Battle of the Coral Sea
The American Navy stops the Japanese from occupying Port Moresby, New Guinea
4-8 May 1942
author Paul Boșcu, January 2019
During the Battle of the Coral Sea the US Navy, aided by signals intelligence decrypts, sent a force to oppose the Japanese Navy who wanted to occupy Port Moresby, a strategic location in New Guinea. By the end of the battle, even though the Americans suffered heavy casualties they manged to stop the Japanese from landing and occupying the important port.

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In the Pacific theater of World War Two, the Battle of the Coral Sea took place between the forces of the Japanese Empire and the United States and Australia. The US learned of the Japanese plans to invade Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. The Americans send a joint US-Australian naval force to intercept the Japanese and defend these places. Although the Japanese successfully invaded Tulani and sank several Allied ships, the battle turned out to be a strategic victory for the Allies, as the Japanese were unable to deploy vital naval assets in the subsequent Battle of Midway.

With the important exception of Burma, the next stage in the Allies’ war against Japan can be told largely in terms of aircraft carriers, which became the key weapon in deciding whether the Japanese could retain the sprawling empire they had won in the six months after Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese were determined to seize Port Moresby to protect their southern perimeter, to control the straits between New Guinea and Australia, to threaten Australia and, if the army ever changed its mind, to provide a base for invading that continent. The Americans, on the other hand, were equally determined to assist the Australians in holding Port Moresby as an essential outpost for the defense of Australia and an equally essential springboard for any counterattacks northwards.

In what became the normal confused minuet of Pacific war naval engagements between carriers, the Japanese and American carrier groups advanced and retreated, veered away or closed the distance in deference to weather, the available light, and very confused and incomplete information about each other. Both sides made wild claims about the damage they inflicted, but the results proved decisive for the Allies.

The indecisive Battle of the Coral Sea resulted in the sinking of the Japanese light carrier Shoho and the damaging of the American carrier Lexington, which exploded two hours after the last Japanese plane left. The evacuation of the Lexington was orderly, and over 90 percent of the crew survived. Two heavy Japanese carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, were damaged, and so the plans to take Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea – from where Australia could be threatened – had to be abandoned.

The temporary character of the Japanese incursion could not long be concealed; for a while radio propaganda could pretend that the rising sun was about to shine on India and the whole Indian Ocean area, but it became obvious by the late summer that this was simply not likely.

In the full flight of euphoria following their triumphs, the Japanese determined to extend their South Pacific holdings to embrace Papua, the Solomons, Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa. The navy persuaded the army to agree an advance to a new imperial outer perimeter with Midway Atoll in the center and the Aleutians in the north, which should be seized from the Americans. They would then have bases from which they could interdict supply routes to Australia, which was now the Allies’ main staging post for the Asian war. But before Midway could be taken, Port Moresby and Tulagi had to be invaded.

Japan’s objectives would prove disastrously over-ambitious; but the alternative, from Tokyo’s perspective, was to concede to the Americans the freedom to amass forces for a counterstroke. They knew that, unless the US could be kept under relentless pressure, Japanese defeat was inevitable. Their only credible strategy, they believed, was to strike at the Allies again and again, until Washington bowed to the logic of Japanese dominance and negotiated a settlement. Above all, the Imperial Navy sought to engage and destroy US warships at sea.

The pressure of time imposed by the need to strike before the Americans added new forces to those already deployed in the Pacific finally produced agreement on a firm schedule for a series of Japanese operations. These would be, first, an attack to seize Port Moresby and the seaplane base at Tulagi in the Solomons. Due to the recent appearance of American carriers in the South Pacific, this operation would have to be supported by a carrier division of two aircraft carriers.

The navy leadership was itself divided. On the one hand were the advocates in Admiral Yamamoto's Combined Fleet Headquarters of a strike in the Central Pacific, now looking toward the seizure of Midway Island as a prerequisite for the landing on Hawaii, but making that possible by forcing the American navy, and especially its carriers, into a decisive battle. The central naval staff under Admiral Nagumo Osami preferred to concentrate on securing the empire Japan was winning in the south and considered an expedition to the east much too risky. In the face of Yamamoto's threat to resign, the navy staff caved in.

