American and Australian Cooperation in the Battle of the Coral Sea
The following points on U.S./Australian cooperation at Coral Sea and in the Pacific in 1942 were compiled by the Naval History and Heritage Command Histories Branch, May 2017.
During the opening months of World War II in the Pacific, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet took part in the abortive Allied attempts to stem the Japanese advance into the Netherlands East Indies [Indonesia]. Twelve U.S. Consolidated PBY-5 Catalinas of Patrol Squadron (VP) 22, Lt. Cmdr. Frank O’Beirne in command, in two groups of six planes each reinforced Patrol Wing (PatWing) 10 as the first aviation reinforcements from the Central Pacific to reach southwest Pacific Forces, via Townsville and Darwin, Australia (3–11 January 1942). The deteriorating situation, however, precluded VP-22’s deployment as a concentrated squadron, and the planes operated in small detachments at Soerabaja on Java and Ambon in the Netherlands East Indies.
The Allies established the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDA) at Batavia on Java, on 15 January 1942, to coordinate Allied defense in that area. American Adm. Thomas C. Hart initially commanded the ABDA naval forces in addition to the Asiatic Fleet. The Allies paid dearly for years of peacetime neglect and suffered from: severe logistics issues; fought with antiquated equipment; repeatedly failed to obtain and disseminate actionable intelligence; and struggled to meld their disparate forces into cohesive strike forces. In particular, they lacked powerful air support, while their different signaling systems and codes exasperated command, control, communications, and intelligence issues, and they thus often failed to coordinate their actions. These forces included the ABDA Combined Striking Force, Dutch Rear Adm. Karel W.F.M. Doorman, RNN, in command.
On 14 February Doorman took the ABDA Combined Striking Force from Oosthaven (Bandar Lampung) on southern Sumatra to sea to counterattack the Japanese. The enemy detected Doorman’s ships—British heavy cruiser Exeter (68), Australian light cruiser Hobart (D.63), Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter, Java, and Tromp, Dutch destroyers Banckert, Kortenaer, Piet Hein, and Van Ghent, and U.S. destroyers Barker (DD-213), Bulmer (DD-222), John D. Edwards (DD-216), Parrott (DD-218), Pillsbury (DD-227), and Stewart (DD-224)—as they proceeded through Gaspar Strait to the north of Bangka on 15 February 1942. Japanese planes swarmed over the ships and although the Allied vessels maneuvered desperately, bombs straddled Hobart and near misses badly shook Barker and Bulmer, but the force nonetheless largely escaped unscathed.
United States heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30), Peary (DD-226), and Australian sloops Swan (U.74) and Warrego (U.73) cleared Darwin on 15 February 1942, shepherding a convoy to Timor. A Japanese Kawanishi H6K Type 97 flying boat from the Toko Kōkūtai (air group) sighted the convoy and the next day 35 Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 land attack planes of the 1st Kōkūtai and 10 H6Ks attacked the convoy, but Allied antiaircraft fire saved the ships from destruction.
Some Allied ships escaped to Australian waters, however, the apparent sanctuary proved illusory when 189 Japanese planes from aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū, and 54 Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 land attack planes from the Kanoya and 1st Kōkūtais (groups), attacked Darwin, on 19 February 1942. The attackers sank 11 ships, grounded three more, and damaged a further 25, and destroyed 30 aircraft. The ships in the harbor included William B. Preston (AVD-7) following the U.S. destroyer-seaplane tender’s escape from the Philippines. Despite damage, a temporarily loss of steering control, and 11 dead, two missing, and three wounded, William B. Preston defiantly reached the open sea. Nine Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 carrier fighters shot down Lt. Thomas H. Moorer of VP-22 while he piloted a PBY-5 Catalina (BuNo. 2306), off northern Australia. Freighter Florence D under charter with the U.S. Army rescued the survivors, only to be sunk by enemy carrier planes. One of Moorer’s crew and three of the 37 men on board Florence D died, but Moorer led them to an uninhabited island, where he drew an SOS in the sand. Two days later Australian fliers spotted the distress message and rescued the castaways. Moorer received the Silver Star and Purple Heart, and went on to become the 18th Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Allied attempts to reinforce the Netherlands East Indies included convoy MS-5: U.S. seaplane tender Langley (AV-3) and four freighters with 69 Curtiss P-40Es of the Army’s 35th and 51st Pursuit Groups embarked from Melbourne, Australia. Planners considered re-routing the convoy to Colombo, Ceylon [Sri Lanka], but the Dutch requested aid and Langley and several ships made for Tjilatjap on Java. Nine Japanese two-engine naval land attack planes and six fighters irreparably damaged Langley 74 miles from Tjilatjap on 27 February. American destroyer Whipple (DD-217) shelled and torpedoed the tender but the possibility of renewed attacks compelled the flight of the survivors and they did not record her sinking. Some survivors were transferred to oiler Pecos (AO-6) and on 1 March endured the demise of another ship when Japanese Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier bombers from Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū sank Pecos south of Christmas Island. Sixteen men from Langley died altogether.
