Two crucial battles in 1942 marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific.
The spring of 1942 was not one of optimism for the Allies facing the Japanese juggernaut in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Everywhere Japan was victorious, and it seemed the sun would never set on its unbroken string of victories against the Allies.
Pearl Harbor was in a shambles, Wake Island had been captured late in December 1941, and American and Filipino forces were fighting a bitter, losing struggle against the invaders in the Philippines. The British bastion of Hong Kong was under Japanese control, and 130,000 Commonwealth troops had surrendered at Singapore on February 15, 1942, in what Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the greatest capitulation and disaster in British history.”
Since their invasion of Cina in 1931, Japanese forces had not felt the sting of a decisive defeat on land, at sea or in the air. Amazingly, however, at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, fought less than a month apart during May and June 1942, the initiative in the Pacific war was wrested permanently from Japan, and more than a decade of virtually unchecked expansion came to a sudden halt.
U.S. intelligence efforts confirmed that the Japanese intended to land troops on the island of New Guinea and seize Port Moresby. They also planned to occupy Tulagi and the Louisiade Islands, establish bases and menace Australia. In the process, they would destroy any Allied naval forces that challenged them.
Operation MO, as the Japanese called it, resulted in a clash of forces in the Coral Sea on May 7-8, 1942, in which the opposing surface units never came within sight of one another. The United States lost the venerable carrier Lexington, the destroyer Sims and the tanker Neosho, while the carrier Yorktown was seriously damaged.
Despite their losses, the Americans managed to sink the Japanese light carrier Shoho and damage the carrier Shokaku so severely that she was forced to withdraw. The remaining Japanese carrier, Zuikaku, could not carry the complement of aircraft for both carriers; numerous planes had to be pushed over the side so that those in the air could land.
Although the Japanese got the better of the exchange in terms of ships sunk or damaged, they found themselves unable to provide adequate air cover for the Port Moresby invasion fleet. For the first time, they were compelled to withdraw an invasion force. The Battle of the Coral Sea may be considered a tactical draw, or even a Japanese tactical victory; however, there is no question that the strategic victory belonged to the United States. The damage and loss of trained aircrews sustained by Zuikaku and Shokaku at Coral Sea prevented them from participating in the decisive Central Pacific showdown at Midway weeks later.
Once again, American cryptanalysts tipped off their combat commanders, warning them that the Japanese planned to occupy Midway atoll, only 1,000 miles from Hawaii. Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, the Japanese commander, believed that the threat to Midway would force the U.S. Pacific Fleet into a major battle, which he was confident that the Imperial Japanese Navy would win.
The coming clash would surely require all the naval might the United States could muster. In an incredible feat, work crews repaired Yorktown’s extensive Coral Sea wounds in only 48 hours. Such repairs normally took weeks, but Yorktown’s participation in the Midway battle was crucial. She set sail on May 30, carrying the flag of Rear Adm. Frank Jack Fletcher, who had also been in control of the U.S. forces at Coral Sea. Yorktown and Task Force 17 were to rendezvous northeast of Midway with Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance’s Task Force 16, which included the carriers Enterprise and Hornet. From the rendezvous at “Point Luck,” the Americans were to act under the principle of “calculated risk,” engaging the enemy only if in a position to inflict greater damage than received.
During four days–June 36, 1942–the balance of power in the Pacific began to swing inexorably toward the United States. A combination of prudent command decisions, incredible American heroism and just plain luck dealt the Japanese the most devastating defeat in their history. On June 4, American bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers–Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu. The invasion of Midway was thwarted, and the experienced Japanese pilots and aircrews who were lost seriously crippled Japanese operations for the rest of the war.
The gallant Yorktown was hit hard and finally sank on June 7, but in just a few short days the myth of Japanese invincibility was erased. The United States went firmly on the offensive with landings on Guadalcanal in August. The road to Tokyo was long and costly. Years of Japanese triumphs had to be undone, and the journey began with two victories in the spring of 1942.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II