Coral Sea and Midway Reconsidered

A fresh look

The Pacific In WWII

By the end of April 1942, the war in the Pacific had reached a tipping point. Though the physical damage was negligible, Japanese pride had been severely stung by the Doolittle Raid. At the same time, the Americans were contemplating their next moves to counter probable Japanese actions. Just what those actions would be was a matter of grave speculation on behalf of the Allies…sort of.

In the past few decades, much has been made of the American penetration of Japanese codes. While these breakthroughs were certainly important, the damage they did to the Japanese is somewhat nebulous, but not because the Allies knew what the Japanese were up to and when, but more because it revealed something of the samurai leadership’s mindset.

Japan’s military leadership was told that their fleet codes were compromised in February 1942, when submarine I-124—sunk 20 January 1942—was sunk more or less intact on the north coast of Australia and divers were able to remove the codebooks. Confirmation of this wasn’t until a long-range raid killed Yamamoto Isoroku out of Guadalcanal in 1943, but rumors were abounding before that.

What is not generally appreciated is that the Japanese didn’t much care if their codes were compromised or not—and in the event, they were not. The Allies had tried to get the code books in the submarine but couldn’t get in. That’s not what they told the salvage crews, who had a Japanese spy among them who duly reported what the Allies wanted them to report.

Japanese cryptographic operations had penetrated American diplomatic codes in the 1930s and had some successes with Russian, Chinese, British and French codes as well. Despite this, the Japanese often disregarded information based on intercepts if they did not align themselves with current plans and assumptions. In other words, if the Japanese had known that the Americans knew of their intentions around the Coral Sea and Midway, it likely wouldn’t have mattered to the Japanese at all.

This peculiar character quirk of the Japanese leadership needs to be remembered as the events surrounding May and June of 1942 are reconsidered.

The Coral Sea battle was triggered by the Japanese offensive against Port Moresby on the southern coast of New Guinea. To support that effort, and to further isolate Australia from the United States, the Japanese landed a small force on the Solomons island of Tulagi on 3 May 1942. While Tulagi lacked the large central plain that Guadalcanal to the south had, it was adequate for a seaplane base, and it was that seaplane base that excited the Allies so much. Japanese seaplanes were as capable of dropping bombs as a B-17 and had the range to reach New Caledonia. Their advance into the Solomons was an expedient, only a springboard for further movement: the IJN barely had the resources to put a thousand fighting men into Tulagi and Guadalcanal that spring.

Coral Sea area; Wiki Commons

The subsequent four-day battle of the Coral Sea has been called many things: Japanese tactical victory; American strategic victory; operational draw. It was all those, but mostly it saved Port Moresby from direct attack by the Japanese, a point many commentators overlook. It also accelerated what the US Navy was calling Task 1, which was securing communications with Australia. The New Guinea campaign, the Solomons campaign, and the New Britain/New Ireland campaigns were all to save communications with Australia…and arguably to keep Douglas MacArthur busy.

That’s an important point that many overlook. The politics of the US Army were such that only a few senior officers were available for the truly responsible posts. George C. Marshall was Chief of Staff of the Army as of 1 September 1939; in early 1942, Dwight Eisenhower was in the War Plans Division and was promoted to Major General in March, and was being considered for important field commands. After he was called out of retirement, MacArthur outranked (or had more time in grade on) both these officers until they were all given five stars in late 1945. If MacArthur wasn’t kept busy with holding onto the Australian base, he might have moved into either post…or tried to fill both: he had a modicum of political support after his “I shall return” speech. But few other officers had the organizational skills and the audacity that MacArthur had, so his presence in Australia was important. As Chief of Staff (again) or in Europe, his haughty attitudes would almost certainly have irritated the British to the point that Churchill might have refused to work with him.

Aside from turning the Japanese away from Port Moresby, the Coral Sea fight sank one US aircraft carrier, severely damaged another in exchange for one Japanese aircraft carrier sunk and one damaged. It was the first time that a major Japanese offensive was frustrated by American action. This battle had a peculiar effect on the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN): rather than reflect, they went into a panic mode.

The Eastern Operation—what the Japanese collectively called anything to do with Hawaii and the environs—was part of a plan to, once again, get the Americans to stop fighting and negotiate. The entire war was directed not to conquering the Americans—they knew they couldn’t—but to get them to come to a Versailles-style settlement whereby Japan’s assets would be released, all petroleum products made available, and American support for China would end. The Japanese reasoned that with Midway under occupation, they were much more likely to talk than fight. The destruction of the American carrier force was also a goal, but not as important as taking Midway—technically a part of the Hawaiian archipelago—as a bargaining chip.

The “Midway as bargaining chip” narrative has been around for years, and frankly, it’s wearing thin. Japan didn’t take territory to give it back: they’d had that done to them at the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 when they had to give their territorial gains on the Asiatic mainland to Russia, Germany, and France. Nor were they likely to give too much of their territorial gains anywhere back to their original owners or colonizers without exacting a considerable price–perhaps too high. Japan was arable-land-poor, and among the many things she wanted in China was farmland and room to expand her burgeoning population.

The four days of the Midway battle have been well documented, but the depth of the Japanese disaster there cannot be over-emphasized. When they lost 40% of the carrier strength in less than 24 hours, they lost more than ships and airplanes: they lost the maintainers for the airplanes, which were as hard to replace as the hundreds of prewar-trained pilots. While Yamamoto also destroyed the American carrier damaged at Coral Sea and started to approach the American fleet with surface warships, he realized that the best he could do was sacrifice some light ships for fuel if the Americans just ran away. They no longer had to give battle if the Japanese carriers were all on the bottom. While he could have continued with the invasion—and possibly won—there would be no aircraft to put on Midway: they went down with the carriers. He may have also pragmatically known that Japan couldn’t long hold onto Midway, and its value as a bargaining chip was nebulous.

Taken together, Coral Sea and Midway stopped Japanese initiative in the Pacific, but it would be a long slog before the Allies could take advantage of it. The Solomons and New Guinea campaigns that followed were aimed at stabilizing communications with Australia. Those long battles of attrition ultimately put Verdun to shame in terms of duration and scope…another discussion.

Cover of Why the Samurai Lost Japan

All the above is based on the research that went into Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly. Available now from The Book Patch in trade paper-bound and PDF, the Kindle and Kobo versions are underway. Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t as simple as they were outfought or out-numbered or even out-produced (thought they were all these things). Rather, Japan suffered from a deadly combination of hubris and cultural stifling that drove their dominant social group–the “militarists” who adhered to the samurai traditions–felt pressured to begin military adventures that they could barely support, let alone succeed in, starting in 1893. Japan spent much of her energies trying to catch up to the West in all things, but the creature that they created had limited utility and even less sustainability.

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