Rant Mode ON:
The United States Navy owns a glorious history and a rich heritage. But this month the service paid scant attention to one of the most significant naval events of all time.
May 7-8 marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the arrival of the naval millennium when two fleets fought each other beyond visual range. The entire battle was conducted “below the horizon” as two American aircraft carriers dueled with three Japanese flattops for two days. Previously naval battles were fought hull to hull in the age of oars; often within pistol shot in the age of sail; and within several miles from the 1890s through 1944. There have been no naval battles since Leyte Gulf, which makes the carrier air strikes of 1942 even more remarkable.
This month Naval History and Heritage Command, which after years of neglect recently received a new director, placed Coral Sea third in precedence on its web site (www.history.navy.mil) behind the War of 1812 and WW II in the Pacific.
A brief word about the 200th anniversary of the 1812 thing: though oft cast as a U.S. victory, the fact remains that the Brits captured Washington, D.C.; burned the White House; and ate Dolley Madison’s lunch. The early ship-to-ship victories by America’s storied frigates eventually wilted amid the vastly superior forces of His Majesty’s Nivey. Yet the chief of naval operations lauded the 19th century sailors in the May issue of the prestigious Naval Institute Proceedings, with nary a peep about Coral Sea. In fact, in addressing the annual Midway Night observance of the epic June 1942 victory, the current naval chief and his predecessor have been reluctant to mention “the J word,” presumably lest the Japanese take offense. A peculiar attitude, since Tokyo sent a sizeable delegation to Coral Sea and Midway.
Perhaps the most public nod to Coral Sea occurred at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., with Australian participation, but again, the announcement omitted any reference to The Empire of the Sun.
The official Navy web site, www.navy.mil, had one brief mention of Coral Sea, describing an observance in Australia. The battle means something Down Under, as a glance at the map will show. Australia’s northeast coast borders the Coral Sea, with all the geostrategic implications one may infer from that fact. “Ozzies” were severely interested in the outcome of any Japanese thrust in their direction.
The minimal tribute paid to Coral Sea reminds us that in 1998 not only the navy but apparently the entire U.S. Government acted as if the Spanish-American War had never occurred. However misbegotten its origin (the battleship Maine almost certainly blew up from internal causes rather than Spanish treachery), the war placed America in the front rank of world navies. Yet that was the centennial that wasn’t.
Since the Navy and the Nation pay so little heed to Coral Sea’s 70th anniversary, I’ll perform a public service by providing a summary:
In 1942 Tokyo’s southern strategy was aimed at Australia and the stops on the supply lanes from Hawaii. An invasion force set sail toward Port Morseby, New Guinea, which in Japanese hands could lead to a reduction or even elimination of American sea communications with Australia. Further advances from there would have threatened Samoa and the Fijis.
American code breakers learned of Japan’s “Operation MO,” permitting Admiral Chester Nimitz to deploy the carriers Lexington (CV-2) under Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch and Yorktown (CV-5) under Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher with support including two Australian cruisers. Nimitz had to oppose MO: Australia was vulnerable, since most of its land forces were committed to North Africa.
On May 7 American reconnaissance aircraft sighted multiple Japanese naval forces, and despite initial confusion, both U.S. carrier air groups found the enemy advance force: the light carrier Shoho and four cruisers. The result was severe overkill as 93 “Lex” and “Yorky” planes swarmed over the small flattop, sending her to the bottom in less than 30 minutes at a cost of three U.S. aircraft. Debriefing showed that half of the attackers would have been better used against some of the cruisers, but remember: nobody had ever fought a carrier battle before. To an extent, the tailhookers were writing the manual as they went.
Later that day a Japanese air strike from the large carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku, seeking the U.S. carriers, came across the oiler Neosho and an escorting destroyer. The latter was sunk while the oiler sustained fatal damage. Then that evening another Japanese formation returning to its roosts stumbled across Fitch and Fletcher. In a confused twilight shootout, nine Japanese planes and three Americans were downed. Clearly the next day would bring more combat.
On the morning of May 8 both sides traded blows. Many of the 75 American planes never found the enemy in thick weather but Yorktown dive bombers hit Shokaku, temporarily putting her out of action. The Yanks lost five aircraft, including Lexington’s air group commander, William B. Ault, and Yorktown’s Lieutenant Joseph J. Powers, who received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his Shokaku attack.
Next 69 Japanese planes targeted Fletcher and Fitch, and hit both carriers. Lexington eventually succumbed to a combination of bomb and torpedo damage while Yorktown took a bomb hit and numerous near misses. In the churning, multi-faceted air battle, American and Japanese squadrons took heavy losses, including Dauntless scout-bombers pressed into service as low-level interceptors. Two Medals of Honor were awarded for that day: Lexington pilot William E. Hall and Yorktown damage control officer Milton Rickets (posthumously).
Battles inevitably are reduced to score cards, with the U.S. losing 656 fliers and sailors, three ships and 69 aircraft while Japan wrote off a light carrier, 966 men and 92 aircraft. On the larger scale, Japan abandoned Operation MO and the Pacific War moved into its next phase. Because Shokaku was damaged and Zuikaku’s air group was thinned, neither was available four weeks later. On the other hand, hasty repairs on Yorktown sent her to Midway where she met her fate, sharing in the epic victory over four enemy carriers.
I’ve been privileged to know some Yorktown Coral Sea veterans including fighter pilot William N. Leonard; scout-bomber pilot Stanley W. Vejtasa; and aviation mechanic William F. Surgi. Bill and Bill are gone now but Swede remains with us to tell the tale. Perhaps this small tribute to them will serve as an appreciation to all.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy might pay a bit more attention to its own history.
Rant Mode to STANDBY.