The Japanese defeated the ABDA Strike Force during the Battle of the Java Sea (27–28 February 1942). Houston (Capt. Albert H. Rooks) and Australian light cruiser Perth (D.29, Capt. Hector M. L. Waller, RAN) attempted to escape but encountered Japanese transports led by Rear Adm. Takagi Takeo in Banten Bay, Java (28 February–1 March). An encounter of mutual surprise, during the Battle of Sunda Strait Houston and Perth gallantly engaged three Japanese cruisers and nine destroyers, Rear Adm. Kurita Takeo in command. In the mêlée Japanese heavy cruisers Mogami and Mikuma sank Houston and Perth by torpedoes and gunfire; but Japanese minesweeper W.2 and transports Ryuho Maru—the flagship of Lt. Gen. Imamura Hitoshi, the commander of the 16th Army—Horai Maru, Sakura Maru, and Tatsuno Maru were also sunk, and destroyers Harukaze and Shirakumo and landing ship Shinshu Maru damaged. Capt. Rooks received the Medal of Honor posthumously, and with the impending fall of Java the Allies dissolved the ABDA on 1 March.
Nine Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 carrier fighters and a Mitsubishi Ki-15 reconnaissance plane flying from Kupang on Timor attacked Broome, Australia, on 3 March 1942. The attackers destroyed 22 American, Australian, British, and Dutch aircraft, and killed or wounded dozens of women and children evacuated from the Netherlands East Indies.
The Catalinas of PatWing-10 completed their withdrawal from the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies to Australia on 7 March 1942. The wing patrolled along the west coast of that country from its newly established headquarters in Perth. The command lost 41 of its 45 planes during the first several months of the war including 14 shot down. More than half the men of PatWing-10 captured by the Japanese in the Philippines died in captivity. At times they operated from near the Swan River and nicknamed themselves the “Swan River Club.”
Task Force (TF) 11, Vice Adm. Wilson Brown Jr., in command, and elements of TF 17, Rear Adm. Frank J. Fletcher in command, attacked Japanese ships landing troops and supplies at Lae and Salamaua on New Guinea on 10 March 1942. Aircraft carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) launched Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of Fighting Squadrons (VFs) 3 and 42, Douglas SBD-2 Dauntlesses of Bombing Squadron (VB) 2, SBD-3s of VB-5 and Scouting Squadrons (VSs) 2 and 5, and Douglas TBD-1 Devastators of Torpedo Squadrons (VTs) 2 and 5. The planes flew over the Owen Stanley Mountains and sank armed merchant cruiser Kongō Maru, auxiliary minelayer Tenyō Maru, and transport Yokohama Maru, and damaged seaplane carrier Kiyokama Maru, light cruiser Yūbari, destroyers Asanagi, Asakaze, Oite, Yakaze, and Yūnagi, minelayer Tsugaru, transport Kokai Maru, and minesweeper No. 2 Tama Maru. One Dauntless of VS-2 was shot down. A following raid by USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed Hudsons of No. 32 Squadron failed to inflict appreciable damage. The strike helped to persuade the Japanese of their need for additional carrier support to complete their conquest of the region, and thus indirectly set the stage for the Battle of the Coral Sea.
United States submarines also operated with their Australian counterparts from that country. Submarine tender Holland (AS-3) fought initially from Darwin and Tjilatjap but Japanese attacks drove her to Freemantle, which she reached on 3 March 1942. On 15 April Griffin (AS-13) stood in to Brisbane to service the S class boats of Submarine Squadron 5, Capt. Ralph W. Christie in command. These ships helped establish U.S. submarine bases in Australia, and additional Allied submarines patrolled from other Australian anchorages, such as Exmouth Gulf, and proved instrumental in severing the Japanese merchant lifeline from their home islands.
