(WHTM) — It was the first sea battle in history where the warships never saw each other. The battle of the Coral Sea would be fought almost entirely by airplanes launched from aircraft carriers. As for who won, well, that depends on whether you look at the immediate losses or the long-term results.

Since the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese had racked up a string of victories, taking control of the Philippines, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, the Gilbert Islands, and Guam. Now they were looking to capture Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, and Port Moresby in New Guinea. This would put Australia in range of their ground-based aircraft, disrupt the sea lanes between Australia and the United States, and open up the possibility of invading Australia at some point.

Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the Allies knew they were coming. American codebreakers had reached the point where they could decipher about 85 percent of coded Japanese messages. On the ground in New Guinea, carefully hidden Coastwatchers observed the movements of Japanese aircraft and determined they were heading for Port Moresby.

On May 4th, airplanes launched from U.S.S. Yorktown attacked the invasion fleet at Tulagi, and the Battle of the Coral Sea was on in earnest. On the Japanese side, fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku, Light carrier Shōhō, 4 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, and 15 destroyers. The U.S. had fleet carriers Yorktown and Lexington, 6 heavy cruisers, and 13 destroyers; joining them were two Australian heavy cruisers.

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They would spend the next couple of days trying to find each other. The two fleets got within 81 miles of each other on May 6, but neither side realized it. Both sides launched air attacks on the 7th, each thought they were attacking the other side’s fleet carriers, and each side actually scored hits on smaller vessels. The U.S. sank the Japanese light carrier Shōhō, and the Japanese sank an American destroyer and damaged an oiler.

Finally, on May 8, the fleet carriers on both sides came under attack from fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo aircraft-and “over the horizon warfare” became the new normal in naval combat. At the end of the day the Japanese fleet carrier Shōkaku and American fleet carrier Yorktown were damaged, and the Lexington was a wreck and had to be scuttled.

So who won? Strictly in terms of battle damage, the Japanese came out ahead by sinking the biggest ship, the Lexington. Long term, though, this was a strategic victory for the Allies. Japan had to abandon its plan to take Port Moresby. And exactly a month later, on June 4th the Battle of Midway began. The Yorktown had been repaired and was back in the fight, but Shokaku and Zuikaku were still out of action. The Japanese lost four carriers that day, and never really recovered.



Naval History and Heritage Command

NHHC Infographic of battle

Wikipedia-Battle of the Coral Sea-order of battle

Wikipedia-Battle of the Coral Sea

Wikipedia-Battle of Midway