Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Prelude To History

American Douglas SBDs returning to the Yorktown after a successful attack on Tulagi

The Japanese had been extremely successful in conquering most of the western Pacific. Their prewar empire encompassed areas of modern day Russia, the totality of the Korean Peninsula, modern day Taiwan, large parts of the Chinese mainland, and south to Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, and before the superpowers came to blows in the Coral Sea, the Japanese had expanded their grip on the south Pacific, occupying the Philippine and Dutch East Indies Islands, as well as modern day Myanmar, Sumatra and the Indonesian Islands. They'd also begun to occupy large portions of Papua New Guinea. In an attempt to isolate Australia, cut her off from resupply by the United States, and prevent the allies from establishing a land base capable of attacks on their strategic interests, the Japanese began a series of invasions along the island which they hoped would culminate with the occupation of Port Moresby on New Guinea's southern coast. From that port, the Japanese could defend large areas of the Coral Sea and North Australia via land based aircraft.

The Japanese had initially planned to attack and capture Port Moresby in March, however, the appearance of the USS Lexington and the Yorktown in the southwest Pacific had caused the Japanese to postpone the invasion until early May. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto launched Operation "MO" the planned invasion of Port Moresbly with the Japanese Carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku and Shoho. The Carriers were divided into three separate groups, the Shoho with the Invasion Force which later combined with the Covering Force, and the Shokaku and Zuikaku with the Strike Force.  The Shokaku and Zuikaku were two of Japans heavy carriers and both had seen action in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The USS Yorktown completes maneuvers in the Pacific, prior to the battle.  Visible in the background is one of the Oilers which sailed in the Yorktown's Task Force 17.

As the Allied and Japanese Forces were sailing toward the Coral Sea, battle strategy was being debated in Tokyo. The Japanese Naval Command, encouraged by lighter than expected losses in their invasion efforts in the south Pacific believed that they should continue their land grab, moving further toward India and Sri Lanka. Admiral Yamamoto firmly believed that a decisive victory over the US carrier fleet was essential. Without their carriers, the United States would lose it's ability to wage sea warfare due to the destruction of nearly every US battleship at Pearl Harbor, and would therefore be forced to withdraw from the Pacific theater. Yamamoto's beliefs were reinforced after the successful bombing of Tokyo by B-25s launched from the USS Hornet in April of 1942. As a result of Yamamoto's plea and the Doolittle Raid, the Emperor was swayed, and Yamamoto's plan, which was to invade the Midway Islands, was approved.  The attack on Midway was to be an attempt to draw the bulk of the US carrier fleet into open battle with the Japanese Navy, which Yamamoto believed the Japanese Navy would win decisively. On May 5th, the Japanese High Command issued Navy Order 18, which ordered Admiral Yamamoto to muster the Japanese Carrier fleet for an attack on the Midway Islands to commence in early June. In what was later to be called a tactical error by Yamamoto, the attack on Midway was to be delayed long enough for the three carrier task force assigned to Operation "MO" to complete the Moresby invasion, and then return to join the other carriers in preparation for the Midway campaign. The first stop for Operation "MO" was Tulagi, a small island where the Japanese hoped to build a seaplane base which would cover the flank of the Port Moresby invasion and it's eventual base.

The United States, however, had broken the Japanese naval communication code, and was aware of the enemy's intent to take Tulagi and Port Moresby. Orders quickly came down for the USS Lexington, in port at Pearl Harbor receiving her retrofit of quad 28mm antiaircraft guns fore and aft of the conning tower. Her orders were to rush Task Force 11 to the Coral Sea and reinforce the Yorktown and Task Force 17. The allies were desperately hoping that the two American Task Forces and the single Australian Task Force would be enough to prevent the Japanese invasion.

Vice Admiral Frank Fletcher photographed in September 1942 aboard the USS Saratoga

Having spotted a Japanese invasion force to the north, Vice Admiral Fletcher, operating from the Yorktown, ordered a strike against the Japanese ships which were invading Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. The American forces were aware of the Japanese fleet in the area, but did not know that the landing force attacked at Tulagi was not the Port Moresby invasion force. It wasn't until after the attack that the allies learned from intercepted radio communications that the Port Moresby invasion fleet and her three carriers were miles away, now headed into the Coral Sea. Tipped off to the American carrier presence by the United State's successful attack on the Tulagi invasion force, the Japanese devised a strategy to destroy the US carriers. They were going to attempt to sail the Invasion Force led by the Shoho, through the Coral Sea drawing out the American carriers which would then be attacked from two different sides by the Shokaku and Zuikaku, which led the Striking Task Force.

May 5th, Following the successful attack on Tulagi, the Yorktown and TF 17 withdrew to the south to join the Lexington and TF 11 which had rendezvoused earlier in the day with Australian TF 44. The 24 ship strong battle group, would then sail west into the Coral Sea in order to prevent the Japanese Invasion Force from reaching Port Moresby. What happened next was history.

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3 People Have Had Their Say:

innominatus on May 5, 2010 at 10:06 AM said...

Battle of the Coral Sea kinda pisses me off. Looking forward to Midway.

innominatus on May 5, 2010 at 10:08 AM said...

That sounded bad. I'm not suggesting you skip anything. I just really like the way things turned out at Midway.

classicaliberal on May 5, 2010 at 12:34 PM said...

Battle of the Coral Sea is an interesting dichotomy. It was a strategic win for the United States and the Allies, but the US suffered the greatest losses. More importantly, the Japanese made some huge strategic errors which allowed the United States and the Allies to hand them a solid defeat at Midway. If they'd broken off the invasion of Port Moresby and massed their carriers for an attack on Midway, things likely might have gone differently. If the Japanese had merged the damaged Shokaku's flight group with the remainder of the Zuikaku's planes, the Zuikaku could have taken part in Midway. However, they were content to let her sit idly by.


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