Halting the Enemy: America, Japan and the Coral Sea by Brandon S. Miller
God Almighty can certainly use tactical defeats to achieve His purposes. Considered a draw in many history books, or maybe a strategic victory in hindsight, God’s mighty hand of Providence certainly drove the events of the Battle of the Coral Sea, which occurred on May 4th-8th, 1942.
In late 1941, Japanese forces began expanding their empire. They began with bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 in an attempt to cripple American naval power in the Pacific. Then they captured British Malaya and carried on to seize the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, the Netherlands East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, the Gilbert Islands, and Guam. The increasing Japanese Empire, now at war with the Allied Forces, appeared unstoppable.
However, the U. S. did own one small advantage over her adversary: by early 1942, the USN could decipher nearly 15 percent of the Japanese Naval Codebook D, which the enemy used for roughly half of their communications. Using this limited knowledge, the United States Navy discovered that the Japanese were planning an invasion of Port Moresby, New Guinea, intending to put northern Australia in range of hostile land-based aircraft, increasing the Japanese army’s southern defenses. If successful, this invasion would mean catastrophe for Australia. But strategically, it would have also been a deep blow against the Allies, who were planning to use the port as a base for a counteroffensive.
Admiral Chester Nimitz, newly appointed commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific, ordered all four of the navy’s Pacific-based carriers south to the Coral Sea to counter the Japanese offensive. A group of ships, named Task Force 17, which included the USS Yorktown and her escorts, rendezvoused with Task Force 11, which included the Carrier Lexington, north of New Caledonia on May 1st. Task Force 16, which included the Enterprise and the Hornet, had just returned to Pearl Harbor after the Doolittle raid and was unable to participate. However God used an intercepted message from Task Force 16 to convince the Japanese that all but one of the American carriers was located in the Northern Pacific and posed no threat to Operation MO: The invasion of Port Moresby. As a matter of precaution, the Japanese Commander Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue ordered four submarines into a position 450 nautical miles Southwest of Guadalcanal to watch for incoming Allied naval forces. The submarines arrived and deployed, unaware that the Allies had already slipped into the Coral Sea.
During the next few days, the Allies remained undetected; however they were unable to locate the Japanese invasion forces. On the morning of May 5th, four American Wildcats intercepted and shot down a Kawanishi H6K reconnaissance aircraft. When the aircraft failed to report, Ionue assumed it had been attacked by Allied carrier-based fighters. Now, he just needed to know where those carriers were. Also that morning, Task Force 17 united with Task Force 11 and 44 (which consisted of a mix of American and Australian cruisers and destroyers). American Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, commander of the Allied fleet during the battle, refueled the task force and then sent the fleet oiler Neosho and one destroyer, the Sims, farther south for a later rendezvous.
On the 6th, a Japanese reconnaissance plane spotted the American fleet but due to unfavorable weather conditions and the risks of stretching his plane’s range, the Japanese carrier force commander Admiral Takagi, turned his ships south toward the enemy and decided to wait until the next morning to attack. To this point Fletcher didn’t know the exact position of the enemy, but a number of land-based B-17 bombers under General Macarthur spotted the enemy and radioed the coordinates to Fletcher. Time was running short, dawn would bring battle to the Coral Sea.
As the sun rose on May 7th, Fletcher ordered Australian commander John Crace with Task Force 44 to split with the carrier forces and block the enemy’s passage to Port Moresby, in case the Japanese invasion force should try to slip by while Fletcher dealt with the enemy carriers. This did however place his carriers in risk as they lost most their anti-air power. Still, Fletcher thought it necessary.
At 0722 one of Takagi’s planes spotted one carrier, one cruiser and three destroyers, the sighting was quickly confirmed by a second shout. Takagi deployed his entire strike force against the enemy, but the sighting was faulty. Instead of the enemy carrier force, the Japanese assault planes found the unfortunate fleet oiler Neosho and her escort, the Sims. Nearly an hour later, another Japanese aircraft spotted the actual American carriers, but Takagi had no planes left to launch for an attack. He ordered the dispatched planes to finish their attack and return. The sailors of the Neosho and the Sims sacrificed much to keep the Japanese engaged and away from the American carriers in the battle; had Takagi held his planes until he actually found the carriers the battle may have had a much different ending. Both ships were eventually lost, and the few survivors were rescued on the eleventh.
Now that the opposing carriers were spotted, the battle raged until the evening of the 8th. In the end, both American carriers were damaged, and the Lexington eventually sunk. The Japanese light carrier Shoho was sunk by American aircraft from both the Lexington and the Yorktown. The Japanese Carrier Shokaku suffered heavy damage, but was able to return to port. Fletcher, worried about reports of fresh Japanese forces and the loss of his fuel supply, elected to pull the American Carrier force from the battle, advising Macarthur to launch a land based aircraft attack on the enemy. Takagi, worried about his severely depleted aircraft reserves, told Ionue that he would not be able to supply air support for Operation MO. Ionue eventually called off the invasion and returned to port.
God produced three major Providential ramifications from this seemingly inconclusive battle. First, the Japanese failed to conquer anything. This was the first time a Japanese invasion force had been sent home without achieving their objective. The rapid expansion of the emperor-worshiping Japanese dynasty came to an end. Second, they failed to take Port Moresby. This protected the northern shore of Australia and left the Allies options for a counteroffensive in the South Pacific. Third, it cut the Shoho and Shokaku out of Yamato’s fleet for his planned invasion of Midway, where they might have turned the tide of the battle, and the war. The Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor under a super-expedited repair schedule. The yard workers labored around the clock and finished what was estimated as a two week task in only two days, so she could sail to Midway with the Hornet and the Enterprise.
You will hear people say that The Battle of Midway turned the tide of the war against the Japanese, but The Battle of the Coral Sea began the process by breaking their momentum.