Coral Sea, the forgotten battle that saved America

Seventy-eight years ago this week, (May 4–8, 1942) the United States Navy, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, repelled a large Japanese invasion fleet in the Battle of the Coral Sea, just east and north of Australia.  It was the first naval battle in history in which the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other.  All of the fighting was done when aircraft from both opposing fleets attacked the other's ships and planes.

That distinction (of being first) is often credited to the later, and more famous, Battle of Midway, but it rightly belongs to the brave men who fought, many of whom died, in the Coral Sea.

Because of the courage and sacrifice of undaunted American warriors, two Japanese aircraft carriers were put out of action, with a third, smaller Japanese carrier sunk.  However, there was a great cost.  The United States lost the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and two other ships, with heavy loss of life.  At the time, the Allies regarded the battle as a disappointing defeat, but history was to reveal a brighter outcome.

Had the U.S. lost the battle, it likely might have lost the subsequent Battle of Midway, opening the path to a Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and even the U.S. mainland.  Instead, the USS Yorktown, significantly damaged in the Coral Sea, managed to return to Pearl Harbor in time to be repaired and fight, and to sink two of the four carriers that the Japanese lost at Midway.

Why should we commemorate this battle this month?  Few, if any, of the men who fought there have survived the intervening years.  Twenty-year-old sailors in 1942 are ninety-eight this year.  With their passage, living memory of the event will have vanished, and the events of those few days of blood and fire will, as do all such events, vanish into the pages of history books.  We will have lost the last personal connection with it, and with them.

There is the proverbial poem, For Want of a Nail (the kingdom was lost), which also brings to mind a saying I am sure someone must have authored: "All wars are won or lost by a single soldier."  Many times, throughout history, one, or very few, warriors stood their ground, when others would have fled the battle; these few turned the tide from defeat to victory.  History was altered.  So it was at Coral Sea.

We may never know the full story.  At Coral Sea, pilots took off from their carriers, some never to return, never to be seen or heard from again.  It is known that they encountered the enemy, because enemy pilots also were lost at that time, in that area.  One American pilot, his dive bomber severely damaged, radioed in to report that his bomb had hit an enemy ship.  He wanted it to be known, before he died, not only to get personal credit, but more so that an enemy aircraft carrier had suffered significant damage and need not be feared.

Coral Sea represents the horseshoe nail that the Japanese Empire lost.  It led to a sequence of events that, despite enormous losses of life for the Allies, prevented the Japanese assault on Australia, severed its threat to Hawaii and California, and finally resulted in the Japanese surrender.

By commemorating such acts of heroism, we turn to the imminent, next pages of history, yet blank, that will be written in the future about our present-day warriors.

Seventy-eight years ago this week, (May 4–8, 1942) the United States Navy, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, repelled a large Japanese invasion fleet in the Battle of the Coral Sea, just east and north of Australia.  It was the first naval battle in history in which the opposing fleets never came within sight of each other.  All of the fighting was done when aircraft from both opposing fleets attacked the other's ships and planes.

That distinction (of being first) is often credited to the later, and more famous, Battle of Midway, but it rightly belongs to the brave men who fought, many of whom died, in the Coral Sea.

Because of the courage and sacrifice of undaunted American warriors, two Japanese aircraft carriers were put out of action, with a third, smaller Japanese carrier sunk.  However, there was a great cost.  The United States lost the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and two other ships, with heavy loss of life.  At the time, the Allies regarded the battle as a disappointing defeat, but history was to reveal a brighter outcome.

Had the U.S. lost the battle, it likely might have lost the subsequent Battle of Midway, opening the path to a Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and even the U.S. mainland.  Instead, the USS Yorktown, significantly damaged in the Coral Sea, managed to return to Pearl Harbor in time to be repaired and fight, and to sink two of the four carriers that the Japanese lost at Midway.

Why should we commemorate this battle this month?  Few, if any, of the men who fought there have survived the intervening years.  Twenty-year-old sailors in 1942 are ninety-eight this year.  With their passage, living memory of the event will have vanished, and the events of those few days of blood and fire will, as do all such events, vanish into the pages of history books.  We will have lost the last personal connection with it, and with them.

There is the proverbial poem, For Want of a Nail (the kingdom was lost), which also brings to mind a saying I am sure someone must have authored: "All wars are won or lost by a single soldier."  Many times, throughout history, one, or very few, warriors stood their ground, when others would have fled the battle; these few turned the tide from defeat to victory.  History was altered.  So it was at Coral Sea.

We may never know the full story.  At Coral Sea, pilots took off from their carriers, some never to return, never to be seen or heard from again.  It is known that they encountered the enemy, because enemy pilots also were lost at that time, in that area.  One American pilot, his dive bomber severely damaged, radioed in to report that his bomb had hit an enemy ship.  He wanted it to be known, before he died, not only to get personal credit, but more so that an enemy aircraft carrier had suffered significant damage and need not be feared.

Coral Sea represents the horseshoe nail that the Japanese Empire lost.  It led to a sequence of events that, despite enormous losses of life for the Allies, prevented the Japanese assault on Australia, severed its threat to Hawaii and California, and finally resulted in the Japanese surrender.

By commemorating such acts of heroism, we turn to the imminent, next pages of history, yet blank, that will be written in the future about our present-day warriors.