As you can tell on this blog, one of the subjects I’m reading up on these days is WWII in the Pacific. There was Shattered Sword, a new view on Midway. and a book on Leyte Gulf. Whichever one started the process, the good books on the campaigns led me to get another and another.
The Pacific has three phases. There is the early period where Japan ran wild, a ‘swing period’ where the two sides contended on more equal terms, and then the island hopping advance once the US Navy had overwhelming force. Most histories I’ve seen tend to follow the winners, talking about Japan up to Midway and the USN after that. I have three books that cover Midway, but none that cover the Battle of Coral Sea or any battle before that.
This book drops right into that gap and it is a good book as well. It follows the Navy as it recovers from Pearl Harbor and tries to learn how to contend with the Kido Butai, the Japanese Carrier Force. While no carriers were lost at Pearl Harbor, the USN was outnumbered in carriers substantially, they did not have the elite training in operating as a unit, and the US aircraft were inferior to the point of obsolescence. This is even aside from the inferior and defective torpedoes that often did not detonate,, due to differences in the sea conditions from where they were tested.
Trying to find ways to hit back and restrict the Japanese advance without losing too many carriers and men in the process was difficult. If you sat and did nothing, the ships would be just as inexperienced at the next meeting. If your forces were crushed, there wouldn’t be anyone left to learn from. It is a difficult balancing act.
So the carriers were sent out to attack bases where the Kido Butai was absent to gain some experience without undue risk. Then a pair of carriers were sent on the Doolittle Raid. Again all of these were aimed at hitting where resistance was known to be light.
This period ended with the Japanese plan to invade Port Moresby. A base there would threaten the link to Australia, and code breakers determined that the two US carriers that could get there would only be met by 2 large Japanese carriers, and the least experienced ones at that. So the Lexington and Yorktown were sent to face the Shokaku and Zuikaku at the battle of Coral Sea.
As you might expect, it was something of a mess. Yorktown opened the battle by pasting a base at Tulagi. This brought the Japanese out to hunt. Bad spotting reports for both sides led to the US planes to attack the light carrier Shoho and sink her. This mistake was matched by the Japanese sending a massive strike to a single tanker and destroyer. The Japanese attempted a second strike at sunset that missed spotting the carriers in the overcast and darkness. In trying to return, some of these planes tried to land on the US carriers! Many planes and pilots were lost in the raid to no effect.
The next day each side launched a full strike, which passed each other on the way. The US flights scattered, each carrier separate from the others and the torpedo bombers separate from dive bombers. Partly this was inexperience, partly due to the differing performance of the planes which made it hard to keep together. The US damaged Shokaku. The Japanese hit the Lexington and damaged the Yorktown. Each side retired, and the invasion was cancelled. So the US force gained its objective.
The two Japanese carriers were out of action for the battle of Midway – Zuikaku due to aircrew losses. The Japanese did not shift squadrons from carrier to carrier as the US did. The Lexington sank due to additional damage from exploding gas fumes. This taught damage control how to minimize this danger going forward. Yorktown alone was able to be repaired in time to be present at Midway, beefed up by a fresh torpedo squadron.
This turned out to be the difference at Midway. Yorktown’s planes sank the Soryu, and it took the brunt of both Japanese attacks. Damage control was so good the second strike thought she was undamaged and struck her again with what turned out to be fatal damage. Enterprise and Hornet would have been met by two carriers after the first US strike without Yorktown present, and the loss of both would have been likely.
This would have made subsequent operations harder to face with a 2-1 carrier advantage.against us. As it was, the Guadalcanal operations reduced the fleet down to 1 carrier before the Essex class units arrived in 1943. The Japanese would have been a lot harder to face in this period without the losses they took in this period and the learning we did in the process.
- Doolittle Raiders share memories of their exploits at EAA (jsonline.com)
- Liveblogging World War II: May 4, 1942: Near the Coral Sea (delong.typepad.com)
- Liveblogging World War II: May 6, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea (delong.typepad.com)
- Liveblogging World War II: May 7, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea (delong.typepad.com)
- Liveblogging World War II: May 8, 1942: Battle of the Coral Sea (delong.typepad.com)