Battle of the Coral Sea: Facts & Summary

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was a unique seafaring battle between the Allies and Japan during World War II. In this lesson, discover the order of this important skirmish and its role in WWII.

The First of its Kind

Being first is at anything is always nice. The first of anything tends to be remembered. Such is the case of an important skirmish in World War II. The Battle of the Coral Sea, which pitted America and her Allies against Japan, was the first air-sea battle in history. It was the first time aircraft carriers and their inventory of planes engaged each other in warfare. In the battle, the U.S. successfully sought to prevent Japanese territorial expansion towards Australia.

To properly engage in this battle on our own, let's explore its background, a summary of the battle, and an examination of its outcomes and effects.

Precursors to the Battle

In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. While this marked the entry of the U.S. into World War II, it also was symbolic of Japanese expansion in the Pacific region. They took over many of the area's islands and countries in their territorial quest.

Map of Japanese expansion in the Pacific (red line)
expansion map

By 1942, Japan was setting its sights on the Coral Sea, a body of water northeast of Australia with New Guinea's city of Port Moresby as its focal point. With success, they could threaten or attack Australia and keep it out of the war (while also furthering their control). Japan wanted to create air bases in New Guinea and the neighboring Solomon Islands from which they could attack the nation down under.

What they did not expect was the United States' code-breaking ability. By deciphering Japanese codes, they figured out the plan to take over Port Moresby. Commanders sent a task force of ships, including the aircraft carriers U.S.S. Yorktown and U.S.S. Lexington, as well as other battle ships, destroyers, and aircraft. The ultimate goal was to stop Japan from taking over New Guinea.

The Order of Battle

On May 4, 1942, planes from the Lexington attacked Japanese invasion troops at Port Moresby. They sank a handful of Japanese ships in their initial run. The Japanese sought payback and over the next two days sent their Port Moresby-based ships and planes looking for their attackers.

Both Japan and the U.S. began the battle with just about the same number of planes apiece.

Early in the morning on May 7, Japanese carrier-based aircraft found and attacked the U.S. fleet, sinking two ships. All the while, American planes attacked in return, sinking a Japanese aircraft carrier and battle cruiser. Thus began the first head-to-head aircraft carrier battle in history. Aircraft carriers had already been used to launch attacks against enemy locations; they had not been used to directly attack other carriers.

A Japanese carrier burns in the Battle of the Coral Sea
carrier burning

A day later, Japan struck again, sinking the Lexington and crippling the Yorktown. The U.S. was not intimidated and returned the volley, knocking a Japanese carrier out of action. Many planes on both sides were also destroyed. That evening, both sides continued to fight by using their planes to attack the other side's fleet.

The Lexington burns prior to sinking
Lexington burns

Though heavily damaged, Yorktown would be repaired and would return to live action a year later.

Seeing the power of the American carriers, Japan realized it had to back off. They withdrew from their attempts at conquering the Coral Sea region and trying to shut out Australia as the battle ended.

Impact and Outcome of the Engagement

There were several important outcomes of the Battle of the Coral Sea. First, the Japanese called off their plan to take control of New Guinea and threaten Australia. They feared that the United States had the ability to continue to attack even though they had lost the Lexington. This was perhaps the most significant outcome. Australia would thus continue to aid the Allies throughout the war.

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