It was America’s first naval battle of World War II, Japan’s first loss at sea in the war, the battle that saved Australia from a Japanese invasion, the greatest naval battle in Australian waters, the first carrier battle, and the first battle in which the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other or fired at each other, ship to ship. Rarely mentioned in American textbooks today and unknown to most students, the Battle of the Coral Sea not only was one of the war’s most important battles but marked the opening of a new age in naval warfare and demonstrated that American sailors and naval aviators were more than a match for their Japanese counterparts.
Lying off Australia’s northeast coast, the Coral Sea is a stunningly beautiful body of water. Its bright sunshine, clean air, and translucent water, which varies from the deepest to the lightest blues and greens, made the Coral Sea an ironic site for the deadly game of war.
Early in May 1942, Japan launched Operation Mo, designed to capture Port Moresby, on New Guinea’s southeast coast. Control of Port Moresby would give Japan a base that would make the Coral Sea a Japanese lake and a base that could be used as a staging area for an invasion of Australia. The latter idea was not far-fetched. Japan had three times as many men in her army and navy as Australia had people. In March 1942, Japan’s prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, had warned, “Australia and New Zealand are now threatened by the might of the Imperial forces, and both of them should know that any resistance is futile.”
Because Navy cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese fleet code, Adm. Chester Nimitz knew enough of Operation Mo to dispatch Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher and Task Force 17 with her 2 carriers, 8 cruisers, 11 destroyers, and support craft to the Coral Sea.
Although scattered and far-flung actions began on May 4, the real battle started three days later when Japanese scout planes spotted the American oiler Neosho (although the name sounds Japanese, it comes from an Osage Indian name) and her escort, the destroyer Sims. Reported by the scout planes as a “carrier and a cruiser,” the Japanese launched dozens of planes in two waves to attack these putative high-value targets. Sims was sunk with heavy casualties; Neosho was so badly damaged that she became a drifting wreck and was later abandoned.
In the meantime, an American scout plane spotted the Japanese carrier Shoho and her four accompanying cruisers. Carriers Yorktown and Lexington launched more than 90 planes that found Shoho 160 miles away. Leading the attack was Lt. John J. Powers, a New York City-born graduate of the Naval Academy. Through enemy fighters and intense antiaircraft fire, he dove nearly into the deck of Shoho before releasing his bomb. A tremendous explosion rocked the carrier. Static interfered with radio transmissions to Yorktown and Lexington, but suddenly, the voice of another pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Dixon, came through loud and clear: “Scratch one flattop. Dixon to carrier. Scratch one flattop.” Late in the day, the Japanese launched some 30 planes to search for the American carriers. Most of the planes were intercepted and shot down by American fighters or lost while trying to find their own carriers in the dark. A few made their way back to their carriers only to crash when attempting night landings. Mistaking an American carrier for a Japanese, one enemy pilot joined American planes in the landing pattern. He must have been shocked when he began to set down on the deck only to be blasted overboard in a hail of gunfire.
Early the next morning, the opposing forces began launching planes again. Powers told his pilots in the ready room, “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I’m going to get a hit if I have to lay it right on their flight deck.” By late morning, Powers and others from Yorktown and Lexington were pounding the Japanese carrier Shokaku. Powers again flew nearly into the carrier’s deck before releasing his bomb and scoring a direct hit. He was last seen trying to pull up through a cloud of fire, smoke, debris, and exploding shells. He and others had left Shokaku so heavily damaged that all she could do was limp northward in retreat. Her sister carrier, Zuikaku, steaming behind a squall line, went undetected by American planes.
While American pilots were pounding Shokaku, Japanese carrier planes were reaching Yorktown and Lexington, both sailing under bright, clear skies. Torpedoes and bombs hit “Lady Lex,” but fast action by her crew brought the resulting fires under control—for a time. Then, a spark from an unshielded electric fan caused secondary explosions and fires erupted everywhere. Capt. Frederick Sherman finally gave the order to abandon ship. Unlike how it would be misrepresented by some hysterical movie director today, the sailors calmly lined up on the flight deck and climbed down lines dangling into the sea. Some sailors had the good sense to raid the galley and deliver ice cream to their shipmates waiting a turn to go overboard. Sherman was the last to leave the ship. Hours later, a U.S. destroyer put four torpedoes into Lexington and sank her, lest she miraculously survive the fires and explosions and fall into enemy hands. Meanwhile, Yorktown was badly damaged by a bomb hit but was still fully operational.
By the afternoon of May 8, the battle was over. The United States had lost a carrier, a destroyer, and an oiler, 66 planes, and some 550 men. We also had a carrier badly damaged. Japan had lost a carrier, a destroyer, and three smaller ships, 77 planes, and nearly 1,100 men. She also had a carrier badly damaged. Tactically, the battle could be called a draw; strategically, it was a great American (and Australian—she had ships participate as well) victory. The Japanese would never again threaten Port Moresby, let alone Australia. Every year since 1946, Australia has commemorated the Battle of the Coral Sea and has honored such American heroes as John J. Powers, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Australia has not forgotten, but it seems that America has.