The Battle of the Coral Sea marked the first naval engagement fought without the opposing ships making contact (4–8 May 1942). The Japanese launched Operation MO—the seizure of Port Moresby, New Guinea, and points in the Solomon Islands, Nauru, and the Ocean Islands, preparatory to neutralizing Australia as an Allied bastion. Planes of TF 17, Rear Adm. Fletcher in command, attacked the invading Japanese at Gavutu and Tulagi in the Solomons, and sank destroyer Kikuzuki, minesweeper Tama Maru, and auxiliary minesweepers Wa 1 and Wa 2, and damaged destroyer Yuzuki, minelayer Okinoshima, transport Azumasan Maru, and cargo ship Kozui Maru. Japanese transports meanwhile sailed from Rabaul, New Britain, for Port Moresby. On 7 May TF 17, which had been joined by TF 11, Rear Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch in command and including Lexington, attacked the Japanese Carrier Strike Force, Vice Adm. Takagi Takeo in command, including carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku, and sank light carrier Shōhō of the Close Support Force, Rear Adm. Goto Aritomo in command. Japanese planes sank destroyer Sims (DD-409) and damaged oiler Neosho (AO-23), which was afterward scuttled. The battle concluded the following day. Dauntlesses from Lexington and Yorktown damaged Shōkaku and forced her retirement. The Japanese bombed and torpedoed Lexington and bombed Yorktown, and destroyer Phelps (DD-360) scuttled Lexington. The Americans sustained heavy casualties including the loss of at least 69 planes to a Japanese loss of approximately 92 aircraft. The damage to Shōkaku and their aerial losses temporarily denied the Japanese the availability of Shōkaku and Zuikaku. The Allies achieved a strategic victory by halting the push southward and blunting the seaborne thrust toward Port Moresby. The Japanese deferred and then abandoned their occupation of Port Moresby by sea and shifted their advance overland across the Owen Stanley Mountains.
Japanese reconnaissance seaplanes from submarines I-25 and I-29 reconnoitered Sydney, Australia, on 7 February and 23 May 1942, respectively, and another from I-21 flew over the harbor on 29 May. On 31 May, three Japanese Type A Kō-hyōteki midget submarines from I-22,I-24, and I-27 penetrated Sydney’s defenses, and their torpedoes sank Australian accommodation ship Kuttabul, damaged Dutch submarine K IX beyond economical repair, and narrowly missed U.S. heavy cruiser Chicago (CA-29). All three of the midget submarines were lost in the attack.
On 7 August 1942, American Marines landed on Japanese-held Guadalcanal, Florida, Gavutu, Tanambogo, and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands during Operation Watchtower—the first U.S. land offensive of World War II. The Marines wrestled control of the neighboring islands from the Japanese, and simultaneously moved inland on Guadalcanal. The following day Australian Coastwatchers reported an incoming raid, and during a fierce Japanese aerial assault on the invasion ships, Wildcats and antiaircraft fire splashed 17 of the attackers. During the Battle of Savo Island on 8 and 9 August, however, Japanese Vice Adm. Mikawa Gunichi led a force that slipped undetected to the west of Savo Island and inflicted a singularly devastating defeat upon the Allies. The Japanese sank U.S. heavy cruisers Astoria (CA-34), Quincy (CA-39), and Vincennes (CA-44), and Australian Canberra (D.33), and damaged U.S. heavy cruiser Chicago (CA-29) and destroyers Patterson (DD-392) and Ralph Talbot (DD-390). The Americans lightly damaged four Japanese ships. Despite the overwhelming victory, Mikawa sought to escape aerial retaliation by clearing the area by sunrise, and consequently failed to attack the nearby transports. The defeat prompted the withdrawal of the carriers and the transports before they had unloaded all their cargoes, but the limited amount of supplies which had been landed combined, with those the Marines seized from the Japanese, to enable the leathernecks to maintain their tenuous hold on Guadalcanal. On 14 October 1943, the U.S. commissioned heavy cruiser Canberra (CA-70) in honor of the Australian ship’s valiant action during the battle.