Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Battle of the Coral Sea, 75 Years On

Douglas SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber
These few days, May 3-8, mark the 75th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of the Coral Sea, off the northeast coast of Australia, in which the American military, for the first time since the outbreak of the war with Japan five months earlier, checked the Japanese advance in the South Pacific.  It was the first major engagement for American forces since the attack at Pearl Harbor.  Although considered a naval battle, for the first time in history the opposing warships never saw one another or even fired on one another – all the attacking was done by airplanes.

In the Solomon Island chain far northeast of Australia, the Japanese had advanced further south and had just invaded Tulagi with the intention of building an airbase there (and they would soon expand onto the larger, neighboring island of Guadalcanal).  From there land-based Japanese airplanes could attack supply and troop ships traveling from the United States to Australia.  Having broken the Japanese naval code, the American Navy knew that a Japanese fleet was planning to enter the Coral Sea, protected on its flanks by airbases on Tulagi and the north coast of New Guinea, and invade the southern coast of New Guinea at Port Moresby, just north of Australia.  If successful, the Japanese would have a base close to Australia from which they could stage air attacks and even an invasion.

The American Navy responded by sending a force of its own.  American carrier-based planes first attacked the Japanese ships around Tulagi.  Then the two fleets engaged in a fierce, running air battle.  The American attack planes were the well-regarded Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber and the effectively-obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber; some large, land-based American B-17 bombers, flying out of Australia, also took part.  The American fighter was the Grumman F4F Wildcat.  The fleets initially had such trouble finding each other that later one American admiral called it “the most confused battle area in world history.”  The Americans inflicted heavy damage, but suffered the same as well, including the devastating loss of the Lexington, then one of only a handful of aircraft carriers in the entire American Navy.  The Lexington, converted from the hull of a battlecruiser, was slower and less-maneuverable than the purpose-built Yorktown, the other American carrier in the battle.
The USS Lexington under attack at the Battle of the Coral Sea (from Wikipedia)
In a weighing of ships, planes, and men lost, it was a tactical victory for the Japanese.  But after a feint by the American carriers Hornet and Enterprise, which had arrived in the Coral Sea just after the battle, it was the Japanese who withdrew and abandoned the invasion of the southern coast of New Guinea.  So in the end the slugging match was a significant strategic American victory.  Though badly damaged, the Yorktown was able to limp off to Pearl Harbor and be trussed up in a flurry of repairs, just in time to sail off and help win, a month later, the tide-turning great Battle of Midway.

R Balsamo

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