Coral Sea and Midway
The naval millennium arrived late, but in the spring of 1942, for the first time in history, opposing fleets fought decisive engagements without sighting one another.
That year, the U.S. and Japanese navies had been testing, evaluating, and perfecting aircraft carriers for two decades. Though both remained heavily committed to battleships, their carriers steamed at the tip of Neptune’s trident, as evidenced in May.
American code breakers divined Tokyo’s intention to seize Port Moresby, New Guinea, threatening sea lanes to Australia. The U.S. Pacific Fleet sent its only available carriers to intervene. On May 7, USS Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5) launched a massive 93-plane air strike against the small carrier Shōhō. She went down in barely 20 minutes.
The next morning, both task forces exchanged blows. “Lex” and “Yorky” struck first, badly damaging Shōkaku, which limped away. But Japan’s highly professional aviators sank Lexington and damaged Yorktown, which withdrew to Pearl Harbor.
Coral Sea was a U.S. strategic victory but a costly one. Both sides lost about half their aircraft, an indicator of things to come.
Four weeks later, the carrier war peaked off Midway.
Deprived of Shōkaku with Zuikaku’s air group mauled, Japan still committed four carriers to Operation Mo, seizing Midway atoll, 1,100 miles northwest of Oahu.
Again with priceless intelligence, Adm. Chester Nimitz committed Enterprise and Hornet (CV-8) in one task force with the barely repaired Yorktown in another. With Midway’s air garrison reinforced by Army and Marine squadrons, the battle shaped up as nearly equal in numbers if not in quality.
On the morning of June 4, Japan’s four carriers launched 108 planes against Midway, inflicting heavy damage. The defending Marine fighter squadron was nearly destroyed: 16 of 25 never returned, leaving two operational.
Midway’s Army-Navy-Marine attack against the enemy task force also incurred crippling losses among SBDs, SB2Us, TBFs, and B-26s. They inflicted no damage but kept the Imperial carriers occupied while their crews prepared a second attack.
However, Task Force 16 with Enterprise and Hornet had already launched their air groups against Nagumo’s reported position. Yorktown in Task Force 17 separately lofted a combined bombertorpedo attack.
In one of history’s stunning coincidences, Enterprise and Yorktown squadrons arrived at the Japanese force within minutes of each other.
Hornet ’s inept air group commander took his force out of the battle except for the TBD squadron. The three Devastator units were destroyed in detail: Of 41 launched, only four returned.
But the upper air belonged to the Dauntlesses. Forty-seven SBDs plummeted in their 70-degree dives, destroying Akagi, Kaga, and Sōryū. Heavy losses among the scout-bombers mainly were attributed to fuel starvation on the long mission, but history’s axis had pivoted on the blue-gray Douglas airframes.
The surviving Japanese flattop, Hiryū, launched two strikes that crippled Yorktown, forcing many of her planes to divert to her two sisters. Meanwhile, scouting SBDs found Hiryū and provided her location. A scratch-built team of Enterprise and
Yorktown SBDs executed her late that afternoon.
The Battle of Midway ended on the 7th when
Yorktown succumbed to damage from a Japanese submarine. But the Pacific War had irrevocably shifted. Japan’s six-month winning streak came to a violent, abrupt end, and Tokyo never regained the strategic initiative.
The combination of SBD dive-bombers and F4F Wildcats proved lethal in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
The USS Yorktown lists heavily after being torpedoed by I-168 on June 6, 1942. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)
Pummeled by Japanese carrier planes during the Battle of the Coral Sea, USS Lexington (CV-2) explodes and was later scuttled. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)