WASHINGTON, May 5, 2017 – Yesterday President Trump met with the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia aboard the USS Intrepid (CV-11), one of 24 Essex-class aircraft carriers built during WWII.
The Intrepid was more than a backdrop for a state visit. Demonstrating its increasing political adroitness, the Trump Administration chose the Intrepid to highlight the allegiance of the U.S. and Australia and the combined efforts of both nations’ air and naval forces that fought against the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942).
The Coral Sea washes up against 1,200 miles of Australia’s northeast coastline and is anchored by New Caledonia (France), Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanatu. It was in this region that Japanese military leaders sought the isolation and occupation of Australia in quest of Hakkō ichiu, which translated means “eight crown cords, one roof” or “I shall cover the eight directions and make them my abode,” a metaphor for Japanese global dominance.
Six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), Japan hoped to hit America with yet another attack in their effort to remove the U.S. from power in the Pacific theater and in hopes of creating a “bloc of Asian nations led by the Japanese and free of Western powers.” (Foreign minister Hachiro Arita, June 29, 1940)
The Imperial Japanese Navy and U.S. and Australian naval and air forces finally met in the Coral Sea Pacific Theater for a four-day battle.
Under the command of Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue, Japan sent its combined fleet to provide air cover for invading Japanese forces seeking to occupy both Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands.
The U.S. Navy, under the command of Admiral Frank J. Fletcher, sent carrier task forces to the Coral Sea, where they were joined by Australian forces ready to oppose the Japanese offensive.
As the Japanese invaded and took occupation of Tulagi, (May 3-4), surprise attacks by aircraft from the USS Yorktown damaged the Japanese fleet invading at the Solomon Islands, moving the Japanese to the Coral Sea in search of the attacking Allied forces.
On May 7 and 8, the carrier forces from both Japan and the American-Australian allies engaged in airstrikes, resulting in the sinking of the Japanese light carrier Shōhō even as Japanese forces were able to sink a U.S destroyer and heavily damage a fleet oiler stationed in the area to provide fuel to the Allied ships. In these battles, the U.S. fleet carrier Lexington was critically damaged, as was the USS Yorktown.
With both Japan and the Allies suffering heavy damage and loss of air cover, Japan’s Inoue recalled the invasion fleet from Port Moresby.
The U.S. and Australia actually suffered more damage than the Japanese fleet. Yet this was a victory for the Allies, who were able to push back the Japanese fleet, leading to the damage of Japanese fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku.
The Battle of the Coral Sea may be seen as a draw between the opposing forces, as Japan was able to claim a tactical victory over U.S. and Australian forces. However, the Japanese invasion was repelled in the end and the Allies gained a strategic victory, as this battle marked the first time since the start of the war that a major Japanese advance had been checked by the Allies.
More importantly, the Japanese fleet carriers Shōkaku and Zuikaku – the former damaged and the latter’s effectiveness crippled due to a heavily depleted aircraft complement – were unable to participate in the Battle of Midway, which took place the following month. This helped ensure a rough parity in aircraft between the two adversaries and contributed significantly to the US victory in that battle.
The severe losses sustained by carriers at Midway prevented the Japanese from reattempting their invasion of Port Moresby. Two months later, the Allies took advantage of Japan’s resulting strategic vulnerability in the South Pacific by launching the Guadalcanal Campaign. This campaign, along with the New Guinea Campaign, broke Japanese defenses in the South Pacific and proved a significant contributing factor to Japan’s ultimate defeat in World War II.