- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

For months — since the devastation of the battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 — the news from the World War II battlefronts around the world had been shockingly bad, not just for the United States but for all the Allies.

A new bitter pill for Americans to swallow came on May 6, 1942, when Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright surrendered the besieged U.S. forces on the island of Corregidor to complete the Japanese conquest of the Philippines.

It is doubtful anyone anywhere that day expected that in almost exactly three years German military forces would capitulate to end the war in Europe and months later the Japanese Empire would surrender to finish the carnage in the Pacific and Asia.

But below the horizon, almost quietly, a battle had begun on May 3. When it was over 65 years ago today, it would mark the U.S. military comeback in the Pacific.

The Coral Sea, never before the stage for major conflict, became the scene of the first great naval action between aircraft carriers — the first sea battle in which no surface ship from either fleet sighted the other.

The Battle of the Coral Sea resulted from a Japanese amphibious operation aimed at capturing Port Moresby on New Guinea’s southeastern coast in an effort to isolate Australia and perhaps drive it out of the war.

The battle opened with the Japanese seizing Tulagi in the Solomons on May 3 and U.S. carrier-based planes hitting the invaders the next day. Nothing much happened on May 5 and 6, when the two main carrier fleets groped unsuccessfully for each other, though at one point they were only 70 miles from each other.

In air power, the two forces were just about equal. The U.S. fleet commanded by Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher centered on the carriers Yorktown and Lexington with 122 planes. Japanese Rear Adm. Chuichi Hara also had two big carriers — the Shokaku and the Zuikaku — carrying 121 planes.

After heavy carrier combat on May 7 and 8, the Japanese could claim a tactical victory in tonnage sunk, but it was an operational and strategic defeat for them.

First the losses. The sinking of the Lexington tipped the tonnage figures in Japan’s favor. The United States also lost a destroyer and a fleet oiler, and the Yorktown was badly damaged. The Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, a destroyer and several smaller ships.

More importantly, however, the Japanese were forced to cancel their pans to invade Port Moresby. In addition, the carrier Shokaku received serious bomb damage and the Zuikaku’s air group was badly depleted. Neither of the Japanese carriers was able to take part in the decisive Battle of Midway a month later.

In contrast, the Yorktown’s damage was repaired in two days at Pearl Harbor (a task that probably would have taken 90 days at a peacetime pace), and the ship and her planes went on to play a vital role in the battle that ended Japan’s air superiority and gave it to the U.S. It was an edge that only widened as the war ground on and made possible the long and bloody march across the Pacific to victory at Tokyo Bay.

The Coral Sea, before and after the thunder of that battle 65 years ago, has been known as one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. Typhoons generally do not visit it, and the trade winds blow freshly across it to send wave after wave crashing into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Lying near the Equator, it has no winter and the breezes keep it from being uncomfortably hot. It was in such an idyllic setting that the U.S. Navy finally was able to show it was a match for the Japanese fleet, the first true sunshine to brighten what had been a very dark war.

And even such an idyllic setting can be the site for a pivot in history, even if unrecognized at the time. It’s a reminder that sea changes in destiny can come at any time and any place, and it may be years before we become aware of their importance.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a free-lance writer.

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