The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first time since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that the enemy’s seemingly relentless advance into the Pacific was checked. It was also the first major U.S. Navy fleet action against Japan and the first naval engagement in history in which the participating ships never sighted or fired directly at each other.
The battle’s strategic background was set by the Japanese plan formulated in early 1942 that saw the country’s forces advance south and southeastward from the Bismarcks and Solomons, with the capture of Tulagi in the Solomons and Port Moresby, New Guinea, as immediate objectives. Secondary objectives were the central Pacific island of Nauru and Ocean (Banaba), in the Gilberts chain northeast of the Solomons, for their phosphate resources, essential for Japanese agriculture.
Over 29 April–4 May, Japanese forces successfully attacked, invaded, and occupied Tulagi, although several of their warships were surprised and sunk or damaged by aircraft from USS Yorktown (CV-5). Alerted to the presence of U.S. carriers, the Japanese Carrier Strike Force advanced toward the Coral Sea with the intention of finding and destroying the Allied naval forces. Beginning on 7 May, the two sides exchanged air strikes over two consecutive days.
The resulting maneuvers and clashes between two U.S. Navy task forces and a combined U.S.Australian cruiser force with the Japanese Carrier Strike Force and supporting units resulted in a Japanese tactical victory. The Japanese Imperial Navy sank USS Lexington (CV-2), USS Sims (DD-409), and USS Neosho (AO-23), and damaged Yorktown. The Japanese only lost one small carrier (Shoho) and suffered damage to a fleet carrier (Shokaku). Allied forces were forced to withdraw from the operational area. However, with their air groups too battered to support a further advance, the Japanese were brought to a standstill. Although the Japanese had managed to capture Tulagi, Port Moresby remained in Allied control. Shokaku had been hit so severely that she could not join the Midway force. Due to losses of pilots and planes, another carrier (Zuikaku) also did not take part in that operation. Thus, Coral Sea reduced Japanese carriers available for Midway by a third. Eminent U.S. Navy historian Samuel Eliot Morison notes that “so many mistakes were made by both sides in this new mode of fighting that it might be called the Battle of Errors; but more were made by the enemy, and he failed to profit by them.”
Four Medals of Honor were awarded at Coral Sea:
- Lieutenant John J. Powers (Yorktown, VB-5) for actions while attacking Shoho on 7 May at Tulagi, and on 8 May in while attacking Shokaku (killed in action)
- Lieutenant Milton E. Ricketts (Yorktown), engineering repair party, on 8 May (killed in action)
- Lieutenant William E. Hall (Lexington, VS-2) for his attack on Shoho on 7 May and interception of Japanese torpedo planes (too few available fighter aircraft forced the use of dive/scout bombers as low-level interceptors) on 8 May (survived)
- Chief Water Tender Oscar V. Peterson (Neosho) for his heroism in the ship's engineering spaces on 7 May (died of wounds)
Additional links of interest:
Two noteworthy entries in The Sextant, the NHHC blog:
Robert J. Cressman, The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD/Washington, DC: Naval Institute Press/Naval Historical Center, 1999.
Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. IV—Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions, May 1942–August 1942. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950.