Changing the Game: 80th Anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea

  • Published
  • By Mr. Walter Napier III
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

On May 4-8, 1942, the United States Navy, with an Australian contingent, engaged the Japanese Navy in the Coral Sea off the coast of New Guinea, near Port Moresby.  The battle would be a tactical victory for the Japanese, but in the long run proved to be a Pyrrhic victory.  The U.S. Navy did retreat, but not before causing enough damage to the Japanese fleet to halt the planned invasion of Port Moresby.  With a larger population, more resources, and higher industrial capabilities, the U.S. could repair damage, and replace losses far quicker than the Japanese.  But most importantly, the battle taught the U.S. the importance of the air dimension in naval warfare.      

On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor and forced the U.S. to enter World War II.  Pearl Harbor, however, only represented a portion of the overall attack plan.  Within hours of the attack, the Japanese opened offensives on the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.  The Japanese hoped that by destroying the U.S.’s naval capabilities, and removing Allied positions throughout the Pacific, it would take a significant period of time to counter their offensives.  While the Allies attempted to respond, the Japanese would strengthen and expand their Pacific holdings, giving the island nation access to much needed raw materials, while simultaneously creating a protective block around the homeland. 

By April 1942, the U.S. had been able to break the Japanese code, and learned that Tulagi and Port Moresby would be the next targets for invasion.  The U.S. Navy set out to intercept the Japanese Fleet.  From 29 April to 4 May, the Japanese successfully invaded Tulagi. During the invasion, however, the U.S. carrier Yorktown arrived and its aircraft sunk a number of Japanese warships.  The surprised Japanese began moving their fleet into the Coral Sea arena to seek out the American fleet, force a confrontation, and deliver another defeat.

With the initial blows being struck by U.S. aircraft on 4 May, the two sides would spend the next few days attempting to locate the opposing fleet.  After locating each other, the two sides began flying missions and fighting in the air.  The air combat took place largely from 7 to 8 May, pitting the highly maneuverable Japanese Zero (Mitsubishi A6M Zero) against the heavier American Scout Bomber Douglas (SBD).  The match up caused U.S. pilots like Stanley “Swede” Vejtasa, to get creative in the ensuing engagements.  Swede recounted that he forced his SBD into extremely tight turns, pulling approximately 9G’s, numerous times in hopes of getting the Japanese pilot to make a mistake.  In the brutal dog fight above the Coral Sea, Swede eventually downed three Japanese planes, on top of making successful hits on Japanese carriers.  The final Zero he actually took out with his own aircraft, when his wing made a mid-air collision during a tight closing maneuver.  The lighter Zero couldn’t handle the impact, but, miraculously, the SBD could. Swede would go on to earn his second of three Naval Crosses for his actions during the battle.

Despite the heroic actions of pilots like Swede, on May 8, the U.S. Navy had to retreat.  The U.S. had destroyed 70 Japanese aircraft, sank one small carrier, Shoho, and damaged the larger fleet carrier, Shokaku, but the U.S. had lost 66 aircraft, the USS Lexington, the USS Sims, and the USS Neosho, with the USS Yorktown also suffering damage.  The battle, however, forced the Japanese to abandon their planned invasion of Port Mosby.  The following month, during the Battle of Midway (4-7 June 1942), Shokaku had not been repaired enough to join the engagement. On the other hand, the Yorktown was able to be repaired and fought at Midway.  It would be sunk on June 7, but aircraft from the Yorktown would sink two Japanese carriers during the battle.

Traditionally, Midway is considered the turning point in the Pacific campaign. The first real victory against the Japanese that stemmed the tide of their advance.  But the Battle of the Coral Sea was pivotal in its own right for a number of key reasons.  First, it showed that the American forces could hold their own against the Japanese, which up till then had been dominant on air, sea and land.  Second, despite the Japanese victory, it proved to be hollow one.  Japanese industry could not replace lost equipment at nearly the same pace as the Americans could.  The comparative cases of the Yorktown and the Shokaku show the contrast perfectly.  Much of the success at Midway started at the Coral Sea.  Not only did Americans learn valuable lessons on fighting the enemy, but they also knocked out a significant number of Japanese forces that would have fought in the battle.  Finally, Coral Sea was the first naval engagement where the ships involved never saw, nor fired at each other.  The battle was fought completely in the air.  The U.S. learned that lesson well, and were able to change the game in the Pacific.

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