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The lessons we learned from the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942

Following their Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese military forces swept through the western Pacific at a shocking pace.

Their strategic objective was to control the region from the Aleutian Islands south to Australia.

By early May 1942 they had already taken key military and strategic objectives, including Wake Island, Hong Kong, Singapore, Borneo, Sumatra, Timor, Bali, Java and the Philippines, as well as Rabaul on New Britain Island and Tulagi in the central Solomon Islands.

Australia lay within reach.

Realization that the United States would soon bring to bear its industrial might in the Pacific theater prompted particular urgency on the part of Japanese military planners.

Adding to that pressure, on May 3 carrier-based Japanese and Allied forces confronted one another in the Coral Sea, off Australia’s northeast coast.

The aircraft carrier Yorktown's Bombing Squadron Five (SBD-3 Dauntless scout bombers) spotted forward on the flight deck during operations in the Coral Sea, April 1942.
The aircraft carrier Yorktown's Bombing Squadron Five (SBD-3 Dauntless scout bombers) spotted forward on the flight deck during operations in the Coral Sea, April 1942.

It marked the first naval battle in which the crews of opposing ships were not within sight of each other and did not fire directly at one another.

On May 7 Japanese aircraft sank the U.S. destroyer Sims and severely damaged the fleet oiler Neosho, while search aircraft from the carriers Yorktown and Lexington pinpointed the Japanese light carrier Shoho, which was covering an invasion group headed for Port Moresby, at the southeastern end of New Guinea.

Attack planes from the U.S. carriers quickly sank Shoho. Immortalizing the event was the terse radio message, “Scratch one flattop!” from Lt. Cmdr. Robert Dixon, who led Lexington’s dive-bomber squadron.

The sightings of Neosho and Shoho had created more than their share of confusion on both sides. Japanese scout pilots, for example, had misidentified Neosho as an aircraft carrier, convincing commanders they had located an important U.S. warship and prompting the launch of all available aircraft.

Meanwhile, a miscoded message from an American scout plane had reported the sighting of a Japanese screening force as a sighting of the main Japanese carrier force; as a result both U.S. carriers also launched all available aircraft.

Fortunately for the Allies, the strike aircraft from Yorktown and Lexington came upon Shoho, and its sinking proved more important than first appeared.

A mushroom cloud rises after a massive explosion on board the aircraft carrier Lexington on May 8, 1942. This is probably the great explosion from the detonation of torpedo warheads stowed in the starboard side of the hangar, aft, that followed an explosion amidships at 1727 hrs. Note aircraft carrier Yorktown on the horizon in the left center, and destroyer Hammann at the extreme left. (National Archives)
A mushroom cloud rises after a massive explosion on board the aircraft carrier Lexington on May 8, 1942. This is probably the great explosion from the detonation of torpedo warheads stowed in the starboard side of the hangar, aft, that followed an explosion amidships at 1727 hrs. Note aircraft carrier Yorktown on the horizon in the left center, and destroyer Hammann at the extreme left. (National Archives)

The climax of the naval battle came on May 8 as the opposing carrier strike forces directly engaged one another. U.S. aircraft severely damaged Shokaku, one of the two Japanese fleet carriers, while Japanese planes hit both Yorktown and Lexington, the latter of which later sank.

The Japanese had prevailed at the tactical level.

Strategically, however, the battle was a pivotal Allied victory.

Due to bomb damage and the loss of planes, neither Shokaku nor its sister carrier, Zuikaku, was available the next month for the Battle of Midway.

Yorktown, on the other hand, was repaired in time and played a critical role in that decisive U.S. victory.

Of greatest importance was the chance sinking of Shoho, which forced the Japanese to turn back the Port Moresby invasion force, marking the abrupt end of Japan’s southward race to achieve undisputed control of the western Pacific.

View of the underside of the aircraft carrier Yorktown's flight deck structure, showing the impact hole made by the Japanese bomb that struck amidships during the Battle of Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. This bomb penetrated several decks before exploding, killing or seriously injuring 66 crewmen. This view looks upward, with a patch over the flight deck visible within the hole. Note structural beam in lower part of the photo, distorted by the bomb's passage. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
View of the underside of the aircraft carrier Yorktown's flight deck structure, showing the impact hole made by the Japanese bomb that struck amidships during the Battle of Coral Sea on May 8, 1942. This bomb penetrated several decks before exploding, killing or seriously injuring 66 crewmen. This view looks upward, with a patch over the flight deck visible within the hole. Note structural beam in lower part of the photo, distorted by the bomb's passage. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Lessons:

In geostrategic matters hubris is often a fatal character flaw.

Even industrial potential can shape military events.

In warfare the victory often goes to he who makes the fewest mistakes.

Luck is the wild card in combat.

Sometimes a tactical victory masks a decisive strategic loss.

The aircraft carrier henceforth supplanted the battleship as the centerpiece of major naval actions.

The aircraft carrier burns and sinks after being abandoned by the crew on May 8, 1942 during the Battle of Coral Sea. Note planes parked aft, untouched by the fire. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
What if the Japanese Had Won the Battle of the Coral Sea?

Many “what if” scenarios rely on close calls, in which the outcome pivoted on a single event that went one way but might easily have gone another. But in the case of Coral Sea, it's almost easier to explain how the Japanese could have won the battle than explain how they managed to lose it.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Military History, a sister publication of Navy Times. To subscribe, click here.

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