eventy-five years ago on May 7 and 8, 1942, the tide of war in the Pacific began to shift, as American forces blunted a Japanese drive on Port Moresby on the southern side of New Guinea. Taking Port Moresby would have put them on the doorstep of Australia and allowed them to control the Coral Sea. The Japanese would never again attempt to take Port Moresby from the sea and, in fact, would never take it.
1942 started much like how 1941 ended. The Imperial Japanese armed forces continued their rampage through Malaya and what is now Indonesia. By the end of March, they had largely achieved their objectives, as the heart of the southwest Pacific Ocean and southeast Asia were in their hands. From those holdings, the Japanese could establish a defensive line and use it to block attempts at rollback, ultimately sapping the Americans’ will to continue fighting.
Their success aside, three major problems confronted the Japanese. First, their advances took them deeper and deeper into the open end of a funnel, spreading their resources thinner and farther from support. Second, the Japanese failed to destroy or damage the American aircraft carriers when they attacked Pearl Harbor. Third and most important, they misjudged the will and determination of the United States.
Those carriers began attacking Japanese outposts, as early as February 1942, in a series of pinprick raids. Even as the Japanese continued their advances elsewhere, the Yorktown attacked Japanese forces in the Gilbert Islands, destroying a minelayer and two large seaplanes at Makin atoll. The Enterprise attacked an airfield on Taroa, shipping at Kwajalein, and other facilities on those and other islands in the Marshall chain. Its aircraft sank a submarine chaser and two transports; damaged six ships, including a light cruiser; and destroyed airplanes and other facilities.
Those February attacks may not have inflicted significant damage, but they and March raids on Japanese sealift capacity off Lae and Salamaua on the north side of New Guinea got the attention of the Japanese. They decided aircraft carrier support would be needed for future operations southward. As Larry Thornberry and Gerald Skoning have noted, the Doolittle Raid in April 1942 stirred up the Japanese even more. Sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the Hornet and dropped bombs on Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, and Kobe, inflicting little actual damage but calling into question the ability of the Japanese armed forces to protect the emperor. The Japanese responded by greenlighting the Midway operation and advising Admiral Inoue that his operations against New Guinea and the Solomon Islands would be moved up to early May.
Inoue’s operation was not a surprise to the Americans. For some time, they had been reading parts of the Japanese Navy’s most widely used JN-25 coded transmissions. In March, as the result of the codebreakers’ hard work they could tell Admiral Nimitz, the overall American naval commander in the Pacific, that some but not all of the Japanese carrier forces, which turned out to include two large carriers, the Shōkaku and the Zuikaku, would be supporting a drive southward from Rabaul on New Britain Island through the Coral Sea on Port Moresby.
Nimitz responded by sending the Yorktown and the Enterprise to meet them. Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher was ordered to “assist in checking further advance by [the] enemy… by seizing favorable opportunities to destroy ships, shipping, and aircraft.”
On March 4, while the Japanese carriers approached, the Yorktown’s airplanes attacked Japanese shipping off Tulagi in the Solomons. Notwithstanding numerous misses and fogging windscreens on the Dauntless dive bombers, the flyers sank a destroyer and three minesweepers and destroyed four seaplanes.
On March 7, the American and Japanese carriers missed each other but found other targets. The Japanese sent planes after what they thought was an aircraft carrier but found and sank a destroyer, the Sims, and seriously damaged an oiler, the Neosho. The Americans sent their planes after what they thought were two carriers and four cruisers, sinking only the light carrier Shōhō. They also shot down 19 planes, losing only three bombers and three fighters of their own.
The following day, the carriers found each other. The Japanese sank the Lexington and damaged the Yorktown, while the Americans damaged the Shōkaku and destroyed much of the Zuikaku’s air fleet. Significantly, America’s ability to absorb and make up for the loss of an aircraft carrier, aircraft, and pilots far outranged that of the Japanese.
The Battle of the Coral Sea is often viewed as a tactical defeat and a strategic victory. The American losses exceeded those of the Japanese, but the Japanese were more significant. The damage to the Shōkaku and the Zuikaku’s aircraft losses led the Japanese to pull both of those aircraft carriers from the upcoming Midway operation.
Furthermore, the Japanese would never again attack Port Moresby from the sea (and its attempt to do so from the land failed). As for the Americans, Admiral Fletcher did what he was ordered to do, “checking further advance by [the] enemy.” And, if there were any doubt that the tide had turned, even though there was a long slog head, America’s resounding victory at Midway followed in early June.
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