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stem the tide

Battle of the Coral Sea

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought from May 4May 8, 1942, with most of the action occurring on May 7 and May 8, was a major naval battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States and Australia. It was the first fleet action in which aircraft carriers engaged each other. It was also the first naval battle in history in which neither side's ships sighted or fired directly upon the other.

It is considered a tactical victory for Japan, since the United States lost fleet carrier USS Lexington in exchange for the light carrier Shōhō. At the same time, the battle was a strategic victory for the Allies because the Japanese abandoned their attempt to land troops to take Port Moresby, New Guinea. The engagement ended with no clear victor, but the damage suffered and experience gained by both sides set the stage for the Battle of Midway.

Background

In early 1942, having conquered nearly all of Southeast Asia in just a few months, Imperial Japan was at the apex of its power. Still reeling from a long series of humiliating defeats, the Allies were just beginning to develop the skills and gather the resources needed to survive, stem the tide of Japanese successes and eventually roll back their territorial gains. Allied strategy at this time was focused on a defensive buildup of the United States Army and Marine strength on New Caledonia (well to the south of the Solomon Islands), and Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force units in the south and east of the Australian Territory of New Guinea, just north of Australia.

On March 12, the Prime Minister of Japan, General Hideki Tōjō, warned Australia and New Zealand might soon "suffer the same fate as the Dutch East Indies.

In April 1942, Japanese forces left their new stronghold of Rabaul (on New Britain, just north of New Guinea), and launched a two-pronged strategy: an amphibious assault against Port Moresby (Operation “MO”), and another against Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. The intent was threefold: to establish control of the Solomons, initially with a seaplane base; to occupy Port Moresby (the last Allied base between Japan and Australia); and in so doing, bring the American aircraft carrier fleet to battle for the first time in the war.

Historians remain divided about Japanese longer-term intentions. There seems little doubt Japan planned to greatly strengthen its hold on the Solomon Islands as a bastion against any future U.S. counterattacks and may have intended to later occupy other island groups in the South Pacific in order to cut Australia off from the United States. However, an invasion of Australia was not planned at any time, nor within Japan's capabilities in any case. In practice, Japanese military planning was a complex process, with ill-defined areas of responsibility and that was crippled by endless, bitter debates between the Imperial Army and Navy. Regarding longer-range Japanese aims in the South Pacific, there was only one certainty - whatever strategy the navy put forward would be challenged by an army counterplan.

Three Japanese task forces set sail: the invasion forces for the Solomons and Port Moresby, and a covering force of two large modern aircraft carriers, Shōkaku and Zuikaku (both veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor), a smaller carrier, Shōhō, two heavy cruisers, and supporting craft. Alerted by radio intercepts, the Allies knew Japanese land-based aircraft were being moved south and that an operation was impending. To oppose it were three main groups: Yorktown already in the Coral Sea under the command of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, with Lexington en route, and a joint Allied surface force. The carriers Hornet and Enterprise were heading south after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, but they arrived too late to take part in the battle.

Battle

Tulagi

Lexington joined Yorktown on May 1. The Japanese occupied Tulagi without incident on May 3, and began construction of a seaplane base. After fueling, Yorktown closed on Tulagi and, on May 4, launched three successful strikes against Japanese ships and aircraft there, revealing the presence of the carrier but sinking the destroyer Kikuzuki and five merchantmen, crippling the island's seaplane reconnaissance capability, and damaging other vessels, before retiring to the south to rendezvous with the Lexington and the newly-arrived cruisers.

May 6

Land-based B-17s attacked the approaching Port Moresby invasion fleet on May 6, with the usual lack of success. Almost another year would pass before the USAAF realized high-altitude bombing attacks against moving naval targets were pointless. Although both carrier groups flew extensive searches on May 6, cloudy weather kept them hidden from each other, and the two sides spent the night only 110 kilometres (70 mi) apart. Other Allied aircraft joined the battle, from airbases at Cooktown and Mareeba on Cape York Peninsula, Australia.

That night, Fletcher, whose role was to protect Port Moresby, made the difficult decision to detach his main surface force, Task Force 44 under Australian Rear Admiral John Crace, to block the probable course of an invasion. Crace had the cruisers HMAS Australia, HMAS Hobart, and USS Chicago, and destroyers USS Perkins, USS Walke, and USS Farragut. Fletcher and Crace knew that exposing surface ships to attack by land-based aircraft, without air cover, risked a repeat of the loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse five months before. Their fears were nearly realized when the cruisers were spotted and came under an intense air attack from a squadron of torpedo bombers on the afternoon of May 7. The ships escaped with few casualties and little damage. Only minutes after the Japanese raid, Crace's force was inadvertently attacked by friendly B-17s; Farragut and Perkins once again had to endure near misses.

