The Biggest Theater

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Despite all the effort, Halsey was too late. On May 4 he was still far from the battle zone when news arrived at Pearl Harbor that the Lexington and Yorktown were in action. Anxiety mounted in Nimitz’s headquarters, and not only because of this battle far to the south. Important as was the relief of Australia, Rochefort was becoming daily more insistent that the big effort for which the Pacific Fleet had to be prepared was going to be an all-out attack on Midway. Japan had the strength to carry out invasions of both Port Moresby and Midway simultaneously; each of the two Japanese forces required could, with ease, be made superior to everything the Allies could scrape together. At the same time it was also more and more ominously evident that Yamamoto’s attack on Midway Island was to be by far the bigger operation, and it was to take place very soon. The four American aircraft carriers could not be allowed to stay one moment too long in the South Pacific, four thouand nautical miles away from where the main action was to take place—and yet the danger to Australia had not lessened an iota.

Midway has been compared to Jutland, but there England had an eight-to-five advantage; at Midway we were inferior by odds of four to one.
 

For four days the Pacific Fleet operations staff slept on cots near the plotting room, measuring distance against time and the predictions of the intelligence arm. Nimitz slept in his own office not too far away. The sparse messages from Admiral Fletcher were avidly awaited, dissected to the last coded syllable; but that admiral was not much of a communicator, and his messages suffered, in addition, from atmospheric interference. Most of them told little, except that battle had been joined. Halsey, driving southwestward at maximum speed and in absolute radio silence, was not yet close enough to help. After four worried days, on May 8 came the wonderful news that the light carrier Shoho, twelve thousand tons, part of the Port Moresby invasion force, had been sunk, and the Japanese landing force, bereft of its air support, had turned back.

About this time another Japanese task force arrived on the Coral Sea scene, down from the Japanese bastion at Truk, with two carriers far more powerful than the little Shoho. These two ships, Shokaku and Zuikaku, exchanged blows with Fletcher’s Lexington and Yorktown, and soon came the distressing information that our Lexington, three times bigger than the Shoho, had been badly damaged and had had to be scuttled and that Yorktown, while still afloat with engines functioning, had suffered seriously.

So ended the Battle of the Coral Sea, the world’s first fight between aircraft carriers. It was also the first naval engagement in which the opposing fleets never saw each other. The result was a victory for Japan in that the Americans suffered a considerably greater loss, but from the Australians’ point of view the greatest Japanese incursion yet had been defeated. A feeling of euphoria ensued; they had not been abandoned, and more to the point, it was now evident they would not be. America had made its commitment clear. The cost was regrettable, but the promise was heady wine.

With Halsey’s undamaged carriers virtually in range, their presence apparently unsuspected, Nimitz was strongly tempted to leave him there another day in hopes of inflicting more damage on the Truk-based carriers, at least to even out the exchange a bit more equally. Fortunately he decided against this; Shokaku and Zuikaku had already started back to Truk, with moderate damage to the first carrier and heavy casualties among the airmen of the second. The invasion of Port Moresby had been blocked, the threat to Australia at least temporarily lifted. The United States needed badly to make the most of what time and forces it had left, for it had lost a carrier and a half from the paltry four-carrier force that had begun the campaign. It would need everything it could muster, very soon. And Layton and Rochefort were climbing the walls.