying the place.” He shakes his head. “I really never did think…”

You glance sideways at him. “That we’d be trying to make sure the whole damn Pacific didn’t become a big ol’ Japanese naval base?”

He nods, an absent look on his face. “Just somehow always thought that if I ever sailed down to Papua New Guinea, it’d be on vacation, ya know? Never thought it’d be to fight back a damn Japanese invasion force.”

You let out another sigh, hunching your shoulders slightly as a particularly stiff sea breeze blasts its way over the deck. “It’s not just gonna stop here,” you say. “The Krauts are trying to make their way into Russia, the Brits are trying to hold them off in North Africa — we’re gonna find ourselves fighting ‘em off at every corner of the world before too long.”

“Well…” he says at last, turning toward you with a sobering look in his eyes, “Ol’ FDR really was right, then: it’s a World War now.”

What Happened at the Battle of the Coral Sea?

The Battle of Coral Sea was a five-day naval battle that took place between the United States and Imperial Japan on May 4th to May 8th, 1942. This would be one of the most decisive battles in naval history.

It was a crucial battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II, as it marked the first time the US was able to stop Japan’s advance in the South Pacific, setting the stage for a series of United States victories that would eventually turn the war in their favor and lead to Japan’s ultimate defeat.

The Fighting Begins

The initial idea was to invade Northern Australia to frustrate Allied efforts of establishing a base to threaten Japan’s perimeter defences in the South Pacific. But the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) declined saying they had neither the logistics or the manpower for the endeavor.

But, in early April 1942, one Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, Commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) Fourth Fleet, the largest naval unit in the South Pacific, suggested the occupation of Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands and Port Moresby in New Guinea, which would put Northern Australia within range of Japanese land-based aircraft. Inoue opined that the capture and control of Tulagi and Port Moresby would provide greater security for the other more important Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain.

The IJA and the Navy’s General Staff accepted Inoue’s proposal but on condition the Port Moresby and Tulagi bases be used as launching points for Japan’s Imperial conquest on the islands of New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. Thereafter cutting off communication and supplies between the United States and Australia.

In early May 1942, the Japanese carrier fleet had set sail for Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea, — the latest target for the Japanese invasion force. The battle plan was dubbed Operation Mo. The plan was to secure Tulagi in the Solomon Islands on 2-3 May and Port Moresby by 10th May. The IJN sailed out with 2 aircraft carriers, 1 light carrier, 9 cruisers and 15 destroyers.

Meanwhile, a US fleet (Task Force 17), backed up by a number of Australian ships, under the command of Admiral Frank Fletcher set out to intercept them. The US fleet had 2 aircraft carriers, 9 cruisers and 13 destroyers. Both fleets were heavily built around aircraft carriers, with two (the Lexington and the Yorktown) in the US fleet, and three in the Japanese carrier fleet (1).

The fighting commenced on May 4, 1942, with Japanese ships taking a circuitous route to the east and sailing into a clash with the United States fleet. And only a day later, aircraft launched from the Yorktown would destroy the seaplane base that the Japanese had established on Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands. When reports came from coast watchers and an RAAF Catalina that a Japanese amphibious task force had concentrated off Tulagi, Fletcher decided to strike immediately without waiting for the remainder of his force. Taking advantage of the protective clouds, Fletcher launched three successive waves of Yorktown dive-bombers and torpedo planes, with separate fighter sweeps by F4F Wildcats. The planes passed over Guadalcanal and came out of the clouds over Sealark Channel, surprising the remnants of the Tulagi invasion force.This four-day World War II skirmish in May 1942 marked the first air-sea battle in history.

This promising start, however, would be followed by two tense, but largely uneventful days as the opposing forces unsuccessfully sought each other out. Both sides caught only fleeting glimpses of each other in this time, and neither managed to land successful strikes. 

This elusiveness, in fact, would come to be noted as one of the Battle of the Coral Sea’s most distinct traits — not once, at any point, did opposing ships spot or fire upon each other.

The Two Sides Collide

Finally, on May 7th, their luck changed — they located and landed a successful blow on each other. 

Earlier that morning, a Japanese fighter strike force had spotted the USS Sims, a destroyer, and the USS Neosho, an oiler. Mistaking them for a cruiser and an aircraft carrier, the planes launched an attack on the ships, successfully sinking both. Later that day, United States aircraft would retaliate, sinking the Japanese light aircraft carrier, Shōhō (2).

