Tuesday, May 02, 2006
The Battle Of The Coral Sea, May 3, 1942
Today in 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea began when the Japanese occupied the island of Tulagi, one of the Solomon Islands chain. Over the course of the next six days, naval warfare would change forever. For the first time, two fleets would do battle without ever being in visual range of each other and the aircraft carrier, not the battleship, would become the focus of offensive action.
The invasion of Tulagi was just one part of a two-pronged Japanese plan. The second part would be an amphibious invasion of Port Moresby, an Australian-held harbor in eastern New Guinea. With a seaplane base at Tulagi and an offensive striking force at Port Moresby, the Japanese would be in a position to threaten Australia directly. Allied planners decided that after nearly six months of unanswered victories in the Pacific, the line against the Japanese would have to be drawn here.
The Japanese force was divided into three task forces: an invasion force for Tulagi, one for Port Moresby and a covering force to provide defense and air support for the invading forces. The allies had three task forces centered around four American aircraft carriers. Two of the carriers, Hornet and Enterprise, raced to the area from the north where they had been busy launching the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, but arrived too late to take part in the action. These four carriers constituted the entire allied naval air strength in the Pacific. There was nothing in reserve.
The Yorktown launched the opening strike on the battle on May 4th when her air group attacked the Japanese at Tulagi. The Imperial fleet lost a destroyer and five cargo ships and the new seaplane base was rendered unusable. This was a small victory, however, for it revealed the location of the American fleet to the Japanese. So as the Yorktown retired to the south and joined the Lexington, the task force found itself sailing between two of the three Japanese battle groups.
The two navies searched in vain for each other’s large carriers, but both sides found targets. The Japanese sank the fleet oiler Neosho and the destroyer Sims while US aircraft sank the small carrier Shoho, part of the invasion force headed for Port Moresby. This was the first capital ship sunk by the US Navy in the war.
At dawn on May 8th, the main carrier forces found each other and each side launched all available aircraft to strike at the other. The American fliers hit and seriously damaged the large carrier Shokaku, hurting her so badly that she was out of commission for six months. Both American carriers were hit. The Lexington, much older and less maneuverable, took hits from both bombs and torpedoes. She did not sink immediately, but leaking aviation fuel caused a massive explosion about an hour later. She was abandoned and torpedoed so as not to fall into enemy hands.
The Yorktown was damaged, but could still launch and recover aircraft. She retired with her air wing at flank speed to Pearl Harbor and headed straight for the dry dock there. Shipyard workers estimated that the damage would take several months to repair. They were given 72 hours. In what is still considered a miraculous repair job, the crew and support teams were able to make the Yorktown somewhat battle-ready in three days. When she sailed again for the battle near Midway Island, men were still onboard repairing the ship.
If only the numbers are considered, the Japanese won the Battle of the Coral Sea. The US lost one precious fleet carrier while the Japanese lost one small carrier and lost the use of a larger one for six months. But two things made this battle a strategic loss for the Empire: first, they would have one fewer large carrier for the upcoming attack on Midway, which ended up becoming a crushing defeat for the Japanese. Second, the invasion of Port Moresby was called off permanently, making this the first time the Japanese offensive in the Pacific had been successfully rebuffed.