Last night in New York City, President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. The gala event was held aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, the floating naval, air and space museum docked at Manhattan. Both world leaders spoke to honor some of the surviving veterans who attended, as well as American-Australian ′Mateship′. An Australian term of camaraderie which goes back, in the case for Americans, to 1918, when US and Australian troops fought side-by-side in France against Germany in World War One. During World War Two, the Battle of the Coral Sea was very significant as Imperial Japanese forces were attempting to isolate Australia and New Zealand from American and other Allies.

battle of the coral sea

The Battle of the Coral Sea lasted for several days, from May 4 through 8 in 1942. In history, it was the first naval battle where neither fleets of ships actually saw each other during the fighting. All of the attacks were carried out by aircraft. For WW2, Coral Sea was the first battle between Japan and the Allies where the Japanese were blocked from succeeding.

The offensive launched by Japan was the first of a 3-part plan to dominate the Southern Pacific Ocean. Part 1 was to land troops at Tulagi Island in the Solomons chain, just across a channel from Guadacanal. A larger force was to land at Port Morseby along the southwestern coast of New Guinea, from which Japanese aircraft could easily raid Australia. Parts 2 and 3 would have seized other islands in the region, including Fiji, Samoa and Nauru.

The Japanese plan for Part 1 was called Operation MO. Fortunately, U.S. Navy code breakers had intercepted enough radio traffic to gather the signal intelligence needed to know what Japan was up to. Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered several task forces to the Coral Sea to block the offensive. Admiral Frank ′Jack′ Fletcher commanded Task Force 17, centered on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown and Admiral Aubrey Fitch commanded Task Force 11, centered on the carrier U.S.S. Lexington. Together with several Australian warships under the command of Admiral John Crace, the Allied Fleet was nearly equal to that of the Japanese fleet, commanded by Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue. Inoue had three aircraft carriers, two larger ′fleet carriers′, the Zuikaku and Shokaku, plus a ′light′ carrier, the Shoho.

On May 3, 1942, an Australian search plane spotted the Shoho and a small group of ships near Tulagi Island. The next day, Fletcher attacked them with planes from the Yorktown, sinking one destroyer and damaging several smaller ships. The Americans only lost one airplane and the fleet got away undetected. On May 6th, the Allied fleets had combined and began searching for the Japanese in earnest. Meanwhile, Inoue was preparing to invade Port Morseby. His fleet was spotted by an American B-17 bomber flying out of Australia. General Douglas MacArthur notified Fletcher about this by radio. Fletcher sped west and by nightfall, the Allied and Japanese fleets were only some 70 miles apart from each other.

May 7 was a busy day, to say the least! As soon as dawn broke, aircraft from both fleets were searching for each other. The Japanese got lucky first, with Fletcher′s fleet spotted around 7:22am, local time. Within an hour, a large wave of 78 planes were on the way to attack. About the same time, a Dauntless SBD dive bomber from the Yorktown spotted part of the Japanese fleet. By 10:13am, some 93 American aircraft were launched against them. Meanwhile, the force launched earlier by Japan came up empty. They reached their targeted area around 9:15am and found nothing at first. Searching around for two more hours, they came across two American ships, an oil tanker and a destroyer, and sank them before returning to their carriers.

At about 11am, American warplanes found the light carrier Shoho and its escorts. The Shoho was sunk and the planes returned to the Allied fleet. During the early afternoon, planes were refueled and rearmed as the searching continued. Around 3pm, the Japanese spotted a search plane heading east and thought it was rejoining the Allied fleet. Another attack was launched and actually was headed in the right direction. But the Allies were sailing under cloudy conditions. American radar detected the Japanese aircraft and a group of Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters intercepted them. Three were lost but 9 Japanese planes were shot down, causing the rest to drop their bombs in the ocean and high-tail it home! As dusk fell, some Japanese planes actually tried to land on the American carriers.

On the morning of May 8, both sides knew that each other were close. They were actually about 200 miles apart by now as search planes began locating ships from both fleets. By 9am, planes were launched for attacks. Aircraft from the Yorktown and Lexington attacked the Japanese. By noon, the Shokaku was badly damaged, but managed to steam away. At the same time, Japanese aircraft attacked the American carriers. The Yorktown took one bomb, causing serious damage. But the Lexington was hit twice, causing a fire. However, both carriers were still functional and retrieved what was left of their aircraft. Shortly after this, damages to the Lexington′s electrical system caused two more fires to start, resulting several explosions. By 5pm, the Lexington was being abandoned as fires raged out of control. Two hours later, a U.S. destroyer scuttled her with torpedoes once the remaining crew had left.

Both fleets had lost most of their aircraft and had taken damage. During the evening, the head of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, ordered Admiral Inoue to withdraw. Inoue′s fleet turned north and left the Coral Sea. The invasion of Port Morseby was canceled. Admiral Fletcher also decided to leave the area after receiving some inaccurate reports of two more undamaged Japanese carriers. On May 9, Nimitz ordered Fletcher to bring the Yorktown back to Pearl Harbor, which was a good thing. In less than four weeks, the Yorktown would be needed to stop Yamamoto from invading Midway Island.

The Battle of the Coral Sea is considered a draw. Some might give the Japanese a tactical victory, having caused the loss of a large American carrier while losing a light one in return. But, strategically, you have to score it as an Allied victory. First, it did stop the Japanese from invading Port Morseby and isolating Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps just as importantly, Coral Sea prevented the Shokaku and Zuikaku from being part of Yamamoto′s fleet at the Battle of Midway. Had he had six carriers instead of four to go up against our three carriers, we might have lost Midway and put Hawaii in jeopardy. Japan might have then been able to launch a second attempt to put Australia and New Zealand at risk, too.

So it is fitting that we remember and celebrate the Battle of the Coral Sea on its 75th Anniversary. This naval brawl in the South Pacific marked a turning point in World War Two. Had Japan succeeded in their Operation MO, as well as their two follow-up operations, Australia and New Zealand may have been invaded and the war would have taken much longer for the Allies to win. Even that is a big ′IF′! The nightmare scenario is that Japan takes Australia, New Zealand as well as Midway and Hawaii, opening the door to attacking America′s west coast. We would have been forced to shift our ′Europe First′ strategy, giving Germany a free hand to fight Russia and complete its capture of Egypt. But, thanks to luck and pluck, the ball went the other way. Go Navy!

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