Sinking of carrier Shoho during Battle of Coral Sea 1942
The Japanese light carrier Shoho under attack by U.S. Navy planes on 7 May 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

After sinking the light carrier, Shoho, Admiral Fletcher, aware of how much time had been lost fruitlessly seeking out the enemy in that wide expanse of sea, set about the process of intercepting the enemy instead. 

Fletcher set aside a designated Support Group (Task Force 44) — consisting of heavy cruisers HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart, USS Chicago, and backed up by US destroyers Perkins and Walke — a force commanded by Rear Admiral John Gregory Crace of the Royal Navy.

He ordered them to guard the Jomard Passage, a major lane to Port Moresby, and lie in wait for the Japanese carrier fleet.

Crace, of course, was acutely aware of the immense danger posed to ships by the heavy use of aircraft in the battle; and once his fleet had taken up its position in the Passage at around 2pm on May 7, he ordered them to take up an anti-aircraft formation. 

This, it quickly became clear, was a wise choice, as only an hour later, a Japanese aircraft strike force emerged over the horizon, headed straight for the fleet.

Firing back, the ships conducted evasive maneuvers, positioning themselves in such a way as to present as small a target as possible for the planes. Five Japanese aircraft were successfully downed by the fleet, and those remaining made a hasty retreat.

Shortly thereafter, however, Crace’s fleet endured another attack, this time from a squadron of high-level bombers. After a brief assault, airmen returning to Japan’s Fourth Fleet at Rabaul inaccurately reported having sunk a battleship; as a result, Crace’s fleet endured no more attacks, allowing it to maintain focus on ensuring the Jomard Passage was not used by the Japanese fleet.

It had been a harrowing ordeal for every man aboard that fleet, but thanks to Crace’s awareness of the newly emerging threats of air-and-naval combat, the damage had been minimized.

Discouraged and uncertain, the Japanese invasion force turned away from the Jomard Passage, negating the necessity of a clash with Crace’s ships.

The Battle Winds Down

The following day, May 8, 1942, would be the final day of this short, but significant clash between Japan and the United States. 

That morning, the battle came to a head, with both sides spotting and striking their respective targets almost simultaneously. US dive bombers launched from the Yorktown successfully scored three bomb hits: one on the carrier’s port bow, one to starboard at the forward end of the flight deck and one just abaft the island. Fires broke out but were eventually contained and extinguished. The resulting damage required the carrier Shōkaku to return to Japan for major repairs.

In response, Japanese aircraft struck the United States aircraft carriers Yorktown and Lexington; 40 men on the former were killed, while the latter, irreparably damaged, was abandoned and scuttled. The Yorktown was badly damaged, but made it back to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

Battle of the Coral Sea 1
Survivors of USS Lexington (CV-2) are pulled aboard a cruiser – probably USS Minneapolis (CA-36) – after the aircraft carrier was abandoned, 8th May 1942.

Japanese carrier fleet, however, had endured too much damage to take advantage of these rather crippling blows — they were forced to withdraw, abandoning their plans to lay claim to Port Moresby.

It was in this way that the Battle of the Coral Sea came to an end. 

Both sides had endured significant damage, but — though the Japanese claimed a tactical victory (having technically lost less ships than the US) — historians nowadays frequently argue that this was, in fact, a victory for the Allied forces. 

Not only had Japan’s relatively unhindered march on the Pacific been ground to an abrupt halt; the damage their naval forces had endured would have a measurable impact upon their future performance in the war.

Why Did the Battle of the Coral Sea Happen?

In brief, the cause of the Battle of Coral Sea was rooted in War-era Japan’s drive to spread its influence. 

This, of course, was an ambition that they shared with their fellow Axis powers — as a major driving force behind the Axis World War war II effort was Hitler’s vision of extending the Third Reich across the globe, as signified when he launched the war with a successful invasion of Poland. 

As a result, by the time that the Battle of the Coral Sea rolled around, Nazi control had spread across Europe like wildfire, with the Nazis invading, toppling, and establishing a military presence in France, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Poland, all within the first three years of the war.

But Nazi Germany were far from the only ones with ambitions of spreading their influence across the planet. 

Japan, too, was entertaining notions of expanding its influence and military presence across the surrounding region, and by mid-1942, these plans had advanced at an alarming rate.