The Japanese were planning to seize Port Moresby by seaborne landing, with a carrier group of two large and one light carrier providing air support. The idea that this small force could obtain control of the air over Port Moresby and shield the landings at Tulagi in the Solomons as well as near Port Moresby, was ridiculous: six carriers had hit Pearl Harbor, four had been used to cover the seizure of Rabaul, and five for the attack on Ceylon. But the insistence of Yamamoto on his strike at Midway prevented the allocation of adequate forces to the Port Moresby attack.

As an immediate reaction to the losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, the United States moved one carrier, the Yorktown, three battleships, a destroyer and twelve submarines from the Atlantic, where they had been on convoy duty back to the Pacific. But that was not all. The rapidity of the unfolding disasters in the Philippines and Malaya led to a more general reassessment of the situation there. As it became clear that the Philippines and Malaya could not be saved, the Americans decided to reinforce Australia as a future base from which to strike at Japan.

It was clear to President Roosevelt and George Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff, that steps had to be taken to keep open a route to Australia as a base for reinforcements. The analysis of the situation prepared by then Brigadier General Dwight Eisenhower, the officer soon to be made Chief of the War Plans Division, calling for a buildup to defend northern Australia, put these concepts into clear focus.

As the situation in the Philippines deteriorated, it became obvious that aid could not be sent there in substantial quantities; instead the United States decided to send an army division to Australia. MacArthur was ordered there as well, to take charge of the forces being built up. Primarily American planes defended northern Australia against a whole series of Japanese air raids concentrating on Darwin, beginning in February 1942 and continuing into 1944.

In early 1942, moreover, the United States government was being forced by circumstances to alter its general plans in two other ways. First, it became clear that a vastly greater shipping construction program would be necessary: there was no point in building up a huge army if it could not be sent out and supplied. Secondly, reinforced by Churchill's insistence, the United States sent even more army units to Australia.

The Americans had one resource of great value: an increasing ability to read the Japanese naval code as a result of cryptographic work. Unlike the diplomatic machine code which had been broken earlier, the main naval code was just beginning to be deciphered. The knowledge gained about Japanese plans and dispositions from cryptanalytic intelligence was essential to the proper disposition of the American navy at both Coral Sea and Midway; in turn, the American naval leaders learned from this experience how valuable such intelligence could be, and devoted more men and resources to it.

A strategy for continued war with Japan depended on air power. From his new nest in Australia, Douglas MacArthur added his own strident calls for an aerial onslaught against the perimeter of the new Japanese Empire – in his case the seizure of air bases in New Guinea – to begin his march of revenge to the Philippines.

Although Marshall worried about the diversion of army resources from Europe to the Pacific war, he also understood that the Pacific Fleet retained much of its combat power, which would surge in 1943 with the arrival of battleships, carriers and cruisers already being built, ships that would not be needed in the campaign against the German submarines. Air assets were another matter, but Marshall admitted that the army had tactical aviation forces that could be used to good purpose in the Pacific.

At the level of political direction, Roosevelt simply announced to Churchill that although he understood the British requirement to defend India, he regarded the war with Japan as essentially an American task, supported by his two new wartime clients, Nationalist China and Australia. FDR simply stated the obvious: that only American air-naval power could eventually roll back the Japanese from their Pacific outposts and liberate the conquered states of Southeast Asia and China.

Although the Japanese could not try an invasion of India or even a landing on Ceylon because of the refusal of the army to provide the troops, the navy could and did try a significant offensive into the Indian Ocean. The Japanese naval sortie, however, though involving the major aircraft carrier fleet which had struck Pearl Harbor, could only carry out some raids on Colombo, the capital, and Trincomalee, the major naval base, on Ceylon, shell some spots on the Indian coast, and sink two British cruisers and a number of merchant ships. However, these Japanese tactical victories constituted a major strategic defeat, as the newly accumulated British fleet for the most part escaped destruction.

Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – was the obvious direction to move at a time when the British position there was weak but in the process of being reinforced. Here was a key Allied supply route, providing the main means of reinforcement for the Middle East theater and one of the routes for supplies to the Soviet Union. Finally, here was the back door to the important oil resources of the Middle East, on which much of the British war effort depended.

The more extensive projects of the navy had to be cut down in the face of the army's unwillingness to allocate troops, either for the huge expeditions the War Ministry's own schemes would have required, or for the more modest conquests pushed by the navy. This had meant a sortie into the Indian Ocean instead of an invasion of Ceylon; it also meant that an invasion of the main islands of Hawaii could not be carried out.

