Sunday, April 15, 2012

From Battle of the Coral Sea to Victory at Midway

(Craig Symonds, author of “The Battle of Midway” was one of five authors recommended by distinguished historian Eric Foner in his post to Navy Reads last February.  Foner called Symonds’s “Lincoln and this Admirals” “the first full study of Lincoln’s relationship to the war at sea and it reveals him mastering the nuances of naval warfare...”  Dr. Symonds, professor emeritus of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, brings his own nuanced insights and context to a full study of the Battle of Midway.  In this blog post we’ll look briefly at a key event leading up to Midway but in another corner of the Pacific Ocean almost exactly 70 years ago.)
by Bill Doughty
Craig Symonds devotes an entire chapter of his great work The Battle of Midway to the Battle of the Coral Sea, one of the key sea battles of World War II, occurring in early May, one month before Midway.
“The Coral Sea is one of the world’s most beautiful bodies of water,” writes Symonds.  “Named for the coral reefs that guard Australia’s northeast coast, it is bordered by Australia on the south, New Guinea on the west, the Solomon Islands on the north, and the New Hebrides on the east.”  That area was key to Imperial Japan’s attempt to control the sea lanes for commerce and logistics.
By April 1942 Imperial Japan controlled a wide area of the Pacific.
On May 1, 1942, Adm. Halsey’s Task Force 16 left Pearl Harbor, while the Yorktown and Lexington carrier task forces joined to become Task Force 17 southeast of Guadalcanal.  On that same day the Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku and their escorts got underway from Truk and headed toward the Coral Sea.
“Also on that busy May 1st, eighteen hundred miles further north, a group of senior officers met on board the Combined Fleet flagship Yamato, anchored in Hashirajima Harbor near Hiroshima, to participate in a war game for the attack on Midway.”
Symonds shows how logistics-related issues -- particularly access to fuel oil -- were among the biggest challenges for the American fleet, who didn’t have the same proximity to island footholds and captured foreign ports as their enemy. 
The author dissects the battle of May 7 and the death of USS Lexington on May 8.  He analyzes the strategy, tactics and mixed result: despite the significant losses to the Americans, the United States Navy had stopped the Imperial Japanese Navy’s advance toward Port Moresby.
“Over time, the assessment of historians has been that the Battle of the Coral Sea was a tactical victory for the Japanese but a strategic victory for the Americans.”
Navy pilots gained experience.  Japanese aircraft were destroyed.  The United States gained a better advantage in the Pacific, where carrier-based aviation surpassed battleship-firepower in strategic importance.
The Battle of the Coral Sea also proved the value of radio intelligence, particularly as interpreted in the Pacific.  Symonds shows how Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort demonstrated his superior codebreaking abilities and analysis to Adm. Nimitz, first by predicting  an invasion of Rabaul in January and then revealing the Japanese fleet’s plans in the Coral Sea in May.
Credibility created confidence.
The credibility earned by Pearl Harbor’s Station Hypo, the team of codebreakers under Rochefort, would lead directly to success in the Battle of Midway June 4-7, 1942.  
(The well-written and well-researched “Battle of Midway,” published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, was also recommended to Navy Reads by the Naval History and Heritage Command as one of the top ten books published about the Battle of Midway.)

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