A few months back in December 7, 1941, Japan had played their first hand in the war against the United States at Pearl Harbor. Adm. Chester Nimitz, Commander of the US Pacific Fleet was aware of the fact that the U.S had few aircraft carriers left in its fleet as most were destroyed at Pearl Harbor. But Nimitz had an enormous stake in the outcome in the Coral Sea. This would be his first major trial by fire as a fleet and theater commander. He was risking his precious carriers to thwart a new Japanese drive into the South Pacific, to protect the security of Australia, and to strike back against the seemingly invincible Imperial Japanese Navy.

In the course of only a few months, multiple territories in the region of Asia and the Pacific — including Guam, Hong Kong, and Burma — had come under Japanese control.

It was a process that clearly had to be stopped, were the Allied forces to stand any realistic chance of winning the war. After all, if Japan were to establish a military presence across such a wide space as Asia and the Pacific, not only would they have little trouble laying claim to the Allied nations of Australia and New Zealand next, but they would — functionally speaking — hold a frontier that stretched across the entire planet from north to south. 

To have control over such an extensive frontier would grant Japan an unprecedented advantage in a war that was growing increasingly global; and combined with Germany’s efforts to lay claim to Europe, it would represent a major advancement in the Axis’ efforts to attain global domination.

Needless to say, the Japanese army’s confidence was bolstered greatly by their largely unhindered spread across the Pacific region. Thus they set their sights on their new target: Port Moresby.

As the capital of Papua New Guinea, it served as a major Allied base during World War II, and to conquer it would lend Japan a tremendous strategic advantage in future battles, as they would uproot an established Allied base of operations.

This strategic site would be claimed via an attack launched from a seaplane base newly established on the small Solomon Island of Tulagi (3). The Japanese resolved to seize Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and Port Moresby in New Guinea in order to cut off vital strategic communication channels that connected the United States and Australia.

The Role of Codebreakers

By this time, however, the Allied forces had begun to cotton on to Japan’s general movements across the region, and the Japanese forces would find themselves faced with a new stumbling block: the codebreakers.

Though their role on the battlefield was an indirect one, World War II’s codebreakers remain one of the strongest symbols of the drastic effects that contemporary technological advancements had upon the nature of warfare.

Of course, some of the war’s most well-known codebreakers were those working out of Bletchley Park, base of operations for codebreakers (among them, computer pioneer Alan Turing) working for British military intelligence. 

But the USA had its own fair share of codebreaking experts — prominent among them, William Friedman and his wife Elizebeth Smith, the latter of whom has been called “America’s first female cryptanalyst” and whose work extended over both World Wars.

It was codebreakers such as these who were, in many ways, responsible for turning the war in the Allies’ favor. Intercepted enemy messages were decrypted, giving Allied nations insight into the movement of enemy forces and thus giving them a distinct advantage over their enemy to allow them to act ahead of time.

Such was the case with the Battle of Coral Sea, which was preceded by attentive American codebreakers informing the Allies of Japan’s plans to move on Port Moresby. Armed with this information, the Allies reacted quickly, and Fletcher’s fleet was dispatched to intercept the invading force. 

The Pacific, it was then clear, had to be defended before it became an extended Axis stronghold.

What is the Significance of the Battle of the Coral Sea?

From the perspective of the Allies, the immediate significance of their strategic victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea was obvious: they had taken their first steps toward hindering Japan’s string of victories in the Pacific that had helped it dramatically expand the territory it controlled and its sphere of influence. 

In the months following the attack of Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into the war, Japan had gained dominance over multiple nations across Asia and the Pacific. With the Battle of the Coral Sea, this growing dominance was stopped in its tracks at Port Moresby, which Japan was forced to abandon due to the damage done to its invading force. The battle proved to the Allied forces the ferocity of Japanese naval forces should not be taken lightly.

It was with this small but significant victory in the Coral Sea where the US proved — to itself, to the Allied nations, and to the world at large — that the Pacific would change from being the ground underneath the steamroller that was Japan’s military and into a new theater of the global war that would experience every bit of the struggle that defined the Second World War.

The Battle of Midway

But there were other tremendous things that were significant to the Battle of Coral Sea; things that the world could not possibly have predicted — the most obvious being its impact on the somewhat better-known (and notably more dramatic) Battle of Midway, which would follow shortly afterward. 