By the end of the operation off Ceylon, the big carriers had to return to home waters for repairs and maintenance work as well as replacements for the casualties incurred. This meant that the whole Japanese timetable was compressed at a point in the war when the projects that had been decided upon by Imperial Headquarters required more time, not less.

The Indian Ocean raid had one unfortunate outcome for the Japanese: it delayed a change in the Japanese naval code by two months. American intelligence analysts collected an unprecedented amount of readable message traffic, including Yamamoto’s strategic plans.

The Americans made a gesture which dismayed and provoked their enemies, because it provided an early hint of Japan’s vulnerability and lent urgency to their further endeavors. Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s air strike against Tokyo by sixteen B-25 bombers, launched from the carrier Hornet 650 miles from Japan, was materially insignificant but morally important. Heartening the Allied peoples in a season of defeats, it was an imaginative act of military theater, of the kind in which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill often indulged. The raid persuaded the Japanese that they must seize Midway, America’s westernmost Pacific foothold. Once Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had aircraft based on Midway, these could frustrate further Doolittle-style adventures.

Roosevelt had been calling for a raid right after Pearl Harbor, a view combining morale considerations with a belief in the role of air power against Japan. Although the American task force was spotted by Japanese picket boats and had to send its sixteen planes off at a greater distance than planned, the project worked. The Japanese were completely surprised and did not shoot down a single one of the planes, which landed in China or crashed on running out of gas, with one landing in the Soviet Union where its crew was interned for 13 months.

There was little physical damage, but the morale uplift of the raid, led by then Colonel James Doolittle, for the Allies was great. The morale blow to the Japanese was even greater. The sacred precincts of the homeland had been violated, and the possibility of future violations of that kind made all too obvious. The execution of several of the American fliers who were captured and the slaughter of Chinese civilians who had helped others escape could not solve the basic problem. A new offensive to build a shield for Japan's home waters was essential, and that meant an assault on Midway.

The Doolittle raid galvanized the Japanese forces in China to give the Chinese Nationalist army and its American aviators an overdue object lesson. In addition to fighting several respectable actions in central Burma, the Nationalists beat back another three-division sortie toward Changsha.

Three invasion convoys set sail for Port Moresby, protected by powerful strike and covering forces including three carriers. Vice-Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, directing operations, hoped that an American fleet would seek to intervene, for he expected to destroy it. The amphibious force destined for Tulagi island in the south Solomons, a few miles off Guadalcanal, landed unopposed. Next day, aircraft from the carrier Yorktown struck Japanese ships offshore, sinking a destroyer and two smaller vessels, but the destruction was disappointing, considering that the attackers enjoyed almost ideal conditions.

When US carrier planes attacked Tulagi anchorage against slight opposition, twenty-two Douglas Devastator torpedo-bombers achieved just one hit. Most American torpedoes, the Japanese said later, were launched too far out, and ran so slowly that they were easily avoidable.

A US fleet with a small Australian contingent, led by Rear-Admiral Frank Fletcher and forewarned by intelligence of Japanese intentions, steamed to intercept Inoue’s main force. Fletcher dispatched his cruisers, led by British Rear-Admiral John Crace, to attack the enemy’s transports. Fletcher was misinformed about enemy locations. US air squadrons, instead of finding the Japanese carriers, chanced upon Inoue’s amphibious force. Its transports promptly turned away, to await the outcome of the fleet encounter. Crace withdrew, on learning that he was advancing into empty ocean. Both rival admirals groped ineffectually.

Planes from Lexington scored an early success, sinking the small carrier Shoho. Fletcher’s carrier group had an extraordinarily lucky escape. The Japanese fleet was 175 miles astern of him; his own planes were absent when enemy aircraft sank and destroyed an American tanker and escorting destroyer which were trailing his task groups. If Inoue’s bombers had flown further and found the US carriers, these would have been exposed to disaster.

As sunrise came at 06.55, sailors in fetid confinement below took turns to snatch breaths of clean air from vents or scuttles, as waves of American and Japanese aircraft lifted off from their respective flight decks. Lt. Cmdr. Bob Dixon, who had led the previous day’s air attack on Shoho, again distinguished himself by locating the Japanese fleet. He lingered overhead to maintain surveillance, nursing his engine to save fuel. The first wave of US aircraft located and attacked the carrier Shokaku, inflicting significant but not fatal damage.

