The Battle of the Coral Sea

The Battle of the Coral Sea

By Garland Davis

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought from 4 to 8 May 1942, was a major naval battle between the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and naval and air forces from the United States and Australia, taking place in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The battle is historically significant as the first action in which aircraft carriers engaged each other, as well as the first in which neither side’s ships sighted or fired directly upon the other.

In an attempt to strengthen their defensive position in the South Pacific, the Japanese decided to invade and occupy Port Moresby (in New Guinea) and Tulagi (in the southeastern Solomon Islands). The plan to accomplish this was called Operation MO and involved several major units of Japan’s Combined Fleet. These included two fleet carriers and a light carrier to provide air cover for the invasion forces. It was under the overall command of Japanese Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue.

The U.S. learned of the Japanese plan through signals intelligence and sent two United States Navy carrier task forces and a joint Australian-U.S. cruiser force to oppose the offensive. These were under the overall command of U.S. Admiral Frank J. Fletcher.

On 3–4 May, Japanese forces successfully invaded and occupied Tulagi, although several of their supporting warships were sunk or damaged in surprise attacks by aircraft from the U.S. fleet carrier Yorktown. Now aware of the presence of U.S. carriers in the area, the Japanese fleet carriers advanced towards the Coral Sea with the intention of locating and destroying the Allied naval forces. Beginning on 7 May, the carrier forces from the two sides engaged in airstrikes over two consecutive days. On the first day, the U.S. sank the Japanese light carrier Shōhō; meanwhile, the Japanese sank a U.S. destroyer and heavily damaged a fleet oiler(which was later scuttled). The next day, the Japanese fleet carrier Shōkaku was heavily damaged, the U.S. fleet carrier Lexington critically damaged (and later scuttled), and Yorktown damaged. With both sides having suffered heavy losses in aircraft and carriers damaged or sunk, the two forces disengaged and retired from the battle area. Because of the loss of carrier air cover, Inoue recalled the Port Moresby invasion fleet, intending to try again later.

Although a tactical victory for the Japanese in terms of ships sunk, the battle would prove to be a strategic victory for the Allies for several reasons. The battle marked the first time since the start of the war that a major Japanese advance had been checked by the Allies. More importantly, the Japanese fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku – the former damaged and the latter with a depleted aircraft complement – were unable to participate in the Battle of Midway the following month, while Yorktown did participate, ensuring a rough parity in aircraft between the two adversaries and contributing significantly to the U.S. victory in that battle. The severe losses in carriers at Midway prevented the Japanese from reattempting to invade Port Moresby from the ocean and helped prompt their ill-fated land offensive over the Kokoda trail. Two months later, the Allies took advantage of Japan’s resulting strategic vulnerability in the South Pacific and launched the Guadalcanal Campaign; this, along with the New Guinea Campaign, eventually broke Japanese defenses in the South Pacific and was a significant contributing factor to Japan’s ultimate surrender in World War II.

Belligerents

United States

Australia

Japan

Commanders and leaders

Chester W. Nimitz

Frank J. Fletcher

Thomas C. Kinkaid

Aubrey Fitch

George Brett

Douglas MacArthur

John Crace

Isoroku Yamamoto

Shigeyoshi Inoue

Takeo Takagi

Kiyohide Shima

Aritomo Gotō

Chūichi Hara

Sadamichi Kajioka

Strength

2 fleet aircraft carriers,

9 cruisers,

13 destroyers,

2 oilers,

1 seaplane tender,

128 carrier aircraft

2 fleet aircraft carriers,

1 light carrier,

9 cruisers,

15 destroyers,

5 minesweepers,

2 minelayers,

2 submarine chasers,

3 gunboats,

1 oil tanker,

1 seaplane tender,

12 transports,

127 carrier aircraft

Casualties and losses

1 fleet carrier scuttled,

1 destroyer sunk,

1 oiler sunk,

1 fleet carrier damaged,

69 aircraft destroyed.

656 killed

1 light carrier sunk,

1 destroyer sunk,

3 small warships sunk,

1 fleet carrier damaged,

1 destroyer damaged,

1 smaller warship damaged,

1 transport damaged,

92 aircraft destroyed.

966 killed

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