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Battle of the Coral Sea

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The Battle of the Coral Sea


If Japan had won the Battle of the Coral Sea and had then triumphed, a month later, in the Battle of Midway, where they were decisively defeated, then the Pacific War might well have had a very different outcome.


Following their simultaneous attack on Pearl Harbour, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies on the 7th and 8th December, 1941, the Japanese advance through Southeast Asia was swift, brutal and incredibly successful. More critically, Japanese military planners had been surprised that the losses of warships and naval transports had been far less than the 10 to 30 per cent they had predicted and allowed for.

Click on the above for a larger map of the Battle of the Coral Sea

The Japanese plans for a Battle at Midway had already been drawn up when the two fleets, the Japanese and American, began manoeuvring towards each other in the Coral Sea on the morning of the 4th May, 1942, when a Japanese covering force comprising the carrier Shoho supported by cruisers, entered the Coral Sea.

Opposing this force was the U.S. Navy's Task Force 17 commanded by Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher. Supporting Task  Force 17 was Task Force 44 which included Australian ships under the command of Rear Admiral John Crace. At this time, neither side was certain of the other's position and the initial stages of the battle were dominated by land and carrier-based aircraft searching for signs of the opposition as the carriers closed for combat.

The battle began in earnest on the 7th May, 1942, when two American destroyers were sunk along with the Japanese carrier Shoho. The most significant losses, however, occurred the following day when the U.S. carrier Lexington was lost, scuttled after being seriously damaged. Also, the Japanese carrier Shokaku from the Carrier Striking Force, under the command of Vice Admiral Tagaki was seriously damaged to an extent that it was removed from the battle and sent back to its base in Truk (Chuuk).

The Australian ships under Crace were too far west, protecting the immediate approaches to Port Moresby, to become involved in the main battle. They were, however, subjected to an intense air bombardment. However, the RAN had learned from the earlier experiences of the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse off Malaya the previous December and none of the ships were hit although some of the attacking Japanese aircraft were shot down.  

The doomed aircraft carrier USS Lexington burns three hours after being attacked
by torpedo bombers. Enormous internal explosions reduced the carrier to a useless hulk.

Crew members clamber down ropes and ladders to abandon the mortally hit Lexington

Fighter planes continue to take off and land on the deck of the damaged Lexington

Survivors of USS Lexington are pulled aboard the
US navy cruiser USS Minneapolis after the carrier was sunk.

Sailors clear away debris on the Yorktown after
the ship receives a direct hit from a Japanese bomb.

A crew member aboard the USS Yorktown
readies bombs for loading on to aircraft.

The final moments of the Japanese carrier Shoho

The Battle of the Coral Sea was significant for a number of reasons. It was the first naval battle in which the participating ships neither sighted each other nor exchanged naval gunfire. All the damage was inflicted by carrier-borne aircraft strikes.


Nicknamed the Slow But Deadly or the Barge, the SBD Dauntless was stable, rugged and reliable and able to withstand attack damage. Underpowered, painfully slow, noisy and draughty, it was already considered obsolete at the start of World War II. But it was responsive and dependable, and it emerged with an almost legendary reputation as the most successful shipboard dive-bomber of all time. The Dauntless could carry an impressive weapons load comprising either one 454kg bomb or one 227kg bomb under the fuselage, and two 113kg or two 454kg bombs under the wings, It was armed with two fixed forward-firing 12.7mm machineguns and a twin manually armed 7.62mm machinegun in the rear cockpit. It was the only Allied aircraft to fight in every major Pacific engagement, turning the tide at the Battle of Midway where Dauntless dive-bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers.  

This battle certainly saved the force in Port Moresby from facing an overwhelming invasion force and denied the Japanese the ability to strike Australian airfields in Townsville and Cooktown from Port Moresby. After the Battle of the Coral Sea, Japanese Naval Forces never ventured so far south again.

Indeed, it has passed into Australian folklore that Australia had been "saved" by the Battle of the Coral Sea.

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