Most of the torpedo-carriers and dive bombers missed. The strikes were poorly coordinated. Dive-bomber crews suffered severe problems when their sighting telescopes and windshields misted up during the steep descent from ‘pushover’ at 17,000 feet to ‘pull-up’ at 1,500. Pilots fumed at their own lack of speed and defensive firepower against Japanese fighters. But Shokaku survived. Lt. Cmdr. Paul Stroop, a staff officer aboard Lexington, acknowledged ruefully, ‘We should have been more effective.’

Even as the Americans were diving on Inoue’s fleet, the Japanese struck Fletcher’s ships much harder. Yorktown suffered a single hit which killed more than forty men, and a near-miss which momentarily blasted the ship’s racing screws clear of the water. After just thirteen minutes the Japanese planes turned away, leaving a shambles which greeted Fletcher’s airmen returning from their own strike. Leaking gasoline fumes triggered a massive blast below decks: ammunition began to cook off; the decision was made to abandon the ship.

When radar reported enemy aircraft closing, the US carrier captains called for twenty-five-knot flank speed and began evasive action before meeting shoals of incoming torpedoes, a rain of bombs. Her captain, Frederick Sherman, asked the engine room if he should reduce speed, to receive the defiant answer: ‘Hell no, we’ll make it.’ But Lexington’s full helm turn as torpedoes approached failed to save her: the 40,000-ton carrier was struck with devastating effect. ‘It was pretty discouraging to see these Japanese launch their torpedoes then fly very close to the ship to get a look at us,’ said Paul Stroop. ‘They were curious and sort of thumbed their noses at us. We were shooting at them with our new 20mms and not hitting them at all.’

Blazes broke out which found plentiful tinder – inflammable bulkhead paint, and wooden furniture such as no US warship would carry again. Half-naked sailors suffered terrible burns. This was the last time American crews willingly exposed flesh in action.

Its senior officer, Admiral Fitch, walked calmly across the flight deck accompanied by a marine orderly clutching his jacket and dispatches, to be picked up by a destroyer’s boat below. Men in their hundreds began to leap into the water. The rescuers were so effective that only 216 of Lexington’s crew were lost out of 2,735, but a precious carrier was gone. Yorktown was severely damaged, though she was able to complete landing on planes two minutes after sunset. In the small hours of darkness, the dead were buried over the side.

The battle was done: both fleets turned away. Fletcher’s task groups had lost 543 lives, sixty aircraft and three ships including Lexington. Inoue lost over 1,000 men and seventy-seven aircraft – the carrier Zuikaku’s air group suffered heavy attrition. But the balance of destruction favored the Japanese, who had better planes than the Americans and handled them more effectively. However, Inoue abandoned the operation against Port Moresby and retired, conceding strategic success to the US Navy. Here, once again, was a manifestation of Japanese timidity: victory was within their grasp, but they failed to press their advantage. Never again would they enjoy such an opportunity to establish dominance of the Pacific.

In a naval battle carried out at a great distance and for this reason unlike any prior naval engagement, the airplanes sought out the ships of the other side without the ships themselves ever firing directly on each other as had been characteristic of all prior fighting at sea. The American planes sank the light carrier Shoho while losing the fleet carrier Lexington. The Yorktown and the Japanese fleet carrier Shokaku were damaged while the other Japanese fleet carrier, the Zuikaku, lost planes but was not damaged.

In the first great carrier battle, the tactical advantage was clearly with the Japanese who had, in effect, traded a light carrier for one of the few American fleet carriers. But the strategic advantage was all with the Americans. The Japanese advance had been halted for the first time. The landings to seize Port Moresby had been called off and the follow-up operation to seize Nauru and Ocean Islands (between the Solomons and the Gilberts) also had to be postponed for months.

The Japanese pretended in public and to their German allies that they had won a great victory, but the reality was very different. As the projected attack on Midway had prevented an adequate allotment of Japanese forces to the Port Moresby operation, so, reciprocally, the Port Moresby operation reduced the Japanese strength available for Midway.

The Japanese navy simply did not have the replacement aircraft and crews available. The Americans, on the other hand, recalled the damaged Yorktown to Pearl Harbor and made minimum essential provisional repairs on it in three days so that it could fight again. As a result, the United States navy would be able to meet the four carriers of the Japanese with three of its own.

