Sometimes, when I see the news, I think I’m living in Superman’s Bizsarro World. As Robert Heinlein called it, “The Crazy Years.” Which is why I spend a lot of time watching old movies and history shows about a different world that once existed on our very own planet.
As a result, it’s refreshing to recount history from when America and Americans had a clear vision of what we were and what we believed.
Which brings me to today’s post.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea. This battle was fought entirely at sea, so there are no historical plaques or markers at the battle site. There are only the wrecks of ships and planes that were destroyed during the four day battle that raged on the ocean in a place that few Americans could place on a map at the time it happened. Or today either, sadly enough. There are not even grave markers for the sailors of both navies that fought the battle. We only have the historical record and the recollections of the ever shrinking number of men who fought there.
The Coral Sea is located in the Pacific Ocean in an area bounded by Australia, the Solomon Islands, and New Guinea. This battle preceded the much more widely recognized Battle of Midway by a month. Although that battle is widely recognized as an important turning point in the war against Japan, this battle in a large way made that victory possible.
The Japanese were planning to invade the Solomon Islands and New Guinea as a means to threaten shipping to Australia and New Zealand. This would also facilitate an invasion of Australia by Japanese forces. This would have been a disaster for the Allies efforts to fight the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. It might even have made that impossible.
What the Japanese didn’t know was that US Navy intelligence had broken their codes and could read the radio traffic between naval units enroute to the invasion sites. As a result, the US was able to deploy two carrier groups to thwart the invasion. Interested readers can find plenty of historical references to the battle, so I’ll omit the details in order to keep this post from being overly long.
A few key points about the battle and it’s aftermath.
This was the first naval battle in history where the ships of the opposing forces never saw each other nor fired shots at each other. The battle was fought by aircraft launched from the Japanese and American carriers against each other. The battle marked the end of the era of the battleship and the start of the era of naval aviation as the dominant force in naval battles.
The Imperial Japanese Navy lost only one light carrier in the battle, while the US Navy lost one of it’s few fleet carriers, the USS Lexington. Which would seem like a victory for the Japanese, except that on of their fleet carriers suffered heavy damage, while the other lost almost it’s entire complement of experienced aviators. The ripple effect of that was felt the next month at the Battle of Midway. The USS Yorktown also suffered heavy damage, but was able to sail to Pearl Harbor where it was repaired in time for the next battle.
The victory at the Coral Sea set the stage for the invasion of Guadalcanal in August of 1942. Guadalcanal marked the beginning of Allied efforts to begin rolling back Japanese conquests in the South Pacific. It also preserved Australia as a base for Allied troops to stage, train, and recuperate over the next 3 1/2 years of the war.
An Allied loss at the Coral Sea would have, at the least, resulted in a much longer, maybe impossible to win, war in the Pacific.
Sadly, much of this history is seemingly lost on the current generation as it doesn’t seem to be taught much in the public schools in our country. More is the pity because the narrow margin of victory has important lessons for the nation. Lessons that seem to be ignored, or maybe forgotten.
When we forget lessons about the need to always be able to have an effective military to defend our nation we have to relearn them. Those lessons are paid for with the lives and futures of brave young men and women. It’s much better to have a strong military that deters potential enemies than a weak one that encourages enemies to attack.
That’s today’s history lesson.