Above: The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington explodes, 5/8/1942.
“For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,/ Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,/ Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew / From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,/ With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;”
– Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem “Locksley Hall”, 1835.
No, Tennyson was not writing science fiction – that would be left to his contemporary Jules Verne who in 1869-70 wrote in “20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea” of the fantastic idea of a ship that could operate under water! Tennyson was writing more allegorically of an idea – navies employing airplanes – which would revolutionize naval warfare in a far more distant future. And as far off as it may seem today, up until World War Two, naval battles were invariably affairs of surface ships slugging it out broadside to broadside. While all of the world powers built huge battleships to slug it out in the old way, it was naval airpower that would decide the fate of the war in the vast expanses of the South Pacific. This idea of our navy projecting power into far distant places – such as dispatching a team of Navy Seals into Osama Bin Laden’s bedroom, was just about to be born in the South Pacific. Japan had struck the first blow in that battle with its attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec.7, 1941. Luckily for us, our aircraft carriers happened to be away that Sunday morning.
The Battle of the Coral Sea – May 4 – 8, 1942
And it was on today’s date, May 4 in 1942 that those carriers began sticking it to the Japanese Navy when planes from aircraft carrier USS Yorktown bombed a Japanese invasion force headed for the island of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, opening the Battle of the Coral Sea.
This was the first naval battle ever fought in which the surface vessels never came to within sight of each other; it was fought entirely by the aircraft of the two navies. Flush with success in their early campaigns, the Japanese sought to seal off the eastern Pacific and threaten Australia, which was just to the south. Towards that end they dispatched a force with the primary objective of taking Port Moresby on New Guinea which was an important Allied base of operations. The idea for the Japanese was to take Port Moresby and use it themselves to bomb Australia as well as any other Allied operations in the area. But they got in their own way. In the words of John Winton:
“The Japanese could have assembled an invasion force, given it as strong an escort as possible and simply sent it to Port Moresby. But that was not their way. Whenever they had enough ships they over-elaborated. They split their force into separate groups with separate objectives. They laid intricate traps, involving complicated diversions, decoys and pincer movements. Japanese plans required a degree of cooperation between ships which no navy in the world has ever achieved. They made few allowances for contingencies. Most dangerous of all, they relied on the enemy doing what was expected of him.”
“Scratch One Flattop!!”
The Japanese, commanded by Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Inouye (below) had a task force assigned to capture Port Moresby. Another one to
invade Tulagi and set up a sea plane base and for Louisades, there was the main covering group intended to protect all of these operations. This had the light carrier Shoho attached, commanded by Admiral Goto, and the striking force which had the carriers Zuikaku, and Shokaku, under Admiral Takagi. Inouye meant to squeeze the Americans in a pincer between Goto and Takagi. But the Allies had broken the Japanese naval codes and thus knew in advance that the Japanese would be attacking Port Moresby and about when. With this information, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Naval commander in the Pacific dispatched an American /Australian naval force built around the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown and commanded by Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher (below) into the Coral Sea, which encompassed
this area, to stop them. The Tulagi force was intercepted and attacked as said on May 4. The two forces spent the next two days groping around looking for each other as if they were blind folded, depending on their scout planes to tell them where the forces were. The main engagement took place on May 6 and 7, with strikes and counter strikes being launched by both sides. Planes from the Lexington found and successfully attacked the Shoho on the 6th. With planes from the Yorktown, they hit Shoho with thirteen bombs and seven torpedoes. Lt. Commander R.E. Dixon, leading one of the attack groups radioed back “Scratch one flattop! Dixon to Carrier, scratch one flattop!”
The Japanese Sink the U.S.S. Lexington
“The Shoho” had in fact been a comparatively minor target – a light escort carrier. But Admiral Inouye had been so alarmed by her loss, that he postponed the Port Moresby landing altogether, while sending his heavy carriers to seek out and destroy the American carriers. This did indeed concentrate the Japanese forces, but their big pincer had been thrown aside, and their forces had as a result been sent to deal with the Americans on a equal footing. The Allied forces had the advantage of knowing the Japanese plans in advance and also the fact that Admiral Fletcher had been freed by Nimitz to respond as he thought necessary, unlike the Japanese who had to adhere to a rigid plan, which as with the loss of “the Shoho” had been thwarted. Nevertheless, the Americans did suffer the loss of the Lexington. Japanese Lt. Commander Shigekazu Shimakazi recalled the ferociousness of the attack:
“The carriers and their supporting ships blackened the sky with exploding shells and tracers. It seemed impossible that we could survive and torpedo runs through such incredible defenses… I could see the crewmen on the ship staring at my plane as it rushed by. I don’t know that I could ever go through such horrible moments again.”
This action on May 7 and 8 had also resulted in the severe damaging of the main Japanese carriers Shokaku (pictured below, under attack)
and Zuikaku, such that they were obliged to undergo repairs which took them out of the Battle of Midway which was to come.
The Americans Triumph in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Tactically, the Japanese could claim a victory at the Coral Sea, because they had sustained fewer losses in ships. Their big carriers had survived, whereas the Americans had lost one of theirs, “the Lexington”, and the other, “the Yorktown” had been severely damaged. But she would surprise the hell out of the Japanese by being repaired in time for Midway. And strategically it was an Allied victory, because the seemingly invincible Japanese Navy had finally been stopped for the first time. In the words of John Keegan:
“The Battle of the Coral Sea electrified America. The sinking of “the Shoho” was the first success achieved by the U.S. Navy since the outbreak of the war, and while not recompense for Pearl Harbor, was sweet revenge. It demonstrated that American carrier aircraft, in particular American carrier aircrew, were the equal of their Japanese counterparts, who in the first six months of the war at sea, had won something of (a) superman reputation…”
For the long term, with the Battle of the Coral Sea an important set of first steps had been taken. The idea of military intelligence gathering had for the first time been put with the movement of military assets in order to direct a projection of Naval Power into a place far distant from the eyes of any American personnel. The idea of an American Naval Vessel firing missiles to take out a target that we knew to be far inland, or of U.S. Naval Air power doing the same thing got it’s first try in the waters of the Coral Sea. And the idea of a U.S. Naval team being sent into a specific spot to take out a specific person – such as the death of Japan’s Admiral Yammamoto (which would happen later in the war), or killing Osama Bin Laden just a short three years ago, stemmed from this same event.
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“Air Power at Sea, 1939 – 45” by John Winton, Winton, Sidgwick Ltd., 1976
“Sea Battles of the 20th Century” by George Bruce, Hamlyn Publ. Group Ltd., London, 1976
“The Price of Admiralty” by John Keegan, Penguin Books, New York, 1988
The U.S.S. Lexington Explosion –