May 7

On May 7, both fleets launched all available aircraft, but neither found the main body of the other, mistakenly attacking subsidiary enemy forces instead. Japanese aircraft found and attacked the U.S. fleet oiler Neosho and her escorting destroyer Sims, mistaking them for a carrier and a cruiser. Two waves of torpedo and dive bombers swarmed over both ships resulting in Sims being sunk and Neosho crippled.

Meanwhile, U.S. aircraft, sent in the wrong direction by a miscoded contact report, had missed Shōkaku and Zuikaku but found the invasion fleet, escorted by the small carrier Shōhō, which was soon sunk with heavy casualties. In the previous five months, the Allies had lost numerous major warships and had been unable to sink a single major Japanese combatant in return. Shōhō was small by carrier standards, but the laconic phrase “scratch one flattop,” radioed back to Lexington by then-Lieutenant Commander Robert E. Dixon, announced the first Allied naval success of the Pacific War. Dixon's phrase was quoted by Chicago Tribune war correspondent Stanley Johnston in a June 1942 article and subsequently requoted in most accounts of the Pacific War. Lexingtons commanding officer, Captain Frederick C. Sherman, USN, credited Dixon with coining the word "flattop" which became standard slang for an aircraft carrier.

May 8

Finally, with dawn searches on May 8, the main carrier forces located one another and launched maximum effort raids, which passed each other in the air. Hidden by rain, Zuikaku escaped detection, but Shōkaku was hit three times by bombs. Her deck damaged, Shōkaku was unable to land her aircraft and was thus effectively put out of action.

Lexingtons CXAM-1 RADAR detected the incoming Japanese aircraft at a range of 68 miles, but the Americans underestimated the performance of the Nakajima B5N and positioned fighters too low to intercept. Both American carriers were hit: Yorktown by a bomb; the larger, less maneuverable Lexington, by both bombs and torpedoes. Although the latter survived the immediate damage and was thought to be repairable, leaking aviation fuel exploded a little over an hour later. Lexington had to be abandoned and scuttled to prevent her capture.

Crace continued to stand between the invasion force and Port Moresby. Inoue was misled by returning fliers’ reports as to the strength of the Allied cruiser and destroyer force, and he recalled the invasion fleet. With Shōkaku damaged and Zuikaku short of aircraft, neither was able to take part in the crucial Battle of Midway a month later. The damaged Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor.

Outcome

Tactical

In tactical terms, despite heavier personnel casualties due to the quick sinking of Shōhō, the Japanese had achieved a narrow victory; one small carrier lost and a large carrier severely damaged against the Americans’ loss of a large carrier and significant damage to another.

Strategic

In strategic terms, the Allies had won because the seaborne invasion of Port Moresby was averted. Port Moresby was vital to Allied strategy and could not have been defended by the ground forces stationed there. This was the first time that a Japanese invasion force had been turned back without achieving its objective. In addition, it was a moral victory; from the Allied point of view, after five months of continuous defeat, a battle that came out almost even was close enough to a victory as not to matter.

It had a substantial effect on the morale and the strategic planning of both sides. Without a hold in New Guinea, the subsequent Allied advance, difficult though it was, would have been much harder still. As a result, the Japanese chose instead to attack Moresby overland. The consequent delay was just long enough to permit the arrival of the veteran Second Australian Imperial Force to fight the Kokoda Track campaign and the Battle of Milne Bay, which in turn relieved pressure on U.S. forces at Guadalcanal.

Carriers

Although Zuikaku was only slightly damaged, with only 40 aircraft left she was in no condition to fight and had to return to Japan to replenish a portion of her air wings. Shōkaku was severely damaged, unable to operate aircraft, and took six months to repair. Despite the likely availability of sufficient aircraft between the two ships to re-equip Zuikaku with a composite air group, the Japanese made no serious attempt to get her ready for Midway.

The loss of Lexington was a severe blow, as she was one of the Navy's largest carriers. Yorktown was able to still operate aircraft, and though her damage was estimated to require months in port, she was rushed to Pearl Harbor and made more or less battle-worthy in a miracle of improvisation and determination after just two days in drydock.

Other considerations

The U.S. Navy learned a great deal from the Battle of the Coral Sea. Following the loss of Lexington, better ways to contain aviation fuel and control defensive fighter aircraft were developed. After the costly attacks on the Japanese carriers, it was clear coordination of dive- and torpedo bombers had to be improved. Most importantly of all, it was a significant morale boost because it showed that the Japanese could be beaten.

While Admiral Fletcher continued to command carrier forces and served as the senior USN officer at Midway, Admiral Takagi was relegated to less important assignments in the aftermath of Coral Sea.

See also

Notes

References

External links

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