In early April 1942 the staff of the Combined Fleet had presented the Naval General Staff with a proposal for the invasion and capture of Midway Island. By this action it was hoped that the American Fleet would be enticed “into an ambush where the American Fleet could be annihilated by overwhelming numbers”. After much negotiations the two staffs agreed to go ahead with the Midway operation after the capture of Port Moresby. However, planning progressed slowly until 18 April 1942, when American B25 bombers, led by Lieutenant Colonel James H Doolittle, attacked targets in the Japanese capital of Tokyo.

There was little loss in terms of military assets. But the Doolittle Raid had a lasting psychological effect on most Japanese citizens who watched in horror as their capital got pummeled. After this, Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye, Commander of the Fourth Fleet at Rabaul, was instructed that the Port Moresby operation was to take place in early May with the Midway operation planned for the following month.

Had the Doolittle raid not occurred there is the real possibility that the majority of the Japanese aircraft carriers may have been involved in Operation Mo. The aircraft carrier Kaga (72 combat planes) was originally allocated to take part in the operation but with the advancement of the timetable she had to be omitted as she was in dockyard hands till late April 1942. As it was, Admiral Inouye still had the aircraft carriers Shoho, Shokaku and Zuikaku. After completion of Operation Mo the carriers were to rejoin the rest of the fleet and take part in the planned operations against Midway Island.

Not discouraged by their Coral Sea setback, the Japanese forces now turned their attention to Midway Atoll in the North Pacific, with a mind not only to lay claim to the island, but also to destroy the United States Pacific Fleet (4). 

Their plans would once again be intercepted by US codebreakers, and the subsequent clash between the US and Japan would result in a far more decisive victory for the US than the one they had enjoyed at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Japan lost around 3,000 men and several hundred planes, and this played a major role in forcing Japan to give up their ambitions of conquering the Pacific; in forcing them to fall back into a defensive position. 

However, though the US’s victory here drastically changed the course of the Second World War, many theorize that it would likely not have been possible were it not for their smaller Coral Sea victory; for despite Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s (Commander-in-chief of combined Japanese fleet, who was the best Japanese naval strategist in World War II) confidence that the Japanese naval power outnumbered that of the US navy, the damage endured by the Japanese Navy at the Battle of the Coral Sea (particularly to the aircraft carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku, which were, as a result of their damage, both unavailable for service at the Battle of Midway) lent American forces an advantage that, many argue, ultimately was to thank for their victory.

More than this, however, the Battle of Coral Sea also represented another important landmark, not just in World War II, but in the history of battle in general. 

An Oddity in Naval History

As mentioned earlier on, despite both sides making heavy use of their navy, this was the first battle in history in which neither sides’ ships spotted or fired upon each other at any point.

Instead, more or less, all the actual fighting would be done by planes, which would sweep down and strike at the ships whose gunners struggled to keep up with the swift movement of the aircraft.

It was unprecedented in the history of war for a naval engagement to be so indirect; in many ways, it served as a representation of how the technological developments of the 20th century had changed the face of war forever. 

It could, some argue, even be seen as something of a representation of the threat of long-distance warfare that would come to define the Cold War era.

Regardless, despite being shorter and often overshadowed by other, better-known battles, it is quite clear that the Battle of the Coral Sea served as both a major turning point in the story of World War II’s Pacific front and as a landmark in the history of naval warfare in general.

Conclusion

As we’ve probably made clear by now, the Battle of the Coral Sea was one of the first major battles of World War II’s Pacific front. What would follow would be several years of (chiefly) naval and aerial battles as the Allies fought to keep the ambitious Japanese forces from laying claim to the entire region. 

It was a theater of World War II that contrasted sharply with the heavily land-based combat experienced by forces on the European, Russian, and North African fronts; and it would play a key role in shaping the war’s ultimate outcome. In World War II the Japanese military forces quickly took advantage of their success at Pearl Harbor to expand their holdings throughout the Pacific and westward toward India. This expansion continued relatively unchecked until mid-1942.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first engagement in naval history where the ships involved never sighted or fired at each other directly.

The sailors and pilots who saw the Battle of the Coral Sea through to its end likely had little notion of the intense clashes they would see in the Pacific — the next instance of which would come only a few weeks later, in the form of the Battle of Midway.

The Battle of the Coral Sea had set a landmark in naval history, but for the men of the US navy, it was merely one step in a lengthy succession of battles that would, in turn, play a role in shaping the course of 20th century history.

  1. Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 104.
  2. Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 105.
  3. Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 104.
  4. Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 106.

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