Co­ral Sea and Mid­way

Flight Journal - - FEATURES -

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)

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