War at sea was statistically much less dangerous than ashore for all participants save such specialists as aviators and submariners. Conflict was impersonal: sailors seldom glimpsed the faces of their enemies. The fate of every ship’s crew was overwhelmingly at the mercy of its captain’s competence, judgement – and luck. Seamen of all nations suffered cramped living conditions and much boredom, but peril intervened only in spasms. Carrier operations represented the highest and most complex refinement of naval warfare. As the years passed, the skills of the sailors were refined, as well as the technology involved in battles.

Among US naval aircraft, the Coral Sea battle showed that the Dauntless dive-bomber was alone up to its job, not least in having adequate endurance. The Devastator was ‘a real turkey’, in the words of a flier, further handicapped by high fuel consumption. Worst of all, Mk 13 aerial and Mk 14 sea-launched torpedoes were wildly unreliable, unlikely to explode even if they hit a target. A most un-American reluctance to learn from experience meant that this fault, afflicting submarine as much as air operations, was not fully corrected until 1943.

Individuals were called upon to display fortitude and commitment, but seldom enjoyed the opportunity to choose whether or not to be brave. That was a privilege reserved for their commanders, who issued the orders determining the movements of ships and fleets. The overwhelming majority of sailors, performing technical functions aboard huge sea-going war machines, made only tiny, indirect personal contributions to killing their enemies.

‘The flight deck looked like a big war dance of different colors,’ wrote a sailor aboard the American carrier Enterprise. ‘The ordnance gang wore red cloth helmets and a red T-shirt when they went about their work of loading machine-guns, fusing bombs, and hoisting torpedoes … Other specialties wore different colors. Brown for the plane captains – one attached to each plane – green for the hydraulic men who manned the arresting gear and the catapults, yellow for the landing signal officer and deck control people, purple for the oil and gas kings … Everything was “on the double” and took place with whirling propellers everywhere, waiting to mangle the unwary.’

The US Navy would refine carrier assault to a supreme art, but in 1942 it was still near the bottom of the curve: not only were its planes inferior to those of the Japanese, but commanders had not yet evolved the right mix of fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo-carriers for each ‘flat-top’. US anti-aircraft gunnery was no more effective than that of the Royal Navy. Radar sets were short-sighted in comparison with those of the later war years. Damage control, which became an outstanding American skill, was poor.

Most ordinary sailors, especially as ships began to fill with wartime recruits, did their duty honorably enough, but found little to enjoy. Some found it all too much for them: a sailor on Hornet climbed out on the mast yardarm, and hung 160 feet over the sea trying to muster nerve to jump and kill himself until dissuaded by the chaplain and the ship’s doctor. He was sent to the US for psychiatric evaluation – and eventually returned to Hornet in time to share the ship’s sinking, the fate of which he had been so fearful.

The US Navy boasted a fine fighting tradition, but its 1942 crews were still dominated by men enlisted in peacetime, often because they could find nothing else to do. The expansion of the US Navy’s officer corps made a dramatic and brilliant contribution to the service’s later success. Those who experienced the US Navy’s early Pacific battles saw much of failure, loss and defeat. The horrors of ships’ sinkings were often increased by fatal delays before survivors were located and rescued. Sometimes, vessels vanished with the loss of every man aboard, as was almost always the case with submarines.

Naval airman Alvin Kiernan wrote: ‘Many of the sailors were there, as I was, because there were few jobs in Depression America … We would have denied that we were an underclass… There wasn’t such a thing in America, we thought – conveniently forgetting that blacks and Asians were allowed to serve in the navy only as officers’ cooks and mess attendants. Our teeth were terrible from Depression neglect, we had not always graduated from high school, none had gone to college, our complexions tended to acne, and we were for the most part foul-mouthed, and drunkenly rowdy when on liberty … I used to wonder why so many of us were skinny, bepimpled, sallow, short and hairy.’

Cecil King, chief ship’s clerk on Hornet, recalled: ‘We had a small group of real no-goodniks. I mean these kids were not necessarily honest-to-God gangsters, but they were involved in anything that was seriously wrong on the ship – heavy gambling and extortion. One night one of them was thrown over the side.’ For most men, naval service required years of monotony and hard labor, interrupted by brief passages of violent action. A few, including King, actively enjoyed carrier life: ‘I just felt at home at sea. I felt like that’s what the Navy’s all about. Many times I would wander around the ship, particularly in the late afternoon, just enjoying being there. I would go over to the deck edge elevator and stand and watch the ocean going by. I feel like I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the entire world … for having been born in the year that I was, to be able to fight for my country in World War II; this whole era … is something that I feel real privileged for having gone through.’

