Coral Sea – the battle that always seems to be overlooked. If the Battle of Midway is the Homecoming Queen in historical circles, Coral Sea is the girl next door.
But students of the war in the Pacific will tell you that the Battle of Coral Sea was the strategic turning point for Japanese expansion.
The United States, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor five months earlier, had yet to meet the full force of the Japanese navy in a major battle. The only real victory – Doolittle’s Raid – was largely symbolic.
Conversely, Japanese advances in the Pacific continued unchecked. By early May, the Imperial forces had set their sights on the islands on the perimeter of the Coral Sea. A victory could drive Australia out of the war, and establish bases for future expansion. To the Australians, the risk of invasion was very real (Sea Power Centre of Australia).
“The Japanese operation included two seaborne invasion forces, a minor one targeting Tulagi, in the Southern Solomons, and the main one aimed at Port Moresby. These would be supported by land-based airpower from bases to the north and by two naval forces containing a small aircraft carrier, several cruisers, seaplane tenders and gunboats. More distant cover would be provided by the big aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku with their escorting cruisers and destroyers.” (Naval Historical Center)
But the American intelligence effort was beginning to bear fruit, and the U.S. Navy swung into action.
“The U.S. Navy, tipped off to the enemy plans by superior communications intelligence, countered with two of its own carriers, plus cruisers (including two from the Australian Navy), destroyers, submarines, land-based bombers and patrol seaplanes.” (Naval Historical Center)
American forces were under the command of RADM Jack Fletcher. His goal was to interrupt both landings and check the Japanese advances. To do so, he would have to confront the Japanese carriers – the first carrier vs carrier action of the war.
The Japanese invasion of Tulagi began on May 3rd. Notified of the event by Australian coast watchers on Santa Isabel Island, Fletcher sent YORKTOWN to disrupt it. Although the Americans inflicted severe damage to the landing forces and escorts, the Imperial forces got a foothold and began to build a small naval base.
The real battle began on May 7 and continued through the 8th. In a precursor to the Battle of Midway a month later, search planes from both sides tried to locate the other. On the first day, secondary targets were located and incorrectly identified by both sides. Consequently, the Americans lost the oiler Neosho (AO-23) and her escort USS Sims (DD-409); the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, incorrectly identified as one of the two major carriers by American scout planes (Naval Historical Center).
On the 8th, the carriers found each other. Attacking almost simultaneously, Shokaku and YORKTOWN took major damage and were forced to return to port for repairs (YORKTOWN returned to fight at Midway after a miraculous repair in Pearl Harbor – see The unsung heroes of Midway). LEXINGTON was badly damaged and eventually sunk by American torpedos. Zuikaku was undamaged, but lost a significant number of aircraft.
In the end, the Japanese abandoned their invasion of Port Moresby, but maintained a foothold on Tulagi (which would be critical to their eventual move to Guadalcanal).
Stategically, Coral Sea not only stopped the inexorable march of Japan’s expansion, but also forced the removal of two premier carriers from the theater, setting the stage for the Allied victory in the Battle of Midway a month later.