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.”

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.

It was a crucial battle in the Pacific Theater of WWII, 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 US victories that would eventually turn the war in their favor and lead to Japan’s ultimate defeat.

The Fighting Begins

In early May 1942, the Japanese fleet had set sail for Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea — the latest target for Japanese conquest.

Meanwhile, a US fleet (backed up by a number of Australian ships) under the command of Admiral Frank Fletcher set out to intercept them. Both fleets were heavily built around aircraft carriers, with two (the Lexington and the Yorktown) in the US fleet, and three in the Japanese 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 US fleet. And only a day later, aircraft launched from the Yorktown would destroy the seaplane base that the Japanese had established on Tulagi, a nearby island in the South Pacific.

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, Japanese planes had spotted the USS Sims, a destroyer, and the USS Neosho, an oiler. Mistaking them for a cruiser and a carrier, the planes launched an attack on the ships, successfully sinking both. Later that day, US aircraft would retaliate, sinking the Japanese light 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.

That same day, 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 — consisting of heavy cruisers HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart, USS Chicago, and backed up by US destroyers Perkins and Walke — and placed it under the command of 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 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, 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 formation of Japanese aircraft 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 fleet 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 aircraft launched from the Yorktown successfully struck the Japanese carrier Shōkaku, which, though it did not sink, was damaged severely.

In response, Japanese aircraft struck the US carriers Yorktown and Lexington; 40 men on the former were killed, while the latter, irreparably damaged, was abandoned and scuttled.

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

Japan’s 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 Allies. 

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 war 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.

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 Allies 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 Role of Codebreakers

By this time, however, the Allies 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.

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. 

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 confidence that the Japanese Imperial Navy’s forces outnumbered those 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 the war 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.

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 the history of naval warfare, 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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