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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.