The Pacific is a vast ocean, and many of those who fell into it, even from large warships, were never seen again. When the damaged light cruiser Juneau blew up after a magazine explosion on passage to the repair base at Espiritu Santu, gunner’s mate Allan Heyn was one of those who suddenly found himself struggling for his life: ‘There was oil very thick on the water, it was at least two inches thick, and all kinds of blueprints and documents floating around, roll after roll of toilet paper. I couldn’t see anybody. I thought: “Gee, am I the only one here” … Then I heard a man cry and I looked around it was this boatswain’s mate … He said he couldn’t swim and he had his whole leg torn off … I helped him on the raft … It was a very hard night because most of the fellows were wounded badly, and they were in agony. You couldn’t recognize each other unless you knew a man very well before the ship went down.’ After three days, their party had shrunk from 140 men to fifty; on the ninth day after Juneau’s loss, the ship’s ten remaining survivors were picked up by a destroyer and a Catalina flying boat.

For the US Navy, the only enemy that mattered was Japan. Moreover, Admiral Ernest J. King, the chief of naval operations, nursed such a severe case of Anglophobia that British admirals and generals sometimes wondered whether they were the navy’s enemy. They were not, but their European theater and imperial interests were, and King held their military competence in contempt. He himself proved inept enough in directing the 1942 anti-U-boat campaign in the Atlantic, and that unpleasant experience probably inclined him to fight a war he liked much better.

King’s protégé for the war against Japan, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, wanted to keep the old navy in the war while it awaited the new navy of 1943. Nimitz’s first disappointment was the poor performance of his submarine force, whose timid commanders and flawed torpedoes produced few successes until aggressive skippers, experienced crews and dependable torpedoes could exploit the excellence of the navy’s most modern submarines. Though himself a submariner by experience, Nimitz appreciated the potential striking power of carrier task forces, his most potent remaining offensive weapon.

The US Navy, aided and abetted by MacArthur’s Allied intelligence agency in Australia, also enjoyed a substantial advantage over the Japanese because of its growing skill in collecting and analyzing enemy radio traffic. Known generically as ‘signals intelligence’, the navy’s staff communications security and intelligence unit in Washington (Op 20-G), with its partner in Nimitz’s headquarters, Station Hypo of the Fleet Radio Unit Pacific (FRUPAC), gave the navy the information it needed for successful operations.

The US Navy had more than 20 years’ experience in intercepting Japanese diplomatic and military communications; the challenge lay in making any sense of the intercepts, sent in code and protected by the rapid shift of codes and call signs. Once at war, the Japanese had increased the number of operational messages but slowed the pace of changing codes and call signs because of the wide dispersion of its forces.

Although navy intelligence analysts had gained some access to the IJN’s principal code, JN-25, they had gained greater skill in identifying the call signs of transmitting stations as well as the location of the transmissions. Their educated guesswork had recorded only one major failure — Pearl Harbor — because Nagumo’s strike force had sailed in radio silence.

The Japanese began the war at sea with a corps of highly experienced seamen and aviators armed with the Long Lance torpedo, the most effective weapon of its kind in the world. The superiority of Japanese naval air in 1942 makes the outcome of the next phase of the war in the Pacific all the more astonishing.

Their radar sets were poor, and many ships lacked them altogether. They lagged woefully in intelligence-gathering, but excelled at night operations, and in early gunnery duels often shot straighter than Americans. Their superb Zero fighters increased combat endurance by forgoing cockpit armor and self-sealing fuel tanks.

Crucially, the US carrier Yorktown had only been damaged in the battle rather than sunk, as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, believed. He therefore assumed that his invasion of the atoll of Midway would not be opposed by American air power, and assembled the most powerful armada ever seen in the history of the Pacific Ocean, to take the island. In the event, Japanese hopes proved futile as the Americans inflicted a devastating defeat from which the Japanese never recovered.

Time pressures, over-confidence, and a ill-conceived plan hampered Yamamoto at the same time as desperate measures, excellent intelligence, and good judgement helped the Americans. In the course of the war, the US Navy would show itself the most impressive of its nation’s fighting services, but it faced a long, harsh learning process. Midway proved to be the turning point of America’s naval war against Japan.