The Deserving Legacy
of the Battle of the Coral Sea
BY DAVID F. WINKLER
In emphasizing the Battle of Midway as
one of the two most significant anniver-
sary dates in U.S. naval history (the other
being the birth of the Navy on Oct. 13, 1775)
in NAVADMIN 164/99, then-Chief of Naval
Operations Adm. Jay Johnson performed an
unintentional disservice to the legacy of a
battle that occurred a month earlier — the
Battle of the Coral Sea.
Whereas previously the two battles were often mentioned in tandem, there is less awareness today within
the United States of this major battle between Japanese
and American-Australian naval forces. However, in
recognition of the strategic significance of the battle
and the threat posed to the Australians, the view from
down under never has changed. In Australia, the Battle
of the Coral Sea remains a big deal — as it should.
The four-day battle that began on May 4, 1942,
was, and remains, the largest naval battle ever fought
close to that continental homeland. Although Japanese
invasion of Australia itself may have been seen as an
overreach by Japanese strategic planners, the objective
to capture Port Moresby on New Guinea and Tulagi
in the Solomon Islands would have put American-Australian sea lanes, as well as a swath of northeastern
Australia, within reach of Japanese aircraft. With its
sea lanes across the Indian Ocean up into the Atlantic
also threatened by Axis sea power, Australia might have
been forced to withdraw from the war effort.
What distinguished the battle was that the opposing
fleets never came within visual range. Starting with
USS Yorktown’s raid on Japanese naval forces supporting landings on Tulagi on May 4, the contest became a
maneuver at sea in which timing was key.
In the chess game, the allied task force, led by Vice
Adm. Frank J. Fletcher, had the upper hand on the
morning of May 7 as he had placed his carriers between
the enemy invasion force and its carrier strike forces.
To ensure Japanese transports would not slip through
during the forthcoming air battle, Fletcher dispatched
Royal Navy Rear Adm. John G. Crace with a blocking force
to operate south off New Guinea that included the Royal
Australian Navy cruisers Australia and Hobart, U.S. Navy
cruiser Chicago and three American destroyers.
That morning, the Americans suffered their first ship
losses when Japanese fleet carrier aircraft attacked the
destroyer Sims and oiler Neosho. Meanwhile, American
naval aviators from Lexington and Yorktown had located
the Japanese invasion force, which was escorted by the
light carrier Shōhō. The quote “Scratch one flattop” subsequently entered the Navy lexicon after it was sunk.
Recognizing the vulnerability of their invasion force
to further American air attack, as well as the blocking force, the Japanese turned back their transports,
effectively handing the allies a strategic victory. This
left the two opposing carrier forces to trade blows the
The Americans inflicted heavy damage on Shōkaku,
eliminating its capability to launch aircraft, but the
Japanese had the better day. Torpedo and bomb hits
on Lexington would lead to its loss. However, required
repairs for Shōkaku and the need to replace aircraft and
pilots lost from Zuikaku forced the Japanese to remove
these carriers from their forthcoming Midway operation. In contrast, Yorktown, which sustained bomb
damage, was able to return to the Central Pacific just
in time for that critical battle.
Though not involved in a surface engagement, Crace’s
surface force gave good account for itself on May 7 when
the cruisers and destroyers skillfully evaded attack by
two Rabaul-based air groups — a dozen G4M “Betty”
torpedo bombers and 19 G3M “Nell” bombers. Crace’s
ships shot down four of the Bettys.
Seventy-five years later, Australians continue to
express gratitude for actions taken to protect the
Commonwealth. Besides a strategic victory, the battle
has served as a foundation for a strong trans-Pacific
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical