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Battle of the Coral Sea - Significance

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Battle of the Coral Sea
Allied response
Carrier battle, first day
Afternoon operations
Carrier battle, second day
Recovery, reassessment and retreat
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A new type of naval warfare

The battle was the first naval engagement in history in which the participating ships never sighted or fired directly at each other. Instead, manned aircraft acted as the offensive artillery for the ships involved. Thus, the respective commanders were participating in a new type of warfare with which neither had much, if any, experience and, as a result, both sides made mistakes. In H. P. Willmot's words, the commanders "had to contend with uncertain and poor communications in situations in which the area of battle had grown far beyond that prescribed by past experience but in which speeds had increased to an even greater extent, thereby compressing decision-making time." Because of the greater speed with which decisions were required, the Japanese were at a disadvantage because Inoue was too far away at Rabaul to effectively direct his naval forces in real time, while Fletcher was on-scene with his carriers. The Japanese admirals involved were often slow to communicate important information to each other.

The experienced Japanese carrier aircrews performed better than the US, achieving greater results with an equivalent number of aircraft. The Japanese attack on the American carriers on May 8 was better coordinated than the US attack on the Japanese carriers. The Japanese suffered much higher losses to their carrier aircrews, however, losing 90 killed in the battle compared with 35 for the Americans. Japan's cadre of highly-skilled carrier aircrews with which it began the war were, in effect, irreplaceable because of an institutionalized limitation in its training programs and a complete absence of a pool of experienced reserves. Coral Sea started a trend which would result in the irrepairable decimation of Japan's veteran carrier aircrews by the end of October 1942.

While the Americans did not perform as expected, they did learn from their mistakes in the battle and made improvements to their carrier tactics and equipment, including fighter tactics, attack coordination, and defensive strategies, which contributed to better results in later battles. Radar gave the Americans a limited advantage in this battle, but its value to the US Navy would increase over time as the technology improved and the Allies learned how to employ it more effectively. Also, following the loss of Lexington, improved methods for containing aviation fuel and better damage control procedures were implemented by the Americans.

Japanese and US carriers would face off against each other again in the battles of Midway, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz Islands in 1942, and the Philippine Sea in 1944. Each of these battles was strategically significant in deciding the course and ultimate outcome of the Pacific War.

Tactical and Strategic Implications

Both sides publicly claimed victory after the battle. However, while Admiral Fletcher continued to command carrier forces and served as the senior USN officer at the upcoming Battle of Midway, the IJN relegated Admiral Takagi to less important assignments in the aftermath of Coral Sea.

In terms of ships lost, the Japanese won a tactical victory by sinking an American fleet carrier and an oiler, both strategic assets, as well as a destroyer (41,826 tons) versus a light carrier, a destroyer, and several smaller warships (19,000 tons) sunk by the Americans. Lexington represented, at that time, one quarter of US carrier strength in the Pacific. The Allies did achieve their first significant Japanese warship kill in the Pacific by sinking Shoho, while also severely damaging Shōkaku and putting her out of action for months of repair.

In strategic terms, the Allies won because the seaborne invasion of Port Moresby was averted, lessening the threat to the supply lines between the US and Australia. Though the withdrawal of Yorktown from the Coral Sea conceded the field, the Japanese were forced to abandon the operation that had initiated the Battle of Coral Sea in the first place. This was the first time that a Japanese invasion force had been turned back without achieving its objective, and this greatly lifted the morale of the Allied after a series of defeats to the Japanese in the initial six months of the Pacific Theater. Port Moresby was vital to Allied strategy and could not have been defended by the ground forces stationed there. It had a substantial effect on the morale and the strategic planning of both sides. Without a hold in New Guinea, the subsequent Allied advance, difficult though it was, would have been much harder still. As a result, the Japanese were forced to attack Moresby overland. The consequent delay was just long enough to permit the arrival of the veteran Second Australian Imperial Force in New Guinea. These troops played an important role in the Kokoda Track campaign and supported a Militia brigade at the Battle of Milne Bay, both of which ended in success for the Allies. These victories relieved pressure on U.S. forces at Guadalcanal. One of the most significant strategic results Coral Sea, however, was the effect on the Battle of Midway which took place the following month.


One of the most significant affects of the Coral Sea battle was the loss of Shōkaku and Zuikaku to Yamamoto for his offensive against Midway. The Japanese believed that they had sunk two carriers in the Coral Sea, but this still left at least two more US Navy carriers, Enterprise and Hornet, which could help defend Midway. The aircraft complement of the American carriers was larger than their Japanese counterparts, which, when combined with the land-based aircraft at Midway, meant that the Combined Fleet no longer enjoyed a significant numerical aircraft superiority over the Americans for the impending battle. In fact, the Americans would have three carriers to oppose Yamamoto at Midway, because Yorktown remained operational despite the damage from Coral Sea, and the US Navy was able to patch her up sufficiently at Pearl Harbor between May 27 to 30 to enable her to participate in the battle. At Midway, Yorktown would survive two air attacks (that may have gone to the other US carriers) while her aircraft played crucial roles in sinking two Japanese fleet carriers.

In contrast to the strenuous efforts by the Americans to employ the maximum forces available for Midway, the Japanese apparently did not even consider trying to include Zuikaku in the operation. No effort appears to have been made to combine the surviving Shōkaku aircrews with Zuikaku's air groups and to quickly provide Zuikaku with replacement aircraft so that she could participate with the rest of the Combined Fleet at Midway. Shōkaku herself was unable to conduct further aircraft operations, with her flight deck heavily damaged, and she required months of repair in Japan.

Furthermore, Yamamoto apparently missed the other implications of the Coral Sea battle, which were that the American carriers had appeared unexpectedly in exactly the right location at the right time to effectively contest the Japanese plans and that the US Navy carrier aircrews had attacked with sufficient skill and determination to do serious damage to the Japanese carrier forces. In the subsequent battle at Midway, Japan lost four carriers, the core of its naval offensive forces, and thereby lost the strategic initiative in the Pacific War.

Situation in the South Pacific

The failure to land troops at Port Moresby forced Japan to fight a land campaign in New Guinea. The Japanese military was unable to support land operations so far from its industrial base in Japan. The planned invasion of Fiji, Samoa and New Caledonia was also deferred and was canceled after Midway.

At the time Australians and the U.S. forces in Australia were disappointed with the outcome of the Battle of the Coral Sea. It was feared that the operation was the precursor to an invasion of the Australian mainland and that the check Japan had received would only be temporary. In a meeting held in late May the Australian Advisory War Council described the battle's result as being "rather disappointing" given that the Allies had advance notice of Japanese intentions. General MacArthur also provided Australian Prime Minister John Curtin with a military appreciation stating that "all the elements that have produced disaster in the Western Pacific since the beginning of the war" were still present as Japanese forces could strike anywhere if supported by major elements of the IJN.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 18 April 2009 14:12 )  

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