Following their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese racked up a string of stunning victories from Singapore to Burma, and ultimately occupied the Philippines by May 6, 1942. That same month, US carriers fought desperate air battles with superior Japanese naval forces and, against all odds, won two pivotal sea battles, stopping the Japanese imperial advance and leveling the playing field.
The only positive news for the American public, still reeling from the destruction of Pearl Harbor, was the April 1942 Doolittle raid. US Army Air Force B-25s launched from the deck of USS Hornet and inflicted minor damage on Tokyo.
The Battle of the Coral Sea, May 6-8, 1942
The May 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea ended in an American victory that began the era of aircraft carriers. Though not a complete defeat of the powerful Japanese Navy, the outcome of the battle was severe damage to two Japanese fleet carriers, which were unavailable for the following month’s battle at Midway.
Had the US Navy been defeated at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese invasion plans for Port Moresby, New Guinea, would have probably been successful. Japanese control of Port Moresby would have both strengthened their hold on the Pacific and directly threatened Australia. More importantly, had the Navy’s carrier losses during the Coral Sea been greater, Japanese plans for the occupation of Midway Island would have succeeded.
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The loss of Port Moresby and Midway Island would have been a devastating strategic blow to the American Pacific campaign. During those cataclysmic first months of the Pacific War, Japan had already taken the Philippines and was threatening a military invasion of the Asian subcontinent. US General Douglas MacArthur’s famous promise, “I shall return,” wouldn’t be kept until October 20, 1944.
US aircraft carrier losses were the sinking of the USS Yorktown and severe damage to the USS Lexington. USS Yorktown was quickly repaired and returned to help the US defeat the Japanese invasion of Midway in June.
The Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942
When Japan decided to send its 85-ship task force to wrest control of the Pacific Island of Midway from the United States, no one would have bet on America’s 48 ships to turn back the tide of Japanese conquest.
But that is exactly what happened, and it occurred for a number of reasons: (1) an overly complex battle plan on the part of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto that included an invasion of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, (2) separation of the Japanese battle force kept much of his non-carrier force in reserve and out of the fight, and (3) better military intelligence on the part of the US Navy.
The Battle of Midway was essentially an air battle where the surface units involved never were in sight of each other. Through great bravery and sacrifice on the part of US Navy carrier aircraft pilots, the Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, and Soryu suffered fatal bomb hits and the irreplaceable loss of trained carrier pilots and sailors.
The Mismatch of Forces at Midway
Japan (85 ships)
The Japanese deployed four carrier divisions: Akagi, Hiryu, Kaga, and Soryu; light aircraft and seaplane carriers, battleships, including the top-of-the-line Yamato; and an assortment of 15 heavy and light cruisers, 42 destroyers, ten submarines, and various support ships. Admiral Yamamoto was a battleship sailor through and through and used his aircraft carriers as forward extensions and air cover for the slower-moving armored battleships.
Yamamoto deployed his carrier divisions to bomb Midway and seek out the American defenders while he kept his main surface units back. Also, as things turned out, he should have probably saved the Aleutian Islands invasion for another time and marshaled his resources around the Midway invasion.
United States (49 ships)
The US faced the Japanese threat with only three carrier divisions: Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown, along with their eight supporting cruisers, 18 destroyers, 19 submarines, and support ships. The patched-up Yorktown returned to battle after being severely damaged during the previous month’s Battle of the Coral Sea.
The Japanese plans did not take into account a third American task force, figuring that Yorktown was either sunk or permanently crippled, a failure of intelligence that proved fatal to Japanese hopes for victory. Also, Navy code breakers were able to learn of the Japanese invasion plans, and the US carrier forces lay in ambush of the forward-deployed Japanese carriers.
The Pivotal Role of Aircraft in the Battles of the Coral Sea & Midway
Aviation played a key role in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. As previously mentioned, the Battle of the Coral Sea was the first ever in history where the ships that fought each other never were in sight of one another. Both sides sent their carrier-based planes and inflicted heavy damage in terms of lost aircraft and lost or damaged ships. Here are a few of the most notable American aircraft involved in the battles:
- Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter. Thought to be no match for its Japanese counterpart, this rugged little aircraft held its own during the first hard-fought year of the war in the Pacific. Its solid construction and expert pilots held up well until the F6F Hellcat replaced it in 1943.
- Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. As the Navy’s most famous dive bomber, this amazing little aircraft fought with distinction at the Coral Sea. During the upcoming battle of Midway, it would make history by destroying four Japanese carriers and turning the tide of the Pacific War.
- Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber. During its introduction in 1937, the Devastator was the best in the world, only to become obsolete four years later when the Navy lost all 35 sent against the Japanese in the battle of Midway.
Some notable Japanese aircraft include:
- Mitsubishi A6M Reisen (Zero). The legendary Zero fighter plagued American forces and was the absolute symbol of Japanese air power. The Zero was the beginning of a new era in naval aviation and could outperform most land-based aircraft.
- Aichi D3A dive-bomber (Nickname “Val”). This resilient and nimble aircraft was responsible for sinking more Allied warships than any other Axis aircraft. Two front-line Pacific carriers (USS Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea and USS Yorktown at the battle of Midway) met their doom from bombs dropped by Japanese Vals.
- Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber (Nickname “Kate”). Faster and more capable than the TBD Devastator, like its Allied counterparts, it was approaching obsolescence by the time it saw action at sea. Its well-trained Japanese crews and superior coordinated tactics proved to be particularly successful during the battle of the Coral Sea in helping to sink the USS Lexington.
Carrier aviation tactics still had a long way to go, but both sides learned a few things:
- The Japanese Zero, despite its speed and maneuverability, could be defeated. American pilots quickly learned not to try to outmaneuver the Zero in turning. The F4F Wildcat could only defeat the Zero if it attacked with it the F4F altitude advantage.
- Fighter aircraft needed belly tanks for the extra range required in searching for the enemy.
- Fighter aircraft needed to stay together for mutual protection.
- Better carrier air coordination and vectoring procedures were vitally needed.
- Torpedo planes and bombers needed close fighter escorts.
- Friendly aircraft urgently needed IFF (Identification friend or foe) transponders.
The Aftermath of the Battles in the Pacific
In sum, carrier aviation greatly helped turn the tide of Japanese expansion. After the Battle of Midway, the Japanese would never again regain the offensive in the Pacific.
When the smoke cleared about three days later and the Japanese forces withdrew, it became evident that Japan’s losses were indeed serious. Four carriers, two heavy cruisers, three destroyers, one submarine, and one or more transports were sunk. Carrier aircraft losses were an estimated 275 destroyed in battle or lost at sea when they had nowhere to land.
Lives lost were estimated in the range of 4,800 killed or drowned. American losses were the carrier USS Yorktown and the destroyer USS Hammann. US aircraft losses were in the neighborhood of 150. Lives lost were reported as 307.
Just six months into the war in the Pacific, Japan’s string of victories had been cut short in its first naval defeat ever. The battles of the Coral Sea and Midway soon placed the slower and more vulnerable battleships in a “reserve” status in both the Japanese and US navies.
The Japanese deployed battleships in a mostly defensive mode, while the US deployed its battleships in defense of the US West Coast. The Japanese fought tenaciously at sea through the remainder of the war, but the Imperial Japanese Navy was essentially finished.